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The Devil's Cup
A foreign army had invaded England.
It wasn't exactly an invasion, for Prince Louis the Lion of France was in the country by invitation. A fair proportion of England's subjects wanted him there and, heartily sick of King John, the rebel barons had offered his crown to Philip of France's son.
On 22 May 1216, Prince Louis landed at Sandwich. John had prepared his defences and believed himself ready to throw off the threat, but a storm blew up and scattered his ships. The barons who were still loyal to him, unhappy about trusting the mercenary forces, which were pretty much all John had left, advised retreat, and John agreed. Unchallenged, Louis blasted his way through Kent, to be greeted in London on the second of June by a huge, cheering crowd.
Other lords and leaders whose realms were closer to home had also finally had enough of King John and were preparing to act. The barons in the north had invited the King of the Scots, Alexander II, to take control of Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmorland and, in Wales, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth – already referring to himself as prince – had embarked upon a series of raids whose main purpose was the taking of English-held castles. John faced enemies on three fronts and, as if that was not enough, many of his people – and not only the barons – were in favour of a change of monarch.
But not all of them: there was a forceful, vocal and well-organized element who remained loyal to John and were hugely opposed to replacing him.
Especially with a prince of France.
The south and the south-east were bearing the brunt of the conflict against Louis and his army. Already one particular place was becoming renowned for its fierce and effective resistance, and this was the Great Wealden Forest. A large part of Louis's force was besieging Dover Castle; fairly pointlessly, since the utter impregnability of the great fortress was making the siege much more demoralizing for the invaders than the inhabitants. The remainder of his army in the south faced a band of rebels whose leader was reputed to be William of Kensham, a former bailiff who was resolutely loyal to the monarch. Willikin of the Weald, as he was commonly known, had gathered together a group of likeminded bowmen. So effective were they at getting under the invaders' skin and generally upsetting the smooth running of Louis's campaign that John himself was moved to send his thanks.
There were other loyal supporters of the beleaguered King within the wide, untamed area of the forest. Tucked away in the House in the Woods, Josse d'Acquin had long ago announced to his large family and his modest household that he would remain the King's man unto death. He had felt, in this time of deep division between the people of England, that it was only fair to state his position unequivocally.
'Prince Louis is very close,' he had said to the kin and the household he had summoned to his hall soon after the French prince had landed. 'Every man and woman here has the right to decide for him or herself who to support, and, the dear Lord knows, King John has done little in the course of his turbulent reign to win his subjects' loyalty. For myself —' he had paused, staring round at the familiar faces of his wife, his adopted son, his own son and daughter, Helewise's sons and their families and the very welcome recent addition – 'for myself, I have known the King since he was a lad. I can't say I have always approved of what he's done, but nevertheless I find that I retain a deep affection for my wayward monarch and I will not act against him.' He heard one or two murmurs. He saw Leofgar's wife Rohaise give her husband a swift look, narrow eyebrows drawn down in a frown. Ah, he thought. 'While I will think none the less of anyone who does not feel the same, I must tell you now that I cannot condone any action taken against the King.' He paused again, for this was proving very painful. 'If any of you are compelled by your conscience to undertake such action, then I ask you not to do so under this roof.' He glanced up at the strong old beams supporting his beloved home. Then, once again letting his eyes roam across his audience, he said quietly, 'I will not allow this strife within my country to penetrate and threaten the security and the peace of my own hearth.'
It was rare for Josse to lay down the law to his family and his household. As he walked swiftly out of the hall, he had left behind him a stunned silence.
That had been three months ago. Now, as the autumn drew on, the lines of division had become very clear.
There had been little doubt that Ninian, Josse's adopted son and the child of his lost love Joanna, would support the King. It was a secret known to very few people, but Ninian was John's half-brother. Their paths had crossed once, and the events of that day had, for a time, meant that the King had put a price on Ninian's head. That had not been enough, however, to turn Ninian into a rebel; on the contrary, it seemed to Josse that, despite everything, the encounter had left the young man with a strange respect for John. Perhaps, Josse thought, it was true what the old wives said and blood really was thicker than water.
Now, Ninian headed a band of fighters as ruthlessly efficient as Willikin's bowmen; possibly more efficient, since, knowing the forest and its ways so very well, Ninian had been able to instruct his group in how to move around unobserved and undetected. It was as if, Josse had once reflected with an untypical fancifulness, the forest recognized one of its own and gave Ninian a helping hand.
Ninian's mother had been one of the Forest People, one of their Great Ones. The forest, it seemed, didn't forget.
Fighting alongside Ninian were Helewise's elder son Dominic and his boy, Hugo; the elder son, Ralf, was fully involved in a fight of his own, being part of the garrison at Dover. Geoffroi, Josse's son by Joanna, was with Ninian. Sturdy and well muscled at seventeen years old, Geoffroi strongly resembled his father and fought as bravely, and Ninian was glad to have him.
Helewise's younger son Leofgar, however, had taken the side of the rebel barons. It was a cause of distress to his mother; not, Josse thought, because she disapproved of his having taken the barons' side – she was a woman who believed fiercely in encouraging her children to work matters out for themselves – but because Leofgar being with the rebels divided the family.
In addition, Josse strongly suspected Helewise attributed Leofgar's choice of sides to his wife's influence. Rohaise was ambitious. Not content with the comfortable life of a rural lady that Leofgar had provided for her, she wanted to advance him – and herself – to a position of far greater influence. She wanted, Josse believed, to infiltrate the outer circles of court; even, perhaps, the inner ones. She appeared to think that hitching her star to King John's glittering but exhausted train was no use, and therefore had pinned her hopes on the new regime.
Sometimes Josse wondered how she could be so utterly certain there would be a new regime.
Josse's other abiding concern was his daughter, Meggie; more precisely, Meggie's lover, Jehan Leferronier. The two of them had been intermittently together for five years now, and, with Meggie's help, Jehan had rebuilt the ruined and long-deserted forge in the old charcoal burners' camp on the outer fringe of the forest. The business had thrived, for, as Jehan pointed out to Abbess Caliste of Hawkenlye Abbey when he sought her permission for the forge, the Hawkenlye area had been in dire need of a blacksmith nearer than Tonbridge, to save everyone the trudge down the hill to the town and back again whenever a horse needed shoeing, a door needed new hinges or a plough coulter bent by a stone required straightening. The day's work, indeed, was often too much for one pair of expert hands, and Jehan was instructing both Meggie and Geoffroi, when he could spare the time, in the mystical art of smithing. Geoffroi, with his great love of and sympathy with animals, was particularly useful with nervous horses. The constant, hard physicality of the work had completed Geoffroi's transformation from boy to man; now he was taller than Josse, and his upper body was enormously strong.
Meggie and Jehan had also constructed a modest dwelling within the clearing. It was small, consisting of little more than a main room with a central hearth and, through an arched opening in the rear wall, a second, smaller room where they slept, but Jehan had made it solid and sound, and Meggie had made it comfortable and homely.
For all that, it seemed to Josse – who would never dream of being so intrusive as to enquire – that Meggie and Jehan didn't spend all that much time there together. Jehan was a very hard worker and he was usually to be found just where he should be: in his forge, busy on some task, and often with a small queue of people waiting for him to finish so that he could get on with whatever job they had for him. It was true that he absented himself from time to time – that was something else Josse didn't ask about – but each time he made sure to put the word about that he wouldn't be available for the next week, or fortnight – once it was a month – to save people the time and effort of coming out to the forge only to discover he wasn't there.
And when Jehan was at home, very often Meggie wasn't.
Josse didn't even need to ask where she went, for he knew. She would be at the hut deep in the forest; the precious little dwelling where she had been born, where her mother Joanna had lived and, Josse now understood, had left quite a lot of her essence. With Joanna herself long gone from the world, this was a comfort to those who had loved her. Very few people knew about the hut, and even fewer could locate it. Even Josse, who had been there on countless occasions, sometimes couldn't find it. He told himself it was mere fanciful whimsy to think that the little hut had the ability to hide itself when it – or its occupant – didn't want to be found, but, in truth, that was how it felt.
All things considered, Josse found that he was taking even more pleasure than he had anticipated in the presence of the latest addition to his household: his brother Yves. He had arrived unexpectedly some six months ago and had said straight away, and with typical frankness, that he would like to stay. His wife was dead and he missed her; the wide hall and walled courtyard of Acquin weren't the same without her, and he didn't want to remain there. His son Luke was now master of the family estates, and, as Yves ruefully observed, would do a much better job without his father watching and criticizing.
'I'll wager you didn't do much of that,' Josse had remarked.
Yves had shot him a slightly guilty look. 'I did enough,' he'd replied shortly.
Sometimes, as he and his brother rode out together or sat in companionable silence beside the fire at the end of the day, Josse thought back over their long lives. Yves was the second eldest after Josse and only a year and a half separated them, so they had been each other's natural allies as, one by one, three more little brothers arrived. They had always got on well, and Josse often reflected that they'd have sought each other out as friends even if they hadn't already been linked by blood. Like all young men of their station in life, they'd been separated as they grew older, and their paths had taken divergent courses. Yet always, sooner or later, one would arrive at the other's home, and the easy affection that masked a true and deep love would be re-established.
The prospect of sharing his home with his favourite brother for the foreseeable future – well, until one or other of them died, probably – filled Josse with quiet joy.
On a bright morning around the time of the autumn equinox, Josse sat in his comfortable old chair before the hearth, slowly turning over in his mind the many matters that were of current concern. Sometimes he thought to himself that going through the long list of all the people who were precious to him, pausing for a moment to bring each one to mind, reflect on what they were doing, think about what was happening in their lives and wish them well in their endeavours and, finally, where appropriate – and it almost always was – to send them his love, was a little like telling the beads on his rosary. He hoped this concept wasn't blasphemous – he must remember to ask his priest – but he didn't see how it could be. He was substituting loving thoughts for prayers, of course, but, in his own view, surely loving thoughts were what God would wish?
The House in the Woods was quiet. It was an hour before noon, and the household were all about their duties. Josse was listening out for voices, for Yves and Geoffroi would be back soon, having set out some time ago with another couple of baskets of provisions for Helewise in the Sanctuary. Placed as it was close to the road that circled the Great Forest, it had gained a reputation as somewhere that the desperate would always find help. Helewise and her team of helpers offered simple but nourishing food, medical advice, a shoulder to cry on and, in Helewise's case, someone to pray with. In these hard and dangerous times, the demand never seemed to grow less.
Josse closed his eyes and slipped into a brief doze.
The somnolent peace was broken by the sound of tentative footsteps on the flagstones. Jerked into wakefulness, Josse sat up straight, opened his eyes widely and took on the appearance of a man who hadn't really been asleep but merely closing his eyes in thought.
He focused on the face peering round the half-open door. 'Come in, come in!' he cried. 'It's Brother Watt, isn't it?'
A sturdy young lay brother edged his way into the hall. 'I went round the back,' he said apologetically, bending double in a deep bow, 'but it seems nobody's there, or else they're all so busy that they didn't hear me knock and call out.'
Josse waved a hand. 'Don't worry, you're as welcome as anyone to come in by the main door!' he exclaimed. 'What can I do for you?' Struck by a sudden alarming thought, he added swiftly, 'Is all well at Hawkenlye Abbey?'
Straightening up, Brother Watt made a face. 'Aye, it is. At least, well as it can be, sir, in these times of peril and uncertainty, and the nuns and the brothers are working themselves as hard as ever. But it's not why I've called,' he said sternly, straightening his shoulders as if abruptly reminding himself that he was here on an important mission.
Suppressing a smile, Josse said, 'You'd better tell me why you have done, then.'
Brother Watt reached inside his black robe and drew out an object, partly concealed by his large hand. 'I was to give you this, Sir Josse,' he said, holding it up. 'It was brought to the abbey, with instructions to make absolutely sure it reached you as soon as possible.' He grinned. 'Seems the person who sent it has forgotten where you live!'
And that's the way I like it, and, indeed, have striven to bring about, Josse thought. The House in the Woods was secluded, in its secretive setting deep within the Great Wealden Forest, and few who did not live there knew its location. Sometimes, when he thought about it, Josse remembered Joanna's hut, and how she had seemed to be able to conceal it even from his eyes if she'd wanted to; the thought still had the power to wound, even all these years later. He did wonder, though, if somehow Joanna was exerting her power and similarly keeping the House in the Woods hidden from unfriendly eyes.
But he told himself he was being fanciful.
'Let me see, then,' he said, smiling at Brother Watt. Encouraged, Watt came across the wide flagged floor of the hall in a respectful semi-crouch, and now Josse saw that what he bore in his hand – with the sort of care that suggested it was both very fragile and highly valuable – was a rolled document of vellum. 'Sir, this was delivered to the abbey and taken straight to Abbess Caliste, and she sent for me immediately and told me to bring it with all speed to you.' He bowed so deeply that his forehead all but touched his knees, at the same time holding the rolled parchment up aloft. It was an awkward pose, and Josse instantly took pity on him.
'Stand up, Brother Watt, for heaven's sake,' he said cheerfully, 'you'll put your back out crouching like that! And there's no need for such servitude – it's me, Josse, and you know perfectly well I don't stand on ceremony and I certainly don't bite!'
Slowly and reluctantly, Watt straightened up.
Josse waited, but nothing happened. 'Hadn't you better give me whatever it is you've brought?' he prompted gently.