Bayeux tapestry depecting Harold oath

Excerpt, Book 2: The Alabaster Rook, Chapter One 

August 1068, Tutbury, Staffordshire

On Monday after Lammas Day, Elise swept out of Tutbury’s Hall and hurried toward the stables. The morning breeze, so much hotter than her home in Normandie, surprised her. She hopped over ruts and darted past the cooks arguing in Saxon among themselves and through a cloud of flies swarming around the children plucking feathers. She plunged onto the congested causeway and skirted around the handcarts and basket-ladened fishers. Weaving between soldiers and muck wagons, Elise quickly crossed the castle’s inner courtyard, hoping to escape Osmund de Clères. Unlike her jailers, she found the priest as repulsive as a dead and putrefying eel.

“Lady Stafford!” the priest shouted.

Reined in by her married name, Elise stopped and turned, settling the icy gaze of Countess Genevieve Elysia de Fontenay on him. Watching the Norman priest thread his way toward her, she felt gratified that the protocols of status and rank concealed her informal name. It represented her true self. Her resistance. It was a secret shared only with those she loved and trusted, which excluded Osmund entirely.

The priest, wearing bright, richly colored robes, reached her. His stiff back, glaring eyes, and sharp, imperious nose accentuated his displeasure.

“You ride today?”

“Yes, Father. I’m going down to the marshes,” she said. 

His expression darkened. “Oh? Is there a reason?”

She measured him, wondering what he wanted to know, and why. Since her marriage, she had become accustomed to explaining herself to her husband’s jailers, but she disliked Osmund’s presumption that she must explain herself to him as well.

“Perhaps you should ask Johan,” she said, seeing her husband’s seneschal limping toward them.

“God’s morning, my lady, Father,” Johan said.

“Father Osmund may wish to join us,” Elise said. 

Johan’s eyes crinkled in humor as he looked the priest over. “Excellent! The tannery needs a good blessing!”

Elise nearly laughed seeing the fastidious priest blanch as he realized the stench of urine, feces, and rotting skins would linger in his clothing for days. 

“It is unseemly,” Osmund said, “for Lady Stafford to visit such a place.” 

Elise studied Johan de Vaux, one of her jailers, a former mercenary now governing her husband’s estates. She wondered how Johan, new to such authority, would fare under the priest’s officious expectations. 

He nodded to a couple of passing knights and pushed his light brown hair from his forehead before speaking to the priest. 

“Lady Stafford will accompany me. You may join us if you wish.” To Elise, he said, “Your horse is waiting. Make haste.”

Elise turned and walked toward the stables, resisting the urge to smile. Johan had pleased her, though she would not tell him. 

At the stables, she met Jeoffroi, her frequent guard and escort. The elderly knight ordered the groom to help her mount, but before the boy moved, Marguerite, her husband’s mistress, arrived.

“I have forbidden her to ride the white,” Marguerite said to the groom. “You know that, you dullard!”

The groom paled and ducked, for Marguerite often delivered quick, hard blows. “And so do you, Jeoffroi d’Ardain!” 

Marguerite turned on Elise.“Dare you disobey my orders?”

Elise ignored the question and stared down the woman her husband had raised above his wife. At twenty winters, the beautiful Marguerite d’Hesdins had a buxom, petite figure. Her long blond hair hung loosely, brazenly uncovered in the fashion of a maiden—or, as servants whispered, a woman of ill repute. Under Elise’s scrutiny, Marguerite’s cheeks reddened, and her iris-blue eyes narrowed, a prelude to verbal assault.

“Lady Stafford, let me remind you that as chatelaine—”

I ordered the white,” Johan said, just then reaching them. “Help Lady Stafford mount,” he told the groom, taking Marguerite’s arm and ushering her into the stables. 

Elise mounted as Johan and Marguerite exchanged angry words. She urged her white mare into a leisurely walk alongside Jeoffroi, astride his own horse. Together they passed the sulfurous heat emanating from the blacksmith’s shed. Red coals glowed from the fire. The smith, dripping in sweat, hammered on a white-hot piece of metal. Sparks fell to the pile of cooling stirrups strewn about the dirt floor, reminding her that she needed new needles. She would ask Johan. Perhaps he would grant them to her. She would not, however, request that he replace her wedding ring. The thin, flat iron band rusted away in a mixture of vinegar and salt with which she had made ink. Her jailers had not yet noticed its absence.

At Northgate, they stopped to wait for Johan. She watched the carts and wagons entering the bailey from this gate, hidden from the base of Castle Road and closer to the storerooms. A few supplies came from her Norman estates, now belonging to her husband, Alaric the Norman of Ewyas, the Black Wolf, Seigneur de Tutbierrie, the tenant-in-chief of Staffordshire. 

Their marriage had made him rich. Very rich. 

She recognized the markings: wine from the Vexin and Aumale, salt and wool from nearby villages, grain from the fields below, kindling and firewood from the woodland. The sight pleased her. Unlike last winter, her first in this newly conquered land, they would have enough food and supplies to see them through comfortably. 

She looked back over the courtyard. When she’d arrived last year in May, seven months after the Norman victory at Hastings, her husband had occupied this alabaster hill for little more than a month. Then, the castle, a rarity in Englelond, had a crude timber gate and temporary walls protecting hundreds of flimsy tents, a small longhouse, an armory, all eclipsed by the High Tower sitting atop an earthwork mound. The tower, which loomed above the valley and the castle, had been completed only days before she’d slept there. 

Over the last year, the castle’s defenses were strengthened: the wide, deep fosse was completed, the drawbridge had been placed at Southgate. Work crews had built new, stronger timber palisades, the curtain walls hosted platforms and watchtowers. The soldiers exchanged their tents for thatched longhouses. The new free-standing hall now housed her and the high-ranking members of her husband’s household. Since last December, High Tower, used by sentries to watch over the valley, had been set aside for the exclusive use of her husband if he ever returned, which she hoped he would not. 

The causeway, a raised road, now linked the storehouse, kitchens, and armories, for when it rained, the peripheral earthworks created a bowl, flooding the camp privies and making passage nearly impossible. Despite improvements, this was still a crude, muddy little fort providing meager defenses and a base from which Normans ruled the English. 

She looked beyond Northgate, to the upper bailey, the training field, also ringed by timber walls. There, her other jailer, Gilbert fitz Gilbert, the castellan and constable, conferred with one of his captains. Swords clanked, mounted knights threw lances at straw targets or rode in complicated exercises. The foot soldiers marched and charged, rolled and dipped, and along the edges, archers released their bowstrings, and fletchers retrieved arrows. She did not know for certain, but given the number of armed men guarding her Norman fortresses, she estimated three-hundred soldiers lived here at Castle Tutbury. Far too many and far too costly to maintain, though she supposed it wise to have a standing army anticipate a call-to-arms. After all, they lived in this foreign land, surrounded by hostile villagers.

“Shall we try to visit Frigga this week?” Jeoffroi asked.

“No,” Elise said, caution warring with candidness. “Perhaps it will be safe enough when the harvest begins in earnest.” Best not to reveal her involvement in the castle’s affairs, long since forbidden by her husband. She looked at her escort’s weathered face. His eyes crinkled against the sun, his lips curved into a mischievous smile as he scanned the sky.

Last year, her aunt had persuaded Elise’s jailers to allow her a daily ride around the castle and immediate environs. The task had fallen to Jeoffroi. Initially, he resented the assignment, perceiving it far beneath his rank as Gilbert’s second in command and captain of the castle’s knights. She remembered those first days when Jeoffroi and his fifty knights rode her hard, attempting to dissuade her. Despite the hardships, she kept up day after day. They did not know that she would have ridden backward to get out of the castle for a few hours every day. Eventually, unable to discourage her, the knights, and Jeoffroi, accepted her presence, and over time, Jeoffroi became her sole guard and escort.

It had surprised her to learn that Jeoffroi had once served her own father. It had surprised her again to learn her Aunt and Jeoffroi had known each other many years ago in Normandie. Elise did not know what had passed between them, only that Hortense blushed and smiled and laughed more in Jeoffroi’s presence. He’d lost his wife, all his sons and their children that horrible day after the battle near Mortemer, when the Franks attacked her home, when her own family, her brother . . . .

“The priest comes,” Jeoffroi said to her.

She turned to see Johan and Father Osmund riding toward her. She sighed. It would be a tedious day. 

Apparently unfazed by his disagreement with Marguerite, Johan told Elise, “We’ll stop at the bridler’s first. I have ordered new harnesses for the workhorses.”

They passed through Northgate and began to wind down Castle Road when horns blasted, announcing the arrival of couriers. Johan told them to continue before spurring his horse forward to meet them.

“Lady Stafford,” Osmund said, upon Johan’s departure, “you are remiss in your spiritual duty! You have not shriven yourself nor taken the sacrament since I arrived. You commit a great sin. It is unthinkable for a noblewoman on high.”

Elise saw Jeoffroi’s grimace as Father Osmund chided her. She stopped listening to his admonition and recalled the last time she took the holy sacrament at Westminster last spring. Her kinsman, Abbot Juhel, had arranged a special purification mass for her after the queen’s coronation.

When Osmund first came to Tutbury a month ago, her initial pleasure at having a priest soured quickly. Although she attended mass daily with others, she could not take the sacrament from Osmund’s hand. Her defiance endangered her, for damnation and an eternity of flames awaited her. Yet, she would never confess to this priest.

Although people usually revered one’s priest, she could not. He thought himself much too important to be in this small, crude castle, and she could not understand why he had come—or why he stayed. Perhaps he liked how people cowed in deference as he walked through the bailey with his youthful head held high, wearing his arrogance as blatantly as he wore ornate silks and jewels. Perhaps he relished that everyone knew he alone spoke to God and for God. Perhaps that gave him leave to insert himself into everyone’s affairs, including Johan’s.

When she discovered that Father Osmund played tafle and chess, she looked forward to renewing her own skills and discussing Normandie with him as she had for hours with Walter Arquesson, her friend, back in Boulogne. Osmund had declared that those were men’s games, unseemly for women. He believed her desire to learn about the duchy also unnatural, as she could not understand matters of polity. When she tried to discuss the scriptures with him, he rebuked her for actually having read them, making her conclude that he had not. 

Now, before joining Johan at Southgate, she turned to the priest and firmly, quietly, reminded him that her wealth supported him and would build the village church. 

“The pope himself” she said, “has decreed that wealth given to the Church would cleanse the sins of even the most corrupt. Is His Holy Eminence . . . wrong?” 

Osmund’s gaping mouth slammed shut. His lips drew flat and paled at the edges.

Elise stared at Father Osmund until he shook his head and looked away.

Excerpt: The Alabaster Rook, Chapter Two

August 1068, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire

Bayeux Tapestry Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, scene 47, Normans burning English villages, wool embroidery on linen

A five days march from Tutbury, Elise’s husband, stood on a knoll and shielded his eyes from the morning sun. He scanned the harvest-ready fields devoid of reapers and studied the village below.

“They’ve just started the killing,” Gawain, his scout, said. “They’re taking the women for slaves and are about to fire the cottages.”

Alaric and the three men beside him could hear screams, a cacophony of horns issuing instructions, and as carts rumbled, knights racing through the streets.

“How many soldiers?” Alaric asked.

“A hundred, maybe less.”

He turned to Etienne, one of his captains. “Have the men mount up and get them on the hill, in attack position. You and Gawain hold them here until you receive further orders.”

As they departed, Alaric put two fingers into his mouth and whistled to his squire.

“Don’t be a fool!” Roderick d’Ivry, Alaric’s second-in-command, warned.

Alaric jerked his arm from Roderick’s grip.

“My lance,” he said to the youth who had brought his gelding forward.

Roderick grabbed the reins of Alaric’s horse, preventing him from mounting.

“It’s Dreux,” Roderick said.

“I recognize his colors.” Alaric adjusted the thongs of his helmet. “It doesn’t matter who it is. By William’s order, no village is to be taken without first giving inhabitants a chance to kneel. And Normans do not sell people into slavery.” 

“You cannot go down there alone. Dreux’s on a killing rampage. He’ll kill you.” 

“We cannot go in force. One rider is not a threat.” 

“God’s teeth!” Roderick cursed, releasing the reins.

Alaric pushed him away and mounted.

“You can’t stop them,” Roderick said. “I won’t let you go down there alone.”

“Then mount up, Roddy. Guard your tongue, and keep your sword sheathed. No matter what happens.”

Alaric’s squire handed him a lance bearing his pennon: a wine-red streamer with black lines representing a wolf. Not waiting for Roderick, he rode downhill slowly and onto the main road leading south to the village. When he heard horses coming up behind, he spurred his mount. Roderick and the others followed.

“Who comes forth?” shouted one of Dreux’s guards at the gate tower. 

“Alaric of Ewyas, bearing news from King William.”

“God’s Peace, Blackwolf. Advance!”

As he, Roderick, and four others entered the town, Alaric saw small parties of knights running down villagers with their horses, as foot soldiers swarmed into every cottage, wrenching people into the streets and shoving them into separate groups. Others piled looted goods on wagons or raised torches to thatched eaves.

Alaric knew this town well. It had belonged to King Edward and then to Harold Godwinson, defeated by William at Hastings. It had a mint, a market, and wealthy villagers, who paid taxes and gave gold and jewels to king and church. 

He and his men rode slowly down High Street. The priest, crucifix in hand, stood before the church door protecting the treasures within. Dispassionately, he watched Alaric’s party as it passed and said nothing as Dreux’s soldiers beat the villagers and ransacked the dwellings.

At the market square, women shrieked, children and infants cried as mounted knights circled and herded them into a stumbling mass. Dogs barked as Alaric slowly passed the line of women roped together, beyond the soldier flogging a woman, and onward to the soldiers gathered at the edge of the commons, adjacent to the market stalls. 

The village men and boys, as young as six, he guessed, all knelt as soldiers held lances to their chests. Behind them, a swordsman moved from one man to the next and swung his bloodied sword, severing a head with one clean swipe, splattering everyone nearby. 

Arrêtez!” Alaric shouted. “Stop!” The executioner paused.

Dreux Marchand de Ville turned to see a mounted Alaric approach him. He tilted his head as if acknowledging the oddity of seeing Alaric here.

Alaric watched as Dreux looked him over, behind him at Roderick and the others, and further to the knoll where Alaric’s armed and mounted men waited. Dreux’s eyes, shadowed by the nasal guard, met his, and his smile grew into a nasty grin. 

Dreux took off his helmet and fanned his fingers through the flattened sweaty mass of hair on top, over the shaved side and base of his skull.

The gesture so familiar to Alaric brought back memories of when he and Dreux had trained together with Duke William as boys. The moment they met, they hated each other. Equally matched in height, weight, strength, and ferocity, their trainers pitted them against one another, pushed them to compete in all manner of warfare, made them fight hand-to-hand, and protect each other when skirmishing along Normandie’s borders. 

By the time both reached fourteen winters, they had become friends. Their friendship grew, honed by the intensity of youth, by dancing with death, by shared adventures, shared drinks, and shared women. 

Together, they had become men. Alaric’s black hair, gray eyes, and swarthy looks contrasted against Dreux’s Nordic features, his nearly white-blond hair, and light blue eyes. Both were tall and strong, quick and ruthless. Both had swaggering arrogance and deep hearts. 

Their peers had called them brothers, for indeed, they had become brothers one night six years ago before Alaric returned to Ewyas at the age of nineteen. Now, as Alaric studied Dreux, he ran his palm over the burr plate pommel of his saddle and felt the scar marking the place they had clasped their cut hands together to blend their blood: brothers by choice. An eternal bond, despite their severed friendship.

“You have no province here, Stafford,” Dreux said to Alaric, his eyes glinting in hatred.

“The king has province here.” Alaric looked over the men standing beside Dreux. He had fought, drunk, wenched, or wrestled with most of them. “This village is to remain undamaged,” he said.

“You are not in command here,” Dreux said. “Continue!” 

“Cease!” Alaric said.

Dreux’s men looked baffled. King William had given Alaric and Dreux command of his western and eastern forces, respectively. The king charged them to obtain submissions of local magnates. As co-commanders, they both served King William to secure the land. Often they had led each other’s men and together had obtained submission from villages across the land.

In confusion, some soldiers lowered their weapons. Others raised theirs, ready to strike. The executioner hesitated. 

“Seize him!” Dreux ordered his men. 

“At your peril, my lord,” Very slowly, Alaric lowered his lance and pointed it at Dreux’s chest. None of Dreux’s men moved.

“I did not think you a fool, Stafford! You’re surrounded. Dare you interfere with the king’s men?” 

“I dare to obey the king. This village sits at a vital crossroads. The bridge hastens William’s march north. Huntingdon’s markets and its proximity to the Brundeswald provision the king’s army with food, horses, and wood for his castles. This village is to declare its allegiance to the king.” 

“Exactly,” Dreux said. “The villagers raised arms against us. By right of war, I may execute resisters, fire the village, and by English law enslave those I spare.”

“I see no warriors, no mail, no weapons.” Alaric shook his head and shouted so Dreux’s soldiers could hear. “By right of King William’s peace, freemen who offer no armed resistance may submit their oaths, pay geld and tributes for keeping the king’s regard. By right of the king’s writ,” he paused, “this village is to be secured and prepared for formal submission before William arrives tomorrow.”

Dreux’s men reacted immediately to the news of William’s impending appearance. Dreux pressed his lips together. A written command superseded all other orders.

Alaric and Dreux remained silent, their gazes level. 

Last month, after Alaric had escorted King Malcolm from Scotia, and after Dreux had escorted Queen Matilda from London, the two former friends had met again in York. Amid the festivities honoring both kings, Alaric and Dreux had performed their duties with strict competence, engaging only when necessary, with courtesy and few words. Now, beyond the purview of the king and queen, they faced each other—the death of Dreux’s betrothed, Clare, a dark abyss between them. 

Alaric understood Dreux’s hatred, his thirst for revenge. He felt the same since learning that his entire family had been murdered. 

Erwin uf Cruge? Haf ye still yer heade?” Alaric shouted in Saxon, remembering the name of the village headman he recognized kneeling before the executioner.

The elder grunted. 

“Release that man,” Alaric said to Dreux in French.

Dreux’s eyes darkened in fury before he gestured to his men. 

Guards brought the man forward.

Alaric said to Dreux. “Ask the gerefa who among the dead resisted the king’s men?”

“One day,” Dreux vowed, “I will put your head on a spike.”

“Ask him,” Alaric said, ignoring the remark. With a rigid jaw, Dreux took the lead as he had done in all the villages they’d subdued together, and as usual, Alaric translated and gave counsel.

The headman trembled. With lowered eyes he pointed at two of the seven dead men. After confirming that no others resisted, he remained silent. 

“They who resisted have been executed,” Alaric said to Dreux. “Tell him the conditions of peace.”

After a slight pause, Dreux stated the edict applied to other villages, thereby committing himself to Huntingdon’s preservation. 

Alaric repeated in Saxon. “All the land granted by King Edward belongs to King William. The villagers may hold the land and pay William the same geld paid to Edward unless the villagers displease him.” He then withdrew his lance.

“Will you submit to King William,” Dreux asked, “and if so, what tribute will you pay to keep your head?”

“The elder,” Alaric translated, “looks forward to giving his loyalty to the king. He proposes one shilling in tribute.” He shook his head. “One shilling is not enough for the trouble these villagers caused you.”

The headman shuddered and asked if two shillings would suffice. 

“Two shillings,” Alaric said to Dreux, “two shillings from each burgess and two pounds to keep the village from being fired.”

Dreux gasped. 

It was an enormous penalty, amounting to the value of an entire year’s harvest in the best of times, a fine Alaric knew the wealthy burgess would pay. He wondered if Dreux would be more lenient. 

Dreux conveyed the penalty without change.

The elder shuddered before nodding. Then, at Alaric’s urging, he vowed that the entire village would comply with Norman requests, that the villagers would provide the geld and tribute, and the ten wealthiest townsmen would each give the king a hostage. 

Afterward, Alaric told Dreux, “William will thank you for increasing his coffers. Order your men to release the townspeople and put out the fires.” 

Dreux’s anger pulsed along his jaw. 

Alaric glanced around the village and turned back to Dreux. “Two hundred men await me,” he said. “We need provisions and laborers to build William a castle. I trust you will provide them.” His threat was enough. 

“Release all the prisoners,” Dreux ordered. Immediately horns signaling the change echoed throughout the town.

Alaric turned his horse away, wondering if Dreux would order a bowman to shoot him. He and his men walked their horses slowly down High Street, now silent, save the whimpering children and barking dogs. 

After they left the town, Roderick asked, “Do you really have a writ from the king?”

Alaric smiled.