a Historical Novel by


Translated by Philip Wilson

Fortune’s Wheel

Copyright © Rebecca Gable 1997

Copyright English Translation © Philip Wilson

An E-book by MiMe books agency Michael Meller

Cover Art: © JB Benitez

Cover Photo: a miniature image of the alsace manuscript book Garden of Delights by Herrad of Landsberg (XIIth century). Published anywhere before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.

eISBN: 978-3-944866-13-0

This wretched world’s transmutation

To well or woe, now poverty, now honour

Without order or wise discretion

Governed is by Fortune’s error

But nonetheless, the lack of her favour

Will not silence my song, even though I die

All for nought are my time and my labour

Yet you, Fortune, I shall finally defy

‘Lament Against Fortune’ by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343–1400)


Historical persons are marked with an *, others are fictitious.


Robert of Waringham, called Robin

Agnes, his sister

Isaac, his friend, possibly his brother

Conrad, stable master of Waringham

Maria, his wife

Elinor, their daughter

Stephen, Conrad’s right-hand man

Geoffrey Dermond, Earl of Waringham

Matilda, his wife

Mortimer, their son

Blanche Greenley, Mortimer’s wife

Mortimer, their son

Alice Perrers*, Lady Matilda’s niece

Leofric, the orphan


Edward III*, King of England

Edward of Woodstock, ‘The Black Prince’*, his firstborn son

John of Gaunt*, Duke of Lancaster, his most powerful son

Edmund of Langley*, Duke of York, his most slow-witted son

Thomas of Woodstock*, Duke of Gloucester, his most dangerous son

Joan of Kent*, the Black Prince’s wife

Richard of Bordeaux*, their son, to become King Richard II

Blanche of Lancaster*, Lancaster’s first wife

Henry of Bolingbroke*, their son

Constancia of Castile*, Lancaster’s second wife

Katherine Swynford*, Lancaster’s mistress, to become his third wife

John Beaufort*, Earl of Somerset, their son

Henry Beaufort*, Bishop of Lincoln, another son

Henry of Monmouth*, called Harry of Lancaster, Bolingbroke’s son by his first wife, Mary Bohun*

Fernbrook and Burton

Oswin, the rogue

Gisbert Finley, Robin’s cousin

Thomas, Joseph and Albert, his brothers

Giles, Earl of Burton

Giles, his son

Joanna, his daughter, Robin’s wife

Anne, Edward and Raymond, their children

Christine and Isabella, Joanna’s sisters

Luke, the blacksmith

Hal, the stable lad

Francis Aimhurst, Robin’s squire

Tristan Fitzalan, the Earl of Arundel’s* youngest son, Robin’s squire

London, knights and nobility

Henry Fitzroy, a Welsh knight

Peter de Gray, a mad knight

Geoffrey Chaucer*, poet, diplomat and courtier

Roger Mortimer*, Earl of March

Peter de la Mare*, his acolyte

Henry Percy*, Marshall of England and Earl of Northumberland

Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy*, his son

Thomas Beauchamp*, Earl of Warwick, Lord Appellant

William Montagu*, Earl of Salisbury

Thomas Holland*, Earl of Kent, King Richard’s half-brother

John Holland*, his brother

Robert de Vere*, Earl of Oxford, Marquess of Dublin and Duke of Ireland

Sir William Walworth*, Mayor of London

Sir Robert Knolles*, a soldier of fortune

Sir Patrick Austin, his illegitimate son, captain of the King’s bodyguard

Wat Tyler*, peasant leader

Richard Fitzalan*, Earl of Arundel, Lord Appellant

Thomas Mowbray*, Earl of Northampton and Duke of Norfolk, Lord Appellant

Thomas Hoccleve*, poet, chancery clerk and, in his youth, a good-for-nothing


Jerome of Berkley, Abbot of St. Thomas’s

Brother Anthony, the Wrath of God

Father Gernot, parish priest of Waringham

Father Horace, parish priest of Fernbrook

William Wykeham*, Bishop of Winchester

Dr. John Wycliffe*, church reformer, professor at Oxford, perhaps a heretic

Lionel, his disciple, Robin’s schoolmate

Simon Sudbury*, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England

William Courtenay*, Bishop of London, to become Archbishop of Canterbury

William Appleton*, Franciscan, Lancaster’s physician and counsellor

John Ball*, voice of the people

Table of Content

Part 1: 1360–1361

Chapter 1: Curn, September 1360

Chapter 2: Waringham, September 1360

Chapter 3: Waringham, November 1360

Chapter 4: Waringham, January 1361

Part 2: 1366–1370

Chapter 5: Waringham, April 1366

Chapter 6: Waringham, June 1366

Chapter 7: Canterbury, June 1366

Chapter 8: Bordeaux, July 1366

Chapter 9: Nájera, April 1367

Chapter 10: Valladolid, June 1367

Chapter 11: London, September 1367

Chapter 12: Westminster, September 1367

Chapter 13: Westminster, January 1368

Chapter 14: Waringham, February 1368

Chapter 15: Fernbrook, February 1368

Chapter 16: Fernbrook, May 1368

Chapter 17: Fernbrook, January 1369

Chapter 18: Fernbrook, June 1369

Chapter 19: Fernbrook, December 1369

Chapter 20: Fernbrook, March 1370

Chapter 21: Limoges, September 1370

Part 3: 1376-1381

Chapter 22: London, May 1376

Chapter 23: Fernbrook, June 1376

Chapter 24: Fernbrook, July 1376

Chapter 25: Fernbrook, August 1376

Chapter 26: London, December 1376

Chapter 27: London, January 1377

Chapter 28: London, April 1377

Chapter 29: Fernbrook, August 1377

Chapter 30: Waringham, August 1377

Chapter 31: London, November 1377

Chapter 32: Fernbrook, June 1378

Chapter 33: London, December 1378

Chapter 34: Burton, May 1379

Chapter 35: Burton, September 1379

Chapter 36: London, March 1380

Chapter 37: Northampton, November 1380

Chapter 38: Waringham, June 1381

Chapter 39: London, June 1381

Part 4: 1385-1389

Chapter 40: Burton, September 1385

Chapter 41: Westminster, October 1385

Chapter 42: Kenilworth, July 1386

Chapter 43: London, August 1386

Chapter 44: Monmouth, June 1387

Chapter 45: Radcot Bridge, December 1387

Chapter 46: Waringham, June 1388

Chapter 47: Bordeaux, September 1389

Chapter 48: Waringham, December 1389

Part 5: 1397-1399

Chapter 49: Waringham, July 1397

Chapter 50: Nottingham, August 1397

Chapter 51: London, September 1397

Chapter 52: Leicester, November 1397

Chapter 53: Coventry, September 1398

Chapter 54: Eltham, October 1398

Chapter 55: Leicester, January 1399

Chapter 56: Windsor, April 1399

Chapter 57: Trim, August 1399

Chapter 58: London, August 1399

Author’s Note

Part 1


Chapter 1

Curn, September 1360

‘If they catch us, it will be worse than Doomsday, you know,’ Lionel said uneasily. His round, boyish face was troubled and he seemed to be shivering a little. His novice’s habit was fluttering in the gentle breeze.

‘You can always turn back,’ Robin replied. He was almost a head taller than his friend, even though they were the same age, and he used this advantage in height to look down on him. Forbiddingly, he hoped.

Lionel was often the more timid of the two, and always the more sensible. Losing face in front of Robin, however, was worse than any possible punishment could be. ‘What do you take me for?’

‘Well, that rather depends.’

They grinned at each other. Robin could just make out his friend’s face and saw a flash of teeth. The night was clear, the waxing moon almost full. To their right they could see the outline of the chapter house, which formed the northern boundary wall of the abbey grounds. In front of them, a perfectly straight path led to the main gate, the old lime trees lining it stood ranked like soldiers ready for a night attack. But this was not the route Robin and Lionel took. Crossing the grassy courtyard, they went round the fish pond and finally blended into the shadow of the monastery wall that stretched out for several yards on both sides before fading into the darkness.

Lionel walked three steps to the right and stopped. ‘This is the best spot,’ he whispered. ‘There’s a tree on the other side we can use to climb down.’

Robin looked up at the wall and nodded. ‘You go first.’

He linked his hands to form a stirrup. Lionel laid a hand on Robin’s shoulder, placed his right foot in his friend’s hands and climbed the wall. He managed to get a hold on its edge and pulled himself up. ‘And now what?’

‘Lie on your stomach so your legs hang down on the other side. Then pull me up. Easy.’

‘Oh, yes. Easy as pie. Why do I always let you talk me into these foolish schemes, Waringham?’

Robin stretched his hand towards Lionel. ‘Who’s the bigger fool, then? The fool who leads or the fool who follows?’

Lionel could think of no reply. He grabbed hold of Robin and before long they were both sitting on top of the wall, panting. The September night no longer seemed cool and they were even sweating a little.

The tree was an ancient willow and a good deal higher than the monastery wall. Its gnarled branches groaned slightly and the foliage rustled as the two runaways climbed down. A couple of long, thin leaves drifted silently to the ground.

‘I just hope Oswin hasn’t slept through our appointment,’ Robin whispered. ‘Or all this trouble will have been for nothing.’

‘I’ll smash his teeth in if he has!’ Lionel said indignantly.

‘Hey, my little monk, those are big words for a titch like you,’ came a soft voice from behind. ‘Here I am.’ A dark shape moved out of the shadows and came towards them.

‘I do wish you wouldn’t call me that.’ Lionel sighed unhappily.

‘Call you what? Little monk? But that’s what you are.’ He paid no more attention to Lionel and gave Robin a numbing punch on the shoulder. ‘Waringham, old pal. Let’s get the business done first.’

There was a slight change to his attitude. Most of the monastery pupils admired, even idolized Oswin since his voice had broken and his shoulders broadened. Consequently, Oswin in his turn treated them with condescension. His father was the stable hand who looked after the abbey’s horses and mules – except that it was Oswin who had to do most of the work since his father had returned from the war a hopeless drunkard. Oswin laboured from morning till night, prepared their meals, and most nights he was called to the inn to take his drunken father home, sometimes collecting a black eye for his troubles. Nobody dreamed of sending him to school to teach him to read and write and all the other things the pupils learned at the monastery school: Oswin would always remain what he was. And yet they envied him, these sons of the noblemen and the rich merchants. Because of his freedom and his manhood.

Robin was the only boy whom he had not been able to impress with his boasts and that was why Robin was his favourite among these little bookworms, the only one ever allowed in the stables.

Robin placed a farthing in Oswin’s outstretched hand. With a satisfied grin Oswin made the small coin disappear. ‘That’s a bit stingy, innit? For a rich man like you?’

Robin shook his head. ‘Are you taking us there or not?’

Oswin made as if to hesitate. When he realized that Robin was not going to reach into the pocket in the sleeve of his habit again, he pretended to be annoyed. ‘Oh, alright. Come on then.’

They walked for about a mile through damp fields that surrounded the monastery. Crossing a brook over a wooden bridge, they reached the first cottages of Curn, where the monastery’s villeins lived. Oswin led them along a dusty path, past the wretched wooden church, past the house of the village priest and the inn. This took them to the edge of the hamlet.

They did not speak as there was nothing to discuss. The business with Oswin had been haggled over for several weeks, with the actual deal being struck two days before. He had his reward and he knew what they wanted in exchange. Neither Robin nor Lionel felt like telling the other how weak his knees were or that he had hardly enough saliva in his mouth to swallow.

Oswin stopped. ‘This is it,’ he whispered. ‘You two wait here. And for heaven’s sake keep quiet.’

He had brought them to a small wooden hut which seemed even more wretched than the others. The roof came down at an impossible angle, as if it were going to collapse at any moment. There was no chimney, just a single window near the door. A little smoke came out, and a flickering light.

Oswin kept away from both window and door, going round to the back wall of the cottage, where he bent forwards a little and then stood still. He remained like this for such a long time that the two boys grew impatient. Incapable of waiting a moment longer, they approached.

‘What is it?’ whispered Robin, his voice hoarse with excitement.

Oswin turned to him and laid a finger on his lips. ‘Lads, you’re really going to get your money’s worth,’ he promised. He beckoned them closer and pointed out two knotholes in the wall, one a little higher than the other. He slapped Robin on the shoulder and strolled off in the direction of the inn, probably to find out just how drunk his father had managed to get by now.

Leaving the lower hole for Lionel, Robin leaned his forehead against the rough wooden wall and peered in through the upper opening. At first he could not see very much as it seemed to be darker inside than out. He was both disappointed and relieved. Then, just as he was turning to go find Oswin and get his money back, he caught sight of a movement. And suddenly he could make out shapes. He held his breath.

The cottage consisted of one room. Near the door was a small hearth. The wood had almost burned down, with only an occasional flicker of flame from the embers. Against the wall on the left side was a generous straw bed covered by a woollen blanket. And on the bed sat Emma, the cowherd’s widow and the owner of this wretched hovel. Her husband had been gored by a wild bull two years previously, when she had been only seventeen years old. She did not take her widowhood too seriously, or so the village gossips said. Emma was, after all, a young woman who loved life and she was quite beautiful. The pupils of Saint Thomas’s never missed a chance to eye her up whenever she happened to come to High Mass in the Abbey, and they would rave about what they had seen for days on end.

‘Why worship her from afar?’ Oswin had scoffed. ‘You could have her for a halfpenny.’

They had not really understood what he meant, and Brother Anthony had interrupted their conversation and chased Oswin from the school grounds before they had been able to ask. But Oswin had obviously been right. For Emma was not alone. And she was naked.

Stunned, Robin stared at her huge breasts, which looked like udders. He could not help but think of the dead cowherd and stifled a nervous giggle. Her skin glowed like burnished copper in the faint firelight; the aureoles and nipples of her breasts seemed black. Not for the first time, Robin experienced this inexplicable sensation, wonderful and terrible at the same time, that came from deep down in his body. But it had never been this strong before; had never before threatened to bring him to his knees or make him double up.

The man standing by the bed was Cuthbert, the blacksmith. The powerful muscles of his arms and shoulders were clearly defined in the faint glow and Robin thought that he could read admiration in Emma’s face. Cuthbert was looking down at her, obviously as captivated as Robin. Then he laid his hands on her breasts and Emma let him push her back until she was lying stretched out with her chestnut hair surrounding her face like a dark veil. She closed her eyes and her wonderful cherry-red mouth smiled contentedly as the rough hands of the smith slid softly over her skin. Then he suddenly let go of her, placed his hands on her bent knees and pushed them apart. Robin could hardly breathe. The smith’s broad body was now all that the boy could see. Cuthbert positioned himself between Emma’s legs, and the two bodies immediately began to move together, in a slow and wonderfully harmonious rhythm. Robin knew what they were doing. The difference from cows or sheep or horses was not so great that he couldn’t understand, but at the same time the difference was fundamental. He was beginning to feel hot. The movement of the two bodies became faster and faster until they jerked in a way that was a little grotesque. And then he heard a strange sound. At first he did not know what it was. The sound came again, louder this time. She was moaning. And then he was moaning as well. But they did not seem to be in pain. It was as if… as if… Robin had no word for it.

The palms of his hands were damp. His eyes were burning. He had no idea how long he had been staring without blinking. And then he felt a hand on his shoulder, yanking him away from the knothole.

Robin jumped with horror and was only just able to stop himself from crying out. Caught! he thought bitterly. They’ve caught us!

But it was only Lionel. His eyes were huge and his face looked ghostly white in the pale moonlight. He dragged Robin away from the cottage, not saying a word until they were out of earshot.

‘Oh my God, I feel sick,’ Lionel said.

‘What? Why?’ Robin asked. He was still dazed. Half of him was thankful he no longer had to follow the disturbing spectacle. Half of him was disappointed.

Lionel shivered. ‘Never in my whole life have I seen anything so disgusting!’

Robin was too shocked to say anything. He had not found it disgusting. Not at all.

‘Now I understand what the brothers mean when they speak of the sins of the flesh. Anyone who does that is going straight to hell!’

‘Don’t be silly. What do you think your parents did before you were born?’

Lionel was outraged. ‘They certainly didn’t do that!’

Robin grinned to himself. ‘Honestly, sometimes you’re stupid beyond belief.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean? What are you trying to say about my parents?’

Robin could hear the threat. ‘Nothing whatsoever.’ He raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. ‘Only that it’s natural. All life comes about in this way. It’s not abhorrent. That’s just what they want us to think. And the Dev— I mean, I’d just love to know why.’

‘It’s not natural,’ Lionel insisted. ‘It’s wrong and sinful. Women are to blame. They still carry the sin of Eve. That’s what Brother Philippus says. And now I believe it too. The way she looked at him! So full of… lust! And the cold way she smiled. She’s a witch, all right. I don’t know how I could ever like her. No, I believe every woman is in league with Satan.’

It was not the first time Robin had heard these things. Brother Philippus had read them a scholarly treatise that maintained the same. But Robin was unable to believe a single word. He could not help thinking of his mother when he heard that all women were sinful; or that they were by nature worse sinners than men; or that they had brought sin into the world; or that only women who were virgins were actually allowed into heaven. His mother had certainly not been a virgin, because she had been married and had given birth to five children. But she still seemed to him to have been the most perfect being ever: clever and beautiful and kind. That was, at least, how he remembered her. And when Brother Philippus had first read to them about the sinfulness of women, Robin had lain awake all night and had prayed that God might make an exception of his mother. The thought that she might be burning in the eternal fires of hell had made him sick.

That had been over four years ago, just after his mother’s death, when he had been a small lad who believed everything he was told. These days he was more sceptical of the things the brothers came up with. Nonetheless, he felt uncomfortable. The sight of Emma and Cuthbert had not revolted him. Not at all. He had been a little ashamed at spying on them, at witnessing something that was not meant for his eyes. But what they were doing did not seem sinful to him. Was this perhaps because he, Robin, was himself sinful? Was Brother Anthony right to insist that there was a particularly warm place in hell with Robin’s name on?

He shrugged uneasily. ‘I think Brother Philippus and his scholars are not right. It can’t be a sin. Why should God have ordained that people be conceived through sin? Aren’t we told that God created us in his own image?’

Lionel shook his head. ‘You ought to leave interpreting the Bible to those who understand what they’re doing and who don’t twist the word of God to their own ends.’

They had reached the wall of the monastery again. Robin climbed onto the lowest branch of the willow. ‘Fair enough. Think what you like. But you’re starting to sound as if Oswin was right – they’re going to make a perfect monk out of you.’

‘You don’t have to be a monk to lead a pious and righteous life,’ Lionel said crossly.

Robin sighed. ‘Perhaps not. But if you feel the need to confess tonight’s little stroll to the village, then do me a favour. Leave me out of it. I don’t want your immaculate holiness getting me into trouble.’

Lionel compressed his lips. ‘There are times when I fear for your soul, Robin.’

Robin swung across the wall. ‘Then pray for me, little monk.’

After breakfast, which consisted of a piece of hard dark bread and a cup of small beer, the monastery boarders went off to the schoolhouse. The first lesson was arithmetic with Brother Bernhard. Robin forgot for a while how tired he was, even though he could have easily coped with this lesson half-asleep. The abacus held no mysteries for him any more. During the next lesson, however, Latin, his eyes constantly threatened to close. Seeking distraction, he kept looking out of the window into the orchard. The late summer morning had turned hot and stuffy. The dew on the grass and the apple trees had dried off. They stood peacefully in the warm, brass-coloured sunlight, and their branches bent under their red-gold burden. The sweet scent of the fruits had drawn wasps, which were now crawling sluggishly over the fallen apples in the long grass.

Robin was grateful for the view, unspectacular as it was. When the autumn rains set in, the windows would be boarded up with wooden shutters, in order to keep the damp out, and they would once again be sitting in the dismal semi-darkness and freezing cold. But for now he could still look out at the blue sky and over the fields behind the orchard, which for the most part had now been harvested. At home they would also be bringing in the crops. From morning till nightfall, the peasants and their families would be in the fields. Then came the threshing, and after that there would be the harvest festival, with huge fires and dancing and merry-making, and the freshly brewed beer would foam in the tankards and nobody would send the children to bed…

‘Waringham, you godless moron, what is it you find so edifying out there?’

Robin started slightly. ‘Nothing, Brother Anthony.’

‘Nothing?’ The scrawny monk strode down the aisle between the desks, his black habit fluttering. ‘Then why do you keep looking out?’

‘I’m sorry,’ Robin muttered. He suppressed a yawn.

Brother Anthony’s lips were thin and white, a sure sign of his displeasure. ‘Well, let’s see. What do we have out there? I see apple trees and pear trees and four brothers gathering fruit. Is this what you find so fascinating?’

The other boys laughed softly, perhaps a little nervously.

Robin said nothing.

‘I’m trying to teach you a few elementary rules of style,’ Brother Anthony said, shaking his head, ‘but you are staring out of the window. You seem to find an orchard more interesting than Virgil. You are good for nothing!’

Robin looked at his hands. ‘Yes, Brother Anthony.’

‘Full of sinful thoughts!’

‘Yes, Brother Anthony.’ Lionel agrees with you there, he thought wryly, trying to keep his face expressionless.

‘… stay after school hours and memorise the next thirty lines. I will test you tonight. You had better learn them well, Waringham.’

Robin had only been listening with half an ear. Brother Anthony’s furious rants had long ago stopped having any effect. Robin had heard them too often to pay them much heed. Yet as the last words registered, he looked up into the pinched face with those sharp blue eyes, horrified. ‘But…’

‘Yes? What were you going to say, dimwit?’

Robin bit his bottom lip. This afternoon was to have been his turn to go to Posset with Brother Cornelius. It was only a small town, about three miles west of the monastery, but compared with Curn, Posset was the wide world. At the weekly market the brothers purchased the few things they needed but did not produce themselves, such as wool. Every week one of the older pupils was allowed to accompany Brother Cornelius and it was a much treasured distraction from their dreary day-to-day life of studies and strict rules.

Robin had been looking forward to these few hours of freedom for weeks. He felt his disappointment like a large grey ocean that was about to swallow him. His turn would not come up again for more than three months. For a moment he feared he was going to burst into tears. Instead, he felt a surge of anger. ‘You are unjust, Brother Anthony.’

A dismayed silence fell on the class.

‘What did you say?’ the teacher asked softly.

Robin wrestled to find his courage. ‘I… haven’t done anything. I learned my exercises, all the ones that you set us. But you never ever call on me. Why?’ He had never been able to understand the bitterness of Brother Anthony’s hatred.

The teacher stared at him in disbelief. ‘Are you sure you want to dispute with me?’

Robin nodded. ‘Why not? It can’t be that wicked, because disputing is what we study rhetoric for, isn’t it? Brother Jonathan says rhetoric is the key to all other liberal arts. And Latin, by the way, is not one of those,’ he finished.

Even as he was speaking, he thought: my God, did I really say that? I must be out of my mind.

The other pupils were staring at him as if he were some grotesque cripple at a fair. Brother Anthony had turned a little paler. He walked back stiffly to his desk and took hold of his cane. ‘Come here, Waringham.’

Robin got up slowly; his bones felt as heavy as lead. Not taking his eyes off the scrawny monk, he walked to the front of the classroom.

‘Bend over, you spawn of hell. Pride and disobedience are insinuations of Satan. Let’s see whether we can’t drive him out of you.’

Robin did not believe that the Devil had anything to do with this, nor did he believe that Brother Anthony believed it. He clenched his teeth.

A timid knock at the door brought him a reprieve. The door opened hesitantly and a lay brother put his head through. ‘Forgive me, Brother Anthony.’

‘What is it?’ the teacher asked tersely.

The brother surveyed the class. ‘Robert of Waringham?’

Robin turned round. ‘That’s me.’

‘Father Jerome wants to see you. At once. Come with me.’

Robin stared at him in astonishment. What in God’s name did this mean? Then he realized that, whatever this was about, anything was probably better than staying here. He looked enquiringly at Brother Anthony.

The teacher waved him away with an angry gesture. ‘Go on. I shan’t forget this.’

‘I’m sure you won’t, Brother Anthony,’ Robin answered, smiling thinly.

The lay brother led him out of the schoolhouse, through the cloister and past the refectory to the modest house where the Abbot of Saint Thomas’s lived. Even though he was the superior of one of the most powerful monasteries of Southern England, Jerome observed the Rule of Saint Benedict to the letter. His house was just as austere and bare as the dormitory of his fellow brethren. He held any worldly display to be the work of the Devil. He was equally feared and respected by the monks and the pupils of his monastery and Robin wondered uneasily what this unexpected audience was about.

The lay brother departed. Robin knocked, and entered on hearing a muttered summons from within.

Jerome of Berkley sat on a wooden stool at a table. A parchment scroll lay spread out in front of him. The room was gloomy, but the candle stump on the table had not been lit. Cold ash lay in the fireplace. Robin shivered in the sudden coolness.

The abbot let go of the scroll; the parchment rustled as the ends slowly rolled inward. ‘You are Waringham?’

Robin continued to look down and hid his hands in the sleeves of his habit. ‘Yes, Father.’

‘Robert, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, Father.’

‘Sit down, my son.’

Robin looked around furtively and discovered another stool under the table. He stepped closer, pulled it out and sat down on its edge.

‘How old are you, Robert?’

‘Twelve, Father.’

‘And how long have you been here?’

‘Five years, Father.’

‘And are you happy here in Saint Thomas’s?’

‘Of course, Father.’

The old monk shook his head. ‘Be honest, boy. It is an important question.’

Robin looked up in surprise and for the first time regarded the white-haired man openly. He hardly knew him. The abbot had too many duties to be concerned with the monastery’s school. This was a task he had to leave to others, even though quite a few of the students would one day form the new generation of monks.

Smiling, the abbot pointed at a basket of apples in front of him. ‘Are you hungry?’

Robin nodded. Since arriving at Saint Thomas’s, not a day had gone by when he had not woken up hungry and gone to bed hungry. The rations were meagre. His ravenous hunger had often shamed him, for none of his teachers had ever explained to him that a growing boy needed to eat.

Jerome pushed the basket towards him. ‘Help yourself.’

Robin chose an apple and bit into it. The fruit was ripe and sweet; the juice dripped onto his hand.

‘Five years is a long time, Waringham,’ Father Jerome said. ‘Do you think you would like to stay here for ever?’

Robin stopped chewing. Pure horror brought beads of sweat to his forehead and he said nothing. He was unable to think of a polite reply.

Jerome smiled gently. ‘Be frank with me, my son.’

‘No, Father.’

‘And what do you want to do when you leave us?’

‘Become a knight of the King. Like my father.’

Jerome’s face became strangely still. ‘Do you believe this is the best way in which you can serve God?’

Robin bit into his apple in order to win time, chewed slowly and swallowed. ‘I want to serve my King above all else.’

‘How is it that you love the King more than God?’

The boy considered his answer carefully. He feared a trap. ‘I do not love the King more. Only in a different way. It’s so much easier to love the King. He’s a man, a mighty commander, he’s driven the Scots out of the north and he’ll also defeat the French. He is…’ Real, he had been going to say, but thought better of it at the last moment.

The abbot did not pressure him. He folded his hands in front of the parchment scroll. ‘How come you’re so sure that the King will win the war?’

‘Because he’s won every battle so far. Because he’s brave and clever and has many brave and clever men on his side, like the Black Prince and my father.’

Jerome nodded slowly, as if he had nothing with which to counter such arguments.

Robin turned his apple core by its stalk. He did not know what to do with it.

‘So you are proud of your father?’

‘Oh yes, Father.’

Jerome leaned slightly forward. ‘And what is pride?’

Robin was annoyed at his thoughtless admission. ‘A sin,’ he muttered, whilst secretly doubting if it were a sin to be proud of somebody else rather than of yourself.

‘So it is,’ answered the abbot. ‘And you know that God sends us trials to teach us humility, don’t you?’

Robin had a bad feeling. He suspected that they were reaching the real topic of the conversation and that it was about something far more serious than breaches of monastery rules. He nodded reluctantly.

The old monk regarded the blond boy, whose startling blue eyes looked at him so piercingly. He was thin and tall, almost a man, but the face with its full mouth, narrow nose and freckles was that of a young rascal. Jerome felt pity for this lost lamb and he asked God to send him the right words, so that he could break the terrible news to him as gently as possible.

The abbot got up and went to the small window by the door, turned to face Robin again and allowed the sun to warm his aching back. ‘You are a good student, Waringham. I know you have trouble submitting to our discipline, but your mind is sharp. In Latin you will soon surpass Brother Anthony – much to his disgust – and I hear you are making good progress in all the subjects of the trivium. You even write well. Our Order needs people like you. I am certain that in time you could rein in your nature. You will grow out of your wild ways. You could learn that life for God is the only true happiness.’

Robin listened politely, if with some impatience. He did not share Father Jerome’s optimism regarding his reformation.

The abbot broke off when he sensed that he was losing the boy’s attention. ‘My son, I have bad news. But before I tell you what has happened, I want to assure you that you can stay here. I will make sure that you have a home here. I mean, at no cost, Robert, do you understand?’

Robin looked at him fearfully. ‘Thank you, Father. But even if I wanted to, my father would never allow it.’

His mouth went dry as he looked at the abbot and suddenly he knew exactly what was coming.

Jerome clasped his hands and nodded. ‘Your father is dead, Robert.’

Robin blinked. He tried to swallow and found that he could not. He only swallowed air, and his Adam’s apple clicked. He lowered his head and stared blindly at his hands.

There was a long silence, and finally he felt a hand on his head. ‘I am sorry, my son,’ the abbot murmured.

Robin did not move. You always knew that this might happen, he thought dully. Now it has happened. Perhaps one day it will happen to you, too. He was the King’s knight and the King is at war. The war demands sacrifices. Robin had always understood this. And he had never really known his father. It was not as if the loss had torn a hole in his life. When Robin was born, the war had already been more than ten years old. His father had hardly ever been at home; it was always his mother who managed the barony and made decisions on behalf of her husband. But Robin mourned nonetheless for the stately figure in the heavy armour that had cost so much. He remembered the few occasions they had spent time together. He had made a habit of recalling them, for these memories were all he had of his father. He had treasured them like costly jewels. The evening, for example, when his father had told him and his two brothers about the siege of Calais. The next day they had ridden out hunting together and his father and his big brother Guillaume had shot a truly terrifying wild boar in Waringham Forest. And his mother had been cross when they got home, because she thought that the hunt was too dangerous for a little boy like Robin. He and his father and brother had listened to her reproaches with contrite faces and then had secretly grinned at each other once her back had been turned…

The memory suddenly seemed faded and stale, and Robin had a large lump in his throat. He tried to think of something else and then his eyes opened wide. Sweet Jesus… ‘I’m the Earl of Waringham!’

Father Jerome frowned. ‘No, my son. You are not.’

‘But I’m the oldest. And if my father has fallen…’

‘Your father has not fallen.’

Robin looked at him, not understanding.

Jerome shrugged helplessly. ‘I do not know exactly what happened. Only that somewhere in Normandy there was a skirmish. Your father was arrested on the next day and accused of high treason. He was to appear in court here in England, but… he hanged himself.’ He paused briefly and looked into the face of the boy, which had become as white as chalk.

‘Hanged,’ Robin gasped.

‘Yes. Apparently the Royal Court judged his suicide to be an admission of guilt. His fief and all his titles have been declared forfeit. And therefore there is nothing for you to inherit. You are a lord no longer. You are a nobody. But if you stay with us, you still have plenty of opportunities.’

Robin was not listening. A dull roar had entered his head, which was much louder than the brittle voice of the old man. This could not be true. It was completely out of the question. His father was no traitor. The word seemed to ring in his ears, a horrific word. Traitor. And, more than that, a suicide, damned for all eternity.

He got up. ‘May I go?’

The abbot shook his head. ‘Just a moment. What do you intend to do?’

‘I want to go home.’

‘To your family? Do you want to leave us because of them?’

Why can’t you leave me in peace? Robin thought. He felt an impotent fury against the old monk, who suddenly looked to him like a greedy crow that wouldn’t let him out of its claws. ‘I…’ He shook his head to get rid of the roar. ‘I don’t have any family at home.’

‘Your mother?’

‘She died of the Black Death. My sister Isabella and my two brothers, too. My other sister, Agnes, is in a convent in Chester. My father sent her there because the plague was not supposed to be so bad in Cheshire…’ My father sent her there. My father is dead. Hanged. A traitor.

He closed his eyes a moment.

Jerome laid a hand on his shoulders. ‘Then let us leave it there. Your sister will be able to remain safely in her convent if I write a letter to the Mother Superior. And you will stay with us for the time being.’

‘No, Father.’

The abbot looked seriously into his eyes. ‘I command it, Robert.’

The boy took a step back and freed himself from the bony hand. ‘I don’t want to become a monk. I will never take vows. You can’t force me!’

‘I do not mean to force you. I am only ordering you to stay here and not to go back to Waringham. You have nobody there and no home. And you are too young to make your own way in life.’

That’s ridiculous, Robin thought furiously. The King was scarcely older than me when he ascended the throne.

‘Am I making myself clear, boy?’

Robin heard the slight threat in the dry cawing of the old crow. He lowered his eyes, in order to conceal his rebellion, and feigned obedience. ‘Yes, Father.’

He followed Jerome’s order and remained in Saint Thomas’s – until just after midnight. He used this time to say goodbye to Oswin and to Lionel and to make his plans, and he knew he needed the cover of darkness for his flight.

The dormitory was almost completely silent. All Robin could hear was the regular breathing of the others and now and then a slight rustle whenever somebody turned over on their straw bed. At some point a shuffling of feet and rustling of habits was going to indicate that the brothers were on their way to Matins. The noises would be faint; he would have to make sure he did not miss them. He stared at the window in the opposite wall, where the moon was shining into the dormitory.

All of a sudden he was completely alone in the world. The death of his mother and of his brothers and sister during the second, terrible wave of the Black Death four years ago had hit him hard. But they had still been a family. His father and his other sister had been there. They had suffered a heavy loss, like almost every family that Robin knew, but they were still the House of Waringham and he had never doubted that his father would find a new wife and that he would get new siblings. Now everything had changed. His father was gone, just like the name. A nobody, Father Jerome had said. And it was true. Robin of Nowhere. The world had been turned upside down. He no longer seemed to know who his father had really been. He lay on his back, staring into the darkness and his thoughts turned in continuous circles.

Then he finally heard what he had been listening for. The soft whisper of sandals on the paved path to the church. Heavy steps and light steps. Regular steps and limping steps. He sat up and waited. When he could no longer hear anything, he closed his eyes and carefully counted to a hundred. Then he pushed back his blanket and stood up. He pulled the detested habit over his head to reveal a threadbare tunic that came down to his knees, and frayed, stained hose made of grey cloth: Oswin’s Sunday best, which Robin had bought off him with his last few coins. Silently he crept to the door.

The night was cool again. He felt the damp beneath his bare feet. He carefully closed the door and looked around. Nobody as far as the eye could see. He crossed the courtyard in haste and slid into the shadow of the schoolhouse, crept along the wall and crossed over into the orchard. The moon gave sufficient light to make out the rows of gnarled apple trees. Robin reached up into the lower branches with both hands and gathered what he could. He would need at least one, perhaps even two days to get to Waringham and he did not want to have to rely on the generosity of strangers. Times were bad and only the monasteries could afford to cater for hungry travellers, yet it was the monasteries he was planning to avoid.

He pulled his belt tight and stuffed the apples into the loose tunic until he thought that his stock was big enough. When he came to the small gate of the orchard, a dark shape materialized from the gloom.

‘What are you doing here, dimwit?’ hissed a voice.

Robin stopped, aghast. But then he grinned boldly. ‘Not at Matins, Brother Anthony?’

The monk blocked his way. ‘Shut your insolent mouth, Waringham. Oh, but that’s not your name any longer, is it? What should I call you in the future, eh?’

‘That doesn’t concern me. I shan’t be here to hear it.’

‘Are you sure? Do you think I don’t know what Father Jerome decided?’

Robin regarded him coolly. The spiteful, bitter, small Latin teacher no longer held any terror for him. He already seemed to belong to the past, just like his father and his name. ‘Let me past.’

The monk stepped closer instead. ‘How dare you talk to me like this!’

Robin kept his eyes on him, realising for the first time that he was just as tall as Brother Anthony. Who knows, he thought with some astonishment, perhaps I could overpower him and push him out of my way. But you went to hell if you laid a hand on a monk…

‘Have you come to test me on Latin verse, Brother Anthony? Is that why you’re not at Matins?’

‘Oh no. I’ve come to prevent you from disobeying Father Jerome’s instructions and creeping away like a thief in the night. Which was exactly what you meant to do, don’t deny it. We will talk about the verses tomorrow. Now get back to the dormitory. Go on!’

Robin opened his eyes wide and pointed at a spot over the monk’s shoulder. ‘Oh my, look over there, Brother Anthony…’

The monk turned his head, and before he realized that he had fallen for the oldest of tricks, Robin had produced an apple and thrown it with perfect aim at the monk’s temple. Brother Anthony fell down, stunned.

Robin stepped closer, ripped off the string that served the monk for a belt and tied his hands, fastening the loose end to a tree.

When he was finished, Brother Anthony had come back to his senses. ‘Robert! Untie me, you devil! Now, or I’m going to…’

Robin did not stay to listen to the bizarre threats Brother Anthony always reserved exclusively for him. Instead, he vaulted the low fence of the orchard, ran to the wall and jumped up. His desire for freedom lent him strength. With a great leap he reached the edge of the wall and scarcely noticed scraping his knee. He scrambled to the crown and, not wasting time with the willow tree some ten yards to his right, he jumped down. He made a safe landing on soft grass and ran eastwards across a field. He hoped fervently that nobody would notice Brother Anthony’s absence until Lauds. And he hoped that throwing an apple was not equivalent to ‘laying hands on’.

Chapter 2

Waringham, September 1360

It was the afternoon of the following day when Robin finally reached the path that branched off the King’s highway, about halfway between London and Canterbury. The way to Waringham led through a grove of oaks and beeches, and in their shadow Robin entered the land that had once belonged to his father.

When he came out of the forest, the low, red sun was shining into his face. Robin followed the path that sloped down between meadows and fields, feasting his eyes on the village that sprawled in the valley ahead. How beautiful Waringham is, he thought, filled with unexpected pride. The modest but well-built wooden church that stood roughly in the centre of the village had for once not burned down since his last visit, he noticed with approval. Beyond to the church lay the village green with the old stocks in the middle – thankfully unoccupied. The thatched cottages with their sheds and stables and vegetable plots stood in no particular order. There were larger houses with bigger gardens and smaller houses with tiny gardens, depending on the prosperity of the peasants. Children were playing under the fruit trees, women were hanging out washing. On the edge of the village, a stone’s throw away from the other houses, stood two further buildings, the smithy and the mill, both on the bank of the Tain, which was now flowing tamely and leisurely through its narrow bed. The copper gleam of the was reflected on its surface. Around the village rose the undulating hills where the open fields were divided by furrows into strips. Most peasant holdings consisted of three strips, some of more and some of only one. Now, after the harvest, the shepherds had driven the herds onto the stubble fields, not because they offered good grazing but so that the fields could be fertilized. Perhaps a mile away to the right, on the highest hill, stood Waringham Castle.

Robin went up the hill. He observed the castle carefully, as if seeing it for the first time: an old-fashioned keep, surrounded by a moat and a curtain wall overgrown with moss and lichen – higher and broader than the monastery wall, and, he admitted to himself, more menacing. The castle appeared daunting with its high battlements and the looming gatehouse, where slits high up in the masonry allowed boiling oil or pitch or horse-piss to be poured down onto attackers. But Robin had never found it forbidding, had never felt imprisoned inside its walls. Rather, he had felt safe behind them, well protected. During the Anarchy, the war between King Stephen and his rival the Empress Maud, many, many years ago, when Waringham Castle had still been new, it had proved impregnable. The Waringhams had fought on Stephen’s side, and Maud’s troops had laid siege to the castle, but to no avail, smashing their thick skulls against these walls.

His mother had told him the story, which was recorded in their family Bible. The family Bible that would now belong to somebody else. It was an upsetting thought. Robin felt he could come to terms with the loss of his title, his lands, and all the privileges that went with them. But the Bible