Read an Excerpt
The Palace of Westminster, December 1184
Although it was not much past midday, the murky winter afternoon was already yielding to dusk. The sleety rain, which had put a stop to weapons practice outside, hurled against the shutters like glass needles. Every torch and sconce was ablaze, every brazier in use. Beyond their puddles of light and warmth, in the stairwells and dark walkways of Westminster's sprawl of buildings, a dank chill waited to envelop anyone foolish enough to step outside without a cloak.
Seated in a window embrasure of the White Hall, Fulke listened to the growl of the wind and buffed his new shield to smooth the scores and scratches sustained that morning. His father had given it to him at Martinmas when Fulke had turned fifteen, a man's accoutrement quartered in the FitzWarin colors of indented red and white.
"Hah, sixes, I win!" cried a triumphant voice.
Raising his head from the shield Fulke glanced over at the dice game which was occupying Prince John and the other squires of Ranulf de Glanville's retinue. Money chinked as a curly-haired squire swept a pile of coins from the trestle into the palm of his hand. Prince John, who was almost eighteen, scowled and reached into the pouch at his belt to toss more silver onto the board.
Fulke might have joined them except he had no more than a silver halfpenny to his name. Had the sport been arm wrestling he would have taken part. Unlike Madame Fortune, skill and brawn were dependable and he possessed an abundance of both.
The other lads had called him bumpkin and clod when he arrived from the Welsh Marches nine months ago. They had stolen his clothes, tripped him on the stairs, and emptied a piss-pot over him while he slept. It had taken them a week to learn the hard way that whatever Fulke received was returned twofold. They still called him bumpkin, but these days it was a nickname, a sign of acceptance into their company, if not their rank.
That he had a position in John's retinue was by way of a favor to his father from King Henry who valued the loyalty of the FitzWarin family. Fulke knew that John would never have chosen him for a companion, and the feeling was mutual.
Fulke looked again at the dice players. John caught his eye and glowered. "In Christ's name, stop making love to that accursed shield and bring some more wine." He waved his empty cup at Fulke. An amethyst ring flashed on his middle finger.
"Sir." Fulke laid his shield carefully aside, fetched the flagon from the sideboard, and approached the game.
"Fancy your chances, Bumpkin?" asked the curly-haired squire.
Fulke smiled, his flint-hazel eyes brightening. "I fancy yours more, Girard." He nodded at the new pile of coins on the trestle. "I'll arm wrestle you for them if you like." Having poured the wine into John's cup, he left the flagon for the others to help themselves.
Girard snorted. "I'm not falling for that one again!"
Fulke's smile broadened into a grin and he flexed his forearm where rapidly developing muscle tightened the sleeve. "That's a pity."
Girard made a rude gesture and scooped up the dice. Fulke stayed to watch him throw a total of three and lose his winnings, then sauntered back to the window embrasure and his shield. Two padded benches sat either side of the latched shutters and between them was a gaming table on which John's tutor, Master Glanville, had placed a heavy wooden chessboard.
Leaning on his shield, Fulke contemplated the ivory pieces with a feeling of nostalgia bordering on homesickness. He imagined his family's manor at Lambourn: the faces of his brothers etched in firelight as they played knucklebones by the hearth; his mother sewing by the light of a sconce; he and his father playing chess in an embrasure just like this one, his father's brow puckering as he considered his next move. Fulke knew he was gilding the image for his present comfort but, there was still an underlying truth and solidity to the picture. While not wretchedly homesick, he missed the warmth and companionship of his family. He often thought it a pity that his father's next move had been to send him here to learn the skills of knighthood among the highest in the land.
"It is a great honor that King Henry has done our family," Fulke le Brun had said to him last spring having returned from attendance at court. "Not only will you be tutored by Ranulf Glanville the Justiciar, but he will mingle with men of influence who may be able to help us." Fulke could remember the flush to his father's sallow complexion, the spark of ambition in the deep brown eyes. "Whittington could be ours again."
"What's Whittington?" Fulke's youngest brother Alain had piped up. He was only four years old and unlike the older boys had yet to have the FitzWarin cause célèbre drummed into him blood and bone.
"It's a castle and lands belonging to us," said their mother, gathering Alain into her arms. "Your papa's family held it in the days of the first King Henry, but then it was taken away from them during a war and never restored. Your papa has been trying to get it back for a long time." It was a tale told in simple terms that a small child could understand, and her voice was level, omitting the antagonism and bitterness that had built and festered over the years of striving.
"Too long," said Fulke le Brun. "Roger de Powys claims Whittington as his, but he has no right."
"If King Henry loves you enough to make me Prince John's attendant, why doesn't he give you Whittington?" Fulke had wanted to know.
"It is not as simple as the King's word," his father had said. "Our right has to be proven in a court of law and sometimes if a matter is awkward or seen as a mere quibble, it is pushed aside for more pressing concerns. God knows I have tried. The King has made promises, but it is not as important a matter to him as it is to me." He had looked intensely at Fulke and gripped his shoulder, man to man. "Ranulf de Glanville is well positioned to hear our plea, and he will be your tutor. Do your best for him, and he will do his best for you."
And Fulke had done his best because it was not within his nature to shirk and he had as much pride as his father. His ability to fathom accounts had increased beyond all measure beneath the Justiciar's instruction and he had picked up the broader points of Latin and law. What Master Glanville made of him, however, he did not know for his tutor was a solemn man in late middle age, not much given to open praise.
Fulke pushed his hair off his forehead and grimaced. He was not sure that being educated at court was a grand privilege at all. Being at Prince John's beck and call was a nightmare. At home, Fulke was the heir to his father's lands, cherished, sure of his status, lording it affectionately over his five brothers. Here he was of minor rank, a nobody to be used as John saw fit.
There was a sudden flurry at the dice table as Prince John shot to his feet sending the flagon that Fulke had so recently replenished crashing to the floor. "You thieving sons of whores, get out, all of you!" John gestured wildly at the door. "You're all leeches. There's not one of you worth a pot of piss!"
Fulke slid out of his corner and started to follow the other squires from the chamber.
"Not you, Bumpkin," John snarled. "Get me some more wine."
"Sir." Expression blank, Fulke stooped to the flagon in the rushes near John's feet. An ugly dent married its silver-gilt belly.
"You shouldn't have left it on the table," John said petulantly. "It's all your fault and you can pay for a new one."
It would have been wiser to keep quiet but Fulke refused to bow to tyranny. "That is unjust, sir."
John eyed him through narrowed lids. "Are you arguing with me?"
Fulke stood up, the damaged flagon in his hand. "It is true that I left the flagon here when I should have replaced it on the sideboard, but I did not knock it off the table."
John jabbed a warning forefinger. "You'll pay and that's an end to it. Now fetch more wine and make haste."
Scarcely bothering to bow, Fulke strode from the room. Despite the winter chill, he was scalding with fury. "I won't pay him a single fourthing," he muttered as he flung into the hall beyond the chamber and marched down its length to the butler's table at the far end.
"For Prince John," he said woodenly to the attendant.
The butler eyed the damage with pursed disapproval. "How did this happen?"
"An accident." Even though Fulke wanted to throttle John, honor and discretion fettered his tongue in front of others.
"That's the third ‘accident' this month then." The butler set the flagon beneath a wine tun and turned the spigot. "These flagons don't grow on trees, you know. Cost half a mark each, they do."
Close on seven shillings, Fulke thought grimly: a week's wages for a mounted sergeant and beyond his own reach unless he appealed to his father or spent an entire week arm wrestling for the funds.
Although John had bid him make haste, Fulke lingered over his return to the royal apartment, giving his anger time to cool. He was partially successful. By the time he banged on the door and entered with the flagon, his resentment had banked to a smolder.
John had unlatched the shutters by the chessboard and was leaning against the window splay, gazing into the stormy dusk. Darts of wind-driven sleet hurled past the embrasure. The courtyards and alleys were in darkness-no torch would remain lit in this weather-but there were glimmers and flickers of light from the occupied halls, and the watchmen had built a brazier in a sheltered corner of the ward. Further away, the windows of the great abbey glittered like dark jewels.
John turned, one fist curled around his belt, the other resting on the shutter. "You took your time."
"There were others waiting the butler's service, sir," Fulke lied and poured wine into John's cup. "Do you want me to leave now?" He tried to keep the hopeful note from his voice but knew he hadn't succeeded when he saw John's expression grow narrow and mean.
"No, you can stay and keep me company. You do little enough to earn your supper." The Prince gestured to the flagon. "Pour yourself a measure. I don't like to drink alone."
Fulke reluctantly tilted a couple of swallows into one of the squires' empty cups. The wind whipped the wall hangings and the candles guttered in the sconces, threatening to blow out and leave them in darkness.
"How many brothers do you have?"
Fulke blinked, unsure what to make of the Prince's mood except to know that it was ugly. "Five, sir."
"And what do they inherit?"
"I do not know. That is for my father to say."
"Oh come now. You are his heir. Everything will go to you."
Fulke shrugged. "That may be true, but none of my brothers will go wanting."
"And you think there will be no resentment that you receive the lion's share?"
"Not enough to cause a lasting rift between us," Fulke said. "Even if I quarrel with my brothers on occasion, blood is still thicker than water."
John snorted with sour amusement. "Is it indeed?"
"In my family it is." Fulke took a mouthful of wine and knew that he was standing on perilous ground. John was the youngest of Henry's children, born after the family inheritance had been apportioned among the other sons, none of whom was willing to give up one iota of what was theirs. John Lackland he was called, often to his face. Glancing at the wild, dark night, feeling the sting of wind-borne sleet against his skin, Fulke began to understand. And that he, in his favored position of eldest son, his inheritance secure, was being made a scapegoat. "My father says we are one body. The head cannot function without a torso or limbs. What you do to one, you do to all."
"My father says," John mimicked. "Christ, do you know how often you trot that out?"
Fulke flushed. "If I do it is because he speaks sense."
"Or perhaps because you are a child who has not learned to think for himself." John cast him a scornful look and closed the shutters on the wildness outside. The candles ceased to gutter and a sudden silence settled over the room, permeated with the smoky scent of burning wax. The Prince sat down moodily at the chessboard and fingered one of the bishops. "What do you say to a wager, Bumpkin?" John gestured to the chessboard.
"A wager?" Fulke's heart sank.
"Defeat me at chess and I'll let you off the price of the flagon."
Fulke did not miss the taunting note in John's voice. The Prince was an accomplished chess player and his skills had been honed by their tutor Master Glanville, whose incisive intelligence had led to him being appointed Justiciar. Fulke's own skills were erratic, developed not so much from logic and instruction as enjoyment of the game and the ability to think fast on his feet.
"If you wish it, sir," he said with resignation and sat down.
John smiled and swiveled the checkered board so that the white pieces were his. "My move first," he said.
Fulke knew that whatever he did, he could not win. If he lost to John then he would have to find the price of the flagon. If he were victorious, John would find other, subtle, malicious ways of punishing him. The safest ploy was to lose as quickly as possible and then lather the Prince in flattery. It was what any of the other squires would do.
Fulke reached to a knight, fully intending to give John the conquest, but against the main tide of his will, a perverse cross-current altered the move, and it became an open challenge.
John narrowed his eyes. "Where did you learn that one?"
"From my father," Fulke said to be irritating. It was strange. Now that battle was joined, he could feel the certainty and arrogance of that cross-current growing within him, becoming his true self. He was as good as John, but in a different way, that was all. If he played by John's tactics, he would be defeated whatever the outcome. But if he played to his own rules, then he was free and damn the consequences.
John tried to maneuver him into a corner but Fulke kept his distance, making little sallies that constantly ruined John's strategy. The Prince grew increasingly frustrated, as much by Fulke's audacious baiting as by the fact that he was unable to pin him down. He swallowed two more cups of wine; he fiddled with his ring and tugged at the sparse growth of black beard on his chin, his expression growing stormier by the moment.
Fulke moved a bishop. "Check," he said. And it would be mate in two moves, neither of which his opponent could circumvent.
John gaped in disbelieving fury. His eyes flickered, calculating the moves just as Fulke had done. "I suppose your father taught you to cheat too," he sneered.
Fulke clenched his fists and struggled for the control not to knock John's teeth down his throat. "I have won fairly. You have no right to missay my family's honor as an excuse for losing."
John sprang to his feet. A wild swipe of his fist scattered the chess pieces far and wide. "I have the right to do anything I want!"
"Not to me and mine!" Fulke jumped up too, his eyes dark with fury. "You're a king's son by birth, but just now I would accord a gutter sweeping more respect than you!"
John roared. Grabbing the chessboard in both hands, he slammed it with all his strength into Fulke's face.
Fulke's nose crunched. He reeled from the sudden violence of the blow, a white numbness spreading from the impact and overlaid by the heat of gushing blood. Raising his hand to his face, he brought it away and looked at his red fingers in astonishment.
John lunged at him again. Fulke ducked the blow and lashed out with his feet. John staggered. The ball of his foot rolled on one of the chess pieces and he crashed backward, his skull striking the plastered wall with a dull thud. His knees crumpled and he hit the floor like a poled ox.
"Christ, bloody Christ!" Fulke panted and, stanching his nose on his sleeve, staggered over to John's prone body. His first thought was that he had killed him, but then he saw the Prince's chest rise and fall and felt the hard pulse beat against the throat laces of John's shirt.
Anger and shock churned Fulke's stomach. "Sir, wake up!" He shook the Prince's shoulder in growing fear.
John groaned but did not open his eyes. Blood splashed from Fulke's nose on to the costly blue tunic and soaked in. Fulke staggered to the sideboard, poured a measure of wine, and brought it to John. Raising him by the shoulders, he dabbed John's lips.
The latch clicked and the door suddenly opened. Ranulf de Glanville and his nephew Theobald Walter, who was John's tutor in arms, stopped on the threshold and stared.
"God's bones!" Theobald Walter's gray gaze widened with astonishment. "What goes forth here?"
Fulke swallowed. "My lord John struck his head, and I cannot rouse him." His voice buzzed in his ears, the intonation thick with the blood that was clotting in his nose.
"And how did he come to do that?" Lord Walter advanced into the room, his tread firm with authority. The practice gambeson of the morning had been replaced by an ankle-length court tunic of crimson wool. He still wore his sword, but as a mark of rank, not because he expected to use it. Behind him, Ranulf de Glanville prudently closed the door.
"I...we...there was a disagreement and we had a fight," Fulke said, feeling wretched. A massive pain had begun to hammer between his eyes.
Lord Walter gave him the same assessing look with which he scrutinized the squires on the practice field. "A fight," he repeated. His voice was quiet and pleasant. Theobald Walter never shouted. A single twitch of an eyebrow, a brightening glare was all it took to bring the squires into line. "About what?" He knelt at Fulke's side, his knees cracking slightly as he bent them. At nine and thirty, he was wearing well, but the English winters took their toll, as they did on every man.
Fulke compressed his lips.
"Don't clam up on me, lad," Lord Walter said sharply. "The truth will serve you better than silence." He turned John's head gently to one side and found the swelling bruise beneath his hair. Then he sniffed the Prince's breath and pulled back with a grimace.
Fulke met the Baron's eyes without evasion. During lessons in weapon play, Theobald had shown himself fair and patient. "The Prince accused me of cheating at chess and when I denied it, he struck me with the board. I..." He clenched his jaw. "I hit out to defend myself and he fell backward and struck his head."
"How bad is it?" Rubbing his neat gray beard, de Glanville came to stand at John's feet. His face wore an incongruous mixture of alarm and distaste.
"There's a lump the size of a baby on the back of his head, but I don't believe there's cause to send for a priest just yet. Part of the reason he's insensible is that he's as soused as a pickled herring." Theobald glanced briefly at his uncle then back to Fulke. "This lad's nose is never going to sit as prettily on his face as it did this morning."
De Glanville stooped to pick up the chessboard and studied the crack running through the middle. "Where is everyone else?" he demanded.
"The Prince dismissed them, sir." Fulke faced the Justiciar, feeling like an erring soul before the throne of God on judgment day. "I would have gone too, but he wanted more wine...and then he wanted me to play chess with him."
John groaned and opened his eyes. They focused precariously on Fulke who was still leaning over him. "You misbegotten son of a misbegotten whore!" he gasped, then rolled over and vomited the results of an afternoon's drinking into the rushes. "I'll have your hide for this!"
"You are in no fit state to have anything but a split skull, sire," de Glanville said coldly. He jerked his head at Theobald. "Take FitzWarin out of here and clean him up. While you're about it, see if you can find His Highness's other attendants. We'll sort this out later."
Theobald rose, drawing Fulke with him. "Come," he said in a brusque but not unkind voice.
"I want to see my father!" John was demanding with vicious petulance as Theobald ushered Fulke from the room and led him down the great hall attached to John's chamber. Pain beat in hot rhythm between his eyes and he had to breathe through his mouth, a metallic essence of blood cloying his palate. "Will he really go to the King?"
Theobald had no comfort for him. "Knowing Prince John, I do not doubt it."
Fulke pressed the back of his hand beneath his nose and gazed at the resulting red smudge. "I suppose I will be dismissed from Prince John's household," he said.
"Quite likely." Theobald gave him a sidelong glance. "But would you want to stay after this?"
"My father says that being educated at King Henry's court is an opportunity without price, and a great honor for our family." As the words left his mouth, Fulke realized that John's earlier taunt had substance. He was always quoting his father.
"He's right," Theobald said grimly, "except about the price."
"Nothing." Theobald suddenly stopped and with a grunt of mingled satisfaction and annoyance, turned sharply to the left.
Within one of the bays formed by the pillars supporting the hall, Fulke saw that the dice game was still in progress. Girard de Malfee was winning again.
"That's enough." Theobald stepped among them, his hands gripping his sword belt. "Go and attend your master."
"But he sent us out, my lord," Girard objected, his voice overloud with drink.
"Well, I'm sending you back in, and my lord Glanville awaits you there. Go on, all of you, or I'll have you polishing helmets for a sennight. And you can leave that flagon out here. There's been enough damage caused already.
With bad grace, Girard began pouching his winnings. At one point he looked up to argue with Theobald and belatedly caught sight of Fulke.
"Holy Christ, Bumpkin, what's happened to you?"
All the squires stared.
"I tripped," Fulke said.
Theobald jerked his thumb. "Now," he snapped.
The boys departed in a tipsy clutter and Theobald shook his head like a goaded bull. "God preserve me in my dotage that I should ever have to rely on wastrels such as them," he growled.
Fulke swayed. Theobald grabbed him. "Steady, lad. Come on, buck yourself up. You're not a wench to faint on me."
Fulke's eyes darkened at the jibe. He braced his spine. "I'm all right, my lord." It wasn't true, but his pride and the strength of Theobald's arm bore him up.
A glint of approval kindled in the Baron's gray eyes. "Yes," he said. "Amongst those worthless dolts, I think you're the only one who is."