England, 1173

"Damn!" King Henry crumpled the scroll he had been reading into a ball and threw it to the floor in disgust. He spent a moment muttering about the soft hearts and interfering ways of women, then sighed with resignation and held his hand out to Templetun. "You may as well give me Lord Holden's message, too."

The other man's eyebrows flew up in amazement at the request, a touch of fear mingling with suspicion in his eyes. "How did you know?"

"It is not conjuring or anything, Templetun, simply experience. I never receive a complaint from Lady Tiernay that I do not receive one from Lord Holden as well. Besides, I saw his man ride in earlier and assumed he bore a message. There have been a few small uprisings inNormandy, and I asked Hethe to tend them for me. No doubt he is waiting to tell me he has done so."

"Ah." Relaxing, the older fellow handed over the document in question.

Henry opened the scroll a bit irritably, displeased at having to explain himself. Templetun had only worked in the capacity of his chaplain for the past couple of days - his usual chaplain was ill - but already Henry was wishing for the latter's speedy recovery. His replacement was entirely too nervous, superstitious, and seemed to be far too eager to lend credence to Henry's reputation of being the

"Spawn of the Devil." Shaking his head, Henry focused his attention on the parchment he now held. A moment later, it was a crumpled mass on the floor not far from the first, and Henry had leapt up to pace before his throne.

As he had expected, Lord Holden had cleaned up the little revolts inNormandyand was on his way home. But he had also added a complaint or two about his neighbor. It seemed his chatelain was harassed mightily by the Lady of Tiernay and was beleaguering Hethe with letters regarding the woman.

In his turn, the Hammer of Holden had respectfully requested that his king do something about the woman... or he, himself, would.

It sounded very much like a threat, and it displeased Henry greatly to be threatened by one of his vassals. In fact, if Hethe weren't such a valued warrior and had not aided him so often in the past ten years, he would have seen him punished. But, unlike his father before him, Hethe had been a great asset.

He grimaced at the thought of the previous Lord Holden, Hethe's father. Born the second son, Gerhard had expected to be allowed to join a monastery and live out his life amongst the musty old papal scribblings he so adored. Unfortunately, his eldest brother had died, forcing him to abandon those plans in favor of marriage and producing an heir. The man had taken out that displeasure on his son.

To be honest, in Henry's opinion, Gerhard had been a touch mad. Fortunately, Hethe had not yet shown the same tendency. Unfortunately - for Hethe, at least - he had not even shown the same love of learning his father had, and the two had not gotten along. Gerhard's hatred had driven the boy from his home and straight into Henry's service as soon as he earned his spurs.

Ah, well. Gerhard's loss had been his own gain, Henry decided. But that didn't relieve Hethe of his responsibility to show his king respect. "What the Devil am I to do with these two?" he asked in frustration.

"I am not sure, my liege. What appears to be the problem, exactly?" Templetun asked tentatively. "I do realize they are both complaining - and from your reaction, I would say quite frequently - but about what, exactly?"

Henry turned to scowl down at him, opening his mouth to explain rather acerbically that his question had been rhetorical, when he changed his mind. Instead, he said, "Each other. Lady Tiernay writes to 'warn me' of her neighbor's cruel and abusive behavior to his serfs and villeins, because she ' knows I would not wish to see any of my subjects so sorely mistreated. '"

"Ah," Templetun said again, biting back a smile at his king's sarcastic imitation of a woman's high-pitched voice. "And Lord Holden?"

Henry gave a short laugh. "He writes to say that Lady Tiernay is a nosy, harping busybody who makes his life hell."

"Hmmm." The new chaplain was silent for a moment, then murmured, "Did not Lord Holden's wife die several years back?"

"Aye. Ten years ago. In childbirth. And Hethe has been my best warrior since. Always