Read Fires of Winter Online

Authors: Roberta Gellis

Fires of Winter (3 page)

His sons tried to overawe me at first and called me “whore's son,” but I stared them down with such pride that even Alain, who was older than I by more than a year, did not dare raise a hand to strike me. And when I was matched with him in swordplay, I beat him so quickly and so soundly that he came to be in awe of me. I think when they saw my skill in riding and fighting, Alain and young Oliver wished to be my friends, and we were easy enough together doing those things that boys do, but I could never take them into my heart. I could not forget that they had called me “whore's son” at first, and they tormented Audris when they could.

I think Sir Oliver noticed their hatred of Audris, for he sent them early to be fostered. After Alain was sent away, I expected to go too, but Sir Oliver kept me in Jernaeve. He never gave a reason. Well, he was not a man for talk. At first I thought it was for Audris's sake. Later, I realized it was because he did not wish to foist me on a noble family as if I were gently born. Poor man, now I know I was a burden on his loyal heart. He knew me for his brother's get, yet my father had never recognized me. But he took over my training himself, teaching me the skills of a knight rather than those of a man-at-arms, and I learned that he paid for my armor—true mail, not the boiled leather of a common soldier—out of his own purse.

By the time I was fifteen, I was growing restless and a little bored in Jernaeve. Like any youth, I thought that I knew all there was to know and was impatient with lessons. And my case was worse than many others because Sir Oliver did not allow me to put into practice what I had learned by going in his stead to oversee the outlying manors or to collect the dues from the small keeps beholden to Jernaeve. So when he loosed my tether and sent me with a troop from Jernaeve to answer a summons from the king to fight in France, I was wild with joy. I went as squire to Sir Oliver's substitute, a man called Sir Bernard, and I learned two salutary lessons.

The first was about women. When we came to London, I was burning with desire for a woman. Not that I was a virgin. Knowing too much of the uses of women from my youth, I had sought out one of the castle whores—in fact, she who had taken over my mother's place—as soon as the first desires came upon me. I had always something to trade for the service, for I needed only to ask Audris for an old silk ribbon or take a heel of the fine bread or rich cheese that appeared only on our table. Such small items were sufficient; I knew I did not need to pay at all. A word to the bailiff could have brought deep trouble to anyone who displeased Sir Oliver's squire—but I never used that weapon. Quite aside from the fact that Sir Oliver would have been furious if he found I had misused my power in such a way, I had too clear a memory of my mother's troubles (despite being shielded by the presence of the lord's bastard and my father's favor—such as it was) to wish more trouble on any woman who needed to ply Berta's trade.

I think I was a favorite with the whore too, partly because I was a whore's son and partly because I was young and not ugly. Whatever the reason, she taught me ways to pleasure a woman so that she could receive from me some measure of return for what she gave. I was impatient at first, eager only for my own delight, but I soon learned that to resist my satisfaction was to make it more intense when it came. I do not think, though, even in those early years when the body's demands are paramount, that I was a lecher. And later, I was even less given to the demands of the flesh—but to be honest, that may have been because once I left Jernaeve, most of the women I could afford, if I wished to use them often, I could not stomach.

What drove me that night in London, though, was less a need of the body than curiosity. I imagined that a whore in a great city would be something strange and somehow richer than the woman who plied that trade in Jernaeve. Had I not been warned by a priest that the lips of a strange woman drop as a honeycomb and her mouth was smoother than oil? Having been told that such joys existed, was it not natural that I should be eager to experience them?

Not being an utter looby, I realized that the price of what I bought would be higher in London than at home, but I had several items for trade. One of my perquisites as squire was to keep the horsehair I curried from our mounts, and since I was assiduous at such duties, I had a bag of the resilient hair beaten free of dirt. This was much favored for stuffing pallets or cushions. I had also the candle ends from the thick candles that Sir Bernard burned at night to ward off evil spirits. The candle ends were of a good length, no mere stubs, since the days were long and the nights short in the spring. In Jernaeve, I knew any of these would be a welcome gift, but here in London I took along one of the coins from the purse Audris had given me when I left Jernaeve—I knew enough not to take along the purse.

Clever as I thought myself, I was still skinned. My “pleasure” cost me my shirt as well as the other items, but in a way I received value for my payment. Because of my expectations, I chose the most exotic appearing of the women I encountered. In the uncertain light of flaring torches she looked a marvel—her eyes rimmed with black, her skin whiter than milk, her cheeks and lips a more brilliant color than those of any woman I had seen. I had no idea at that time that a woman could paint herself to change her appearance, and I followed her eagerly, expecting wonders, only to discover that she was less in every way than the whore of Jernaeve—even after I bribed her, knowing the way of whores, to show me some new twist in the play of love. And I discovered, too, once I had recovered from my disappointment, that there was only a shade of difference in my own pleasure and that difference rested only on the fact that I was fond of the woman in Jernaeve and cared nothing for the whore in London. Years later, if I could have found that whore I would have given her a round sum, for that lesson was worth far more than I paid her.

My other lesson came with being blooded in battle—a little more thoroughly than Sir Oliver had intended, I suspect. In fact, I am not sure the action at Bourg Thérould should be called a battle. There were no tens of thousands drawn up with brave banners flying and heralds riding to and fro crying defiance and shouting heroic lines to hearten their masters' men alternately with crying curses and imprecations at the enemy. Perhaps Bourg Thérould was no more than a skirmish. However, it was battle enough to me—it was my first and God knows it was a bloodier fight than many far greater battles.

I changed from boy to man that day. I was a boy when I waited to charge, lance in hand, thrilled to know that I would be aiming at a living man rather than a senseless quintain. Such are the young: I did not once think that if my aim was good a living man, against whom I had no spite, whom I did not even know, would be painfully hurt or die. I did not harm my first target. I was not heavy enough at fifteen to overset him, and either by luck or skill, I warded off his lance; but the second I struck true, and the dreadful scream as my lance thrust through mail and gambeson made me a man. Quintains do not scream.

I cried out too, in horror at what I had done. Could I have withdrawn, I might have run away, but I was attacked and by instinct defended myself. And then Sir Bernard was struck down. I did not know that he was dead, and it was my duty to defend him so I fought on. I did not even dare spew up the meal I had so gaily eaten that morning, though the screaming and stink of blood and excrement from the loosened bowels of the dying (or terrified) roiled my stomach. Instead I went away inside myself to some far place where all the stench and noise were very distant and could not touch me. I have sought and found that place many times since then, but I no longer wake up as I did the night after Bourg Thérould, sobbing bitterly.

I was utterly amazed, wondering about what I was weeping. When I caught my breath, I realized that the tent was free of my master's snores, and it all came back to me. I still am not sure why I wept, and I have given the matter some thought over the years. Oh, I was sorry that Sir Bernard was dead, but in those days the only person whose death could have wrung from me those racking tears and sobs was Audris's. Perhaps I wept for those who had died by
hand, or for all men who died in battle—but I think it was more for myself, because the innocent joy of boyhood in my skill in arms was lost.

Later in the day, though, I remembered how the leader of our force and many others had praised me for my heroic defense and I began to grow proud of what I had done. Is it not this that makes war possible? That men forget so easily their revulsion at inflicting pain and death on others and recall only their pride in their own prowess?

After the battle, which broke the back of the rebellion against the king, I was witness to the punishment of the prisoners. I saw how men without influence were sentenced to be maimed or blinded or killed, whereas one such as Waleran de Meulan, who had been a leader of the rebels against the king—although he had been raised like a son in the king's own household—was only sent into gentle imprisonment. One good effect of the fearful punishments exacted for rebellion was that I became less discontent for a time with the quiet life in Jernaeve and was glad to go home.

I was welcomed back with wild joy by Audris, and that, too, sweetened the days of that summer—but I found also that Audris and I had come to a parting in the ways of our hearts. Out of love, she listened to my tales of war, but she was horrified, gentle creature that she was, not excited. She did not even much relish my tales of London and the foreign towns I had seen. It was the hills and forests and the wild creatures that lived in them that she loved, not close-packed houses filled with people or the streets busy with trade. We did not love each other less, but we had grown apart.

As if to compensate, I was closer to Sir Oliver for a time than I had ever been before. I had brought with me a sealed letter for him from the commander of the force, which, I am sure, held high praise of my behavior in both camp and field, and for the next few years Sir Oliver put me to use fighting off raids by outlaws and Scots. That first year I went with Sir Oliver to drive the raiders away and follow them back and burn their villages. The next two years I led a troop of my own, and was welcomed warmly in the manors to which I brought relief and protection. In some of them I stayed the night or even a few days, and more than once I was asked questions about Audris that puzzled me.

At first I said nothing to Sir Oliver about these questions, fearing to bring trouble on my hosts, but their curiosity about Audris herself, and such matters as when she would be ripe to marry and whether Sir Oliver was soon planning to betroth her and to whom, remained in my mind. Then one afternoon while Sir Oliver and I were idly drinking ale before the high-burning fire of deep winter, before I thought, my mouth had disclosed what puzzled me.

In the next instant my blood froze in my veins, so strange was Sir Oliver's expression as he slowly lifted his head. He had been idly watching the flames in the fireplace as he grumbled; now, instead, he stared at me for a long moment in silence. Finally he said heavily, “I knew the time would come.”

Pretending my heart was not leaping in my throat, I stared back at him. “If I have done wrong and should have told you about this sooner, I am sorry. I thought there was no harm intended, just a natural curiosity about Audris because she is so shy.”

Sir Oliver sighed. “You have done no wrong. Still, you must leave Jernaeve. I cannot keep you anywhere on the lands. You are a danger to Audris.”

“I?” I gasped, the shock of hearing so suddenly that I must leave my home being swallowed up in the far greater shock his last sentence gave me. “I a danger to Audris? I would die to protect her.”

“I have no doubt of it,” Sir Oliver said sadly, and then with a spurt of bitterness, “Damn your Fermain face! Why could you not look like your mother?”

This time I was so stupefied by astonishment that I could not find my voice at all and just gaped at him.

“Do you not see that the men beholden to Jernaeve might prefer a strong man they know to hold the lands, bastard though he be, to a frail maiden?” Sir Oliver went on after a moment, watching me all the while as if he would draw the thoughts inside my head out through my eyes.

He could have discerned nothing but astonishment and disbelief, because that was all I felt—but it is likely he could not tell what I was thinking at all. I had not that trust in people that allowed every emotion to play freely over Audris's face, and it had long been my practice to hide what I felt.

“You cannot believe I would have any part in such a scheme,” I protested when I could speak.

Sir Oliver shook his head. “Nonetheless, the longer you remain, the more men will compare you with Audris and the greater their discontent will grow. You must go.”

Fear and desire warred in me. I knew that I no longer had a home, that I was to be cut off from Jernaeve forever and that was a fearful thing, but I also had a deep craving to go out into the world, where perhaps I could make a place for myself that did not depend on being my father's get on a whore. I also feared Audris's reaction to hearing I was leaving Jernaeve for good, and I dared not tell her the real reason. It would be a bitter brew indeed to make poor, loving Audris drink of, that because she was a frail woman I had become a threat to her possession of Jernaeve. A silly fear. Audris had always known me better than I knew myself, and she had seen my restlessness. She tried to hide her tears to spare me pain and only made me promise that I would never fail to send her letters.

Again, I was not cast out but sent with honor, with a fine horse of my own training and good arms and armor. In the spring, I went to serve Eustace Fitz-John, in Alnwick keep, as one of the captains of the men-at-arms. I had my seat among the other captains and the upper servants at the second table and respect from the common folk and men-at-arms; I had no need to feel that I had fallen. And, although the troop I was given to manage was small and all raw men, that was to be expected for one as young as I. I took great pleasure in training the men and polishing them, and in the small actions we were sent on they behaved well. The troop was enlarged and then enlarged again.

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