The Barnard lands stretched wide and deep, enough to make their Lord a man of renown wherever he rode. He did so frequently, the grandeur of his train matched only by the largesse of his purse. Such largesse made him a welcome guest, and this welcome saw him in the arms of a wealthy tenant’s wife, lying long into the night as he savoured the pleasures she had thought to favour him with.
It did not disturb Barnard that he was discovered there the next morning, sleeping in an unfamiliar room, a naked woman lying in his arms. It might have been the husband himself who rushed in, armed or accompanied by his household; still, Barnard would have risen just the same, slowly, not bothering at first to dress or cover himself, preferring rather to allow his muscular form and many battle scars to attest to his prowess.
As it was the disturbance was brought on by two young men, slight, barely old enough to grow a beard. The first he recognised as one of his own; the second, though liveried with similar attire, might have been any boy. Barnard watched this youth, his eyes fall upon the woman then rise uncertainly to his own face; the boy hesitated, processing the scene and struggling to recover the urgent news he had surely brought.
“Speak”, Barnard instructed, when the silence continued beyond his wishes; “you have not come here simply to disturb my sleep.”
“No, Lord Barnard.”
“Then speak, or I will have my page whip you from the house.”
Barnard laughed a low indifferent threat before turning from his guests and pulling a loose linen shirt over his head. The woman was awake now; he could see her face peeping from the sheets she had brought tight about her. Barnard had enjoyed his fun, and seeing her face would gladly have returned for more; his irritation, therefore, was more severe than the interruption itself might have deserved.
“I said speak.”
Dressed now in a shirt, he turned to face the boy once more. The eyes that looked up to his were blue with youth, and terrified by the anger they perceived. Barnard almost struck, simply to subdue the moment, but he held the hand that he had raised, his fingers clenched into a fist, and whilst he looked on his expression left no doubt that he would strike if he was forced to ask again.
“I have come from my Lady, Lord,” blurted the boy, stepping back out of reach at the same time.
“You have, then.”
“Yes, your Lordship.”
“And what is it that my lady wife would have me do this day?”
“Out with it.”
“I am your man, Lord Barnard.”
The announcement from a voice barely broken, its possessor quaking, just out of reach, brought a laugh from the battle-hardened Lord. He had brushed many such men aside, and again he felt an urge to do so, just to bring the interruption to an end. Once more resisting he assumed a mildly mocking tone.
“And what is it that my man would do for me?”
“I would bring you news, sir.”
“Of the Lady?”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“Very well, then.”
Barnard sat down on the end of the bed, rooting for the boots he had discarded there. The woman’s feet retreated to avoid his weight, and this reminder of her presence was unpleasant; he would not have his news discussed so publicly.
“Get up now, woman”, he said, “and dress; I would speak to the boy alone.”
The woman obeyed without a word, their love now forgotten, and Barnard barely noticed her graceful curves as she disappeared into the darkness of a side door.
“This had better be good, boy,” he said gruffly, as he heard the door close; “you find my mood much disturbed, and it would not be well to do so lightly.”
“No, my Lord.”
“It is news that I thought to bring you straight. And so I ran through the night, swimming the river where the bridge was broke.”
“My Lady, your Lordship.”
Barnard stood up.
“I left her abed with the Little Musgrave.”
The hand struck, an easy swipe, and the crumpling of the boy suggested that he had begun his fall even before the contact of the hand had forced him to do so. Such cowardice angered Barnard further.
“Yes, my Lord”, said the boy, retreating another step.
“Do you lie?”
“No, my Lord.”
“For if you do, I shall hang you from the very highest tree.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
The boy’s eyes did not drop from Barnard’s now, and he held his hands by his side, despite the mess that leaked from his bloodied nose. Barnard recognised the boy’s fear, and recognised also beyond doubt that the boy was truthful.
“But if what you say is true, boy”, he said, assuming the demeanour of a grateful and generous leader, “you shall be rewarded for this loyalty you have shown, even to the last gold piece of my lady’s purse.”
“It is, my Lord.”
“Now, Page”, Barnard ordered, turning to his own; “awake my men. I shall dress, and then we shall ride.”
Downstairs the tenant’s wife was waiting with some bread and a goblet of red wine. Indifferent to the onlookers Barnard kissed her full on the lips whilst he accepted the gift. Then he ate swiftly as the sound of many horses, saddled and readied for the ride, gathered in the yard beyond. A single horn blew high and shrill, announcing their purpose as Barnard stepped out.
“Silence that man,” he called; “we ride to Bucklesfordberry.”
Dawn had begun its break as the troop galloped, clearing rivers and streams. There could have been no doubt that Barnard’s purpose was martial; he rode as he did into battle, his black steed, its head raised and purposeful, pressing on at full pace. Above the men were prey-birds, circling the hunt as was their way, and seeking out the mark on which they might be allowed to feed.
It took a matter of hours to reach their end. Barnard was out ahead, and had dismounted before his men arrived. He opened the door to the little bower, ignoring the hesitation that bid his patience, and climbed the wooden steps to the room, long familiar, though unknown since his days of courting.
There, still sleeping, lay his wife, and in her arms, wrapped as a couple much pleasured, lay the man he guessed to be Musgrave. Barnard kicked the foot that hung from the bed, too ready now to kill to even feel anger. Then he watched as the shock of his presence registered on the youthful, waking face.
“You have enjoyed my sheets”, he said.
“And my bed?”
“And my wife?”
“Much finer”, Little Musgrave said, sitting up and touching the face beside him so gently that the lady did not even wake, “than either bed or sheets. You are blessed, my Lord; though I am adjudged an expert in such matters I have never tasted better.”
“Nor will again.”
The noise outside told Barnard that his men were down below, and he could hear the familiar voices of the two waiting at the door; neither dared to enter. He knew that he could end this now, revenge his shame with one strike of his sword, yet, like a practised hunter that takes no pleasure pouncing upon a weakened prey, he waited on, considering. Barnard could tell, even as he did so, that this pause was giving his rival courage.
“And now I must away”, the man said, rising with a show of confidence that Barnard knew he did not feel, and showing his back and skinny buttocks as he retrieved his clothes from a chair; he bore no signs of his dangerous living.
“I would gladly wait and see your fair wife again, but I hear your men beyond the door, and I fear that they will do me harm if I stay.”
“I have no need of men,” Barnard answered.
“I will kill you myself when you have dressed. You breathe your last.”
Musgrave paused, resting his shirt once more, his eye upon Barnard and each movement slow and precise.
“I have no need for haste, then,” Musgrave said; “I am dressed as my mother knew me, and you would not want to kill a mother’s son.”
“Not naked, no.”
“And if I leave as I am now?”
“I will have my dogs chase you down; they do not share my sympathies.”
“Then I will dress and we will fight.”
“And you will die!”
The certainty was strong on Barnard’s face, and he could tell that the man read it, but Musgrave did not quake, and Barnard could not but admire the man’s courage. He watched him dress slowly now, looking forward, his face impassive. When he had finished, Musgrave stooped to kiss the lady once more, and Barnard did not move, as he watched his wife adjust her sleeping form beneath the tender touch.
“I fight best for love,” Musgrave said.
Barnard stepped back, and his men did too, allowing Musgrave to descend the stairs and make his way into the yard. His following had made a large circle, impossible for escape, and though Barnard guessed that such might be on the mind of Musgrave he did not hurry his preparations. On his saddle was a broad sword he carried with him as a spare. He took this for his own, and handed the much finer blade he drew from his scabbard to the man he would kill. Musgrave examined it and smiled.
“This is too fine a blade for me”, he jested; “I am but a common man, your Lordship.”
“You will use it briefly.”
Musgrave did. His first stroke, clearly one he had prepared in his mind, struck low, slicing flesh from the outside of Barnard’s thigh. Then, he stood back, his battle won, but had barely time to smile once more, as Barnard with two swift movements knocked the sword from Musgrave’s hand before plunging the other deep into the man’s chest. He held it there as recognition flitted briefly into the dying eyes.
This death had only won him partial victory, however. With Musgrave’s blood still dripping from his blade he entered the house once more and climbed to where his wife was. She was awake now, and the sight of the blade had an immediate effect; she did not move, but Barnard felt her very soul recoil from his approach.
“Your man is dead”, he said.
“Then so am I.”
“I would not kill you.”
“No, but with my love dead, there is no longer any life.”
The thought that his wife might have pleasured herself as he did, sleeping where their power earned them favour, had not greatly surprised Barnard; he had indeed expected it in the years since their touch had grown distant. That she might have loved, however, shocked him to the very core, and without thought for what he was doing, he plunged his blade once more into a body’s chest, the blood of the lovers mingling on the steel.
It brought no relief. His wife no sooner dead, than Barnard realised that he had lost everything. He turned from this second death and made his way down to the yard, calling to the page as he prepared to climb onto his horse. The boy’s nose was bloody still, and he kept a careful distance.
“The bower is yours, boy, as is the lady’s purse when you find it. Bury the bodies, and remember their love.”
Barnard rode out, picturing as he did so the grave, the dead bodies pressed for ever to each other’s touch, and he knew that their story would last.
©2011 Padraig De Brún