Authors: Griff Hosker
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Military, #War, #Historical Fiction, #Scottish
Published by Sword Books Ltd 2016
Copyright © Griff Hosker First Edition
The author has asserted their moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, copied, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the copyright holder, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
Cover by Design for Writers
Thanks to Simon Walpole for the Artwork.
Stockton Castle - January 1138
I do not think my spirits were ever as low as they were that Christmas. There was no happiness to be found anywhere and I found myself despairing that the sun would ever shine on the world I ruled. We were a tiny enclave of the supporters of the Empress Matilda and her son. Around us we a sea of enemies.
Wulfric, my Sergeant at Arms, had almost died after fighting the enemies of the Empress. He had recovered but it had been a close thing. We were surrounded by those who wished us harm. The nearest allies were in Normandy! In England I had but half a dozen knights on whom I could rely. There were more who would fight alongside me but they were in Normandy, with my son, William at my Angevin manor of La Flèche. Leofric of Stockton and now my new squire, Gilles had left for there too. I felt alone. I had also lost my first war horse, Star. Scout had been retired but I had ridden Star whenever I could. Latterly I had used Badger, but he was in Normandy and now Aiden, who cared for my animals told me that Star had died of some illness. It was as though I was fated to plumb the depths of despair. My brave horse should have died in war and he had not; he had wasted away. That alone had depressed me more than I could say.
Rolf, who had been, like me a Knight of the Empress had also died in Normandy. He had died the dearth he wanted; a warrior's death defeating our enemies but I still missed him. He and the rest of Swabians had all fallen now there were just three of us left. Sir Edward in Thornaby and Sir Guy in France at his manor of La Cheppe.
It was the memory of my dead wife who brought me back to some kind of sanity. After Christmas I had been in the church close to my castle and reflecting on all that had gone wrong. I had tried to do as King Henry had asked of me and defended the Empress Matilda's right to the throne but I had failed. My dark church seemed to suit my mood and I prayed there. Perhaps it was a trick of the candlelight, I know not but the effigy which William the Mason had carved of my dead wife, Adela, seemed to smile. I knew it could not; it was stone but I swear that it did smile. In that instant I remembered how she had always had the ability to make me see that the beaker was half full. It was that smile that made me realise that we still managed to cling on in my island of the Empress. I had allies: Thurstan, Archbishop of York was a friend a supporter. There were knights who secretly supported me, like Sir Hugh Manningham of Hexham. And I still had my son as well as allies in Normandy. More than that I had Henry, the son of the Empress. I owed it to him to make him king.
I stood, angry with myself and thankful to my dead wife. I went to the effigy and kissed the stone lips. "I am sorry that I allowed doubts to creep into my heart. You were ever my rock and I was never good enough for you. I will try to be the man you deserved."
As I turned I heard Father Henry say, "Amen, my lord, Amen."
One major problem with being surrounded by our enemies was the proliferation of bandits and brigands. They took our predicament as a sign of weakness and their numbers increased. They thought we were weakened and gathered like carrion to pick at the carcass while we still lived. My men still had the reputation of being the fiercest warriors in the land but like a pack of dogs trying to take down a bear they nibbled and bit at the edges of our land. We now controlled the river only as far as Barnard Castle to the west and Thornaby to the east. All else was lost. To the north I had no knight at Norton but there was a stout garrison of those who had fled from the lands around Hartness. They would hold the town wall and the manor for a brief time at least. Sir Richard of Yarm had been a dubious ally until his son Tristan had almost been slain by the De Brus clan. Now he guarded the southern approaches to my land. The east was my main problem. There Robert de Brus still ruled and he was an ally of King David of Scotland and Stephen the Usurper of England.
Aiden acted as my gamekeeper as well as the master of my animals. Since the troubles had begun he had ridden further afield with his two hawkers, Edward and Edgar. The two brothers had been with me for some time and Aiden had trained them well. The days when I could enjoy the pleasures of hawking were long gone. Knightly pleasures were a thing of the past. We were fighting for survival and our backs were to the wall. The three of them ranged far and wide and were my eyes and ears. They scouted. They looked for signs of strangers. They were my guard dogs.
The nights were still long and few men were abroad when they returned one dusk, cold and shivering. Aiden sent his two acolytes to the fire in the kitchen while he sought me, Sir John, my castellan, and Wulfric. We were together in my Great Hall. "Lord I have found tracks of bandits north of here, towards Thorpe."
"Were there many?"
He gave a grim smile, "If there had been but a few of them then they would be dead already. There were too many for the three of us. They have a camp in the forest north of Thorpe. Thorpe has been destroyed." He shrugged, "There were no people there, none alive anyway. The ground was hard with the frost and it was difficult to ascertain numbers. I am guessing twenty perhaps more." He shook his head. "When last we visited, a month since, it was prosperous and the people were happy. Now it is a graveyard."
"You have done well. Go, warm yourself and tomorrow you shall lead us to this nest of vipers."
After he had gone Wulfric made to rise. "I will warn the men."
"Stay Wulfric. You will not be riding tomorrow."
"Why not lord?"
"The thirty stitches in your leg for one."
"It is nothing."
"That is not what Father Henry says. I will not risk my rock for bandits. Sir John has been yearning to leave the castle and he will accompany me. You will remain here and enjoy a day or two of being a castellan. You can groom your fine horse, Roger. I believe that, come the spring you shall have need of him. I will leave you here with Erre. I take but Dick and his archers. Cedric and Oswald shall be my men at arms. Go tell them."
He nodded and left.
Sir John had been my squire, along with Sir Leofric who was now my castellan at my Angevin manor. He knew me well. He now felt confident enough to talk to me where once he would have been afraid. "Lord, you hunt these bandits this because you are restless."
"I do. I have written letters to the Earl of Gloucester. We need him to end the unrest in Normandy for only then can the Empress and her son come to England to reclaim her birthright. I know not why he delays."
"There are rumours he urged Theobald brother of Stephen to become King."
I nodded, "I have heard those rumours. They may have been a ploy to drive a wedge between the brothers. The Earl knows how to do such things. In any case I owe the Earl enough to wait judgement on that." Sir John's words echoed my fears. The Earl had not been as strong a supporter of his sister as I had expected. "The greatest threats are the Scots and the northern rebels. Since Barnard de Balliol and De Brus have joined Stephen of Blois I fear treachery for they are Scots at heart. Stephen may have been taken in but not I. King David and his son Prince Henry are cunning. They may have planted those two cuckoos in Stephen's nest."
"Does that not suit us, my lord?"
"No, for although I wish Stephen defeated, it is not at the expense of the loss of the north of England. I fight not only for the Empress but the people of this valley. Those two play games to gain power and land."
Sir John shook his head. He was low born. I had elevated him but such games were beyond him. He struggled to grasp the concepts of chess. With a sword and a shield there was no finer knight but my former squire would never lead armies. "I would not be you, my lord. You have a task such as would have been set Hercules."
I laughed, "At least Hercules knew who his enemies were. I can count my knights on one hand and the rest..."
"Better a few men that you know lord than an army of men like De Brus." I nodded for he was right. I did not have many men but I could rely on them all.
I rode my newly acquired horse, Rolf, when we rode abroad the next morning. I had brought him from Normandy and named him Rolf after the last of the Swabian bodyguards of the Empress. My new horse was not a war horse but he had destrier blood in him. Scout was now too old to ride and with Star gone Rolf would be my first choice. Badger and Hunter were my war horses. I would have need of them when we faced knights.
I took Dick and ten of his archers. I could have taken more but I was loath to risk my castle. Although our treacherous neighbours had been quiet of late I would not put it past them to have created this problem in order to lure me from my castle. Besides I felt I had enough men. With two men at arms, Sir John and his squire, Ralph of Yarm, we would be the equal of any bandits.
My three scouts did not range far ahead. They knew where we were going. We headed up the Durham Road. Once this had been a busy thoroughfare as men travelled to and from the Palatinate but the Bishop of Durham had sided with Stephen of Blois and he was another enemy. The only thing in his favour was that he did not wage war upon me. He owed me much for I had saved him and his castle before now. He waited and watched to see who would rule this land. When the dust settled then he would decide. The land rose towards Thorpe and then a mighty forest stretched on both sides of the road for many leagues. It was fine hunting there. As soon as we reached the eaves of the forest we stopped.
"Lord, their camp is in the heart of the forest some two miles away. Look on the ground, you can see tracks here. The frost makes it hard to see how long ago but this is the path they use."
I nodded. "Dick it is time for you and your archers. Would you go on foot or horse?"
"Two miles is nothing. We will walk."
"Edward, Edgar, guard the horses." I saw the disappointment on their faces. "Keep a close watch. You may have to defend the horses."
Aiden also dismounted. He was a fine archer too. They strung their bows and set off in a long line. The five of us rode. We would be the bait. I had no doubt that the bandits would have sentries. If my archers chose to then they would be invisible. A horse is a noisy creature. They would hear us coming. The trail we followed was clear and my archers did not wait for us. They vanished into the trees. Although our horses made noise we did not. We had each brought a spear. I preferred using a sword but fighting a man on foot necessitated a weapon with a longer reach. We had brought long spears.
I rode at the head of our small column with Sir John on my right side. Cedric and Oswald rode together behind and the least experienced, Ralph, rode at the rear. We might only be facing bandits but would take no chances. My shield was held tightly to my body. Rolf suddenly snorted. I looked around and saw the dead man with an arrow sticking in his chest as he fell from his perch. My archers were silent killers. The body alerted us to the dangers ahead. I knew that we were getting close and I hissed, "Cedric, Oswald, flank us."
The two men at arms rode to my left and Sir John's right. Dick and his archers might be the shield but we would be the hammer which smashed the bandits. Suddenly I heard cries ahead. I spurred Rolf who responded immediately. He was a powerful beast and I had to pull back on the reins lest he out run the other three. They caught up with me as we galloped towards the sounds of combat. An arrow came straight at me. It was a blur but I knew what it was. I flicked up my shield and the arrow pinged off the surface and into the trees. Then I saw the bandits. They were crouched as they tried to take advantage of the low bushes and send arrows towards the enemy they could see; me and my four men on horses. My archers were hidden but their arrows were taking their toll. Dick and his men had surrounded the camp and all the bandits' attention was on us.
There were more bandits than I had expected. Some I could see as soon as we reached the clearing. A handful wore helmets and leather hauberks. Some had been soldiers. Their weapons and their demeanour told me that. I could not restrain Rolf any longer. He had the smell of battle in his nostrils and he leapt forward. A brigand with a poleaxe swung it at me. Had I had a sword he might have caught me but I jerked Rolf to the left as I thrust at him with my spear. His two handed weapon meant that he had no defence against the blow and my spear head went into his throat. I twisted and pulled as Rolf galloped into the heart of the camp. Two bandits stood thirty paces from me and pulled back on their bows. Suddenly they pitched forward as Dick's archers' arrows struck their backs. They fell and their backs looked like a hedgehog.
Sir John had only one man who was bigger and stronger than he and that was Wulfric. He rode directly at the leader of the bandits. He had a short mail byrnie, a shield and a spear. Sir John rode straight at him. Cedric galloped to his right and his spear took the bandit who was guarding the side of the leader. Sir John's spear smashed into the shield of the leader. It was such a powerful blow that the spear shattered in two but the man was thrown to the ground. He lay stunned. Sir John whirled around and drew his sword in one practised motion. As the leader rose to his feet he brought his sword around and took his head. It rolled into the middle of the camp and its dead eyes stared at the grey skies.
The last few bandits threw down their weapons and fell to their knees. "Mercy! We beg mercy!"
I reined in Rolf. He had not had enough and would have charged again. My men emerged from the forest. I saw that we had not lost a man. I had not expected to. Then a movement to my left caught my eye. Five women and two children emerged from the dell in which they had sheltered.
The grey haired gammer dropped to her knees. "My lord. You have saved us."
I dismounted and handed my reins to Oswald. "Rise. Who are you?"
"I am Anna wife of Arne of Thorpe. These are my daughters and granddaughters."
"These are the bandits who killed your men?"
She glared at the eight who had surrendered. "Aye lord, and worse." I saw the younger women pull the two young girls closer. She did not need to elaborate.
One of the men said, "We only did what Alan of Trimdon told us, lord. Give us mercy!"
I turned to Anna, "It is your decision, Anna wife of Arne of Thorpe, what is the fate of these men!"
"Give me your knife, lord, and I will mete out justice myself."
I saw the men recoil and knew what she intended. "No, mother, for you would to live with that. Whatever punishment you decide we shall deliver."
One of the women stepped forward, "No, mother. That one should live," She pointed to a young man no older than Gilles, my squire, "he was kind and tried to stop them. He should not die.."
Anna wife of Arne of Thorpe looked coldly at the youth. "He was part of them! He should die!"
I saw that the young man did not beg but stood, awaiting his fate. "What is your name?"
"I am William of Wulfestun, lord."
I peered at him. "You are related to Old Tom?"
"He was my grandfather, lord. When my family were slaughtered by the Scots I was taken as a thrall." He pulled back the lick of hair which hung over his forehead. There was a sign of a slave burned into it. It was not a fresh wound. "I escaped a year since and would have starved but these bandits took me in."
The bandit who had spoken earlier said, "See lord, we are not all bad!"
I ignored him. "Cedric, Oswald. The boy lives, hang the rest!"
They wailed and they cried but my men ignored their pleas. They were taken to tall trees and hanged. Their seven bodies jerked and thrashed for a few moments and then lay still, swinging from the branches.
"Anna wife of Arne, would you go back to Thorpe? If you do not wish to return to the farm there are places for you at my castle."
"My husband and his father built the farm by the valley. I would go back but we have no man. We need someone to do man's work."
I nodded and looked at the youth I had saved. "William of Wulfestun, I have a mind to let you live. But I charge you with working for this woman and her family for seven years to make amends for your misdeeds. What say you?"