First Edition Prologue & Chapters 1-3
The first edition of Robin Hood’s Dawn began with an exciting chapter describing the back story of Robin, Marian, and Guy’s fathers. Although many enjoyed it, others were disappointed that the leading characters (Robin, Marian, and Guy) were not introduced earlier in the book.
After careful consideration, we decided to publish a second edition without the extended back story.
The original prologue and first three chapters can be read below. Most of the differences between the first and second editions are in these chapters.
The current version of these chapters (second edition), can be found here, for those readers who purchased the original edition and are curious about the changes in the second edition.
Prologue: The King is Dead; Long Live the King
25 October 1154, Dover, Kent, England
“My son, the blood of the Conqueror courses through your body.”
Stephen of Blois, King of England, Count of Boulogne, and grandson of William the Conqueror, was dying. Lying on a narrow bed in the Dover Priory, he had already received the last rites, and he was desperate to set his affairs in order.
He clutched the hand of his only remaining son, William, gripping it tightly as another spasm of pain overwhelmed him.
William, the Earl of Surrey, was intelligent and attractive, but he was only seventeen, and Stephen had begged God for just a few more years. That was all he needed to put into place his scheme to ensure that William, not Henry Plantagenet, ascended to the throne.
After years of civil war between Stephen and his cousin, Matilda, Stephen had reluctantly signed a treaty acknowledging Matilda’s son, Henry, as his heir and successor. It had been the same type of stalling tactic he had used twenty years earlier when he had agreed to recognize Matilda’s claim to the throne, only to seize it for himself as soon as her father died.
And now, eleven months after signing this treaty, he lay dying. He closed his eyes and implored God for just two more years. Perhaps one more year would be sufficient. Another wave of torment engulfed his body and forced him to concede that he would be fortunate to survive the coming night.
Stephen grimaced as he struggled to endure his suffering. Opening his eyes to gaze at his son, who was sitting on the edge of his bed, he queried, “Is Huntingdon here?” He was eager to confer with his most loyal and trustworthy earl.
Duncan Fitzooth, a young, strikingly handsome man with wheat colored hair and pale blue eyes approached and genuflected to the king.
Stephen frowned in confusion and looked back at William, who explained, “Father, Huntingdon died months ago. This is his son, Duncan, the new Earl of Huntingdon.”
Movement at the periphery of the chamber alerted Stephen to the presence of other men. “Who else is here?” he quietly asked.
Before William could answer, Duncan boldly replied, “Sire, I have brought two of my most trusted vassals: Alfred Fitzwalter, Baron of Lenton, and Hugh FitzCurzon, Baron of Gisborne.”
Two men in their twenties stepped forward and briefly dropped to one knee as they performed obeisance to the king. The barons were a study in contrasts: the fair-haired Lenton was graceful and impeccably groomed, while Gisborne was brawny, his wavy black hair disheveled and unfashionably long.
The king began coughing and retching, and when he tasted blood, he knew that he would soon depart from this wretched world of strife and woe.
He squeezed William’s hand. “My son, it is over there on the table. Do you see it?”
Prince William leaned away from his father, peering into the dimly lit space. “Yes, Father, I see it.”
“Bring it here,” the king commanded hoarsely.
The prince dutifully rose to retrieve the artifact, and he held it in front of his father.
With pronounced effort, Stephen lifted his head and reverently pressed his lips against the object. “William, I give you this as my heir and successor. It is a blessed talisman and a symbol of all that I cherish. When the time is right, consider it your key to the kingdom. It belonged to the Conqueror. You bear his name, and your body houses his illustrious blood.”
“It is heavy,” William observed.
The king nodded. “The guardian of this sacred object will have to bear the weight of a kingdom.”
“Huntingdon?” the king weakly summoned. “Go to the table, and fetch the documents.”
Duncan promptly obeyed and commenced shuffling through the sheets of parchment as he returned to the king.
Stephen hastened to explain, his voice ragged and his breathing tortured gasps, as a shroud of mortality descended and obscured his vision of the young earl. “The first is my new will, designating William as successor. It has been signed, and all the official seals are there. The second is a list of loyal vassals: nobles who have sworn fealty to me, and who are ready to support William over Henry. They will provide funds and men-at-arms in order to ensure that William, not Henry, becomes king.”
Stephen groaned in agony, incapable of further speech. Nevertheless, relief inundated him. He had made his deathbed proclamations, and he had great faith in the Fitzooth family. After all, it was his benevolence which had bestowed vast wealth and a lofty title upon the Fitzooths.
In the distance, he heard his son beckon to him. Why was William’s voice so far away?
Baron Lenton dabbed at the moisture brimming in his eyes. His own father had died recently, and the wounds of his loss were still raw. Watching another son bid farewell to his father, Alfred remembered that moment when his father’s spirit had left his body, and he recognized that King Stephen had entered into his final rest. His heart ached for the boy as he gently addressed the youthful William. “Sire, he is gone.”
William was hurriedly wiping his cheeks and fighting to preserve his dignity. He stood and resolutely faced the Earl of Huntingdon and his vassals. “I demand that you immediately implement Father’s plan. It is imperative that I secure the throne before news of Father’s death reaches Henry Plantagenet in Normandy.”
With those words, Duncan,
Alfred, and Hugh respectfully knelt and bowed their heads in the presence of William
of Blois, the King of England.
Chapter 1: The King of England
8 October, 1159, the Gates of Toulouse, Southern France
The great city of Toulouse glowed crimson in the setting sun. It would have been a beautiful sight, if it had not inspired Alfred Fitzwalter, Baron of Lenton, to think of the city as bathed in blood. Dismissing such morbid thoughts, he squinted at the three-tiered bell tower of the Basilica of St. Sernin. He longed to explore this ancient city, which had stood along the banks of the Garonne River for centuries, but he was barred from entering.
Alfred was on a ridge west of the famous city. Below him, the army of King Henry II of England was encamped, creating a sea of men, tents, and smoldering fires that blanketed the land skirting the walls of the city. Behind Alfred, the Garonne flowed towards its destiny in the Atlantic Ocean. To the north were the Massif Central mountains, and to the south, the Pyrenees, forming jagged horizons that had isolated Toulouse from both France and Spain, while the river and the Roman system of roads made the city a dominate force in the trade routes across southeast France.
The fair-haired English baron silently begged God to send a brisk breeze, as the smells of unwashed men, smoke, rotting garbage, and sewage were unbearable, causing Alfred to fight the urge to retch. It did not help that the air was thick with humidity and much warmer than a typical October evening in Lenton, Alfred’s home in Nottinghamshire. Using his sleeve, Alfred wiped the sweat from his brow.
An irritated sigh from his lifelong friend and liege lord, Duncan Fitzooth, the Earl of Huntingdon, distracted him from his musings. The two men had only recently arrived to fulfill their obligations to King Henry, and they were joined by another vassal of Huntingdon’s, Hugh FitzCurzon, Baron of Gisborne. Duncan had sent Hugh to serve King Henry months ago, but the king’s ambitious plan to restore control of Toulouse to the Duchy of Aquitaine had required that nearly all the king’s able-bodied vassals take part in the campaign.
“It’s not like Henry to show such indecision,” proclaimed Huntingdon, his handsome face contorted in frustrated aggravation. “Lenton, have you ever seen the king hesitate to take what he wants?”
Alfred frowned. “My lord, this is a thorny situation. With King Louis of France in the city visiting his sister, we cannot attack. As the Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, King Henry is Louis’ vassal.”
Duncan blew out an exasperated breath. “So we just sit here at the gates? I have heard that plague is spreading among the men.”
Hugh reported, “My lord, it’s true, the foul air is weakening the men’s blood. I saw soldiers digging graves a mile north of camp.”
Their discussion was interrupted by a servant carrying a torch and clearing the way for his master, a youthful noble who pompously promenaded along the trash strewn lane as if he were a king at his court. He was dressed in a pale yellow silk bliaut with trumpet sleeves and a gored skirt. His blue striped chausses and shoes with long, pointed toes were the finest quality and the height of French fashion.
When Alfred recognized the man’s distinctive features, he blanched in shock. Unfortunately, that was not the reaction of Duncan, who had a propensity for cruelty, which often caused Alfred to cringe in mortification.
“Lenton, Gisborne, look: it’s the King of England. Do you still bear the talisman of the Conqueror, Sire?” Duncan laughed nastily. “You carry the blood of the Conqueror; are you planning to lead us to victory over Count Raymond of Toulouse?”
William paused and slowly turned to confront his tormenter, his face an implacable mask as stony as the formidable walls of Toulouse. He ordered his servant to wait a short distance away.
In deference to William’s status as Earl of Surrey and Count of Mortain and Boulogne, Alfred and Hugh dropped to one knee and rose again. Duncan did not bother with the customary bow between men of equal rank, an affront which did not go unnoticed by the others.
A prickle of fear danced across Alfred’s skin when he observed the glittering hate in William’s eyes. This man had once been a crown prince, but now he was merely one of Henry Plantagenet’s many vassals. Alfred endeavored to redirect the conversation by commenting, “My lord, we did not know that you were also here serving King Henry…” He immediately regretted his choice of words; they did not sound as conciliatory as he had intended.
Duncan finally had the good sense to stop laughing and assume a more measured demeanor.
Staring at Duncan, William ignored Alfred and growled through clenched teeth, “My father trusted you. He loved your father like a brother. It was my father who bestowed the Earldom of Huntingdon on your father. And you repaid him with treachery.”
Duncan shrugged, affecting an air of nonchalance. “I did what was necessary to secure the future of England. You do not have the strength, cunning, or courage of Henry Plantagenet.” Snickering, he asserted, “Obviously, the blood of the Conqueror is not as strong in you as King Stephen had hoped. You meekly paid homage to Henry and accepted him as your king.”
William bristled, and his eyes narrowed. “The course of history might have been different if you had not betrayed my father and me by delivering that list of our supporters to Henry. You speak of England’s future. However, I am well aware of the prosperity that you secured for yourself and your heirs. Your wealth is built upon the bones of men whose plundered property was added to your holdings because their names were on that list.”
Duncan, his words edged with unmistakable scorn, retorted, “King Henry was very grateful to receive that list of traitors. If you were a grown man, you would understand that this is the way of the world. The victorious are enriched and esteemed, while the vanquished become minor nobles who live and die in disgrace and obscurity.”
Alfred was frantic to prevent Duncan from further provoking William. He knew Duncan would persist until his clever tongue had completely humiliated his opponent. Considering that William belonged to several powerful families and was second cousin to the king, it was not prudent to abuse him in such a manner. Not knowing what to say, Alfred looked at Hugh, who was averting his gaze. Evidently, he was as troubled by the situation as Alfred.
“My lord—” began Alfred, his uneasy voice pitched higher than normal.
William shifted his glare to Alfred, and a cold hand of dread gripped Alfred’s heart. The malevolence glistening in the young man’s eyes alarmed Alfred.
“Lord Lenton,” William hissed, “parcels of land were awarded to your barony after Henry’s coronation. I congratulate you on your many successes.”
Alfred lowered his eyes in shame. Like an anchor dragging his soul down into the depths of Hades, the land confiscated from King Stephen’s loyal supporters and granted to the Barony of Lenton weighed upon his conscience. His portion had been insignificant compared to Duncan’s lavish compensation, but it remained a wicked bounty.
William’s focus shifted to Hugh. “Lord Gisborne, how did you profit by betraying me?”
Resentment flashed in Hugh’s dark eyes as he lifted his scrutiny from the dirt at William’s feet. “My lord, I received some excellent swampland that I cannot afford to drain, so I cannot—”
“Enough!” Duncan interrupted Hugh. “I tire of your whining and complaining. All land is valuable. If you do not have the competence—”
Playing his usual role as peacemaker between the two men, Alfred interceded. “My lord, please, this is not the time—”
The overlapping voices of the three men stilled as William’s mocking guffaws resounded. Shrewdly judging Hugh, William scoffed. “Lord Gisborne, apparently your liege lord does not comprehend that too much of anything might produce serious harm, even if it’s ordinarily beneficial, like water. It is no different with honor or loyalty. Too much of either can hinder a man’s potential success.”
Seething, Duncan admonished William. “Are you advising Gisborne to put his own interests ahead of mine? That’s outrageous. I am his liege lord, and he answers to me. What lord would encourage a loyal vassal to break his oath of fealty? You are no king. Your reign would have been even more chaotic than the rule of your inept father.”
William raised an eyebrow, and his lips curled into a derisive smirk. “I find it odd that you would feel offended by my suggestion. If Gisborne were to put his interests before those of his liege lord’s, how is that different from what you did when King Stephen died?”
Duncan’s face flushed as he realized he had fallen into a verbal trap. Unaccustomed to losing a battle of wits, he stepped forward, seized William by his expensive bliaut, and shook him.
William challenged Duncan, his snarling voice layered with menace and self-righteousness. “You took a sacred oath of fealty to my father. There are consequences for treason. Whatever has been given to you can be taken away. Beware, Huntingdon. Your holdings, your very future, may not be as secure as you believe. Henry is your king today, but tomorrow, or the next day, or even a year from now, death might overshadow him. Why should the next king trust you? You are a man governed by greed and arrogance.”
Alfred and Hugh pulled the two men apart.
Duncan jerked away from Alfred and sneered, “Are you threatening King Henry? It is my duty as his loyal subject to report such treason to him at once. Gisborne, hold this man until we can deliver him to the king’s guards.”
A startled Hugh continued to restrain William.
“Duncan, what is your intention?” exclaimed Alfred.
A cruel smile lit Duncan’s handsome features. “I am detaining this man and taking him to King Henry. He threatened to murder the king.” Duncan’s triumphant gaze slid to Alfred. “Lenton, you heard what he said.”
Alfred nervously replied, “My lord, it did not sound like a threat, but simply an observation that every man must confront death, and no man knows the number of his days.”
Duncan was visibly annoyed by Alfred’s response, so he sought Hugh’s opinion. “Gisborne?”
“My lord, I must agree with Lenton. I do not think the earl meant to imply he would kill the king.” With that, an apologetic Hugh released William.
Suddenly, there was a glint of metal as William unsheathed the dagger at his belt. The Earl of Surrey, Count of Mortain and Boulogne, former prince, and great-grandson of William the Conqueror, slashed the palm of his hand and made a fist, causing several large drops of blood to fall onto the ground. “By the blood of the Conqueror, I curse you!” he shouted. “Your treachery is your ruin, and as your true liege lord, I now claim dominion over you and your children. Even if I must haunt you from beyond the grave, I promise that you and your children will suffer for what you have done to me.” With those words, William vanished into the shadows of dusk, his bewildered servant scurrying in pursuit.
A horrified Alfred froze. He knew the potency of such curses.
Duncan’s laughter resonated as he good-naturedly slapped Alfred on the back. “That was so diverting. Lenton, do not let a little thing like a curse trouble you. It’s nonsense.” He then peered at Hugh. “Gisborne? Don’t tell me you are worried about this curse, too.”
Hugh crossed himself. “My lord, that was a blood curse. And not just any blood; he is a descendant of William the Conqueror.”
“A blood curse? Only weak-minded peasants believe such superstitions,” responded Duncan.
“My lord,” Alfred contended, “regardless of the curse, I fear we may live to regret this. The Blois family is very powerful, and William’s uncle is the Count of Champagne. They are closely allied with the French court.”
Duncan shrugged. “Those families are prominent in France. Their influence will not affect us in England. Stop trembling like an old peasant woman.” With steely resolve, Duncan declared, “We must keep an eye on William. I’m convinced that his words were intended as a threat to the king.”
Duncan and Hugh began walking to their tents while Alfred hesitated. Despite the darkening gloom of dusk, he could still distinguish the blood left by William. Alfred shivered in trepidation.
10 October, 1159, the Gates of Toulouse, Southern France
Duncan stumbled as he searched the disorderly, muddy camp of King Henry’s army. At last, he found Alfred sitting on a log by his tent and lost in daydreams. Duncan was often frustrated by Alfred’s simplistic, almost childlike, view of the world. If he hadn’t been the heir to the Barony of Lenton, Alfred would have made a splendid monk.
Panting, Duncan said, “Lenton, quickly, come with me.”
“My lord?” Alfred stirred from his stupor as he rose to his feet. “What has happened?”
“William of Blois is leaving the camp and traveling north.” Duncan ignored Alfred’s obvious confusion as he pivoted and started jogging across the camp, expecting Alfred to follow.
Behind him, a befuddled Alfred asked, “My lord, where are we going?”
Duncan scrambled through the maze of tents as he explained, “We are tracking William, of course. I am certain he is plotting something.”
“We are spying on William of Blois?” clarified a stunned Alfred.
Glancing back, Duncan fought the impulse to roll his eyes in exasperation. Why couldn’t Alfred grasp the need to monitor the former prince? He didn’t answer and kept moving.
Reaching the edge of the encampment, Duncan abruptly halted, and Alfred clumsily collided with him. A road stretched north past a forested area which adjoined the banks of the Garonne. They were just in time to observe a man in a pale yellow bliaut abandon the road and enter the privacy of the trees. It was William of Blois, and he was alone.
Without another word, Duncan and Alfred stealthily crept to the place where William had disappeared. They could hear muted voices as they drew near a small clearing that was bordered by a stony outcropping and gnarled shrubs with sufficient foliage to conceal them from view. Duncan crawled on his hands and knees behind a bush growing alongside a large pile of rocks. Without looking, he assumed that Alfred was still trailing him; Lenton might not be cunning, but he was reliable.
Peeking through a gap between the bush and the stones, Duncan spotted his prey; William’s yellow bliaut stood in sharp contrast to the browns and greys of the autumnal forest. However, his joy was short-lived when he glimpsed Hugh of Gisborne standing with William.
“Tell me, Gisborne,” William’s smooth, cultured voice echoed in the stillness of the woods. “Do you trust Huntingdon with your future? He is a man whose fidelity can be purchased by the highest bidder. Do not forget how he kept all the best lands for himself and gave you a worthless swamp.”
Duncan clenched his fists in anger, and he was tempted to shout that Hugh was lazy and unwilling to do the strenuous work required to make the fiefdom of Gisborne profitable.
“Do you have a family? A wife and sons perhaps?” William inquired.
Gisborne answered, “My lord, I have recently married. Long ago, my parents arranged a marriage for me with a distant branch of our family living in Montlhéry, France.”
“Montlhéry!” exclaimed William, noticeably pleased. “I know it well; it is located close to Paris, between Blois and Champagne, and my family rules both Blois and Champagne.”
William circled the burly knight, assessing him. “Huntingdon is a conceited fool; all land is not equally valuable. Become my vassal, and I will give you many prosperous estates when I reclaim the throne of England.”
Duncan scoffed; William was welcome to take the incompetent Hugh FitzCurzon as his vassal, although Duncan would never relinquish his control over the Barony of Gisborne. Suddenly, William’s ominous words burst into Duncan’s consciousness like sunlight breaking through storm clouds—when I reclaim the throne. Self-satisfaction and apprehension vied in his heart; he was gratified that his misgivings had been vindicated and alarmed that the king might be in danger.
Duncan knew that his survival depended on King Henry’s benevolence more than the mercy of God Himself. The hard truth was that Duncan would always live under a cloud of suspicion—he had betrayed King Stephen to gain power and influence in the court of King Henry. He acknowledged that there were sanctimonious men who considered his actions disloyal and his motivations mercenary, but the young Earl of Huntingdon refused to feel remorse. In a world where one’s fortune, power, and future happiness were inextricably tied to the success of one’s king, Duncan felt justified in taking a morally flexible approach to life. It was more important to soar with the victorious than to be buried with his virtue intact.
Gisborne was contemplating William’s proposition as Alfred whispered, “My lord, we must stop this.”
Duncan countered in a hushed tone, “No, I must learn how he plans to seize the throne from Henry.”
“Gisborne can go to the devil; the king is all that matters. Now, be quiet.”
Returning his gaze to the clearing, Duncan saw Hugh kneel in front of William and prepare to swear fealty to him. Duncan vowed to make Hugh suffer for this betrayal. He would confiscate Hugh’s barony, his wealth, and perhaps even his life.
William initiated the ceremony by extending his hands and asking, “Are you, Hugh FitzCurzon, Baron of Gisborne, willing to serve me, to obey my commands, and to protect me upon pain of death?”
Hugh affirmed, “I am willing.” He placed his clasped hands between William’s open palms, paying homage to his new liege lord.
Duncan and Alfred leaned forward as William made an unexpected movement with his hand, and they realized he was holding the talisman of the Conqueror. William decreed, “We do not have a holy relic from a blessed saint for our ceremony. Instead, you will swear your oath of fealty on this.”
Hugh kissed the object and pledged, “I promise on my honor that I will be loyal to William of Blois, Count of Mortain and Boulogne, Earl of Surrey, and the rightful king of England. I will observe my homage to him completely against all persons, in good faith, and without deceit.” Hugh then crossed himself.
“Rise,” demanded William, and his new vassal obediently stood. With the patronizing condescension of royalty, he pronounced, “I will remember you when I come into my glory as King of England. Serve me well, and I will appoint you the Earl of Huntingdon after I execute Duncan Fitzooth for treason.”
At the thought of becoming an earl, Gisborne beamed in anticipation, and although Duncan appeared composed, his blood was boiling with white-hot fury. He resolved to destroy both men. Surely, King Henry would reward him generously for uncovering this nefarious plot.
Alfred tugged on his sleeve, but Duncan pulled away. He was impatient to hear the details of William’s scheme.
“Take this.” William gave Gisborne a small leather pouch, and Duncan lifted his head, straining to get a better view. William instructed Hugh, “Go to the royal tent, and you will find a barrel of ale in the far corner. At dusk, the interior of the tent is dark, and no one will see what you are doing. When the king and his men are distracted, empty the contents of this pouch into the barrel. Everyone who drinks the ale will sicken and die.”
Gisborne’s eyes widened in horror, and he inquired, “My lord, how many people are you planning to kill besides the king?”
“This poison will imitate the symptoms of a stomach ailment, except that the person will always die. All these deaths, including Henry’s, will be attributed to the plague that is infecting the camp. If only Henry died, it would raise suspicions, would it not?”
Gisborne’s expression brightened as the strategy began to make sense to him. Abruptly, he frowned. “How will you secure the throne? King Henry has three sons—”
William reproached him. “I do not answer to you.” Then his voice softened as he snickered, “I will admit that I’m not afraid of Henry’s four-year-old heir, or the two sons who are still suckling their wet nurses.”
Hugh chuckled uneasily, but he braved another harsh reproof as he implored, “My lord, if anything happens to me, would you take care of my wife? Perhaps you could provide her some compensation and help her return to her family in Montlhéry? Her name is Lady Lucienne de Villeneuve.”
Duncan was relieved to hear that Gisborne was considering how his traitorous conduct might affect Lucienne. The pathetic baron was unworthy of his beautiful, gracious wife.
William’s eyes narrowed in contempt. “Are you planning to fail me? Are you man enough to perform this task?”
“Forgive me,” beseeched Hugh. “I will not fail. But my wife—”
“Since the dawn of time, women have caused the ruin of men,” William pontificated before haughtily declaring, “You belong to me now; therefore, your wife is also under my dominion, and I will assume responsibility for her as well.” With great pleasure, he stipulated, “You will carry out my plan tonight.”
“Yes, my lord, thank you.” Hugh dropped to one knee, rose, and lingered as William departed.
Alfred tried to stand, but Duncan held him back.
As soon as Hugh had also left the clearing, the two eavesdroppers stiffly rose, their muscles aching from crouching in the same position for so long.
A grim Duncan announced, “We must alert the king. There is no time to waste.”
“My lord, may I suggest a course of action?”
Duncan studied Alfred’s earnest face. “You may speak freely, but I will decide.”
“Before we condemn Gisborne, let us follow him to ascertain what he intends to do. Maybe he was pretending to consent to this scheme in order to report William’s treachery to you, or possibly to the king. You know that Gisborne is ambitious and determined to gain further wealth.”
Duncan was not surprised that the tender-hearted Alfred would try to rescue the despicable Hugh. Gisborne did not deserve leniency, but Duncan agreed to abide by Alfred’s counsel. However, he wasn’t doing it for Gisborne. He would do it for his dear friend, who naively judged all men as capable of good deeds. Even though Duncan did not understand Alfred’s gentle, pious ways, he cared deeply for his boyhood companion and regretted Alfred’s coming disappointment.
Alfred and Duncan rushed towards the royal tent, which was situated at the highest point of the encampment. They finally arrived after a trek through the labyrinth of the camp that had been hindered by the lengthening shadows of twilight.
As a favorite of King Henry, the Earl of Huntingdon was permitted entrance without delay. There were many men surrounding the young, dynamic monarch, and an argument among his advisors was growing heated. Duncan and Alfred genuflected, but King Henry was preoccupied and did not notice them, although his elder half-brother, Hamelin, gave them a nod of greeting before returning his attention to the king. Then they saw Gisborne. His back was to them, and he was emptying the pouch into the ale.
Duncan roared, “Traitor!” as he gripped Hugh’s arm. Despite the dim light, Duncan could see all the color drain from Hugh’s face.
Everyone, including the king, grew quiet and focused on the two men.
Duncan announced, “Sire, this man just poisoned the ale. He has been sent to murder you.”
“No!” shouted Hugh. “I came here to warn the king.”
The king motioned for his guards to capture Gisborne, and as the men advanced, Hugh shoved Duncan towards them and overturned the barrel, spilling the adulterated ale. The soldiers, fearful of the tainted brew, hesitated.
Using that diversion to escape, Gisborne squeezed through an open flap at the rear of the tent, and Duncan raced after him. The cluttered ground made it impossible for Hugh to progress quickly, and he tripped and tumbled into a pile of rubbish.
Behind the tent, Duncan discovered a bow and quiver of arrows. He knew he had to prevent Gisborne from fleeing, and he was eager to impress everyone with his devotion to the king’s safety. Grabbing the bow, he nocked an arrow and loosed it at Gisborne, who had regained his footing and resumed his dash in the direction of the camp’s perimeter. The arrow flew true and struck Hugh in the back of his thigh, disabling him without inflicting a fatal wound. As Gisborne fell, Duncan tossed the bow aside, unsheathed his sword, and sprinted towards the injured man, who had staggered to his feet and was limping away.
King Henry, Hamelin, Alfred, and the king’s men were trailing Duncan as a desperate Gisborne stopped, drew his sword, and confronted his fate.
“You coward!” bellowed Duncan upon reaching Gisborne. “Surrender now!”
“Never!” howled Hugh.
Knights, nobles, and common soldiers encircled Gisborne, while the king stood back and watched. Hugh froze in terror, a wounded deer besieged by ravenous wolves. Emerging from his brief trance, Hugh lunged at Duncan, who expertly blocked his strike. They traded several blows, but Gisborne was hampered by the arrow painfully embedded in his thigh. Duncan moved to disarm him and force his surrender, but Hugh unexpectedly lowered his sword, allowing Duncan to impale him with a mortal thrust.
A stunned Duncan withdrew his sword, and the baron slumped to his knees. Dropping his sword, Gisborne clutched his stomach as a crimson stain spread across the front of his surcoat. Hugh sputtered, “Tell Lucienne… I’m sorry…” He then fell forward into the dirt.
The Baron of Gisborne was dead, and Duncan Fitzooth, Earl of Huntingdon, had saved the life of King Henry.
15 October, 1159, the Gates of Toulouse, Southern France
The stench of disease and death was overpowering. Duncan and Alfred held small squares of cloth soaked in vinegar against their noses as they trudged through the section of the camp set aside for those dying from the plague that was infecting King Henry’s army outside the gates of Toulouse. The illness was quite virulent, as few men survived the nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and bloody diarrhea, which were hallmarks of the sickness. One of the frightening aspects of the malady was the bluish skin of those who were about to die.
Word had reached King Henry that William of Blois had perished, and his corpse was in one of the mortuary tents. Most of the bodies were buried in mass graves north of the encampment and along the river. However, since William was a member of the royal family, his corpse would be transported to the Poitevin abbey of Montmorel for interment. It was too far to send his body to Mortain or Boulogne.
Henry decided he would not accuse his second cousin of attempting regicide. William was deceased, and it served no purpose to denounce him. Furthermore, King Henry did not want to provoke either the Blois or the Champagne families, and indicting King Stephen’s son for treason would cause heightened political tensions.
Duncan and Alfred had been sent to verify William’s demise, as well as to locate the talisman of the Conqueror. They were among the few people who could identify it, and King Henry was impatient to recover the sacred object, which had once belonged to his great-grandfather, William the Conqueror.
Alfred followed his friend into the tent where the dead were prepared for burial as Duncan approached an elderly monk and asked to see the body of William of Blois. The man led them to an open coffin containing a shrouded figure tightly wrapped in fine linen befitting a high-ranking noble.
Alfred started retching, and he swallowed the bile rising in his throat. The smell of William’s corpse seemed to be worse than the others. Flies hovered overhead, and they buzzed Alfred and Duncan’s faces, causing them to flail their hands to shoo them away. Unfortunately, the gestures also stirred the air and intensified the foul odor of death and decay.
Duncan’s muffled voice called to the monk. “This is William of Blois? How long has he been dead?” Duncan pressed the vinegar cloth against his nose, struggling to maintain his composure.
The monk replied, “Yes, my lord, he was brought to us by his servants. He died four days ago, but we had so many men dying on that day that we were overwhelmed. Please tell the king that we beg for his mercy. We did not intend to neglect the body of a member of his family. We will pack his coffin with the finest herbs and spices for the journey to Montmorel in Poitou.”
Duncan dismissed the man’s concerns. “I’m sure the king will be benevolent. Where are William’s personal effects?”
The monk retrieved a rough burlap bag and gave it to them. Duncan and Alfred peered inside and found blue striped chausses, shoes with pointed toes, and a pale yellow silk bliaut.
“He was wearing these clothes when he arrived here?” Alfred queried. He hoped to avoid an actual inspection of the corpse. After four days of putrefying in the humid heat of Toulouse, William would be unrecognizable.
“Yes, my lord. When we realized that he was royalty, we sent word of his passing to the king.”
Duncan questioned, “Were there any jewels with him? Anything besides these clothes?”
“No, my lord; there was nothing else of value. That is one reason why monks are assigned to this work—to make sure that the dead are not robbed.”
Alfred and Duncan thanked the monk, eager to search William’s tent without delay. As they were leaving, Duncan paused, his curiosity taking precedence over his desire to flee the fetid stench of the tent. “Have you ever seen a plague like this? It seems to be quite lethal and swift.”
The older man grimly answered, “The physicians claim it’s very unusual because the men sicken and die rapidly. Four days ago, almost a hundred men perished, including William of Blois and Hamo, the son of the Earl of Gloucester. But by the next day, the deaths had decreased. Every day, fewer men are dying, praise God, but…” his voice faded.
“But what?” Alfred was alarmed by the panic on the man’s face.
The monk cleared his throat. “They call it ‘sword mouth’ because the dying men say they taste metal in their mouths, as if they were sucking on their swords.” He then crossed himself and whispered ominously, “I fear demons are invading the men through their mouths and cutting their souls from their body.”
William’s tent was impressive, but it was abandoned, and there were no servants attending it. Duncan and Alfred entered and promptly began their hunt for the talisman of the Conqueror. The lavishness of the accommodations was surpassed only by the abundance of fashionable clothing.
A pall of disquiet had settled upon Alfred, and he asked, “My lord, what did you think of the monk’s words? Is it possible that demons are attacking us?”
Duncan snorted derisively as he rummaged through William’s expensive wardrobe. “That is unlikely. But I keep remembering what William said to Gisborne: ‘this poison will imitate the symptoms of a stomach ailment, except that the person will always die.’ Don’t you find it intriguing that so many men are dying of stomach ailments?”
Alfred stilled as he realized the implications of Duncan’s words. He was consumed by macabre thoughts until Duncan summoned him.
“Look at this, Lenton.” Duncan knelt beside a small wooden chest. It was unlocked, and when Duncan opened it, the interior was lined with lead. A layer of greyish-yellow powder dusted the bottom and sides of the container.
Alfred leaned over Duncan for a closer examination. “What kind of spice is that?”
Duncan did not respond. Instead, he pinched some of the powder and sniffed it. “It does not smell like a spice.” He then put a tiny amount on his tongue, but hastily spit it out. “It tastes like metal.” Duncan jumped to his feet, grabbed a nearby cloth, and rubbed the powder from his hand.
“Do you think it’s poison? Did William poison the camp? Could he have accidentally poisoned himself?” So many questions circled Alfred’s mind.
“I believe it’s poison,” alleged a thoughtful Duncan. “We know he was planning to kill many men so that Henry’s demise would not be suspicious. I have no doubt that word of Gisborne’s failure and my disclosure of William’s complicity spread swiftly throughout the ranks of the nobility. William most likely committed suicide to avoid the shame of a traitor’s execution.”
When they had completed their search of William’s possessions, Duncan admitted defeat. “The talisman is not here. William told the king that it had been taken in a robbery following Stephen’s passing, but we know he lied. He had it when Gisborne swore fealty to him.”
Alfred suggested, “My lord, maybe thieves stole it after William died. The monks would have recognized it and returned it to the king.”
Duncan heaved a sigh. “Now I must disappoint Henry when I had expected to gain additional favor. It’s probably lost forever.” Shifting to a more agreeable topic, Duncan announced, “I received some good news earlier. The king has decided to head north. He cannot continue this siege with King Louis inside the city walls, and this plague has killed so many men that he fears his forces are stretched too thin.”
When Duncan noticed that Alfred still seemed pensive, he teased his friend, “Lenton? I had hoped this news would please you. We can go home, and you can resume your quest for a pious wife with golden hair.” Duncan snickered, as he enjoyed joking about Alfred’s difficulties in finding a wife. When Alfred remained silent, Duncan sobered and asked, “What troubles you, Alfred?”
Alfred explained, “It’s Gisborne. I fear for his eternal soul, and he was my friend.”
Bristling, Duncan insisted, “You know I wasn’t trying to kill him. Why he lowered his sword when he did, we will never know.”
“My lord, I believe we know the reason. He chose to die at the point of your sword rather than face torture and execution by the king.”
“True,” conceded Duncan, inwardly acknowledging that he might have done the same thing if he had faced such a harrowing end.
Alfred continued, “There is something else that troubles me. What will become of Baroness Gisborne? She is a widow and has no family in England.”
“As the widow of one of my vassals, I will take care of her,” pledged Duncan.
“My lord, I do not doubt that.” Alfred spoke carefully, not wishing to offend his liege lord. “When I traveled to Huntingdon to prepare for our journey here, I found it surprising that Baroness Gisborne was living in Huntingdon Castle and not at Gisborne Lodge.”
Something flashed in Duncan’s eyes, but his expression was inscrutable. “Lucienne was alone while Gisborne was far away, serving Henry as my vassal. She only recently arrived from France, and her English is very poor, while I speak French fluently. At the castle, I could ensure her safety.”
Alfred grudgingly concurred. He decided not to question the familiar manner in which Duncan referred to Gisborne’s wife by her Christian name. He inquired, “Countess Huntingdon is at Locksley, is she not?”
Duncan’s eyes narrowed. “She prefers Locksley; it was part of her dowry, as you well know.”
Alfred opined, “Baroness Gisborne is a beautiful woman.”
Professing outrage, Duncan growled, “What are you implying, Lenton? Regardless of our long friendship, I will not tolerate such lurid allegations—”
“My lord, I was merely offering an observation. Baroness Gisborne is a lovely woman, and she will be heartbroken when she learns of Hugh’s passing.” Alfred did not need to accuse Duncan, because the guilt shining in his pale blue eyes was confession enough.
Duncan and Alfred exited William’s tent and began moving through the chaotic maze of the camp. Men were packing and preparing to leave Toulouse. Once more hoping to lift the spirits of his friend, Duncan chuckled and glanced back at Alfred. “Here is another piece of good news, Lenton. You can stop fretting about William’s curse.”
Alfred grimaced as he recalled William’s words: Even if I must haunt you from beyond the grave, I promise that you and your children will suffer for what you have done to me.
Chapter 2: Kings and Queens
1 May 1188, Huntingdon Castle, Huntingdonshire, England
A lone man stood apart from the crowd and gazed at his target as he hastily wiped a bead of sweat rolling down his temple. The woman he loved was counting on him, and he could not, would not, disappoint her on this special day.
Behind him, a throng of spectators murmured. All eyes were on the young man, his wheat-colored hair slightly ruffled by a soft breeze, and his pale blue eyes intently focused on half a dozen bags of grain stacked in the distance and covered by a white cloth. His goal was the red circle emblazoned on the fabric. The problem was not the target, even though the distance would have discouraged most archers. The complicating factor was the large wagon wheel held aloft by two anxious peasants at the midpoint between him and the target. To win, his arrow would have to pass through the axle hole of the wheel before landing in the middle of the red circle.
He slowly raised his bow, and everyone hushed. Drawing the bowstring, he was just about to release his arrow when the jittery men dropped the wheel and lurched backwards.
Robert “Robin” Fitzooth, the Earl of Huntingdon, lowered his bow and groaned in frustration. He yelled at them, “Do not move. You are in no danger.”
They hesitantly picked up the wheel and returned to their previous position.
Before he could take aim again, a warm hand landed on his shoulder. His uncle, Edmund de Toury, the Baron of Embelton, quietly spoke to Robin. “My son, are you certain you can do this?”
Robin huffed in aggravation. “Of course, I can do this. But they must hold still.”
Edmund nodded in understanding and signaled to someone in the audience. To Robin’s surprise, Edmund was joined by Alfred Fitzwalter, Baron of Lenton, and the two barons strolled across the meadow to where the frightened peasants were clutching the wheel. Edmund and Alfred were in their fifties and attired in refined, conservatively styled bliauts which distinguished them as wealthy, yet unpretentious, nobles. After a few words with the peasants, the two older men took the wheel themselves and held it up for Robin.
Robin contemplated these men whom he had known and loved all his life, and their faith in his skill helped him relax. He took a deep breath to steady himself, and any remaining doubts fled his mind as he lifted his bow once more. At that moment, the world around him faded away. The only objects that existed were his nocked arrow, the hole at the center of the wheel, and the splotch of red beyond.
He drew his bowstring, and an extraordinary sense of rightness and completeness settled over him. He would never be able to adequately explain it to another individual, but there was always a moment when he just knew that the arrow was perfectly aligned. Robin released the arrow and watched as it soared swifter than any bird, passing through the hole of the wagon wheel and piercing the red circle.
The people of Huntingdon cheered wildly: whistling, whooping, and applauding.
Alfred and Edmund set the wheel down and promptly rejoined him, slapping him on the back and congratulating him on his impressive feat and his victory in the archery competition, which earned him the coveted title, King of Mayday. Now it was time for him to select his queen.
Robin affably accepted their kind words and then surveyed the crowd, seeking the one person whose favor he desired most. Lady Marian of Lenton was a magnificent creature of remarkable beauty and grace. Her pale blonde hair glistened in the sunshine, and her green eyes were alight with a mixture of pride and mischief. She was resplendent in her emerald bliaut with its trumpet-shaped sleeves elegantly cascading to the ground and a shimmering belt woven with gold and silver threads loosely encircling her slender waist.
Marian’s gaze locked with Robin’s, and he beamed exultantly. Marching until he stood in front of her, Robin extended his hand to the side, his eyes never straying from hers. His loyal servant and best friend, Much, took Robin’s bow and exchanged it for a crown of flowers, which Robin placed upon her head.
Reluctantly looking away from this woman who had utterly bewitched him, he raised his voice and addressed the gathering, “As champion of the archery competition and King of Mayday, I claim the right to choose my queen. I have chosen Lady Marian Fitzwalter. As Queen of Mayday, Lady Marian will lead us to the castle bailey, where I have arranged for a feast.” Pumping his fist in the air, Robin joyously shouted, “Let us bring in the May!”
The crowd cheered again, only now they were waving flowering boughs and greenery which had been collected from the neighboring woods at daybreak. Robin bowed before his queen and gestured for her to lead the Mayday parade. Alfred and Edmund also bowed to the newly crowned queen. Queen Marian was still smiling playfully as she put her hand on King Robin’s arm, and they led the festive procession to the castle.
Soon they were seated at a trestle table which was elevated above the others in the courtyard of the castle. Robin and Marian, as King and Queen of Mayday, sat at the midpoint of the table. Marian’s father, Alfred, sat next to her, while Edmund de Toury was on the other side of Robin. Edmund was the brother of Robin’s mother, who had died twelve years ago, when Robin was only ten years old.
The feast was abuzz with the happy sounds of laughter and conversation as musicians played their instruments. Overhead, there were enough clouds to mute the heat of the bright, late spring sun but not so many as to threaten rain.
Alfred was filled with both joy and sorrow on this day. His precious daughter, the only child of his marriage to survive infancy, was rapidly approaching the eighteenth anniversary of her birth, and it was time to let her go. Truth be told, she was past the age when most girls of her rank married and left home. His musings were disrupted by the boy who had stolen his daughter’s heart. Of course, Robin was no longer a boy, but to Alfred he would forever be the tow-headed, blue-eyed son of his life-long friend and liege lord, Duncan Fitzooth. With Duncan’s death, Alfred had become Robin’s vassal, and he was proud of this honorable, compassionate man who loved his daughter.
Robin tilted forward in his seat and summoned Alfred. “Lord Lenton, whose idea was it to let Marian read the story of Odysseus? Don’t you realize that such tales will encourage her to think up these absurd schemes?”
Marian was grinning mischievously as she reminded Robin, “You are fortunate that I could not locate any ‘axe rings’ such as those described in the story of the archery contest that Penelope devised for the men competing for her hand in marriage. However, I consider ‘axle ring’ to be a suitable substitution.”
Alfred chuckled. “You should thank me that it was just one wagon wheel. Marian had originally wanted to line up twelve wagon wheels, in keeping with the spirit of the legend. I explained to her the difficulty in finding that many wheels which could be spared from the wagons.”
“I couldhave easily prevailed over such a challenge, but you are right; the wagons need their wheels,” Robin confidently asserted.
Edmund joined in the merriment. “I am just happy that Robin was not required to go to war for twenty years first. Although, if I remember correctly, Odysseus was not at war the entire time that he was away from Penelope.”
“Robin has already been away at war,” grumbled Marian. “The seven years that he was gone felt like twenty to me.”
Alfred gently chided his daughter. “Marian, my dear, Robin did not go away to war; his father sent him to the court at Poitiers to further his education in the arts. Besides, you were only nine years old when he left. I do not remember you pining for him.”
“Father did not foresee that I would end up learning the art of war from Prince Richard,” Robin disclosed.
Edmund reminisced, “Duncan was quite distressed when he realized that his son and heir had been taken under the wing of King Henry’s least favorite son. It was a rare misstep for Duncan; he was always so eager to please Henry.”
“It has been nearly two years since I returned to England,” declared Robin. “Let us all look forward, not back, for I believe that our best days are yet to come.” He grasped Marian’s hand, squeezing it softly and regarding her tenderly.
Edmund and Alfred murmured in agreement, and Alfred recognized that the moment he had dreaded was upon him. He stiffly rose and motioned for the musicians to put down their instruments. The crowd quieted and attentively turned to the head table.
“Today–” Alfred was embarrassed as his voice broke with emotion. He cleared his throat and started again. “Today, I am making an important proclamation. I have consented to a betrothal between my daughter, Lady Marian Fitzwalter, and Robin Fitzooth, Earl of Huntingdon. Over the next three Sundays, the priest will announce their betrothal in Huntingdon’s church. Then, during the coming months, this will be repeated for three Sundays in Lenton, Locksley, and Embelton. Assuming that there are no objections, the wedding will take place at Michaelmas, following the harvest.”
Robin then jumped to his feet, and with great enthusiasm, he lifted his goblet high. “Lords and ladies, people of Huntingdon, let us toast Lady Marian Fitzwalter, the future Countess of Huntingdon!”
Everyone stood and joined in the toast. Lady Marian, Queen of Mayday, blushed with pleasure, tears of joy shining in her eyes. All her dreams were coming true, and she knew that her life with Robin would be abounding with love and happiness.
June 1188, A Royal Estate, Paris
“This plan will make your son the wealthiest, most powerful man in all of Christendom.” Ambroise de Limours, Count de Montlhéry, spoke in a calm, authoritative voice filled with conviction. His steady, unflinching stare bore into the uneasy eyes of the woman whom he had been faithfully serving for over twenty years. He did not need to glance at her son, Philippe, to know that the King of France was fully supportive of his strategy.
The three conspirators were meeting in a sumptuous apartment in the palatial estate of the dowager queen, Adela of Champagne, who was restlessly fiddling with the lace edging of her sleeve. Adela’s hand stilled, and she found herself descending into the shadows of Ambroise’s penetrating scrutiny. She had known this man all of her adult life; yet, she had never been able to reconcile her confident reliance on his wisdom with the disquiet that he often inspired in her heart.
“Your grace, we have discussed our plan on many occasions. The first phase has already been implemented. The time has come to finish what we have started. There is no going back.” Ambroise’s voice was insistent, and his gaze unnerved her.
Consciously breaking the hypnotic spell that Ambroise frequently used to manipulate her, Adela abruptly rose and walked to one of the windows that brightened her luxurious personal chambers. Outside, the summer sun caressed the bountiful flowers of her lavish garden. A fountain cheerfully gurgled, and she could detect a faint rainbow where the sun’s rays kissed the spray of the water. The vibrant splendor of her garden seemed to accentuate the darkness that had shrouded her life in the years since she had decided to fund Ambroise’s audacious scheme.
Now in her forties, the queen still possessed an uncommon beauty. Although her delicate, flawless features and golden hair had entranced even the pious King Louis VII, Adela recognized that it was not her appearance that had motivated the king to make her his queen. She had been Louis’ third wife, and as a descendent of William the Conqueror and a member of the formidable Blois-Champagne family, Adela had brought both wealth and valuable political alliances to the marriage.
Nevertheless, it was Adela’s success in giving birth to the long-awaited and much desired heir to the Capetian throne of France that had been her greatest triumph. She knew that the birth of Philippe was the real source of the power that she continued to wield, even twenty-three years after delivering the child whose nickname, ‘God-given,’ represented not only the answered prayers of an aging king but also the prospect of significant influence for his young mother.
She looked away from her perfect garden to behold her perfect son. He had all the ingenuity, strength, and energy that his father had lacked. Philippe was truly a son of the House of Blois, and the blood of William the Conqueror was strong in his youthful, handsome body.
Adela’s only desire as she faced the autumn of her life was to ensure his success. Yet, the price of her ambitions was becoming more than she could bear. Gold, silver, gems – she was happy to sacrifice such things to help her son achieve the glory that he so richly deserved, but the selling of her soul had begun to weigh heavily upon her slender shoulders.
Sliding her eyes to Ambroise, she contemplated his many years of loyal service to her. He was shrewd, resolute, and completely devoted to her and her son. For twenty years, ever since her coronation, this man had diligently assisted her in navigating the treacherous pathways and perilous tempests of the French court. She would have never attained this degree of influence without his guidance and cunning.
He has made me the queen that I am today, for better and for worse, she reflected thoughtfully as she wandered to a nearby table and lightly stroked a lovely length of blue silk embroidered with fleur-de-lis designs in gold thread.
Ambroise’s strategy to elevate her son, a ruthless scheme that had been so easy to discuss in the abstract, was no longer idle talk and speculation. The complicated plot to acquire vast wealth and power for her dear Philippe was progressing as intended, and real people were paying the ultimate price for her son’s glorious future.
She had eagerly anticipated the rewards of their success: generations would know her as the woman who gave birth to the most magnificent king to ever rule France. Nay! To ever rule France and England. History might remember Charlemagne, but only as a precursor to the brilliance of her son. People will always remember William the Conqueror, but now he will be known as her son’s ancestor. Such glory and majesty were within her son’s grasp.
If only this grand plan had not overshadowed her life, her heart, and her very soul in ways she had never foreseen.
“Your grace?” Ambroise interrupted Adela’s somber musings and refocused her on the issue at hand. She returned to sit in her elegant chair and briefly searched her mind for what he had been saying before her attention had drifted. There is no going back.
Faltering, Adela replied with a nervousness that was uncharacteristic for this intelligent, poised, and eloquent woman. “It is difficult; I had not expected to feel this way . . . I am disturbed by the lethal aspects of your strategy.”
Ambroise nearly rolled his eyes in exasperation. A stately, middle-aged man, Montlhéry was surprised by her hesitation; it was not her usual nature. He silently cursed women and their emotional, irrational approach to life.
Fortunately, her son, Philippe, was a gifted, bold, and fearless leader. He was prepared to execute the elaborate scheme that Montlhéry had so meticulously devised. He would not let Adela hinder them.
Philippe reached out to his mother, and his long, slender fingers gently cradled her small, dainty hands. “Mère, we are building an empire. The House of Capet will rule all the lands from the Pyrenees to the border we share with the Holy Roman Empire, and we will govern these lands without interference from vassals whose wealth and power rival our own. Ambroise will take the throne of England as my vassal, and he will have a Capetian queen of our choosing. We will control England, just as the Angevins have controlled duchies such as Normandy and Aquitaine. This plan enables us to defeat our enemies with a minimum cost to us in terms of treasury and men-at-arms.”
“But is this plan honorable? Must we kill so many?” hissed a visibly agitated Adela as she pulled her hands from Philippe’s affectionate grasp.
Montlhéry decided it was high time for him to take charge of this conversation and lead Adela through the thorny moral conflicts that were plaguing her. He was well-practiced at guiding the queen to the appropriate conclusion. “Your grace, there are five men who must die for our plan to succeed; two have already left this world under circumstances that have been widely accepted as either natural or accidental. The other three will meet similar fates. Is that really so many?”
“These are not ordinary men; you are talking about killing the entire male line of the English royal family.” Adela’s voice was increasingly shrill.
“That is correct,” intoned Montlhéry. “The same family who stole the throne of England after the death of your uncle, King Stephen.”
Philippe’s anger was rising. “And, Mère, consider the tragic fate of your cousin, William. Henry Plantagenet stole his birthright, and William will be avenged by Ambroise’s ascension to the English throne.”
Adela covered her face with her hands, but Montlhéry and Philippe could still hear her muffled words. “When Henry the Younger sickened and died, I told myself that it was perhaps not the result of Ambroise’s plot, but the type of stomach ailment that might take the life of any man.” She reached for a square of cloth lying on an adjacent table and dabbed at the tears rolling down her cheeks. “But then, I was there, at the tournament, and Prince Geoffrey’s death . . .”
“Maman,” Philippe tenderly addressed his mother. “Geoffrey was my friend, and I am sorry that you were there when the horses trampled him.” The king paused and leveled a disgruntled scowl towards the older man. “I have ordered Ambroise to avoid violent deaths in the future. The remaining fatalities will be like Henry the Younger’s – a sudden stomach complaint, an easy death.”
Philippe placed his fingertips under Adela’s chin and tilted her face so that they were gazing into each other’s eyes. “Geoffrey was my friend,” he repeated. “Yet, I was strong enough to let go of him for the greater good of France. Ambroise has a plan which requires that a handful of men die. If we rely on traditional warfare, hundreds of men, possibly thousands, will die, our treasury will be bankrupted, and we might not prevail. Therefore, which strategy is more honorable? A few men die, or a thousand die, and we risk losing everything. Do you want France to be ruled by the Angevins?”
At this, Adela leapt to her feet and swore, “Never will I allow those vile Plantagenets to take France.”
The two men also rose.
A distraught Adela stalked to the door where she lingered and looked back at her son and her advisor. “I have only one request. I do not wish to have any further involvement with this scheme. Take what you need from my accounts. Philippe is a grown man, and he is king. The two of you will proceed – do whatever you must to ensure that you are successful, but never again will I discuss this plan with either of you.”
They bowed to the queen as she abruptly exited, and Philippe sighed loudly. “What a relief. We can more easily implement our strategy if we no longer need to involve her.”
Montlhéry flashed a fond smile at the young king. “Women are, at best, creatures of emotion who do not understand the hard choices required of men.”
Philippe concurred, “That is true. Let us concentrate on the next steps we must take.”
The two men strode to a table where a large map had been unrolled, its edges secured by small marble sculptures from the queen’s extensive collection of art.
The King of France launched a review of the strategy that would make him the most powerful man in Christendom. He had no doubt that Ambroise’s scheme would deliver on its ambitious promises. He spoke briskly as he pointed decisively to a spot on the map. “My first move will be to take Châteauroux in Berry and several neighboring baronial castles. That will be sufficient to lure Henry away from England. Once he is here, I will keep him occupied for some time with a series of trifling incidents.”
“Sire, if I may ask, how long will you be able to keep him away from England?” Montlhéry was carefully studying the map of France.
Philippe shrugged nonchalantly. “As long as necessary for you to accomplish the goals I have set for you. I will alternate between minor skirmishes along the border and useless peace conferences. In his old age, Henry has become quite susceptible to such meaningless gestures. We meet, discuss our differences, argue about the Vexin and Prince Richard’s betrothal to my sister, come to an agreement, and then retire to our respective sides of the border. This is followed by another conflict and misunderstanding. If it appears as though he is tiring of my game, I will deliberately stir up tensions between Henry and Prince Richard. As you can see, toying with Henry is not difficult. It is actually quite diverting.”
A thought occurred to Montlhéry. “Are there feasts at these conferences? I could send my apothecary to help season Henry’s food.”
Philippe countered sharply, “Nothing must happen to any of the Plantagenets when I am present. This is vitally important. If even a whiff of scandal or blame is attached to me, I will hang you, and your accomplices, and no amount of pleading from my mother will save you. The name ‘Ambroise’ might mean ‘immortal,’ but I assure you that you are not.”
A chagrined Montlhéry reluctantly acquiesced and moved to examine a map of England laid out on a separate table.
Philippe joined him at the other table, and his astute, piercing eyes assessed the older man. “You will need to establish control over at least one fortified city. This will serve as our base of operations in England. You will need loyal men-at-arms in place. It is also imperative that you find a way to build your own treasury. My mother and I cannot afford to fund every aspect of this scheme. How will you achieve this? Your success in managing this part of the plan is crucial. You must prove to me that you are capable of ruling England as my vassal.”
A nearly imperceptible flash of irritation passed over Montlhéry’s expression, but years of regulating his emotions allowed him to force a smile that did not reach his eyes. “As soon as Henry leaves England, I will easily accomplish all that you expect of me. I will also win the trust of the youngest Plantagenet, John Lackland, while you are busy manipulating Henry and Richard.”
Philippe maintained his unwavering scrutiny of Montlhéry. Like Queen Adela, he recognized the sinister facets of Ambroise’s character. Unlike his mother, he had no ethical qualms about using the man’s evil nature to achieve his unprecedented conquest of the Angevin Empire and England. He pressed Montlhéry for a more detailed answer. “What, exactly, is your strategy? How will you gain control of a fortified city? Secure the trust of John Lackland?”
Montlhéry smirked, and his eyes lit with merriment. “Sire, this is where Alaric de Montabard will find his purpose.”
Philippe grinned at the mention of Alaric, and the tension in the chamber dissolved. “I had forgotten about the existence of the shadowy Alaric.”
Montlhéry dipped his head in a polite nod. “As you know, the name ‘Alaric’ means ‘ruler,’ and this will be his mission: to rule an English fortified city.”
Uncertainty flickered across Philippe’s face. “One of my courtiers cannot just march into England and assume control over a city.”
Dismissing his king’s worries, an unperturbed Montlhéry explained, “True. However, Alaric has recently acquired the title, Baron de Argentan, a barony in the heart of Normandy. This will provide us entrée into the English royal court, which will lead to the attainment of our goals in England.”
“A Norman barony? Ingenious. How did you arrange that?” Philippe was both pleased and intrigued by this unanticipated revelation.
Montlhéry jauntily answered, “It was simple: a baron with an aging, unwed daughter and no living sons, a quick wedding, followed by an outbreak of plague–”
“Let me speculate,” interrupted Philippe, “the plague only struck the old baron and his newly married daughter?”
“The spread of such disease is a mystery of science, sire.” Montlhéry’s matter-of-fact response was belied by a wicked glimmer in his eyes.
Philippe guffawed heartily. “Go, my friend. We have a kingdom to conquer, and we will do it scientifically.”
July 1188, the White Tower, London, England
Alaric de Montabard, Baron de Argentan, was calmly sitting in an elaborately carved chair in the White Tower, awaiting his audience with Prince John. In his early fifties, Argentan’s close-cropped hair was transitioning from grey to white, but his trim, athletic build revealed him to be a man of action and vigor. His dark clothing was made of the finest quality fabrics, but the style was austere and lacked any ornamentation.
With a critical eye, Baron de Argentan watched the captain of his guard, Sir Guy FitzCurzon of Gisborne, anxiously drag his hand through his thick, chestnut colored hair as he stalked from one side of the chamber to the other, only to turn and march back to where he had started.
Gisborne had been Montlhéry’s squire and had received his training and education courtesy of the count’s benevolence. Considering that he was the son of a traitor, Gisborne had done quite well for himself. Of course, the fact that his father, Hugh, had died trying to kill the hated Henry Plantagenet was a badge of honor in Montlhéry’s opinion. Because of this, Count de Montlhéry had taken good care of both the boy and his lovely widowed mother, who had become the count’s mistress.
Guy closely resembled his mother, with his dark hair and angular features. Now in his late twenties, Gisborne had developed nicely into an aggressive, ruthless killer, but Argentan wished his captain was more cunning. It was the weakness of his mind that caused the knight to behave in such an agitated manner at a moment like this. His occasional battles with his conscience were also a problem. A moral compass was very inconvenient for a man in Gisborne’s position. It was a regrettable inheritance from his mother, the older man mused.
“Gisborne, enough.” barked Argentan in French.
Guy stopped and lifted his apprehensive pale blue eyes to those of the baron. “Yes, my lord?”
A sneering Argentan mocked, “Until you learn to control yourself, you will disclose what you are thinking and feeling to everyone around you. Here you are, panicking like a virgin facing the marriage bed. Be a man, and stand still.”
Gisborne’s eyes narrowed at the insult, but he submissively moved to a spot behind Argentan, where he resisted the impulse to fidget.
Finally, the door opened, and a chamberlain officiously announced the arrival of Prince John. At twenty-two, he was the youngest child of King Henry and Queen Eleanor. Although short and thickly built, John’s handsome face was undoubtedly a legacy from his father. His auburn hair was fastidiously styled, and his opulent clothing sparkled with small jewels that were sewn into the fabric.
Argentan stood and joined Guy as the two men briefly dropped to one knee to give the prince proper obeisance.
John theatrically paraded across the chamber and settled into the ornate chair which Argentan had just vacated. Unfortunately, the large chair merely emphasized the prince’s short stature. He exuberantly exclaimed, “I am pleased to see you, Alaric. You may sit in my presence.” John imperiously flicked his wrist in the direction of a nearby bench, and Argentan obediently sat while Gisborne lingered in the background.
“Alaric, you have been here a fortnight, but I have not yet seen you at court. You must make an appearance,” urged the prince.
Argentan solemnly professed, “Sire, I am a modest man. I do not seek the notice of others. I am content to remain in the shadows, lit only by the reflected glory of truly great men, such as yourself.” He paused for effect, and a look of profound sorrow darkened his countenance. “I am also in mourning. My baroness tragically passed away from plague earlier this year, along with her father. God-rest-their-souls.”
Argentan and Gisborne bowed their heads and reverently crossed themselves.
John insisted, “That is why you must come to court; the many grand entertainments scheduled for the next fortnight will raise your spirits. I have arranged for these diversions to pass the time while Father is in Normandy battling Philippe.” His brow creased with uncertainty. “Tell me again the reason why Father sent you.”
Argentan implied that the king had sent him without actually saying as much. “Sire, King Henry did not speak to me personally. One of his stewards informed me that, because so many advisors were traveling with the king, you were left with administrative duties that are clearly too mundane for someone with your abilities and intellect. Therefore, I was sent here to serve you as a trusted vassal.”
Prince John was evidently becoming bored with the conversation, so Argentan hurriedly proposed, “Let us focus on you, and how I might serve you best. That is the reason why I am here: to be a footstool for your royal feet, to support you, humbly and loyally. I have also brought you a gift. Knowing that you are a connoisseur of jewelry, I would like to give you these trinkets from my dear, departed wife’s collection.”
Upon hearing those words, Guy immediately retrieved a small wooden chest. Kneeling at John’s feet, he opened it, revealing that it was filled to capacity with exquisite gem-encrusted rings, brooches, and necklaces. Gisborne then repositioned the lid and set the box on the floor beside the prince before rising and returning to his place behind Argentan.
The prince’s eyes widened in surprise and gleamed with avaricious satisfaction.
Argentan continued, “I have many managerial skills. I can serve you as an administrator, which frees you to devote your time to more important pursuits. I am not interested in attaining fame at court. Enhancing your glory will be my only purpose as I enter the twilight of my life. Perhaps a post away from London? One that enables me to demonstrate my value to you? Something along the lines of a sheriff?”
“Hmmm,” the prince pondered. “There are several posts that are vacant at this time. I recently heard something about the need for a sheriff in Northampton.”
Argentan’s dark eyes twinkled with amusement as he suggested, “Did you say Nottingham, sire?”
A blush pinked John’s skin as the embarrassed prince scolded, “You must listen more attentively. That’s what I said: Nottingham.” Abruptly, he frowned. “That is very far from court. It is out in the wilds of Sherwood Forest. You would not want that.” The prince became distracted by a small stain on his sleeve and tried to brush it away.
Argentan leaned forward and declared, “Sire, I accept your generous offer. I am honored to serve you as Sheriff of Nottingham. I will gladly dwell in the shadows of Sherwood Forest, and I will work tirelessly to prove myself worthy of your benevolence and glorious royal patronage.”
“What?” the prince’s befuddled gaze darted to the baron.
“I promise, sire, you will not regret appointing me Sheriff of Nottingham.” Argentan rose and went down on one knee in front of the prince. Gisborne echoed the movements of his master.
The prince swiftly recovered from his confusion and stood. In an exaggerated gesture, he waved his hand over the two and pronounced, “It is with the greatest of confidence that I send you to this important post. I will have my steward make the necessary arrangements. But now I must leave you; there is a backgammon tournament beginning presently.” The prince held his hand out, palm up, with an air of expectation.
Guy was momentarily confounded, but then comprehension dawned, and he dutifully picked up the chest of jewelry and put it in John’s outstretched hand. The prince possessively hugged it to his side before pivoting and dramatically exiting the chamber without a glance back. As soon as the door shut, Gisborne exhaled loudly in relief.
Reverting to French, Argentan gleefully proclaimed, “That was almost too easy. Everything is falling into place, Gisborne. At the appalling pace of the English court, it will probably require another month before we arrive in Nottingham, but that will be perfect timing for us.”
Gisborne scowled. “I don’t understand. Count de Montlhéry–”
Argentan’s features contorted in rage, and he slapped Guy hard across the face, causing him to rock back on his heels from the force of the blow.
“Fool!” the baron snarled menacingly. “Do not ever utter that name again. While we are here in England, our success demands the utmost secrecy. We are from Normandy, not the French court.”
“My lord, I apologize.” Guy massaged his cheek and meekly pledged, “You can rely on my discretion. How will you carry out the plan so far from London?” He trailed off, his mind sifting through what little he knew about their mission. “Why are we here in England? Why Nottingham? What is the plan?”
Argentan was satisfied that Gisborne appreciated the need for prudence, so he moderated his tone and smugly answered, “Although I do not owe you any explanations, I am feeling charitable today; perhaps it is my joy in discovering that Prince John is everything I had hoped for in a royal patron: vain, inattentive, and easily manipulated.” Sobering, he divulged, “We are in England to amass as much wealth and power as possible. I have selected Nottingham as the ideal fortified city for our purposes. The area surrounding the city is rich in resources. It is like a ripe apple ready to be plucked, crushed, and pressed for cider.”
The baron assessed Gisborne with disdain. “However, you lack the intelligence to grasp the genius of King Philippe’s strategy. Therefore, I will not reveal it to you. Your duty is to obey me, and if you serve me well, then your reward will be a share in the riches that I will accumulate. You might even receive a barony for your service. But never forget: your future depends on my success – but surely that comes as no surprise.”
Observing Gisborne’s face tense with resentment, Argentan decided to give his captain an additional incentive. “There is something else that I should tell you about Nottingham: the Earl of Huntingdon spends most of his time in a neighboring village.”
Guy’s irritation over Argentan’s dismissive insults instantly flamed into a zealous determination to destroy the son of Duncan Fitzooth. “Will you allow me to avenge my father by killing him?”
“I might grant you the privilege of taking his life and ending the Fitzooth family forever, but first you must prove yourself to me.” Argentan was pleased to see his captain’s eyes burning with hatred. Hate was such a useful emotion, and there was nothing like the hunger for revenge to turn a man’s blood to ice and his mind to murder.
The lengthening shadows of impending nightfall alerted Argentan to the late hour, and he commanded, “Come, Gisborne, we must return to our quarters before the courtiers arrive for the evening festivities.”
“With your permission, I would like to stay and watch the entertainment,” Guy requested hopefully.
Argentan directed a withering glare at him. “We are not here for your pleasure. We do not want to become known to anyone at the English court until the time is right.” He paused. “And that means you will forgo entanglements with wealthy widows and comely servants who catch your eye. Your insatiable lust for female companionship will be your downfall, Gisborne. Mark my words: someday one of these pretty vipers will poison your future with her venom.”
As Argentan sauntered to the door, Guy rolled his eyes at
the familiar rebuke. Women often flocked
to the tall, handsome knight whose aloofness and dangerous reputation seemed to
arouse their curiosity and excite their passions. Sighing in disappointment, he resolved to
amuse himself with thoughts of torturing and slowly killing the Earl of
Huntingdon, whose father had murdered his father and ruined his beloved
mother’s life by making her a widow at the mercy of the diabolical Count de
Chapter 3: The Earl of Huntingdon
22 August 1188, Locksley Cemetery, Nottinghamshire
Robin was deep in thought as he examined two stones in the ground. One was weathered and becoming difficult to read, while the other was a more recent addition to the graveyard near the Locksley church.
The harvest was underway, and the distant sounds of peasants at work created a muted clamor of shouts and creaking carts. Flies were buzzing in the warm August air, and birds chirped from their perches in the large trees which lined one side of the cemetery. He remained adrift in his reverie until he recognized the whispery rhythm of familiar footfalls approaching him from behind.
“Robin, I knew that I would find you here,” Lady Marian of Lenton’s dulcet voice was a welcome respite from his melancholy musings.
“It was two years ago, today,” he replied, his eyes still trained on the grave markers.
“That is why I knew you would be here.”
Robin smiled to himself. In the two years since his return to England, she had come to know him well.
“Are you still mourning his loss?” she inquired.
Robin studied the ground at his feet as he carefully considered his response. “That is not exactly my sentiment at this moment. It is more a profound sense of frustration that we never had the opportunity to resolve our differences. I have many questions that will forever remain unanswered.”
Marian sympathetically reached out and took his hand.
He finally raised his eyes to hers and gave her a wan smile, hiding the fact that his heart leapt at her touch, and that every part of him: mind, body, and soul, came alive in her presence. Robin gazed into her green eyes and contemplated how they reminded him of the great forest that surrounded Locksley and covered most of the shire. Just as travelers frequently lost their way in the thick foliage of the greenwood, he often became lost in the sublime tenderness and beauty of her eyes.
She interrupted his brief enchantment and cautiously asked, “What of your mother, Lady Edith?”
Robin frowned as he regarded the weathered stone. “I remember with anger how Father kept me from her when she grew sick. Another missed opportunity to bid a loved one farewell.”
Marian squeezed his hand, and the lament in her voice was an echo of anguish for her own long-dead mother. “I wish that I had known her. Even in Lenton, there are many older servants and peasants who still talk about her compassionate and charitable nature. And they tell the story of how a baron’s daughter from the far north captured the heart of the mighty Earl of Huntingdon.”
A playful gleam shone in Robin’s eyes as he teased, “I owe my very existence to your father. If not for the friendship between him and Uncle Edmund, I doubt that my parents would have ever met. Your father is now responsible for the betrothal of a second Earl of Huntingdon. Perhaps he should provide matchmaking services to other noble families.”
Marian giggled merrily at such a ridiculous suggestion, and Robin was so entranced by the musical sound of her laughter that he impulsively pulled her into his arms, kissing her gently as he resisted the urge to ravage her mouth. Their privacy was disrupted by the noise of peasants’ voices in the distance, and Robin worried that Marian’s reputation could be harmed if someone glimpsed them embracing. He released her and stepped away.
Resuming his perusal of the stones in the ground, Robin described his mother. “The older servants and peasants in Locksley want to petition the Holy Father for her sainthood.” His adoring smile was shaded by a wistful yearning. “There are several of them who routinely approach me with tales of her kindness, always helping the poor, tending to sick children, and the like. They say that her touch had miraculous healing powers.”
Grimacing with sorrow as he recalled her passing, he bemoaned, “If only she could have healed herself…” His voice faded, and he fell silent for a handful of heartbeats. When he had regained control over his emotions, he recollected, “Father was so angry. I was a boy of ten summers, and I remember listening at the door, longing to go to her when she was sick, and hearing my father shout at her that it was her own fault for consorting with dirty, diseased peasants, and if she died, it would save him money, for she was too generous in giving it to undeserving people who should have been beneath her notice.”
Marian gasped. “Surely, he did not mean that.”
A weary sigh escaped Robin. “At the time, I assumed that he meant it. But now, as I reflect, I believe he was just frightened that he would lose her. It is one of the many things about which I will never have the opportunity to ask him.”
Marian’s eyes softened in understanding, and her heart felt grief for his regrets. She did not remember her own mother who had died in childbirth when she was very young.
Leaving such woeful talk of his mother, Robin remarked, “Father is not here, of course. He is somewhere in a graveyard outside of Paris. When the skirmishes between King Henry and King Philippe end, we will go to France and visit his grave.”
“It was such a shock when we received word of his murder in Paris,” exclaimed Marian.
A thoughtful Robin mused, “Father was always so tight-fisted with his money . . . I have often wondered whether the thieves would have spared his life, if only he had spared some coins. I suspect that they were just poor, desperate, and starving – not intending to kill an English noble, but seeking to feed themselves and their families.”
“I do not know of such things. I have never traveled further than the fortress of Nottingham,” Marian confessed. She dithered, not wanting to cause Robin distress, yet anxious to tell him what she knew. “Father said that Lord Duncan had powerful enemies in France, and I know that he tried to dissuade him from going to Paris. I once heard my father speculate that Lord Duncan’s death might be connected to the death of Prince Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany and son of King Henry.”
Robin’s brow knitted in bewilderment. “That is rather fanciful. It is true that Geoffrey died three days before my father at the same tournament in Paris. But Geoffrey perished when he was trampled after falling from his horse. I was told that the strap on his saddle had frayed and snapped. My father was killed by thieves who were trying to rob him.”
An exasperated Marian acknowledged, “My father, I love him, but . . .” She searched for the right words. “He sees danger and intrigue everywhere. When he learned of your father’s death, he collapsed! At first, I believed it was heartfelt bereavement for a beloved friend, but then . . .”
“What happened?” Robin’s curiosity was roused by her obvious unease.
In a hushed voice, she recalled, “When he recovered, he ordered the captain of his guard to lock me in my chamber at Lenton Manor. For a sennight, I was closely guarded by half a dozen armed men. Later, one of the servants told me that Father had locked himself in the chapel, with soldiers at the door, while I was trapped in the manor.”
“That is odd,” he admitted.
Eager to share her disconcerting experiences with him, she divulged, “A year ago, on the first anniversary of Lord Duncan’s passing, armed men were again stationed outside both my chamber and the chapel. Today, I begged Father to allow me to come here instead of enduring another imprisonment. He reluctantly consented as long as twice the usual number of soldiers escorted me. Therefore, most of the Lenton men-at-arms are here at Locksley today. I’m sorry to burden your cook with the necessity of feeding so many extra men.”
“It is nothing,” dismissed Robin with a wave of his hand. “If they are protecting you, then I am happy to provide them with as much food as they can eat.”
Marian smiled gratefully, and then added, “As I left, I saw Father entering the chapel, and there were two sentries at the door. He will probably still be there when I return.”
“Your father is very pious,” Robin observed.
“True,” agreed Marian, “but he seems to have devised his own Holy Days. In addition to today, there is the 25th of October.” She heaved a sigh. “Yet another day when I often find myself under guard.”
Robin could not suppress a short chuckle. “The 25th of October? Which saint owns that day?”
“Only Saint Crispin, the patron saint of tanners. So, it makes no sense for my father to spend two days in a guarded chapel, on his knees weeping and frantically praying for salvation and forgiveness. I heard him mention the names ‘Stephen’ and ‘William,’ but I’ve never heard of a Saint William, and Saint Stephen’s day is December 26th. My father would not make such a mistake.”
His eyes narrowed suspiciously. “And you know this because . . .?”
Marian sheepishly responded, “The chapel’s main doors might be secured, but there is a gap in the rear wall where a relatively small person can squeeze into the vestry. That is, once this small person has climbed out her window and shimmied down a nearby tree.”
Robin grinned indulgently. “A small person such as yourself, perchance?”
Marian, neither confirming nor denying his assertion, beamed at him. At that moment, the sun broke through the lazily drifting clouds and lit her pale blonde hair in a glorious halo.
Robin paused and humbly counted his many blessings. He was a man of position and wealth. He had received an excellent education and had been trained by the most talented military men of the Angevin Empire. But it was the love of this radiant woman which he treasured above all else; a woman whose beautiful appearance was surpassed only by her keen mind and her gracious, affectionate temperament.
Glancing at the overcast sky, he saw that the clouds were dispersing; the rain that had seemed so certain earlier was no longer a threat. “My lady, let us depart this place of mourning and lost opportunities. I was planning to ride into Sherwood for some archery practice. Would you care to join me? Much is at Locksley Manor, and he could act as chaperone.”
Marian tentatively countered, “Robin, I would like to accompany you, but . . .”
A disappointed Robin prodded, “But what?”
A shy grin tugged at her mouth. “Can we go alone … just the two of us? We will not be gone long, and no one will ever know.”
His heart skipped a beat, and he smiled roguishly. “That is true. We will return before anyone realizes we have left.” With those words, they abandoned the two forlorn stones.
Marian was laughing so hard that she was gasping for breath. She admonished, “You cannot put a hole in that cloud with an arrow.”
“Why do you have so little faith in my abilities?” queried Robin with mock offense. “You are not even giving me a chance. Very well. Pick a leaf, any leaf, and I will pierce the center in one try.”
Marian wiped a stray tear that had leaked from her eye during her unrestrained mirth. “How do you expect me to choose one leaf? The tree is thick with them. It does not matter which leaf I select; you will always claim that you pierced the correct one.”
She beheld him as he stood there, bow in hand, his pale blue eyes sparkling with mischief, his boyishly handsome face sporting an impish smile, and his wheat-colored hair slightly ruffled owing to their spirited ride from the Locksley stables to their favorite meadow. Marian liked to imagine that it was an enchanted corner of the forest – a refuge dominated by a massive oak, one of the largest trees in this part of the greenwood.
“Well?” he demanded. “What shall I aim for next? I need a challenge, and you will not allow me to poke holes in the clouds, for fear that it will cause them to rain–”
“That is not what I said!”
Robin persisted, “And you refuse to choose a leaf, although there appears to be an abundance of leaves from which you could make a selection. I have already slain a brace of coneys and a pheasant. Elvina and the cook will be quite pleased with me.”
Marian huffed in mock exasperation. “Elvina and the cook are always pleased with you.” A sly twinkle brightened her eyes. “What about the pheasant you missed?”
“Missed!” he thundered. “No, no, I did not miss that pheasant. I never miss. Someone deliberately distracted me.”
“It was accidental,” she insisted with a grin.
Robin argued, “Sneaking up behind me and shouting, ‘Do not miss,’ just as I released the arrow was not accidental.”
Their laughter faded as he took her hands into his. Marian gazed deeply into his eyes, attempting to learn every shift in the emotions that he guarded so well.
She believed that he revealed more of himself to her than anyone else, but he was still often a puzzle. At times, he was quiet and contemplative, obviously focusing his mind on some problem or issue, yet denying that he was thinking about anything important. On some occasions, she had seen him tense with anger, only to disguise his feelings by making a jest or laughing, even though he was clearly not amused. Marian knew that when he was truly battling his emotions, he would disappear into the embrace of Sherwood Forest, for Robin was a man who found comfort in the untamed beauty of nature.
Once, in a surprisingly candid conversation, Robin had described to her what the forest meant to him. He spoke of how the forest made him feel alive, and how each of his senses experienced the greenwood: the fragrances of pine and wild blossoms, the sounds of a rushing river at his feet and the rustling of leaves overhead, the taste of freshly gathered berries, the feel of a gentle rain against his face, and the vistas that could only be viewed from tree limbs high above the forest floor. Robin had told her that the forest was both vast, as it stretched to the horizon, and intimate, as the sheltering trees sometimes seemed to be crowding around him.
Marian had frequently pondered his words, and she longed to hear him speak openly about himself again. Unfortunately, whenever she asked him about his feelings or his thoughts, he deflected her questions with either a joke or a change of topic.
As they stared intently into each other’s eyes, Marian detected a shift in his emotions. No longer playful, his eyes conveyed a passion that caused her to feel anxious and aching. Cupping her face, Robin kissed her softly and hugged her close. Marian rested her cheek upon the front of his shoulder and shut her eyes, content to be enveloped in the strength and warmth of his arms.
Unexpectedly, a foreboding settled over her. In many ways, she had been blessed with good fortune and happiness all her life. She didn’t remember the loss of her mother, so her greatest sorrow had been that lonely time when Robin was far away, training in Poitou. She had missed him terribly during those seven long years. Maybe that is why she felt a kinship with Penelope when she read the story of Odysseus.
Soon it would be Michaelmas, and they would finally wed. Yet . . . she could not shake this feeling of disquiet that made her heart tremble like a baby bird fallen from its nest and lying helpless on the ground. Such small creatures were doomed, for they had no hope against the predators lurking in the shadows, stalking the weak and the vulnerable. Her morbid thoughts caused Marian to instinctively recoil, ending their tender moment.
“We must return to Locksley; it grows late.” Robin’s voice was rough as he released her.
Marian nodded wordlessly and walked to her horse. She watched as he collected the game he had slain and the arrows that he had been using for target practice. Before long, they were grudgingly making their way back to the Locksley stables.
As they neared Locksley, they rode past the church and its desolate graveyard. Robin stopped his horse and stared in the direction of the two stones that commemorated the lives of his parents. Marian also halted her horse and regarded him curiously.
Once more, sadness and regret washed over Robin. If only . . . He sighed deeply. If only his father had been willing to answer his questions. Or had been willing to simply talk to Robin. But Duncan Fitzooth, Earl of Huntingdon, did not like to answer questions or engage in meaningful discussions, and he had been frequently aloof and enigmatic. And now . . . he would forever remain an unsolved puzzle.
Robin turned his horse and spurred it away from the cemetery, determined to leave the past behind and focus on his future with Marian. History was unalterable, and regrets served no purpose save to torment the mind with what could have been.
However, the sins of parents often haunt their children, and without warning they can explode across the years like a sudden windstorm ravaging everything in its path. For the past was not really dead; it was not the bones concealed within the warmth of the earth. Like a predator in the forest, the past was lurking in the shadows, pursuing Robin and preparing to strike the young Earl of Huntingdon in ways he could have never imagined.
22 August 1188, Lenton Chapel, Nottinghamshire
Alfred lay prostrate before the altar of the chapel adjacent to his home. The damp chilliness of the stone floor had seeped into his bones, and his body ached from both the cold and the fact that he had not shifted his position in some time.
He acknowledged to God that he deserved the discomfort, and much worse, for his sins. On this day, the anniversary of Duncan’s murder, he was particularly aware of his failings. He repeatedly relived his last encounter with Duncan: how he had begged his friend to stay in England; how he had reminded him of the curse and of the dangers that might await him in Paris. As usual, Duncan had rejected the possibility of any peril and teased Alfred about his superstitions.
Over the years, Duncan and King Henry had established a cordial alliance, mostly based on the earl’s unwavering loyalty to the king. When Henry personally requested that Duncan attend the tournament in Paris, Duncan had immediately agreed to go. The king wanted Duncan to monitor the activities of his son, Geoffrey, who had a reputation for duplicity. Henry suspected that the Paris tournament was a ruse to mask a clandestine meeting between Geoffrey and King Philippe. Instead, Geoffrey and Duncan had both met violent deaths in Paris.
Although Alfred’s mind conceded that he had been powerless to deter Duncan, his heart kept analyzing every word and gesture of that fateful, final conversation, searching for the phrases that would have magically saved his dear friend and liege lord.
He was also haunted by the aftermath of King Stephen’s passing. At the time, he had been a young man who had only recently inherited his barony, and he could not be blamed for Duncan’s actions. Nevertheless, his conscience was tormented by his eager acceptance of valuable lands confiscated from nobles who had been executed because their names were on Stephen’s list. These lands had enriched the Barony of Lenton with revenues that stank of death and deceit. Alfred had been so burdened by guilt that he eventually used his profits to build this beautiful sanctuary and to purchase the sacred relics which were hidden under its altar. He prayed unceasingly for God’s forgiveness.
A loud cry outside the doors disturbed his solitude, and Alfred slowly and stiffly struggled to his feet. With bleak resignation, he observed his destiny stroll into the small chapel in the form of Alaric de Montabard, Baron de Argentan.
“You were warned, Lord Lenton, that vengeance would come, even if it was from beyond the grave.”
Alfred despairingly beheld Argentan and disclosed, “I told Duncan that William of Blois had influential connections, and here is the proof.”
Argentan chuckled maliciously, savoring the moment. “Huntingdon’s arrogance was his downfall. I will always cherish the devastated look on his face when he realized that the curse would claim his life.”
“So, I was right, it was the curse . . . in Paris when Duncan was killed,” ventured a disheartened Alfred.
“And today, you have come for me.” Alfred shuddered with dread. “Is there nothing . . .?”
An apparently amused Argentan shook his head and unsheathed his dagger. “Your fate was sealed many years ago. There is no escaping it. You are destined to die anyway. All men die. Their rotting corpses become dust. The dust spreads across the earth. Some dust settles in the sun, where all can see it, but there is also dust in the shadows, and it goes unnoticed by those who walk in the light.”
Alfred grimaced. “I understand. The curse is a legacy of the shadows, and that explains how a dead man can take vengeance against those who still live. I am ready to die, but,” he sank to one knee and beseeched, “I beg you, please spare my daughter! Do not let the curse touch her. She is not responsible for my sins. Please . . . I beg you.”
The smirk on Argentan’s face caused Alfred’s heart to drop heavily and his skin to prickle with fear. There was no hope.
“Even the Lord, our God,” sneered Argentan, “has decreed that the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon their sons and daughters. Huntingdon also begged for mercy for his son. I will tell you the same thing I told him: I promise that your daughter will suffer loss, betrayal, and heartbreak before the time comes when I must take her life as well.”
“NO!” Emboldened by a deep-seated compulsion to protect his beloved child, a fierce defiance fueled Alfred as he leapt to his feet and tried to seize Argentan’s weapon. Argentan tottered backwards from the unanticipated assault, but he swiftly recovered and stabbed Alfred in the heart. The Baron of Lenton gasped in pain, and the world around him receded into a murky haze as he stared into the diabolical eyes of his murderer.
Argentan pulled his dagger from the dying man’s chest and gleefully proclaimed, “You are the last of the original traitors. Soon the children of treachery will follow their fathers, for I will take from them the long life, happiness, and prosperity that were stolen from the true King of England.”
Coughing blood and gurgling his final breaths, Alfred slumped to the floor.
“Welcome to the shadows, Alfred Fitzwalter, Baron of Lenton.” Eyes glittering with both satisfaction and disdain, Argentan calmly leaned over and used Alfred’s expensive cloak to wipe the blood from his blade. He then sheathed it and loudly summoned Gisborne, who was patiently waiting outside the chapel, along with the bodies of Alfred’s guards. “Gisborne, take Huntingdon’s dagger and plunge it into Lord Lenton at the same location where I stabbed him.”
“Yes, my lord,” Guy obediently took the elaborate silver dagger he had employed to dispatch the sentries and thrust it into Alfred.
“Excellent,” enthused Argentan. “Are you confident that you were not seen?”
Guy scoffed, “I was able to steal the dagger from Locksley Manor while the servants were eating their midday meal. What kind of man leaves his sword and dagger in his bedchamber all day?”
Argentan rolled his eyes in disgust. “A pampered son of the nobility who probably passes the time writing poetry. Perhaps he spent the day composing love songs to some viperous woman. Huntingdon’s son studied at the court in Poitiers.” The two men snickered at the notion of such a pathetic excuse for a man.
Sobering, Argentan ordered Gisborne to implement the next part of the plan. “Go and arrest Huntingdon for the murder of Lord Lenton. I will arrange to have Lenton’s body delivered to the castle as evidence.” He paused. “And Gisborne, bring him to Nottingham alive. You do not have permission to kill him, yet.”
Scowling, Guy entreated, “If you will not allow me to kill him, will you permit me to damage him slightly?”
Argentan indulgently consented, “Certainly, but no permanent damage. Hurt him if that would please you.”
“Thank you, my lord.” Gisborne promptly departed to assemble his men for the ride to Locksley. He was impatiently anticipating his first meeting with the son of the man who had murdered his father and destroyed his mother’s happiness. He just wished that he could have personally slain Duncan Fitzooth, but his master had claimed that privilege. At least Guy might attain some measure of vengeance by taking the life of Duncan’s son. A lethal rage bloomed in his heart, and he spurred his horse faster. His mind was filled with fantasies of torturing Robert Fitzooth, whom he pictured as a short, heavy-set, effeminate boy. Maybe he would beat Fitzooth in the same manner as Montlhéry had beaten his mother. That seemed oddly appropriate to Guy.
His dark daydreams were disrupted as a sizeable contingent of mounted men-at-arms approached them from the opposite direction. Gisborne slowed his soldiers and moved them off the road, facilitating the passage of the other men. Encircled by her guards, an elegant, lovely young woman with pale blonde hair rode past them, and Guy was instantly captivated by her noble bearing and uncommon beauty. As soon as the road cleared, he resumed his journey to Locksley.
22 August 1188, Locksley Manor, Nottinghamshire
Robin laughed boisterously as he sat at the table in Locksley Manor. He had just returned from his outing with Marian, and he was happily anticipating the fine meal that had been prepared during his absence.
His best friend from childhood, the son of Locksley’s miller, was sitting with him. Many years ago, a devastating fire at the mill had left Much an orphan. Robin’s mother, Lady Edith, had owned the mill, and she felt responsible for the seven year old boy whose entire family had perished on that dreadful day. She resolved to take Much into her home as a companion for Robin, who was five years old at the time.
After many miscarriages and a number of stillborn births, Edith had accepted that Robin would most likely remain an only child, and although Much and Robin would never be equals, they could be playmates. Thus, a life-long friendship was born.
On this somber anniversary, everyone was focused on lifting Robin’s spirits. Leofric and Elvina, the two elderly servants who managed the Locksley estate, had started telling tales from his youth. Unfortunately, they had excellent memories.
“No! No!” Robin loudly protested as he strove to stifle his laughter. “I swear, I did not eat that pie. The dog ate it.”
“Now, Lord Robin,” Elvina gently chided him, “we all know it was your favorite. And how could the dog reach the window sill?”
“Well, a bird accidently knocked it off the window sill, and then the dog ate it,” Robin carefully explained.
Leofric’s wrinkled face creased in a perceptive grin. “Was this a blue-eyed, blonde bird?”
Robin’s eyes sparkled mischievously.
Odella, a Locksley girl who regularly helped Elvina in the kitchen, had just set a platter of food on the table when she heard Leofric and frowned in confusion. Like many of the people of Locksley, she was at ease in the presence of Lord Huntingdon and did not hesitate to join the conversation. “What kind of bird is that? I ain’t never seen such a bird.”
Everyone around the table roared with laughter.
Elvina, who was fond of Odella, told her the story of how a blonde bird came to Locksley. “Lady Edith,” she paused as everyone reverently crossed themselves, “she found this bird in the garden, and it was so friendly that it would eat from her hand. She decided that it would be her pet, and she would take care of it.”
Leofric reminisced, “Do you remember the cage I built for it? No bird ever had such a fancy cage, I reckon.”
“And this bird had blonde feathers?” Odella was still befuddled.
Elvina continued her story. “No, that blonde bird made his appearance a few months later. But this other bird, after Lady Edith put it in its cage, it stopped chirping and eating, and I told her, ‘You’re killing that bird. Birds need to be free, my lady.’ So, Lady Edith let the bird go, and he was singing when he left that cage and flew south for the winter.”
Elvina walked to where Robin was sitting, her eyes shining with barely suppressed emotion. She put her hand on his shoulder and regarded him devotedly. “Not long after that, Lord Robin was born, and Lady Edith decreed that his name would be ‘Robert,’ but everyone must call him ‘Robin.’ Lady Edith said that she wanted her son to be like that little bird who courageously abandoned the safety of a cage to find his future.”
As tears began rolling down Elvina cheeks, Robin stood and comforted her with a hug. Without warning, the sound of horses interrupted their poignant moment. Much and Leofric jumped to their feet as Robin hurried to the door. He was convinced that Marian had returned with her small army of guards, and he was concerned that something alarming might have happened. The rhythmic pounding at the door startled everyone, as Marian would not have bothered to knock.
Robin cautiously opened the door and was driven back into the manor’s great hall as a tall knight shoved hard against the other side. Bristling at the man’s aggressive stance, Robin challenged him. “Who are you?”
The knight did not seem to hear him as he barked, “By order of the sheriff, I demand to see Robert Fitzooth, Earl of Huntingdon.”
His eyes narrowing in indignation, Robin coolly introduced himself, “I am the Earl of Huntingdon, and I insist that you show me proper respect in my home.”
The knight spun around, theatrically drew his sword, and pointed it at Robin.
Troubled by this surprising turn of events, Robin authoritatively enjoined, “Sheathe your weapon now, or I will forcibly remove you from my home.”
“I do not obey you,” sneered the man in a strong French accent. “I am Sir Guy FitzCurzon de Gisborne, captain of the guard for Alaric de Montabard, Baron de Argentan.”
“Argentan?” Robin was increasingly perplexed. “What business does the captain of a Norman baron have with me? I do not answer to Norman barons.”
Gisborne smirked nastily. “When that baron is the Sheriff of Nottingham, and you have committed murder, then you will answer to a Norman baron, and you will beg for his mercy.”
Much and the people who lined the hall gasped and worriedly murmured amongst themselves.
A niggling memory plagued Robin, and he recalled, “Gisborne? There used to be a Gisborne barony in Huntingdonshire. Do you know of Hugh . . .” At that moment, the names came flooding back to him. “You . . . you are Hugh FitzCurzon’s son?”
Gisborne did not respond, but the emotion flashing in his pale blue eyes confirmed Robin’s suspicions.
Abruptly, something Guy had said registered in Robin’s consciousness. “Murder? Wait, that is absurd.”
“The proof is incontrovertible. You will surrender at once,” Gisborne announced.
The hall quieted as a stunned Robin was momentarily speechless. Recovering from the shock, he irately asserted, “Impossible. I did not murder anyone. What is your proof? And who has been murdered? Does your master know that you are here, harassing the Earl of Huntingdon?”
With great satisfaction, Guy declared, “Your dagger was buried in the man’s chest. Two additional men were found nearby, also dead from dagger wounds.”
At this news, Robin felt relief. He could easily refute these spurious allegations. “My dagger is here. I will go retrieve it. And then you will apologize and leave.” He took a step away, only to feel the sharp point of Gisborne’s sword poke him in the back.
“No, Huntingdon,” Guy growled between clenched teeth. “You are not leaving my sight. Send a servant.”
Robin’s blood boiled in anger, but he worked to stay calm as he commanded, “Much, it is in its sheath on the table next to the bed.”
Much promptly ran to the stairs and mounted them two at a time. He then disappeared down the passageway at the top.
Robin glowered at the knight, savoring the apology he would soon receive. The moments stretched on, and an uncomfortable silence reigned as he impatiently flicked his gaze to the stairs.
The periphery of the manor’s great hall had filled with people. Soldiers stood behind Gisborne inside the front door, while servants and villagers congregated in the area nearest the kitchen after entering through the manor’s back door.
Finally! Robin could see Much sluggishly descending the stairs. He was holding the dagger in its sheath with a confused expression on his ashen face. Much’s curly red hair, which was always a bit wild, was practically standing on end, as if the man had been anxiously tugging on it.
Robin summoned his friend, “Bring it here, so that this Norman dog can apologize, and we can continue our meal. The food grows cold.”
Much’s mouth was hanging open, and he seemed both dazed and distraught. He reluctantly offered the sheath to Robin, who snatched it and immediately realized that it was empty. His dagger was gone.
Once more, Gisborne’s lips twisted into a spiteful mockery of a smile. “I look forward to receiving your apology as I beat a confession out of you.”
With this ominous threat, the hall exploded into chaos. The people of Locksley were shouting that Robin was innocent, and the soldiers surrounded Robin and Guy, pointing their swords at the unarmed peasants and household servants.
Two men grasped Robin by his arms. Initially frozen in shock, Robin regained his senses, dropped the empty sheath, and fought against his captors. An unexpected movement caught his eye, and Robin watched as something flew through the air and struck Guy of Gisborne on the side of his head. It plummeted to the floor, and Robin realized it was a moldy cabbage – undoubtedly taken from the garbage pile located behind the manor.
“Son of a traitor and a French whore!” someone bellowed.
Robin recognized the voice of Cuthbert, an older servant who had lived at Huntingdon Castle years ago and would have known the FitzCurzon family of Gisborne.
Guy, his sword still drawn, pivoted towards the villagers and servants who had flocked into the great hall of Locksley Manor, and a savage glint lit his eyes.
Robin feared for the safety of his people, and he attempted to sidetrack the knight. “Gisborne, take me to the sheriff,” he urgently insisted. “I surrender but reserve the right to prove my innocence.”
Gisborne ignored Robin and moved swiftly into the crowd as they tripped over themselves in an effort to retreat. Suddenly, Guy grabbed a man and plucked him from the throng. It was Cuthbert.
“Wait–” began Robin, but he was too late, and he witnessed Gisborne impale the old man. The people shrieked in terror and rushed to escape through the kitchen door.
Guy withdrew his sword from the man’s body, and the mortally injured peasant collapsed.
“No!” yelled an appalled Robin. “You cannot come into my home and murder an unarmed man. Take me to the sheriff now. I will demand justice.”
Guy disdainfully glanced at the dead body as he yanked a banner with the Huntingdon coat of arms from the wall and used it to clean his bloodstained blade. “This worthless old peasant is beneath the notice of Baron de Argentan.” He then allowed the banner to flutter to the floor before he purposefully stood on it as he sheathed his sword.
Robin was not concerned about the desecration of his heraldry. Instead, he was fixated on Cuthbert, and his heart was seized with both horror and sorrow that this good man, whom he had known all his life, had been viciously slaughtered for no reason.
The men restraining Robin towed him towards the door as Much begged, “Lord Robin, what shall I do?”
“Go to Lord Lenton,” Robin instructed Much as he was dragged away. “Have him assemble the other local nobles and come to the castle to defend me before the sheriff.”
Gisborne doubled over in laughter. Struggling to catch his breath, he choked out, “Lord Lenton is already at the castle.”
A baffled Much gaped at Gisborne’s strange reaction.
Once outside the manor, one soldier bound Robin’s hands, and another directed a stable boy to bring his horse. While they waited, Guy decided to entertain himself at Huntingdon’s expense. He gave the earl a sharp push and guffawed as Robin, his hands tied securely behind him, stumbled and fell, face first, into the dirt.
Gisborne’s sadistic glee was quickly curtailed by the outcry from the people of Locksley. Guy had never seen servants and peasants with such an attachment to their lord, and he became alarmed by the angry mob. There were fewer than a dozen soldiers, so they were significantly outnumbered by the villagers besieging them.
Outraged shouts echoed across the clearing in front of Locksley Manor.
“Someone help Lord Robin!”
“That Norman swine killed Cuthbert!”
“Lord Robin is innocent!”
Much assisted Robin to his feet as the villagers surged forward. The soldiers encircled Gisborne and Robin while brandishing their swords. Some of the people were now carrying scythes and large sticks. The situation was spiraling out of control, and Robin knew that he had to act without delay. One of the Locksley grooms brought forth a horse, and Much helped Robin mount it.
When Robin was seated on his horse, where everyone could see him, he called for their attention. “People of Locksley, do not risk a confrontation with armed soldiers; I do not want anyone else to be injured. I am going to Nottingham to resolve these unfounded accusations against me. As soon as Baron Lenton and I speak to the sheriff, I will return.” As they traveled away from Locksley and towards the fortress of Nottingham Castle, Gisborne moved his horse alongside Robin’s and smugly divulged, “Baron Lenton is already with the sheriff, but he will not defend you. The last time I saw him, your dagger was planted firmly in his chest.”