Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Work in Progress

The first lot of copy edits are back for A Place Beyond Courage, my novel about John Marshal. This means it's my last chance to read through and make any larger adjustments. I'll only be able to tweak the odd word at final proof stage. I'm also writing the new material about Roger Bigod, and at some point soom I'm going to have my earlier novel, Shields of Pride, arriving for revision. Which is the long way round of saying I am squeezed for time more than usual at the moment. So, not having much space for blogging, I am cheating and putting up part of chapter one from the current work in progress. Working title for myself is Ida's Choice, although Ida herself, Roger Bigod's wife, doesn't appear until chapter 3. I'll probably take this down in a couple of weeks, but for now, here's my rough draft, warts and all of the opening pages. It's always fun and a bit nerve-wracking too, setting down those early foundations and wondering what will grow in the telling!

Framlingham Castle, Suffolk, October, 1173

Roger woke with a gasp and shot upright. His heart was pounding and although the morning light showed him parted bed curtains and a sun-splashed chamber beyond, his inner vision blazed with vivid images of men locked in combat and he could still hear the sounds of desperate battle. The metallic whine of blade upon blade, the dull thud of a club striking a shield. He could feel the bite of his sword entering flesh and see blood, streaming in scarlet silk ribbons.

‘Ah God,’ he said with a shudder. After a moment to gather himself, he threw off the bed clothes with his left hand, rose and went to the window. His right hand was bandaged. Although superficial, the wound was going to leave a scar across the base of three fingers. The soldier who had given it to him was dead, but he took no pleasure in the knowledge. It had been kill or be killed. Too many of his own men had gone to their graves yesterday. His father said he was useless, but such declarations had been cast at Roger so often that he no longer felt them beyond a dull bruise. What did bother him were the unnecessary deaths of several good soldiers. The opposition had been too great and he had not had the resources sufficient to the task. He clenched his right fist, feeling the cut stretch and sting beneath the bandage. There would be a lake of blood before his father’s ambition was done.

To judge from the strength of the daylight he had probably missed mass. His stepmother would take pleasure in berating him for malingering in bed and then comment to his father that his heir wasn’t fit to inherit a dungheap, never mind the Earldom of Norfolk when the time came. And then, Roger knew from bitter experience, she would look pointedly at her own son, the obnoxious Hugh, as if he was the answer to everyone’s prayers rather than the petulant, unprepossessing brat he actually was.

Framlingham’s bailey was packed with the tents and shelters of the army of mercenaries belonging to Robert Beaumont, Earl of Leicester - assorted chaff and sweepings plucked from field and town, ditch, gutter, weaving shed and dockside on his way from Flanders to England. Not many of them were attending mass either to judge from the numbers in the bailey. Locusts, Roger thought with a grimace of revulsion. By joining the rebellion against King Henry and giving lodging and support to the Earl of Leicester, his father had encouraged a plague to descend on them, in more ways than one.

Turning from the window Roger attended to the needs of his bladder, sluiced his face one-handed in the ewer at the bedside, and without bothering to summon a servant, managed to dress himself, since the tips of his fingers and his thumb were still free on his bandaged hand. When he opened the coffer that held his cloaks, he noticed immediately that his best one with the silver embroidery was missing, and his lips tightened because he could guess where it was. Taking his indoor mantle of green wool, he started to put it on, then stared at the weapon chest standing against the wall. Last night his scabbarded sword and belt had been propped against it, now they were gone. Roger’s lips compressed further as annoyance became outright anger. His sword was a symbol of his knighthood, of his coming of age, and not even his father could deny him that – especially when the weapon itself had been a gift from his uncle, who was Earl of Oxford.

Head down, fists clenched, wound smarting, Roger strode purposefully towards the castle chapel adjoining the hall. The mass had just finished and people were filing out to go about their duties. Concealing himself behind a painted pillar, Roger heard his father holding forth to Robert Earl of Leicester about the battle campaign to overthrow King Henry and put Henry’s eighteen year old son on the throne – a vain, malleable boy. Since coming to the throne, King Henry had clamped down hard on the Earl of Norfolk, doing his best to limit his ability to aggrandise himself and make trouble. Now that Henry faced a challenge from his heir and namesake, Roger’s father had declared for the young man as had several other disgruntled factions including the earl of Leicester.

Roger’s stepmother Gundreda, and Petronilla, Countess of Leicester walked past, side by side, nodding graciously to each other and smiling with their lips but not their eyes. And then Roger’s gaze lit on a fine blue cloak and a flash of silver braid, as its wearer swaggered out of the chapel, one narrow adolescent hand clasped upon the pommel of a fine sword bound with a grip of red buckskin.

Roger reached, seized in a tensile grip and swung his half-brother around, slamming him back against the pillar. ‘Have you nothing of your own that you must resort to thievery of everything that is mine?’ he snarled. ‘Time and again I have told you to stay out of my chamber and leave my things alone.’ He took a choke hold on the young man’s throat with his good hand, and with the other unhitched the sword belt with a rapid jerk of latch and buckle. ‘What will it take before you pay heed?’

The youth’s upper lip curled with contempt, although his eyes were fearful. Roger noted both emotions and increased the pressure. ‘I suppose you wanted to parade before my lord of Leicester, and show off a sword you’re too young to wear.’

‘I couldn’t wear it any worse than you!’ Hugh wheezed with bravado. ‘You’re a failure. Our father says so.’

Roger released his grip, but only to hook his foot behind Hugh’s ankles and bring him down. Straddling him, he dragged off the purloined cloak. ‘If there’s a next time, you’ll wear this on your bier,’ he panted, ‘and my sword will be through your heart!’

‘Hugh, where are y…’ Gundreda countess of Norfolk who had turned back to find her lagging son, stared at the scene before her eyes in growing consternation and fury. ‘What do you think you’re doing! Get off him, leave him alone!’ she struck Roger a forceful blow on the arm.

Hugh clutched his throat, choking and retching. ‘He tried to kill me…and in God’s own house…’

Roger surged to his feet. ‘There is no ‘try’ about it,’ he said icily. ‘If I intended to kill you, I would have done so.’ With a burning glare for Gundreda, he strode from the chapel, cloak over his arm, scabbard in hand. Her invective followed him but he paid no heed to it for he had become inured to that particular bludgeon.

‘I didn’t have enough men,’ Roger said to his father. His sword hung at his hip now, the weight both a burden and a support. A man shouldn’t have to wear a weapon to bolster his confidence; he should be at ease within his own skin, but he was always raw in the presence of his father. The latter had called a council of war in his chamber and the Earl of Leicester and all the senior knights were present.

Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, glowered at his eldest son. ‘There is always an excuse, isn’t there? I could give you an entire army and it still wouldn’t be enough. I daren’t put weight on you because you’re not strong enough to bear it.’

Roger clenched his fist and made a throwing gesture. ‘You don’t give me the tools to do what you ask of me. You don’t trust me, you don’t give me credit for what’s due, you don’t….’

‘Credit!’ Norfolk barked. ‘I’ll give you credit boy. For losing two fine men and letting good ransom money slip through your inept fingers.’ You’ve probably cost us at least a hundred marks which is more than your hide’s worth. How much more credit do you want?’

Roger swallowed, feeling sick to the stomach. He sometimes thought that his own death would be the only coin to satisfy his father. Whatever he did, it would never be right. Yesterday they had burned the castle of Haughley to the ground – taken pledges of ransom from the knights and turned over the captured garrison to Leicester’s Flemings. Roger had been sent round to the postern, but his father had not given him sufficient men for the task and some of the defenders had managed to break free, killing two of his knights in the process.

Robert of Leicester had been watching the exchange between father and son with sharp speculation. ‘The young men of today aren’t as hard a breed as we had to be, Hugh,’ he said. ‘Let it rest. At least he didn’t run. I am sure we can still find a position for him that will be useful to us.’

‘Aye, following the dung cart,’ Hugh sneered. He pointed to a bench. ‘Hold your tongue, boy, sit and listen and see if you can keep more than fleece between your ears.’

At five and twenty, Roger had left boyhood behind long ago - on a warm summer afternoon as a stunned, bewildered child, watching from a window as his mother departed her annulled marriage to his father for a new match. Within the week Gundreda had replaced her at Framlingham. His father had never once called him ‘boy’ in affection; it was always an insult or a put-down. As a child he hadn’t understood, but adulthood had brought knowledge. It was about power; keeping the young stag down, and it was about punishment. His mother had escaped, but he hadn’t; he was her proxy. Everyone said he was like her – not in looks, but in her way of seeing the world, and in his father’s lexicon, such a trait was unforgivable.

Stepping over the bench, Roger sat down and folded his arms. Leicester said, ‘Haughley is razed and no longer an obstacle, but the keep at Walton still stands and so does Eye.’

Hugh grunted. ‘Eye’s damaged and the garrison won’t venture beyond it. The same for Walton. We should secure Leicester while Henry is fighting his son in Normandy and the justiciar is occupied in the north chasing the Scots. Once Leicester’s yours, we can strike up north-west and join Chester.’

Roger bit his cheek at the not so subtle hint in his father’s words that Leicester should shift his army to his own territory. When Leicester had landed his army of Flemings, his father had rushed to join him, filled with belligerent anticipation that this was going to be like old times when he had profiteered hand over fist from playing one side against the other. But it hadn’t turned out like that. Leicester’s Flemings were denuding Norfolk’s supplies at a terrifying rate and had already started to strip the hinterland with their foraging parties.

Leicester studied his hands. ‘Quite so,’ he said, and a hard smile curved his lips. ‘I wouldn’t want to outstay my welcome, but I’ll need provisions.’

Roger saw his father’s eyes narrow. ‘I don’t have any more to give,’ he said. ‘My barns are nigh on empty. I’ll have to buy in more for the winter at God knows what price.’

‘Then let our enemies provide it. The abbey at Edmundsbury is well stocked, so I hear and the abbot is no friend.’

Hugh rubbed his jaw, considering. His gaze slid to Roger. ‘Pig sticking,’ he said with a humourless baring of teeth. ‘Let’s see if you can at least manage that.’

Roger returned his father’s stare. ‘You want me to run off pigs and burn villages?’

‘For a start,’ Hugh said. ‘If you prove capable, I might think about promoting you, but foraging is all you are worth at the moment. You have my leave to go.’

Roger rose to his feet, his belly churning with anger. How easy it would be to draw his sword and use it. To rage like a wild bull. Easy and pointless. ‘Edmundsbury,’ he repeated.

His father lounged on one hip. ‘Not superstitious about the Church are you?’

Given that the last king’s son and heir had died after raiding the lands of the Abbey at Edmundsbury, Roger could have answered that he was, but he knew his father was awaiting just such a response. ‘No, sire,’ he said, ‘but we owe the abbot three knights’ fees and I have always honoured the Church.’

‘And do you not honour your father also?’ Hugh demanded, clenching his thick fists, causing the seal ring of Norfolk to gleam on his knuckles. ‘I will have your obedience – boy.’

Roger compressed his lips and strode from the room, his control as brittle as thin ice. It was too much, he thought as he reached the safety of his chamber, and sitting on his clothing coffer, put his head in his hands. He wasn’t just at the edge of a precipice, he was over it and scrabbling at the edge by his fingertips. And above stood was his father, preparing to stamp on them and send him into the void. After a while he rose to wipe his face and rinse his mouth. Then, drawing his sword, he looked at the. There were nicks in it that needed honing out, and the edge required sharpening. Down the fuller, the faint, gold gleam of latten, picked out the letters INOMINEDNI. In The Name of God…

‘Sire, there is news.’ Anketil, one of the serjeants, stopped in the doorway. He and Roger had grown up together and although not of knightly birth, being the son of a forester, Roger counted Anketil a friend and ally. The latter’s Nordic-blue eyes fixed on the sword in Roger’s hand.

Good or bad?’ Roger asked, returning the weapon to its scabbard.

‘That depends,’ Anketil said. ‘Richard de Luci has made a truce with the Scots. He’ll be turning south towards us now. Messenger’s just gone in to your father and the Earl of Leicester.’

Roger nodded. He didn’t suppose it would change his own orders except to make them more urgent. Leicester would have to make a move sooner rather than later if he was going to secure his castle.

Anketil gestured towards the scabbard. ‘Saw your brother wearing it this morning in chapel,’ he said.

‘He won’t have the opportunity again.’ Suddenly Roger’s mind was clear and the decision so easy it was like throwing away a piece of used, scratched parchment and drawing forward a fresh, clean sheet, unmarked even by the pricking tool. ‘Get the men together,’ he said. ‘Tell them to sharpen their swords and polish up their equipment. Make sure the horses are well shod and that everyone has arms and provisions sufficient to his needs.’ As he spoke, he felt as if something that had been crushed and packed down into a tight corner was expanding, rising, filling with light and air.

The serjeant eyed him keenly. ‘Where are we going?’ he asked.

‘The Abbey at Edmundsbury,’ Roger said with a gleam in his eyes.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Can't wait for this Susan, atmospheric and action packed. Is Roger blonde (I don't mean of the dumb variety, I just immediately saw him as fair haired). Of course probably totally wrong just be interested to know. Has Alison mentioned his colouring?

Judy f said...

Hi Elizabeth, this is great, it will be a drag to have to wait until next year to read it. I live near(ish) to Framlingham, in fact i was there on Saturday, it's a typical Suffolk market town today i can;t help wondering what has chnaged dince 1173.

KC said...

Exciting stuff! I can't wait to read the full length novel!