The ship rode gently on the swell, both castles rising and falling, even as the spray of the waves whipped the onlookers with a fine dew. Four knights, representing one of the most powerful Barons in England, waited patiently, regarding the armoured figure waiting on the rail as the ship was slowly eased in to port. Travellers do not usually wear armour, but this one could perhaps expect a troubled homecoming. Even as the sun sank in the west Robert de FitzWalter thought of his fate; exiled for instigating the Baronial revolt the previous year, a revolt whose only real impact was distracting King John from his business crushing the Welsh. John had returned and crushed the revolt - some said the King had also seduced Robert's daughter, but he knew that to be untrue, not that the story did any harm. Nor was the story he had gone abroad because he could not bear to live under an excommunicate King any more believable - Robert valued his relic, the finger bone of St Fremund, which was kept in the jewelled hilt of his sword, and surely he said his prayers, but it was not extraordinary piety which made him flee.
No, he had tried to start a Baronial revolt, and fleeing to the Court of the King's French rival in Paris was the only way of being sure of keeping his head. He remembered Geoffrey de Mandeville, devil by name and devil by nature, who on being caught in rebellion had Fled in to the Fens and fought a guerrilla war from there rather than be hanged by the King's justice. He hefted his sword - hopefully there would be no need for such flight - it was said that the King had pardoned him, because of the pleas of the Barons. Now a few knights of one of those Barons were waiting on shore, ready to ride with him to safety. He say the heraldry, recognised his friends colours and relaxed - these were not creatures of John, but proud men of one England mightiest Lords. If John felt he could yoke and arbitrarily command such men he was wrong - the King was subject to the Law, as well as being the fountain of Law. It is impossible for a dog to lord over wolves, and these men would fight hard for their rights and liberties
Robert turned to the figure next
to him, wearing the coarse brown robes of a Benedictine monk.
'Master Thomas, it seems your arts were match for the sea. As you said, we make port at Harwich by sunset, and the storm was averted. Who would have thought your charms so efficacious?'
The monk replied with the accent of a native Frenchman of the north, not Robert's courtly French - 'It was charm enough, but Lord Robert, there is much to do to serve our Master and the will of Our Blessed Lord. The plan was an idle one in Paris; now we are in England it could cost our lives. I know the charms I work are of natural origin, not the work of spirits or demons, but others may not be so wise. Considering the importance terrific of what we attempt, is it not best we watch our words?'
Robert laughed heartily, and embraced the Friar's bony frame. 'Very well my friend, I shall watch my tongue - now we are almost on land - you to my Priory at Binham, I to Castle Dunmow! I shall despatch a couple of these worthy knights to accompany you on the road, and give my blessing to my monks when you arrive!'
He strode across the pitching deck, as outside the harbour the pursuing storm reached the headland and broke in a cacophony of rain and thunder. The gangplank fell, and as a curtain of rain swept in Sir Robert Fitzwalter, Lord of Dunmow and Baynard's Castle, leapt on a saddled horse and spurred it furiously, leaving two knights urging horses to keep up and two more wondering why they were to guard a Prior on his way to his new House
Water made Gregory anxious; in all his years of study to become a Mage know one had ever taught him how to swim. Suddenly he regretted his long hours of study spent on Theology and Philosophy, on learning the Orders of Monks and names of Bishops. Perhaps if he had spent less time entranced by the beautiful music of the Church, and more on the practical side of things? How did the saying go - 'the very forest bends to your command, but you are mortal!' Mortality never seemed closer than when the only thing between you and a watery death in the stagnant black water was a tiny punt poled along by a half-witted local guide. Quietly he prepared a Rego Aquam spell; if all went wrong or he was knocked once more by the pole he would walk to the reedy bank, if his spontaneous magic was up to the task He prayed it was! Why couldn't he get a decent fellow to bring him out here-,one who did not slosh water and bog weed over him with every shove of the punt pole?
Because they were scared. Folklore said the island was haunted: the scholars who had lived on it all slain three generations before, the village burnt. Dead men walked it's ruins they said, and only a half wit who needed money would agree to bring someone out here, and then only in the light of the afternoon sun.
Geoffrey de Mandeville had killed them all, it was said because they had dared to refuse him shelter. His men had crossed the marsh on boats in the dead of night, set fire to the thatched roof and with crossbows and sword slain everyone who tried to flee the conflagration. Yet how did a mortal manage to kill a group of six magi, a covenant poised to enter Summer? The locals said the de Mandeville was a diabolist, and that he was in league with the very fiends of Hell. Perhaps - there are some things it is best to maintain an open mind on.
The mists were closing in now - it was hard to see more than three lengths of the boats; Cedric would insist on returning any moment, and the Rego Mentam spell was not strong enough to defeat pure terror much longer. There was something uncanny in the air; the magic was extremely strong, strong enough to disturb any mundane, but there was another aura; a faint hint of the demonic. When night fell the ghastly aura would flood in with the gathering shadows, and it was no wonder that people felt this place accursed, even by day
But why? There was no hint in the research notes from Uffius' laboratory that he or the others had dabbled in the Black Arts. Mandeville - he must have sold his soul! For a moment Gregory wondered about Hereward the Wake, the Saxon hero who centuries before Mandeville had also hidden out and held out in these marshes, waging a war against the Normans of the Conqueror
Suddenly a great black shadow loomed out of the mist, and Cedric yelled out loud. Gregory craned forward, and within seconds the shape resolved itself in to a stone building, built of yellowish sandstone - from Northampton or thereabouts? It must have been ferried in - most of the other covenant structures were wood, and long since rotted in the marshy environment, but the Great hall and Library beyond remained, both now blackened by fire and missing the thatch roof which had burnt so easily when attacked by Mandeville's fire arrows
Gregory sprang out of the boat, suppressing a chuckle as Cedric looked at him bemused. For his age he was still sprightly - the poor fensman had never heard of longetivity potions! He strode in to the mist, pausing only to cast a silent Rego Mentam at Cedric - he wanted the boat there on his return. From Uffius notes it was clear that the Hall was the quickest root to the library - the books would all be long burnt or destroyed by water, but behind the Library had been the huts which housed the magi's sanctums. He cast a critical eye over the state of the walls, and then stepped through the arch which led to the A keening eerie wail arose, turning Gregory's blood to ice. In front of him the shadows thickened, and a woman wearing the grey robe of a scholar walked forward, groping blindly and rattling as she walked. She seemed little more than a bundle of sticks and rags, a long decayed skeleton. But skeletons should not walk, and skeletons should not reach for ones throat and
Gregory turned and was through the door, even as three figures swept out of the mist, figures through which one could see the reedy banks of the river just below. He laughed as he heard a terrified scream from the boat - well at least it had been established beyond all doubt that the ruined Covenant was haunted. Haunted, but with others possibly recoverable, and then - the magic here was so strong - stronger than he had dared to believe.
Even as he hear Cedric fumbling with the pole he screamed a Perdo Vim at the apparitions and hurled himself out in to the shifting milky tendrils, hoping against chance that he would land in the boat
King John cracked the oyster with the confidence of a man who knew there were plenty more in the bowl that one came from, and that servants would clear the debris before the evening was over. The sun had gone down outside, but with beeswax candles, who cared? A fellow could still read - that was the important thing - John loved books. And what better way to enjoy a swift meal before settling down with a good book than relaxing with feet in a tub of hot water in front of a glowing fire wearing his own invention, a warm tunic with belt he called the dressing gown? Many days he never bothered to wear anything else - why bother to dress and go out in the cold of winter or rains of spring?
The days hunt has been fun, and the brief frolic with the country wench - well it was distracting, for a while. He slowly pulled a foot out of the steaming tub, letting the water drip lazily on to the red hot embers of the fire, enjoying the sensation of scalding heat against his flesh. Soon he would call for more hot water! A goblet of fine Gascon wine, and then - a servant bustled in.
'Your Highness, a messenger has arrived. Bigod has sent men to meet Fitzwalter - he is apparently due in this evening or tomorrow on a ship from Calais, if it please your Majesty.'
His Majesty didn't give a fig - Fitzwalter was a nobody. Lord of Dunmow and Baynard's Castle, he had caused a bit of a stink with a poorly planned attempt at bringing about a baronial revolt when John was busy in Wales. Well last year he had hanged a whole load of Welsh hostages, made him unpopular, not just with the Welsh, but who cared? They said he'd murdered Arthur his nephew to inherit Brittany - well if he had a hand in the lads death, did that not suggest he was not a fellow to trifle with? Anyway this Fitzwalter was popular with the Barons, and if the Angevin territories across the Channel were to be recovered - his eyes lit with the glow of a fanatic thinking fondly of his favourite passion - he would need the Barons to come to war with him.
He thought of how Fitzwalter had
first betrayed him: de Quincey and he were in charge of Castle Ruil in France,
and had surrendered it without a fight to Louis of France. Without a fight,
and after money had changed hands! What kind of man was this!
Money seems dear to Fitzwalter he mused - in the rebellion last year members of the Royal Exchequer had been intimate with the Canons of St. Pauls, who were known to be closely allied with Fitzwalter. A cur, but a dangerous hound, and perhaps best once more befriended. Certainly better in England where he could be watched than stirring up trouble with the King of France in Paris!
The King slumped back in his chair. Enough of Fitzwalter. He reached for his copy of Boethius' Consolations and absently swapped feet, as he reached for a tray of jam tarts and spiced sweetmeats