Neve, Chapter Eight . . .
It began as a splatter of raindrops the size of robin’s eggs that harmlessly broke on the ground around him. Then falling faster the single drops merged and speared like steel into Guy. At least he had crossed the Bewer by then, the ferryman, a Dane, openly grudging. Toli helped him to change from the rich green mantle to his old woollen cloak, its outer face felted. With his head hooded, now only his hands felt the hail.
Neve’s hands, too, stung with the icy lashing, as if she were there. She thought of the cereal-sea she had seen. Wheat, barley, rye, maybe oats, whichever, they’d now be laid flat and, if not immediately harvested, the entire yield lost. Another ache in the bellies of cottars. Guy had no such concerns, his thoughts only on crossing the Muckle. For that ferocious fleet now ran deep, cutting the path before him.
Even before his horse touched water Guy panicked as a divot of bank gave way. Grimbag slithered but then recovered and, once into the drain, held strong. The problem then was to climb the steep bank out. The sodden bank caved. The horse slipped. Neve’s heart lurched in fear for the horse’s fetlocks. A break now . . . But Guy whispered encouragement, the mount surged forth, and lo! they were atop the bank. Relieved to have achieved it, Guy then looked around for his squire. When had he last see him?
“Are you looking for me?”
Neve felt the release of Guy’s relief, though soon denied and suppressed. Toli, astride his bay gelding, was safe on the bank behind him. “There’ll be warmth and a welcome waiting,” Guy told him.
“As at the town-house, Sir Guy?”
“This is Covesby,” he snapped. But just saying it warmed him. Covesby Hall. To be hugged by the meaty arms of Treowith, the only mother he’d ever known. For here were his child-days in the care of Fyren and Treowith, at play with his foster-brother Snell. He had returned whenever possible but those times had been few. “It was Fyren here who first gave me training,” he mused aloud. Then to explain, “He’s my father’s steward for Hreppessey and the Cerdinga Wick.”
Hreppessey and the Cerdinga Wick weren’t names that Neve had seen on a map. Yet she guessed this was Flegg Island: they had crossed the Bewer into Dane territory. Guy had fussed of it that morning and, with his squire’s help, had donned his mail-coat. “Heading into Dane-territory,” he’d explained and Toli had smirked. Until this rain the day hadn’t been cold, yet beneath the mail-coat was a thick felted jerkin. His linen undershirt now was wet with sweat; Neve felt it, extremely uncomfortable. Then, as if the mail and the jerkin weren’t enough, over them was a woollen tunic! Rauf Rainald’s livery, an impractical white with a black key upon it. And all beneath his heavy silk mantle. Clad thus, Guy believed himself protected against attack. Yet, as Toli had said, and Neve agreed, he was more likely to invite it. But how did armoured knights ever fight weighted like this? Neve mused, spring and autumn must have been the prime times for battle.
Guy squinted through the heavy rain-veil. Something was different about Covesby Hall. He puzzled on it. Something . . . changed. But he couldn’t say what and that made him uneasy. Then, amongst the limes at the back of the hall, just east of them . . . something part-raised. Was that the framework of a new barn? As he recalled, the old needed replacing. Dane-built from long before his father’s hold.
So intently was he studying the structure he was almost upon the church before he saw it.
But, a church?
Here in Covesby?
Things were changing.
Though it wasn’t exactly ‘no expense spared’. Its round tower betrayed it as locally built, and of stone and tile quarried from the old Roman castle, east by the sea. He’d no more time to observe it.
“You select your times to visit!” A fair haired stumble-faced man, arms akimbo, stood on the second step up to the hall.
Guy wiped the rain from his eyes. “Miles?”
“Every time you come here, it rains.”
“Not by my arrangement,” he gracelessly said, and equally inelegantly slid from Grimbag’s rain-slicked back. He gave the reins over to Toli.
He headed for the hearth as soon as inside the door, his eyes raking the ancient fire-hall. “Where’s Treowith?” The hall was empty but for a balding man in stylish silks, legs stretched towards the heat, glass goblet in hand. “Where’s Fyren?”
“First get yourself dry,” Miles said. He turned away when Guy looked at him hard.
That turning was enough to give answer. Grief heavy as wood speared Guy’s guts. But he’d not let it show. He held his hands to the fire while he waited upon Toli’s return. He’d need his squire’s help with the cloak and the mail.
“Mail?” Miles laughed as the millstone was lifted.
“Easier to wear than to carry. And the roads are not safe when only myself and the lad.”
“Hear that?” Miles threw a glance to his sprawling companion. “My lord sheriff neglects his duty, to protect the king’s roads.”
“Bigot might be mighty perturbed to hear such news,” the balding man said in, unsurprising, clipped Frankish tones.
“Ay,” agreed Miles. “Sufficient to judge such a complaint . . . as treason? I would advocate caution, my brother. Seal the lips, else think before you open them.”
“Oh, come now. I intended no harm, you know that. But these are troubled times. And everyone knows of Hreppessey.”
Miles flashed a look at his Frankish companion. “Oh? And what do they know?”
Guy could see the trap his brother was setting and refused to say more. Instead he set up what he thought as a tableau: he in his stockinged feet, knee-breeches and shirt, hogging the fire for its restorative heat, while his squire hovered, ready to wrap his silk mantle around him. Miles noticed.
“Might I assume your lord has finally girded you?”
Guy’s pleasure swelled in him. “You address Gui de Hamahall.”
“Hamahall? And where might that lie?”
“I know it,” the balding Frank said. “Borders Maringtorp, his lord’s head manor in Norfolk. Borders the southern road.”
Miles chuckled. “So his lord sets his knights to guard his own?”
“I know it’s not much,” Guy admitted before Miles could say it. “Two ploughlands, some pastures. But I have a share of the mill.”
Miles laughed and the Frankish man chuckled. A clerk, Guy decided on seeing the purple-stained fingers brought up to cover his mouth. A user of quills, not the sword. Fyren’s successor?
“But, my brother, to what do I owe this visit? Oh, a frown? You did not know that Covesby manor now is mine? Our father granted it this past two months.”
Guy wouldn’t allow his mouth to drop despite Covesby was Hreppessey and the Wick’s head manor – which meant that Miles had been given the lot. This wasn’t right. Though, firstborn, of course Miles was the heir. But too soon. Years too soon.
“You have caught me here only while I sort things with Hugh. Then Bigot shall have me again.”
Neve was impressed with Guy’s apparent lack of response. He had wanted to retort that Miles was playing a paltry guard to a measly collector of taxes. But those years of bantering abuse from his lord and his company, along with those bouts of attendance at the king’s court, all had effectively trained him to keep his mouth shut. Though he again hogged the fire to explain his flushed face. Inside he was raging.
“And is your boy going to stand there all night?” Miles asked.
“He’s waiting for you to say to sit.”
“A Saxon? There’s a stable, north end. And you haven’t yet answered.”
“Returning –” Guy’s eyes followed the lad as he left the hall “– from Ristun.”
“Rainald’s manor? No, brother, you are not still chasing his daughter? She won’t have you, you know. She’s promised to one of the Bastard’s mercenaries. A certain Jean de la Forez, billeted at Haning, Glanville’s place. No family, no land, but weighted with gold. Now that’s what you ought to do, my boy. Rainald’s no good for you now, not with the Dane-king dead. Cut loose, sell your skills. Bigot’s brother has just returned from Sicily, stinking rich. Or, if you don’t fancy travelling so far, then head off to Scotland. What with belligerent Picts allying with Norsemen, just swear to a Scottish lord and you’ll be building your castle before this next summer. Or how about Wales?”
“That sounds like sympathy, and from my brother.” And it wasn’t what Guy wanted to hear. His thoughts had fixed upon Jean de la Forez.
“But, Guy, at times I must stand in loco parentis. And you may sit. Now that you’ve stopped dripping.”
Guy wanted to sit – but not at his brother’s command. Yet he drew up a stool, his thoughts still on this Jean de la Forez. Who was he, that Adele’s mother should prefer him? A simple woodsman’s son, born of the forest? He was likely more lowly than Toli. At least Toli served for honour, not fought for a coin.
“Don’t mistake this grant of Covesby as a favour.” Miles called back Guy’s attention. “You know our pater’s dictum. Had he not served de Vitrie, had he not joined battle at Hastings . . . He had to gain it the hard way, and so must you. Deuce, brother! He set you in training.”
~ ~ ~
Outside the wind tore at the lime-trees, hissing and lashing louder than a storm out at sea, while inside the wind winkled its way through every slight crevice with a curdling scream. These past ten years Guy had slept in every uncomfortable place. Deal floors were acceptable, cold stone the worst. But best was to snuggle into his cloak, raised from the draughts on a wide wooden bench. At Covesby he had such a place, and set close to the fire – though his silk wasn’t as warm as his wool. But alone in the hall, Guy couldn’t sleep.
He looked at the hounds, sprawled with their bellies exposed to the fire, their wet fur stinking, and his jaw again tightened, fists formed again. Those long-legged beasts had followed Snell into the hall when Snell brought in fuel for the fire. Neve reeled at the anger just in his remembering.
Guy had leapt up to greet him. Hell’s bowels, but the man reeked of horses. Then, “Dismissed,” Miles said curtly with a nod to the door.
“What?” Guy’s eyes popped wide. All evening, his calm held, now he exploded. “Snell isn’t some beggar to be hoofed into the cold. He’s our brother, our foster-brother.”
The balding Frank stepped between them. Miles moved him aside. “Thanks. But Guy is my brother, he is no threat.”
Guy seethed the more. This clerk had intended to fight him?
“Snell is Hugh’s underling, he cannot stay here. He knows his place.”
“The fire-hall is for all!”
“For all who have no other place. Oh, Guy –” Miles made an act of shaking his head “– he was amusing when we were boys, but now we are grown. Besides, the man played us false. He oughtn’t to live.”
“How?” Guy demanded, face afire, knuckles whitening.
“You don’t need to know.”
“Tell him,” Hugh said as if being kind.
Miles paused. Then agreed it. “But not till he sits.”
“Not till you sit,” Guy returned.
Miles spread his hands. “So we’ll all sit.”
Guy sat, but his eyes didn’t once leave his brother.
Miles nodded. “That’s better. So I’ll tell you but you won’t like it. It was, what, three, four years ago. There was some bondsman’s brat over from Haugesby. And there was Snell bragging to him that he was father to one of we de Lissay twins.”
The brothers were twins? Neve hadn’t realised that, she was shocked. But no wonder Guy’s anger at hearing his brother’s grant of the head manor. She didn’t know how large the estate, what else de Lissay might hold in the Hreppessey-Wick area, his wasn’t a name written in history. And compared with that, what had Guy had off his father? The green silk mantle and his knight’s training.
Guy shook his head in rigid denial. “No. Not Snell. He wouldn’t. You misunderstood what he said.” It was a dangerous claim this Snell had made, a gross insult no matter the age: to have lain with the brothers’ mother. “Our mother was a lady, she—no, she would not . . .”
Miles laughed. “My brother, the dreamer. Guy, our father was not the heir, he was the fourth son.”
“But high born.”
“High born with no land but a knight’s fief – like you. Wake up, boy. What high born woman would have him? Our mother was probably a low tenant’s daughter.”
“No!” Guy’s fists remained clenched. He had trouble breathing. “You know they had love. And many a woman weds beneath her.”
“Oh, and what cares love for status and wealth? Open your eyes, my innocent Guy. The only reason a high born woman would wed such a man is that she’s been caught with the beasts in the stables.”
“Why you—!” Guy wanted to fight yet he kept his seat. He knew his ability. knew Miles would best him. Yet to say such things in front of the steward! How glad Guy was that Toli was away in the stable, unable to witness.
“And why do you care who she was? Was you who killed her,” Miles taunted.
“Was so. She died in birthing you, the pretty brother.”
“Says our father.”
The balding Frank coughed. “I know this is not for me to say, but something was said of not being boys?”
Guy sniffed back his anger. “You were to tell me of Treowith and Fyren.”
“What’s to tell?” Miles said. “They died.”
He’d guessed that but he had to ask. “Cause?”
“God called them.”
“Last year,” Miles said with slightly more care.
“Why wasn’t I told?”
Miles shrugged. “You were busy. Holding some knight’s spare horse in wherever. Scotland. Ireland.”
“France, actually. I was fighting. I’ve been fighting these past two years. Something one does when serving Rainald – unlike with your shrimpish Bigot.”
Miles fingers curled, but no fist came back. “You know, you amaze me,” he said.
Though Guy knew he’d regret the asking, yet he tilted his head, inviting.
“The pretty maids all eager to swivel upon your lance, yet you want to marry. And that one! She’s a breaker, Guy. The only thing stiff on her wedding night will be her. She’s like her mother. But why do I bother to tell you that, when you’ve spent the last dozen years with her family. Guy, your body is handsome but your wits are weak.”
“I love her.”
“Oh, he loves her,” Miles mimicked across the hearth to the balding Frank, Hugh.
“Too many Breton lays,” Hugh said. “They’ve confused him. Now he believes that God resides inside a woman.”
“Go talk to your cousin Godfrey,” Miles said. “He’s now our priest here, he’ll tell you. There’s only one spirit in a women, and that’s the Devil.”
On those words Miles and Hugh had departed, together, to share the steward’s apartment. Both had been laughing.
And still Guy couldn’t sleep. With anger-hardened body he listened to the thatch as it crackled beneath the rain. Thunder boomed and rumbled, like God rolling stones in an earthen bowl.
Nay, lad, that’s God fighting a battle, he heard Treowith say. He was snuggled in her bed, Fyren huffing and moaning of it. Then Fyren added in his gruff way, That’s God’s angels, lances lowered, charging at demons. And that is the clash of their hammers.
The church bell tolled, so fierce was the wind. Guy looked anxiously up at the roof. Would it hold? The thatch was old. Was it a wonder he couldn’t sleep. Yet he knew it wasn’t the storm that kept him awake. It was his anger. Neve felt it too, like ants in his veins, stinging and stirring.
What irked him most was that his brother was right. What chance had he with Adele. He had insulted her, he saw that now after that talk about their mother. It was as Adele had said, he needed more land. Land was the measure of a man’s success. How many tenants? How many men does the king ask off you? To have his own hall, to host and feast his own company of men – to be the king’s man. But with no invasion, no major rebellions, it was to Sicily, Scotland or Wales. And that wasn’t what he wanted. That tasted of coin and a lack of honour.
No, Guy could see his destiny: to remain a low knight with a low knight’s fief, worthless, unable to marry, not even a rough woman as wife. The formula was simple, everyone knew it. He chanted it quietly. “No land, no status. Nobody, no wife.” Yet look at Toli. No expectations of status or land, yet he was free. Bold. Guy envied him. The lad’s only worry was to remember to duck.
He sighed, and accepted reluctantly what he must do, it was his only recourse.
He prayed. He didn’t know which saint to address so he called upon God though God might deem it audacious. And he would make none of the usual bargains, no promise to build God an abbey or such. He prefaced his prayer with an admission: he was not the most devout of Christians. To him it seemed hypocritical when he was trained to break the sixth Commandment. He repeated his prayer three times over, because three was a magical number.
“Please, give me a knightly deed so that I might marry Adele.”
. _____ .
Next Tuesday (5th February 2013): Rainbow Lights Upon The Water