in William’s eyes, that Agnes had begun to learn hatred.

Three sons she had given him since then but her success was tarnished. The shadow of Morwenna and her bastard had made all her own efforts dross. ‘There is always trouble when Joscelin shows his face,’ she said bitterly.

William rounded on her with angry eyes. ‘Watch your tongue or you’ll be wearing a scold’s bridle to curb it,’ he growled.

Compressing her lips, she turned from him and marched angrily across the yard and up the exterior stairs to the upper floor of the house. She would not go into the hall, for that would have meant acknowledging Joscelin. A maid opened the door for her but it was Agnes who slammed it shut, the sound reverberating across the soft summer dusk.

William’s eyelids tensed. He knew he was not being fair but he didn’t care enough to change his attitude. When he entered the hall, Joscelin was lounging on a bench before the central hearth. His squire sat on a foot- stool nearby, fair head bent over a dagger grip he was rebinding with new strips of hide. A different dagger twisted in William’s heart as he approached the fire and his eldest son raised his head. God’s life, he was so much like his mother. The green-hazel eyes and the expression in them were all hers and flooded Ironheart with unbearable bittersweet memories.

Joscelin sprang to his feet and engulfed his father in a bone-crunching embrace. They were of a height and similar build, for William still had a tough, muscular body on which no softness had been allowed to encroach.

‘I swear you grow more like a plough ox every time I see you!’ Ironheart gasped and, thrusting his son aside, prowled to the hearth. The squire scrambled to his feet in deference, blue eyes wary.

‘Fetch wine,’ William commanded, ‘two cups.’ He glanced at the cloak spread upon the chair and spilling to the floor. ‘I trust you’ll stay to drink a measure with your old father?’

Joscelin’s colour heightened. ‘Of course, sir. I was waiting for you.’

William grunted and gave him an eloquent stare but said nothing. If Joscelin intended going out into the city at night it was none of his business but, nevertheless, he was curious. Joscelin was not usually one for the vices that were to be found in the alehouses and stews on the wrong side of curfew.

The squire returned with the wine.

‘Was your journey free of hazard?’

Joscelin looked at the floor for a moment before raising laughter-bright eyes. ‘How do you always know where to strike a nut to crack the shell and come to the meat?’

‘Call it grim experience.’

For the second time that evening Joscelin related the tale of his encounter with Giles de Montsorrel. ‘It stinks like a barrel of rotten fish,’ he concluded. ‘Why should he want to bring his worldly wealth all the way to London?’

From the upper floor came the muffled sound of women’s voices and the loud thud of a coffer lid opening and slamming. William flickered an irritated glance aloft. ‘He’s related to Robert of Leicester, is he not? And Leicester has obtained de Luci’s permission to sail for Normandy in the next week or so with men and money to succour King Henry, or so Leicester would have us believe. Myself, I’ve heard more truth in a minstrel’s lay.’

Joscelin nodded thoughtfully. ‘And Montsorrel is contributing his bit to Leicester’s endeavor. From what I know of Giles, if he was going to take sides I would say that he would choose young Henry’s.’

Ironheart gave a disparaging shake of his head. ‘I certainly wouldn’t chance my all on an untried youth of sixteen with a reputation for being as fickle as a Southwark whore, both on the battlefield and off. Mind you, it’s easier to manipulate a vain, spoiled boy than it is to obtain satisfaction from a man well versed in statecraft who’s had his backside on the throne for the past twenty years.’ William took a swallow of wine. ‘Giles de Montsorrel is a fool.’

‘A wealthy fool with the Rushcliffe inheritance new in his purse,’ Joscelin said.

‘Hah, not for long,’ Ironheart said. ‘He’s already squandered most of the money his wife brought to their marriage bed. I knew her father, Robert de Courcelles - too soft for his own good, but decent enough.’ He gave his son a shrewd look and changed the subject. ‘De Luci informs me he’s keeping you on through the summer.’

Joscelin shrugged. ‘The rewards are greater on the tourney circuits, but so are the risks. Garrison duty’s usually boring but if there’s food in my belly and money in my pouch, I won’t grumble.’

William winced. There was no rancour in Joscelin’s tone, no intent to complain, but still the older man was struck by guilt. This was his firstborn son, the only child Morwenna had given him, and because he was bastard born debarred from inheriting any of the de Rocher lands. Joscelin had had to make his own way in the world and that meant either by the priesthood or by the sword. William had done his best, educated Joscelin for both vocations and furnished him with the tools of his chosen trade, but it would never be enough for his bleeding conscience.

‘I doubt you’ll have time for boredom to be a hazard,’ he said as Joscelin drained his cup and reached for his cloak. ‘De Luci didn’t say much but I gather he’s got more in mind for you than just garrison duty.’

Joscelin forced his cloak pin through the good woollen cloth. ‘Such as?’

‘That’s for de Luci to tell you.’

Joscelin’s brows arched. ‘I’d best make the most of my freedom, then,’ he said, and gestured round. ‘As you’ve noticed by the emptiness in the hall, my men are already about it with gusto.’

Ironheart could sense the undercurrent of turbulence in Joscelin’s manner - probably a residue of the meeting with Montsorrel and his wife that afternoon. A night in an alehouse might settle it, or a woman who knew her trade, but it was a dangerous burden to bear into London after curfew. ‘Have a care, my son,’ he said with a warning stare.

‘As always.’ Joscelin dismissed the caution far too lightly for his father’s liking and, with a casual salute, disappeared into the night.

William heaved a sigh. Gesturing the wide-eyed squire away to his pallet, he sat down before the banked hearth to finish his wine. His thoughts, of their own volition, strayed to Joscelin’s mother. Morwenna. Even now, the mere thought of her name twisted his vitals.

She had been a mercenary’s sister whose favours he had bought one spring evening in 1144 while on campaign. Until Morwenna, he thought he had women in perspective but she had broken all rules and moulds and finally his heart. Five years it had lasted, from the night she unbound her hair for him at an army campfire to the night they combed it down over the cold breast of her corpse, a swaddled stillborn daughter in the crook of her arm. Nothing of her existence had remained except a bewildered little boy and an even more bewildered man of four-and-thirty.

Dear Christ, how he had hated Agnes in the months following Morwenna’s death. All the tolerance in his nature had died, all the gentleness too. He should have been delighted at how swiftly his wife quickened with child, at how easily she was delivered, but he had felt nothing but cursed. He knew he treated his dogs better than he did Agnes but it was ingrained now. Every time he looked at her, he saw Morwenna’s lifeless body and grieved anew. They said that it was a tragic accident, that fall downstairs so late into her pregnancy. The afterbirth came away, she started to bleed, and she and the baby had died. He hadn’t reached her in time even to have the grace of a last farewell.

The candle on the pricket near him sputtered and he emerged from his dismal reverie with a start. In the shadows beyond the light, the servants were asleep on straw mattresses. Normally they would have drawn nearer to the fire, but no one dared to encroach on his solitude. Ironheart heaved himself to his feet, tossed the wine dregs into the flames where they hissed into vapour, and wearily sought his bed.

Farther along the Strand, the Earl of Leicester’s house stood open to the last of the gloaming. It was a new dwelling, constructed of traditional plaster and timber with a red-tiled roof. Tiles were more expensive than thatch but a symbol of status and far less of a fire hazard. Both indoors and out, torches blazed in high wall-brackets, illuminating the revellers who either sat at long trestles in the puddle-filled courtyard or crowded into the main room, jostling one another for elbow room. Herb-seasoned mutton, shiny with grease, hissed over fire pits in the garth, tended by a spit-boy half-drunk on cider. He wavered erratically between the carcasses, a cup in one hand, basting ladle in the other.

Joscelin hesitated. He could see some of the justiciar’s men at one of the trestles - soldiers of his

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