Authors: E.M. Powell
‘Is that sister your personal slave now, Gerald?’
Theodosia looked up at John’s shout, hand tight on her knife as the knights quietened, their attention drawn too.
With his chair pushed back and his feet crossed on the table, John wore a grin on a face that shone with copious amounts of meat and wine.
Gerald gave a tight smile in return. ‘God does not see fit to heal my grievous injury yet. I try to get by as best I can.’
John’s grin broadened. ‘I have what you need.’ He dropped his feet to the floor to lean forward and search amongst the platters and bowls. ‘This.’ He threw something to the clerk, where it landed with a soft thump in front of Theodosia’s and Gerald’s trenchers.
A great roar of laughter burst from the watching knights as her sight swam. The hand of the dead king rested before her.
‘Remove that foul object from my sight,’ Gerald ordered one of the servers, who scooped it up in a linen cloth.
Theodosia’s sight cleared, though the sweat of nausea coated every inch of her body.
‘Bring it back here.’ John clicked his fingers. ‘I will preserve it as a trophy for my father. As proof of my success.’
Gerald shot him a malevolent look as he stabbed at a piece of his beef. ‘The King prefers wealth to trophies, my lord.’
John waved his remark aside. ‘I know. It’s only for fun.’ He took a deep drink. ‘Have fun, Gerald. We’ve so much to celebrate, thanks to my dispatching of Theobald Walter to deal with the Irish.’ He raised his goblet to his friend. ‘To Theo.’
The knights joined the toast, the most recent of many.
Theodosia drank some water to steady her resolve. She could tolerate this obscene banquet of John’s no more. As soon as his attention shifted elsewhere, she’d tell Gerald she felt unwell and take her leave.
‘Theo, the hero.’ John slapped the tabletop. ‘Hark: I’m a battle poet now.’ He rejoiced in his new jest with his fellows. ‘You shall have great rewards.’ He pointed at his friend with his goblet. ‘Great. In fact, I am awarding you lands. You can have five
from Munster. Five. I shall retain crosses and donations of abbeys and bishoprics. But you can have the rest.’ He picked up a jug to refill his glass.
Theodosia let out a breath. He’d forgotten all about her. She went to rise.
‘My lord.’ Gerald’s response drew John’s attention back.
She froze, fiddling with her bread as if unconcerned.
‘Those rights belong to the Crown.’ Gerald wore his most sou
John reddened. ‘God’s eyes, Gerald. The rights of the Crown might as well be mine.’
‘You may say, “Might as well,” but that is not the same as possession,’ said Gerald. ‘The land is not yours to give. There are many who already have rights to the land, and many more who might stake a claim. Men like Hugh de Lacy—’
‘That festering traitor!’ John hurled the jug at Gerald, its contents splashing over all it passed. The clerk ducked, and it smashed on the
The table fell silent, the trickling of wine making its way to the floor in small rivulets the only sound.
Theodosia did not dare to make a move now.
John’s good temper had shifted with the speed and strength of the very drunk. ‘He knew my plans – I’d swear my life on it. So he ran away like the cowardly cur he is. Fighting for my father, his wife says? I believe that as much as I believe a woman would open her legs to him without gold in her pocket. Or a knife to her throat.’ He stood up from the table, with a loud scrape of his chair. ‘Now he’s out there, scheming and plotting and conniving to stop my progress.’ He paced and all eyes followed him. ‘Waiting to make his strike, the cursed snake that he is.’
Theodosia’s gaze locked on him too, tensed for what John might do in a rage like this.
‘We could hunt him down, my lord,’ said Walter, not obviously less sober than John. ‘You could join me. And we wouldn’t only take his hand.’
Murmurs of agreement met his words, with feet stamping, and fists and goblets struck on the tabletop in a rousing clamour.
John nodded with vigour, retaking his seat as he held up one hand to silence them again. ‘I have much to consider about where we fight next and who we chop to pieces in our victory.’ Hi
eyes had the shine of fever, but it was a glow stoked by his rage. ‘
so have much to consider about what to do with de Lacy’s wife.’ He chewed his lip, frowning. ‘Gerald, you said at Windsor that th
ish have a reputation for treachery and guile?’
‘That is the truth, my lord,’ said Gerald.
‘Well, Eimear O’Connor is one of them. You saw her today, where she would kiss the hand of the King of Munster, even in death.’ John spat on the floor. ‘She hates our success.’
‘As de Lacy will too,’ said Walter.
‘Precisely.’ John helped himself to more wine, slopping it messily as he poured. ‘We cannot afford the risk of her sending
‘Which she may have already,’ said Walter.
‘Agreed.’ John tapped the tabletop with his fingers. ‘I’m going to have her brought within this keep and held here under close watch. Then I can take my time finding out what she knows and what she doesn’t.’ He smiled. ‘I can be very persuasive.’
Theodosia stiffened. She knew the terror of a woman who is at the mercy of murderous men, men who would torture for sport in the worst of ways before they killed. She could not sit by while it was planned for another of her sex. But what in the name of the Virgin could she do?
Gerald raised his voice in disapproval. ‘My lord, I would advise caution. Eimear O’Connor is of noble birth.’
John rolled his eyes. ‘Noble
birth. A savage spawned by savages.’
‘Nevertheless. You do not want to antagonise the Irish any more than is necessary.’
John drew breath to dismiss the argument.
‘My lord.’ Theodosia used her will to keep her hands, her voice steady. ‘May I make a suggestion?’
‘Who asked you to speak?’ John looked as if he couldn’t believe her forwardness.
Gerald gaped at her, appalled.
‘I am guided by God, as always, my lord.’ Theodosia prayed God did, at this moment, direct her. ‘I know from my time in the Church that people will say much when they pray.’
John continued to stare as if she were a cat that spoke.
‘I could pray regularly with my lady in her captivity, my lord.’ Theodosia pressed on. ‘I may find a way of truly knowing her heart while helping her soul on the path to God’s forgiveness.’
‘God, eh?’ John raked a hand through his hair. ‘I believe He mocks me right now. Only one woman at my feast, and she’s a nun.’ He grinned round at his friends. ‘And a talkative nun at that. The worst type.’
His reward was more laughter as Theodosia’s shoulders tensed at his ignorant jibe.
Theobald Walter pointed the greasy capon leg he held at John. ‘Might be worth a try, though.’ He interrupted himself with a belch.
‘I agree,’ came Gerald’s swift remark. ‘I of course apologise for Sister Theodosia’s rudeness. However, I believe there is value in what she says. She may have found a way to get what you want, without bloodshed that could terribly tarnish your noble name.’
‘Hear, hear,’ said Walter. ‘And, John, it means you and I can seek out some real opponents. Like McCarthy.’
A new drunken roar met his words, and John threw a
in the air, shouting for more wine.
Theodosia bit her lip. Her half-brother had avoided responding to the suggestion that he should go and fight. She felt Gerald’s eyes on her.
‘You will still attend to me,’ he said. ‘But a goodly suggestion. Praise God for His intervention.’
‘Praise God indeed, brother.’ Now she had to tell Benedict. She crossed herself. She would need God’s help a little more.
?’ Palmer could scarce believe he’d heard
‘Shh. I had to do something.’ Theodosia looked around to make sure no one had overheard his angry remark.
For Palmer, the hours that Theodosia spent at John’s feast had crawled by. She’d been summoned there by Gerald, an
nly been able to watch in dread as she left with him. Palm
er had h
ad no idea of what was happening. No idea except what usually went on at such gatherings. And John hosted this one. Now the relief he’d felt on seeing her descend the steps on the lumpen shadow that was the motte in deep dusk was gone.
She went on. ‘I feared for Eimear’s safety, even for her life, to the depths of my soul.’
Shaking his head, Palmer lowered his voice. ‘John wouldn’t dare touch her. She’s of royal blood.’
‘John does not see her in that light. He called her a treacherous savage.’
‘She’s no savage. Fierce, more like.’ He remembered Eimear’s words as he left her at her tent:
‘If you dare to fetch me for such shame again, I’ll have your eyes. But not before I have your hide as a cloak.’
Palmer’s jaw set at the memory of the look with which Eimear
her promise to him. ‘And she is the wife of a nobleman.’
‘A nobleman who is not here, Benedict. John knows that, which is why I intervened to prevent any actions he might take.’
‘If I’ve learned one thing about the King’s son, it’s that he says a great deal and does very little.’ Palmer snorted. ‘He’s good at drinking and shouting and hiding, but that’s about all.’
‘He was indeed very drunk, and he
a request to fight alongside one of his friends.’ Theodosia’s brow furrowed. ‘Then perhaps he will not carry this out. Maybe I did act too soon.’
‘Perhaps?’ Palmer let out a long breath. ‘It’s bad enough that you’ve been trying to get information from John without him knowing. Now you’re working for him too.’
‘Yet by doing this, I may be helping the King.’ Her brow cleared. ‘I could discover the proof about de Lacy through Eimear.’
‘I would wager that Eimear would allow nothing to be discovered unless she orders it. Theodosia, you’re only doing this because you thought that it would help her, remember?’ Palmer fixed her with a look that allowed no argument. ‘No more plans, no schemes that I find out about afterwards. You pray with her as you’ve agreed. That’s all.’
Her grey eyes met his. ‘You think I’ve been foolish.’
‘No. Foolhardy.’ He looked around. No one could see them in the darkness. He raised her hand to his and pressed his mouth to it for a moment, drinking in her scent. ‘Which is why I love you.’ He let her go, his heart hurting. ‘But for all that’s holy: no more. This is all too dangerous.’
‘Sister!’ A tremulous call came from the top of the steps. ‘I fear a fall in this darkness.’
Theodosia shook her head. ‘Gerald. I must go.’ She passed Palmer with a whisper: ‘You came to save me when no one else would. I love you too. With all my heart.’ Then she was gone.
Of course he’d saved her. Would still lay down his life for her in a heartbeat.
Palmer tipped his head back and took great breaths of the damp night air. A gust of wind rustled the dark trees that surrounded the camp, the darkness of nightfall now complete.
The darkness into which Hugh de Lacy had disappeared. To what end, Palmer didn’t know. The threat without. Now, with John’s rash actions towards Eimear, the threat within.
And him, Palmer, caught in the middle. Worse, far worse, sending a fear that gnawed at his innards: Theodosia too.
Palmer climbed the mud-slicked steps of the wide ladder that led to the wooden watchtower above the bailey gate, careful of his step. The low clouds of the last few days had brought yet more rain, an
e soaked treads might as well have been oiled.
A forlorn voice floated down to him. ‘The blessings of the feast of Saint John the Baptist to you, Sir Benedict.’
‘And to you, Simonson. How goes the watch?’ He climbed onto the planks of the floor of the tower as the younger man, hunched against the coolness of the damp, nodded a greeting.
‘All quiet, Palmer.’ He held a spear but used it as a leaning post. ‘Don’t think it’ll be like that at Ardfinnan Castle. The Lord John’s men looked out for more Irish blood when they left.’
‘That they did.’ Palmer had watched them depart earlier in an orderly formation, sent on their way by an excited John. No question of the Lord of Ireland joining them to swell the ranks at
. John remained secure behind walls, as he always did; his fighting words never more than empty bluster.
‘I swear I regret not being picked to go with them. Or with Theobald Walter: he’s gone to claim his new lands in Munster.’ Simonson gave a wistful sigh. ‘Think of the glory they’ll bring.’
‘Glory? Not always the case, I’m afraid.’ But the call of battle had tugged at him too. The mailed knights, the keen horses, the shine of ready weapons, the gleam of polished shields: all brought an urge he’d thought behind him. No mind. His place was here.
‘Hard to believe it’s summer.’ Simonson stamped his feet, a long shiver passing through him. ‘Can’t wait to finish my watch. My belly’s empty. The only thing filling it is cold. Hot food and a warm tent. That’s what I need.’
Palmer caught back a smile at the
look on Simonson’s big face. So much for the man’s urge to go into battle. ‘You’ve only a couple of hours to go. And those fires aren’t cooking much at the moment.’ From where he stood on high, he could see each sulking pile of wood in the bailey, belching smoke into the wet air. Except for one. One that sent up a stronger plume. Behind a group of tents. He frowned. ‘Who’s built a fire so close to th
‘Oh. I don’t know.’
Of course you don’t.
Palmer set off along the wall walk to get a better look, Simonson trailing behind him.
A movement in a huge, heavily leafed oak tree a few yards beyond the ditch caught his eye. A branch, moving abruptly, though the rest of the tree stayed still. Then he saw it. A man daubed in mud, his gaze locking on Palmer’s.
‘Down!’ Palmer dropped.
A wooden dart flew through the air, its wicked point burying in Simonson’s shoulder.
Simonson squealed, his eyes wide in shock as his hands flew from his spear.
Palmer yanked him to the floor, as dart after dart whipped over the wall.
Screams and yells shrilled from the bailey below.
Tibberaghny was under attack.
Theodosia entered the stuffy room high in the keep, her hands clasped, head bowed in respect. ‘I have come to pray with you, m
Eimear turned from the narrow window, her pale skin even paler from the number of days she had been incarcerated by John. ‘As you do every day, sister. And I tell you, as I do every day, that
I pray in private.’
‘As you wish, my lady. Then I shall pray here alone, and for your soul.’ Theodosia settled on her knees on the hard floor. The sparse room had no luxuries such as a faldstool, with a straw bed and a small chest the only visible possessions. She crossed herself as she removed her paternoster from her belt.
‘And what else do you pray for?’
‘My lady?’ Theodosia looked up to see Eimear step before her, arms folded.
‘Do you pray for the victory of the Lord John’s men at
? That they take all the Irish lives, return with hands as trophies to be used for his disrespectful jests?’ Her look pinned Theodosia.
‘No, my lady. I pray for the souls of those who have perished.’
‘The souls of those who would tear this land to shreds.’ Eimear said the words as if she tasted poison. ‘You can see why I would never pray with you. Sister.’
Theodosia’s chest tightened. She would not allow her faith to be dismissed like this. ‘No, my lady. I pray for the souls of all who have perished. Including McCarthy, King of Desmond.’
Eimear’s eyebrows arched. ‘Why would you do such a thing? He is your enemy. You should rejoice in his death, celebrate his body’s dismemberment. As did the Lord John.’
‘I could never rejoice in such acts.’ Theodosia gripped her paternoster hard.
‘If you ever fought in battle, even witnessed a battle, perhaps you would.’
Theodosia’s tone tightened along with her fingers. ‘Believe me, my lady: I have fought.’ Taken the lives of others. ‘I have witnessed the brutality of murder.’ Her Lord Becket, his body carved up before her horrified sight at Canterbury. ‘I can only pray for those who have suffered it. All those.’ The string snapped, scattering her beads across the floor. She shook away the old grief. ‘And I can promise you, I ask God to forgive the Lord John for his wicked treatment of the body of the King of Munster.’ She had to stop; she was saying too much. She bent to scrabble for the beads, collecting them into her cupped palm.
Eimear stopped her with a raised hand. ‘Listen.’
Theodosia halted. Her stomach turned over. Screams. Yells. And not only the ones from a camp in panic. The unmistakeable sound of those calling for blood.
Eimear hurried back to the window. ‘Ah.’ She let out a long, slow breath. ‘They come.’
Palmer swore hard. The trees, they’d come from the trees. Just like de Lacy had said:
‘If I were you, I’d get the men you do control to cut some more of those trees down.’
And Palmer hadn’t. Not yet. So de Lacy had known, forcurse him. Known what was going to happen.
‘Get under here.’ Palmer hauled Simonson back to the shelter of the gate tower as more sharp wooden missiles pelted down.
‘It hurts.’ The younger man breathed fast, shallow, his eyes fixed on the weapon stuck in his shoulder. ‘Am I going to die?’
‘No.’ Palmer yanked the dart free in one movement to
shriek. ‘At least not at this minute.’ He ripped his own kerchief off and thrust it into the injured man’s hand. ‘Put that to your wound, it’ll do until the barber-surgeon can see to you.’ He rose and headed for the ladder.
‘What are you doing?’ Simonson pressed his palm to his wound as blood seeped around it. ‘You’ll be killed if you go down there.’
‘Not if I can help it.’ Palmer doubled his cloak over his head and half-slid down the steps in his haste,
dart slicing all the skin from his knuckles as he landed at the bottom. Cursing, he sucked the blood away.
‘They’re in the trees!’ His shouts merely joined the chaos.
Men ran, screamed, yelled, ran for cover, as the sky spat down yet more sharpened darts, the sheer number of their vicious points finding targets in those that fled.
The air above him moved, and he jerked to one side, the sharp wooden missile impaling the muddy ground instead of his flesh.
He grabbed an abandoned leather water pail, tipping out the contents. Propping it over his head with his bent elbow gave him a bit of cover. He ran for one of the tents where he knew arms were stored, the clatter of wood on hide loud above his head.
As he burst in, he saw others had come to find weapons too. But not many. And they grabbed at whatever they could, shouting and arguing with no one listening.
Palmer blew a sharp whistle with two fingers, and all eyes went to him, every man abruptly silent. ‘Sir Benedict Palmer. Who amongst you is a knight?’ He knew the answer as his gaze swept over untrained bodies and unwise choices of weapon.
‘Then I’m in charge of this defence.’
One man opened his mouth to argue.
Palmer drew his sword in a swift movement.
The man shut it again.
‘We haven’t much time,’ continued Palmer. ‘The Irish have set a fire at the north wall of the bailey, nearest the forest. They have men in the trees with darts, so they’re free to burn. As soon as th
ll comes down, they’ll be in.’ He scanned the group. ‘Now, have I any archers?’
Three men raised a hand.
‘The Lord John sent the best fighters to Ardfinnan, Sir
said one. ‘There are a few more here, but I fear they’ve been struck down by the enemy’s attack.’
Palmer let loose a string of curses. For a brief moment, he was tempted to haul John from the safety of the keep where he no doubt cowered. Haul him out and use him as a shield against the deadly Irish darts.
‘Does that mean all is lost, Sir Benedict?’ The man who asked had managed to jam a helmet on but hadn’t laced it tight under h
Palmer couldn’t add to the hopeless terror already clouding the man’s eyes. He too tasted the
of lack of hope, not for himself, but for Theodosia.
‘Of course not. Now put your damn helmet on, man. Same for the rest of you. You can’t fight with a sharpened stick in your head.’
Theodosia ran to join Eimear at the window, her heart racing.
‘Stay well back.’ Eimear matched her command with her own action. ‘Even this narrow window is a target.’
The clatter of wood on wood on the wall outside confirmed it.
Theodosia started, though Eimear did not react. She peered past Eimear to the camp far below and a sight from hell met her vision.
Smoke covered the whole camp, the shouting figures running through it like spirits trying to flee damnation. She could not make anyone out, could not see if Benedict was
the crowd. Then one fell with a wail, sinking from sight, then another and another.
Her hands went to her mouth. ‘What is happening?’
‘The Irish are using darts, and they possess great skill with them.’ Eimear’s stare outside remained fixed. ‘But we are still safe in here. For now.’
As if brought forth by her words, yet more spines of sharpened wood showered down, some piercing even the roofs of the tents.
People ran from the punctured canvas, making for the steps of the motte and the safety of the keep, clutching whatever they could over their heads to protect themselves from the deadly onslaught.
Then she remembered. ‘Dear God. The clerk Gerald.’
Eimear looked at her. ‘What of him?’
‘He will be in terrible peril. I have to bring him to safety.’
‘He is a man, sister. He can see to himself.’
‘He is not a fighting man; he is a man of God. And he cannot defend himself. One of his arms is useless.’
‘Then he will meet his fate.’ Eimear spoke as if Gerald might miss a meal.
‘I do not believe in fate, my lady.’ Theodosia hurried to the door. ‘I believe in doing what I can.’
Ignoring Eimear’s call, she hauled the door shut behind her, praying she still had time.