King's Man - By Angus Donald

Chapter One

I can hear the sound of singing floating across the courtyard from the big barn, thin and faint yet warmly comforting, like the last wisps of a happy dream to a man waking from deep slumber. I have left the remnants of the wedding party to their pleasures, leaving the bride Marie and her new husband Osric and dozens of their friends and neighbours to carouse long into the dark night. I have provided ale and wine, more than they could ever drink at half a dozen nuptials, and I slaughtered two of my sheep and a great sow, and all three carcasses spent the afternoon roasting over slow fires in the courtyard so that there might be plenty of meat for the newly joined couple and all their boozy well-wishers. But I slipped away from the throng when the serious drinking began and the wine-flushed carollers began to loosen their belts; I did not wish to be asked to perform alongside them. My voice is a little weaker, as is natural, now that I have reached almost sixty years of age, but I am still proud of my talent as a trouvère, a maker of fine music, and I husband my delicate throat-cords and do not choose to bellow like a cow in calf for the amusement of country-wedding drunks – I who have traded verses with a king, and held noble lords and prelates across Christendom spellbound with my skill.

But, in truth, there is another quiet reason why I have withdrawn here to my private chamber at the end of the great hall of Westbury, where, with a freshly sharpened quill and new-made oak gall ink, I am committing these words to parchment – I do not like Osric, the bridegroom.

There: I have admitted it. It is difficult to say exactly why I do not like him: he is a plain, ordinary man, round in the belly and with a pointed, peering, mole-like face and short chubby arms, and he will, I believe, make my widowed daughter-in-law Marie a good husband. He came here to Westbury a year ago as my bailiff, and he has rendered me good service in that office, ensuring that the manor – the only one I now hold – is well ordered and shows a little silver in profit every year. But I do not trust him; there is a slyness about him that repels me. His manner is furtive. I believe, in my secret heart, that he covets my position as lord of this manor, and sometimes I see him looking at me, as we eat together as a family at the long table in the hall, and I detect a glint of hatred in his tiny underground eye. It may be nothing but the foolish fancies of an old man, but I do not think so – I believe that despite my kindness to him, and the fact that I have allowed him to marry my son Rob’s widow, Osric would like to see me hurried into my grave and himself sitting at the head of this long table, fawned on by my servants and addressed in this hall as ‘my lord’.

I will go further: I believe that he means to kill me.

Pshaw! What nonsense, you will say to yourself. The old grey-beard’s wits are plainly as addled as a year-old goose egg. And it is true that I am well furnished with years, and that I sometimes forget the names of these dullards around me today, and dwell too much on the bright days of the past. But I know about betrayal: in my time, I have betrayed those who placed their trust in me. And I see the look of a traitor, a God-damned Judas, in Osric’s face. To strike a telling blow, one must be close to the man you are to play false; and Osric is now as close to me as ever he can be.

My death would not, of course, immediately make him the lord of this manor; if I were to die, the manor would pass to my heir, my nine-year-old grandson and namesake Alan, who is away now in Yorkshire learning the skills of a knight – learning how to fight on horseback and on foot, and how to dance and sing and make verses, how to speak and write in Latin, to play chess and serve elegantly at table and innumerable other gentlemanly skills.

But a child lord is weak, and easy to control: