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Captain Wulf FitzRobert sat waiting on a stool by the fire in the middle of King William's cavernous new barrack-hall. Waiting, waiting. It was an exercise in patience, he told himself, but even so, he was unable to keep his keen blue eyes from straying to the top table where the great lords were in conference. He was hungry for his next commission.
The freshly whitewashed walls around him displayed a formidable array of shields and lances, which winked in the fitful candlelight. Thick beams arched above Wulf's head, beams that had been cut so recently that he could smell sawn timbers, could see the marks of the adze. While Wulf kicked his heels and mastered his impatience, a troop of foot soldiers tramped in and headed for the wine jugs.
Glancing down at the worn brown tunic that stretched across his broad chest, at the shabby and barely serviceable grey hose that barely covered his long legs, Wulf noticed a rip in the weave and grimaced. His clothing needed to be replaced and he could ill afford it. Advancement, that was what he craved, more advancement.
Under the high table two wolfhoundsa grey and a brindlewere snarling over possession of a bone. Wulf's mouth twisted. So it was with those lower in the ranks, he thought, lifting his gaze once again to the noblemen and commanders clustered around the board; that is what we are reduced to, fighting over scraps dropped by those above.
Parchments were scattered across the tabletopmaps, most likely. Wulf knew what the lords were about: they were busy slicing up lands won in the recent conflict. Estates that had once belonged to Saxon noblemen were being parcelled out among King William's most loyal supporters. Campaigns for suppressing rebellion were being planned; offers were being made for the most wealthy of the Saxon widows and heiresses.
Just then, the brindle hound lunged amid a flurry of growling and snapping. The grey yelped and dropped the bone and in a moment it was all over. The brindle darted into the shadows with the bone fast in its jaws, while the loser slunk away, tail between its legs.
Was time running out for him? Wulf thought. England had only so much land; there were only so many titles. If he did not get a decent commission, there might be nothing left to win, neither land nor title nor heiress. Not that Wulf had ambitions for an heiressno, the shadow over his birth meant he could not look so high. He was illegitimate. But lands and a knighthood, yes, he certainly had ambitions for those. And with no noble family to sponsor him, Wulf must shift for himself.
The lords had wine cups at their elbows. Of delicate imported glass, they were a world away from the clay goblet Wulf had warming by the fire. As well as the maps, there were several jugs of sweet red wine on the high table; wine that Wulf knew had only that morning been shipped in from Normandy. Briefly, Wulf spared a thought for the merchant willing to risk his ship to a winter crossing, but then this was King William's hall, so doubtless the man and his crew would have been well rewarded. Wulf propped his chin on his hand. Rewarded as he hoped to be, when he was given a good chance to prove himself
One lord in particular held Wulf's gaze: William De Warenne, his liege lord. As one of the King's most trusted commanders, De Warenne had recently been granted estates on the coast south of London, near a place called Lewes. Wulf had heard that his lord was also in the running for more land, land in the remote east of England, somewhere in the fens. Wulf had never set foot in the fens, nor did he want to. If what he had heard was true, the fen country was marshy and waterlogged even in high summer. And at this time of year, in midwinter, the fens would be frozen solid.
Wulf wound lean fingers round the clay cup and lifted it to his lips. He took no more than a sip; he wanted a sober head on him when his lord called him over.
Perhaps, if he were lucky, he would be granted a commission in those southern lands so recently acquired. Two days, Wulf thought, for two interminable days he had been whiling away the time here, kicking his heels while the commanders discussed tactics and jostled for power and position.
A lock of dark hair fell over Wulf's eyes; impatiently, he shoved it back. He must get his hair trimmed, it had grown so much he looked more Saxon than Norman, and the last thing he wanted was for the lord of Lewes to think he was favouring the Saxon half of his heritage.
Wulf's blue eyes narrowed and his fingers tightened on his wine cup. His heart thuddedDe Warenne was looking directly at him. At last!
'My lord?' Setting his cup down, Wulf rose and approached the high table.
'FitzRobert, isn't it?'
'Yes, my lord.' Wulf stood, feet planted squarely apart, and waited.
'FitzRobert.' De Warenne unrolled one of the maps and weighed it down with a jug and a candlestick. 'Take a look at this, and tell me what you see.'
Ignoring the curious gazes of the other men sitting in council with De Warenne, Wulf peered at the candlelit parchment. Thankfully, he had made it his business to interpret maps; it was lettering he struggled with.
'It is England.' Leaning in, Wulf put his finger on the spot which he knew represented London. 'We are about here, my lord. See where the river is marked? And here, this is where Lewes lies.'
'Excellent. Now show me Normandy.'
'Normandy?' Wulf blinked. 'This map is not large enough to show Normandy, my lord. If it were, it would lie down here, somewhere past the Narrow Sea.' He indicated a knothole on the table, a couple of inches below where the parchment ended.
Nodding, De Warenne smiled and lifted a meaningful brow at one of his companions, Count Eugène of Médavy. 'I repeat, Captain FitzRobert is the man for this job.'
'Hmm.' Eugène of Médavy scrutinised Wulf with a soldier's eye, noting his height and how much weight he carried, assessing the strength and width of his shoulders. Wulf knew without vanity, for it was a fact, that by that measure he would not fall short. He had been born with a large, healthy body, and years of training had made it the body of a warrior. He was big, but he carried muscle rather than excess flesh. As a warrior Wulf did not disappoint, but the Saxon blood in his veins was quite another matter, never mind the shame of his illegitimate birth
To Wulf's astonishment, the Count began addressing him in English. 'Captain, have you any knowledge of this land to the north of London?' The Count's accent was thick, but his English was intelligible, which was rare, very rare, in a Norman lord.
Hastily, Wulf closed his mouth and looked where Count Eugène's blunt finger was pointing. East Anglia. 'That's marshland,'Wulf said, replying in English, for this was doubtless some kind of test. A frisson of excitement ran through him. The fens might not exactly be the South Downs, but if they could bring him the preferment he sought, he would learn to love them. 'Here is Ely, my lord,' he continued in English. 'I have not been there, but I have been told that there is more water thereabouts than land. The fens are crisscrossed with waterways rather than roads, and the fen folk use boats to travel from one place to another.'
'The wenches there have webbed feet,' Count Eugène said, on a laugh. 'And people use poles to vault from island to island.'
Wulf shrugged; he, too, had heard the tales, but he doubted that half of them were true. 'Perhaps.'
The Count watched him, a small smile playing about his mouth, and Wulf's heartbeat speeded up. Giving one last glance at Wulf's over-long hair, the Count of Médavy grinned at De Warenne and pushed himself to his feet. 'Captain Fitz-Robert certainly has the looks, William, and he speaks the language like a native. He could well be our man, but he will have to be quick-witted, because he will not have long to learn the lie of the land.' Picking up his gauntlets, Eugène of Médavy nodded at Wulf and sauntered to the door. Without turning, he snapped his fingers and the brindled hound detached itself from the shadows with its bone, and trotted after him. The Count's voice floated back. 'I shall leave it to you to arrange, De Warenne, since the King was making noises about granting you more lands there.'
A general scraping of benches announced that the other noblemen took this as their signal to leave, but Wulf scarcely noticed. His attention was all for his liege lord, though he fought to keep the eagerness from his expression. 'I can be of service, my lord?' At last. At last.
'Aye, I think that you can. FitzRobert' De Warenne broke off, scowling.
'Merde, you cannot use that name, we shall have to give you another.'
Some of Wulf's elation began to drain away. 'What, precisely, is my commission?' He kept his expression blank and reminded himself of a lesson he had learned years agoif he wanted to avoid disappointment, he should not expect too much. Likely he was being given this commission because it was too distasteful for a Norman nobleman to consider. Wulf set his jaw. Well, he was not proud, he was not noble. But he was ambitious and he would do whatever his lord asked, provided it brought him advancement.
'Saxon outlaws have been reported hiding out in the fens,' De Warenne told him. 'We need good intelligence as to their number and strength. Any threat to our King's rule must be eliminated.'
A spy. Ignoring the sudden griping in his belly, reminding himself of that knighthood that had been his goal for more years than he could count, Wulf straightened his shoulders. 'What is it you would have me do, my lord?'
'You must pose as Saxon. It should prove easy enough you speak the language like a native.'
'I am a native,' Wulf said softly, 'at least, half of me is.'
'Ah, yes, your mother, I recall. You were brought up not far from here, were you not?'
'Aye, in Southwark.'
De Warenne's gaze sharpened. 'The Godwinesons had a hall in Southwark.'
'I know it well, or I did.'
De Warenne reached for his wine. 'Not a plank standing,' he said, oblivious that his words evoked yet more conflicting feelings in Wulf's chest.
Wulf remembered playing in that hall as a young boy. He had even met King Harold long ago, when Harold had been but a young earl. And this man, this man sitting at the trestle in the new king's barracks with the map of Harold Godwine-son's kingdom unrolled before him, now held title to a large slice of Harold's lands around Lewes. Lord, Wulf thought, how the wheels do turn.
'So, FitzRobert,' De Warenne was saying, 'these Saxon rebelsyou are to track them to their lair in these marshes. Infiltrate their band. Our sources speak of a leader known as Thane Guthlac. An outlaw now, of course, as are those who ally themselves with him. Word has it that this Guthlac has built up a sizeable force, but so far none of our men have managed to come back with precise numbers.' Wearily, his seigneur scrubbed his cheeks. 'Nor can we pinpoint the location of his camp. Which is damned odd, since one of my scouts reported hearing a rumour that the man had built a castle out there.'
Wulf's brows rose. 'A castle in the fens? That seems unlikely.'
'Nevertheless, that is the rumour.' De Warenne took up the wine jug and filled a couple of glasses. Taking one, he slid the other towards Wulf. 'Take a seat, Captain, we still have to discuss the question of your name. I hardly think that Fitz-Robert is suited to a Saxon.'
Wulf groped for the bench, trying to will away the knot that was forming in his belly. Finally he was being offered the chance that he had longed for, but where was the elation, the triumph that he had expected to feel? 'I am to be a spy.'
'Locate Thane Guthlac's encampment. Worm your way inside, we need to know how much of a threat they pose. It could be that there are just a few stragglers hiding out with himwe have no idea and we must know. Now, about your name'
'I could use my other name, my lord.'
For a moment his lord gazed blankly at him, before understanding lit his eyes. 'Oh, I take it Brader was your mother's name? You used it before your father had you brought to Normandy?'
'Yes, my lord.'
'Saewulf Brader,' De Warenne repeated, slowly examining Wulf's features. 'Yes, that will do, it has an authentic ring to it. Don't bother to get your hair cut either, it will help you look the part. And, if I were you, I might consider growing a beard. Damned hairy, these Saxons.'
Wulf took a sip of the wine. It was rich and sweet, smoother by far than that served lower down the hall. 'No, my lord, I do not think a beard is for me, I have grown accustomed to the Norman fashion.'
De Warenne raised a brow. 'You will raise their suspicions.'
Wulf grinned. 'I could say I ran into some Normans and cut my beard off to disguise myself.'
'Suit yourself. I leave the details to you.' De Warenne met Wulf's gaze directly. 'Do a good job, Captain, and I won't forget. There will be preferment for you.'
'Thank you, my lord.' Understanding that he was being dismissed, Wulf rose. 'When do you want me to leave?'
'As soon as you can. Oh, and one thing more '
'You have a horse?'
'Aye.' Not that his lord would call his poor Melody a horse; Wulf was a long way from affording a knight's destrier. One day, perhaps
'You will have to leave him behind.'
Wulf nodded. A horse might also raise suspicions, since Saxons did not use them as much as Normans. But, in any case, from what Wulf had heard, horses and fenland did not sound compatible.
'Put him in the stables here in the charge of my groom. I'll see he knows to take care of him.' De Warenne picked up a pouch and lobbed it towards him. 'Here, this will help buy anything you might need.'
'Thank you, my lord.'
Tossing back his wine, Wulf turned to go. His mind was spinning. Finally, he was being given the chance that he burned for! He would not have chosen to spy on his former countrymenin truth, his commission was far from pleasant. Some might call it a dirty task. Certainly it was not a task for a noble Norman.