This October marks 30 years since bestselling author Elizabeth Chadwick’s debut novel, The Wild Hunt, was published. Read on for an extract from the award-winning novel.
THE WELSH MARCHES
Snow, driven by a biting November wind, flurried against Guyon’s dark cloak then swirled past him towards the castle glowering down from the high stone ridge overlooking the spated River Wye. His weary mount pecked and lumbered to a sluggish recovery. Guyon tugged the stallion’s ears and slapped its muscular neck in encouragement. Dusk was fast approaching, the weather was vicious, but at least shelter was within sight.
The horse almost baulked at the hock-deep water of the ford, but Guyon touched him lightly with his spur and with a snort, the grey splashed through the swift, dark flow and gained the muddy, half-frozen village road. The crofts were lit from within by cooking fires and the sputtering glint of rushlight. As they passed the church, a cur ran out to snap at Arian’s heels. Shod steel flashed. There was a loud yelp, then silence. A cottage door opened a crack and was quickly thrust shut in response to a sharp command from within. Guyon rode on past the mill and began the steep climb to the castle, grimacing as if a mouthful of wine had suddenly become vinegar. On their arrival, Arian would receive a rub down, a warm blanket and a tub of hot mash to content him through the night. Guyon wished fervently that his own concerns could be dealt with as easily, but he bore tidings that made such a thing impossible.
The drawbridge thumped down to his hail and the grey paced the thick oak planks, hooves ringing a hollow tocsin, for beneath lay a gully of jagged rocks and debris, foraged only by the most nimble of sheep and the occasional cursing shepherd in less than nimble pursuit. Emerging through the dark arch of the gatehouse into the open bailey, he drew rein and swung from the stallion’s back. His legs were so stiff
that for a moment he could barely move and he clung to the saddle.
‘Evil night, sire,’ remarked the groom who splashed out from the stables to take the horse. Although there was deference in his manner, his eyes were bright with unspoken curiosity.
Guyon released his grip on the saddle and steadied himself. ‘Worse to come,’ he answered, not entirely referring to the weather. ‘Look at the shoe on his off-fore, I think it’s loose.’
Guyon slapped Arian’s dappled rump and walked across the bailey, slowly at first until the feeling returned to his limbs, his shoulders hunched against the force of the bitter, snowy wind. Greeting the guards at the forebuilding entrance, he stripped off his mittens, then climbed the steep staircase to the hall on the second level.
The dinner horn had recently sounded and the trestles were crowded with diners. At the sight of their lord’s heir, jaws ceased chewing, hands paused halfway to dishes, necks craned. The men at the trestles marked his long, impatient stride and pondered what new trouble his arrival augured. The women studied his progress with different looks entirely and whispered to each other.
Ignoring the assembly, Guyon strode up the hall to the dais table where sat his father with the senior knights and retainers of the household and also, he noticed with a certain irritation, his sister Emma in the lady’s customary place.
Miles le Gallois rose to greet him, an expression of concern on his face. ‘Guy! We had not looked for you so soon.’
‘A man rides quickly when the devil snaps at his heels,’ Guyon answered, bowing to his father. Then he rose, kissed his sister and stepped over the trestle to take the place hastily made for him. His limbs suddenly felt leaden and the room wavered before his eyes.
‘The wonder is that you did not fall off. Guy, you look dreadful!’ Emma gave a peremptory signal to the squire serving the high table.
‘Do I?’ He took the cup of wine presented to him. ‘Perhaps I have good reason.’ He was aware of them all staring at him, their anxiety tangible.
‘Surely the King did not refuse to grant you your uncle’s lands?’ His father looked incredulous.
Guyon shook his head and stared into the freshly poured wine. ‘The King was pleased to acknowledge me the heir and grant me all rights and privileges pertaining,’ he said in a flat voice. It was three months since his uncle had died fighting the Welsh on the Island of Mon that some called Anglesey. Gerard had been a childless widower and Guyon his named heir, but King William Rufus had been known to favour money above heredity when it came to confirming grants of land. Guyon had gone to Rufus in Normandy to make his claim and he had what he desired – at a price.
‘Then why the dark looks for such good news?’ his father demanded. ‘What else has happened?’
Disinclined to make a public announcement of the news, Guyon tightened his grip around his cup. The ride had been so difficult and cold that he could barely think straight.
His sister set her hand over his. ‘You are frozen! What were you thinking to make a journey in such weather? Could it not have waited? I’ll have the servants prepare a tub in the solar and you’ll come there now where it’s warm!’
Some of the bleakness lifted from Guyon’s spirit and his lips twitched. Emma still viewed her three years’ seniority over him as a licence to command his obedience, more so since their mother had died of the sweating sickness two winters ago. While Emma’s husband travelled with the court as an assistant chamberlain, she dwelt here on the Welsh border, terrorising servants and family alike with her
demands for a state of gracious domestic order.
This time Guyon chose not to rebel and after a single look, let her have her way. ‘You had better stir the cooks to provision for my men,’ was all he said as he rose to follow her. ‘They will be here within the hour and cursing me to the devil.’
Emma started to scold him about the folly of outriding them when the marches were so dangerous and unsettled, but Guyon let the words tumble away from him like spots of melting snow.
Once the steaming tub was ready, Guyon began to disrobe and Emma dismissed the maids with an autocratic snap of her fingers, causing him to lift his brows. Cadi, his white gazehound bitch fussed around him, wagging her tail and panting. He paused in his undressing to pat her flank and tousle her silky ears.
Miles dropped the curtain behind the two girls. ‘I doubt that Guyon has any designs on ravishment just now, Emma,’ he remarked drily.
She scowled. ‘From what my husband tells me of the court, Guy would have designs on ravishment even if he were tied down and bludgeoned half unconscious.’
‘Half the tale and a fraction of the truth,’ Guyon defended himself as she snatched his padded tunic out of his hands and nudged Cadi away with the side of her leg. ‘It would depend who was doing the tying and what she had in mind.’
As Emma made to cuff him, he ducked with agility, straightened and, seizing her by the shoulders, delivered a smacking kiss to her cheek. Emma glared at him, but her mouth started to curve despite her best efforts to keep it straight. ‘You need not attempt your courtier’s tricks on me. I know them by rote!’
Falsely crestfallen, Guyon released her with a sigh and began to unlace his shirt. ‘I suppose you do.’ The teasing look fell from his face. ‘But I needs must hope they still have their effect on other women.’
Emma’s gaze narrowed. ‘Not within this keep,’ she said with asperity.
‘I was thinking further up the march. Maurice Fitz Roger’s daughter, to be precise.’
‘What?’ Miles, who had been lounging against a coffer was suddenly alert.
‘Judith of Ravenstow,’ Guyon said and having removed the rest of his garments, stepped into the steaming tub. ‘On the King’s order.’
His father’s eyes widened. ‘Rufus offered you Maurice of Ravenstow’s girl?’
‘He did not offer. He said marry her or else.’ He looked bleakly at his stunned father. ‘He also sold the earldom of Shrewsbury to Robert de Belleme for three thousand marks.’
‘What!’ Miles’s concern became consternation. ‘Surely the King would not permit de Belleme to inherit Shrewsbury. Considering what he owns already and the kind of man he is, it is much too dangerous!’
Guyon took the washcloth that Emma silently handed him. ‘Every man has his price and de Belleme has calculated Rufus’s to a nicety,’ he said with a grimace. ‘Belleme wanted Ravenstow as well, since it belonged to his late half brother. He might have had it, too, if someone had not remembered that the heiress was of marriageable age and unbetrothed. The King chose to bestow her himself, and not without malicious amusement,’ He began vigorously to wash as if purging himself of the thoughts chasing round his mind.
‘You cannot do it!’ Emma’s mouth twisted with revulsion. ‘If you marry the girl, it will make you blood kin to de Belleme. Everyone knows what a monster he is. He robs and tortures for sport and impales those who displease him on greased poles and smiles as they die.’ She shuddered and hugged her arms. ‘God’s mercy, he keeps his own wife locked up in the cells below Belleme with only the rats for company!’
Guyon did not accuse her of hysterical over-reaction. Even the hardest men were horrified by the sadistic cruelty of Robert de Belleme, eldest son of the late Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury. It was not his treatment of the peasants that caused distress – their lives were expendable – but his torture of noble prisoners capable of paying ransom, and he had no respect for any authority but his own.
‘If I do not accept this match, I forfeit Uncle Gerard’s lands. The King says he will give them to one of his Flemings. I am caught in a cleft stick. Not only does Rufus force a wife into my bed, he makes me pay for the privilege too – five hundred marks. Nowhere near three thousand, I know, but enough to make my tenants squeal when I squeeze them for its payment. It is fortunate for de Belleme that he does not
have a conscience as to how he goes about raising his own relief.’
Emma shuddered and crossed herself.
‘And of course,’ said his father, ‘the lands you gain with this match, added to what you own and what you will inherit, make you a suitable counterbalance in the middle marches to whatever schemes of advancement de Belleme may choose to plot.’
‘Oh yes,’ Guyon said darkly. ‘I am to pay for that privilege too, mayhap with my life.’
There was a taut silence. Emma drew a shaken breath and murmuring something about food and wine, fled the room.
Miles sighed and sat down on a stool, his movements easy. As yet, his fifty-four years sat lightly on his body which remained, through vigorous activity, firm, if more stocky than in his slender youth.
‘I know the girl’s mother,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘Alicia FitzOsbern, Breteuil’s sister. She was pretty at fifteen, very pretty indeed. If I had not already been married and satisfied with your mother, I might have offered for her myself.’
Guyon grunted. ‘I always understood you had no liking for the FitzOsbern clan.’
‘The male stock, no. They all were – and are, when you consider Breteuil – snakes, but Alicia was different. She was courageous and gentle and she had eyes like summer twilight. She never forgave her menfolk for selling her in marriage to Maurice de Montgomery.’
Guyon reached for the towel that Emma had left conveniently to hand and stepped from the tub. ‘Reason enough for any woman to hate,’ he said, thinking of the former lord of Ravenstow who he had always thought resembled a glutted boar atop a dung heap.
‘As I remember, Judith was born late into the marriage after numerous slurs of barrenness had been cast in Alicia’s direction,’ Miles commented, folding his arms. ‘I doubt it was all her fault. As far as I know, for all his lechery Maurice sired no bastards.’
Guyon donned a fur-lined bedrobe and called entry to the two servants who came to empty the water from the tub down a waste shaft in the corner of the room.
‘At least Ravenstow is a formidable keep from which to establish your dominance,’ Miles said. ‘Whatever other sins lie on de Belleme’s soul, he is a master architect.’
‘And I suspect one way or another he will attempt to annex it to his earldom. Ravenstow guards the approach to the Chester plain and all roads east – ideally suited to the purposes of robbery and extortion, would you not say?’
Miles eyed him and said nothing, although his jaw tightened.
‘There is always the Holy Land, I suppose,’ Guyon added with a twisted smile. ‘Freedom from Rufus and de Belleme, and the glory of slaughtering infidels to gild my soul. I—’ He broke off and drew a deep breath as Emma re-entered the room followed by a maid bearing food and wine.
Compressing his lips Guyon sat down on the bench near the hearth.
‘Rhosyn is in the hall,’ Emma announced as she dismissed the woman and poured the wine herself. ‘You
will have to tell her.’
Guyon eyed his sister warily as he took the cup and drank. ‘What of it? She made it plain at Michaelmas she would not dwell as my mistress. She has no cause to complain.’
‘She might not have had a cause at Michaelmas, Guy, but she certainly has one now.’
Guyon’s wariness sharpened. ‘Meaning?’
‘Meaning she is not so skilled a herb wife as she thought and the rounding of her belly proves it. Midsummer I would say, to look at her.’
Guyon glanced from his sister’s disapproval to his father’s blank surprise. He took another swallow of wine to hide his consternation and feigned nonchalance. ‘I’ll speak to her tomorrow, but I do not see that this marriage will change anything. Willingly I will acknowledge and provide for a child if that is what she wants, but Rhosyn is a wild law unto herself.’
‘I am not thinking of wild law, but Welsh law,’ Emma said, as he reached for a piece of bread. ‘A man’s firstborn son, even begotten out of wedlock to a mistress, has equal rights with the other legitimate heirs of his body.’
Guyon discarded the notion with a shake of his head. ‘I am Norman born, Em, and Welsh rights do not pertain this side of the border. I could cede a couple of holdings to a chance-gotten child without too much hue and cry, but no more than that. Besides, the child is yet unborn and might well be a daughter, in which case I will find her a good marriage when the time comes.’
Emma’s full mouth pursed. ‘It needn’t have happened at all.’
‘Don’t be so finicky, sister,’ he growled. ‘The sin of fornication is a peccadillo compared with the ones I could have perpetrated at court.’
Colour flooded his sister’s face. Her husband, as a minor chamberlain, knew most of what transpired in the immediate circle surrounding the King: the scandals, the petty power struggles, the prevalent vices, and Guyon, with his striking looks, disregard for propriety and hint of Welsh barbarity was a magnet to which all three were drawn whether he wished it or no. ‘I expect you and Prince Henry keep tallies to compare your ruttings,’ she snapped.
‘Indeed we do,’ Guyon said with a sarcastic flourish. ‘How did you guess?’
Miles eased tactfully to his feet and stretched like a cat uncoiling. ‘Time enough for discussion tomorrow,’ he said. ‘I’m for my bed and I’m sure Guyon is too.’ He gave his daughter an eloquent stare. Guyon had his trencher piled high enough already without her heavy-handed seasoning of moral chastisement and righteous advice.
‘A conspiracy of men,’ Emma declared with a sniff, and then gave a tight smile. ‘I know when I am beaten.’ Going to her brother, she stooped and kissed his stubble-blurred cheek.
He tugged the copper-coloured braid peeping from beneath her veil. ‘That does not mean you will give in!’
‘Does it not?’ She arched her brow at him. ‘Let me tell you, I will gladly relinquish the battle to your wife and hope she has better fortune in taming your ways!’
‘Know when you are beaten, do you?’ he needled as she went towards the curtain. ‘Is that why you always have to have the last word?’
'An author who makes history come gloriously alive'
Elizabeth Chadwick's bestselling, award-winning first novel, and the start of the beloved Wild Hunt series.
In the wild, windswept Welsh marches a noble young lord rides homewards, embittered, angry and in danger.
He is Guyon, lord of Ledworth, heir to threatened lands, husband-to-be of Judith of Ravenstow. Their union will save his territory - but they have yet to meet...
For this is Wales at the turn of the twelfth century. Dynasties forge and fight, and behind the precarious throne of William Rufus, political intrigue is raging.
Caught amidst the violence are Judith and Guyon, bound together yet poles apart. But when the full horror of war crashes over Guyon and Judith, they are forced to face insurmountable odds. Together...
Winner of the Betty Trask Award
'Picking up an Elizabeth Chadwick novel you know you are in for a sumptuous ride'
'Meticulous research and strong storytelling'
Woman & Home