The Love Knot
by Elizabeth Chadwick
Forest of Dean, Cloucestershire,
Oliver Pascal drew on Hero's rein and sniffed. 'Smoke, he said.
Gawin de Brionne, his companion in arms, halted his own mount and inhaled deeply. 'There's only the hunting lodge at Penfoss nearby. Aimery de Sens holds it for Earl Robert.
Oliver grunted and shifted his position to ease his aching buttocks. New saddles were always hell, and this one was scarcely a week old, purchased from a craftsman in Bristol. It would take at least a month to mould it into a comfortable shape. What Oliver wanted to do was cross the Severn at the ferry and ride on to the Earl's keep at Bristol where he was assured of a hot meal and a safe place to sleep. With civil war raging through town and shire as King Stephen and his cousin Mathilda fought tooth and nail over England's throne, opportunities to sleep sound were rare.
A man more inured to the depredations of this particular war might have ridden on, but Oliver was still tender to the game of raid and counter-raid, of pillage and slaughter which was becoming so commonplace that men's morals and sensibilities were bludgeoned from existence. For most of the conflict, he had been absent on pilgrimage, dragging a burden of prayers for his dead wife's soul over the stony ground to Jerusalem's Holy Sepulchre. It was only in the last six months that he had returned to a burning, bleeding land, and discovered that, like so many others, he was now a landless man.
Gawin, five years younger at one-and-twenty but a world more experienced, slackened the reins and made to turn away. 'Like as not it's a charcoal burner.
'You believe that?
Gawin shrugged. 'There is nothing we can do. It isn't wise to become embroiled.
Oliver shook his head. 'Perhaps not, but we cannot just ride on.
The younger knight sighed, his blue eyes weary within the shadows of his helm. 'Your conscience is a millstone around your neck.
Oliver compressed his lips. Unlike most of his contemporaries he was clean-shaven, for in contrast to his flaxen hair, his beard, when permitted to grow, was a blazing fire-red that made him feel like a freak. 'You leave my conscience to drag me where it will and search your own, he said coldly, and swung Hero towards the smell of burning.
Gawin hesitated for a moment and then, with a roll of his eyes, spurred after his companion.
Within half a mile the wafts of smoke were stronger, removing the hope that the source was a domestic, controlled fire, and they thickened significantly as the men struck the main track to Penfoss. The horses grew restive and difficult to handle, forcing the two knights to dismount and continue on foot.
Penfoss was enclosed by a stockade of sharpened oak stakes cut from the surrounding forest, with entrance gates of the same, lashed together with hemp ropes. These now hung askew, and beyond them the thatch of the lodge and outbuildings was obliterated by licks of flame and churning black smoke.
Cautiously, swords drawn, Oliver and Gawin abandoned the cover of the trees and approached the stockade. A man's body sprawled across the gateway. There was a gaping wound in his throat and he had been stripped of every garment but the loin-cloth that he had stained in his death throes. A large black hound lay nearby, its breast split open.
Gawin grimaced and looked around nervously. 'Best leave. There's nothing we can do here, and whoever did this must still be close.
Ignoring him, Oliver entered the compound. Smuts of soot soared on a fire-wind and gusts of heat belched at him. Bodies were strewn haphazardly across the courtyard, butchered in flight to judge from the number of wounds to the back. The armed and the unarmed; men, women and children. Fluid filled Oliver's mouth and he tightened his grip on the hilt of his sword. It was either that or hurl the weapon as far from himself as he could. 'Not in three years of wandering amongst the wildest places on God's earth have I ever seen such as this, he said hoarsely.
'Better grow accustomed then. There was a quiver in Gawin's voice that gave the lie to the callous words and his free hand groped for the cross around his neck.
Oliver moved on. A shining mass of golden hair drew him to the body of a woman. She lay on her back, her legs flung wide. Her eyes were open, staring blindly; her cheekbone was swollen and her lip was puffed and split, but she was still breathing.
'God's mercy! Oliver fell to his knees at her side. 'Amice, Amice, can you hear me?
'You know her? Gawin's voice was appalled.
'From a long time ago, Oliver said without looking round. 'She was one of Earl Robert's wards at the same time as my wife. If circumstances had been different, I might have married her instead of Emma. Jesu's pity, I do not believe this! He closed her legs and pulled her gown back down over her stained, bloody thighs.
The woman turned her head and focused on Oliver, but there was no recognition in the dark sapphire eyes.
Gawin tugged at the close-cropped beard edging his jaw. 'How badly is she hurt?
'I don't know. Knocked down and raped as far as I can tell. We can't leave her here. Go and fetch the horses.
Her vacant stare was unnerving. Oliver well remembered their first meeting for it was inextricably bound up in his memories of Emma. It had been the spring of 1129 in Earl
Robert's garden when he had encountered the girls — two giggling cousins of fourteen and fifteen — playing with a ball. Amice, the older, had a sheaf of golden hair, ripe curves, and a way of looking through her lashes that turned a man's blood to steam. Emma, his future wife, was tiny and fey with a smile that lit up her little pointed face and made it quite beautiful. He had been fifteen too, a gangly youth in no hurry for the marriage that his family was foisting upon him, but Emma had changed all that. Now she was in her grave with the still-born daughter whose three-day bearing had been her death.
The year of their wedding, Amice had become one of old King Henry's concubines and had borne him a lusty son. It was the last Oliver had seen of her, if not heard, until now.
'Go on, Gawin, damn you, stop gawping and bring the horses! he repeated on a ragged snarl.
When Gawin still did not move, Oliver raised his head and looked round, his lungs filling with a bellow. Then he too saw the young woman standing against the well-housing, a wooden bowl in her hands. Her gown was of tawny-gold wool, worn over an underdress of contrasting green-blue linen. Both the cut and the colours of the garments proclaimed her noble status. Two heavy braids of raven-black hair hung for a full twelve inches below the end of her wimple. She had been creeping backwards but, realising that she had been seen, turned to flee.
'Wait! Oliver cried. 'We mean you no harm!
Gawin started after her, but had run no more than a dozen yards when a familiar whirring sound cut the air and he was stopped in mid-stride by an arrow, which punched a hole through his mail and lodged in his collar-bone.
Oliver shot to his feet and stared wildly around, his hand flashing to his sword hilt.
'Throw down your blade!
The voice was so cold that it should have belonged to a hardened warrior. Instead, Oliver found himself confronted by a lanky boy of no more than nine or ten years old. The bow in the child's hand was drawn taut and the arrow was aimed straight at Oliver's breast.
'We're not raiders, we want to help. Slowly, Oliver lowered his sword. His heart was thundering in his ears, reminding him how swiftly it could be stopped. To one side Gawin was clutching at the shaft protruding from his mail and swearing.
The boy's face was ashen. 'Get away from her, he spat. 'Get away from my mother!
'Your mother? Oliver dared not take his eyes from the lad to look at Amice. This then must be the son she had borne to King Henry. 'I know Lady Amice, lad, she's an old friend. He made a calming gesture. 'I'll take you both to safety, I swear.
The boy's arm trembled. In a moment he was going to release that arrow, and in all likelihood this time he would kill. Oliver took his chance and charged, weaving from side to side as he ran. The arrow shot from the bow and whined past his ear like a hornet. The next shaft was already nocked as Oliver struck. Man and boy rolled over in the dust and Oliver discovered that he was wrestling with an adversary as slippery as a Severn eel. A sharp elbow jabbed his ribs, drawing a grunt of pain; a fist flailed in his face and connected with his eye socket. The fingers uncurled and gouged. Oliver ceased being gentle, hit the lad with his fist, forced him down and sat on him.
'God's teeth! he panted. 'The only safety you need is a cage!
The boy lay rigid beneath him. Gingerly Oliver relaxed his grip, but remained alert to tighten it again if needful. 'I spoke the truth, he said in a breathless but less fraught tone. 'I do know your mother and I can help.
The stiffness remained a moment longer, then the battle-light left the boy's eyes which filled with the glitter of unshed tears. A lump was swelling on his temple where Oliver had cuffed him.
'I was out hunting squirrels with my bow, he said jerkily, 'and I saw the knights in the forest riding away from here with bloody swords. I ran home and I found… I found…" His throat worked and the words strangled.
'All right, all right, go gently, lad. With a feeling of guilt for his own violence, Oliver rose off the boy. Small wonder that the child had reacted as he had. Great wonder that he was not reduced to a cowering huddle.
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