The Running Vixen

by Elizabeth Chadwick

Chapter 1

The Welsh Marches, Autumn 1126

On the day Adam de Lacey returned to the borders after an absence of more than a year, the monthly market at Ravenstow was in full, noisy cry, and thus numerous witnesses watched and whispered behind their hands as the small but disciplined entourage wound its way through their midst.

The young man at the head of the troop paid scant attention to their interest, to the bustling booths and mingling of scents and stenches, the cries and entreaties to look, to buy — not because it was beneath him to do so, but because he was preoccupied and tired. As Adam rode past a woman selling fleeces and sheepskin winter shoes and jerkins, the lilting cadence of the Welsh tongue pleased his ears, causing him to emerge from his introspection and look around with a half-smile. Of late he had grown accustomed to heavy, guttural German, spoken by humourless men with a rigid sense of rank and order, their lifestyle the opposite of the carefree, robust Welsh, who had few possessions and pretensions and set very little store by those who did.

The outward journey to the mourning court of the recently deceased German Emperor had been filled with the violence and hardship of long days on roads that were often hostile, and the route home had been even worse owing to the querulous temper of his charge. Adam was an accomplished soldier, well able to look after himself where the dangers of the open road were concerned. The lash of a haughty woman’s tongue — and she the King’s own daughter and Dowager Empress of Germany — was a different matter entirely. Her high estate had prevented him from defending himself in the manner he would have liked, and the obligation of feudal duty had made it impossible for him to abandon her on the road, forcing him to bear with gritted teeth what he could not change; but then he was used to that.

A crone cried out to him, offering to tell his fortune for a quarter-penny. His half-smile expanded and developed a bitter quality. He flung a coin towards her outstretched fingers but declined to wait on her prophecy. He knew his future already — the parts that mattered, or had mattered once until time and grim determination had rendered them numb. Abruptly he heeled his stallion to a rapid trot.

Ravenstow keep, the seat of his foster father’s barony shone with fresh limewash on the crag overlooking the busy town. It had been built during the reign of William Rufus by Robert de Belleme, former Earl of Shrewsbury and now King Henry’s prisoner, his evil rule a fading but still potent memory; too potent for some who had lost their friends and family to the barbaric tortures he had practised in his fortress strongholds a generation ago.

Adam’s own father had been de Belleme’s vassal and accomplice, his name stained with the overspill from de Belleme’s infamies. Adam knew from servants’ tales, whispered in dark corners, the kind of man his father had been: a dishonourable molester of women and young girls, tarnished with murder and guilty of treason. Not an ancestor to claim with pride, but one to bury deep with guilt and shame.

The drawbridge was down but the guards on duty were swift to challenge him, and only rested their spears when they had taken a close look at his banner and the face revealed to them as he removed his helm by its nasal bar. Then they let him pass with words of greeting on their lips, and speculation rife in their eyes.

Eadric, the head groom, emerged from the stables to take the dun and deployed his underlings among Adam’s men. ‘Welcome, my lord,’ he said with a half-moon grin. ‘It has been a long time.’

Having dismounted, Adam stared around the busy bailey which looked just as it always had. The smith’s hammer rang out clear and sweet from the forge against the curtain wall. A soldier’s woman was tending a cooking pot tripoded over an open fire, and the savoury steam drifted tantalisingly past his nostrils, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten since well before prime. Hens pecked underfoot, doves from Countess Judith’s cote cooing and pirouetting among them. A curvaceous serving girl carried a tray of loaves across the ward and was whistled at by a group of off-duty soldiers playing dice and warming their backs against a sunny timber wall.

‘A long time, Eadric,’ he agreed, with a sigh and a wary smile. ‘Is Lord Guyon here?’

‘Out hunting, sir, and the lady Judith with him.’ Eadric looked apologetic, and then brightened. ‘Master Renard is here though, and Mistress Heulwen.’

The smile froze upon Adam’s face. He set his hand to his stallion’s reins as though he would mount up again, but then glanced round at his men. He could hear their groans of relief and see the way they stretched stiff muscles and rubbed sore backs. They were tired, having ridden a bone-jarring distance, and it would be foolish and grossly discourteous to ride out now that their presence was known.

A young man with a stork’s length of leg came striding towards him from the direction of the mews, stripping a hawking gauntlet from his right hand as he advanced. He had pitch-black hair and strong features just beginning to pare out of childhood’s unformed roundness. It took Adam a moment to realise that this was Renard, Lord Guyon’s third son, for when last encountered the lad had been a lanky fourteen-year-old with less substance than a hoe-handle. Now, although still on the narrow side, his limbs were beginning to thicken out with pads of adult muscle and he moved like a young cat. ‘We thought you’d gone for good!’ Renard greeted Adam with a boisterous clasp on the arm and a total lack of respect. His voice was husky and a trifle raw, revealing that it had but recently broken.

‘So did I, sometimes,’ Adam answered wryly, and took a step back. ‘Holy Christ, but you’ve grown!’

‘So everyone keeps telling me — but not too old for a beating, Mama always adds!’ Renard laughed merrily, displaying white, slightly uneven teeth. ‘She’s taken my father hunting because it’s the only way she can get him to relax his responsibilities for a day, short of spiking his wine — and she’s done that before now. There’s only myself and Heulwen here. She’ll be right glad to see you.’

Adam lowered his gaze. ‘Is her husband here too?’

They went up the forebuilding steps and entered the great hall. Sweet-scented rushes crackled underfoot, and sunlight shone through the high window spaces and illuminated the embroidered banners adorning the walls. Renard bade a servant bring wine, then tilted his visitor a speculative look from narrow, dark-grey eyes. ‘Ralf was killed at midsummer by the Welsh.’

‘God rest his soul.’ Adam crossed himself, the words and gesture emerging independent of his racing mind.

Renard grimaced. ‘It was a bad business. The Welsh have been biting at our borders like breeding fleas on a dog’s back ever since it happened. Warrin de Mortimer chanced on the attack, drove the Welsh off and brought what was left of Ralf home. Heulwen took it badly. She and Ralf had quarrelled before he rode out, and she blames herself.’

The maid approached them with a pitcher and two cups, her eyes flickering circumspectly over Adam. He stared through her, a muscle bunching and hollowing in his cheek. The wine was Rhenish, rich and smooth, and he almost retched, remembering Heulwen’s wedding day and how he had drunk himself into a stupor on this stuff and Lady Judith had forced him to be sick in order to save his life. Afterwards, the incident had faded into a memory recalled with wry chuckles by everyone except himself. Sometimes he wished that they had been sufficiently charitable to let him die.

Renard sat down on a fur-covered stool before the hearth, dangled his cup between his knees and said disgustedly, ‘De Mortimer’s been buzzing around Heulwen like a frantic wasp at an open honey jar. It’s only a matter of time before he formally asks my father for her.’

‘Is he likely to agree?’

Renard jerked his shoulders as if ridding them of something that chafed. ‘Admittedly it’s a useful bond, and as Warrin was once one of my father’s squires, he’ll probably get a generous hearing.’

Adam filled his cheeks with the wine, then swallowed it. He remembered the rasp of dust against his teeth, the sensation of a spur-clad heel grinding on his spine, a mocking voice telling him to get up and fight. The bruises, the humiliation, the tears swelling painfully in his throat and choked down by fear of further scorn; the effort to rise and face his adversary, knowing he would be knocked down again. Training, it was called: a thirteen-year-old facing a man of twenty, whose sole concern was to display his superiority and put the most junior squire firmly in his place. Oh yes, he well knew the glorious Warrin de Mortimer.

‘And Heulwen herself?’ he asked with forced neutrality.

‘Oh, you know my sister. Playing hard to get as only she can, but I think she might have him in the end. Warrin offered for her before, you know, but was turned down in favour of Ralf.’

‘And now Ralf ’s dead.’

‘Yes.’ Renard cocked him a curious look, but something in Adam’s manner made him change the subject. ‘What’s Matilda like?’

Adam gave him a rueful look. ‘That would be the “Empress Matilda”,’ he said. ‘Woe betide anyone who doesn’t afford her the full title. She’s as cold and proud as a chunk of Caen stone.’

‘You don’t like her then,’ Renard said with interest.

‘I didn’t get close enough to find out — I didn’t want to end up as stone too!’

The younger man grinned over the rim of his goblet.