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«Deadly Inheritance», Simon Beaufort

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Prologue

Goodrich, Herefordshire, September 1102

Henry Mappestone was drunk. He had finished off two jugs of wine, reaching the point where he no longer bothered with a goblet. It was easier to upend the jug, and if some spilt, so be it: his sister Joan had made astute investments, so he had plenty of money to spend.

When Henry thought about his sister and her husband, his flushed face broke into a sneer. He hated them both. Goodrich Castle and its lands were his – he had inherited them when his older brothers died. But it was Joan and Olivier who had made them profitable. It was good to be wealthy after many lean years, but Henry resented the way that Joan pursed her lips when he – the lord of the manor – enjoyed his wine or hit a labourer. In fact, he was of a mind to throw her and Olivier out altogether.

But then he would be obliged to run the estate himself, and, unlike Olivier, Henry could not read – he would have to hire a clerk to keep the accounts and the man would surely cheat him. Henry scowled. No, Joan and Olivier would have to stay, as much as it infuriated him.

It was late, and most people were in bed. It was harvest, so servants and masters alike were exhausted from gathering crops. Everyone was forced to lend a hand, even Henry. He was tired, too, but he did not feel like sleeping. He seldom did; Joan said it was because his innards were pickled. But there were times when he thought the only way to survive until dawn was to drink.

He lurched unsteadily across the hall, treading on fingers and toes as he waded through weary bodies on straw pallets. But no one dared complain. It had only been an hour or so since Henry had punched Torva – Goodrich’s steward – and no one else wanted to attract his attention. Henry wished he had not hit Torva so hard, because he was sure that he had broken his own hand in doing so.

Henry reached the door, then staggered across the bailey towards the stables. Animals would be better company than peasants with their resentful, fear-filled glances, and, like most Normans, Henry liked horses. He especially liked the spirited palfrey called Dun. He reeled inside the stable, trying to see in the moonlight. He slapped Dun on the rump, then cursed at the searing pain in his knuckles. He leant against the wall, cradling his hand to his chest.

He shouted for the groom, Jervil, who slept in the loft. When he appeared, Henry tried to kick him, but Jervil melted into the darkness. Henry was incensed. How dare he slink away when summoned by his master! But then there was a shadow beside him. Jervil knew his place.

‘Get me some wine,’ Henry snapped, easing into Dun’s stall. The horse had seemed lame earlier, and he wanted to check it.

But the shadow did not reply, and Henry suddenly felt something hot near his liver. He was suddenly gripped by a deep, searing ache, and he slid down the wall and into the straw. When he reached for his stomach, his hand met a protruding dagger. He raised his hand to where silver moonlight slanted in through the door; it dripped black with blood. He felt light-headed, and then people he knew started to walk in front of him in a silent procession.

First was his wife, who had died the previous year, her face now no more than a blur; she carried their two little sons, who had died of fever that spring. His brothers were there, too – the two older ones, with the younger Geoffrey behind them. Henry did not remember being told that Geoffrey was dead, but perhaps he had died on Crusade. Joan followed Geoffrey, and Henry saw that she was laughing at him, mocking him. Had she thrust the weapon into him, or was it someone else? Henry did not know, but the knowledge that he was dying enraged him. He screamed at the ghosts and shadows, cursing them until his last breath.

Normandy, Spring 1103

The Duchess was dying, and no one could help her. She lay in the great bed in the Duke’s chamber, eyes closed and deathly pale, under the heap of furs. The people who watched her last moments did so in silence. The priests had finished their prayers, and all attention was on the breath that hissed softly past her bloodless lips.

At her side was the Duke of Normandy, his face a mask of anguish as he clutched her cold, white fingers. The Duke had fallen in love with Sibylla de Conversano the first time he had seen her, and it was cruel that she should be snatched from him after only two years of marriage. She had recently given him a son, and her physicians said that it was complications from the birth that had led to her decline.

Behind the Duke was his mistress, Agnes Giffard. Unfortunately for Agnes, Sibylla was extremely popular, and few had condoned the Duke breaking his wedding vows while his wife was confined by her pregnancy. Agnes met the hostile glares with an unrepentant pout. Perhaps the Duke would marry her once he was free of Sibylla; then these sanctimonious pigs would pay for slighting her. She rested her hand on her son’s shoulder. Poor Walter was a skinny, unprepossessing youth, cursed with his dead father’s dull wits. He beamed at her, so she pinched him, to remind him that he should not grin at deathbeds – not when people were watching.

At the back of the chamber, politely keeping their distance, were the well-wishers. These included Lord Baderon, who, with estates in both Normandy and England, owed allegiance to the Duke as well as to his brother, King Henry of England. Baderon was deeply worried: the gentle, kind Sibylla was far better than her husband at keeping peace and dispensing justice. What would happen to his estates when she was gone?

The Duchess sighed, and one of the priests began to pray again. A tear rolled down the Duke’s cheek, and a physician stepped forward to lay a comforting hand on his shoulder. Sibylla was dead.

One

Goodrich Castle, Spring 1103


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