Read an Excerpt
Matilda is under siege. For more than three months now she’s been barricaded inside this castle in Oxford while her cousin, Stephen, circles the ramparts with his men, waits for slow starvation to force her out and into his capture. They have eaten all the horses and burnt all the furniture. They have retreated through pockets of cold, to a small room without windows at the base of the tower. At night they huddle together like dogs.
Matilda is Queen of England, but her cousin has stolen the Crown, and now she is locked into battle with him. She has been locked into battle with him for almost seven years.
Stephen would never have been able to race to London to claim the Crown if Matilda had been in England at the time, not stranded in France with her child husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, who everyone agreed had descended from the daughter of Satan. She would never have had to marry a fourteen-yearold if her brother, William, had lived, instead of drowning in the Channel in 1120 on the White Ship, rowed across by drunken men who, in their drunkenness, hit a rock and holed the boat. Their father, Henry I, King of England, was so grief-stricken that he never smiled again, and decided to pass on the throne to his daughter, Matilda, even though it was unheard of for a woman to inherit the Crown and govern the realm.
Matilda would never have had to think about being Queen if her father hadn’t died suddenly. Her father wouldn’t have died suddenly if he’d listened to everyone around him and not eaten such a huge helping of stewed lamprey eels.
It is night at Oxford Castle. UsuallyMatilda makes the rounds, visits her men slouched by the narrow windows, their longbows leaned up against the stone, but tonight she is too weary, cannot think of anything appropriate to cheer them further onwards in her service, towards their very deaths, so she goes instead into the interior of the castle to find her maid, who will prepare her for sleep.
Her maid, Jane, is not in the room at the base of the tower. Matilda finds her out in the courtyard, staring up at the sky, Matilda’s nightshirt slung over her arm.
“Look, ma’am,” she says, as soon as she sees the Queen. “It’s snowing.”
So it is. Big, lacy flakes that swim down out of the darkness decorate the shoulders of the Queen’s maid.
“Ma’am,” says Jane. “The snow is the same colour as your nightshirt.”
Matilda takes her three strongest knights. They make a rope out of their leggings and they wait until the hour is the darkest, the snow is the thickest. They are lowered to the ground from one of the castle windows by the men they have left behind. All four of them are dressed in nightshirts and they move like ghosts, softly and slowly, towards the edge of the river.
The Thames is frozen. Matilda saw it freeze. These days and days of the siege, she has spent a good deal of time looking out at the enemy camped on the edge of the river. A week ago the temperature dropped, and now Stephen’s men walk up and down the ice on horseback. They have even built two fires there, near the shore.
In order to get to the other side of the river, Matilda and her three men will have to walk between those signal fires. They move in single file, a man in front, then Matilda, two men behind her. They move slowly and carefully, do not speak, keep close together.
Through the swirling snow, Matilda can see the glow of the fires, can hear the voices of Stephen’s army. If they can just pass between those fires they will cross to the middle of the river, out past the sentries, and from there they can walk to the other side. Matilda is equally opposed and equally supported by the people of Britain, and there will be someone who will help them, give them horses so they can ride to Wallingford, where her ally, Brien FitzCount, is waiting.
They are almost at the fires when a sentry on horseback comes towards them. They instantly stop, locked into position, heads bowed against their chests. They are wearing white bonnets and white nightgowns. The snow erases their bodies, but perhaps it doesn’t completely erase their outlines, for the sentry halts before them. Matilda can hear the horse breathing, can hear it snort. The horse knows that they’re there. She raises her head a little, can make out the upright figure of the man in the saddle. She sees him lift his arm, thinks he is going for his sword, but he blesses himself instead, blesses himself and rides right past them. He must have thought that they were ghosts.
In that moment when Matilda is standing perfectly still, trying to be invisible, she realizes that this is what she’s learned from the three months in the castle. She’s learned how to watch and wait. She’s learned how to choose what burns, how much heat there will be in her maid’s sewing box, in the wooden bowl that used to hold apples. She saw the river freeze, that moment when the water took hold of itself and wouldn’t let go. All this time she thought the siege was chaos, but she can see now that it was really calm masquerading as chaos. If she gets away, the control she thinks she has in riding to Wallingford, in going back into battle against Stephen — that will prove to be the real chaos.
Matilda holds her breath. She lets it go. The horseman has passed and the knight in front of her has begun to move them, once more, across the frozen river. There is nothing to do but go forward.
When Thomas goes into the storeroom behind the alehouse, he sees immediately that they are in trouble, rushes upstairs to wake his brother.
“Robert,” he says, shaking the blanket-covered lump on the bed by the wall. “Robert, wake up. The ale has frozen solid.”
It has been cold since Candlemas, and now, in the middle of February, the cold has just kept tightening its grip. It has moved deep inside every house, deep into the heart of every man.
Robert shucks his blanket in one angry movement. He cannot bear any more. There will never be a spring. He will never get warm. He sits on the edge of his bed, his head resting in his hands. A low moan escapes his lips.
Thomas is over by the small frost-encrusted window. “I suppose,” he says, his back to his brother, “that if the mighty Thames can freeze over, then something as trifling as ale could freeze as well.”
“We’re ruined,” says Robert, into the bowl of his hands.His breath snaps back at him, the only warmth there is in the room.
“I suppose,” says Thomas, “if we slept with the jugs of ale, we might be able to keep them warm.”
“We will perish,” says Robert, but Thomas doesn’t hear him, because he is still speaking into his hands, transfixed by the feeling of his own warm, used breath on his face.
“I doubt,” says Thomas, “that anyone will hold us to fault for such a thing. There has never been such a cold winter.”
“Cold winter,” says Robert, from the bed. “Freezing cold bloody awful winter.”
Thomas turns from the window, his face lit up with his sudden good idea. “I think,” he says, “there’s profits to be made here.”
At the mention of money, Robert perks up, lifts his head, and looks towards his younger brother. “How?” he says.
“When ale is frozen, it expands.We can’t sell it as we used to, but we can —” Thomas pauses for effect, even though he doesn’t need to, for Robert is listening intently. “We can start to sell it by weight instead of volume.”