LETTER FROM POITOU
DECEMBER 1303: STAFFORDSHIRE/CHESHIRE BORDER…
Straggling remnants of daylight dimmed into the fog, as the wagon rumbled onto a frozen, rutted side road. In seconds, the highway to Chester, which they had followed so faithfully, was lost to view. The entire world surrendered to swirls of chill vapour, in which trees loomed huge and dark on both sides of the path.
Shivering inside her blankets, Eve listened to the muffled sounds of iron-shod hooves, and the curses of soldiers struggling to keep their mounts on the ill-defined track.
The wagon jolted beneath her, jarring bones even through the rich cushions. Her father’s voice came from the head of the column, chiding the horsemen to greater speed.
He was anxious to reach Heleigh before full night overtook them.
“Fetch torches, you clowns!” he roared, the order strangely muted by the mist.
Footsoldiers clattered about the luggage cart, rushing to obey their lord: nervous horses snorted and complained at the haste and clumsiness.
Flickering, oily lights appeared in the dim afternoon: their only value as markers to keep the riders, wagons, and footmen in sight of each other.
“Damn this fog! Treble-cursed country!” De Clavering’s profanities were loud enough to be heard by his wife and daughter in the wagon.
Hawise tutted reprovingly, and offered up a short prayer for her husband’s soul.
The next second, she and Eve were jounced out of their pillows and furs, thrown together in an undignified heap in the wagon’s dark interior. Both managed to giggle, despite the danger.
“What in God’s name…?” bellowed John de Clavering, galloping back to where the passenger wagon tilted dangerously into the roadside ditch.
“I’ll have your skin if the wheels are damaged!” he warned.
“Nay, lord, t’aint broke,” cried the wagoner, a surly Saxon lout.
Hawise knew her husband tolerated this fool only because he was so good with the draught animals. De Clavering travelled a lot between his scattered estates, and needed reliable beasts and men. His regard for the driver was little more than it was for a good horse, and he thought of him on that level. Two and a half centuries after Hastings, there was still much of the haughty Norman conqueror in de Clavering and his ilk, slow to be absorbed by, and into, the native life.
With shouted encouragement, the wagoner urged his beasts to heave their burden back onto level ground. Hooves scrambled for grip on the icy mud, then, with a mighty effort, it was done. All the wheels were intact, despite the rough treatment.
Little Eve climbed to the front of the wagon, towards the grey slit of half-light in the canvas. She clutched a blanket round her thin body, and peered out over the Saxon’s shoulder. Her dark eyes searched in vain for some sight of her father.
The Wagoner risked a sideways glance away from the road towards the child. Eve could see a sheen of nervous sweat on the man’s face, despite the penetrating cold: he was so intent on his task.
“My lady,” he rasped, “I hope you and your mother wasn’t hurt.”
Eve’s tinkling voice carried over the thud of hooves and the crunch of frosty mire beneath the wheels.
“We came to no harm. Where is my father?”
“My lord Clavering is searching for that dog of a guide! He’s run off, afraid he’s misled us!”
Eve, at ten, knew her father well enough to realise the guide’s fate if de Clavering caught up with him. The tender side of her nature hoped he would escape, as she had often wised for a stag to avoid her father’s hounds. A darker part of her wanted the peasant caught and punished for causing them all so much trouble. The imperious de Clavering streak struggled against her softer emotions, leaving her confused and uncertain.
“Are we lost, fellow?” called Hawise, from the rear.
“I dunno, my lady. I would have thought the road to a great castle like Heleigh would be better than this. The guide was useless.”
He manoeuvred the horses skilfully to avoid a fallen branch, keeping his eyes on the spots of pale fire ahead.
“It’s poor country, indeed, to judge by the shires we have seen,” observed Hawise, “perhaps this passes for a good road in these parts?”
The Lady de Clavering joined her daughter at the opening in the canvas. She too squinted into the fog for the reassuring sight of her knight on his war-horse.
He had not yet returned from chasing the guide, and Hawise hoped fervently that he would not stray too far in his vengeful mood. A thousand perils awaited travellers in such a God-forsaken spot. Even a battle-hardened captain such as her John could fall prey to them.
Ghostly trees spread their arms above the lane: lofty, cathedral-like vaulting. They seemed to be plunging deeper into the woods. Everything appeared frozen and suspended in the December mist. It was just a week till the great festival of Christmas, and the turning of the year. Eve’s thoughts turned to the changes, which the New Year would bring.
The thirty-second year of blessed Edward’s reign would see her wedded to fifteen-year old Thomas, heir to the Audley barony. Marriage meant a new life at the castle of Heleigh, built just seventy years before by Henry de Aldithley.
“When these new upstart Barons crawled out of the woods!” John de Clavering had described these times.
Despite her father’s cynicism, Eve was bringing a rich dower to add to the Audley fortunes: money, lands, and part interests in the manors held by her family. It was a bewildering welter of feelings, which made Eve’s heart push up into her throat - to be lady of this grand estate!
De Clavering’s venomous condemnation of the Audley pedigree was not accurate - the family had been favourites of the first Earl of Chester. Also, the first Baron Audley’s mother was a granddaughter of William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury, and royal bastard of the second King called Henry.
Her father had been William Longsword II, who died at Mansura in Egypt, fighting for Louis IX, later Saint Louis.
Some Audleys bore Plantaganet lionels on their coats, and Eve’s children would share the blood of Kings.
The girl squirmed uncomfortably at the thought of her marriage obligations. Eve was from a country estate, and had seen animals mating in the fields: her mother had tried to explain the ways of men and women on the day Eve first learned of the wedding contract.
It did little to allay her childhood fears, or dispel the half-understood jokes of the servant girls and older women.
Eve was slightly built, as flat chested as a lad: but she had a pretty oval face and dark eyes, which held the promise of sensual beauty.
Hawise reassured Eve there was a clause in the contract, which forbade ‘intimacy’ until her fourteenth birthday. Like most noble weddings, this was to be a financial and political union, not a love match. The feelings, hopes, and desires of the two young people came poor second to duty. If affection could blossom, then that would be a bonus. Eve had not yet met her groom.
John de Clavering was pleased to be ridding himself of an expensive daughter. As it was, he felt he was losing a limb with such a dower to pay! But, he had no sons, and docile Hawise was unlikely to produce any now, after fifteen years.
After all, she was twenty-eight, practically an old woman.
Audley was a good match for his girl, and any children they might produce (sons, if it please Almighty God!) would serve as inheritors for the de Clavering lands.
He had argued about the restriction on sexual union: he wanted his daughter and Audley to get on with it, produce a lusty grandson for him. Had he not married Hawise when she was just thirteen? There was no such nonsense in his day!
The contract, with its complex conditions, had been drawn up by monks from Audley’s Hilton Abbey, and Cistercians had a sense of propriety about such things. De Clavering had been obliged to agree to the terms if he wanted to see his ambitions fulfilled.
For the time being, it would be a marriage in name only.
Something of the pagan in de Clavering’s Norse ancestry rejected the preaching of the Church and regarded a marriage as complete only when consummated.
The promised three and a half-year delay hardly put Eve’s mind at rest: in fact, it fuelled her suspicion that the marriage bed was to be avoided. She was still child enough to shut out these unpleasant aspects of life, and the time til1 she was fourteen stretched out before her like an unbroken horizon.
These speculations ran through her mind with dizzy speed, transporting her from the cold, eerie woods where horses plodded, wagon timbers creaked, and the iron-rimmed wheels ground on relentlessly, towards her new life.
Hawise mistook her daughter’s unhappiness for impatience to reach the castle. In a rare display of affection, she pulled the girl to her side and they embraced: Eve could only recall five or six occasions like this in her life, and when she looked up at her mother’s face she could see tears glittering.
“My lady,” whispered Eve. Reaching out, she brushed the moisture away with her fingers. She wised this moment of love and warmth could last forever or that she could wake from this bad dream, sleepily safe, in her own room at Aynho.
Then a cloaked figure loomed out of the mist, alongside the wagon:
John, second Baron Clavering, mounted on his war-horse, Esprit. Steam flashed from the animal’s nostrils, making him look like the fabled dragon of old. Here, in this fog-shrouded wilderness, the menacing atmosphere lent itself to a belief in monsters and ghosts.
It was in these woods that the Audleys’ forbear, Liliuf murdered Gamel, Saxon thegn of Heolla, at the time of the conquest. The locals believed his restless soul roamed the park, seeking revenge on his killer and his heirs. Liliuf had paid a rich amercement to the King for his crime, but gold was never enough. Blood must have blood, it was said.
“My dear lord,” called out Hawise, “did you find him? Shall we reach castle Heleigh tonight?”
The guide’s body lay bloody and broken at the base of a cliff: he had blundered over it in the murk, running from de Clavering’s inevitable wrath. Death came before he even had time to cry out, the price for his incompetence.
Now the Norman lord threw back his mail coif, shaking loose a mane of silver-streaked black hair. The left side of his face was marred by a livid white scar, which ran from the temple, across his cheek, as far as the knotted veins in his neck. It was a trophy of the Scottish campaign five years earlier. The Scot who inflicted the wound at Falkirk had paid with his miserable life, but de Clavering was left prone to bouts of pain, fuzzy vision, and black rages.
One of the moods was on him, for he was grumpily silent in response to his wife’s question. Ten minutes later he was forced to halt the procession, of horses, footmen, and carts. They were hopelessly lost, and it was folly to go further.
Eve shuddered at the prospect of spending a night in the wagon, and she looked to her mother for more comfort, but de Clavering’s temper had unnerved Hawise, and she was her distant self once more.
Torches were placed in a smoky circle round the poor camp, and the soldiers worked frantically to light a fire.
The only fuel was damp, frost-rimed wood, but they all knew they could not endure a night in the open without a blaze, in such raw weather.
Someone found a flask of oil, sprinkled it on the smouldering faggots, and bright yellow flames danced up into the night. Cheered and encouraged, the soldiers set to, building a bonfire to warm themselves and the horses. The stream of hot air, smoke, and sparks rose straight up, burning a small gap in the fog. Evil shadows flickered under the roof of boughs.
Bread and cheese were issued, and the men sat huddled in their capes and helmets, toasting food above glowing embers on the ends of spears and swords. Hot ale was passed around from a battered kettle, and an old war song struck up.
Lady Clavering’s maid prepared what simple fare she could manage with the limited resources at her disposal The Baron joined his wife and daughter in the comparative luxury of the wagon, and candles were lit while they waited for their food. Eve sipped hot, spiced wine, sweetened with honey, and drifted into sleep before the meal was served. She was exhausted by exertions and emotions beyond the experience of a young girl
De Clavering wolfed his rations in petulant silence. Hawise picked at morsels on her plate, wary of her lord’s bad humour. It would pass soon enough, and then he would talk to her. For now, she must wait, bearing it patiently.
What a contrast to the night before! They had arrived mid- afternoon at the New Castle ‘under the lyme’ where the constable had feasted them as lavishly as the restrictions of Holy Week would allow. After Tutbury, it was the most civilised spot they had found in these bleak northern parts, and Hawise marvelled at the richness of the decorations and exotic furnishings. Could Heleigh possibly be finer?
Houses clustered round the walls of the castle and fine new church. It was obviously a prosperous, thriving town. Just a few miles to the west lay the Welsh Marches, a dangerous land as yet unsubdued by the Anglo-Norman kings. Heleigh had been built as a baronial home for the Audleys, but also as a fortress against Welsh marauders. Its high and splendid isolation on a rocky bluff was easily defensible. By contrast, the ‘new’ castle had to be artificially secured by excavating a pool around it, filled by damming a stream. It would never be a good stronghold in times of conflict.
One of Audley’s heralds, waiting for the Claverings at Newcastle, had ridden the five miles to Heleigh that morning, to announce their impending arrival. He had made the journey in a couple of hours, but a late morning start, and the slow pace of the wagons, had left the Baron’s party floundering in darkness on poor roads.
Eve was roused from fitful sleep by the brassy tone of a hunting horn. She saw her father sit bolt upright, tilting his head from side to side to catch the direction of the noise.
“What..?” she began, but Hawise gently shushed the child, so that Clavering could concentrate.
“A signal,” he muttered, pulling his cloak about him, “it is the castle Heleigh, signalling us! Perhaps they have men out, searching. We cannot be far off - there it is again!”
With a grin, he jumped out of the wagon and called for Esprit. His mood had lifted. A commotion started up near the bonfire, and two soldiers brought a bowing, scraping peasant before the Baron.
“Well, who is he?” demanded Clavering.
His sergeant answered: he was from the north, and could understand the fellow’s barbaric dialect.
“This track leads to a farm,” explained the sergeant,” he smelled our smoke and came to spy us out. Thought we might be Welsh bandits!”
Clavering snorted with impatience and the sergeant continued,
The guide should have put us on the next road off the highway, not this one! But just past the farm, it joins the Heleigh road anyway, so there’s no real harm done.”
“And the horns?”
“He says they always blow horns at the castle in bad weather, for the ‘guidance’ of lost souls.”
The quivering notes were blasting out now at regular intervals. Clavering laughed loudly, “It’s silver penny for the oaf if he can show us the way! We’ll all have proper beds tonight. Strike the camp!”
Thomas Audley stood at the battlements of his turreted gatehouse, peering uselessly into the fog. Beside him, the huntsmen sounded their horns, calling to all travellers, but to the Claverings in particular.
They must be somewhere near, because the herald had reported them at Newcastle that same morning.
Since dawn, the castle had been a riot of activity, preparing for the noble visitors: by four o’clock this energy had turned to nervousness about a late arrival when the fog dropped, with its customary suddenness, the Audleys were alarmed.
The terrain around Heleigh was rough, with steep sides to the roads and dense parkland to pass through. Here, the lords of Audley loved to hunt the red deer given to their ancestor Henry out of the Royal Chase at Cannock. For wayfarers it was a nightmare tangle of narrow tracks, twisted undergrowth, and unexpected cliffs, as the way rose sharply towards the castle. This made for good defence, but difficult socialising.
“They should have left Newcastle earlier,” mumbled Thomas, through chattering teeth, “they should have let the herald guide them...” woollen cloak. His father’s youngest and only surviving brother was Thomas’ guardian until he was of age to be summoned to Parliament as the second Baron Audley. By this device, his lands had escaped the grasp of the escheators, and stayed under family control
“Thomas, put on your cloak - you shouldn’t be out here in this filth.”
Hugh Audley was a powerful man who commanded respect: his orders were not often disobeyed.
This was one of the reasons the dying first Baron had entrusted his boys to the care of his dependable brother.
“Thank you, Hugh, “said the boy, taking the garment. He had stressed, almost spat, the personal title, rather than the more formal ‘uncle’ or ‘sire’.
Hugh recognised this streak of defiance and disrespect in his nephew: he sighed and wised for the thousandth time that Thomas could be as dutiful as his younger brother, Nicholas. The two boys were chalk and cheese, as the saying went.
Young Nicholas was strong, a good foot taller than the sickly Thomas, although eighteen months his junior. The first Baron had married late in life, at nearly thirty, to a girl of sixteen, Katherine Giffard of Brimsfield. She wasted no time in producing two sons in rapid succession, to the delight of her husband.
On his deathbed, the Baron commended them to Hugh’s care. He was sworn to carry out the wedding plans made by their fathers when Thomas and Eve were just babes.
Nicholas Audley, the elder, and John de Clavering had met in the Scottish wars and become friends after a fashion. In the cold, wet bivouacs of that campaign, they had planned the merger of their two ambitious families.
Hugh Audley reflected how Thomas was his mother’s spoiled favourite, given to spiteful behaviour, lashing out against his poor constitution: while Nicholas junior was hale, cheerful, and obedient.
Normally, the firstborn of a noble family would be at court, serving as a royal squire, learning the lance and sword, jousting with his peers. When the time came to win his spurs, some valiant action on the field of honour would bring him to the monarch’s attention, and he would be knighted. It would never be like this for Thomas, forced to tolerate a life that ‘preserved’ his strength. His hearty brother Nicholas, at fourteen, was a promising squire, already well versed in the lore of arms and chivalry. If only the Baron had lived to see him do so well... but he had been dead these four years, struck down at the peak of his life.
Hugh’s heart went out to his nephew Nicholas. Was he not a youngest son himself, so often passed over? And what irony, he was now the only living son, but the family fortunes would go to the children of his dead brother.
What if Thomas did not survive until his majority? No, Hugh dared not even think such a thing!
It would break his mother’s heart. Poor Katherine, she had taken her husband’s sudden death very badly, and to lose Thomas …Hugh Audley prayed devoutly, every day, for God to grant Thomas the time, patience, and strength to father an healthy heir.
Now, here he was, a slight youth who looked more like a lad of twelve, anxiously awaiting the arrival of his child bride. Wispy blond hair showed damp beneath his cowl, watery blue eyes sunk into a pale face showing no sign of manhood’s whiskers.
As if to emphasise his weakness, Hugh’s next words cut into Thomas like a blade.
“You should come down now. Lady Katherine is most anxious, and the physician has warned you against getting cold and wet.”
Thomas swallowed the words as if they were a bitter potion. One day, when he was Baron Audley, he would show this presumptuous uncle of his who was master.
If it had not been for the fact that Hugh was his mother’s favourite, and she had left him a personal interest in some of her father’s lesser manors, the man would be penniless, a nobody! He served his purpose - better a wardship within the family than the King’s greedy escheators.
Part of him knew that his mother and uncle were right: indeed, there was a fever singing in his head, but he did not intend anyone to know it. Nothing must interfere with his father’s wishes and his own ambitions would not be thwarted by a mere cold.
A coughing spasm shook him, and he steadied himself against the red sandstone blocks, wiping away blood-flecked spittle so that Hugh would not see. He continued to stare out into the sea of grey where the Newcastle to Chester road should lie. His uncle glared at Thomas’ failure to comply, but he held his tongue.
Life had not been easy for Thomas, and this union might make amends for the other joys of manhood the boy had been obliged to forgo.
Eve de Clavering was potentially a very wealthy girl, with no brothers to inherit from her father. Thomas’ sons would become the Barons Clavering as well as Audley.
What a vast addition to the burgeoning Audley fortunes!
The Baron’s ancestors would have been proud of this alliance he had engineered, with the connivance of King Edward, who was well pleased with the match. An alliance friendly to the crown, between magnates with lands bordering both Wales and Scotland, was reassuring to a monarch who remembered only too well the horrors of baronial rebellion at home.
Hugh looked at Thomas furtively wiping his lips, and thought of Gamel’s curse on the family. Bah!
Superstitious peasant rubbish! Still, that cough was getting worse, and the boy should really be inside, near a fire.
“There, uncle, there!” cried Thomas, in a high, girlish voice. His arm stabbed into the gloom, and he leaned so far over the projecting battlement that Hugh had to grab the cloak and hang on.
The older man’s eyes bulged to see what had excited the boy.
Sure enough, just by the drawbridge, he caught the flicker of a torch: the helmeted head of a soldier was visible for a second in the poor light.
Now a horn, thin and reedy, called in response to Audley’s huntsmen.
“Halloo the castle!” came a voice and then the startling rap of hooves on wooden planking.
“They’re here! ” shouted Thomas, and Hugh grinned with relief at his nephew’s infectious happiness. Both Audleys rushed for the stone stair down to the bailey: Thomas beat his uncle by a second and flew down the precipitous flight.
Hugh Audley was already shouting orders from the middle of the stair. They were not really needed, as everyone knew their duties: but he did it just the same.
“Get Lady Katherine! Tell the kitchens! Food, drink, they must be frozen - see to the horses!”
Dozens of torches swarmed out of the keep and hall Servants, ostlers, squires, and heralds fell over each other to do Hugh’s bidding. The spacious bailey was thronged with people, horses, and lights surrounding the new arrivals.
Breathless with haste, and giddy from his fever, Thomas Audley looked into the wagon and saw a small, fur-wrapped body gently lifted out.
“She’s dead,” he thought foolishly, “the journey was too much for her! ”
Bitter, desperate emptiness swallowed him. His eyes took in all the details of the scene, which appeared frozen in an instant of time, like tiny fish in the ice of a wintry lake. Clammy sweat poured from his skin: his head buzzed intolerably, and each panting breath entered his lungs through a passage of fire. Then de Clavering set the girl on her feet, by the horses, and of course, she stood, eyes blinking in the torchlight.
Her bewildered face fixed on Thomas, and it was that vision which seared into his mind as he fell in a dead faint.
Later in her long life, Eve brought to mind often the sighs and sounds of her first night at Heleigh castle - a night which changed her life forever and set her on the winding path of her fortune.
She had woken to the noise of horns, and then dozed till the wagon crossed the drawbridge into the bailey.
Her father’s strong arms hoisted her from the wagon into a mad confusion of shouting people, flaming lights, stamping horses: all overlaid by the dreamlike quality of the fog.
Tired as she was, the Clavering steel in her straightened her backbone and lifted her chin for the grand entrance. She recalled seeing a boy (boy - she quickly learned he was her bridegroom!) carried up the stairs into the hall just ahead of them. She wondered what ailed him, and then he was lost to view.
She could see little of the castle in the dark and mist, but she sensed the mighty sandstone walls around her with the inbred instinct of the fortress dweller. Generations of her Norman ancestors had subdued their enemies, and later their feudal tenants, from fastnesses such as Heleigh.
Eve’s life began on her father’s estate at Aynho, in the north Hampton shire- the populous eastern section of the country. The fine house there was not fortified, but the manors Clavering owned in Northumberland were sturdy bastions against the devilish Scots.
Clavering castle in Essex, from which the Baron took his title, was an ancient pile built before the conquest, by Norman favourites of that Edward called the Confessor. Its grim, square keep, massive atop an earthen mound, epitomised the Norman grip on the country.
Heleigh was different: Eve sensed it after just a few seconds. True, the castle had been erected as a stronghold against the Welsh - the Barons Audley were Marchers. But it was also a home; there was a feel to it, of security and permanence. With luck, and hard work, perhaps it could also be made gracious.
The first Audleys ruled from a wooden motte and bailey fort on high ground in the village of Alditha’s Ley, several miles away. Originally, it was just a field, named after the Saxon King Harold’s wife.
Rising fortunes had enabled the first Baron’s grandfather, Henry de Aldithley, to construct this symbol of the family’s importance.
In addition to Heleigh castle, he had also built an imposing church for the new parish of Audley, close to the site of the old fort.
Eve had been told all this, as a list of dry facts, by the Cistercians from Audley’s Hilton Abbey, during their visit to Aynho to prepare the wedding contract.
Now the stories came to life: Eve and her mother followed Hugh Audley and John de Clavering up the wide stair to the magnificent hall of Heleigh castle.
In the new style, the hall was built at the side of the keep, joining on to it, but not an integral part. The keep now performed a purely military function, defensible in time of war, still the ultimate refuge of the besieged, but no longer its lord’s chief dwelling.
A huge log fire blazed in the middle of the room: smoke and sparks danced up to the blackened trusses of the roof, where louvres let out the fumes, but deflected cold winds and rain. Rushes were strewn about the common part of the rough red stone floor: the living rock from which Heleigh was built.
At the keep end of the Hall a great, carved oaken screen, very intricate and beautiful, stretched up to the roof, twenty feet or more in height. It was hung with elaborate tapestries, their bright colours dulled by smoke from fire and torches.
Behind the screen, reached by curtained portals on either side, were the Audley’s private rooms, on two floors. A tunnel-like passage, running from the kitchens and pantry in the basement of the keep, pierced the screen at ground level.
At the opposite end of the building was a raised dais, decorated with carvings and draperies. Upon it stood a high table, with chairs for the Lord and his chief guests. A minstrel’s gallery spanned the width of this wall, for the entertainment of the nobles. High, glazed windows speared towards the roof on both long walls of the Hall, interspersed with columns of the ubiquitous red stone to support the fanciful roof timbers.
Against the perils of winter, wooden shutters closed across the window spaces, so that all light came from the central blaze, and smoky torches placed every few feet along the walls.
The fumes made Eve’s eyes water as soon as she entered. Houses she had lived in boasted chimneys, in proper fireplaces, and she decided on the spot that if she were to be lady of this castle, her husband would have to make changes. She shrugged off her mother’s guiding hand, and walked erect, proudly, to the high table on the dais: past whispering folk half-glimpsed in the ruddy firelight. There were retainers, servants, soldiers, and relatives of the Baron Audley - all come to see the child who would be their new mistress. Dogs fought and yelped amongst the rushes, hunting for scraps, the only creatures to dare to break the respectful quiet.
John de Clavering looked about with disdain.
Eve could almost read his mind - she had heard his opinions many times. Gone were the days when a nobleman’s hall should be a barn, full of smoke and draughts, the common lounge and eating place of all the castle’s inmates. These rude northerners could obviously use some civilising influence and he did not doubt that a merger with the Claverings would provide it.
Above the table, beneath the gallery, was a riot of blazonry, the shields and helms of the Audley family. Here, the plain red and gold fretty, owing its origins to the Verdons, lords of Alton, feudal masters. Thomas Audley’s shield, with its label of three points for eldest son, imposed over the fretty: he was unlikely to wield the thing on a field of battle if his health did not improve.
Amongst the shields, the gold lionels of the Plantaganets, passed on through the Long swords of Salisbury: crying to the world the Audleys’ royal descent. It was of little importance that a bastard son of Henry II gave the lineage, or that it came through the female side. The Audleys’ most ancient arms, three silver butterflies on a blue field, were fixed centrally.
A hubbub rose from the forty or so souls gathered in the Hall, as the Claverings were seated at the huge oak table. The finely carved chair at its head was vacant, and Hugh apologised for Thomas’ absence.
“He is sick, I fear, with a winter chill, my lord Clavering. But he has bid me make you and your ladies welcome in his house.”
Eve looked up sheepishly at the source of the rumbling voice, and asked,
“Was it my lord Audley who swooned at the main gate?” Hugh Audley flushed, uncomfortable at the girl’s directness. He was better at soldiering than diplomacy or entertaining. Eve’s father glared at her lack of ‘tact’.
“Yes, my lady,” he confessed, clearing his throat noisily.
Then de Clavering snorted, and grinned at his daughter, a terrible lop-sided effect with the scar on his face,
“It was your beauty made him faint, my dear, when he set eyes on you!”
This threadbare jest was greeted by nervous laughter, but it broke the ice, and the whole company relaxed. Scullions brought modest food, such as fitted the season of fasting, and flagons of watered wine. Eve was not hungry, but her eyes swept every inch of the hall, savouring the details of her new home.
She noted the black buffet laden with gold and silver plate, and jewelled cups.
The Audley wealth certainly rivalled their own, but her shoulders registered the icy draughts penetrating the huge room. She resolved to do something about that: either these folk were much hardier than her own people were or just plain unaware of the lack of comfort at Heleigh. There were riches here, but poverty too, of spirit and ideas. Ah well, all that would change.
Hugh Audley and de Clavering fell into deep conversation about their respective campaigns: the other occupants of the hall drifted away, about their various occupations.
After an hour or so, Hugh’s wife, Annabelle rescued the Clavering women on the pretext of showing them their apartments. They left the men to their warlike talk.
Annabelle and Hawise fussed and clucked over Eve, getting her ready for bed, gossiping about their mutual relations.
Hugh Audley’s wife was the youngest daughter of the Earl of Lincoln, a distant relative of de Clavering. In the guest quarters it was quiet and cosy, heated by a stone flue that ran through the wall from the cooking fires in the kitchens below.
Eve’s bed had been made up next to the warm wall and after all her exertions that day; she revelled in the simple luxury of it. Sleep came soon after her mother snuffed the candles; she dreamed of fog phantoms and her children yet unborn.