Sharon Kay Penman
HE WOULD BE REMEMBERED long after his death, one of those rare men recognized as great
even by those who hated him. He was a king at twenty-one, wed to a woman as legendary as
Helen of Troy, ruler of an empire that stretched from the Scots border to the Mediterranean
Sea, King of England, Lord of Ireland and Wales, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of
Anjou, Touraine, and Maine, liege lord of Brittany. But in God's Year, 1171, Henry Fitz
Empress, second of that name to rule England since the Conquest, was more concerned with the
judgment of the Church than History's verdict.
When the Archbishop of Canterbury was slain in his own cathedral by men who believed
they were acting on the king's behalf, their bloodied swords might well have dealt Henry a
mortal blow, too. All of Christendom was enraged by Thomas Becket's murder and few were
willing to heed Henry's impassioned denials of blame. His continental lands were laid under
Interdict and his multitude of enemies were emboldened, like wolves on the trail of wounded
prey. The beleaguered king chose to make a strategic retreat, and in October, he sailed for
Ireland. There he soon established his lordship over the feuding Irish kings and secured
oaths of fealty from the Irish bishops. The winter was so stormy that Ireland truly seemed to
be at the western edge of the world, the turbulent Irish Sea insulating Henry from the
continuing outcry over the archbishop's death.
But in the spring, the winds abated and contact was established once more with the
outside world. Henry learned that papal legates had arrived in Normandy. And he was warned
that his restless eldest son was once more chaffing at the bit. In accordance with
continental custom, he had been crowned in his father's lifetime. But the young king was
dissatisfied with his lot in life, having the trappings of shared kingship but none of the
power, and Henry's agents were reporting that Hal was brooding about his plight, listening to
the wrong men. Henry Fitz Empress decided it was time to go home.
Dyved, South Wales
SOON AFTER LEAVING Haverford, they were ambushed by the fog. Ranulf had long ago
learned that Welsh weather gave no fair warning, honored no flags of truce, and scorned all
rules of warfare. But even he was taken aback by the suddenness of the assault. Rounding a
bend in the road, they found themselves riding into oblivion. The sky was blotted out, the
earth disappearing under their horses' hooves, all sound muffled in this opaque, smothering
mist, as blinding as wood-smoke and pungent with the raw, salt-tang of the sea.
Drawing rein, Ranulf's brother Rainald hastily called for a halt. "Mother of God, it
is the Devil's doing!"
Ranulf had a healthy respect for Lucifer's malevolence, but he was far more familiar than
Rainald with the vagaries of the Welsh climate. "It is just an early morning fog,
Rainald;' he said soothingly.
"I can smell the brimstone on his breath," Rainald insisted, "can hear his
cackling on the wind. Listen and you'll hear it, too."
Ranulf cocked his head, hearing only the slapping of waves against the rocks below them.
Rainald was already shifting in the saddle, telling their men that they were turning back.
Before Ranulf could protest, he discovered he had an ally in Gerald de Barri, the young clerk
and scholar who'd joined their party after a stopover at Llawhaden Castle. Kicking his mule
forward, Gerald assured Rainald that such sudden patches of fog were quite common along the
coast. They'd soon be out of it, he promised, and offered to lead them, for this was a road
he well knew.
Pressed, too, by Ranulf, Rainald reluctantly agreed and they ventured on, slowly and very
warily. "Now I know what it's like for your wife," Rainald grumbled, glancing over
his shoulder at his brother. "Poor lass, cursed to live all her days bat-blind and
helpless as a newborn babe."
Ranulf's wife, Rhiannon, was indeed blind, but far from helpless. Ranulf took no offense,
though; Rainald's tactlessness was legendary in their family. Slowing his mount, he dropped
back to ride beside Rainald's young son. The boy's dark coloring had earned him his nickname,
Rico, for upon viewing him for the first time, Rainald had joked that he was more an Enrico
than a Henry, swarthy as a Sicilian. Rico's olive skin was now a ghostly shade of grey, and
Ranulf reached over to pat him reassuringly upon the arm. "Horses do not fancy going
over cliffs any more than men do, and Welsh ponies are as sure-footed as mountain
Rico did not seem comforted. "Yes, but Whirlwind is Cornish, not
Ranulf camouflaged a smile, for the placid hackney hardly merited such a spirited name.
"They breed sure-footed horses in Cornwall, too, lad." To take his nephew's mind
off their precarious path, he began to tell Rico of some mischief making by his youngest son,
Morgan, and soon had Rico laughing.
He missed Morgan, missed his elder son, Bleddyn, and daughter, Mallt, above all missed
Rhiannon. But he'd agreed to accompany Rainald to the holy well of St Non, even knowing that
he'd be away for weeks, for he knew the real reason for Rainald's pilgrimage. Rainald had
claimed he wanted to pray for his wife's soul. But Beatrice had been ailing for many years,
hers a malady of the mind that only death had healed. Rainald's true concern was for his
other son, Nicholas, who had not been blessed with Rico's robust good health. Frail and
sickly, Nicholas was not likely to live long enough to succeed to his father's earldom, as
evidenced by Rainald's desperate decision to seek aid from saints, not doctors.
Rainald's pain was all the greater because Nicholas was his only male heir. Rico was born
out of wedlock, and thus barred by Church law from inheriting any of his father's
estates-even though Rainald himself was bastard-born. The irony of that was lost upon
Rainald, who was the least introspective of men. It was not lost upon Ranulf, who shared
Rainald's tainted birth, both of them natural sons of the old King Henry. Neither of them had
suffered from the stigma of illegitimacy, though. As a king's son, Rainald had been judged
worthy to wed the heiress of the earldom of Cornwall, and Ranulf had long been the favorite
uncle of the current king, Henry Fitz Empress. Henry would gladly have bestowed an earldom
upon him, too, but Ranulf, who was half-Welsh, had chosen to settle in Wales where he'd wed
his Welsh cousin and raised his family-until forced into English exile by a Welsh prince's
His Welsh lands were forfeit and his English manors were meager in comparison to
Rainald's vast holdings in Cornwell, but Ranulf had no regrets about turning down a title. He
was at peace with his yesterdays, and he'd lived long enough to understand how few men could
say that. For certes, Rainald could not. Nor could the king, his nephew, absent these many
months in Ireland, where he'd gone to evade Holy Church's fury over the slaying of Thomas
Gerald de Barri's voice floated back upon the damp morning air. A natural-born talker, he
was not going to let a bit of fog muzzle him, and he continued to engage Rainald in
conversation, not at all discouraged by the earl's taciturn, distracted responses. Ranulf
listened, amused, for Gerald was an entertaining traveling companion, if somewhat
self-serving. The nephew of the Bishop of St David's, he was returning to England after years
of study in Paris, and he reminded Ranulf of Thomas Becket, another worldly clerk blessed
with great talents and even greater ambitions.
Becket had been a superb chancellor, wielding enormous influence because of his close
friendship with the king. What a pity it was, Ranulf thought, that Harry had taken it into
his head to elevate Becket to the archbishopric. But who could ever have expected the man to
undergo such a dramatic transformation? He wasn't even a priest, had hastily to take holy
vows just days before his investiture. But once he was Canterbury's archbishop, he'd devoted
himself to God with all of the zeal he'd once shown on behalf of England's king. Henry hadn't
been the only one discomfited by Becket's newfound fervor. His fellow bishops had often been
exasperated by his provocations, his refusal to compromise, his self-righteous piety. Even
His Holiness the Pope had been confounded at times by Becket's intransigence.
All that had changed, of course, as he bled to death on the floor of his own cathedral,
and when the monks had discovered their slain archbishop's vermin-infested hair-shirt under
his blood-soaked garments, none had doubted they were in the presence of sainthood. Acclaimed
as a holy martyr in death, even by those who'd considered him to be a vexation and an enigma
in life, Thomas Becket was sure to be anointed as the Church's next saint. Already people
flocked to his tomb at Canterbury, seeking healing cures and buying little vials of his blood
as precious relics. More than fifteen months after Becket's death, Ranulf still marveled at
it all. Was Becket truly a saint?
He smiled wryly, then, remembering his last meeting with his nephew the king, just before
Henry's departure for Ireland. Over a late-night flagon of wine, Henry had challenged him,
wanting to know if he believed Becket was a saint. He still recalled his reply. "I
cannot answer your question, Harry, doubt that anyone can. I do know though, that saints are
not judged like ordinary men. That is, after all, what makes them saints." Henry had
reflected upon that in silence, then said, sounding both skeptical and regretful, "Saint
or not, Thomas got the last word for certes:"
MENEVIA WAS THE NAME GIVEN to the small settlement that had sprung up around the
cathedral of St David. Its houses were outnumbered by shabby inns, stables, taverns, and a
few cook-shops, for the shrine of the Welsh saint was a popular choice for pilgrimages.
Because of its remoteness and the difficulty of travel in Wales, the Holy See had decreed
that two pilgrimages to St David's were the equivalent of one to St Peter's in Rome. The
cathedral itself was situated just west of the village in a secluded hollow, out of sight of
the sea raiders and Norsemen who had pillaged the coast in bygone times.
The men expected to be accosted by villagers proclaiming the comforts of their inns, the
superiority of their wines and mead, the bargain prices of their pilgrim badges. To their
surprise, the streets appeared deserted. Advancing uneasily, they finally encountered an
elderly man in a doorway, leaning heavily upon a wooden crutch.
"Where have all the folk gone?" Rainald called out, and when he got only a
blank stare in response, Ranulf repeated the question in Welsh, to better effect.
"To the harbor;" the ancient replied, hobbling forward a few steps. "Sails
were spied and when word spread, people went to see. Most pilgrims come on foot, but we do
get some who sail from Normandy and Flanders, even a few Frenchmen who lack the ballocks to
brave Welsh roads." He grinned, showing a surprising mouthful of teeth for one so old,
but Ranulf knew the Welsh were particular about tooth care, cleaning them with green hazel
shoots and polishing them with woolen cloth.
Flipping him a coin for his trouble, Ranulf interpreted for the others, translating the
old man's "Frenchmen" into "English" to avoid confusion. It was not
always easy to live in lands with so many spoken tongues. To many of the Welsh, the invaders
from England were French, for that was the language they spoke. To the French, those who
dwelled on the rain-swept island were English. But those descendants of the men who'd
followed William the Bastard to victory in God's Year 1066 thought of themselves as Norman,
and his nephew Henry was Angevin to the core.
Having no interest in incoming ships, they continued on toward the cathedral, where they
received the welcome worthy of an earl, although Gerald de Barri was disappointed to learn
that the bishop, his uncle, was away. They were escorted to the guest hall and were washing
off the grime of the road when they heard shouting out in the close. Ranulf and Rainald
hastened to the window, looking down at a man sprinting toward the bishop's palace. As
several canons hurried to meet him, he sank to his knees, chest heaving.
"The king . . ." He gasped, struggling for breath. "The king is coming!
His ships have dropped anchor in the harbor!"
BY THE TIME their party reached the beach, Henry and his companions had come ashore and
were surrounded by a large crowd: villagers, pilgrims, and the local Welsh. It always amazed
Ranulf to watch his nephew with his subjects, for he had not enough patience to fill a
thimble and yet he showed remarkable forbearance when mobbed by supplicants, even those of
low-birth. Ranulf had seen many people undone by the lure of power, so many that he'd long
ago concluded it was a sickness in and of itself, one as dangerous in its way as the spotted
pox or consumption. Harry, he thought, had come the closest to the mastery of it . . . So
"Your Grace!" Rainald bellowed, loudly enough to hurt nearby eardrums. Henry
turned toward the sound, for at thirty-nine, he still had the keen hearing of a fox. He
beckoned them forward and they made the public obeisance due his rank and then were enfolded
into welcoming embraces, for Henry had never been one for ceremony.
Henry showed no surprise at their appearance upon this remote, rocky shore. "My
fleet anchored safely at Pembroke," he said with satisfaction. "But how did you
guess that I'd be landing at St David's?"
Rainald looked puzzled, but Ranulf joked, ''All know I have second sight," before
admitting that they'd not passed through Pembroke, knew nothing of the landing of the king's
fleet, and their meeting upon this westernmost tip of Wales was pure happenchance.
"Well, it is an auspicious omen, nonetheless," Henry declared, "getting my
homecoming off to a good start." Several canons from the cathedral had arrived by now
and Henry allowed them to lead the way from the beach, explaining piously that he'd sent his
fleet on ahead yesterday, but had refrained from traveling himself on the holy day of the
Lord Christ's Resurrection. The canons murmured approvingly at such proof of their
sovereign's reverence. Ranulf and Rainald, who knew their nephew far better than these
credulous clerics, exchanged amused grins. Henry's campaign to placate the Church had already
St David's was only a mile distant, but their progress was slow because of the crowds
pressing in upon them. Henry did not seem to mind; leaning upon a pilgrim's staff, he turned
their trek into a procession, good-naturedly acknowledging the greetings of the villagers,
even bantering with a few of the bolder ones. But the friendly, relaxed atmosphere changed
abruptly when they reached the cathedral close.
More of the canons were clustered at the gate, making ready to welcome the king. A muddy
stream grandiosely known as the River Alun bordered the northern side of the churchyard,
bridged by a large marble stone, its surface polished and worn by the tread of countless
pilgrim feet. As Henry approached, an elderly woman stepped forward and cried out in a
hoarse, strident voice.
Henry had a good ear for languages, but Welsh had always eluded him, and he turned to the
canons for enlightenment. Obviously flustered, they sought to ignore the woman's ranting,
insisting she was babbling nonsense and not to be heeded. Henry knew better; one glance at
the spectators told him that. Some looked horrified, others embarrassed, and a few-those with
the dark coloring of the Welsh--eagerly expectant.
"What did she say, Ranulf?" he demanded of the one man he could trust to give
him an honest answer.
Ranulf answered reluctantly, yet truthfully. "She called upon Lechlaver to revenge
the Welsh upon you."
Henry scowled. "Who the Devil is Lechlaver? Some heathen Welsh god?"
"No. . . It is the name of yonder rock." Realizing how bizarre that sounded,
Ranulf had no choice but to tell Henry the rest. "Local legend has it that Merlin made a
prophecy about Lechlaver. He foretold that a ruddy-faced English king, the conqueror of
Ireland, would die upon that rock."
It was suddenly very still. The crowd scarcely seemed to be breathing, and more than a
few surreptitiously made the sign of the cross. Some of Henry's own companions cautiously
edged away, in case Merlin's prophecy involved a celestial thunderbolt. Rainald reached out
as if to keep Henry from advancing any farther. Ranulf did not consider himself to be
particularly superstitious, but even he did not want his nephew to set foot on that slick
Henry looked from one tense face to another and then, slowly and very deliberately,
strode forward. Leaping nimbly onto the rock, he crossed without a misstep. Turning back to
face the spectators, he said in a voice pitched loudly for all to hear, "Who will
believe that liar Merlin now?"
There was a collective sigh as breathing resumed and the world of shadows receded before
Henry's scorn and certainty. Beaming, Rainald made haste to follow, as did the others. People
trooped over Lechlaver, the depths of their unease revealed now by the intensity of their
relief. Only the Welsh bystanders stayed on the other side of the shallow river, their
disappointment etched in the down-turned mouths, the averted eyes. One youth could not endure
to see Merlin shamed before these arrogant foreigners and called out in heavily accented
"You are not the king in Merlin's prophecy, for you are not the conqueror of
Henry swung around to confront the young Welshman, and for a suspenseful moment, his
audience wondered if they were to see his notorious Angevin temper take fire. But then Henry
laughed. "If your Merlin thought anyone could truly conquer Ireland, lad, he was a poor
prophet, indeed!" Adding under his breath to Ranulf as they resumed their progress
toward the cathedral, "How do you defeat a people who lack the common sense to know when
Ranulf smiled, knowing that Henry was speaking, too, of the Welsh and his disastrous
campaign of six years past. His ambitious plans to bring the rebellious Welsh lords to heel
had come to naught, thwarted by the erratic weather, the rugged mountainous terrain, and
phantom foes who refused to take the field, preferring hit-and-run raids, evasive maneuvers,
and nightfall forays that recognized their weaknesses and played to their strengths. Faced
with a rare military defeat, Henry had withdrawn' his army back across the border and changed
his tactics, forging an alliance with Rhys ap Gruffydd, the most powerful of the Welsh
princes. So far this stratagem had proven successful; Wales was more peaceful than it had
been in years.
Glancing over at Henry, Ranulf hoped that his nephew would apply the lessons he'd learned
from the Welsh in his current battle with His Holiness the Pope and the mighty Roman Church.
But it was just that-a hope-for he of all men knew how dangerously stubborn Henry Fitz
Empress could be. There were faint bloodstains upon the tiles in Canterbury Cathedral
testifying to that.
CopyrightęSharon Kay Penman
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