Chapter One

1068, Cheshire

They hanged the rebels in the market square. Rain hung in the air. Heavy drizzle that characterised this part of England: thicker than mist and turning the world grey and damp.

A cheerless day for a brutal act.

Constance D'Arnaud wished she could leave this cold, unwelcoming country and return to Normandy where the sun was visible some days even in October. She wiggled her feet to rid herself of the dull ache that ran down her leg and pulled her fur-trimmed cloak tighter. She tipped the hood forward. The folds of heavy wool would not block out the sounds but she would not have to watch the men die.

The old thegn stood between two guards, his fine tunic torn and filthy with blood and grime. He wore fetters but was bowed down by more than the weight of the chains that held him.

"Brunwulf, formerly Thegn of Hamestan, for conspiring to incite revolt your remaining land and title is forfeit. As Tenant-in-chief for it is my duty and right to pass this sentence on you."

From the dais Baron Roger de Coudray's voice rang clear across the square. A muttering of anger rippled around the crowd, dying away quickly as the soldiers raised their weapons.

Constance wondered how many of the serfs and villeins that huddled behind makeshift railings understood what her stepfather said. She had lived in England for eighteen months but a year after moving from Winchester to Cheshire the accent still seemed thick and impenetrable to her ears.

"Your life and the lives of those who raised swords against your king are also forfeit," Roger continued.

Brunwulf raised his head at this and stared at Roger. His eyes were bruised and almost forced shut with the swelling but the hatred in them was clear. He spat a reply, the name and sentiment familiar to Constance.

"The Bastard of Normandy is no king of mine."

Another murmur, this time of approval sped round the gathered people and a few cries of agreement rose up. Constance shifted nervously. People must have come from half of Cheshire to witness today's executions, and though these were farmers and craftsmen, serfs and women, there were a lot more of them than there were soldiers in Baron Roger's retinue.

Roger's face reddened as he bellowed his reply. "The crown has been William's for two years. We rule England now. If you had submitted you could have retained control of your lands as our vassals but you refused to see sense. Now you will pay the penalty."

A cruel light shone in the baron's eyes. "You will be the last to die. You will watch the deaths of your countrymen and sons first though, so you understand how utterly you have failed. Let this be a warning to any who think to oppose us."

Roger jerked a thumb and a dozen men bound men were brought forward from the heavily guarded cart and pushed to their knees alongside the thegn. They bore the same signs of rough treatment as Brunwulf, and like him wore clothes that once spoke of quality. These were not serfs or slaves but thegns and housecarls themselves.

Three at a time the condemned men were dragged up the steps to the scaffold in the centre of the square and nooses tightened around their necks. As the first three executions were carried out wails of sorrow broke out among the crowd. The voices of wives and mothers, sisters or lovers. The soldiers standing in front of the huddled, grieving women crossed their pikes to hold them back as though expecting the women to rush forward in attack. Constance could not help the sigh that escaped her.

Sitting between Constance and the baron, Roger's wife turned pale.

"Don't pity them," Jeanne de Coudray whispered harshly to her daughter. "What compassion would they have spared me? Would they have cared if we had starved?"

Constance reached for her mother's hand and squeezed tightly. The answering flutter was so slight it tore at Constance's heart. Fifteen months of marriage to Baron Roger had killed any remaining softness in Jeanne de Coudray's heart that the death of her first husband - Constance's father - had not previously extinguished.

Constance stared back at the faces that blurred into a mass of pale eyes and shades of blonde hair, so different to her own dark eyes and hair. She knew they hated her and all her countrymen. The women would have doubtless rejoiced at their grief and spat on her pity but Constance remembered the sorrow that had numbed her following the death of her father at the Battle of Senlac. Her heart still broke for them. She wiped a hand across her eyes and looked at the ground, pulling the hood further forward so she did not have to think about the bodies twisting in the biting wind.

"Open your eyes and watch how those who would threaten your king die, girl," Roger commanded in an undertone. "Don't shame me before these Saxon savages or I'll whip the skin from your back."

Constance raised her head obediently and forced herself to watch as man after man was lifted high alive and cut down a corpse. Some resisted as the knots were pulled tight, one or two looked on the verge of weeping, others walked with dignity to their deaths. Without exception all spat towards the dais where Roger's household sat, fixing any Norman who met their eye with a loathing that made Constance shiver with fear.

Their deaths were not quick or easy but if the uprising had not been prevented and they had joined with those in other counties how slow and degrading would her death at their hands have been? She'd heard the tales of what had happened elsewhere, of children speared in their beds and women shared and used by the rebels until they begged for death. Jeanne was right, it was relief she should feel, not pity.

Finally only three men remained alive. Their ages spanned a decade at least but the reddish tint in their wheat-blonde hair and beards marked them as Brunwulf's sons. The youngest, a man in his middle twenties, could barely walk. His leg was bound to a splint and he clenched his teeth with pain as he was half carried up the steps. As they were pushed forward to the waiting nooses Brunwulf finally groaned aloud with despair and to Constance it seemed as though he shrank in stature before her eyes. The eldest called something to his father, his words rapid and in a dialect so thick Constance could not make out a single word. Brunwulf's lips twisted into a grimace. He nodded and his sons raised their heads to stare at the baron defiantly. As one man they leapt forward off the ladders causing their necks to break with the violence of their swing.

Without warning a roar of rage erupted from the back of the crowd. Roger leapt to his feet. People began muttering and jostling as a figure pushed through them. Someone screamed in alarm. Brunwulf swore.

Roger barked orders rapidly and soldiers plunged in among the gathered watchers to find the source, roughly knocking people aside. Cries of indignation and alarm filled the air until eventually two soldiers returned dragging a struggling figure dressed in a dark blue cloak. The soldiers marched to the dais and threw their prisoner to the ground in front of Roger. One dropped a short sword alongside him. The other ripped the cloak from him and threw it aside revealing a scrawny figure dressed in a worn tunic and the familiar hose with leg bindings where a sheathed dagger was stuffed. He pulled the dagger loose and threw it alongside the sword.

As the prisoner raised his face to glare at his captors Constance got her first clear look at his face. The sight caused her stomach to knot and gave an involuntary start forward in her seat.

She knew him.

Jeanne touched her arm gently and looked at her questioningly.

"Are you in pain?"

Constance shook her head and gave a half smile, hoping her mother could not read the shock in her expression. She sat back, her mind whirling and filled with memories of three occasions she had put behind her, of someone she had thought never to meet again. Unconsciously she raised a hand to her lips then realised what she had done, lowered it quickly and looked at the boy on the ground.

To call him a boy was unjust. He was young and couldn't yet be described as a fully-grown man but he was older than Constance by a year or two. His tangled red-blonde hair flopped across angular cheeks that were barely graced with a downy beard and he did not look at ease with his long limbs, as though he had not grown to fit them yet.

One of the soldiers twisted an arm up behind the boy's back to what looked like breaking point. He seized hold of him by the hair and wrenched his head back, causing the boy to let out a string of expletives, only some of which Constance knew.

"Who is this?" Roger demanded.

"My name is Aelric, son of Brunwulf," the boy shouted. He winced and gave a gasp of pain through gritted teeth as the soldier twisted his arm higher.

"You're too late to save him if that is what you intended."

"Then I will avenge his death, and those of my brothers," Aelric snarled.

Constance glanced at the men swinging from the ropes, and their father waiting in chains. Brunwulf stood, shoulders tense and expression stricken. Roger left the dais and walked to where the boy knelt in the mud. When he reached Aelric he leaned over, putting his face close to the boy's.

"And how do you propose to do that, Aelric son of Brunwulf?" Roger asked. His voice had taken on the cold, mocking tone that Constance had come to dread.

Aelric's blue eyes bored into Roger.

"By killing you."

Roger was silent. The crowd hushed in frozen expectation. Constance gripped her mother's hand, waiting for Roger's response. For him to strike the boy or run him through. Instead he did something unexpected, yet far crueller.

He laughed.

Aelric's face reddened.

Roger waved a dismissive hand and turned away. "Hang him with his father."

The soldiers seized hold of Aelric who cried out and struggled as they dragged him towards his father. Constance's stomach twisted as though someone had taken a stick and wound it through her guts, twisting it tight.

"Please don't hang him!"

The words left her mouth before she could stop herself. She realised she had pushed herself to her feet.

"What do you think you're doing, girl?" Roger rounded on Constance, his face contorted with fury far greater than he had shown to the condemned men or the boy. The blood in her veins turned to ice but she could feel her face flushing. The eyes of everyone in the square were on her.

"He's so young," she said softly.

"Should I wait until he's older? I'm sure we can find a cell for him until he's managed to grow hair on his chest," Roger scoffed.

"Set him free." Constance said.

"Why should I do that?" Roger demanded incredulously.

"I know him," Constance replied. Roger's eyes narrowed and Jeanne whipped her head round to stare at her daughter suspiciously. Aelric looked up and his eyes met Constance's. They widened in surprise. He hadn't known who she was. Well, if it came to it, she hadn't known who he was either. The sick feeling returned.

"Explain yourself," Roger demanded.

"He helped me once," Constance said, aware of the heat rising to her cheeks.

January, her horse slipping in the mud as she rode along the gritstone ridge. The boy leaving a knot of other lads to take hold of the bridle. Speaking calm words - to the animal or her, she wasn't sure. She'd thanked him, nervously trying out the Saxon tongue. He'd grinned at her attempt, but kindly, then returned to his friends. They had looked at her with the contempt she'd come to expect but he glanced back and nodded before turning away.

She told her stepfather nothing of that, or of the times after they had met again.

"When my horse lost a shoe last winter."

"And because of that I should pardon his attempt to murder me today?" Roger asked.

Vomit rose in Constance's throat. What attempt had it been really? He could never have succeeded. Roger had been in no danger and he knew it.

"Not my boy," Brunwulf begged. "He took no part in the uprising. He shed no blood."

Murmurs of agreement fluttered across the square. Brunwulf dropped to his knees in supplication.

"If you spare him I will swear loyalty to your king here and now. You can tell William you secured my allegiance before my death."

Roger was going to refuse. Constance could tell from the set of his jaw. Though she barely knew him, the thought of Aelric's death was unbearable. Shaking Jeanne's hand from her arm she dropped to her knees, ignoring the stiffness in her leg.

"You've shown them you can be fierce. Now show them you can be merciful," she pleaded. "There has been so much death today."

The murmurs grew louder and angrier. Roger's face was scarlet with fury.

"Very well," he snapped. "He lives."

Aelric was hauled to the foot of the gallows. The bodies were cut down and Brunwulf was dragged forward. Though his chains weighed him down he climbed the ladder unaided and stared straight ahead as the noose was passed over his head. He gave his oath of loyalty as he had promised. He cast a look at his son that spoke of so much affection tears welled in Constance's eyes. Then he went, face serene, to his death.

Many watching wept, Constance among them. Aelric remained dry eyed.

"And now to deal with you. I said you'd live. I made no other promises." Roger said to Aelric. He turned to the guards. "Secure him to the scaffold. Ten lashes."

Aelric was bound, hands high, to the frame where his father's body hung. Constance turned to Jeanne in horror but her mother's eyes were blank.

"Be silent," Jeanne hissed.

The tunic was cut away leaving Aelric's back exposed. As the first blow struck his scream of pain tore through the marketplace. He was ready for the second and made no sound but by the sixth his cries with each blow came as throaty sobs. Constance bunched her fists, digging her nails into her palms. Only later would she notice the half moons of blood she had raised to the surface. When the tenth stroke was done Roger marched to where his captive sagged.

"Tomorrow you'll be sent to Chester. Earl Gerbod can find a use for you in the fields or salt works. I'll leave you something to remember me by."

He drew a dagger, grabbed hold of Aelric's left ear and sliced the lobe away. The boy gave a shriek and, as this last cruelty finally broke him, slumped against the scaffold frame in a faint.


"You shamed me in public! For that alone I should beat you until you scream!"

Roger's rage was incandescent. Constance looked to her mother but Jeanne sat head bowed over her embroidery and said nothing. She would get no support there.

"The boy did not deserve death."

Roger slapped her without warning, the palm of his hand setting her cheek ablaze.

"Never mind that. You said you knew him. What were you doing riding alone without my permission?" Roger turned to his wife. "Madam have you raised a wanton?"

"Not I, my lord" Jeanne answered meekly. "Her behaviour is as shocking to me."

"I was never confined to the house," Constance protested.

Another slap. This time backhanded and with force that left her reeling.

"Perhaps you should have been," Roger said darkly. He seized hold of Constance by the hair and dragged her roughly to her bed, flinging her onto the straw mattress. "You're almost sixteen. It's time you were married. In the morning you'll go to the convent in Derby until I can find a husband who can tame you."

He stormed out leaving Constance holding her face and trembling with anger. She lay on the truckle until it was dark, waiting until the voices in the great hall were at their most raucous. She gathered what she needed and wrapped cloth around the end of her stick, though it was unlikely to make any noise on the rush floor. She crept from the room and passed through the hall. Roger and his retinue were around the firepit, listening to the bard singing and did not notice her leave.

She made her way to the marketplace. There was no light other from the half moon and the square was empty, everyone having returned home before the curfew. Although a soldier patrolled the boundary of the square, no one stood guard over the figure still bound by the wrists to the gallows. Presumably Roger believed no one would dare approach him after the afternoon's display of authority.

The iron scent of blood hit her as she neared him. He was leaning the full weight of his body against the frame. He groaned and turned his head at the sound of Constance's stick tapping.


His voice was a hoarse whisper of surprise. His hair flopped across his face. Constance smoothed it back, unable to tear her eyes from the bloody scab that was his mutilated ear.

She held a flask of wine to his lips and he drank greedily.

"You'll get into trouble," Aelric said.

"I won't be missed," Constance answered, hoping it would be true.

She unwrapped the cloths she'd brought and tipped water onto them then began to clean the crusted blood from his back. He stiffened his shoulders and gave a sharp intake of breath. She blushed as her fingers traced the contours of his shoulderblades and muscles. She was glad of the darkness.

"Does it hurt a lot?" she asked.

"I can cope with pain," Aelric said bitterly. "You should have let them hang me."

"You don't mean that!"

He twisted his head and gazed at her, his brow knotted. "At least I'd have died with honour. You've condemned me to live and die a slave knowing I failed to avenge my family."

She'd come hoping to ease his suffering but his tone was harsher than she'd ever heard. His words cut into her deeper than the rope that had split his back open. She couldn't have watched him die, but how could she let him live the life he described?

"You don't have to," she whispered. She looked around cautiously and drew out her knife. Aelric's eyes fell on it.

"Make it swift," he said, his lips twisting downwards.

"I'm not going to kill you!" she exclaimed in shock. "What do you take me for?"

"A Norman," he said bitterly.

"I can free you," Constance said. "You can run away."

Aelric's eyes flickered. "Where is the honour in running?" he asked.

Constance stepped back and threw her cloth to the ground in irritation. "Nowhere, probably. But why throw away your freedom for the sake of pride?"

"Pride is all I have left," Aelric growled. "And vengeance."

Constance picked up her stick and turned to walk away.

"Wait!" Aelric's voice was low but urgent.

"Why? I would free you because you aren't a killer, not so you could become one. I'm not risking myself for that!"

Aelric winced. "You would put yourself in danger to help me? Why?"

Constance bit her lip. "I owe you a debt for your kindness to me."

"Your horse?" Aelric asked.

"You know I don't mean that," Constance said quietly. She refused to let the memories out.

"I don't want you to come to harm," Aelric said, holding her gaze.

Constance remembered the sharp pain from Roger's slaps. Of Jeanne crying in the night and dead-eyed by day. If someone were to kill Roger she would not grieve but Aelric would never succeed.

"I'm being sent to a convent tomorrow. I'll be safe, but if I cut you down you have to swear to leave tonight."

Aelric held her gaze. "If it will keep you safe I'll swear it."

She nodded. Keeping her eyes from Aelric's she quickly cut the ropes binding him. Aelric sagged to the ground, massaging his wrists. Constance helped him to stand, warmth spreading along her fingers. Her heart thumped.

"Now I am in your debt," he said. He lifted her hand to his lips then put his hand to her cheek, drew her close and planted a soft kiss on her forehead. Constance raised her head and brushed her lips against his cheek. She felt his lips twist into a smile.

"I won't forget what you've done for me," Aelric whispered.

The enormity of what she had done crashed over Constance. She did not want to think what Roger's mood would be when he discovered the boy had disappeared in the night.

"Take me with you," she asked impulsively.

"You don't mean that," Aelric said. "I don't know where I'll go but it won't be suitable for a girl used to the life you lead."

"I don't care how hard it might be," Constance whispered.

"I do," Aelric said firmly.

"Then take this," she said and handed him the knife. His hand tightened over hers then he slipped away.

She watched as he became a shadow, knowing she would never see him again and fought the impulse to follow. She could not have run after him anyway.

She refused to cry as she picked up her stick and returned to the house.