The lord of ireland (the fifth knight series book 3)

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PRAISE FOR THE AUTHOR

‘With her fast-paced mysteries set in the tumultuous reign of Henry II, E.M. Powell takes readers on enthralling, and unforgettable, journeys.’

—Nancy Bilyeau, author ofThe Crown

 

‘Both Fifth Novels are terrific. Benedict and Theodosia are not merely attractive characters: they are intensely real people.’

—Historical Novels Review

 

‘From the get-go you know you are in an adventure when you enter the world of E.M. Powell’s 12th century. Peril pins you down like a knight’s lanceto the chest.’

—Edward Ruadh Butler, author ofSwordland

ALSO BY E.M. POWELL

The Fifth Knight

The Blood of the Fifth Knight

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Text copyright © 2016 E.M. Powell

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Thomas & Mercer, Seattle

www.apub.com

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Thomas & Mercer are trademarks ofAmazon.com, Inc., or its affiliates.

ISBN-13: 9781503951938

ISBN-10: 1503951936

Cover design by Jason Anscomb

For my father, the late Patrick C. Powell. I hope he’s proud of Maggot.

Contents

Ireland 1185

Every tree, as . . .

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

List of Characters

Historical Note

Acknowledgements

Bibliography

About the Author

Every tree, as a lordly token,Stands all stained with the red blood rainWar that demons might wage is woken,Wails peal high as he raves again

 

From:Heroic Romances of Irelandby A. H. Leahy

Chapter One

The Priory of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, Clerkenwell, London18 March 1185

Today, he would receive his crown. As the youngest son,John had heardso manyscoffat the idea that he would ever have a kingdom to call his own. Even his own royal father, the great Henry: siring child after child, boy after boy, by his mother, Eleanor. She whelped them out, year on year, leaving them to jostle like too many puppies for too few teats. As the last son, there was nothing for him.Nothingfor Lackland.

Lackland.Henry’s mocking, dismissive name for him as a boy, taken up with glee by so many. Worst of all, by his older brothers, who used the humiliating taunt until he would cry with rage, setting about them with his small fists even as they laughed at his feeble attempts.Lackland.Its shame had never left him, with the crumbs of territory that Henry had granted him only whetting his appetite for power and never close to sating it.

But from today, he’d be Lackland no more. He would have his crown. And what a crown.

‘Pray rise to welcome Heraclius, Patriarch of the Holy City of Jerusalem!’ The cry of the grand master of the Hospitallers came from the high doorway, echoing up to the curved and vaulted stone ceiling of the candlelitchapter house.

The dozens of barons and abbots seated on the dais around the circular room rose to their feet in a rustle and clink of their ceremonialraiments.

John stood up too, glancing to the highest seat of all. Of course, Henry didn’t stand. The King sat in his carved wooden chair, straight as his ageing spine would allow.

The grand master strode in, his flowing black robes emblazoned with the white cross of his order.

Heraclius followed him more slowly, weighed down by the sumptuous, gold-embroidered vestments of Jerusalem. The small party filing in behind him bore padded cushions of scarlet silk on which a number of items rested, the sight of which made John’s heart race.

The keys to the tower of David. The standard of the Holy City. And, most precious of all, the key to the Holy Sepulchre itself, its metal dull against the glow of the silk but which he could swear heated his flesh by its very presence.

He pulled in a long, calming breath as Henry inclined his head to the Patriarch. ‘We welcome you to our holy priory, Heraclius.’

The narrow-faced Patriarch bowed deeply. ‘Truly it is a sign from God that you have summoned me to a place that is dedicated to the Holy City.’

And a place that bore the name of John. Yes, this was a sign. The sign for which John had waited for eighteen long years. His hands quivered now that his prize was so near, and he slid them out of sight beneath his fur-trimmed cloak.Lackland no more.

Henry waved to his court to retake their seats.

John did so too, arranging his visage into a mask of noble serenity, the better that those present should marvel at the glorious moment at which a man became a king.

‘I offer you the warmest of welcomes to my council, Patriarch Heraclius,’ said Henry. ‘I haveconsideredyour request for a number of weeks.’

A number?Six, to be precise.Siximpossible weeks since the Patriarch’s arrival at Henry’s court in Reading. How the man had gone on about the Holy Land and its being in danger. How leprosy consumed its ruler, Baldwin. How the sacred land was in danger of falling into the hands of the infidel. On and on, the man’s impassioned pleas reducing the whole court to tears. Well, not thewhole: John had had trouble stifling his yawns. The only thing that had kept him awake was wondering which parts of Baldwin had dropped off and in what order. But he’d sat bolt upright at thePatriarch’sconclusion: could Henry send an Angevin prince to assume the crown of Jerusalem?

Henry had nodded sagely and said he would convene a council to give it grave consideration and issue an answer.

ThenJohn had known. Known what his father planned.Hiseldest brother, Henry,had been dead for almost two years.TheKingwas still embroiled in reassigninglands toJohn’suncooperative older brothers, Richard andGeoffrey. Itonly left him, John. He would have Jerusalem.

He had of course been excluded from the council. For that he was truly grateful. Listening to this room full of wrinkled old men puff and blow forthe last weekabout a matter to which they already had a conclusion would have had him dead with boredom.

The Patriarch smiled. ‘I am humbled and grateful for your grave consideration, your Grace.’

‘We have our responses for you,’ said Henry. ‘I have asked all at my council to advise me for my soul’s safety, and I will abide by their wise opinions.’ He nodded to the baron seated nearest the door. ‘You may speak.’

John swallowed hard and prepared himself for the first momentous confirmation of his new power.

‘My answer is guided by God,’ said the old baron, toothless, but clear as day. ‘And it is that his Grace needs to attend to his realm here.’

Stunned, John grabbed for the ornate wooden arms of his seat.

The Patriarch looked as if the baron had slapped him across the face.

The baron went on. ‘His Grace, full of charity and holiness, will send money to the aid of the Holy City.’

John’s glance flew to Henry. Surely his father would let loose his famous wrath at the ridiculous suggestion of the dithering old nobleman? But no. No.No.

‘I thank you for your gracious consideration,’ said Henry, ‘and praise God the Almighty for guiding your decision.’

Henry nodded to the next baron, who cleared his throat before announcing: ‘My answer, guided by God, is that his Grace needs to attend to his realm here. His Grace, full of charity and holiness, will send money to the aid of the Holy City.’

The same words. The exact same words. John’s grip on his chair tightened to hold in his shout of disbelief, the Patriarch’s expression matching the shock surging within him.

Henry appeared as calm as a man enjoying a garden walk and sought the next response with a grave nod.

An abbot this time, opening his wet mouth to trumpet the words like a sermon. ‘My answer, guided by God . . .’

Rage pounded in John’s chest as baron, baron, abbot, baron – the whole infernal circle – continued to spew out the same reply.

His father listened to each one as if it were a real opinion instead of something he had imposed upon them.

John could only stare and stare, fearing his building fury would choke him.

‘. . . to the aid of the Holy City.’ The last man finished to a silence disturbed only by the roar of the blood in John’s ears.

Henry turned his gaze to the Patriarch. ‘Truly, an answer guided by God. I shall make sure your armies are well funded.’ He gave a magnanimous smile.

Heraclius did not return it. ‘Guided by God, your Grace? ByGod?’ His voice climbed in his displeasure, the colour rising in his face to match. ‘Does God wish that his own city should fall to the infidel?’

Henry’s expression darkened to a frown. ‘You would question my judgement? That I fight for Christendom?’

‘You fight only for yourself! Like when you had Saint Thomas Becket, your holy archbishop, murdered when he would not bend to your will.’ Heraclius’s sharp accusation brought forth a stream of outrage from the council.

‘Shame on you, sir!’ cried a baron.

‘The King has received God’s forgiveness.’ An abbot waved an angry fist in the air. ‘He does not need yours!’

John leaned forward in a rush of renewed hope. Becket’s murder was a stain on Henry’s reign, his soul. The Patriarch’s rash speech would surely sway the King.

Henry’s expression did not change as the black-robed master stepped closer to the Patriarch. ‘Enough. You forget your place.’

Heraclius thrust him to one side. ‘I forget nothing. I remember in my prayers every day that Becket’s sacred head was sacrificed to his martyrdom. You can take mine too. I will not be silenced. You condemn us all to the infidel’s sword.’ He pointed a finger at Henry. ‘You may as well be a Saracen.’

The horrified clamour at Heraclius’s words drowned out John’s gasp of delight. That would do it. He looked at his father, waiting for the roars in response to the goads, the insults. The capitulation that would follow.

Henry raised a hand and silence fell, broken only by thePatriarch’sfast, enraged breathing. ‘I forgive you, Heraclius, for your harsh words. Becket’s death still brings us all to grief that is near madness.’

A subdued chorus of ‘Amen’ met his words.

Henry continued. ‘God has called my son Henry back to Him, but I have my remaining three sons, Angevin princes all, to hold my kingdom and to serve me. Now it is time for my son John, whom I have asked here today, to undertake a venture of thegreatestdifficultyand importance.’

John inclined his head at his father’s words, renewed certainty hot within him now. Henry liked to create a spectacle. All of what had gone before had been just that. Now was when he would makehis announcement.

‘One I have clear in my mind.’ Henry stood, and all rose with him.

John stood too: tall and proud. And ready.

‘For the time has come.’ Henry paused.

Now. Finally. John held in his smile of triumph as he met his father’s eye. He needn’t have feared. All was as he’d surmised. The Holy Land was his.His.

‘Today,’ said Henry, ‘I make the solemn and proud dedication of my son to assume’ – he opened his hands – ‘the Lordship of Ireland.’

John’s mouth fell open. The most meagre crumb of them all. ‘Ireland?’

‘Ireland?’ repeated a stunned-looking Patriarch.

‘Ireland.’ Henry gave a firm nod.

‘But, Father.’ John thrust himself from the dais and stepped before Henry. ‘I should be defending Jerusalem. The Holy Land. Not an island that is of no consequence in the world.’

Henry’s fists clenched. ‘No consequence?’ came his instantbellow. ‘It is within my realm. Mine! And as ever it remains in need of pacification. Its lordship has been in your name for the best part of ten years, and the day has come when you are of an age to deal with it. You should be honoured to serve me, boy.’ Henry jabbed a finger at him. ‘Honoured!’

‘Of course I am, Father, but I would be better to take the crown of Jerusalem than the crown of Ireland, for God would want that, and He would . . .’ John stuttered to a halt, lostas towhat God might want. He fell to his knees on the hard stone of the floor and joined his hands, aware of how noble a sight this public humility would make. ‘I beg you, your Grace.’

Henry’s expression softened a little.

Yes, that was it. Beg – make his father feel powerful, generous. ‘I beg you, implore you, with all my heart, and my – my soul.’ But dread grasped at him as Henry shook his head slowly.

‘John, there is to be no crown of Ireland sanctioned by Rome.’ Henry’s voice tightened in his anger. ‘The Pope refuses to allow it. Refuses me.’ His hard eyes bored into John’s. ‘So you remain Lord of Ireland. Under my superior lordship.’

‘What?’ John shot to his feet. ‘No crown? Father, youcannot—’

Henry held a hand up. ‘Remember to whom you speak. And the decision is that of the whole council. Guided by God.’

John looked left, right, behind, the better to meet every eye, to view every impassive face. No one uttered a word, but they might as well have clamoured a chorus of humiliation to the high ceiling:Lackland, Lackland.

‘Guided by God,’ repeated Henry as John met his gaze once more. ‘My council.’

‘Your council?’ He glared at his father. ‘That is what you would call this assemblage of – of nodding know-nothings?’

Henry drew breath to speak but John’s shout stopped him.

‘Fools! You’re all fools!’ Shocked gasps broke out as he shoved his way past the Patriarch, dashing the key of the Holy Sepulchre to the ground in a ring of metal on stone. He made for the closed entrance, unheeding of Henry’s roars to remain.

‘Fools, I tell you!’ One hard blow from his hands drove the door open, sending the monks guarding it staggering back as he burst out.

He didn’t care. His steps echoed hard in the stone cloister as he marched away, the door closing on his father’s continued shouts and bringing silence to the near-darkness of evening.

His fool of a father too. And that meddler in Rome. Leaving the cloister, he spurned the tidy gravelled path that led to his apartments, cutting instead across the lawn. He needed to get to his rooms as quickly as he could, to let out some of this rage. Rooms to which he hadbiddenfarewell as a man on the brink of his great destiny, and which he should have re-entered as a king. Instead –nothing.

He halted in the coolness of the gathering dusk, the race of fury in his chest threatening to break out in tears.

Worse, a nothing that had been planned. Every simple-pate in there had rehearsed and sung Henry’s tune. The Patriarch could have been talking to seats taken by donkeys for all the notice taken of his excellent proposal. John kicked and kicked at the soft, neat grass, sending clods of earth and dirt into the air. He could wring every neck in there: scrawny, muscled, flabby. They all denied him his greatness, the power that was his by birth. By right. Who were they to deny him?

He booted up another sod of earth, then set off across the dark lawn. Lights shone from his grandaccommodation, as they did from all the other buildings. The savoury smell of roast meat cameon the cool air: final preparations for tonight’s celebration to honour thePatriarch. A feast where all the nobles would gather and sate theirappetite with the best food, the finest wines, joined by their wives. The whole court turning out to witness the humiliation of Lackland.

As if hearing his thoughts, a peal of female laughter came from a half-open window shutter. That’s what they would do later, all of them, when they were alone together. And the barons’ women would reward their husbands’ loyalty with loyalty of their own, legs and mouths opening for their brave masters. Everyone would receive his reward tonight, even the Patriarch. The man might depart without a new owner of Jerusalem’s keys, but he’d be weighed down with gold and silver. Only he, John, the son of a king, would havenothing, such was the travesty of the council’s decision.

The laugh sounded again. A woman’s silhouette was visible in the lamplight, her hair loose as a maid braided it in preparation for its covering veil.

John halted. He could not allow it. He would not slink back to his rooms as if he were a cur of no worth, then sit meekly at the feast. He would have one solace tonight. At the woman’s door in moments, he entered without knocking. He had no need to so do.

He was of royal blood.

‘You have no need to weep.’ John did up his braies as the woman lay on the floor where he’d taken her, her white-faced maid cowering speechless in the corner. ‘I havetaken onlywhat is my due.’

Powerless. Both of them.

Just as he had been so rendered by his father andthecouncil before the Patriarch. He allowed himself a small sigh of satisfaction. Now someone else shared a little of how difficult life was for him, day after ceaseless day. Yet he carried that burdenwithnoblefortitude. He would carry on that wearisome journey tonight and join his father’s feast with smiles and platitudes.

As he walked to the door, the maid crept to her mistress with a whisper.

‘Oh, my lady.’

He threw the woman a coin, and it rattled to a stop on the floor next to her.

Neither woman acknowledged it, the baron’s wife clinging to her servant as she continued to weep.

John shrugged and left the room. He was the one who really had something to mourn. He’d lost Jerusalem, no question.

As he walked down the corridor, the woman’s sobs faded away, mercifully no longer interfering with his thoughts.

If Henry thought he’d won today, if he really thought his son would be content with merely clearing up the mess that was Ireland, then the old man had made a grave mistake.

John took the stairs to his rooms, possibilities presenting themselves with every step. He marvelled at his speed in changingstrategy.

That was what came of having a brilliant mind.

Chapter Two

The Palace of the Bishop of Salisbury, Sonning, Berkshire28 March 1185

‘My wife and I wish to gain entry. On orders of the King.’ Sir BenedictPalmer held up the letter marked with Henry’s seal so that the monk at the gatehouse could see it, praying the man wouldn’t ask him to read it. Despite Theodosia’s best efforts over the years, Palmer still took an age to make sense of the written word. Yet his pride meant he didn’t want to have to pass it to her and make himself look less than the noble he appeared to be.

‘Of course, sir.’ The monk moved immediately from the small window to open up the gates with a clatter of bolts.

‘We’re in.’ Palmer let out a long breath of relief.

‘Yes, but in to what?’ Theodosia’s face was drawn, not only in tiredness from the many days she’d spent in the saddle but also from the strain of not knowing.

‘I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough.’ Palmer collected their tethered horses as the monk pulled open the gates. A stable hand already waited in the quiet, sun-filled courtyard.

‘Welcome to our holy house.’ The monk waved to the man to take their mounts. ‘Pray follow me; I am sure you will need refreshment after your journey.’

Theodosia went to speak. ‘Good brother, we would like to—’

‘Thank you.’ With a warning shake of his head to her to say nothing else, Palmer slipped Theodosia’s arm through his as they walked after the monk, the departing horses’ hooves a loud clatter on the cobbles.

She shot him a fierce look out of the monk’s sight and slowed their steps. ‘I do not want refreshment,’ she murmured. ‘I want to know what is going on.’

‘You must eat something or you’ll fall sick.’ Palmer kept his voice low in response. ‘That worries me far more than the fate of a king.’ He lowered his voice further. ‘Even if that king is your father.’

She opened her mouth to protest.

He put a hand to his chest in an overdone, pompous apology. ‘I utter treason. I know, my lady.’

Finally, he got the smallest smile.

But he didn’t know what this might be about either. The last time they’d seen Henry had been nine years ago, when he’d granted them the security of a dead lord’s estate. The King had kept in occasional contact through a secure system of letters to check on their well-being and to let them know of his.

Then, without warning: this. The crackling parchment, safe again in Palmer’s belt pouch. A message of few words thathadpulled them back out of the contented peace they’d come to take for granted.

Theodosia had been frantic, sure that it meant something terrible had happened or was about to happen to the King. Her pale face showed him she thought that still.

Palmer was more concerned that the letter had ordered that she come to this place too, so far from their home in the north, with no explanation.

The monk led them up a flight of stone stairs, opening the heavy door onto what Palmer assumed was the bishop’s hall. Fresh with the scent of the floor’s clean rushes, the fine room’s carved and waxed wood shone in the light from the tall windows. But neither bishop nor king awaited him and Theodosia.

Instead, to his shock, there stood a tall woman of the Church, whom he and Theodosia knew from their past.

Theodosia gave a soft gasp.

‘My lady,’ said the nun. ‘Sir Benedict. It gladdens my heart to see you again.’

‘Abbess Dymphna.’ Theodosia’s stunned glance met Palmer’s.

Palmer gave a polite bow, unable to find words. ‘Abbess.’

The Abbess of Godstow Nunnery came to greet them with a broad smile, clasping Theodosia’s hands in welcome. ‘God has been treating you well, my lady, in the years since we last met.’ Her soft voice still held the traces of her Irish birth.

‘He has, Abbess.’ Theodosia returned her smile, though with bewilderment clear on her face as to what the Abbess could be doing here at Sonning.

‘You have moved here from Godstow, Abbess?’ asked Palmer.

The ever-shrewd Dymphna met his query as he would expect. ‘You mean, why on earth am I here at Sonning to greet you, Sir Benedict?’

‘I sought to be polite, Abbess.’

‘Of course you did, Sir Benedict.’ Dymphna’s mouth twitched ina smile. ‘I am still Abbess of Godstow. But here at his Grace’s invitation, the same as you. He must be the one to tell you why.I cannot.’ She gestured to a linen-covered table along one wall, laden with fine-looking meats and wine. ‘Now, please. Restore yourselves. The King is expected soon.’

Palmer knew he’d get no more from her and did as she offered, the food calling to his stomach after the long journey.

Theodosia hung back. ‘Abbess, I have far more hunger for knowing why we are here.’ She wouldn’t meet Palmer’s eye as he poured water from the full aquamanile into the washing bowls. ‘I beg you: has something happened to the King?’

‘The King is hale and well, my lady.’ Dymphna’s words brought a bit of colour back to Theodosia’s face.

‘You see?’ Palmer pulled Theodosia’s chair out with one hand as he took a large bite of venison from the knife in his other. The gamey meat brought a delicious iron tinge on his tongue. ‘You have worried for nothing.’ He wouldn’t show Theodosia his own unease.

Dymphna came to the table with a swish of her long dark skirts as Theodosia took her seat too.

‘You have no injuries that need seeing to, Sir Benedict?’Dymphnaraised a knowing eyebrow.

Palmer held up a hand at the memory of Dymphna’s efficient if robust healing. ‘Not this time, Abbess.’

Thumping footsteps from outside could only mean the arrival of one man: Henry.

Palmer dropped his knife and scrambled to his feet even asTheodosiawas halfway to the door.

‘God smiles on me!’ The King burst in, dressed for hunting, his splattered clothes telling of a recent hard ride as he flung his arms wide to greet Theodosia, the daughter whom he could never claim.

‘Father.’

As Theodosia returned his hard embrace, Palmer was thrown by how old Henry had become since he had last seen him. The passing of the best part of a decade is kind to few: Palmer knew his own dark hair was now mixed with grey in places, and he had to weigh up a sack before he threw it onto a cart without help.Theodosia’spale skin, still beautiful, showed threads of wrinkles when she laughed or frowned. But Henry had fared badly. His eyes had the rheumy look of an old man, and his sure stride of old had gone; he swayed instead in a cruel limp as he made his way to the table with Theodosia.

‘Palmer, my boy.’ He clapped Palmer hard on the shoulder and acknowledged Dymphna’s bow. ‘Abbess. Sit, all of you.’ The relief to be off his bad hip showed plain in his face. ‘It is so good to see you. It has been too long since the last time we met.’ The King shook his head. ‘A great comfort that we do not gather in grief today.’

The Abbess poured him a generous measure of wine into a finely worked goblet.

‘We do not,’ said Theodosia. ‘But I think of you and pray for you every day.’ The joy in her face at being reunited with Henry shifted to sadness. ‘And Mother.’

‘As you know we pray at Godstow, your Grace.’ Dymphna’s voice softened as she looked from Palmer to Theodosia. ‘We pray for you both every day of every year, pray for everyone the King loved. Everyone.’

Her meaning was clear: Theodosia’s mother had been laid to rest at Godstow, but a woman whose life Palmer had not been able to protect had too. The old regret at his failure came back, piercing him as if new.

‘I offer my eternal thanks that my wife lies in a place of such great holiness, Abbess,’ said Henry. ‘I miss her sorely.’ He sighed. ‘It gives me great comfort to think we will be reunited in heaven.’ He splashed water over his hands and scrubbed them hard. ‘And God in His greatness offers us other comforts in this life. Those whogladdenour days.’ His shrewd look met Palmer’s. ‘I assume you have followed my orders and not brought your children?’

‘Yes, your Grace,’ said Palmer. ‘They are safe at our hall, as you instructed.’

‘Good.’ Henry nodded in satisfaction. ‘While I would have dearly loved to have seen them, the risk is too great. They are well, Theodosia?’

‘Very.’ Her face lit with the glow that always met any word of them.

Despite the many questions he still held, Palmer smiled inside. Their son and daughter were her life. As they were his. He andTheodosiahad come so close to losing them forever. He shook off the grip of the past.

‘And they have left childhood behind,’ continued Theodosia. ‘Tom is almost fourteen, Matilde eleven.’

‘God’s great mercy spared them.’ Dymphna gave her a quiet smile.

‘Then they are ready to start lives of their own, eh?’ said Henry.

‘Not yet.’ Theodosia’s glow snuffed out as she met her father’s eye in instant challenge. ‘Father.’

Palmer tensed. The idea that the King might have plans for their children had not even crossed his mind. Theodosia would likely take one of the eating knives to Henry if he dared to suggest it.

‘Fear not, Theodosia.’ Henry picked up his goblet. ‘Yourchildrenare not the reason I summoned you both here. Not at all.’ He took a deep draught. ‘Abbess, you have brought what I asked?’

Dymphna nodded. ‘I have, your Grace.’ Her hands went to her belt pouch, and she drew out a small casket made from what Palmer guessed to be bone, and carved so finely it could be lace. She placed it on the table in front of Henry and blessed herself.

Henry opened it up and removed what it contained. ‘Now, this.’ He placed it on one open palm. ‘This is the reason.’

Chapter Three

Palmer could only stare as Theodosia caught her breath in wonder.

A thick gold ring rested on the King’s hand. Palmer couldn’t even guess at its value. The metal alone would be worth a fortune. But that would be nothing compared to the jewel set into it: a huge emerald, greener than any grass and catching the light from the windows as if it were lit with flame.

Yet he was at a loss as to what it meant. He’d never seen it before, and Theodosia’s questioning glance to him told him she hadn’t either.

Henry picked it up with the fingers of his other hand. ‘The Pope gave me this ring many years ago, when I first ascended my throne.’ He turned it slowly, the gem sending specks of reflected light across his face. ‘Not our current Pope’ – the dawn of a scowl darkened his features – ‘but the great English Pope, Adrian.’ He turned the ring again. ‘Along with his blessing to take the land of Ireland. My own mother persuaded me not to act on it.’ He gave a quiet laugh as he gazed into the jewel’s depths. ‘Was I ever so young? But of course my reach has now extended there.’

‘A reach which has greatly benefited the Church’s reforms there, your Grace.’ Dymphna gave an approving nod.

Theodosia still looked confused. ‘Father, Benedict and I have no links with Ireland.’

‘None, your Grace,’ said Palmer.

‘You do now.’ Henry’s eyes met his. ‘That is why I have summoned you, Palmer. I am sending you there to defend my realm.’

Theodosia drew in a shocked breath.

Palmer put a hand to her shoulder. The King wasn’t including her. Palmer didn’t care about anything else. He bowed, reliefsweepingthrough him. ‘As your Grace orders. I will make prep—’

‘No, no.’ Henry interrupted. ‘You will be travelling there with forces I am assembling. It is a land in sore need of pacification.’ He scowled. ‘Yet again.’

‘Also in our prayers.’ Dymphna gave a regretful sigh.

Henry went on. ‘As Ireland was the year I first went there.’ He pointed a finger at Theodosia. ‘The year Tom was born to you and Palmer.’

Theodosia found her voice. ‘Father, you have no need ofBenedictfor such a task. He is needed—’

Now Palmer interrupted her. ‘Your Grace, you know the depths of my loyalty. But I need to stress that I’m no longer your best choice to fight for you. I’m past my prime. You need young, strong men. The best of fighters. That’s not me.’

Henry snorted. ‘I’d wager that you could still hold your own in a brawl, Palmer. I have a very specific task for you: assisting the man who is leading my campaign.’ His eyes bored right into Palmer’s. ‘The Lord of Ireland.’

‘The Lord of Ireland?’ Palmer’s fists clenched, unbidden. ‘But that is your son, John, your Grace.’

Theodosia nodded, aghast. ‘It is.’

Palmer went on. ‘Your Grace, so much of our past, of your past, has been clouded by your sons from your wife, Eleanor. Thomas Becket’s murder.’ He fought to keep his tone polite. ‘The rebellion which nearly cost you your throne.’

‘Which almost cost us our lives also, Father.’ Theodosia’s mouth set in a firm line that could have been Henry’s own. ‘Those of our children. How could you send Benedict to help John?’

‘I understand your concerns. God knows, I have walked much of that road with you.’ Henry shook his head. ‘But so much of what was done was done in John’s name and not by the boy himself. Hewas only four when Becket died, not even into two digits when the rebellion took place. Which is why I made sure I took him from my wife’s corrupting influence.’ His mouth turned down. ‘Made sure he was fostered at the most loyal household too. I could not have him polluted like the others. He has not been.’ Henry’s face relaxed into a fond smile. ‘He is now eighteen, a handsome prince, as I once was. It is time for John to prove his worth to the world. He will prove it as Lord of Ireland.’

‘Then let him prove it, Father.’ Theodosia rapped her knuckles on the table to make her point. ‘Him.He does not need Benedict.’

Henry ignored her protest. ‘As I have said, John is young. Or, to be more precise, he’s young for his years.’ His gaze went to the ring again, and he sighed. ‘I fear the boy has been too coddled. Oh, he’s sharp enough, but he’s not a naturally gifted warrior like his brother Richard. So gifted, Richard needs bringing to heel by me.’ He snorted once again.

‘So much to attend to, your Grace.’ Dymphna refilled hisgobletin an attempt to soothe him.

‘Indeed.’ Henry passed a weary palm over his face. ‘I want John to go and take control of Ireland, just as I did. As I had to.’ He leaned in close to the table. ‘The Ireland I went to had noblemen from this land who thought they could steal it from me. Men who should have been loyal to me. Fighting the native Irish kings, who fought back, as well as waging war with each other. And all sides making and breaking alliances. So I landed there and demanded submission from every single one of them.’ His hand closed on the ring in a tight fist. ‘And they gave it. The men who had settled there gave me an oath of homage. The native Irish kings gave me an oath of fealty. I brought stability and order. Without resistance. Me.’ He jabbed his fist for emphasis.

For a moment, the years fell away, and Palmer saw the force to be reckoned with that Henry had been.

Then the King shrugged. ‘Perhaps my army and my siege equipment helped too.’ He gave a short laugh. ‘Which is why I am giving John the resources he needs to succeed. I have assembled a large fighting force for him, assembled every type of support for his mission. I am sure his show of strength alone will achieve it, as did mine.’

It still didn’t make sense to Palmer. ‘Your Grace, if that is so, I can’t see that I would make any difference to your son’s military campaign.’

‘I cannot see it either,’ came Theodosia’s firm confirmation.

‘Yours is a different task, Palmer. It concerns my biggest threat in Ireland.’ Henry’s look darkened in fury. ‘Hugh de Lacy, God rot him.’

Palmer shook his head, meeting Theodosia’s glance. ‘The name means nothing to me, your Grace.’

‘Nor do I know of him,’ she said.

‘Hugh de Lacy is my own Lord of Meath,’ said Henry. ‘I have given him much land and power in Ireland since he accompanied me there. He has taken oaths of homage to me. The trouble is, he is too talented. Not only can he win the bloodiest of battles with a skilled sword, he has the wit to know when the time is right for diplomacy. For compromise. But, by the blood of the Virgin, he is ambitious.’ Henry shook his head. ‘Relentless. He’s like a hound constantly straining at the leash, ready to break free when his moment comes and devour all before him.’

‘It is believed thatsuch amoment may already have come,’ saidDymphna.

Despite his deep misgivings at Henry’s proposal, the King’s words intrigued Palmer. ‘How so?’

‘De Lacy has married Eimear O’Connor, the daughter of an Irish king.’ Henry’s hands shook in barely contained rage. ‘The Irish High King at that, Rory O’Connor. O’Connor, who rules much of the west in Connacht. De Lacy has huge tracts of the east. With his second bride, de Lacy has his sights set on stealing the whole island from me. I feel it in my very bones!’ He pulled in a breath to calm himself. ‘But I have no proof. Which is where you come in, Palmer.’

‘Father, you are already sending my half-brother to Ireland with military might.’ Theodosia’s voice tightened. ‘Let John find the proof you need.’ She looked at Benedict. ‘And we can go home to our children.’

‘No, my dear.’ Henry shook his head hard. ‘I have shared my concerns about de Lacy with John. But’ – he held up a finger – ‘and this is for your ears only: John is not yet a match for him. My son needs to concentrate all of his energies into taking hold of the place again. I need someone who can get to the bottom of what de Lacy is up to. Someone in whom I have absolute trust. Most important of all, someone who is de Lacy’s equal. And that’s you, Palmer.’

Pride rose in Palmer’s chest even as he saw the anger flare in Theodosia’s eyes. ‘Father, the last time Benedict and I were parted, we almost lost our lives.’

‘I know, my child,’ said Henry. ‘Which is why I could not summon him on this occasion by messenger. I wanted you to hear the truth of what I am asking of him from my own lips.’

‘I will of course serve your Grace, as was my vow to you.’ Palmer bowed.

Theodosia clutched the table. ‘What about your vows to me, Benedict? What about our family?’

‘There is no danger to you this time, Theodosia,’ said Palmer.

‘But there is to you! We promised each other that we would not be parted again. At least let me go with you.’ She turned to Henry. ‘There will be a place for me with John’s court in Ireland.I am sure of it.’

‘No, Theodosia.’ Palmer shook his head as Henry held up a hand in refusal.

‘A dangerously disordered Ireland is no place for you, my dear,’ said Henry.

‘Then it should be no place for Benedict either.’

‘Theodosia, I will allow your disrespect to me because I realize this has come as a shock,’ said Henry. ‘Unlike my last summons, you have some time before you part. You have the bishop’s palaceat yourdisposal until I dub John Lord of Ireland at Windsor in three days’ time.’

Theodosia stared at him, her eyes hard as stone. ‘Three days?’

‘A privilege for us all to witness it, my lady.’ Dymphna tried to distract her.

‘I am to lose my husband in three days?’

‘Thank you, your Grace.’ Palmer stretched a hand out to halt Theodosia. ‘I’m going to watch over someone who’s your blood.’

‘Andare clearlyhappy to shed your own as you do so.’ She shook off his touch and stood up from the table. ‘I am going to pray in thechapel. For our family. Our real blood.’

‘Theodosia—’

‘Do not even try to keep me from it.’ She strode to the door.

Dymphna rose too. ‘I shall go with her, your Grace. It may help her to let some of this out with me.’

Henry nodded his approval, and the Abbess hurried out.

‘I should probably go to her too,’ said Palmer.

‘Let her be for now. She’ll come round.’ Henry held the ring up to the light once more. ‘I know she worries about you, Palmer.’ Then he placed it back in the protection of its little carved box,closingthe lid. ‘As I do about my son.’ He gave the box a thoughtful pat. ‘You know, I received a request to give John the crown of the Holy Land.’ He returned his gaze to Palmer’s. ‘God’s eyes. TheSaracenswould have strewn his bones across the desert byChristmas.’ Henry blessed himself swiftly. ‘Yet Ireland is also an endeavour of great risk. I only hope I have made the right choice.’

‘I’m sure you have, your Grace.’

Henry drew in a long breath, and every year of his age showed in his face once more. ‘I thank you, Palmer, for coming to my aid.I am in your debt. Once again.’

‘As I’m forever and deeper in yours, your Grace,’ Palmer said, mortified at the King’s humility.

The thought of beingparted from Theodosia and his family again hurt like a blade in his chest. But he had her and his beloved childrenonlybecause of Henry’s generosity. Palmer was the one in debt and always would be. Refusal had never crossed his mind.

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