Excerpt, Perfect Poison
“In this profession one has to endure heat, hunger and hard work, to sleep little and often to keep watch”…“and you will be powerless to change the situation. Bolts and arrows come at you and you do not know how best to protect yourself. You see people killing each other, fleeing, dying and being taken prisoner and you see the bodies of your dead friends lying before you…if you stay, you will win eternal honor. Is he not a great martyr, who puts himself to such work.”
Geoffroi de Charney, (c. 1300 – 19 September 1356), Chevalier (Knight) and author of Book of Chivalry
Chateau Galliard, Normandy
Horses screamed in terror. Steel clashed. Men cursed and shouted.
Lord Jocelyn of Freyne turned his head to the side. The warm muck smoothed and shifted beneath the pressure of his cheek. A man leapt over him. Another followed. They were slingers, both of them. The leather straps they used to launch their stones flew out behind them as they raced away from the battle. Jos wished them well, though cowards they were. Then again, was it cowardice to flee when staying meant only death?
How could a plan that had seemed so brilliant yestereven have proved so flawed when implemented at dawn’s light? King John had been determined to lift the siege of Chateau Galliard, his departed brother’s impregnable and ‘saucy’ castle. To do it, John had split his army, made up mostly of mercenaries, along with knights from England, Normandy and the few Angevins who hadn’t yet betrayed him. One half, the half to which Jos and his troop had been committed, was ordered to attack the French forces by land. The other half was to row up the Seine by boat, destroy the besiegers’ pontoon bridge, then join their brothers in battle against the French and their king.
The attack by land started at the appointed moment, but the boats had never arrived. Not even William Marshal, England’s greatest warrior, could forestall defeat, not when he had but half of King John’s strength to throw against the full weight of France’s army. With no hope of relief or rescue, they were being cut down like stalks of wheat by a scythe.
In his mind’s eye Jos once more saw his men fall, each and every one of them. Tom, Adlar and Will–men of Ashby and friends from the time of his fostering there–had died in the first few minutes. The rest of Ashby’s force, as well as the three knights and eighty men he’d brought from Freyne and Lavendon, fell swiftly after, slaughtered, their life’s blood spent on the foul ground of a land strange to them, their bones never to return home.
His bones never to return. With each beat of his heart Jos left a little more of his own life’s blood on the torn and broken earth around him.
Consciousness began to wane. As it did, the sounds of battle dimmed. In the unnatural quiet he watched a destrier run past, dragging its rider, the dead knight’s foot yet caught in the stirrup. Another knight, one wearing a surcoat bearing a design Jos didn’t recognize, leapt out to snatch the horse’s reins. The battle-trained beast lifted, his forelegs thrashing, his hooves shooed in sharpened iron. The Frenchman paid with his life for trying to claim so rich a prize–the same prize Jos’s horse and armor would be for the knight who claimed them after his death.
He sighed. His eyes closed. Darkness, peaceful and safe, circled around him, only to be pierced by a shard of sadness.
Of all the wrongs he’d done in his life, Jos was startled to discover his greatest regret was having delayed his marriage to Avice of Lavendon. Last year, his lack of feeling for Lord Henry’s daughter had seemed just cause to delay their union for one more year. Fie on him. He had broken his promise to Avice, even if that promise had been made seven years ago when he’d been but ten-and-four and she, only nine. Now instead of becoming a wealthy widow who could look forward to a fine second marriage, his death left Avice too old to make a first marriage worthy of her rank.
As that thought faded, the time for regrets ended, and he drifted into a quiet, empty place.
Freyne Castle, England
A door creaked. Jos woke with a start, his right hand instinctively moving to draw his sword. Pain jolted through him. He froze, teeth gritted. In the next breath he remembered that he was once again in England where he belonged.
This time moving with far greater respect for his still-tender scar, Jos shifted to the edge of the bed and pulled back the curtains. The wooden rings that held the draperies aloft scraped across the pole. As the fabric parted, cold air curled into the bed, driving back the warmth that had collected during the night just past and raising gooseflesh on Jos’s skin. He slept without a shirt these days. Even the finest linen irritated the sensitive new skin on his wound.
The only illumination in the room was the night candle guttering on its iron stand near the foot of the bed. Despite its weak and uncertain light, Jos recognized the figure in the doorway. He grinned in pure pleasure. There was only one man who could fill an opening like that–Sir Gilliam FitzHenry, his beloved foster father, the man who had transformed a whining, headstrong child into a knight prepared to accept the responsibilities of his patrimony.
“Come in, come in,” Jos commanded his foster father, still grinning like an idiot.
He carefully levered himself up to sitting on the mattress. “But it can barely be dawn! How did you arrive from Ashby so swiftly? Nay, how did you know to come at all? I only breached Freyne’s gate yestermorn.”
Dressed in a thick tunic and mud-stained boots and chausses, Sir Gilliam strode into the chamber, the hem of his cloak stirring the fresh rushes on the floor, disturbing the darkened dying wisps of the night just past. The knight found the sole chair in the room, one that appeared too delicate to accommodate a man of his bulk.
“I gauged you’d be here by no later than next week,” he said as he brought it closer to the bed, “knowing you intended to leave Normandy around Martinmas. I started out two days ago and made Lavendon yestereven. I planned to spend my days reviewing the construction if you hadn’t yet arrived. I’m eager to see how your outer wall progresses,” Sir Gilliam finished as he dropped to sit crossways in the seat, stretching his long legs to one side.
Only then did Jos actually see his foster father’s face. He laughed in surprise. “Lord save me, look at you! I cannot believe you once more attempted a beard,” he taunted in mock dismay.
Gilliam was taller, broader and stronger than any other man Jos knew, and almost as accomplished a warrior as the Marshal, but no matter the big knight’s prowess on a field of battle, this was one war he always lost. Unlike his former squire. Jos ran his fingers along the line of his own dark beard. It was no longer as neatly kept as he liked, trimmed to the edge of his jaw and around his mouth. His servant Rob had died with the rest of those who’d gone to France with him. Until Jos was ready to find a new man or regained the full use of his right arm, he would depend on others to do their best to keep his facial hair from growing wild.
“How did you convince Lady Nicola to agree to this experiment of yours? My sweet foster mother has more than once mentioned how she hates it when you set aside your razor.”
Creases marked the corners of the older man’s blue eyes at the description of his sword-wielding wife as sweet. Gilliam ran his hand over the lower half of his face, fingering the reddish-blond beard that curled almost as wildly as the golden stuff atop his head. Although he was twice Jos’s age, his facial hair remained spotty and thin, even though it was now touched with silver.
“Colette couldn’t complain this time. I grew it as part of my holy oath to see you ransomed and released,” Gilliam replied, still grinning. “I vowed not to shave until you were once more safe in England. When I left Ashby, my beloved was sending up prayers of thanks for your return and sharpening my razor at the same time. As she worked, she was telling our new son he was lucky she’d let me live so long with this stuff on my face. She’ll put that honed edge to my cheeks the moment I return and report that I’ve witnessed you safe in your own bed.”
“Safe, perhaps, but not in my own bed,” Jos retorted on a brittle breath. “This piece belongs to my lady mother. She brought it with her when she came to Freyne to prepare the hall for my homecoming. Nor is it just a bed. It’s another prison when I’m deathly tired of being confined.”
After spending almost a month and a half in a rat-infested French donjon waiting to be ransomed, Jos had been carted to his next prison, Bec Abbey in Normandy. There, the monks had held him close behind their cloister walls as they stitched him together again and strove to bring him back to health.
“Damn her, but my mother’s already driving me mad,” Jos continued. “I’d barely set foot in the courtyard yesterday when she dared command me to bed. When I refused, she flew at me like a harridan, scolding me for not honoring her as our Lord commands while weeping at the same time that I was breaking her heart.”
Gilliam laughed at that. “There’s no doubting that Lady Elyssa is a most persistent mother.”
Jos’s jaw tightened. “I’ll see her gone from Freyne before I let myself be trapped in here, even for her. By God, but there’s not even an arrow slit in this chamber to show me a bit of sun when I’ve had enough of dark spaces.”
Gilliam glanced around the room. “Huh, why didn’t we tell the workmen to cut a window when they rebuilt the hall?”
“Because we were concentrating on more important structures and didn’t think to do it. There was no window in here before Freyne fell,” Jos replied with a careful shrug.
After the siege that had destroyed this place some years back, the hall had been thrown up in haste with no consideration to comfort or craftsmanship, so the workmen and their protectors would have a place to lay their heads. Although Jos had been but a child at the time, his stepfather and foster father had included him in planning the reconstruction, using the work to teach him the art of defending his home and hall. Jos scanned the bare wooden walls of the chamber. Despite the dimness, he could still make out the lines where new walls had been joined to what had survived of the old hall. For no reason he could imagine, that irritated him.
Gilliam laughed again. “I don’t know, Jos. I’m not certain I would mind being chained to this bed.” Both his use of Jos’s pet name and his tone warned that he meant to tweak his foster son.
The big knight reached out to touch one of the bedposts, using a finger to trace the carvings that decorated it. “My poor brother must be bereft. How will he ever replace this piece with anything approaching its beauty?”
That made Jos smile. Geoffrey of Coudray, Jos’s stepfather and Gilliam’s brother, was a man who liked his luxuries, and no matter how much Jos might resent it, this bed was truly an astonishing piece. The posts and the bedframe were carved with twining ivy, the thick foliage studded most improbably with both acorns and hazelnuts. The mattress was down-filled and the heavy blue bed curtains offered both privacy and warmth when closed. As his mother’s sole and separate property, it was hers to give where she pleased, and she had pleased to make a gift of it to Jos.
Dropping his hand, Gilliam pulled his chair closer to the bed. “Shift toward me so I may see the damage.”
Jos did as he was asked, revealing the livid line that marked him from the top of his shoulder to mid-chest. As the monks had insisted he do throughout the day, he lifted and rotated his right arm. His breath caught as he sought to bring it straight above him, then he carefully returned his arm to his side.
Gilliam’s eyes widened. “The monks at Bec are true miracle workers. I think me you’re lucky you still have your arm,” he said in no little wonder.
“That’s what the brothers said as well,” Jos replied. “But they’re no miracle workers. They don’t think I’ll ever again be able to lift a sword on the practice field much less use one on a battlefield. They offered more hope for using a bow although I may have to use it left-handed.”
His foster father dismissed these predictions with a shrug. “That’s something only time will tell. You’re young and healthy. Did they also instruct you to keep that arm moving? If you don’t, the scar will grow stiff and you won’t even have your bow arm.”
“Aye, Brother Gilliam, they did,” Jos retorted, teasing again. Lord, but it was good to be home!
That made Gilliam grin and he flicked his fingers against Jos’s ribs. “Imp! You’re too thin. Tell me you haven’t returned to eating like a Churchman after living with them for these last months.”
“Never again. You long ago showed me the error in my ways when it came to food.” Jos laughed, although the truth was he hadn’t really been hungry since August past.
“So I did,” Gilliam agreed, then cocked his head to the side. His expression sobered. “Tell me. How do you fare?”
“Well enough. The crossing was easier than I expected, but the cart ride from Bristol to Freyne nearly did me in.” Jos rotated his right shoulder again as he spoke.
Contrary to the warnings of the monks who had tended him, the fresh sea air and the tossing of the ship had made Jos feel alive again. If only he could have sailed all the way to Freyne. He didn’t dare yet mount a horse, not when one accidental wrench might cost him all the progress he’d made over the last month. But neither could his pride tolerate the thought of arriving at Freyne on foot like some pilgrim. So instead he’d hired a cart. No matter how Jos had positioned himself in the damned thing, he still managed to jar his shoulder at least a dozen times a day.
Gilliam nodded and made a quiet sound of agreement to acknowledge Jos’s statement. The expression in his eyes sharpened. “Now, I’ll ask my question again. How do you fare?”
However gentle, it was a probe fraught with meaning deeper than Jos cared to explore at the moment. Or ever.
“I am healing and I am back in England. That is all that matters.”
“I think not, my lord,” the older man replied, his voice lingering significantly on the honorific. “Now answer my question. How do you fare?”
“Or what? You’ll bounce a pig’s bladder off my head as you did when I was your squire?” Jos taunted with a smile.
His deflection didn’t work. Gilliam lifted his brows and waited, all trace of humor gone from his expression. By that alone did Jos know that he would not be able to avoid the question.
“What if I don’t wish to speak of it?” he dared to try one last time.
“Spew it anyway,” Gilliam commanded gently. “You are punishing yourself. I can see it in your face. ”
Of course Gilliam saw it. Of all the men in the world, this one knew him almost better than Jos knew himself.
“Should I not be?” he threw back, his stomach knotting as it always did when he thought about August past. “Those I led trusted me to bring them safely home. I failed them.”
It wasn’t the scar on his skin that pulled this time, it was the one on his heart beneath it. That wound would never heal. Every man in his company save him was dead. Their deaths, their grieving widows and mourning children, all lay upon his doorstep. How could he–or his heart–ever be whole again after that?
“You did not fail them,” his foster father replied, his voice still gentle. “I think your guilt misplaced. Was it not on my behalf that you joined our king in his ill-fated venture, taking my place and Ashby’s men with you? If any man failed them, it was I for wanting to be at my wife’s side as she again came to childbed.” For all Lady Nicola’s healing skills, each child she brought forth cost her dearly and had taken two of her newborn daughters.
“Ashby and Freyne,” Jos retorted. “My men and yours, as well as Lord Lavendon’s. You and he stayed behind because you were needed here. I went–”
“Because our king commanded it,” Gilliam interrupted. “You did your sworn duty as God demands and every oath-bound man must. If you must place blame, blame me, or better still, blame our king. It’s on his head that the whole of this misadventure rests.”
Jos closed his eyes. “Hardly so,” he muttered.
It hadn’t been duty that had taken him to France with King John. A year ago he had been newly knighted, and just come into his inheritance and his title, a rash and headstrong youth who dreamed of winning glory and riches by his exploits. His return to England found him a wiser, poorer man, stripped of his destrier and the value of his armor, indebted to others for a good part of the cost of his ransom, as well as injured in body and soul. When he opened his eyes Gilliam was still watching him.
The big knight nodded slowly. “You dream of them,” he said. It was not a question.
Jos frowned in surprise. He did dream of that August day, although watching the slaughter of his men night after night was more nightmare than dream. In his sleep he was just as helpless to save them as he had been in summer past.
“How can you know that?” he demanded of Ashby’s master.
“Do you think you’re the only one?” Gilliam replied. “All of us who let blood do so. I often relive my worst battles in my sleep. Most often it is the massacre of Acre that haunts me. King Richard’s crusade was my first true experience of war. I vow I see the faces of those I slaughtered there more clearly in my dreams than I could ever have seen them whilst awake and plying my sword. I think this is the way of it for those of us whom God has destined to be soldiers. It is our holy duty to retain the memory of the men who died at our sides or upon our swords. Because we do, the fallen continue to live on through us.”
Jos blinked as the images of his dying friends again rose within him. Holy duty or not, he would not, could not ever forget.
“How…?” The rest of his question, a plea to know how he was to live the rest of his life bearing this burden, remained unspoken.
Gilliam needed only that word to know what his former squire asked. “Do not let your past and what you’ve done hold you captive. This is no easy task I set you, but you have no choice. If you cannot escape the past, the pain you presently carry will cripple you, and I don’t mean your body. I mean in your heart.”
He reached out and pressed a careful finger to the center of Jos’s chest. “It can steal your soul, leaving you naught but an empty shell of a man, hardened to all emotion and bereft of any humanity. Or worse, drive you to madness.
“Aye, we are warriors,” Gilliam continued, “but that is only what we do. It need not be who we are. Find your purpose outside of battles and bloodletting. Let that purpose be what defines you.”
“Purpose?” Jos shot back, the raging word tainted with bitterness. “What purpose have I save my ability to kill? Am I not oathbound to slaughter on my king’s behalf? Was it not my ancestors’ skill at letting blood that won us Freyne and its title in the first place? Killing men is my heritage, and this hall,” he waved his good hand to indicate his father’s home, “forever binds me to that duty. Each year, I pay the king his taxes so he can send me and mine to yet more wars. Once I’m wedded, will my purpose not be to breed up sons, boys who have no choice but to become warriors just like their sire?”
That made Jos’s stomach turn. How could he bring children into the world, knowing they might also be part of some futile, ill-planned battle that cost them their friends the way their father had killed his?
How could he not? He was yet bound to Avice of Lavendon, and all too soon Lord Henry would demand that a date be set for their marriage ceremony. And this time the ceremony would take place. It had to. Lavendon had contributed a substantial amount to Jos’s ransom.
Everything in him resisted the thought of marriage, no matter his battlefield regrets, no matter the promise he had made Lord Lavendon’s daughter. Poor little Avice. She deserved better than a husband who had no feeling for her and might well never regain full use of his sword arm.
Or a man who wasn’t sure he wished to bring children into the world.
Leaning back in his chair, Gilliam watched him, his expression still sober. “I don’t ask you to do what I haven’t done for myself. Have I ever told you that you were my purpose?”
At Jos’s surprised and negative shake of his head, Gilliam freed a breath of a laugh. “I suppose I did not. There are not many who know. All I will say is that there are things worse than battle and death that can haunt a man. Becoming your foster father, the man responsible for turning a Church-ish lad into a skilled knight, was what restored honor to my life after I was certain I could never regain it. Geoff entrusted you to me when I did not trust myself. It was after you came to love me, after you nearly lost your life seeking to save me and the woman I love, that I became whole again.”
Gilliam paused. Moisture sparked in his blue eyes as emotion softened his handsome face. “You did that for me,” he said at almost a whisper, then raised his voice. “You cannot know the depths of my pride in you, in the man you have become, even if you cannot believe you are that man right now.”
He laid a hand on Jos’s left arm. “When you first arrived at Bec, the monks wrote that only God’s will kept you from dying in that filthy French keep. I give thanks you did not, for if you had, a part of me would have died with you. Our Lord has made a gift to you of your life. Accept it and live on, finding all the joy you can in each day. Rather than bathing in guilt over the deaths of those who fought with you, honor them for loving you enough that they willingly spent their lives while battling at your side.”
Jos stared at the man who was more father than teacher to him. The bitterness and self-hatred that had poisoned his every waking moment and a good many of his dreams since August rose to fill his throat. Then, beneath it, a tiny spark of hope awoke. It begged him to accept what Gilliam offered.
Try as he might, Jos couldn’t imagine how to do that, certainly not today and mostly likely not any day soon to come. All he wanted now was to be left alone to heal in precious solitude. But that wasn’t the answer his foster father wanted to hear.
Jos bowed his head and lied. “As you will, my lord.”