she quailed.

De Gael crouched on his heels and gently peeled aside a wet fold of her cloak. ‘And who have we here?’ he asked.

‘My son, Robert.’ She flashed a rapid glance at her husband. He was still occupied in ranting at his guards but in a moment he would turn round.

De Gael did not miss her look. ‘You have a high courage, my lady,’ he murmured. ‘I won’t make it harder for you than it already is.’ Plucking the child from beneath her cloak, he swept him up in his arms. ‘Come, my young soldier, there’s a dry corner prepared especially for you in my cart.’

Linnet stretched her arms towards her son with an involuntary sound of protest. Robert peered at his mother over de Gael’s shoulder, his eyes wide with shock, but the move had been so sudden that he had no time to cry and by the time he belatedly found his voice, he was being placed on a dry blanket in the good wain with a lamb-skin rug tucked up to his chin.

Linnet, following hard on de Gael’s heels, found herself taken by the elbow and helped up beside her son. Robert stopped crying and began to knead the lamb’s wool like a nursing kitten. Linnet stroked his brow and looked at de Gael. ‘You have my gratitude,’ she said. ‘Thank you.’

The mercenary shrugged. ‘No sense in keeping him out in that downpour when he can be warm in here. I expect your husband’s compensation to reflect my care of his goods.’ He started to withdraw. ‘There is room for your women, too, my lady. I’ll tell them, shall I?’

Rain pattered on the roof of the wain. She looked out through a canvas arch on a tableau of hazy green and brown. The smell of her wet garments clogged her nostrils. De Gael walked across to her maids. He moved with a wolf ’s ungainly elegance and she did not think that the similarity stopped there. And yet he had been considerate beyond the bounds of most men of her acquaintance.

Linnet eyed her husband and felt queasy at the sight of his fists clenched around his belt. She had tried to be a good wife to him but he was difficult to please and she dwelt in a constant state of trepidation, wondering from which angle of his nature the next small cruelty would come. He always found a scapegoat to blame; nothing was ever his fault, and in the household that scapegoat was usually her.

Behind her, at the other end of the wain, their soldiers were depositing the clothing coffers with much bumping and cursing. Robert’s eyelids drooped and closed. Linnet leaned her head against her son’s, her arm around him, and wearily shut her own eyes.

Chapter 2

‘Joscelin, you rogue!’ Maude de Montsart swamped her nephew in an embrace he remembered from childhood. His nostrils were overpowered by mingled scents of lavender, sweat and the sweet almond marchpane she adored. For the last five years she had been a widow and dwelling in the de Rocher household as a companion and housekeeper to the lady Agnes, his father’s wife. ‘What brings you to London?’

He returned her hug and smiled. ‘I’m here for the horse fair. I have to replace some war gear, and I need a new palfrey.’

‘I thought you’d be in France by now, doing the round of the tourneys.’ She handed his saturated cloak to a servant and drew him down the hall to the dais where there stood a wine flagon and some fine glazed cups. Filling one from the other, she watched him drink. He took four rapid, deep swallows, and then breathed out hard. His shoulders relaxed and his smile this time was less perfunctory.

‘Not this season. I’ve a contract to serve the justiciar until Michaelmas at least. He may send me and the men to Normandy to join the king but we’re more likely to be used for garrison duty.’ He refilled the cup and gazed around the hall. Two servants were lighting the candles and closing the shutters on a thickening but calm dusk. The rain had stopped an hour since and the sun had glimmered through the clouds in time to set. Another woman stirred a pot of soup over the central hearth and the smoke rising from the fire was savoury with the aroma of garlic and onions. There were some hangings on the wall he had not seen before and he noticed that his father had finally bought a new box chair for himself. The old one, through a combination of splinters and woodworm, had been lethal. The cups were new also. He recognized Maude’s taste in the cheerful horse-and-rider scenes painted in thick white slip on the red background.

‘It’s a bad business, the king’s own sons turning against him.’ Maude folded her arms beneath her ample bosom and clucked her tongue. ‘I’m old enough to remember how it was before Henry sat on the throne, and I never want to live through the like again. What was he thinking to have his eldest son anointed? Bound to give the boy ideas beyond himself.’

‘He already had ideas beyond himself before that, feckless whelp.’ Joscelin took another long swallow of wine and felt it glide smoothly down his throat with a slight after-sting in his nostrils. ‘When his father had him crowned he thought that by confirming the succession in so strong a manner he was creating stability. Little did he know.’ He shook his head. ‘I do not suppose he expected the discord to come from the very son he has anointed, but he was always going to store up trouble. The boy’s realized that for all the frippery and promises he’s no closer to power than he was as a swaddled infant. As far as his father’s concerned, he can be a king all he wants as long as it’s king of nothing. I’m inclined to agree.’ Grimacing, Joscelin twitched his shoulders. The rain had soaked through his cloak and there was an uncomfortable clamminess across the back of his neck. ‘At least it keeps me employed. What does my father say?’

‘The same as you, but he’s less polite.’

Joscelin’s hazel eyes brightened with amusement. ‘Where is the old wolf anyway? I’d have expected him to have bellowed my backside off by now.’

‘He’s dining with the justiciar.’

‘Is he now?’ Joscelin looked thoughtful as he sat down in his father’s new chair. Richard de Luci was the nominal ruler of England while the king was absent in Normandy. Fiercely loyal to Henry, he was a skilled administrator and warrior. Joscelin’s father and Richard de Luci were friends of long standing and similar interests, but their socializing was usually a matter of business as well as pleasure.

‘Apparently the Earl of Leicester and others are in London for the purpose of asking de Luci’s permission to leave England with troops and money for King Henry’s army.’ Maude ordered a servant to bring food.

Joscelin raised his brows. Robert of Leicester was self-seeking and arrogant, without an honest bone in his body. If he was going to war, it was to feather his own nest at the expense of weaker men. King Henry was certainly not weak - but his son was. ‘I saw some of that money today,’ he told his aunt. ‘Indeed, I helped bring it into the city. It was in the custody of one of young Henry’s lick-boots and if I have not walked in here with Giles de Montsorrel’s blood all over my hands, it is one of God’s miracles.’

Maude sat down beside him, leaned her elbows on the trestle and gave him her full attention as he told her about his encounter on the Clerkenwell road, his tone growing vehement with disgust as the tale progressed. ‘De Montsorrel looked at me as if he had a stink beneath his nose that he was too highbred to mention. I tell you, if it were not for the women and the little boy, I’d have struck him in the teeth and withdrawn my aid. You should have seen his men struggling with his strongbox. There was more in it than a few shillings to buy himself a couple of nags at Smithfield and trinkets for his wife.’

‘He’s lately come into an inheritance.’ Maude screwed up her face as she strove to remember. ‘His father died of a seizure at Eastertide, although he’d been having falling fits for almost a year.’

Joscelin nodded. ‘So I’d heard.’ He did not add that Raymond’s final seizure on Easter Sunday, immediately before Mass, had taken place between the thighs of a servant’s daughter at the moment of supreme pleasure. The incident had been the source of much ribald comment in alehouse and barracks. Giles de Montsorrel had either a family reputation to keep up or one he was never going to live down. That thought reminded him of his own half- brothers and he grimaced.

‘Are Ralf and Ivo here?’

A servant mounted the dais and set a steaming bowl of the soup before Joscelin, and a simnel loaf with a cross cut in the top.

‘I’m afraid they are.’ The pleated wrinkles around Maude’s mouth deepened. ‘Not that we often see them, the amount of time they spend carousing in the stews. Your father says they’re just sowing wild oats and that

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