Authors: E.M. Powell
With a shake of his head, Palmer replaced his sword against the nearby tree, ready to grab it again at a second’s notice. The King’s son should be giving orders about how best to counter an attack. The answer to the Irish had been chaos of the worst kind. This camp needed orders. Direction. A plan. But no. Nothing. Men deserted by the day, with the rumour that the Irish chieftains were paying them the money John was not. And no men came to replace them. Many of those who remained seemed to favour the bottom of a beer barrel. Palmer himself spent all his time on the building work now.
Even with all these problems, all John did was scuttle away like a rat back to its hole.
Palmer picked up the axe he’d been using to strip the bark from a felled tree. He looked towards the tent where he knew Theodosia lodged with Gerald, reliving the horror he’d felt when he’d seen her step outside. It still gripped him, along with the fear he’d felt in defending the half-built encampment. Not for himself. Fighting brought out sharpened senses, faster limbs, a surge of strength. His fear was for Theodosia.
He lifted the axe and brought it down on the tree trunk. He and she had fought together, and he loved her courage, her quick mind. But battle was different. Men ready for brutal slaughter
d so many of them. The wet wood took the force of the blow an
plit, but did not cut. A woman, nun or not, would be nothing except a special prize. More and worse attacks would follow, he knew that. He had to speak to her, to make her understand the danger she faced. And soon. Pushing the picture from his mind of how
could be assaulted, he wiped his dripping hair from his face and cursed long and hard.
‘You can say that again.’
Palmer looked up to see the heavy-set younger man from the ship at Waterford, no longer looking pleased at the thought of whores and wearing instead the sweat of fear. ‘Why? You’ve
‘No, no.’ The man gave a nervous grin at Palmer’s terse reply.
‘Just thought that we were for it then.’ Still holding a blunt-
short blade, he held out his free hand. ‘The name’s Simonson, si
Palmer shook it. ‘Sir Benedict Palmer.’
Simonson’s grin fell as he nodded to Palmer’s sword. ‘Can use that, can you, Sir Benedict?’
‘You can call me Palmer.’ He wrenched a strip of tight bark from the green wood. ‘And yes, I can use a sword.’ Would use it to take the head of anyone who laid a hand on his wife.
‘Thank the Almighty.’ Simonson blew out his cheeks. ‘Sounded to me like the Irish were about to attack. They made the fiercest noise I’ve heard yet. Even when they make it at night. And the nights are terrible.’
Saints alive, the man looked more fearful than a beaten dog.
Palmer raised his axe again. ‘They choose the nights on purpose
. A ti
red camp is an unready one. Makes mistakes.’
The wet wood squeaked under his strike. ‘How’s your use of that blade?’
Simonson looked at the poor weapon he held. ‘Middling.’
Palmer grunted as he hauled his axe free. ‘Like your readiness to work?’
‘Sorry, sir.’ The man flushed and tucked his blade into his belt. He picked up the small axe he’d flung away at the first sounds of danger. ‘Always ready – I got distracted, that’s all.’ His strike at the wood came at an angle and bounced off, narrowly missing his ow
‘Middling, you say?’ Palmer landed a sure blow on the tough wood.
Simonson’s colour deepened. ‘Maybe better to say that fighting’s new to me.’
‘Then what drew you to it?’
‘Land, sir.’ Simonson took another cut, better this time. ‘The word went out that the Lord John would pay men to fight for him. It wasn’t only me that came from my village. There’s
half a doze
that I can see from where I stand.’
‘I see.’ Palmer’s doubts hardened tight as his neck muscles as he struck the wood yet again.
‘We’d get paid for fighting. Even better, the Lord John would reward us with our own lands.’ His big, bland face became curious. ‘As I’m sure you will get too.’
‘I have land.’ Palmer went to swing his axe again but stopped dead.
She had walked out of her tent, jug in hand, headed towards a barrel of water in a quiet corner.
‘What I need now is to get some water.’ Palmer laid his axe down, pulse surging at this chance. ‘Keep at it.’ He nodded at the tree trunk. ‘It’s almost done, and we’ll have something to show for this morning.’
‘That we will.’ Simonson set to, happy to claim Palmer’s work as his.
Palmer walked over to Theodosia, holding in his deepest urge to run to her as she struggled to lift the heavy lid. ‘Need a hand, sister?’
She looked up and her eyes met his. Delight and relief shone in them as he knew did in his own.
She took in a long, long breath. ‘Please, good sir.’
He lifted the lid with ease and laid it on the ground. ‘There’s no one near?’ He kept his voice low.
‘No, we’re alone,’ she said. ‘Oh, Benedict. How I wish I could hold you.’
‘And I you.
‘Yes. Though it shames me to say it, when I thought we were under attack, I was so frightened.’
‘I know you must’ve been. But I was watching your tent. You shouldn’t have come outside.’
Her gaze dropped like a stone.
‘Swear to me you will do nothing.’ She bent to pick up her water jug from beside the barrel.
She looked at him again. ‘John forced me out. He concealed himself behind me so he could get to his men.’
‘So the warrior lord is in truth no more than a yellow-braies. The snivelling little snake.’ With a low growl, Palmer yanked the jug from her. ‘We’re leaving. Now. I’ll take my chances in explaining why to Henry. I know I can get us home.’
‘No.’ Theodosia tried to tug the vessel back. ‘We must stay.’
‘To have you used by John to try to save his own skin?’ Palmer held firm. ‘Theodosia, the man has no idea of what he’s doing. Look at what he did at Waterford, insulting the Irish and
them. Proclaiming some wild conquest of his own.’ He battled to keep his voice from climbing. ‘Here at Tibberaghny is no bett
e’s brought men who know less about fighting than a dairymaid. And they know even less about building a fortification. We still have only half a wall, and half of that will fall over if there’s a gale. He’s drinking with his friends every minute he has, instead of
the men he’s got. I’ll wager the Irish know it. They’re playing this perfectly:
ear they’re biding their time, waiting for the right moment.’
Her response threw him, and she scooped the jug from him.
‘Benedict, John believes Hugh de Lacy is definitely working against him, possibly his wife, Eimear, too. He spoke freely to Gerald of it.’ Her hands tightened on the jug as she gave him an account of what she had overheard. ‘Which means that my father’s suspicions are correct. If I stay where I am, at Gerald’s side, I may be able to gather information to pass on to you. Information which you can use far more effectively than John.’
Palmer was glad she held the jug. He probably would’ve dropped it. ‘You mean act as a spy?’
‘Call it what you will.’ She gave a twitch of a smile. ‘After all, that is what you are for the King, is it not?’ She didn’t allow his answer. ‘But if I am also in a position to help you to do what the King needs, what he ordered, then that is what I must do.’
‘Theodosia. It’s too dangerous. You can’t.’
‘I can.’ She dipped the jug into the barrel. ‘This water butt can serve as our meeting place when it is deserted. No one will question our presence here.’ She held the full vessel with a look as firm a
r tone. ‘Now I must return or Gerald will wonder where I am.’ Her free hand brushed his for the briefest moment. ‘I know you are watching over me, my love,’ she whispered. ‘You will keep me safe.’
She walked away before he could say another word.
A nearby crash had him turn quickly. A pile of logs had dislodged and rolled across a cooking fire, sending sparks and shouts of blame into the air.
Keep her safe. Here. A difficult enough task, and to which he’d devote all his waking hours. But to keep her safe while she spied on the King’s son?
Palmer pulled his hands through his hair. He could only pray that John was too wrapped up in his fool’s behaviour to notice. But that behaviour couldn’t last. What he needed to do was to get Theodosia away from her half-brother. He just needed his chance. Then to take it. And her.
Tibberaghny, Co. Kilkenny,
6 May 1185
The hours before dawn bring a cold to the bones like no other. Palmer long knew that, but it didn’t make it any easier, even on a short, early summer night such as this. Sat cross-legged on the damp ground next to the fire at the centre of the camp at
, he poked the embers back to new life with a stick.
Plenty of life echoed from the high wooden keep on the motte behind him. John had ordered that the building be the first built. Safe within its walls and the high palisade that surrounded it, the Lord of Ireland and his circle of young bucks drank the night away yet again. The rest of the camp remained in damp tents on the churned mud ground.
Palmer rubbed his face hard to push away his tiredness. Unlike the King’s son, he’d not fall into bed at cockcrow and sleep off the late night until well after noon. He’d see out the night watch, yet again, then oversee the building work along with keeping a check on the men who watched over the camp by day. He had to. The men who worked for John had to be driven, not led. At least those that remained did. The ranks of the deserters had continued to grow. All who were still here were of the same kind as the sleeping Simonson, who lay with others on the ground near the fire, swaddled in a
and snoring fit to wake the dead.
‘Is someone wrestling a pig?’
Palmer’s hand went to his knife at the unseen voice.
Before he could react further, de Lacy stepped from the shadows to take a seat next to him.
‘Easy. It’s only me, Palmer.’
‘My lord.’ Palmer’s jaw set in his anger at his own failure. He’d not heard the man arrive.
Fluid as a cat, de Lacy settled and drew out a hunk of bread from his own satchel. ‘Food in your belly helps keep you sharp.’ He held it out to Palmer, the gesture showing he knew he’d bested Palmer.
‘Not for me, thanks.’ Palmer pulled a pail containing cuts of meat closer to him. ‘So many cattle around here, there’s beef for the taking.’ He jabbed at a large lean piece with his knife. ‘Can I cook you some too?’
De Lacy shook his head. ‘Can’t abide the stuff,’ came his odd reply as he tore off a chunk of bread with his awkward, lopsided bite. ‘I must say, I’m impressed with the progress you’re mak
‘There are many men working hard, my lord.’
‘I would see it more as a few men being organised to work hard. I’ve been riding out to see the Lord John’s other two sites at Ardfinnan and Lismore, and they are nowhere near as far on as this fortification.’
Palmer shrugged. ‘I wish we could work faster still, my lord.’ The other sites didn’t have a Theodosia to keep protected. He might not be able to take her out of John’s orbit, but he could build the most secure encampment he could and guard it with his life to
her from those outside. Yet the blasted thing still wasn’t
As if hearing his thoughts, a chorus of whistles broke from the darkness of the woods.
‘And it starts again.’ Palmer threw his meat down with a tired oath and stood up to have a look.
The whistles loudened, the men on the ground stirring and muttering in their sleep. Simonson’s snores cut out in a snort.
Palmer had his sword ready, looked for any signs of movement from beyond. Nothing.
De Lacy didn’t move, carried on eating.
The shrill sounds brought the men to wakefulness, sitting up in bleary unease, swearing death to those that woke them.
‘It’ll stop,’ said de Lacy.
It did, fading back down to silence.
‘You can sleep, men,’ said Palmer. ‘A false alarm.’ Another one. But for how much longer?
‘Bloody was asleep.’ Simonson flung himself back on the ground like a sulky maid. ‘That’s all I bloody want.’
Similar complaints rumbled from the others as they lay down once more.
Palmer ignored them, retaking his place before the fire. He too ached for rest. But he couldn’t give in.
‘Such rudeness should be punished.’ De Lacy nodded at them.
‘Not my place to do it.’ Palmer brushed bits of mud and grass off his piece of meat and held it before the fire again. ‘My lord.’ The fat caught in a sizzle, sending up licks of flame.
De Lacy flinched back, the scarred skin on his face shining red as the glistening beef in the firelight.
No wonder the man didn’t want it.
De Lacy’s one-eyed gaze went to Palmer. ‘So what is your place, Palmer?’
‘To serve the Lord John, of course.’
‘I see.’ De Lacy bit off another mouthful of bread. ‘Then you should join his man, Theobald Walter, on the mission into
. They’re setting off on the morrow. John has decided it’s time to attack the Irish, to start putting his mark on these wild stretches of land. No more sitting around waiting for them to come to us, h
Sitting around? Palmer kept his rueful smile in: every aching muscle and bone in his body disagreed with the Lord John on th
De Lacy jerked a thumb at the castle, where the sound of revelry carried on. ‘They’re supposedly setting off at first light, but my guess is it will be later. Plenty of time for you to join them.’
‘The Lord John is staying here, so I will be too.’ And John was, forcurse him. No attacking for him. Palmer busied himself with turning his cooking meat to avoid de Lacy’s continued stare.
had told him the frustrating news. He’d hoped that if John left, even for a short while, he could persuade her to leave.
‘A strange choice,’ said de Lacy. ‘I had you marked as a fighting man. You told me yourself of your time on the battlefield when you were setting Gerald’s arm at Waterford. Yet you choose to stay here to build and guard.’ He sniffed, wiping his nose on his sleeve. ‘And
ditches to keep tents dry, of course.’
The man missed nothing. Palmer shrugged, not taking the bait. ‘I’m past my best fighting days. I’m doing it for the money.’
The sounds of carousing wafted ever louder from the height of the motte.
Smiling, de Lacy put his head to one side as he considered Palmer’s reply. ‘You need to hope there’s some left after they’ve finished drinking it.’ His smile dropped. ‘So what is John paying you?’
The sudden question threw Palmer. With a bite of the hot beef, he named a sum, had no idea if it was right or wrong. Henry’s rewards to him had not been ordinary.
De Lacy gave him a long look.
Palmer knew he’d guessed too high. De Lacy had pinned the lie. He braced himself for action.
But de Lacy only gave a quiet laugh. ‘Then you may well find yourself needing another employer, Palmer.’ He stood up. ‘The Lord John and his court of young men drank that two weeks ago.’ He hitched his cloak straight. ‘And if I were you, I’d get the men you do control to cut some more of those trees down.’
He walked away from the fire, the darkness of the bailey swallowing him up.
De Lacy was proving to be everything Henry feared. The scarred
lord knew every move, every plan being made by John. He appeared to be able to guess what the Irish would do too. He’d even worked out
something wasn’t right about him, Palmer.
The revelry from the keep loudened, with bawdy songs bellowed in roars of laughter.
Palmer threw his meat into the fire, appetite gone. He still had found no proof of the lord’s treachery for Henry. Trapped here, he could achieve nothing, though his work on the castle threatened to fell him with exhaustion.
De Lacy was one step ahead.
And Palmer couldn’t tell what that next step would be.