Matille swallowed. ‘Ravenstow’s heir.’

Ranulf ’s bellow almost blew the shutters off their hinges. ‘God’s balls, woman, you dare to suggest that to me!’ he roared.

Lucy screamed in terror and the older girl stopped her game, her eyes becoming round with fear in case their father should use his fists.

‘I only thought that an alliance with Ravenstow might leave you free to deal with the Welsh and pay more attention to your other concerns,’ she said far more calmly than she felt. Her heart jumped and jumped and the sickness almost made her heave.

‘I’d rather have her wed to a gong farmer than joined to that kind of blood!’ Spittle flecked his moustaches.

‘Ranulf, please don’t shout, you’re making me ill.’

He cleared his throat. The red mottling faded slightly from his face and throat and he looked at her anxiously. ‘The answer is no,’ he growled.

‘Heir to Ravenstow means heir to Caermoel,’ she said, after a moment, a sly look in her eyes.

Ranulf turned away and stared out of the open shutters at the vista of autumnal colours. Golds and oranges and woodsmoke grey. The news of the burning of Woolcot had pleased him, but the cost had been high. He had lost almost a full mercenary troop. This was gradually being replaced although not yet up to full raiding strength. Thus far Renard had not retaliated, but his patrols had tightened up considerably, and he too had been hiring men.

The fighting was indeed tiresome. Ranulf had looked forward to rubbing Renard’s nose in the dirt, to humiliating him, but had discovered quickly that it was an ambition not to be realised. He was realistic enough to abandon the attempt to take Caermoel, but sufficiently vindictive to continue raiding.

A marriage alliance. He discarded his first, gut reaction and looked at it objectively. Yes, it would leave him free to deal with the Welsh, with Prince Owain, the presumptuous cocky bastard. It would stop him from having to constantly patrol the border with Ravenstow, and if, as Matille said, Ravenstow’s son was also Caermoel’s heir, his grandchildren would inherit the land, and there was scope for manipulation and appropriation there in plenty. The fact that Renard’s son and Lucy were second cousins would require a dispensation, but that was no real barrier, and an escape route should a more propitious marriage offer come his way.

‘Heir to Caermoel,’ he mused, and looked round at the child. It would only be an agreement to a betrothal anyway. Both parties were much too young to even begin to lisp the words of acceptance. It would be saving face with certain, implicit advantages.

‘I’ll make up my mind later,’ he said, just to let her know that he was the master, and stalked out of the room.

Weak, soaked with perspiration, Matille leaned back against her pillows and fought her nausea, but mingled with it was the relief that he had gone, and the triumph that she knew he would do what she had suggested.

Chapter 30

Leicester, November 1141

The dais table was adorned with a solid gold aquamanile in the form of a horse. There were candlesticks of silver gilt, flagons set with rock crystal and amethyst and goblets that matched. The napery was of the finest pounded, bleached linen, except where someone had knocked over a cup of wine, leaving a blood-red stain. The only real blood in evidence was that oozing from a haunch of undercooked venison. It sat in front of Elene’s place, reminding her of how matters might have been had not Chester’s offer of peace been accepted by Renard — the price, their son in a marriage alliance.

Renard was wearing his wedding tunic for this event on the neutral ground of the Earl of Leicester’s main keep, always a sign that he felt in some way constrained. His eyes were as opaque as flints and narrowed as if in pain. At least, she thought, he had been brought to agree to burying the hostilities — not by her, but by Robert of Leicester and the more powerful persuasion of Welsh aggression along the marches as Prince Owain sought to extend his own borders.

Leicester, chief witness to the strained proceedings, was blusteringly jovial, decidedly on edge, but then a natural manner would have been very difficult to maintain, given the parties involved and the differences between them.

The children were elsewhere with their respective nurses. Lucy was a year older than Hugh, but that scarcely mattered. She was also sweet and shy and obviously terrified of her father. As tradition demanded, she would be given to Elene at about the age of nine to grow up in the household into which she would later marry, with only short visits home. Elene could not find it in her to be angry with Matille for manipulating her plea for an end to the hostilities.

Matille seemed unaffected by the atmosphere at the high table, but then she had every reason to celebrate. Her father, captured in the flight from Winchester, had been released in exchange for King Stephen and was none the worse for his ordeal. Ranulf was not as pleased, but that made him all the more eager to form the alliance with Ravenstow. Stephen was likely to have a sore head about Lincoln, so it behoved Ranulf to keep loyalist company for a while at least.

The haunch of venison was evocative to Renard too, reminding him of what continued war with the earldom of Chester would mean. Leicester had not had to persuade him very hard to see reason, and the Welsh threat had quickly done the rest. He was amenable to the suggestion of a truce, particularly as the agreement to a betrothal had an escape clause in the form of consanguinity between Hugh and little Lucy. What was galling him at the moment was having to sit at the same board as Ranulf de Gernons and endure the interminable courses of a celebration feast. Hypocrisy of the worst order. Both of them knew where they wanted to stick their eating knives, and it was not in that haunch of venison. Grimly he endured and counted down the candle notches until the moment he could decently retire. Soon, he thought, as the various march-pane subtleties were served and the barely touched deer haunch was removed to a sideboard.

The musicians who had played harp and crwth during the main meal now made way for the entertainers. Renard reached for his goblet, discovered that it was empty, but declined a refill from the squire serving the high table.

A group of traditional dancers replaced some jugglers. Robert of Leicester, well lubricated by the wine he had been drinking to carry him through this ordeal, grinned and nudged Renard. ‘Different to the last lot of dancing we all witnessed together, eh?’ he chortled. His voice was loud and carried to include Ranulf in the remark. Comically, Leicester then realised his mistake. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘That’s put my foot in the subtlety, hasn’t it?’

The words fell into an awkward silence.

‘She was naught but a faithless whore!’ Ranulf snarled, shattering it.

‘Who nevertheless kept faith to her own code,’ Renard defended.

‘Hah, you know she’s bedding Owain Gwynedd now?’ Ranulf ’s light eyes were dangerous.

‘Yes, I know, and I wish them well.’

Ranulf ’s look narrowed, became almost crafty. He wondered whether to tell Renard about the child. In the same moment as the thought was born he decided against it. She had never said the boy was Renard’s, although he well suspected it was so. Let him grow up among the Welsh and perhaps one day put a goose-fletched arrow through his own father’s heart in some wet border woodland. ‘I hope they both die of Syrian pox,’ he said, hunching his shoulders.

Renard could feel Elene quivering beside him, could see the strain on Leicester’s face. He swallowed down an in — excusable retort of his own and instead reached down to his belt.

Ranulf thought that he was going for his recently sheathed knife and whipped his own dagger from where it had been thrust upright in a loaf of bread. Leicester caught his arm to hold him back as retainers leaped up and the mood suddenly turned very nasty indeed.

Remaining calm, Renard held out a flat bronze disc on the palm of his hand. ‘I was in two minds whether to return this to you, but you might as well have it for the sake of the treaty between us.’

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