Late summer 1202
The sound of clanging swords echoed around the stone walls of the castle, punctuated by grunts and yells and, incongruously, laughter. Hal wandered up the path from the bailey below and paused, leaning on a gatepost, to watch his brother, Robert, and four others taking turns to spar with one another on a small, flat patch of ground at the foot of the motte. He grinned. Robert was pouring with sweat but laughing as he broke away and approached him, brandishing his practice weapon threateningly at his younger brother.
‘Hal!’ Robert’s grin matched his own. ‘Where were you? We were down a man and could have used you, even if you are of little use with a sword!’
Hal backed off slightly, holding his hands up to ward off his brother’s rank smell and flying perspiration as much as to avoid the sword he was swinging around.
‘You know full well I could have held my own against you, or anyone else wanting to give me a try!’
‘So where were you, then?’ Robert threw himself down on the grass slope of the motte, and wiped his sweaty brow with his tunic sleeve. ‘Get me a drink, will you?’ he nodded imperiously in the direction of the well below them in the courtyard.
Hal glared good-naturedly at his brother, but walked down to the well and grabbed the pail that a servant had just wound up from the fresh water depths. It was a warm afternoon, and the sky had been clear all day. Hal took a large swallow of water himself, and then wandered back up to where Robert now lay with his hands behind his head and his eyes closed. Taking aim, Hal threw the remains of the water pail over his brother, who jumped to his feet, spluttering and shaking his drenched head.
‘You deserved that! Ordering me about like some wench in your favoured tavern! And you were in need of a wash as much as a drink.’
Robert stood with his hands on his hips. For a moment it looked like he would explode with anger, but then just as quickly, his eyes crinkled and his lips twitched, and before long he was laughing loudly as he tackled Hal to the ground and shook his wet hair in his face. Both now were well soaked, and breathing heavily, they flopped side by side on the grass.
‘I was with Cenred in the stables, if you must know. I wanted to watch him examining your horse. You know, the horse you ran into the ground yesterday?’ Hal elbowed Robert in the ribs.
‘I was a bit careless with him, I admit.’
‘I know you aren’t intentionally cruel, brother, but getting your thrills riding hard over difficult terrain was a bit rough on your poor horse.’
‘I am sorry for it. Is he recovered?’
‘A strain and swelling to his right rear fetlock. Cenred wasn’t very happy with you, but says Flight will recover if you let him rest for a few days. He showed me a poultice he uses. Stank to high heaven. Almost as bad as you stink now.’
‘Well, you stink of horse muck, so I think we are even,’ Robert quipped back.
They laid beside each other companionably, allowing the warmth of the slowly setting sun to dry them. Hal was three years younger than his brother but already taller and broader. Both were dark-haired and dark-eyed, but Hal was the image of his father, with his wide face and square jaw, while Robert had his mother’s high cheekbones and finer features.
Hal knew his brother had many female admirers and could see why. At twenty-one, Robert was every bit the image of a fine Norman lord, and his reported prowess with the ladies was almost as impressive as his handling of a weapon. As firstborn and heir, he would in time succeed his father as Lord of the Manor, and undoubtedly make his family proud. He was promised in marriage to a daughter of a wealthy family, a good match that had been long arranged. Hal was well-built and strong and no less able than his brother to handle himself when faced with an armed opponent. He was no less handsome, either, but had much less experience of the fairer sex than his brother; he was destined for the Church.
Hal’s stomach rumbled loudly.
‘You hungry again, little brother? I swear you have hollow legs, the amount you eat.’ Robert lifted himself up onto his elbows. ‘It’s not long until supper. We had both better go and clean ourselves up. Father won’t appreciate either of us appearing at the table stinking.’
Robert rose effortlessly to his feet and reached out his hand to help Hal up. Hal grabbed his hand and Robert tugged, but much harder than Hal was expecting, so that he went sprawling forward onto his knees, his hands landing in the muddy puddle his emptied water pail had made.
Robert was already running. Hal levered himself up and ruefully wiped his filthy hands on his tunic. ‘Well played, brother!’ He grinned as he watched Robert’s hastily retreating back.
Hal followed Robert in the direction of the cluster of substantial wooden buildings that were home. They offered them comfortable enough accommodation, within the safety of Brampton Barre’s curtain walls. The stone keep tower, built by their grandfather, loomed above them, but it was rarely used, apart from to accommodate a handful of guards on sentry rotation. Life had, thankfully, been peaceable at Brampton for some years now, not least owing to the protection of Roger de Mortimer of Wigmore, their more powerful neighbour. Hal’s father, Sir Robert de Brampton, held the lands all around Brampton and had vassals aplenty but, as a mesne1 lord, was a vassal himself to Mortimer. It was a mutually beneficial relationship, and their little household had wealth enough from the produce of the land, and sheep and wool sales.
There were just the three of them bearing the Brampton name living in the castle now. Hal had been too young to really remember his mother, who had died bringing their sister into the world, a weak child who had lived barely a few weeks. For Robert de Brampton, the loss of his wife and his daughter had focused his affection on his remaining children. He had lavished attention on his sons, but with wisdom, good sense and enough discipline to produce young men of good character. He had ensured they had the best of education – in letters, accounting, land management and the normal physical pursuits – but in return he expected much of his sons.
For Hal’s future, his father has chosen the Cistercians. Hal knew he had high expectations for him to rise through the ranks and gain position for himself within the Order, perhaps as his own brother, Jerome, had done. The abbey at Cwmhir was where he would enter into his novitiate, partly because it was under Roger de Mortimer’s benefice, and also in memory of Hal’s Welsh mother and her family connections. Hal was content with his lot. He knew his only hope for any position of status or influence for himself was within the Church. He was confident in his ability to do well and secure a place of prominence, in time, just as his brother would do well when he took his father’s place. They had both been prepared well for greatness, and both owed their father their best.
The smell of roasted meat made Hal salivate as he hurried from his hasty ablutions into the hall where the table was already laid, heaving with its bounty. His father was in his place at the head of the table, and Robert was sat to his right.
‘Nice of you to join us, lad. Sit, Henry, so we can all eat.’ His father tried to give him a stern look, but Hal could see that his eyes were twinkling.
‘We should have started before he got here. He’ll likely clear the table by himself if we hesitate much longer,’ Robert quipped.
‘You might be right there, son. The boy must still be growing, which is a bit alarming! I’ve not seen a young man put so much food away at every meal placed in front of him, and not put on any belly flesh.’ Sir Robert patted his own slightly rounded belly ruefully.
The three of them set to, making a fair-sized dent in the food laid before them, drinking a fine ale and sharing their stories of the day. Hal loved these times around the table. His father’s hair was more grey than brown, and his face lined and wrinkled around the eyes, but he was still a formidable and charismatic figure. Hal watched him as he listened to Robert’s account of his swordplay and smiled at the way his father looked tenderly at his older son and laughed with him. Hal knew he would receive the same look when the conversation turned his way. His father’s affection for both his sons was never in doubt.
Hal realised then that his brother had spoken directly to him, and was looking at him with a bemused expression on his face, waiting for a response.
‘Sorry?’ he grinned back at him.
‘Away with the horses again, I presume? You are obsessed with those four-legged beings. It is definitely time to widen your experience, my brother, perhaps with beings of the two-legged variety. I was just saying to our father that I thought it time you joined me in the village tonight.’ He looked knowingly at Hal, one eyebrow raised.
Hal knew exactly what ‘going into the village’ with Robert meant. There were local ladies aplenty who welcomed his brother’s body into their beds, and his coin into their purses. Hal knew Robert well enough, that once he married his betrothed he would remain faithful to his wife, but while he was yet free, then… well, he would make the most of what was on offer to one of his rank and position.
Hal had thought long and hard about whether he should follow his brother’s example, while he still had his own freedom. It definitely held an attraction for him. His vow of celibacy loomed large in the not too distant future.
Hal looked to his father.
‘Henry,’ his father’s face was kind, ‘I know you are serious about taking your vows, but until that day I believe you are free to experience all that the world offers. I would expect it to help any young man meant for the Church to get certain things out of his system, and I think it would be good for you too. You are a man now. Robert is right. And you can trust him to guide you in the honourable way to “widen your experience”, as he put it. My only advice is the same as I gave him when he began his night-time trips out. Be careful, and be kind. The good reputation of our family depends on it.’
Hal looked back at Robert and smiled sheepishly. ‘I must admit I’ve watched you sneaking out, with not a little envy at times. I thought you would never lower yourself to take your little brother along with you.’
‘Well, it is a hardship, but I am willing to endure it for your sake. Tonight is your night, little brother.’ He held his cup up. ‘I’ll drink to that.’
Hal clinked it with his own, smiling to hide the sudden and unexpected twist in his stomach. Nerves, that’s all, he thought to himself.
The night was moonlit and the sky clear, but that meant it was chilly too. Hal was glad of the cloak he had put on. Glad both for added warmth and that he could hide himself from prying eyes as they walked down the hill towards the village. He pulled his hood up, feeling very exposed all of a sudden. Robert, in contrast, walked tall and proud, his head uncovered, but Hal noticed he also walked with his hand resting on the hilt of his sheathed sword, watchful of his surroundings.
‘You have to be alert at night, even in the village here. There are some unsavoury sorts around, who will soon as stab you in the back for the purse on your belt as wish you good evening.’
Hal felt for his own sword and quickened his pace to walk in step with Robert. They were heading for a simply built wooden cottage at the far edge of the village.
‘Not the tavern for you tonight, brother. I want you alert enough to enjoy your first time, without the fuzzed brain of drink,’ Robert was saying. ‘And you will be well looked after by Mae. She is a little older, but experienced, and she won’t tease you for your innocence.’ Robert put his hand reassuringly on Hal’s arm, as if sensing his unease. ‘Don’t be nervous, brother, I’m sure you’ll do well enough. You are a de Brampton, after all!’
The knot in Hal’s stomach twisted even more painfully. The urge to run in the opposite direction was almost overwhelming.
Robert rapped softly on the low door three times. He stepped back as the door opened, and pre-empting Hal’s inclination to fly, grabbed his brother’s sleeve to pull him forward. An extremely curvaceous woman stood in the open doorway, a lit candle in her hand. Hal tried not to focus on her barely clothed breasts, concentrating instead on her face, which was as round as her frame. She was pleasant enough to look at, her light brown hair curling around her face, and her smile warm. He took a deep breath and stepped forward, as she stepped back to make way for him to enter. The door closed softly behind him.
Hal adjusted remarkably easily to his new way of life. There had been no further talk as yet of him leaving to go to Abbey Cwmhir, and so he purposed to make the most of whatever time he had left. As the weeks wore on, he filled his days as he had before, preferring to spend the majority of his time with Cenred and the horses, in stable or paddocks, or on horseback, riding the hills, or hunting wildly through the forests with Robert. Come night-time, at least twice a week, he would make his way down into the village, or sometimes to the neighbouring villages, usually with Robert for company. Sometimes they went to the tavern to meet their consorts, sometimes to small, humble homes, sometimes to haylofts, occasionally to forest glades.
As he gained in confidence and experience, Hal had begun to select his own favoured companions. Mae had been kind enough to him, but there were plenty of others younger and more appealing. Susannah was one. A petite woman, with mouse-brown hair and twinkling hazel eyes, who laughed easily and made him laugh too. He found, surprisingly, that he appreciated her feminine company and listening ear as much as he enjoyed the more carnal pleasures, and so sought her out more than any other. He didn’t delude himself that it was love, and although he paid her enough to be exclusive to him, he wasn’t naïve enough to believe that she was.
He was enjoying life immensely – his night adventures had opened up a whole new world to him – but his days with Cenred were just as rewarding. Hal couldn’t remember a time when Cenred hadn’t been around, in the castle or in the stables. A faithful retainer at Brampton, he had been a constant, dependable presence in Hal’s young life. The older man was known the whole region around for his natural gift with horses, and for his skill in handling, caring for and breeding them. Hal found himself drawn to the man even more as he grew older; they spent hours together talking horses, tending horses, exercising horses. Cenred had called Hal himself a ‘natural’ when he displayed his own aptitude with the beasts, and seemed pleased to willingly share his horse expertise with him. Hal didn’t know if he would be able to continue to work with horses once he joined the Cistercians, but like his night-time exploits with the ladies, he was determined to enjoy the pleasure it gave him while he could.
Cenred’s home was a small, one-roomed wooden cottage, close to the stables. He had once lived among the other servants, sleeping and eating in the great hall with them, but had long since earned the privilege of his own living space through his years of faithful service. It was a simply furnished but comfortable home, and Hal had found himself visiting often as a boy. Even as a young man he would find occasion to sit with Cenred by his small fire, and just listen to his horse stories. Hal had always felt safe and comfortable in the man’s company. Cenred was strong and solidly built, with an almost bald head and thick arms and legs. His face was not handsome. In fact, he had the look of a toughened fighter, a man perhaps not to be trifled with. In Cenred’s case, however, looks were deceiving. The words that came from his mouth were usually softly spoken, his manner quiet and calming, and his generosity and kindness well known to all. Hal loved and trusted him for it.
When the older man suddenly took a wife for himself, it was a surprise to everyone. He went away to Ludlow, for a day and night, and came back with a young woman astride a fine bay horse. The woman was stunningly beautiful, to Hal at least. Her red hair flowed down her back beyond her waist, and her eyes, when she turned them on him, were mesmerising, green, like forest moss in the sunlight. She was small and fine-boned, with alabaster pale skin, but held herself with an almost regal aspect. Cenred introduced her to them as Hild, but never gave any other explanation as to who she was, where she had come from or why he had married her.
It made just appearing at Cenred’s threshold a little more awkward for Hal. When he did visit their home, Hild would treat him with respect, but keep her distance, offering him food and drink, but leaving them to sit at table without her. Hal could not have even described what her voice sounded like, he had heard it so rarely. But her face he could describe to the minutest detail. He had seen it many times in his dreams.
When Hild had first come to Brampton, Hal had been content to admire her only in his dreams. But, his fleshly passions having been well and truly aroused by his visits to the village, he unwittingly began to see his friend’s wife in a different light. Sitting at Cenred’s table, he would find himself watching her as she moved gracefully about the room, entranced by her pale skin, or by the way her glorious hair fell in waves. He began to avoid Cenred’s home even more, worried that he might give himself away. The internal struggle was real. She was so young and beautiful and Cenred was so old in comparison. And yet to any onlooker they seemed happy enough together. Hal found himself daydreaming about what it would be like to be married to such a woman. And in the night his dreams became yet more vivid.
He came across her one day on the riverbank. Winter was fast approaching and there was a biting wind. She was bent over, cutting reeds, and as he approached, drawn like a moth to a flame, he could see that she had injured her hand, the crimson blood stark against her pale skin. He stepped forward and unthinkingly took hold of her hand to examine her wound. It was a clean cut, likely made as she ran her hand down the sharp edge of a half-frozen reed.
He looked up to find her watching him. He also caught the look of unguarded admiration, and as their eyes met there was a moment of connection, before she quickly dipped her head. He still had firm hold of her hand and she didn’t pull it away, standing patiently as he used his clean sleeve to wipe the blood and his fingers to apply pressure to her palm. He realised she was trembling.
‘Hild, are you well? Do you need to sit?’ He was concerned that she might fall into a dead faint.
‘No, no. Do not concern yourself,’ she answered breathlessly. ‘I must go. Cenred will be expecting me.’
She spoke and he heard the words, and registered the music of her voice, but neither of them moved. She made no attempt to release her hand from his, and he would have given the world to hold on to her hand forever. He kept watching her as she took a deep breath and then turned her face back to him. Her beautiful eyes sought his and he could read them plainly. She felt as he did. It was palpable in the air between them. Yet it was not right, not possible, not theirs to explore further. She was not free.
Hal reluctantly released her. She looked down at her hand and touched her fingers momentarily to where his had touched her palm. She seemed to come to an awareness then and moved quickly, glancing around to check they had not been observed, picking up her basket of reeds and walking swiftly away from him without glancing back.
Hal watched her walk away, until she disappeared out of his sight. He knew in that moment, as she walked away, that she took a part of his heart with her.