Knight’s Pawn Excerpt
January 1066, Ewyas, Herefordshire
“Toss the bones, Monkman,” Alaric, the Norman of Ewyas, laughed and clapped a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “They did not come from your saints.” Flames from a nearby torch sputtered, bringing stark shadows to Alaric’s clean-shaven face and to his men tossing coins onto the dicing table. A familiar dread, like rats in the thatching, nibbled at his outward calm. This morning, couriers, as exhausted and muddied, as cold and haggard as their horses had arrived. They’d made the five-day winter journey from London in half the time to deliver a terse message: Stay at Ewyas until I arrive. It’s urgent!
“I marked the ox knuckles myself,” said Roderick, Alaric’s second-in-command. He tapped his fist against his breastbone, before his injured expression dissolved, making him look like a bear scratching his hairy chest.
Gilbert the Monkman cautiously took the marked bones in his hand as the others crowded around him, eager to start the game. He shook the dice in his palm and crossed himself.
Alaric slapped him on the back. “Bless them while you’re at it. Edo here needs coins. He owes me money.”
“And me,” Johan said, leaning his long, thin body against the table.
“And me,” shouted Alaric’s younger brother, Rannulf, from across the room. They all laughed.
As Edo hunched down and rubbed his hands together, five riders raced across the meadow, through a thick mist hugging the valley floor. Hooves churned the muddy road, tossing clods in their wake. Harnesses creaked, horses wheezed like giant bellows stoking a funeral pyre, lather gathered along their necks and flanks. Before night claimed Englelond’s western border near Wales, the riders, eager to reach their destination, leaned forward, whipping their horses on. Cloaks flared and snapped like winged beasts flying low, hunting prey.
A damp chill seeped into the fort overlooking the village where Alaric hosted his family and friends for Christmastide, hoping they would stay until Candlemas. After Gilbert rolled the dice, Alaric walked through thick smoke to the back wall and grabbed the iron tongs hanging among the battered pots and utensils spiked to the timbers.
“It does not bode well,” Rannulf said, joining him. He unhooked a ball of cheese hanging with the herbs and meats curing for the winter.
“We shall see,” Alaric said. His men roared at a pair of rolled spots.
“The day wanes.” Rannulf dug his thumbnail into the cheese and sniffed. “The journey becomes more difficult at night.”
“Malet will come,” Alaric said. “He most likely left soon after his messengers.”
“Think we are outlawed again?” Rannulf replaced the cheese.
“Possibly.” Alaric approached the fire pit where one end of a tree trunk as thick as his thigh burned furiously on a bed of embers. Using tongs, he slid the cooking racks along the iron bars bordering the stone pit. Bracing one boot on the hearth, he grabbed the cord that dangled from the vent hole and adjusted the slats. Smoke swirled and filtered out of the thatched roof. “Maybe it’s a call to arms. An invasion, the Danes on the North Sea, or the Scots.”
“You are exceedingly calm,” Rannulf said. “Even Father is inspecting his armor tonight. Are you not worried about losing your . . . your castle?”
Alaric’s steely gaze checked his brother’s ridicule. “You and father, with your lands and titles, will be fine no matter what comes.”
“You could have received a thegnland, too.”
“I could have, but you wanted Leota, not I. Are we going over that again? It’s settled between us.”
Alaric looked across the room. “To bed, not wed.” Lady Marguerite d’Hesdins, draped in a pale green tunic that heightened her rosy cheeks, talked with Rannulf’s wife. Married at twelve, a childless widow at fifteen, now at eighteen she sought a protector, a lover, an escape from boredom—possibly a husband. Just this eve, she had invited Alaric to her bed. She had surreptitiously watched him all night. Now, as if sensing his gaze, she glanced at him sideways.
He gave her a slow, meaningful smile. Marguerite’s eyes flashed. A faint curve appeared at the corner of her mouth, and a flush rose on her cheeks before she looked away. No, not to wed, he thought.
“On your feet, you hell-tarnished ass!” Johan’s curse drew Alaric’s attention. Johan grabbed Edo’s tunic and yanked him to his feet. Roderick reached across the table and slammed his fist into Johan’s face, sending him flying. Edo growled at Roderick’s interference and swung a jug into the giant, overturning the boards in the process. Gilbert looked on, wincing as his friends exchanged blows.
Alaric’s father Simeon expressed approval by banging his shield with the hilt of a sword. Rannulf threw a bench into the melee, where it crashed and splintered against the stone hearth. Leota and Marguerite scrambled out of the way. The priest, gripping his drinking horn, scurried over and around the combatants toward Alaric’s parents.
Alaric recognized the sharper edge to this nightly brawl. Guillaume Malet, a royal envoy and Simeon’s long-time friend, had intended to join them all for Christmastide but had been called to court. Now, awaiting his arrival, the men sought anxious entertainments.
Roderick rolled out from beneath the other two, bounded to his feet, and tossed Edo across the room. A dazed Johan crawled on the ground until Roderick lifted him, dusted his tunic with his broad hand, and shoved him toward the table. Edo staggered to his feet and gave Alaric a bloody grin. He yanked out a tooth loosened in the fray and tossed it into the fire. The men reassembled the table and resumed their game. Everyone settled back to wait.
Alaric turned to his brother. “Leota is frightened. Go to your bride until Malet arrives.”
As Rannulf rejoined the women, Alaric sliced off a piece of roasted boar from the skewered remains at the edge of the fire. He popped the meat into his mouth and wiped the blade and his fingers on his tunic. Reaching for a pitcher, he caught Father Pierre’s eye. The family priest and scribe nodded in return.
“Although my spiritual brothers forego wine,” Father Pierre mumbled to Alaric, lifting his drinking horn, “I, a sinner, rejoice to drink more.” Alaric grinned at the intoxicated priest and filled the vessel. After he refilled his father’s beaker, his mother set her spindle and distaff aside and grabbed a black tunic she’d made. Julienne stood and measured it against Alaric’s back, chiding him that he had surpassed his father’s height. “Black suits you,” she said.
“You noticed,” Alaric teased with a grin. He usually clothed his lean body within black leggings and tunic.
“Do you remember your ninth year?” Simeon asked, oiling his shield. “When last we received urgent news from London?”
“I do.” Memories flashed in Alaric’s mind: a brisk fall dawn, the jeering villagers, Harold’s sword. It was the only time he and his father had stood unarmed, waiting for the death blow. Alaric now held his father’s somber gaze, remembering the moment Harold had dubbed his father Simeon the Brave. He nodded before crossing the room to settle on a bench.
Picking a piece of gristle from his teeth, he gazed critically around his hall, a converted barn. Pools of light from a torch and a rushlight left deep black shadows. Above the fire, flames lighted the rough-hewn beams and thatching, and across the room, he could barely see the thickly timbered door and the iron latch. His defenses: a wooden palisade, some huts, a small garrison, mostly cavalry and bowmen, that occupied the site of the old Norman castle. They could not hold off an attack for long, he thought, drinking from his beaker.
He and Rannulf had been born here, in the timber tower that once sat atop the earthwork mound overlooking Ewyas. They’d grown up among the rugged, tenacious, and proud English, adopting their dress, learning their Saxon speech, their legends, and songs. English warriors taught Alaric how to surprise and track an enemy, how to kill with stone and sling, how to disappear in the woods, how to lock a shield wall, and how to swear in Gaelic.
When Normans were outlawed, his father sent them to Normandie for safety. For a year, they lived with their uncle, Count Richard d’Évreux—Simeon’s younger, legitimate brother—who had stolen Simeon’s estates. The experience taught Alaric about land, wealth, and power, and why Simeon had come with King Edward’s Norman cadre rather than stay in subservient vassalage to his half-brother.
Alaric and Rannulf began their military training under Duke William. Although fluent in French, Alaric and Rannulf spoke Saxon to each other, infuriating their Norman peers and drawing ridicule. At first, Alaric saw Normans through outlander’s eyes, comparing every aspect of Norman life with his early years in Ewyas. He resented Norman presumed excellence and knew an English warrior with a good sling could take out a Norman knight in the right circumstances. Yet, as the years passed, Alaric absorbed Norman customs and took pride in his heritage.
Now, recalling those dangerous, frustrating days with pleasure, Alaric felt the scar on his palm. He missed his friend, who bore a similar scar. They had seen plenty of action together. Alaric could have joined Duke William’s garrisons, but he yearned for the Black Mountains, their solitude, the reckless Welsh, and the old tales.
He had returned three years ago. His brother followed a year later. Both hired swords, they’d fought for Earl Harold Godwinson. Impressed by Alaric’s natural leadership, Harold had retained Alaric to command this post—ironically, choosing a Norman to reestablish a small Norman fort at the very site that had spawned the earl’s exile years before.
Now, at twenty-two, Alaric, a Norman, protected the English who despised him from the Welsh who would kill him. Like his friends at the dicing table, he faced a narrow, landless future. He watched the dice roll, jump, and spin across the table, knowing his future could change as erratically.
Horns wailed a startling alarm: riders approaching Ewyas. The muted sounds—one deep moan, two short blasts—filtered beneath the laughter and conversations in the hall. Everyone stiffened as they heard Alaric’s guards running to the walls surrounding the compound.
Alaric knew that riders would smell woodsmoke and see the small village fires flickering between the trees and the fortress silhouetted against the pale lavender sky. He rose calmly from his bench and went to the hearth. Crouching down, he rolled the thick log and shoved it half an arm’s length onto the embers. He donned his cloak and slipped out of the dark hall, blinking at the still-bright dusk. Icy wind spiked his face as he wove through open fires dotting the bailey. Joining his guards at the gate tower, he saw two torches in the distance. After giving orders to his captain, he descended from the parapets to wait near 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, hid behind shuttered doors. The horses thundered across the wooden bridge spanning Dulas Brook, climbed a narrow spiral road, and drew up before the large wooden gates flanked by guard towers.
Guards waved a torch on a long pole before them, a fiery flag. “Who breaches God’s peace?” a guard demanded.
“Guillaume Malet, Seigneur de Graville, with an urgent message for Alaric, castellan of Ewyas.” His horse pranced sideways, its head thrown back as if about to rear.
A small door within the wide gate opened. The five horsemen ducked their heads and rode single file into the compound. Guards led them through the bailey. Archers with loaded weapons stood on the parapets, tracking their progress past small open fires surrounded by wary, alert castle inhabitants, 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 men 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. The room, brightened by several fresh torches, 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, suspended like a group of statues. “You know everyone here, Guillaume,” he said, using the English appellation.
“Indeed,” Malet said.
Alaric’s parents, Simeon the Brave and Julienne the Fair, smiled a greeting. Beside them, Rannulf, a muscle pulsing in his cheek, rested his hand on the shoulder of a wary fourteen-year-old Leota. Father Pierre and Lady Marguerite waited near Alaric’s four trusted men, who stood within reach of their mounted weapons and shields, fully alert, ready to defend.
“Come,” Alaric said. He strode toward the central hearth, pulled his mantle from his shoulders and tossed it onto a bench, where it slithered to the hard-packed dirt floor.
Malet followed. Vapor rose from his damp, green cloak, and 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 from the warm room.
Alaric filled a mazer from a large pitcher. “Before you speak of London, drink this. It will warm your soul. The Benedictines, your favorites blessed it. “
Guillaume Malet, tall, thin and haggard from his hard ride, chuckled. He gulped the potent concoction: wine seasoned with apples and rare clou de girofle, and wiped his lips with a single knuckle.
He returned the wooden bowl with a nod of thanks and spoke, his voice cracking at first.
“Edward is dead. Harold is king, and William claims the throne.”
No one said a word, although some looked at Simeon, the eldest and highest-ranking among them.
“In what manner is William’s challenge?” Simeon asked.
“He sent messengers to Harold. He asserts his hereditary claim through Emma of Normandie, his great aunt, Edward’s mother. He reminds Harold that Edward chose William his heir and that Harold swore a sacred oath to uphold William’s succession. He demands Harold relinquish the crown.”
At Alaric’s gesture, everyone sat near the fire. He handed Malet a trencher, and between nibbles, Malet continued. With each word, Alaric’s stomach tightened. Of course, they’d known King Edward had taken ill, and rumors had spread that once—years ago—Edward had named William his heir to the throne. Alaric recalled the large, strong duke he had trained under as he had seen him last in Rouen. William himself had often proclaimed to everyone that he would wear the crown one day. It hardly surprised Alaric that the vibrant Earl Harold, King Edward’s brother-in-marriage, possessed the English throne. But had Harold ever agreed to William’s claim? It mattered not. This meant war. He lowered his head and watched his father from beneath his eyebrows.
“Harold’s response?” Simeon asked.
“The Witan refuse, and so does Harold, claiming the Witan has chosen him,” Malet said, leaning over the hearth and stretching his palms toward the red embers. The Witan, thought Alaric, those crafty old ravens. Those “wise men,” an English contrivance, this council of prelates and nobles who counseled the king, would, of course, choose Harold for their king.
With little prodding, Malet told everyone about the Christmas court near London instead of Gloucester to accommodate the king’s failing health, about Edward’s delirium, visions, deathbed ambiguities. He told them Harold had been with Edward throughout the last days, along with his sister, the queen, and noted those present when the king died. He described Edward’s burial and Harold’s coronation at the newly consecrated West St. Peter’s Minster Abbey and the messages sent to Duke William reporting Harold’s coronation.
Malet, himself a close friend of Harold Godwinson, answered all their queries with precise information, sharing his impressions about the whisperings in the palace halls. He told them the alignment of the bishops, which nobles had already promised to stand with Harold. They discussed what steps Harold would take to solidify his hold on the throne.
Malet turned to Simeon. “Harold expects a show of allegiance from all his vassals.”
Simeon nodded. “It has been a long day. Let us retire.” He rose and placed a hand on Malet’s shoulder. “Thank you, William. Join the family in Alaric’s chamber for a moment before resting this night. Tomorrow we shall ride with you to Hereford and spread the news to others. Come, Julienne.”
Alaric waited until his family had retired to his private chamber, separated by thick hides. He spoke to his men, and they began disassembling the table and stumps to make way for their pallets.
“It matters little to me who rivals for the English throne,” Roderick said. “I stand with you, Alaric.”
“Both Harold and William are strong. Make your own choice, Roddy, as each man should.”
“I already have,” Roderick said, lifting a bench. “I’ll cover your arse—as usual.”
As Edo set up a private alcove behind a screen for Marguerite, Alaric poured her a mazer of sweet wine. Her eyes glistened as he handed it to her.
“Have you considered my proposal, Alaric?”
“Yes, it’s difficult to think of anything else.” He smiled as his eyes roamed over her breasts, just barely imaginable beneath her thick winter’s garb. “I will not marry you, Marguerite.”
“Nor I you,” she said firmly. “And you can be sure there will be no bastards.”
He stroked her soft cheek, letting his thumb rub against her lower lip. “You could, you should remarry . . . .”
“I shall when I am ready. Perhaps I will choose . . . a bishop.”
Alaric chuckled, folding his arms before his chest.
She sighed in annoyance. “Alaric, I have my own land. I am barren as I found after three years with a rutting husband.” She put her hands on her hips at his teasing grin. “I offer you a dalliance, as long as you wish to keep me, and I am not pleased you are taking so long to accept my gifts.”
He threw his head back and laughed, raising his arms in surrender. “I accept,” he said, smiling and then sobering. “You understand that you or I may cease this liaison at any time?”
“Of course.” She nodded her head in finality. “Tonight?”
He smiled. “Yes, I shall come to your pallet.” He winked and turned toward his private chamber, instantly forgetting Marguerite and shifting his full attention to Malet’s news.