Crossroads in Time
Series: The After Cilmeri Series
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24 August 1288
After Midnight, near Dinas Bran
“Are you really asking my brother to ally himself with you?” Anna glared across the nave of Valle Crucis Abbey at Humphrey de Bohun. He stood before her, looking as arrogant and self-satisfied as ever, with one hand on the hilt of his nonexistent sword. Like David and Math, he had removed it before entering the building out of respect for the Church.
If Bohun tipped his nose any higher he’d be gazing at the ceiling. “And you are?” He spoke in Welsh—and far better than Anna might have expected from a Marcher lord.
David held out his hand and gestured Anna forward. “This is my sister, Princess Anna. Her question is a legitimate one.”
Bohun eyed her. “Yes. That is exactly what I’m suggesting. I offer him custody of my son as surety for our agreement.”
Anna wasn’t buying it—neither his words nor this agreement between England and Wales that Bohun claimed to want. Papa and David had already signed a treaty, three years ago at Shrewsbury, in the aftermath of an ill-conceived plot against Wales. Bohun and his fellow Norman barons had consented to trade their holdings in Wales for peace—and for Bohun himself, whom David had captured.
“All you’ve told us so far is that several of your fellow barons are plotting against us.” Anna was being more outspoken than was normal for her in the company of a man such as Bohun, but his smirk annoyed her so much that she found it impossible to keep silent. “Surely, this isn’t news? You’ve come a long way in secret to tell us something we already knew.”
“They plot against you and against me.”
“But why?” Anna said. “And even if what you say is true—and so far we only have your word for this—why should we care if some of your fellow barons threaten you?”
“You should care if it means war, young lady.”
“But the Treaty—” David said.
“Kirby and Vere don’t care about the Treaty!” Bohun threw out a hand in a gesture of exasperation and stabbed his finger to a point beyond the church wall. “Even as we speak, troops are massing at Bristol Castle in preparation for an assault on your southern coast. The barons seek to cross the Severn Estuary and take back the lands you took from them.”
Math, standing beside Anna, had stayed silent throughout their conversation, leaving Anna to express the indignation they all felt. Now he spoke: “Which barons? Kirby is a man of the church, and Vere has been ill of late. Who strikes at us? You still haven’t said.”
And by the look on Bohun’s face, he didn’t want to. They waited, striving for patience. That Bohun wanted to speak to David in private, that he’d crossed the border into Wales under the cover of darkness with only a handful of men to protect him, meant that he thought the stakes were very high. At least for him.
“Bigod for one. He wants Chepstow Castle back. It was his pride and joy, and he was loath to part with it three years ago, treaty or no treaty.”
His face intent, David closed the distance between them in two strides. He and Bohun now stood a foot apart. “Bigod just married Vere’s daughter, did he not?”
Bohun nodded. “Bigod is only one of a dozen whose eyes look covetously on Wales. Those southern lands are rich. They want them back.”
“We will see about that,” David said. “But even were Bigod to win back his lands in Wales, it shouldn’t affect your station as regent. It shouldn’t bring you here, to Llangollen, in the middle of the night.”
“Shouldn’t it?” Bohun said. “I cannot win. If I turn a blind eye to Bigod’s violation of the Treaty, it calls into question my ability to act as regent. If I actively refuse support for Bigod’s endeavors, and yet he succeeds, it calls into question my station as regent. Two against one and I find myself in the topmost room in the Tower of London, all my lands forfeit, and no say in the matter.”
“The Archbishop of Canterbury himself put his signature to our treaty,” David said. “What does he say about this invasion?”
Bohun shrugged. “Peckham doesn’t know.”
“Why didn’t you go see him instead of to us?” Anna said.
“I feared he wouldn’t believe me,” Bohun said, “that he wouldn’t want to believe me.”
Which was a remarkable admission, coming from Bohun. “And yet, you thought we would?” Anna said.
Math clasped Anna’s hand in his and squeezed. It wasn’t so much a warning, as a suggestion that she not press so hard. She subsided as David took up the argument. “So, these barons hope to take a piece out of Wales before anyone is aware of what they are doing, at which point Peckham will accept the dissolution of the Treaty, and Bigod supplants you as regent.”
Even as Bohun nodded again, David broke away from him, swinging around to gaze at Math and Anna. For this secret meeting with Bohun, he’d taken care to look nothing like the prince he was. His tousled brown hair and oft-patched breeches belonged to a man a dozen stages further down the social ladder. He wore unpolished boots and an unobtrusive brown cloak and shirt to hide his mail armor.
Even the sheen worn into the leather of his bracers, and the glint of finely worked metal in the handle of his belt knife, spoke of a once-trusted but now down-on-his-luck man-at-arms. Only the blue stone broach at his throat that secured his cloak and exactly matched his eyes—a gift from Ieuan’s sister, Lili—belied the image he was affecting.
The role Lili played in his life was something Anna hadn’t yet asked him. Anna hoped he might have mentioned her without a prompt. He’d had the chance. Before riding to meet Bohun at the Abbey, they’d eaten dinner at Dinas Bran and sparred together afterwards, which would sometimes get him talking.
Anna kept up with her katas, but didn’t have anyone with whom to spar other than her brother. While David practiced nearly every day and had incorporated his knowledge of karate into the medieval martial art of sword fighting, Anna, as a woman, had to work harder for the opportunity to maintain her skills. Frustratingly, none of Math’s men would even consider fighting her.
“You do have a third choice.” David’s eyes flicked from Anna upward, to the rose window at the western peak of the church. Since it was after midnight, it lay in shadow. With the moon to the east, only stars shone through it to light their meeting. “You could counter their treachery merely by supporting their efforts. Or by informing the Archbishop. Yet you do not. You come to me.” David turned back to Bohun. “Why?”
“I choose the greater risk for the greater reward,” Bohun said.
“I see,” David said.
A coldness settled in Anna’s belly as she saw too.
“If I defeat Bigod for you, exposing his machinations with Vere and Kirby for all to see, it will leave you as sole regent, with control of England to yourself.” David allowed himself a bark of a laugh. “You have a fine mind for devious plotting, sir.”
Bohun spread his hands wide. “The young Edward is ill with smallpox. The disease has swept like the plague it is through London. He is not expected to survive.”
And then everyone in the church understood the real reason Bohun had come to Wales.
Abbot Peter, who’d been standing by as a neutral party without inserting himself into their discussion, was the first to blurt out what Anna was thinking. “You hope to place yourself on the throne?”
Bohun glanced at him, a smile twisting at the corner of his mouth. “Not me. My son. His name is Humphrey, after me, though we call him William.” Bohun gestured to the boy he’d brought with him, as surety for their agreement, and William stepped into the light at his father’s signal. He was a well set up lad, with dark blond hair and brown eyes that gazed calmly out of his cherubic face.
“He has no royal blood,” David said.
“As part of my agreement to take the regency three years ago,” Bohun said, “we engaged him to Joan, King Edward’s daughter. The wedding date is set for eight weeks from now, when he reaches the age of thirteen. It is through her that he will claim the throne.”
Internally, Anna shook her head. No wonder David had left Papa frustrated these last two years. William stood before them, unquestioningly accepting that he had no say in his choice of wife, because marriage was about political alliance, not love. Papa couldn’t get his head around the fact that David refused to accept such an alliance, no matter how high it raised him. Papa would have married David to Joan, and through her, have him gain the throne of England.
“Edward had other daughters.” It was the Abbot again. “Eleanor takes precedence as the eldest.”
“Eleanor is also engaged to Alfonso of Aragon,” Bohun said. “That is not a contract that is in our best interests to break.”
“Besides which, England will never accept Alfonso as king, no matter what the Spanish might hope,” Math said.
“My son is also a direct descendant of King David of Scotland,” Bohun said.
David laughed genuinely now. “I’m sure the Scots will be very glad to hear it. When the time comes, William can claim the Scottish throne too, is that it?”
Bohun flashed a wicked grin, appreciating David’s observation. “We need each other, my lord,” Bohun said.
“And what is to prevent you from stabbing us in the back while our attention is elsewhere?” Math said. “Perhaps Bigod attacks from the south, distracting our attention and leaving you to regain your lands in Powys?”
Bohun nodded. “I predicted your concerns. And that is why I have brought you my son.”
The more they listened to Humphrey, the more Anna became convinced he wasn’t telling the whole truth. Again, she couldn’t keep silent. “Is that really why you’re giving him to us?”
Bohun’s eyes narrowed. “Of course.”
“He is your son,” Anna said. “Have you heard whispers of a threat against his life? Do you fear that a powerful baron has gotten wind of your plans for England? Perhaps this meeting is not as secret as we all hope.”
David’s lips quirked in a half-smile. “Tell us, my lord. We can’t make a decision if you’re not frank with us.”
Bohun contemplated Anna, his gaze steady. “You are as beautiful and perceptive as Morgana must have been. Are you a healer as she was?”
Bleh. The legend again. Bohun’s tone was mild, but his question was a serious one. He really wanted to know. This King Arthur thing had gotten way out of hand. The legend followed David everywhere. Anna understood the reason for it, but she hated it just the same. He was David. And she was no Morgana, especially if the label carried with it the stain of witchcraft. It was difficult enough for her, her mother, and Bronwen to function in the Middle Ages without having that fear hanging over their heads.
Anna glanced at David, who’d stilled his expression. They’d both watched with trepidation as the legend had grown. To the people of the thirteenth century, King Arthur was a real person, a war leader who led his people through many battles to victory against the Saxons and who would return in their hour of need. The Welsh knew he was real; their ancient stories and songs told them so, even if nobody had ever written them down and they hadn’t survived to the twenty-first century.
“I am a healer, but—” Anna stopped. For the first time, she found herself not wanting to admit to it. Up until now, she’d always been proud to be a healer, but would confessing it to Bohun confirm all his preconceptions?
Bohun’s face took on a look of satisfaction. His chin firmed, jutting forward at Anna. “It is to you, also, that I entrust my son.”
“My son is three years old,” Anna said, her thoughts flying to Cadell, asleep in their castle with a maidservant to watch over him, “and I lost a second son, just six months ago. I know what it is you are giving us.”
“My life.” Bohun bowed towards David. “My lord, Arthur.”
“Others have chosen that name for me,” David said. “My name is Dafydd, son of Llywelyn, the King of Wales.”
Bohun waved his hand dismissively. “It matters not. If I leave my son with you, do you give me your word that you will keep him safe, as you keep yourself?”
“More so than I keep myself,” David said. “As Arthur would have … though I have not agreed to your plan.”
Bohun smiled, confirmed in his opinion and assuming he’d already convinced them, despite David’s denial. Yet he’d still neglected to say from whom he was hiding William. The baron must be powerful indeed for Bohun not to want to speak his name until he had to.
The door behind them swung open and banged against the wall. Owain, David’s new captain, bounded into the church. “My lords! Someone comes!”
Math, David, and Anna spun around to look through the open doors which framed the road that led west from the church. A lone rider pounded towards them along it. At a nod from David, Math trotted to where Owain stood in the entrance.
The previous summer, Owain had replaced the former leader of David’s teulu, Bevyn, who’d retired to lands on Anglesey, protesting loudly all the while that he wasn’t old, not even forty. And yet, the median age of death for men in the thirteenth century was forty-eight. Anna didn’t know if her mother had actually told Bevyn that, but when Anna had seen him four months ago, he had married a girl fifteen years younger than he, who doted on him and was pregnant with his first child. Bevyn had confessed that he hadn’t imagined such happiness was possible for him.
The two men waited until the rider pulled up on the hard-packed earth in front of the steps of the church. He spoke urgently, and then Math ran back to David. He held a sheathed sword in each hand. As he handed one to David, Anna recognized the artwork on the scabbard. It was David’s new sword, finer than any in all of Wales, which Papa had given him for Christmas the previous year.
“Soldiers are coming.” Math unwound his sword belt and wrapped it around his waist. “No more than twenty, but riding hard. They must have crossed the Dyke less than a mile from here, to the northeast of the Abbey.”
“Whose men?” David said.
Math shook his head. “The scout recognized their livery, but I can hardly credit it. Mortimers. Or at least their men.”
David faced Bohun. “Which Mortimers knows that you are here?”
“Edmund,” Bohun said.
“I’d forgotten he survived Lancaster,” David said. “A good reason to eat sparingly at official meals.”
Bohun was still struggling with this news. “But it can’t be. His mother and mine were sisters, and he’s married to my wife’s niece. They had their first child only last year. I’ve spoken to him of my plans, but—” He broke off, shaking his head.
“You should have waited until you’d spoken with me before putting all of us in danger.” David pointed at Owain. “You know what to do.”
“Yes, my lord.” Owain saluted and left the church.
Math closed the doors behind him. “Where’s the bar?” Math swung around to look at the Abbot.
The Abbot shook his head. “Our Church is open to all. In all my years of service, we have never locked it.”
Math didn’t bother to shake his head at the innocence that statement revealed. “To think a Mortimer would plague us again.” Leaving the doors, he strode back towards Anna.
“I need my sword,” Bohun said.
“Where is it?” David said.
“On my horse. I didn’t want to leave it with the monks.”
That was a mistake.
David met Anna’s eyes. Just for a second, she saw the mockery in them. If he’d been sixteen still, instead of almost twenty, he would have snorted in derision. “I will see you safe, and then Math and I must return to our men,” David said. “Can you help us, Abbot Peter?”
“This way.” Abbot Peter grabbed a torch from a sconce on the wall and headed towards the choir and the south transept.
Bohun took long strides in an effort to keep up with David and Math, who held his arm around Anna’s waist and swept her along with him. David had been just fourteen when they’d come to Wales. At the time, Math had topped him by more than half a foot. Now at nearly twenty, David was two inches taller than Math, although thankfully, not still growing. Even so, according Mom, you wouldn’t know it by how much he ate.
The Abbot led them through a door at the back of the church, down a slender set of stairs and into a subterranean passage beneath the chapter house. Stone surrounded them on every side, including the two-foot wide flagstones under their feet. Anna put out a hand to the wall, feeling the dampness that even a dry summer couldn’t cure. At least she smelled no mold, which would have made her head ache.
Several doors stood open on either side of the corridor, revealing storage rooms and a wine cellar. Abbot Peter bypassed them all before approaching another set of stairs that led upwards. When he reached the bottom step, he paused. “Would you prefer to stay inside or exit through the graveyard?”
“If Mortimer’s men get into the church, we’re not safe here. I’d rather have room to run,” David said. “But we’ll wait a moment to give Owain a chance to report back.”
“How many men do you have?” Bohun said.
“Fifty.” David looked at the Abbot. “Do I have your permission to draw my sword, Father?”
Abbott Peter nodded, and David pulled his sword from its sheath. It glittered in the torchlight, and William, who had followed closely behind his father, gasped. David heard the accolade and canted his head in acknowledgment. “Italian steel.”
Those two words conveyed far more than their overt meaning. Papa’s acceptance of Jewish émigrés had allowed the resources of the Jewish trading network to benefit Wales. Although the Treaty allowed commerce between England and Wales, Wales didn’t need England anymore. And Wales certainly appreciated having the greater part of its overall wealth flowing into Welsh hands rather than English ones.
Math pulled out his sword too. His other hand held a torch. He and David took the stairs two at a time to the landing above, that fronted a wooden door, fastened with bronze hinges and fittings. David pressed his ear to the crack between the door and the frame. He shook his head. “I hear men calling, but nobody is right outside the door. Mortimer’s men haven’t found it yet.”
Math glanced down at Anna and then back to David. “How do we want to do this?”
Now that they were closer to the exit, Anna could hear sounds from outside the abbey—men shouting orders mostly. She took courage from the relaxed demeanor of the men with her, who appeared unmoved by the threat. When she’d kissed Cadell goodnight earlier in the evening, it hadn’t occurred to her that she might face danger at the abbey. And if Math or David had feared it, they would have been united in their refusal to let her come. Still, in the face of the quiet competence of her husband and brother, she felt calm too.
“So, is it Mortimer who threatens William?” David said to Bohun, still with his ear pressed to the door. “You never answered my sister’s question.”
Bohun shook his head. “You know what we in the March are like. These may be Mortimer’s men, but they could just as easily belong to Bigod or Vere. Any one of them could have had word we were coming here.”
“More likely, you have a traitor among your men,” David said.
“It’s Gilbert de Clare that’s got my father most worried,” William said, proving that his grasp of Welsh was excellent.
“Tch.” Bohun flung out a hand to his son. “Ah, Will, I wouldn’t go that far—”
Anna and Math exchanged a look that said, I would. While the flower of the nobility of England had died at Lancaster, as well as Papa’s brother, Dafydd, a few had survived, whether because they’d eaten less of the poisoned meal or from a naturally hearty constitution. Edmund Mortimer, his brother, Roger, and Gilbert de Clare had been among those who’d been made sick, but hadn’t died, although Gilbert had been in a coma for several weeks. He had almost been buried alive by those who found him, overwhelmed as they were by the number of dead.
“If it is Clare, he is someone to worry about,” David said. “His lands in Ireland and England are extensive, but he was one of the richest Marcher barons too and lost more than anyone when you signed our treaty.”
“He does have the resources and the drive to put something like this into play,” Bohun said.
Both Humphrey de Bohun and Gilbert de Clare had been raised by Humphrey’s grandfather. Both Humphrey and Gilbert had fought with Simon de Montfort against the English crown in the Baron’s war when Gilbert was only twenty-three and Humphrey sixteen.
But after Gilbert had been named a rebel and excommunicated by the Church, he had suddenly switched sides, joining Edward and his father, King Henry, as a valuable and powerful ally against the Bohuns. Humphrey’s father had died from his wounds at the battle of Evesham, the final battle in the war, and since then, Humphrey and Gilbert had hated each other. It was no surprise that they’d ended up on opposite sides in yet another war.
Anna saw real concern come into David’s eyes. “I’ve never been that impressed with Bigod, actually. To learn that it’s Clare—”
“We don’t have time to worry about who is responsible just now,” Math said. “It’s what, when, and where that most concern us.”
Footsteps sounded along the passage, moving at a run. Owain came into view, along with four other of David’s men. “They don’t overmatch us, and we plan to give them more than they bargained for,” Owain said. “But we need to get you out of the abbey before they discover this entrance. If Mortimer’s men get past us on the west side, the abbey won’t provide you a safe haven.”
“That was my thinking,” David said.
With a glance at Math, who nodded, David pushed through the door.
They spilled into the graveyard, eerie in the moonlight and empty of enemies as of yet. Math pulled Anna to him and kissed her forehead.
Anna clutched at his cloak. “Stay safe,” she said.
“Protect Anna and the boy,” David said to two of the men whom Owain had brought with him.
“Into the trees.” Math pointed with one finger, indicating the direction they should go.
“For the rest …” David took a moment to clasp Anna’s hand before vanishing into the shadows that cloaked the walls of the monastery, moving silently with Math and Owain, their steps muffled by the thick summer grass.
Anna allowed Bohun to pull her along, away from the church, William tight against his other side. The Abbot kept pace behind.
“Sweet Mary,” Bohun said. “To think my trust was so misplaced. Edmund has been my friend since we were boys. To think his men followed me here—to think Edmund would openly attack the Prince of Wales on his home ground.”
“He doesn’t think David should be the Prince of Wales,” Anna said. “Or that Wales should exist at all. You Marcher lords have always viewed my country as your private play ground.”
“You have a point, my dear.” Bohun showed a glint of white teeth, amused despite the duress.
Bohun pulled her and William behind a rickety shed on the far side of the graveyard and pushed down on their shoulders. They crouched just below the level of the long grass that had grown up between some of the gravestones. Summer flowers in pink and yellow, closed now that it was night, showed among the green. Anna recognized pimpernel and speedwell, and the red-dotted leaves of St. John’s wort.
Anna lifted her chin so she could see the abbey. Nothing moved on their side of the church.
“Go, man,” Bohun said to one of the men David had left with them. “You’ll do more good over there than here. Now that we’re out of the church, I can protect them.” Both he and William held long knives down at their sides. Anna felt for her belt knife and pulled it out too. She would use it if she had to. She knew how.
“Neither of you wear a sword,” the man said. “My lord would have my head if I abandoned you.”
“How far did you ride today? Every one of you looks tired,” Anna said.
“It is an honor to serve the Prince of Wales.” The man’s chin firmed. “He drives himself harder than any of us.”
He looked away without answering her question, however. It was her experience that men often didn’t know how to answer her. She was more outspoken than most women and was willing to ask the questions she was thinking.
Anna’s ears strained for an indication of how the skirmish was going. Her heart constricted in fear for both of her men. She loved them, and the thought of either of them not returning had her knees trembling. She’d learned to survive without hot showers or email. She would never ever get used to watching her men go off to battle.
“All will be well,” Bohun said, reading her mind. “Your son will not be left fatherless this night.”
Anna nodded and swallowed hard. Bohun sounded sure, but both of them knew that even the most valiant man could be felled by an errant blow.
A chorus of shouting sounded from the far side of the abbey. The air was still enough that Anna could hear the swords clashing. It went on far too long. She wanted to straighten. It was painful not to know what was happening, but she didn’t dare move until Math returned. She and Math didn’t have a traditional thirteenth-century marriage, but she knew better than to disobey him—or her brother—at a time like this.
Bohun was feeling it too. “By the Saints! I hate this waiting.”
Their guard put out a hand. “Stay, my lord.”
Bohun looked ready to spring to his feet, but before he could, Math appeared around the corner of the Abbey and signaled to them with a raised hand. One second, Anna was crouching behind the shed, and the next, she’d run forward and wrapped her arms around Math’s waist. She was able to take a deep breath for the first time in twenty minutes.
“Success?” Bohun brushed at the knees of his breeches.
Anna pressed her face into Math’s neck. She knew what his tone meant. That one word told her how he felt about the night’s work.
“None of Mortimer’s men can live to bring news to England of my presence here,” Bohun said.
Anna twisted to look back at Bohun. His eyes glinted in the moonlight.
“That will be up to Prince Dafydd,” Math said.
“None of them may see me,” Bohun said. “If my fellow barons knew that I had entered Wales to speak to your Prince …”
Math hitched one shoulder, as if to say you knew the risks when you came here. He didn’t say it, though.
Bohun closed the distance between them. “My men wear my colors. Mortimer’s men will know that I was here. They will report it to him.”
“I can only tell you to stay here until we leave with the prisoners and then head for England with your men, as quick as you can,” Math said. “It’s only a mile as the crow flies.”
Bohun’s jaw worked. David’s men had worn brown and green homespun, though, upon close inspection, the mail under their shirts would indicate that they were something other than simple men of the woods. Bohun hadn’t thought this through as clearly.
“Whether or not Edmund Mortimer acknowledged our treaty once, his men have broken it and are defeated,” Math said. “They will not see England again this month. By the time they do, our fight with Bigod—or Clare—or whomever leagues against us—will be over, for good or ill, and then we will decide what to do with them. Neither I, nor my prince, will kill any man unless we have no other choice.”
Bohun glared at him, but Math turned away, his arm still around Anna. His shoulders said, Enough! He stalked towards the abbey. Anna clutched her cloak more tightly around her shoulders and then felt for Math’s hand. After a moment’s hesitation, he took it and squeezed.
“Are you okay?” Anna said.
Math didn’t speak American English, but he knew the word, knew what it meant to Anna. In fact, it wasn’t just Anna and David—or Mom and Bronwen—who used it these days. The word had spread in the thirteenth century, as it had in the modern world.
“Yes,” he said. “Or as okay as I can be right now.”
Anna glanced at William as he came up beside her. He’d left his father and Abbot Peter behind, standing together among the graves. William kept his head high, his eyes fixed on a point somewhere beyond the abbey. He didn’t look back at his father. Anna didn’t remember her brother ever saying it, but it looked as if he and Bohun had an agreement. William was now in David’s charge.