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THE BRETON SPRING BORDERS, 1193
Hervi de Montroi was in his tent with an obliging whore and a pitcher of the strongest cider he could lay hands upon, when he received the news that his half-brother Alexander had ridden into the camp.
It had been raining since dawn, a damp grey mizzle that concealed the tourney field in the mist and chilled the grumbling knights through their cloaks and quilted gambesons to the bone. It was springtide in the world at large, but these Breton borderlands seemed to be suspended in a time of their own. Hervi would not have been surprised to see Arthur, Guinevere and the entire court of Camelot emerge on shadowy horses through the rain haze veiling the trees. Certainly less surprised than to be informed that the youth he had last seen as a child of eleven years old at their father's funeral, and whom he thought pursuing a career in the church, was awaiting him at the communal camp fire.
The soldier who had delivered the news, and almost had his head bitten off for his trouble, dropped the tent flap and returned to his dice game.
`Bones of Christ!' Hervi swore, and sat up on his straw pallet. His head swam, and he had to concentrate to focus. Raising the stone cider jug to his lips, he took several hard gulps.
The young woman at his side rolled on to her stomach and regarded him through a tangle of greasy blonde hair. Hervi wiped his mouth on his wrist and gave her the jug.
`You have to go?' She looked at him over the rim.
Alys was one of the many draggle-tailed women who followed the knights and soldiers from tourney to tourney, war to war, washing, cooking, pleasuring and tending. Some became wives, others belonged to any man with the money to pay for their services. Alys was one of the latter, but ambitious to change her status, and Hervi frequently took advantage of her striving. No more striving today, however.
`Unfortunately, sweetheart, I do,' he replied with a mingling of regret and irritation. Mindful of his buzzing head, he leaned over to draw on his hose and attach them to the leather straps on his braies.
`Let me do that.' Returning the jug, Alys knelt before him to secure the trousers to his undergarment. Her fingers brushed against his naked thighs and her full breasts undulated within her chemise.
Hervi closed his eyes and swallowed. `Stop that, you minx,' he groaned. `I can't present myself to the lad with this tent pole in my breeches!'
Alys giggled. Her hand closed playfully over the bulge at his crotch before he pulled away.
Hervi took another swig of cider, belched, then grimaced at the sour taste that filled his mouth. `Alexander.' He tested the name on his tongue and tried to interest his wits, but they had been bludgeoned from existence by a combination of drink and thwarted lust. Scowling, Hervi struggled into a shirt of stained yellow linen and laced the frayed drawstring. His mind held the image of a skinny, knock-kneed brat with thin features and huge hazel eyes beneath a mop of inky curls -- a changeling, all the other de Montrois being broad and brash and fair. But that memory was at least seven years old, and probably as stale as the garments he had just donned.
`A bold name,' said Alys huskily.
`You think so?' Hervi fished around for his boots. `Actually he was christened Alexandros to please his mother, but she was the only one who ever called him that.'
Alys raised her brows. `Alexandros?' Her tongue fumbled the ending. She had drunk as much cider as Hervi.
`It's Greek,' Hervi said with a shake of his head. `After he was widowed, my father went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but only got as far as the Bosphorus. He came home with some hairs from St Peter's beard, and Alexander's mother. We never thought he would remarry -- he already had five sons -- but he was an unpredictable old bastard, and I suppose that Anna was too exotic for him to resist. He always said that she was the greatest treasure in Constantinople.' Hervi wriggled his toes down into the boots. In one place the leather sole was almost worn through, and in another the stitches gaped to show flesh. `Ah, Christ,' he growled with a spurt of exasperation. `Never mind the treasures of Constantinople, what in the name of Christ's ten toes is the little fool doing here?'
`Perhaps he brings you family news?' Alys suggested, covering her short chemise with her patched linen gown.
`Hah, the only news to interest me would be that I had come into an inheritance, and since there is only Alexander behind me in the line, I doubt that.'
`Then let him wait.'
Hervi glanced at her with irritation. He preferred Alys when her mouth was not occupied in speech. `See if you can make some order of this chaos,' he said with a terse gesture around the small tent where scarcely an inch of floor was visible beneath the various items and debris of his nomadic existence.
She smiled and held out her palm. `Other services cost more,' she said sweetly.
Hervi scowled, fumbled down inside his shirt for the purse he wore against his skin and found her a small silver coin. `You're a leech, woman'.
`But it's not just blood I suck, is it?' she retorted provocatively as he stamped out of the tent into the soft noonday drizzle.
From the field beyond the tents came the muted thud of hooves bogged down in the soggy turf and the familiar crack of lance on shield as two knights practised their craft in preparation for the opening of the tourney in two days' time. Other eager beavers were about their swordplay, rusting their equipment so that they would have to spend all evening scouring and burnishing. Hervi had long since outlived such enthusiasm.
The first thing he saw as he approached the communal camp fire was the horse, its rib bones staring through the dull, mudencrusted hide. Hervi's mouth tightened. A beast in that condition was an indictment of any owner. The knight holding the bridle gave him an eloquent glance. Hervi met it with an arched brow and thrusting past him to the warmth of the flames was brought face to face with Alexander.
The young man was as tall and slender as a willow sapling, and shivering so hard that he had little control over his muscles. A cloak of once good blue wool, now dirty and threadbare, hung on his shoulders and was covered by a filthy shawl of coarse homespun for added warmth. A cheap bone pin, bereft of all detail, secured the shawl to the mantle. Tunic and chausses were thin and frayed, and the shoes were ten times worse than Hervi's own.
All this the older man assessed with one rapid glance. Nor did he miss the long knife at the lad's belt. The black hair was a dense tangle of eldritch curls, and beneath its heaviness, Hervi perceived the longboat bones of the de Montrois, sleek and bold, but malleable still with youth. The straight black brows, the caramel-honey eyes were the legacy of Alexander's Byzantine mother, as were the slender, monkish hands. But there was nothing remotely monkish about the rest of Alexander's appearance at the moment.
`Well,' Hervi's flippant tone shielded a host of conflicting emotions, `this is a surprise. To what do I owe this pleasure, assuming that I am indeed addressing my brother?'
The youth's pupils contracted. His throat bobbed convulsively. `I can prove it,' he answered hoarsely. Fumbling beneath the shawl and the cloak, he tugged out a leather cord on which hung a small Greek cross of gold set with cabochon amethysts. `It was my mother's. She brought it from Constantinople, and she always wore it on her breast, you know she did.'
Their fingers touched as the keepsake was passed across, and Hervi glimpsed angry red abrasions encircling the youth's wrists. The cross was warm from its bed against the boy's skin, its cord slightly damp. The gold gleamed in Hervi's palm, its richness speaking to him of wealth beyond his grasp. Beyond Alexander's too. Their father's Byzantine wife had been dowered with little more than this jewel and her exotic beauty.
`You need prove nothing, I know you are kin,' Hervi said brusquely, and returned the treasure. `Stow it back where it belongs and do not be too swift to show it about. Men are robbed and murdered for less.'
Alexander struggled and fumbled, his hands shaking almost beyond his control. An unwanted pang of tenderness and rage cut through Hervi's irritation. `What are you doing here, lad?' he asked on a gentler note. `This is no place for an aspiring monk.'
The eyes flashed wide and the mobile lips curled in a snarl. `I've never aspired to be a monk! I was pushed into the cloister against my will. I've left it and I'm never going back.' He sucked a rapid breath between his teeth. `I've come to join you instead.'
`You've what?' Hervi was aghast.
`I want to learn soldiering; I want to become a knight.'
Someone laughed, hastily turning the sound into a cough. Hervi's face grew grim, and his lips were so stiff that it was difficult to speak. `You won't learn at my fire,' he said brutally. `I'm a mercenary. I earn my bread by the strength of my arm and the skin of my teeth. I cannot afford to be hampered by an untutored weakling on the run from the cloister. Go to our brothers and seek your refuge there.'
`They'll only send me back to the church to be beaten again . . . if they don't beat me first,' Alexander retorted, his eyes blazing with glints of amber and topaz. `I'd rather starve!'
`You might have to,' Hervi growled, but his mind had settled on the disturbing words `beaten again' and linked them to the marks on Alexander's narrow wrists. He knew that he could not turn the lad away in this condition. He'd be dead within the week.
The drizzle increased, the cobweb veils turning to harder, individual drops, plump and cold. On the field the knights abandoned their practice. Banners dripped, impotent and limp, from the tops of tents, their brave colours water-stained and dark. Hervi cleared his throat.
`Best come and shelter inside the tent until the rain passes over,' he said testily. `But you need not think I am going to keep you.'
The young man inhaled to speak, but no words came. Instead, his eyes rolled upwards and his knees buckled. A lifetime of living on his wits catapulted Hervi forward to catch Alexander's falling weight before it struck the cauldron tripod. He was shocked at the lightness of the youth, the feel of bones uncushioned by flesh.
`Hey, Hervi, you make a good nursemaid!' crowed a balding knight with a heavy paunch.
`Shut your mouth, Osgar,' Hervi snarled.
The man holding Alexander's emaciated mount raised the bridle in his right hand to gain Hervi's attention. `I'll tether him with your others, shall I?'
`Do what you want with him, Arnaud,' Hervi said through his teeth. `Ride him in your next joust if you want!' A string of guffaws and good-natured insults ringing in his ears, Hervi threw Alexander over his shoulder and repaired to his tent.
Alys had found a besom from somewhere and was sweeping the debris into a corner with desultory strokes.
`Go to old Mildred and ask her for a flask of ginevra,' Hervi commanded brusquely.
The whore rolled her eyes heavenwards, leaned the besom against the tent pole and went out.
Hervi laid Alexander on the pallet and frowned down at him. What in God's name was he going to do with the lad? He had enough ado keeping his own body and soul together without the added burden of a green boy.
Alys returned with the ginevra and watched Hervi tug the blankets up to the youth's chin. `How is he going to swallow this?' she asked, doubtfully eyeing the wide rim of Hervi's horn into which she had just poured a generous measure of the colourless juniper brew.
`Jesu, wench, it's not for him!' snapped Hervi. `Can't you see he's out of his senses!' He snatched the horn from her hands and gulped at it, then choked on its burning strength.
Alys advanced to the pallet where, less than a quarter-candle since, she and Hervi had sported. Now the youth's long body occupied that space. He was as still and pale as death, his eye sockets bruised, his bones jutting at his flesh. `Is he truly your brother?'
`Of course he is. Would I give up my bed to a strange whelp not of my blood?' Hervi rested the horn on his thigh and pushed his free hand again and again through his hair. `Last I heard he was a novice monk at Cranwell Priory, but it doesn't look likely he'll wear a tonsure now, does it?'
Alys bit her lip. `What are you going to do?'
`Christ, how should I know!'
She considered him through narrowed lids. `You owe me for the ginevra.'
`And you owe me an afternoon's bed sport,' he retorted. `Count it even.'
She glared at him, but he ignored her, all his attention for the still form on the pallet. With a toss of her head, Alys flounced from the tent, leaving it half tidied.
The rain pattered down, enhancing the scents of new grass, of budding forest greenery, of fungus, damp and mould. Outside, cut off from him, Hervi could hear the rise and fall of conversation at the fire, a sudden shout of laughter, the dull thud of an axe splitting a log. He finished the ginevra in his horn, and with his belly full of fire, sought the flask.
Alexander moaned softly, and his eyelids flickered. Hervi thrust a muscular arm beneath his brother's shoulders and raised him up. `Drink,' he commanded.
Alexander choked and retched on the pungent strength of the liquor. Dusky colour flushed across his cheekbones, and his eyes brimmed.
`Steady, lad, steady,' Hervi gentled. `I know it's got a kick like an earl's boot, but you'll feel better for it in a moment.'
A grimace twisted Alexander's lips. `They used to brew this at Cranwell,' he croaked. `The infirmarian kept it locked up, but I stole an entire flask for a dare.' His gaze met Hervi's. `Then I drank the lot and was dog sick for three days.'
Hervi grunted. `Those monks must think themselves well rid of you.'
The grimace remained. `Not half as much as I think myself well rid of them.'
`You can't stay here, you know that.'
Alexander said nothing. An obdurate expression entered his eyes and his lips tightened. Hervi stared at the youth in perplexity. He had only known Alexander the child -- an engaging imp towards whom it had cost nothing to be casually affectionate. Alexander on the verge of manhood was a different prospect entirely. The little that Hervi had gleaned thus far suggested that he was dealing with someone who would push his body until it dropped. Strong-willed, stubborn, and reckless to the point of self-destruction; traits that could draw a man to the heights of achievement and then kick him over the edge of the abyss.
The tent flap opened on a draught of moist air. Hervi looked round, half expecting to see Alys returning for another assault on his purse, but instead found himself facing the far more daunting prospect of the wife and daughter of Arnaud de Cerizay, the knight who had taken charge of Alexander's horse.
`Lady Clemence?' he said with slight trepidation.
`Arnaud told us that your brother has come seeking succour and that he is sick,' said Clemence de Cerizay. `I have brought some hot pottage from our cauldron, and I thought you might want me to look at him.' Her voice was firm and clear, accustomed to being the authority of her family. She stood no taller than Hervi's pungent armpit, and her build was delicate, but the lady Clemence was another who possessed a will to beat down all others beneath it, no matter her bodily strength.
At fourteen, her daughter, Monday, was half a head taller than her mother and with unmistakable womanly curves. A shining plait of bronze-brown hair, thick as a bell rope, hung down her back, and her eyes were a clear, warm grey set beneath strongly marked brows. In her hands, protected by a swathe of quilted linen, was a wooden eating bowl filled with soup.
Hervi's stomach growled at the savoury aroma of the rising steam. `By all means,' he said with a wave of his hand, knowing that refusal was not an option.
Monday knelt gracefully beside the pallet with the soup while Clemence fetched Hervi's spare shield and used it as a support to prop up the invalid. Hervi hovered, feeling like an outcast in his own tent.
`You might as well know that Alys has gone off with Osgar,' Clemence said over her shoulder. `But I suppose you expected nothing less.'
Hervi shrugged and affected not to care. `I haven't got a bed now, anyway,' he said.
Clemence gave a reproving cluck. Her daughter set about feeding pottage to the invalid, whose hands were too shaky to manage a spoon for himself.
As Alexander consumed the hot food, his colour improved and the chills started to subside. `Thank you,' he said weakly to the girl. `The last food I ate was three days ago, and that was no more than mouldy bread and burned gruel.'
`What makes you think you'll eat any differently here?' Hervi snorted, and was immediately castigated by the mother, her blue eyes fierce.
`God save us, Hervi de Montroi, I hope that neither of us is ever thrown on your charity. He is your own brother. Don't you care?'
`Of course I care!' cried Hervi, and commenced tearing at his hair once more. `That's why I don't want him. He's run away from taking the tonsure. What earthly use is he going to be following the tourneys? How in God's name am I going to support him?'
Clemence de Cerizay rounded on Hervi with a tongue as sharp as a war sword. `If you had silver to waste on a gallon of cider and a slut like that Alys, then you have enough to keep the lad at least until he is well enough to send on to something better,' she said forcefully.
`I didn't ask for him to come seeking me like a stray pup.'
`No, but he is here, and he is your responsibility.'
On the pallet, the invalid closed his eyes. The girl pressed her palm to his forehead. `Mama, he's fallen asleep,' she said, leaning over him.
Her words filtered to Alexander through a haze thicker than the mizzle outside. The scents of dried lavender and woodsmoke drifted wraithlike through his awareness.
Another hand, rougher-skinned than the first, touched his brow and then the side of his neck. `A mite feverish,' Clemence said. `Keep him covered.'
The shield was removed from behind his back and he was eased down on to the straw pallet. Blankets were piled over him and their greasy, woollen smell filled his nostrils. Alexander kept his lids shut and they talked over him, as if he were not there. He learned nothing from their discussion that he did not already know -- he had lice and he stank. The sores on his wrists were caused by the abrasion of cords; he had run away from the ordered life of Cranwell Priory, and in its place had chosen the dangers of the open road.
Heat prickled behind his lids and leaked through his lashes. He prayed for oblivion, but not as the monks had taught him to pray.
He dreamed that he was back at Cranwell, descending the dark dorter stairs to matins in the chapel. Cold stone beneath his feet, his breath a white mist in the midnight deep. Another cowled figure brushed against him. Fingers groped at his genitals and whispered an obscenity in his ear. In blind panic he struck out, landing a solid blow in the concealed softness of the other's eye socket.
There was a cry, the scuffle of feet struggling for balance, and then the bump, bump of a body tumbling down the stairs. His assailant's descent into what would have been serious injury or death was intercepted by two other novices further down the dark stairway.
In the flickering glimmer from a wax taper, Alexander found himself looking into the battered, vindictive features of Brother Alkmund, the sub-prior, and knew that his doom was sealed. He tried to run, but he was trapped on the stairs and seized. They twisted his arms behind his back and bound his wrists with rawhide cords. Then they cast him into the dank cells beneath the priory latrines, there to await his punishment.
He stood accused of the attempted murder of the sub-prior, and he knew that no one would believe that he had struck out in self-defence. He possessed a reputation that would preclude all mercy. Past crimes included stealing and drinking the infirmarian's store of medicinal ginevra, writing secular love poems in the scriptorium and singing them in the cloisters. Then there had been two attempts to escape, and gross insubordination to the rule when captured, resulting in a severe scourging. The list damned him out of hand. They had shown him lenience before. The raised pink and white welts on his back were a testament to how lenient they could be.
The fetid, musty smell of damp stone invaded his nostrils. He felt as if he had been buried alive. Faces leered at him -- skulls clothed in cowls. Skeletons clattered out of the walls and performed the dance of death before his eyes, urging him to caper with them. In blind terror he ran towards the door, but his escape was barred by Brother Alkmund, a hoop of keys taunting on his forefinger.
Alexander felt bony arms close around him from behind and draw him towards the oozing prison wall. He screamed and resisted, striving to free his wrists of the cords while they bit deeper and deeper.
`Ah, Christ,' swore one of the skeletons irritably. `How am I supposed to sleep with you making so much noise?' It shook him by the shoulder, and its foul breath filled his face, making him gag.
`Alex, you purblind fool, it's a dream, only a dream!' The shaking grew more agitated. One by one the skeletons rattled into the wall and vanished, dragging Brother Alkmund in their wake. On a huge gulp of air, Alexander surfaced from the nightmare like a swimmer too long underwater.
In the light from a tallow cresset lamp, Hervi's face loomed anxiously over his. Alexander felt the fierce pain of fully fleshed fingers digging into his shoulder.
`God's eyes!' Hervi swore. `You were screaming fit to rouse the dead!' There was fear in his voice and his eye whites gleamed.
Alexander laughed weakly at his brother's choice of words, but there was little humour in the sound. Sweat-drenched, he lay back against the lumpy bracken pillow. `You're hurting me,' he protested.
The fingers relaxed their pressure. A moment later the rim of a goblet was rested on his lips. Remembering the ginevra he hesitated, but when he realised that the liquid was nothing more threatening than cool, watered wine, he took a long, grateful drink.
`Do you want me to leave the light?' Hervi asked awkwardly.
`It doesn't matter . . . won't make any difference.'
`Then I'll leave it.'
Alexander turned his head and saw that his brother had assembled a makeshift pallet beside the one that should rightfully be his. `I didn't mean to wake you,' he apologised.
`You could have fooled me.' Hervi lay down again, thumped the rolled-up tunic that was serving as his pillow, and hunched his cloak around his shoulders.
For a while Alexander stared at the canvas roof of the tent, watching the flicker of lamp shadows. Beside him, Hervi snored. The sound, the surroundings, despite their squalor, were oddly comforting. Alexander's eyelids drooped, and before long, he was deep in an exhausted slumber.
Posted April 11, 2003
There are 2 very different authors writing under the name Elizabeth Chadwick. Do not be fooled by the other. This was the 1st book I read by this 'English Author' Elizabeth Chadwick...but not my last. Champion sucked me into the period and never let go. You could walk through the muddy camps and KNOW the feeling of loss and despair when a friend dies. Monday is in love with the dashing Alexander...and one night she gives into the passion (although Alexander is drunk). His reputation as a lover pushes Monday to run away after that night of passion only to discover that she is pregnant. She finds her way to her cold Grandfather and Royal castle life. ....And years later FATE brings Alexander & Monday together again. This time attraction and love come to them with startling clarity. Revenge, Intrigue, and breathtaking passion come alive in this amazing piece of historical fiction. Don't miss any of this author's books...I haven't!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 3, 2009
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Posted May 31, 2009
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