Just a few decades after the Norman invasion of England in 1066, the Norman lord Robert de Bellême has come to England with his younger brother, Hugh Goch, newly made Lord of Arundel. Randal, a dog-boy at Arundel Castle, has gotten on the wrong side of Hugh Goch already...|
'Take this thing away and thrash it,' Hugh Goch was saying, 'but stop short of killing it. It is too good a hound boy to waste, and we can always thrash it again another day.'
Randal heard the words, and with the certainty of a ruthless hand already swooping to catch the scruff of his neck, gazed wildly and imploringly among the faces on the dais. He saw de Bellême looking on as at a jest, the Lady Adeliza with her mouth buttoned and her eyes cast down; faces that laughed, or were uneasy, or simply did not care; and out of them all, one face that was not shut to his agonized appeal, looked back at him. At the last instant, with the hand of one of Hugh Goch's squires in the act of closing on the neck-band of his ragged tunic, he rolled clear, scrambled across the dais on all fours and flung himself at the long black legs of de Belleme's minstrel, clinging to them with small, desperate hands.
He felt a quick movement above him, and an arm was laid across his shoulder- but so casually that it seemed as though it had happened by chance- and a light and lazy voice said, but not to him, 'Hands off, my friend.'
Out of the startled hush in the Great Hall sounded Hugh Goch's voice.
'You have something there- an ill behaved puppy- that belongs to me. Pray you hand it over to my squire, for training.'
And the lazy voice replied, faintly drawling, 'Let the Lord of Arundel forgive me, I fear I am something too busy.'
A gasp riffled round the Hall, a laugh bitten off before it was begun; and then complete silence save for a dog scratching under one of the benches. Randal, whose face had been hidden against the minstrel's knees, looked up, and saw the two men watching each other above him. Hugh Goch's eyes were all golden, the pupils contracted to mere pin-points of black. 'Too busy? And what then is this busyness that makes no outward showing?'
'I make a song,' Herluin the Minstrel said blandly, his own eyes wide and very bright under the lock of mouse-coloured hair that fell across his high, sallow forehead. 'I make songs as well as sing them, did you know? And the songs I make, folk sing and whistle afterwards- and laugh at when they are meant for laughter. This song that I make now is meant for laughter; it is a song of how a great Lord spent as much rage as would set all Wales in flames on one small boy who dropped a half-eaten fig on his horse's nose. It will be a good song- very funny.'
By now the whole Hall, breath in cheek, was watching the two men who faced each other on the dais. Years after, when he was a man and had some knowledge of courage, Randal knew that for sheer, cold courage he had seldom seen the equal of Herluin the Minstrel, that night in the Great Hall of Arundel.
It seemed that Hugh Goch thought so too, for he said after a few moments with his lips smiling over the teeth, 'You are a very brave man, Herluin, my brother's minstrel.'
Herluin shrugged thin, expressive shoulders, his brows drifting upward under the hanging lock of hair. 'I leave the martial virtues to my Lord and his kind. My toy is the harp, not the sword.'
'A toy that you use for a weapon, and to good account for your own ends, however,' said Hugh Goch, dryly.
'Nay, I am a peaceable man, and a lazy one. But- I am such a creature of whim- I have a mind to this boy.'
'So-o?' Hugh Goch said softly. 'And do you then suggest that I give him to you?'
Herluin smiled. 'Ah, la no. There must be so many who come craving boons of my Lord, and I was never one to run with the pack; while my Lord, generous though he is, must grow weary of so much giving. No, since- I think- my Lord finds poor entertainment in the juggling turns that we have endured through supper, I would suggest that we change the order of the evening to something that may prove more amusing, and play a game of chess for the boy.'
For a long, silent moment Hugh Goch looked at his brother's minstrel, red brows knit above the fierce golden stare, while Herluin, his arm still lying across Randal's shoulders, smiled sweetly back, and the whole Hall waited. Everyone knew- even Randal, still clinging desperately to the minstrel's long black legs, knew, for in his kind of life one learned many things- that the new Lord of Arundel was a gambler to the bone. He saw little flecks of light begin to hover far back in the golden eyes.
'Truly there was never a minstrel like you, Herluin,' said Hugh Goch, 'but how if we say that tonight we are all of us suddenly in the mood for minstrelsy, and cannot spare you from your harp?'
'As to that, Little Brother'- de Bellême spoke in that dark, mocking voice, with a flash of pointed teeth in the fashionable red, forked beard- 'I never yet found any means to persuade this Herluin of mine to wake his harp when he was not minded to.'
Herluin cocked one eyebrow at him. 'Na, I do not think you ever have,' he said in a tone of cordial agreement; and a moment later, detaching Randal from his legs with a 'Hy my! What is all this clinging for, Small One?' lounged to his feet with the slow, somewhat fantastic grace that was very much a part of him, and made a deep bow to the Lord of Arundel that expressed without words how completely he was at my Lord's service and ready to play chess.
(c) Rosemary Sutcliff at Oxford University Press 1960
Illustration (c) Charles Keeping