Chapter 2 - The King
The King had travelled to France to visit his brother. The court was returning to Winchester. With the late spring weather set fair and the game plentiful, Greta thought he had probably decided to rest a few days to hunt, and take a rest from war and politics. It was less than six months since King Stephen had ascended to the throne on the death of his father King Henry 1. But England was ravaged by battles and petty disputes, with several of the powerful Barons refusing to recognise him as their monarch. Even though they were not at war, Eustace has good reason for the defensive ring. The King had many enemies. Despite his viciousness, Greta admired the way Eustace set up the defences. He was good at it.
Inside his tent the King stood half-naked as the serving wench washed his body with water and then rubbed his skin with fragrant oils. She had good hands. She held open a fresh robe for him and he laid down on the blankets, closing his eyes with pleasure.
La Flete was a pleasant place, he had come here as a boy to catch fish and hunt. It was sufficiently remote and some said uninteresting, that he could be anonymous here. Well at least as anonymous, as any King of England could ever be. By slow carriage, they were three days’ travel to Winchester from here, so this was a good place for his plan. He knew of better places to hunt and fish, grand estates and forests, but this was an unpretentious way of life. In Royal Windsor or the New Forest, he had to take the elaborate court with him, but here he was able to relax and be more himself.
When he was planning the route the previous evening with his men-at-arms, Greta the Witch had appeared by his side and declared the place sacred. He doubted that. She said the site was on some sort of hallowed energy crossing point. His wife the Queen Matilda, who thankfully had gone on ahead, had surrounded herself by these witches and soothsayers. She said they could predict the future. Well they had not been very accurate as yet, the King thought. He still hadn’t won over the troublesome Barons as they had predicated.
His wife was important to him politically and financially but in her middle age she was quarrelsome and no pleasure in bed. They had not much in common and he trusted her little. The Queen had left Greta behind, because she said the old witch was too weary to travel. In truth, the King knew she had left her behind to spy on him. She knew he bedded the serving wenches when she was away, but she also suspected he was up to something. He knew Greta was probably watching him now from the carriage she travelled in. He grabbed the girl playfully to make her giggle, he hoped Greta would hear.
Greta was a white-haired crone who smelt of strange herbs and rotting meat. She had the most striking yellow albino eyes, virtually no teeth and finger nails that it was said could slash the skin of a full-grown bear. Of indeterminate age, she was as fit as a flea, and could probably out-run and out-ride him in his 40th year. She was known to be adept at defending herself, and was especially fearsome when armed with a stabbing spear she carried strapped to her back. It was rumoured that the tip was coated with a venom from poisonous snakes.