Coin of the Kingdom. Historical Fiction. Subject: Plague

A sample from the Novel Coin of the Kingdom by Selwyn Parker

BOOK 1

The Arrow

“HERE they come,” warned the royal stable master, nodding in the direction of four men squelching towards them through the muddy courtyard. “Get the horses set right for the king and the nobles, lads”. The three grooms jumped into action, taking a firm grip on the bridles of their charges and making clucking sounds deep in their throats to settle them down.

A mournful-looking man with one good eye – a pale shield of skin had closed over the empty socket of the other, the stable master took up a position at the head of a giant grey whose saddle bore the insignia of a yellow broom, etched in gilt deep into the leather just behind the stirrups. Turning his great head, the horse whinnied in the direction of a short stout man with thinning red hair who was walking at the head of the group.

The king looks worse than usual, thought the stable master. The eyes of William Rufus, King of England, were puffy and bloodshot and his freckled complexion was almost empurpled. The king walked straight up to the horse.

“Ah, good Jerusalem,” he said, slapping him on the neck. “I trust you are in better health this morning than I am. I fear English wine will never agree with me.”

“I don’t suppose it could be that you consumed too much of it, my dear Rouge”, remarked the older of his companions, using the king’s nickname. More broadly built than the king and at least ten years older, the speaker was dressed lightly for summer in a cotton shirt that almost covered his plain boots. A red tunic was thrown over the top.

“Much too much, Gilbert” the king agreed. “But Norman wine is surely superior. You would not disagree with that, would you? You produce enough of it from your estates at Clermont?”

Rufus turned to Jerusalem, hand on the horse’s sleek hindquarters. “How are you truly, mon beauté?” he said. The horse shuffled restlessly backwards and forwards, eager to be away.  “Has he rested well?”

“Good, sire” said the stable master bowing his head. “Ate up like a pike man and slept like one too.”

“And the wound?” The king pointed at a long pale scar that ran along the hindquarters almost to the tail.

“Long since healed, sire. He doesn’t feel it. He’s a tough one.”

Pleased at the news, the king beckoned over one of his three companions. “Young Henry, do you know how Jerusalem got that scar?”

The face of Henry, the king’s younger brother, tightened at the belittlement. He was 31 years of age. “No, I don’t”, he said curtly.

“One of the Lowland mercenaries of Louis the Fat did that. Half cut his leg off.”

“I’m sure you gave the dog his just reward,” replied his brother disinterestedly.

Bien sûr, with one of his legs,” the king responded. Releasing a reddish gob of saliva into the mud, he abruptly turned and walked up to the stable door, opened the slit of his leather breeches and urinated against the wood while the stablemen shifted uncomfortably on their feet, staring at the ground. “Looks like last night’s treacle,” Rufus remarked, buttoning himself up.

“Can we go?” asked Henry, an edge to his voice. Mannered like his mother Mathilda, he had always been repelled by his elder brother’s uncouthness.

“Right, let’s to horse then”, agreed the king. “Is it just the five of us, Gilbert? I thought there would be more. You, Henry and me, your brother Roger there” – Roger de Clare, taller than his elder brother with a pock-marked skin and dark eyes, nodded briefly – “and William Tyrell the archer, is it not?  I see you’ve come armed for the deer”.

Tall and fresh-faced, Tyrell had married the daughter of Gilbert de Clare a few months earlier. He bowed slightly and slung the cord of his bow over both shoulders in a criss-cross fashion that made it more secure against his back.

Un moment,” interjected the king, looking at the arrows. “Are they not flint-tipped heads, Tyrell?” The archer nodded. “No beast will stand a chance. I thought such arrows were reserved for the French.”

“They are all I have, sire,” the archer remarked. “With your permission thought it better to bring them than none, just in case we sight a deer.”

“Good man, always be ready. A good motto in war and hunting.” Reaching up to grab the bridle, the king planted his boot in the stable master’s large calloused hand. Effortlessly hoisted into the air, he landed lightly in the saddle. Tightening the reins, Rufus turned to the others: “But surely there are others who wanted to join the king for an early-morning gallop?”

“No takers, Rouge,” responded the elder de Clare. “I fear the knights are getting soft. None of them are up yet.”

“I warrant they’re all up, Gilbert, up our women’s joy holes.” He laughed at his joke. “Well, at least we’re five. Let’s off, I’ve a meeting before noon with that damned pope-loving clerk, Flambard. He wants to talk about the coin, says it’s in poor condition and the mints need reform. God knows we’ve got enough mints to reform.”

“Exactly 34,” interjected Henry, who was astride a brown gelding standing at least two hands below Jerusalem. “You closed two mints a month ago under the orders of Flambard.”

Rufus looked sharply at his younger brother. “Exactly 34, you say. You seem remarkably well informed, young Henry.” He dug his hand into a leather doublet belted around his waist, pulled out a silver coin and gave it a quick examination. “I see nothing wrong with this,” he said, tossing it to the stable master. Caught unprepared, the man made a grab, missed and the coin landed in the mud.

Without further preamble the party trotted off, clattering over the wooden bridge spanning the moat, and soon disappeared into a mist that rose off the river in streaks, turning the trees of the New Forest into wraiths that waved to and fro in the thin light.

As soon as they had gone, the stable master picked up the coin and wiped it on a dirt-stained leather jerkin as the stable hands crowded around for a look. Glinting in the early-morning sun, the penny bore a full-face portrait of a younger and thinner-looking Rufus, with the words “Pillem Rex II” stamped underneath. The stable master turned the money over, staring at it: “See that name on the bottom,” he said, pointing at the legend “Godwic M” standing in relief around a cross in the centre. “That’s my brother, the moneyer. Works at the king’s mint at Hertford. There’ll be nothing wrong with that money, worth its weight.” And he slipped the coin into his pocket.

“My lords de Clare,” said the older of the stable boys, a big, raw-boned lad with a scar across his forehead that was half-concealed by a woollen cap.

“What of them?”

“They love their horses, always asking questions about their condition. Not today though, master. Something got their tongues.”

“Maybe they drank too much of our English wine,” grinned the stable master. “Now to work, you can all start changing the straw.” Turning away, the boys picked up wooden-pronged pitchforks from against the wall and began cleaning out the stables while the stable master stared after the party of horsemen. Yes, something has got their tongues, he thought.

THE horsemen trotted deeper into the forest and were soon enveloped by it. The trunks of huge oaks reared above them like sentinels, towering over the younger hornbeam and cherry. Higher up, the canopy of leaves filtered the light so that it splashed onto the trail in patches of green and yellow. Only the thud of the horses’ hooves and the clatter of harness on leather broke the quiet.

“The Conqueror loved these forests,” Rufus said to nobody in particular. “This one’s in the Domesday Book, do you know?”

“Indeed?” responded the younger de Clare politely, speaking for the first time.

“Yes it is. I’m my father’s son in this respect. I love the forest too. They talk to me, these trees.”

“Trees that talk?” said Gilbert de Clare, looking askance at the king.

“In a manner of speaking, Gilbert,” replied Rufus. His head was clearing and his spirits were lifting. “The Conqueror always said forestry was the only thing Normans could learn from the English.”

Rufus turned around in the saddle. “What do you think? Roger de Clare. You’ve not said much. Do you believe the English are great foresters?” Narrower-faced than his brother, Roger de Clare had vast estates in Normandy in his own right.

“They are, sire. But I believe Normans make better farmers”.

“Well said, sir,” replied the king, slowing his horse down so he did not have to shout to be heard. The thud of hooves subsided. “I am my father’s son in this respect too. I believe we Normans have more to teach the English than the other way around. But they are a stubborn people, the English. And I am condemned to spend most of my life here trying to show them the superiority of our Norman ways. When Lanfranc put the crown on my head fourteen long years ago, I was warned the burdens of the throne would be greater than its joys. How fortunate you are, young Henry, that you have me to bear these royal duties on your behalf.”

“I am truly grateful, brother,” answered Henry off-handedly, looking about him at the thickening trees. “I do however have my estates in Normandy and they absorb much of my time.”

“Estates!” laughed the elder de Clare. “You have half of Normandy itself.” Henry ignored the jibe.

“But you aren’t a king, Henry, and you never will be.” Rufus grinned wolfishly at his younger brother.”

“But as you say, Rufus, I do not have these burdensome royal duties you mention.”

Although Rufus and his brother Robert Curthose, two years the older, had long harboured a deep distrust of each other, they had always been in firm agreement about one thing: neither could tell what their younger brother was thinking. Although all three shared the same mother, the iron-willed Mathilda of Flanders, Henry bore little resemblance to his brothers. While he was short like them, he was thin and pale-haired with a sharp nose. Rufus sometimes wondered what women saw in Henry, yet he had taken half the ladies of the court to bed as well as their servants.  In personality too, he could hardly be more different. Where Rufus, in particular, sought male company and the pleasures of the table, Henry had always been more bookish and ate and drank sparingly. Although they were allies and had been for a few years, Rufus had an uneasy feeling that his younger brother was constantly plotting to acquire more land or more power.

Still, as the king conceded to his few close friends, Henry was an able administrator and he knew Normandy like the back of his hand after spending most of his adult life there. Also, deceitful as his brother could be, he needed him on his side to give advice on matters of the realm across the Channel.

Gilbert and his family did indeed make wine on their vast estates in Normandy, and much else besides. Spread over a large area of Picardy, the lush domains had been granted by William the Conqueror and, as the elder de Clare well knew, the family was fortunate they were still in its hands. Just five years earlier the clan had been persuaded to switch allegiance to Curthose – derisively known as Short Pants — and briefly supported him in an ill-advised attempt to dislodge Rufus from his throne. If Gilbert de Clare had not seen sense, changed back sides at the last minute and alerted the king after a long ride from Normandy, he would have been stripped of all his estates. He would never forget Rufus’s fury when he had confessed the nature of the plot.

“By the Face of Lucca, I’ll take every last blade of grass off you,” Rufus had yelled, spittle flying.  “And I’ll stretch your neck besides.”

Only the intervention of the king’s advisers had saved the de Clare brothers from, first, the gallows and then the seizure of their land.

“Better a pardoned baron than an embittered one,” they had told the king.

“You mean my crown is more secure when my fellow Normans piss inside my tent where I can smell it,” Rufus retorted.

“I respectfully suggest the king needs friends among the barons more than ever”, Flambard replied. “Your majesty’s reign rests on retaining allies in Normandy.”

As the family’s leader, Gilbert de Clare had been forced to declare undying loyalty. Quick to anger but just as quick to forget, Rufus had buried the hatchet and not a word had been said about the rebellion in years.

RUFUS suddenly turned to Tyrell. “Shall we see deer, Master William?” Since the party had entered the forest, Tyrell had ridden alongside Henry with the king in the middle, Gilbert de Clare in front and his brother behind. It was court custom that the king be surrounded at all times. “There will be deer, sire. It’s just that they are deeper in the ……”

“Not that I’m of a mind for sport today,” interrupted Rufus. “The king’s deer, they may be, but I’m not in a mood for killing.”

The elder de Clare looked back, surprised. “No sport, Rouge? Is that the English wine speaking too?”

“I wouldn’t know, Gilbert,” Rufus answered, shouting above the drumming of the hooves. The party was cantering again and heading more deeply into the forest. “If it was bear, that would be different. That’s real sport. I remember the Conqueror taking me hunting in the Vexin. I was barely big enough to sit a pony. Just the two of us.” He was talking in short bursts, in between heavy breaths. “We hunted a black bear for hours, stuck him full of my father’s arrows. He had a good eye, did the Conqueror. The beast wouldn’t die. Hid in a marsh, coughing and snarling at us. Didn’t know he was dealing with the Conqueror though.”

His companions listened without interruption. It was not politic to interject when the king was in a mood for reminiscence, particularly on the subject of his father. His hero worship of the Conqueror was well known.

“The Conqueror got off his horse,” resumed the king. “Despatched the beast at close quarters with a knife.” He suddenly laughed. “Father got a slash across his arm for his trouble — I never heard him swear so loud. Patched it up with a bit of cloth and pledged me to secrecy. I was never to tell the queen that he’d taken me hunting alone. And I never did. The Conqueror wasn’t a man to disobey. But, then you hardly knew him, did you, young Henry?”

“I was eighteen when he died,” shouted back his brother. “I knew him well enough.”

“Well then, let’s hear your counsel. What do you think our father would do about the Norman barons, squabbling among themselves like children?”

Rufus slowed Jerusalem to a walk again so he could be heard. The constant fighting among the landholders in lower Normandy had become a running sore for him. Although the region neighboured the domains of Curthose, his elder brother was too weak to bring the barons to order. Why, even now Curthose was trying to save his soul on yet another crusade instead of taking care of his responsibilities at home.

“With the Duke de Bellême laying waste to the countryside, I suppose they can do little else but fight,” observed Gilbert de Clare. “That whore-devil of Alençon, he’s still a Viking.” He spat on the ground.

“Truly spoken and better spat,” retorted Rufus, ducking to avoid an overhanging branch. “And to think his father, the duke, was the Conqueror’s most stalwart ally. Stood by him through thick and thin. Why the man should then go and bury himself in a monastery and leave all his estates to his hunchbacked son, I do not know. Does de Bellême still dream, do you think, of building even vaster empires? You knew him Henry, did you not?”

They stopped at a glade, looking about them and waiting for the king to give the lead. He showed no inclination to do so and the horses, glancing enquiringly at their riders, dropped their heads and edged forward, looking for berries among the bushes lining the path.

Henry reflected before answering. “Yes, I did know him. We spent weeks together on the road when I was a boy. Our father requested that he guide me around the Norman estates.”

“Well, how did you find him?” prompted Rufus.

“He was agreeable enough,” said Henry. “He had a fondness for women.”

“He would have had to pay them,” laughed Rufus. “He’s the ugliest man in Christendom. And don’t forget, young Henry, that you and Short Pants recruited that viper to thwart me in taking Rouen.”

“A mistake, I assure you,” replied Henry in a mollifying tone. “It was many years ago. I have learned to distrust de Bellême. He only joined our foolish cause because he smelled ransoms from the wealthy burghers.”

“I believe you”, said Rufus, pulling gently on the reins to lift Jerusalem’s mouth away from a clump of brambles. “In truth it’s not de Bellême I fear. Fat Louis is our true enemy. While de Bellême is charging around lower Normandy like Red Beard himself, Louis will take the crown of France soon enough and he’s far braver than his father, old Phillippe, with that cocksucker woman of his. He covets our empire, you know. He’s already been leading raids into upper Normandy.”

“I have heard that, Rouge” said the elder de Clare. “But I suggest you give too much credence to Louis. What’s the kingdom of France? Not much more than Paris and a few leagues outside the walls. Beyond the boundaries of the city the brigands block the roads. I say that Louis will be the last king of France.”

“Gilbert is right,” said Henry, taking more interest in the conversation. “The entire kingdom would hardly fit into London town and Louis can’t travel half a day from Paris without a hundred swordsmen in close attendance. They tell me the same thing in my stronghold of Domfront — the Capetian monarchy won’t last beyond Louis, and perhaps not much past Philippe.”

“Well, we’ll find out soon enough,” said Rufus. “My spies tell me Philippe is dying. And when Louis becomes king, he will wish he hadn’t.”

“Why is that?” interjected a startled Gilbert de Clare.

“Because there’s no sport in being a king”. Rufus turned to look at his younger brother. “Mind that, young Henry. No sport at all.”

“No sport? You seem to have enjoyed some of the pleasures of office, brother,” replied his brother.

“Ah yes, les plaisirs, young Henry. But there are not many of those. The ladies may enjoy the pleasure of a royal cock but that’s about the end of it.” Rufus fell silent, sitting upright in the saddle and looking into the depths of the forest. “Truth is, I’m weary of the documents, Gilbert. Too many pipe rolls, too many priests, too many favour-seekers. And Christ knows too much family feuding.” He threw a baleful glance at his brother. “I’m not a king but a damned clerk. It’s not work for real men. Is it Jerusalem?” The horse turned his head and studied his master with a huge dark eye. “Sometimes I’m minded to hand Short Pants the crown. He would soon learn the truth of the Conqueror’s advice.”

“Hand him the crown?” retorted the elder de Clare. “To Curthose? You are full of surprises today, Rouge.”

A slow grin spread across the king’s face, revealing a row of darkened teeth. “Well, Curthose certainly wants it badly enough, does he not?” Nobody responded to this remark.

“But what was your father’s advice about power?” asked Gilbert de Clare, changing the subject. “You were going to say, Rufus.”

“Ah yes, power. I well remember. Before he went on his last siege, he called me out for a walk, put his hand on my shoulder and told me I would soon learn the great truth about leadership – la grande verité, he said. Power looks more desirable when it is others who hold it. And now that I’ve held power for all these years I know what he means.”

Only the contented snuffling of the horses broke the silence as the others, sitting bolt upright in their saddles, waited for the king to resume.

“You know Flambard well enough, don’t you, young Henry?” Rufus suddenly asked.

“A learned man,” responded the younger brother. “But why do you ask?”

“Well, he can spout Latin well enough, I grant you,” said Rufus dismissively. “He’s thick as thieves with Pope Urban. Just the other day the old fool graciously informed me the pope was praying for me to mend my sinful ways lest I face heavenly justice when my time is up. Just because the pope can’t use his own cock he must lecture those who do.”

Even Henry joined in the ensuing laughter.

“His Holiness is in no position to give sermons on sin,” said the younger de Clare. “I’ve heard Urban is well able to put his sacred member to employment. They say no rosy-cheeked nun is safe in the Pope’s inner chambers.”

“Is that so?” said a delighted Rufus. “That makes me feel even better about taking the gold from his rich abbeys and his fat priests. Old holy pants threatened me with the fires of hell for that too.” He turned in the saddle. “Did you know that, young Henry?”

“I’m not surprised, brother, but the Pope could be our ally too,” said Henry, swinging around his horse’s head, impatient to be away.

“Can he now, little brother? I did not know you and holy pants were bosom friends.” Settling back in the saddle, Rufus flicked the reins. “Come on, let’s ride. The morning is passing fast”.  Obediently, Jerusalem set off at a trot and after a few moments’ hesitation, the others followed and took up the previous formation.

For the next while the only sound was that of the horses, snorting and whinnying in pleasure. The splashes of summer light on the path grew longer and streakier as the wood thickened. “Does my hold stretch this far?” Rufus called out.

“It does Rufus,” replied Gilbert de Clare, falling back so he could be heard. “But I suspect we’re not the only subjects in this part. The sheriff tells me that landless people have made the deep forest their home.”

“What, pray, is wrong with the villages?” asked Rufus.

“It was your father, you may remember. He loved his hunting, especially here, and he took most of the farming land so the royal deer could run free. The farmers stayed on, no work for them in Winchester, and now they are forest people, though God knows how they manage to live here.”

“I confess I’ve seized my fair share of good land,” said Rufus, once again slowing Jerusalem to a walk. “But, as Flambard says, a king is not answerable to its poorest citizens, only to God.”

Droit du roi,” said the elder de Clare. “You are the king”.

“Could even the poorest citizens love a short fat man with red hair?” Rufus joked.

“Do they need to?” de Clare answered quickly. “It wasn’t love that conquered England.”

Rufus nodded. “True enough. The people like to see a hanging or two, makes them feel they have a strong king. But still, I would be loved if I could.” As he pulled up at a fork in the path, the king missed an exchange of glances by his companions. “Shall we go this way?” he asked, pointing to the right. “It takes us deeper into the forest.”

The path was narrower and darker, a single-file track that ran between stands of stunted trees jutting precariously out of earthen banks lining both sides. Tendrils of shrubs wrapped themselves half-way up the trees and their branches grew out over the path in such profusion that they tangled with each other overhead. Weak shafts of light illuminated the track.

Rufus looked about him. “What do we think, men? It’s too early to go back. I believe we should make Flambard and his piles of paper wait for a while. He needs to spend more time on his knees, praying for my soul. In truth I’ve no mind today for affairs of state.” And without waiting for a reply, he kicked Jerusalem in the ribs. “Let’s gallop, friend”, he shouted, and clattered into the deeper forest. The rest of the party set off in pursuit, this time riding in a line, and the thunder of hooves rang through the trees as the horsemen swept over the dark earth, ducking under low-hanging branches.

A natural rider who had been put on horseback almost as soon as he could walk, Rufus loved the sensation of the gallop, wind ripping into his face and hair. Between his thighs he could feel the steady rise and fall of Jerusalem’s great chest. Foam flecked the horse’s veined neck and his master could sense the pleasure he took in the company of the younger animals.

To everybody’s surprise the track suddenly widened and the party clattered into a sunlit clearing. Still in front, Rufus pulled up and looked about him in astonishment.

“What, men, have we got here?” he asked over his shoulder.

At the far end of the clearing stood a few low-roofed shelters made of brush and sticks. Lengths of faded leather cloth were draped over them to repel what they could of the rain. Each shelter was supported at the corners by thick branches while the rest of the rickety structure was tied together by lengths of twine twisted in and out of the brush and sticks.

“Hovels in my forest”, Rufus answered himself.

“Forest people,” muttered Gilbert de Clare, looking around. “The dispossessed. Best not to stay, Rouge. Your law does not stretch this far.”

“Where is everybody?” asked Rufus, ignoring him. The clearing was deserted, the only sign of habitation being a few items of clothing — leather breeches and jerkins, a pair of drawers and discoloured blankets — hanging over a wooden railing in front of some of the shelters. Nudging the king, the elder de Clare pointed to smoke rising from sticks of burning wood placed under a large pot at the far end of the clearing. “They’re not long gone, Rouge,” he warned. “They heard us coming.” Hands on swords, the others waited for the king’s word.

Suddenly, a boy no more than seven or eight years old, ran out from behind one of the shelters. Barefoot and dressed in a grimy cotton shift, he was so absorbed in hitting a round leather ball with a stick that he was totally oblivious of the horsemen. Then glancing up, he saw them towering above him and stopped dead, face frozen in an expression of terror. Forgotten, the ball rolled away under Jerusalem’s legs and, snorting in irritation, the horse pawed at it while the boy stood and gaped at the men.

“Whoa, lad”, said the king. But the urchin turned and fled, hardly covering a few yards before he tripped on the ragged end of the shift and fell to his knees. The horsemen laughed as the boy, more terrified than ever, struggled to his feet. But unable to take his eyes off the horsemen, he tripped again and scrambled around the corner on all fours, like a beetle.

“Shall I fetch him, sire?” asked Tyrell.

“I think not, young William. Let’s leave them to themselves,” said Rufus. “Do they do us any harm? And, as you say Gilbert, it was my father who despatched them here.”

“It’s royal land,” interrupted Henry. “Our family’s land.”

“Our land?” repeated the king, looking at his brother through raised eyebrows. “Our land? The New Forest is my land, is it not?”

“Yes, your land,” conceded his younger brother quickly. “But surely even more reason to assert your sovereignty, brother. I think we should fire it.”

“Fire it?” Rufus affected astonishment. “Why so?”

“As a warning,” said his brother. “The people need to be reminded who holds domain.”

“I believe this debate is best settled back at Winchester,” suggested the elder brother, narrowing his eyes.

“Certainly brother,” said Henry smoothly. “But first, let me send a message.” Kicking his horse over to the smoke curling up at the edge of the clearing, he jumped out of the saddle and smelt from the large pot. “The stew is made from the king’s rabbit,” he called back.

“So?” Shrugging his shoulders in resignation, the king leaned on Jerusalem’s neck. For years he had tried to behave as he believed an elder brother should and attempted to teach Henry chess and war games, for the latter using wooden swords and staves. But Henry deeply resented being the pupil and so Rufus had gradually abandoned his efforts and the brothers had grown up with little in common. Their mother, who had spent her early years in a convent, had in vain urged her boys “to live in kindness with one another”. In order to placate her, they had learned to develop a veneer of civility in their relationship, certainly in front of the queen. And later they had come to realise the family’s power over the barons depended on a display of family unity and so they went through the pretence of brotherly respect, in public at least. Yet Rufus had gradually come to realise that Henry disliked and perhaps even hated him, the devil knew why.

Holding the burning sticks with outstretched arm so as not to frighten his horse, Henry jumped back in the saddle and, kicking the beast in the ribs, trotted over to one of the shelters and threw the flames onto the thatch. Within seconds the dry brush lit up and was soon in flames. The rags followed and within a minute or two the entire shelter was ablaze. Alarmed by the crackling of the fire, the horses backed away.

“If that’s your message,” called out Rufus sarcastically, “may we go? It’s time for my bread”. And without waiting for an answer, he wheeled Jerusalem around and set off back down the path. In an instant Tyrell cantered off after him while the others waited for a minute or two, looking after the two horsemen. Soon the king and Tyrell disappeared into the darkness of the forest and the others finally followed, but at a more leisurely pace.

Still irritated by his brother’s show of independence, Rufus did not slow until they had regained the fork. Twisting around in the saddle, he realised that only Tyrell was keeping pace. “I see we are just two. Were we too swift for the others then?”

“They cannot be far behind, sire.”

“I don’t hear them”, answered Rufus. “Should we return, do you think?” Although brave in battle, the king was accustomed to being surrounded by people and it had been so throughout his childhood. He had grown secretly frightened of solitude and his fears had not been assuaged by his father’s stories of how narrowly he had survived assassination attempts as a boy. Once, the Conqueror told his son, an assassin armed with a pig knife had climbed up the waste pipe in the dead of night and entered his chamber. It was only the vigilance of his guardian that saved him. Waking up in the nick of time, the guardian had nearly cut off the intruder’s head with a single blow. As a warning to other enemies, the body had been hung off the battlements for days.

“Have they taken a wrong turn?” asked Rufus. “We should look for them.”

“Shall we wait a minute or two, sire?” suggested the archer, shifting in his saddle and looking about him.

“Wait? The king doesn’t wait, young Tyrell?” Staring back down the track, Rufus made the reprimand more out of habit than anger.

“My apologies, sire.”

Placated, Rufus asked: “How old are you, Tyrell?

“I’m twenty-four, sire.”

“You fought in Normandy?”

“Yes, I led the brothers’ archers.”

“Led them, did you? And married their sister too. You have done well with your bow, have you not?”

“I have been most fortunate, sire,” Tyrrell agreed.

“Indeed you have” – he looked about him — “I believe this forest is casting a spell over me today. Perhaps it’s my mood but I do believe the trees have a mystery of their own. What do you think, Tyrell?”

“I believe the trees are alive”, the archer said, looking straight ahead.

“Alive? Do they talk to you? Rufus joked, not unkindly.

“They whisper, sire,” Tyrrell said stiffly, as though embarrassed. “Like you, sire, I believe they talk. As a boy I would go among the trees every day and fire my arrows. And sometimes when I had fired my last I would sit against a trunk and listen to the forest.”

“And what did it tell you, Tyrell?”

“I don’t know all its secrets, sire. But the forest remembers. I believe that.”

“Remembers! By holy pants himself, you’re a philosopher. You do make more sense though than Flambard with his Latin quotations. I never know what he’s talking about.” He looked about him again. “But where do you think the others are? They know this forest nearly as well as me, probably better.”

The archer jumped lightly out of the saddle and crouched down, ear to the ground. “I think I hear hooves. Shall I bring them up, sire?” he asked. “They may have assumed we took the other fork.”

Rufus had never been left alone on a gallop, not since he had learned to ride. A king never hunted alone, never ate or slept alone, but he did not want to show any concern. “Do so, young Tyrell,” he said. “I shall ride on slowly.”

Tyrell did not hesitate. Jumping back in the saddle and wheeling the horse around, he quickly cantered off. The king watched as horse and man grew smaller until they disappeared entirely from view around a bend and the thud of the hooves was swallowed up by the all-embracing silence of the forest.

Rufus felt nervous. Dropping the reins, he slipped his boots out of the stirrups and let Jerusalem find his own way. The horse plodded contentedly along, hooves scuffing the yellowing leaves, chest rising and falling easily, sometimes straying left or right to inspect the edges of the track for clumps of grass.

After a time Rufus was surprised to find a contentment stealing over him. Have I truly been a fair king? he wondered. Perhaps he might return one day, although with a stronger party, and talk with the people in the hovels. He could even give them back their land. Could the English come to love a Norman king?  A few coins from the royal purse would help. It usually does, he thought resignedly.

Jerusalem suddenly stopped dead, lifting his great head as though listening. “And what do you hear, my beauty?” asked Rufus. “Are they coming? Your ears are surely better than mine.” Relieved, he made to pick up the reins. Without waiting for a dig in the ribs, Jerusalem began to canter, loose harness banging against the saddle and reins slipping forward.

“Whoa boy!” Rufus grabbed the edge of the saddle for support and made a dive for the reins. “Can you smell your oats, old fellow?”

Tossing his head, the war horse cantered on even faster. Amused but puzzled, the king wrapped the reins twice around his hands and applied a gentle pressure on the bit. “Do you want to leave your friends behind?” he said aloud.

Jerusalem began to gallop, ignoring the bit in his mouth. What’s got into him? A sense of panic seized the king.

He saw the arrow before he felt it, tip and shaft projecting half a fist’s length in front of his tunic. Rufus looked at the bloodied lead in confusion.  Where had it come from? He had taken an arrow before, but only in his arm. Then the agony began to pour through him, coming in waves. He began to scream, dropping the reins and tugging with both hands at the wood of the shaft as though he would pull it right through his body. His hands kept slipping on the blood and the shaft refused to budge. Yet he knew he had to get the thing out and, rearing up in the stirrups, he flung himself off Jerusalem’s back, twisting in the air and crashing heavily onto his back. The landing did what the king’s frantic efforts had failed to do – it drove the arrow deeper through his body. Through horror-struck eyes, he could see half the shaft now and he grabbed it once again, ripping at it, rolling to and fro over the soft leaves, legs thrashing against the ground.

He heard a voice, his own: “Au secours, au secours!” Help, help. The arrow head was shredding his hands, turning them into raw meat, blood welling onto the ground. Why are my  hands hurting?  Still he kept tugging at the shaft, blood now pumping through the hole in his chest. Rufus heard screaming. The people of the forest!

Eventually the screaming began to fade, swallowed up by the trees, and he began to feel better. He wished he was not so cold though. His thrashing gave way to spasms and the blood bubbled more thickly from the hole, staining black the leaves on the floor of the forest. Rufus’s fingers slipped off the shaft. He felt tired, terribly tired, more so than he had ever been in his life, even after his first battle. Far above him, the canopy of the forest began to swim before his eyes, moving to and fro, a greenness invading his consciousness. He did not have the strength to lift his head.

A shadow appeared above him and he started screaming again. He felt a rough push in his side and Rufus flung out an arm, hitting something hard. He tried to turn on his side and fight the thing off, but he could not summon any power. The forest was darkening quickly now. Is it night already?

Jerusalem looked down at his master, nudging him again and again. After a while Rufus lay still and the horse stood there, reins dragging on the bloodied leaves.

THE COAL merchant Purkis was late. A weak early-morning sun was already lightening the path. An old man of fifty, face permanently smudged with soot and dust, he had been delayed because a wheel needed repair and it had taken longer than expected for his friend the blacksmith to beat another steel hoop onto the wooden rim. Purkis could not afford to be tardy for the market at Winchester if he were to gain the best prices. After he had sold his coal to the abbey, he would visit the markets and discuss affairs with the traders, perhaps buy a beer with his profits and ask his friend Caleb for the use of his younger daughter this time. Caleb had always agreed to a transaction over his older girl and Purkis had brought along one cut penny as payment for the daughter and another for his friend. Purkis could not see why Caleb would object to him pleasuring the younger daughter and he travelled in a state of pleasant anticipation. If the girl’s bottom and breasts were anything to go by, she would be more than able. When they were done, he would buy one of old Jessie’s pies and stay the night in Winchester if she had a spare bed. Jessie might be willing too. Even at his age, he could still do it twice a day if the opportunity arose.

Taking the left-hand path as usual, Purkis followed the familiar route. He had travelled it so often that he sometimes wondered if the horse knew it better than he did. He stopped dead in his tracks. Not a stone’s throw away, the shape of a giant horse stood in the middle of the path, blocking it. A superstitious man who always left a lump of coal at the cross roads for the creatures of the forest, Purkis momentarily feared an apparition but, as he approached slowly, the animal seemed real enough and, summoning his courage, Purkis flicked the reins. He narrowed his eyes to peer through the gloom. There was something on the ground beside the horse. A log of wood? The horse looked up and whinnied, pawing the leaves.

Curiosity overcoming fear, the merchant urged his old horse on again and came level with the great animal. Poor as his eyesight was, Purkis noticed the detailed working on the leather saddle. Coming closer, he could make out the insignia of a yellow broom. Nervously looking around for signs of other people, he climbed down from the cart and walked slowly around the horse.

“A man! By the head of Offa”, the merchant whispered, crossing himself. He was clearly dead, all blood drained from his face. Without needing to touch it, he could tell the body was stiff. It wasn’t the corpse that shocked him though – the merchant had seen many dead people – but the arrow sticking through the tunic. This was trouble. Here was a rich man, a baron perhaps by the quality of his clothing.

The coal merchant took a hasty step back and, squaring his broad shoulders, returned to his cart and grabbed the handle of the large spade he always carried with him. In his hands it was a dangerous weapon as well as his main working tool. Standing with his back against the cart, he searched warily for shadows in the trees. Gradually he began to feel more confident – after all, the man had been dead for hours, perhaps days. The murderers would have long fled and he knew that nobody lived in this part of the forest. Purkis had spent most of his life travelling up and down these paths.

As he grew calmer, he weighed his options. He could travel on and pretend he had seen nothing — there was safety in ignorance – but he was also a merchant and he could not help but think of the reward if the man was truly a baron or even a knight. Perhaps he could earn a year’s profit in a day.

And so the coal merchant made up his mind. Tossing the spade back on top of the coal with a clatter that rang though the silence and made the huge horse jump back, he approached the body again. The animal whinnied and shuffled uneasily when the coal merchant bent down to examine it more closely. Making a guttural “tok, tok, tok” sound to reassure the horse, Purkis touched the marbled face with his fingers. As he suspected, it was cold. The man had been left to die.

Purkis took another long look around him. The silence was eerie but he was now convinced they were alone. He stooped and seized hold of the boots – fine boots, they are, he congratulated himself –and hauled the dead weight all the way to the backboard. Lifting the legs onto the cart first, he went around to the head and shoulders and, grunting with the effort, lifted the whole body into the air. Just like a sack of coal, he thought. Pausing for another breath, he heaved the man on top of the coal, the head crashing back onto the bare wood.

Panting, Purkis looked at the man’s face. Sightless eyes stared straight back at him. For a moment the coal merchant wondered if he should try and pull out the arrow but decided it was safer to leave it where it was. Better not to have blood on your hands. With that thought in his mind, he bent down and carefully wiped his palms on the leaves of the forest floor.

“Time’s a-passing,” he said aloud, jumped back on the cart and flicked the reins.

The horse began to walk and then managed to raise a trot. The coal merchant, hearing a clattering behind him, turned around. The great animal was following, head down, and stumbling over the reins dragging along the ground. Purkis stopped the cart, clambered back down, patted the horse on the neck, muttering tok,tok again, picked up the reins and tied them back loosely over the neck. Satisfied, he jumped aboard once more and, with the new hoop working its way into the wood, the cart creaked and squealed along the path, the body lolling against the pile of coal. The horse followed behind. It’s like a funeral, thought the coal merchant.

Purkis had decided on a course of action — he would take the man to the priests at Winchester Cathedral. They would know what to do.