men of the area and, by the age of fourteen, I was a fully accepted member of the local fyrd.

I was soon nominated to train with Lord de Lacy’s garrison at Pontefract and in less than two years had been accepted into the King’s elite bodyguard. Life since then had been good. I was taller than most men, strong of arm and – so I was told by several female acquaintances, admittedly some more discerning than others – was handsome ‘in a craggy sort of way’. My Celtic heritage gave me dark-brown hair, but the English blood in me gave me eyes the colour of honey and meant that every summer my tresses were bleached fair by the sun.

I tried not to be vain, but if I ever got the chance to look at myself in a lady’s mirror or in still water, I was content with what I saw. More importantly, I never seemed to have trouble finding female companions – a mighty godsend to a professional soldier far from home.

After what seemed like an eternity, the old warrior spoke again.

‘Your record in service to your King is to your credit, Sir Ranulf. Where sits your ambition?’

It was an unexpectedly direct question; I was thrown a little by it, and also by his piercing gaze.

‘To continue to serve England, my King and my Lord.’

‘That is a predictable but trite answer, young man. What about your real ambition?’

I was nonplussed. I had not expected questions like these, and I realized I was not properly prepared for the encounter. The Earl raised his hand and glanced at the two sergeants standing either side of him. They immediately bowed to him and took their leave. The Earl then walked over to the hearth and sat by the fire. I noticed that he appeared sprightly enough, but that he had a distinct limp and his face showed the hint of a wince of pain with every step. He sat down heavily and was suddenly less austere as he relaxed in front of the glowing embers. He stared into the flickering light almost absent-mindedly.

There was another pause.

‘Join me by the fire.’

I remained standing, feeling sure the invitation did not extend to informality. I was wrong.

‘Sit, boy!’

The stern look had returned to his face. But as I sat opposite him, he produced the beginnings of a grin.

‘Don’t be in awe of me; I am a lad from the English provinces, just like you. My men have gone, so we can speak openly.’

I had heard the name ‘Earl of Huntingdon’ and had assumed that the old man was one of our many Norman masters. But ‘Harold of Hereford’ meant nothing to me, except that it was clearly an English name. I sat down hesitantly, not having any idea what the next question would be – or, indeed, why I had been summoned to Winchester in the first place.

Wolvesey was an imposing place. The largest royal palace outside Westminster, it sat next to the mighty cathedral, the only two buildings that had survived the great fire of twenty-five years earlier, during the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda. We were alone in a hall so large that in the encroaching gloom of the afternoon I could not see the doorway at the end. There was an eerie silence, save for the distant jangling of activity in the kitchens and the hiss and crackle of the fire.

‘Where are you from?’

I told the Earl my story, as confidently as I could. Gradually the relaxed setting put me at ease, and I finished with something of a flourish as I described my pride in being selected to serve the King.

‘You have done well. I am told you are a fine soldier, the most highly regarded Englishman in the King’s guard.’

‘My Lord Earl, that is not the highest of accolades. There are only three of us in the King’s retinue—’

‘Do not be too modest. The King’s Constable holds you in the highest regard.’

He stared at me again, but this time more gently, almost benignly.

‘I had a stroke of great good fortune as a young knight, but I also had my future forged by tragedy and hardship. Are you prepared to face the same, should an opportunity come your way?’

I realized immediately that there was a challenge in the offing. I began to feel my heart race a little as the Earl continued.

‘I am looking for a special man, one who can carry a burden for me. The load is exceptional and it involves many years of devotion and almost certainly much sacrifice. Are you ready to be examined to determine whether you are that man?’

I had no idea what to say. A brave man would have said ‘yes’ immediately; perhaps a wise man would have said that his answer depended on the nature of the challenge. I knew it was unwise to vacillate, so I gulped hard and chose the former option.

‘Yes, my Lord.’

‘A brave answer, Sir Ranulf, but possibly an imprudent one. You and I will soon find out whether your choice was wise.’

The Earl looked up to King Henry’s huge war banner above the fireplace. Emblazoned with England’s two lions rampant, quartered with the fleur-de-lis of his French ancestors, it was meant to be a war banner that all in his realm could follow.

‘I have one more question for you. I understand you have Celtic, Danish and English blood. Yet you serve a Norman king. How does that sit with your heritage?’

‘It sits comfortably, my Lord. The King carries English blood as well. He rules this land justly; that is all a man can ask for.’

He smiled broadly.

‘Very good, young knight. A fine answer.’

I felt a shiver of anticipation and not a little apprehension. What was this burden I was going to be asked to carry?

I had no fear about facing an examination of my worthiness, but I wondered why my heritage was important. I was intrigued and excited. Was this my chance to play a part in the future of England? If it was, nothing on earth would prevent me from grasping it.

With a little difficulty, the Earl pushed himself up from the large carved-oak chair. I jumped to attention as he stretched to his full height.

‘There will be times when you will regret accepting this challenge. After I leave this room, the examination will begin. It will take several weeks; at the end of it, we will both know whether you are the man I seek. Many men have accepted my challenge. All have failed.’

He turned and began to walk away into the shadows of the Great Hall, the flicker of the fire dancing on the back of his long, dark cloak. After a few strides he spoke again.

‘In a few minutes, a knight called Maedoc will come for you. You will be under his command for the duration of the tests. He is Irish, from Limerick, formerly champion to the warlord Dermot O’Brien. When his lord was blinded by his cousin, Donal the Great, King of Thomond, he sided with the Anglo-Normans. Don’t cross him; you will regret it.’

Then he stopped and turned his head towards me before speaking for the last time.

‘Good fortune, Ranulf of Lancaster.’

After the echo of the Earl’s heavy footsteps had waned, the hall became silent once more. I turned to stare into the fire. Its embers had died to a faint glow and I felt a sudden shiver.

Winter was coming… and so was my test.

2. Ordeal

I heard the great oak door at the end of the hall open again, but it was not Maedoc, merely two stewards who had come to tend the fire. They looked at me curiously as they went about their chores. Were they looking at me as if I was a beast bound for the slaughterhouse? Others had gone before me; did they know what trials awaited me?

My anxious musings were soon ended by the sound of four pairs of heavy footsteps reverberating around

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