the masculine world beyond the bower.

‘Never,’ she vowed, hand cupped around the candle flame, protecting her child from the hot drip of the wax. If only it were as easy to protect him from his future.

Chapter 4

Richard de Luci, chief custodian of the realm during King Henry’s absence across the Narrow Sea, reclined in his pelt-spread chair, goblet resting comfortably on the neat curve of his belly, and regarded his guest. ‘What do you think about the latest news from Normandy?’

William de Rocher, nicknamed Ironheart, stroked his chin. In his youth his hawkish features had been striking but advancing age and the effects of a life hard-lived had imbued his visage with an unsettling cadaverous quality.

‘You mean about Queen Eleanor being caught defecting to Paris disguised as a man, to join her sons in rebellion? Nothing would surprise me about that wanton.’ He cast a dark look at his own wife. Dumpy and plain, she sat like a lump of proving dough beside de Luci’s elegant wife. At least Agnes knew her place, and if she ever approached the borderline of his tolerance, a bellow and a raised fist sent her scuttling back to her corner with downcast eyes and a trembling mouth. But some women, brought up without benefit of discipline, were wont to snarl and bite the hand that fed them. ‘I trust she’s well under lock and key now?’

‘Indeed so, but it doesn’t make the rebellion any less dangerous.’

Ironheart grunted and considered de Luci from beneath untidy silver brows. ‘I hear the Earl of Leicester has approached you for permission to cross to Normandy and offer his support to the king. Rumour has it, too, that he has amassed no small amount of treasure to fund his expedition.’

De Luci stared at him, then laughed and shook his head. ‘I swear to God, William, you know more than I do half the time!’

‘I listen at the right keyholes,’ Ironheart replied with a dour grin. ‘Besides, Leicester’s not exactly been making a secret of the fact, has he?’

‘You’ve never approved of Robert of Leicester, have you?’

The grin faded. ‘His father was as solid as granite; you could trust him with your life, but I wouldn’t trust his heir further than I could hurl a fistful of fluff. And, before you ask, I’ve no evidence to prove him unworthy. It’s a feeling inside here, a soldier’s gut.’ He struck the area between heart and belt.

‘Then it’s not jealousy because your sons spend more time in his company than they do in yours?’

Ironheart looked insulted. ‘Why should I be jealous?’ he scoffed. ‘I am their father, he is just a turd clad in cloth of gold. Let them have their flirtation. Once they’ve unwrapped Earl Robert’s bindings, they’ll back away.’

De Luci pursed his lips, not so sure. ‘I’m willing to give Leicester a chance,’ he said and, with a rueful smile, patted his own paunch. ‘A diplomat’s gut, William.’

Ironheart snorted rudely and held out his wine cup to be refilled. ‘I know which I’d rather trust.’

De Luci chose to ignore the remark and changed the direction of the conversation. ‘Did you know I’d commissioned Joscelin for the rest of the summer?’

‘No, but I thought you might, the situation being what it is.’

‘If the opportunity arises, I’d like to give him more responsibility - perhaps a seneschal’s post. He’s proven his abilities in my service time and again this last year and a half.’

William stared down at his war-scarred hands. ‘I forget how old the boy is,’ he said, ‘and how old I am growing.’ Then he gave a laugh that held more snarl than amusement. ‘He’ll make you a good seneschal if you give him the chance - one of the best.’

An atmosphere, rather than anything said, caused de Luci to glance at the women. Behind her doughy impassivity, he could tell that Agnes de Rocher was furious. Her fists were clenched and there were hectic red blotches on her throat and face. But then, he and William had been discussing Joscelin’s advancement, which was tantamount in Agnes’ presence to drawing a sword.

‘Rohese, why don’t you take Agnes above and show her those bolts of silk that arrived yesterday from Italy,’ he said to his wife, hoping to rectify the lapse of his diplomat’s gut.

‘By your leave, my lord,’ murmured Rohese de Luci, giving him a look compounded of irritation and sympathy as she signalled for the finger bowl.

De Luci returned her look with one of apologetic gratitude and knew that he would now have to purchase the bolt of peacock-coloured damask she had been angling after.

As the women curtseyed and left the hall, William’s breath eased out on a long sigh of relief. ‘When Martin enters your household next year to be a squire, I’m going to buy her a pension in a nunnery,’ he said, eyes upon his wife’s disappearing rump.

De Luci quirked an eyebrow. ‘Does Agnes know?’

‘Not yet.’ Ironheart shrugged. ‘I can’t see her objecting. We live separate lives most of the time as it is.’

De Luci said nothing, although he gave his friend a wry glance. If Agnes de Rocher was scarcely the ideal wife, William de Rocher was certainly not the perfect husband. De Luci had been a groomsman at their wedding almost thirty years ago and had watched them labour under the yoke, mismatched and tugging in opposite directions. And after Joscelin’s mother had left her mark on their lives, any chance of marital harmony had been utterly destroyed.

Ironheart took a long swallow of his wine. ‘To future freedom,’ he toasted. ‘Let’s talk of other matters.’

Ironheart’s squire handed Agnes from her litter and set her down in the courtyard at the rear of the house. William dismounted from his palfrey. The perfume of rain-wet grass and leaves drifted from the orchards beyond the stables and warred with the smell of the saturated dung and straw underfoot. At the end of the garden the Thames glinted in the last green glow of twilight. A groom and his apprentice emerged from the depths of the stables, the latter bearing a candle-lantern on a pole. By its light, William saw that the stalls were crowded with horseflesh, little of it his own.

Bestowing his mount’s reins upon the lad, he stooped under the lintel and, hands on hips, regarded the additions. A handsome liver-chestnut with distinctive white markings swung its head from the manger and regarded him with a liquid, intelligent eye. He knew Whitesocks well, for he had bred him from his own stud herd and gifted him to Joscelin four years ago as a leggy, untrained colt.

Agnes sniffed furiously. ‘How long are these animals going to eat us out of house and home?’ she demanded, goaded by resentment to a boldness that she would not usually have dared.

‘It will only be for a couple of days. He’ll be stabling them at the Crown’s expense after that,’ William answered in a preoccupied voice.

The mildness of his response encouraged Agnes to press harder. ‘You know that Ralf and Joscelin hate the sight of each other. This is just asking for a confrontation. ’

‘And I am master in this house. There will be no trouble.’ He stroked the satin liver-chestnut hide. ‘Besides, Ralf ’s not here. He’s out wasting his substance in some den of fools.’

Agnes glared at her husband’s long, straight spine and mane of unkempt, badger-grey hair. As a bride of sixteen, she had loved him so hard that even to look at him had made her queasy with joy. And in those first months he had been kind enough for her to imagine that he at least returned a measure of her affection. She had borne him four daughters in as many years and became pregnant again within three months of Adele’s birth. Exhausted, sick and miserable, she had watched William ride away to war and every day she had prayed for him, callousing her knees on the cold chapel floor.

Her pleas to God had been answered after a fashion, for three months later he had returned unscathed, bringing with him a contingent of Breton mercenaries to garrison their castle. He had also brought a woman, the sister of one of the mercenaries. The glow of early pregnancy had been upon her, making her shine like a candle among common rush dips. She had been dark-haired, green-eyed and regal of bearing, and she had given William his first son to replace Agnes’s own stillborn baby boy. It was then, seeing the blaze of joy, triumph and naked love

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