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January 1174Lodgings in the merchants' quarter of Troyes, in the County of Champagne.
It was mild for January, and the shutters were open to make the most of the light. As Clare helped Nicola to move from her cot to the bench by the table, she was given a warm smile. Clare's heart liftedNicola was weak and ill, and her smiles were precious.
'I see you had a visitor while I was at market,' Clare said.
Nicola grunted and eased back against the planked wall. 'So I did, and it wasn't just any visitor, it was a nobleman. A nobleman with a gift. It's of no use to me, but you and Nell might enjoy it. I wanted to tell you before I told Nell. There's no point in getting her overexcited if you refuse to take her. I know how you fret every time you leave the house.'
'A gift?' Clare settled a blanket around Nicola's knees. Whoever Nicola's mysterious visitor had beenCount Lucien, perhaps?he had clearly done her good. Nicola's eyes were brighter than they had been in months, she almost looked happy. Clare waited, Nicola would soon confirm the identity of her visitorsince Geoffrey's death, there had been no secrets between them. 'You are comfortable? If you're in a draught, I can close that shutter.'
'Lord, no, leave it open, there's little enough light at this time of year.'
Clare removed the simple linen veil she invariably wore when going to market, and hung it on the hook, over her cloak. A strand of copper-coloured hair swung forwards. As she hooked it back into its plait, she glanced at the fire. It was burning low. A thin blue haze wound up to a vent in the rafters. 'Shall I build up the fire?'
'Clare, I'm fine. Save the wood until evening.'
Nodding, Clare lifted a basket on to the table and began to unload it. Flour. Cheese. A handful of withered pears. Onions. Dried beans. And, thanks to the generosity of Geoffrey's liege lord, Count Lucien, some salt pork and dried fish.
'No eggs?' Nicola asked.
'The price was madness. I'll try again tomorrow, although I fear they won't be cheap until spring.' She glanced at Nicola. 'Well? What is this mysterious gift?'
Nicola fumbled in her purse and slapped a coin on the table.
'Money.' Despite herself, Clare's voice was flat. 'Lord d'Aveyron has been here again.'
Every time Clare thought of Lucien Vernon, Count d'Aveyron, she couldn't help but remember Geoffrey's folly. His recklessness. Geoffrey had made some devil's pact with a gang of thieves. Clare knew he had done it to help his motherbefore his death he had confessed the whole. She also knew that Geoffrey had lived to regret it. He had tried to make amends, but the moment he had tried to wriggle out of the arrangement, he had signed his own death warrant. The thieves had killed him.
Clare knew about Geoffrey's dealings with outlaws, as did Count Lucien. Nicola, on the other hand, did notshe lived in happy ignorance of her son's fatal lapse of judgement. And as far as Clare was concerned, that was exactly how it should be. Nicola wouldn't learn of Geoffrey's shame from herin her fragile state, it would likely kill her. Thus far, Count Lucien hadn't breathed a word about Geoffrey's transgression, but Clare dreaded his visits. Geoffrey had been one of Count Lucien's household knights, and she was afraid that one day, the Count would let something slip
'There's no need to look like that,' Nicola said, sliding the coin towards her. 'The Count is a good man, and he honours Geoffrey's memory by keeping an eye on his mother. This isn't money. Look closely.'
Setting the pears in a wooden bowl, Clare reached for the coin and saw that it wasn't a coin at all. It was larger than a penny and made of lead rather than silver. 'It's a token.'
A picture of Troyes Castle was stamped solidly on one face; on the other was the image of a knight charging at full tilt. Clare's stomach tightened and she put the token back on the table with a decisive snap. 'I hope that's not what I think it is.'
Some of the light went out of Nicola's eyes. 'That token gives entry to the stands at the Twelfth Night Joustthe seated area near the ladies. Clare, I thought ' Nicola paused ' I hoped you'd want to go. Particularly if you had a seat on the ladies' benches. You'd be safe there.'
Clare stared at the coin and repressed the urge to take a swift step backwards. The Twelfth Night Joust. Ever since the year had turned, the town had been talking of little else. 'I can't go.'
'It would do you good. The only time you leave the house is when you go to market. I thought'
'Nicola, I go to market because we would starve if I didn't, I don't go because I like it.'
'You're afraid to go abroad, even after all this time.'
Clare's chin went up. 'Wouldn't you be, if you were me?'
Nicola shook her head and sighed. 'Yes. No. I don't know.' Her gaze sharpened. 'I do know that you're young and you can't hide for ever. I thought you were happy here.'
'I am, but'
'This is your homeyou are safe in Troyes.'
'Thank you for the thought, but I don't want to go.' Clare tapped the token with her fingernail. 'Nicola, you could get good money for this, people are fighting to get their hands on them.'
Nicola's eyes filled. 'Nell would love to see the Twelfth Night Joustyou know she adores watching the knights. They remind her of Geoffrey.'
Clare narrowed her eyes. That was a low blow and Nicola knew it. 'Nell can go with someone else. Speaking of Nell, where is she?'
'Taking yarn round to Aimée's.'
'Couldn't Aimée take her to the joust?'
Nicola made a pleading gesture. 'I would much rather she went with you. Clare, please. Nell's a child and I'm afraid that when she is grown she will have forgotten Geoffrey. I want her to be able to remember him. If she sees a joust, it will strengthen her memory.'
'Strengthen her memory?'
'When you get there you can tell her about him. Explain what's happening. Let her see she can be proud of her brotheran ordinary boy, who received his spurs. I want her to be able to remember him, the brother who didn't forget his mother in her hour of need.'
On the table, the lead token gleamed like a baleful eye. Regret and sorrow held Clare's tongue. This was becoming awkward. Nicola's pride in her son was almost all she had and Clare wasn't about to take that away from her. She felt herself weaken.
Geoffrey had made many mistakes in his life, but as far as Clare was concerned he was a Good Samaritan. He'd given hera complete strangera roof over her head. He'd trusted her to look after his mother. For all his flaws, Geoffrey had loved his mother dearly and Clare knew he would want her to honour his mother's wishes.
Taking Nell to the Twelfth Night Joust was, on the surface, a small favour. On the surface.
'Nicola, what if the joust distresses her? There might be bloodshed.' Clare repressed a shudder. True, the Twelfth Night Joust was reputed to be more of a show than a battle. A show put on for the ladies of Champagne. But it was still a joust. There would be fighting and Clare couldn't stand the sight of blood. It reminded her of of things best forgotten. Pushing that dark memory to the back of her mind, she had to swallow before she could continue. 'Nell might remember that her brother lost his life at a tournament.'
'Geoffrey wasn't killed in the lists. Count Lucien explained how he was killed preventing an attack on Countess Isobel. That is entirely different, and Nell knows it. Please take her, Clare, she'd love to go with you.'
'The Twelfth Night Joust,' Clare murmured, shaking her head. 'Holy Virgin, give me strength.' What Nicola was asking was no light thing. Never mind that she didn't like going abroad, she wasn't sure she trusted herself if the violence got out of hand. An image of bloodstains darkening a man's tunic swam before her. She might faint. Ormore likelybecome sick. If there was bloodshed, she was bound to draw attention to herself.. 'Please, Clare. Please.'
Clare reached for the token and her heart turned over as she slipped it into her purse. 'Very well. For you, I shall take Nell to the Twelfth Night Joust.'
Nicola's face lightened. 'Thank you, my dear, I am sure you will enjoy it when you get there. Pass me my spindle and wool, would you? I don't like being idle.'
Soon the gentle rattle and whir of a drop spindle filled the room. Nicola's fingers were no longer nimble and she tired quickly. The finished yarn was likely to have many bumps and imperfections in it, but Clare knew she found solace in her work. And it wasn't as if the resulting yarn was unusable, Nicola's neighbour Aimée wove a surprisingly serviceable homespun out of it. Alexandrian brocade it was not, but the flaws gave stuff made from Nicola's yarn an unusual texture that was oddly appealing. The titled ladies Clare would be rubbing shoulders with on the stands would likely turn their noses up at such cloth, but Clare was more than happy to wear it.
As Clare watched Nicole's aged fingers twisting the yarn, she had a strange thought. If all imperfection was eradicated from the world, it would be a much poorer place.
Sir Arthur Ferrer, Captain of Count Henry's Guardian Knights, stood in his green pavilion while his squire laced him into his gambeson and sighed. All these years he had waited to have his own pavilion and now that he finally had one, what should he find? He missed the company of his fellow knights. He missed the banter and he missed the rivalry.
'Holy hell,' he muttered, shoving his hand through his dark hair.
His squire, Ivo, looked up. 'Too tight, sir?'
Arthur flexed his shoulders and smiled. 'No, it's perfect. My thanks, Ivo.'
Since the Winter Fair had ended, the town had emptied and there were fewer troublemakers to deal with. None the less, Arthur was conscious of a growing sense of malaise. He couldn't account for it. It wasn't that he had little to dohe'd be the last to say the streets of Troyes had been entirely cleared of wrongdoers. Human nature being what it was, that day would probably never dawn, but
The door flap pushed back. A head that was as fair as Arthur's was dark appeared in the opening.
'Gawain!' Mood lifting, Arthur gestured him in. 'Welcome.'
Sir Gawain stooped to enter and went to the trestle where he made a show of reviewing Arthur's arms. 'Saw the unicorn on the pennon and realised you'd be in here.' Idly, he picked up Arthur's damascened sword, testing its weight. 'Is this the one your father made?'
Arthur tensed and forced himself to relax. Gawain was a friend and there had been no mockery in his voice, but one could never be sure. 'Yes.'
'It's a fine sword, it has wonderful balance. Will you be using it?'
'Not today, I'm holding it in reserve for a real fight. Are you competing, Gawain? I didn't see your pavilion.'
'I'm sharing Luc's, which is a mistake. It's hellishly crowded.'
'If you can stand some less exalted company, you are welcome to join me.'
'My thanks, I don't mind if I do. Give me a moment, while I find my squire.'
Ducking out of the pavilion, Gawain vanished. He was back, squire in tow, before Arthur had belted on his sword.
'I've yet to speak to Luc,' Arthur said, as Ivo cleared space on the trestle for Gawain's arms. 'How do matters stand at Ravenshold? Is all well?'
Sir Gawain was steward of Count Lucien d'Aveyron's nearby castle, Ravenshold. It was a position Arthur had occupied until recently, when he had resigned to join the Guardian Knights.
'Well enough.' Gawain spoke lightly, but his mouth proclaimed him a liarit was turned down at the corners.
Arthur looked thoughtfully at him. Gawain looked as though he hadn't slept in days. 'I hear Countess Isobel is to be Queen of the Tournament.'
'Aye, she's handing out the prizes,' Gawain said, staring moodily at the turf. 'Can't remember if I've asked you this already, Arthur, but you haven't seen Countess Iso-bel's maid, Elise, have you?'
'Elise? I don't think I know her.'
Gawain swore softly. 'Dark girl. Shy.'
'It's not like you to mislay a woman.' Arthur would have said more, but something in Gawain's expression stopped him.
Arthur had never seen Gawain look so down in the mouth. Surely he was not pining for a maid? Impossible. 'What you need, my friend, is a visit to the Black Boar. They've got a new wench, name of Gabrielle'
Gawain laughed. To Arthur's ears the sound was a trifle strained.
'You've learned her name? She must be good.'
'I tell you, Gawain, she's a wonder. Very imaginative. The food's as bad as ever, but they've just taken delivery of a barrel of wine from Count Henry's vineyard. I've yet to taste better.'
Gawain nodded. 'The Black Boar this evening? Very well.'
'Aye, the man with least points at the end of the joust must pay.'
Arthur grinned. 'Good man! I look forward to lightening your purse.'
Clare gripped Nell's hand as they were ushered into the stands. Across the lists, the walls of Troyes Castle rose up like a rock face, glistening with frost. The sky was clear, the air crisp. Count Henry's coloursblue, white and goldwere flying above the castle battlements amid a swirl of pigeons. Guards were stationed up there. A number of men had squeezed into the crenelsthe gaps between the merlonsand were peering down at the field.
'This entitles you to a seat on the front row, ma demoiselle, the boy said, as he took the token from Clare. He was wearing a blue tunic with a diagonal white band and golden embroidery brightened the cuffs of his sleeves. Count Henry's colours again. This must be a castle page. Other pages in matching tunics were performing similar duties.
Clare squeezed on to a bench with Nell jiggling about at her side like a fish in a hot skillet. Fearful that Nell might crush the gown of the woman next to her, Clare caught the woman's eye and murmured an apology.
Somewhat to her surprise, the woman gave Nell an indulgent smile. 'It's her first joust?'
'Yes.' Clare was reluctant to talk to strangers. They tended to exclaim about her odd eyes and sometimes that led to questions she was unable to answer. So she smiled and turned her gaze to the field.
The knights' pavilions were clustered in groups at either end of the lists. A forest of pennons rippled in the breezeblue, green, red, purple The knights on her right hand represented the Troyennes, whilst the team on her left was made up of visitorsCount Henry's guests with a few volunteers from his retainers to swell the numbers. A cloying sweet perfume filled the air, fighting with other smellswith human sweat, with wood smoke, with roasting meat.
Nell dug her in the ribs. 'The blue tent is Lord d'Aveyron's, is it not?'
Nodding, Clare drew Nell's attention to the pennon fluttering above the blue pavilion. 'Can you see the black raven on Count Lucien's pennon? Knights have different colours and devices so they can recognise each other when their visors are down.'
'Yes!' Nell's forefinger began stabbing in all directions. 'The pennon on the next tent has a wolf on it. And, look, there's a green one with a unicorn. Whose is that? I like unicorns.'
'I don't know the knight's name, but I've seen his colours about town. Maybe he is one of Count Henry's Guardians.'
'Geoffrey had a blue pennon with wiggly white lines on it,' Nell said, wistfully. 'He told me that white stands for silver.'
Clare gave her a swift hug. 'His friends will be jousting today.'
Nell lapsed into a brief silence, but she was already smiling again, eyes eagerly darting this way and that, taking it all in. The teams were mustering at either end of the field.
'Here come the horses! Look, Clare, they have colours, too.'
'The destriers are caparisoned to match their knights.' Nell's face was rapt. She looked so happy, Clare's chest squeezed to see it.
'My brother was a knight.' Nell was on her feet, still jiggling, clinging to the handrail. Her voice rang with pride. With happiness.
Children were extraordinary, Clare thought. They often coped with death far better than adults. At least on the outside. By God's grace, Geoffrey's death would not affect his little sister too badly. I am glad I brought her, she needed to see this. Nicola was right to insist that we came.