York Castle, England, 1175 AD
Matthew de Rowenne couldn’t have been any hotter if he’d been cast into the fires of hell.
Which he had.
“I’m to return to Scotland, Your Majesty?” he asked warily, lest he raise the ire of his volatile king. He fervently hoped the fury burning in his heart wasn’t evident on his face. Filled with the relief of at last being recalled to England, he certainly hadn’t anticipated being sent back north of the border. The grant of some small estate as a reward for his service was more what he’d had in mind, or at least a knighthood.
Several of the King’s dozen advisors shifted their weight from one foot to the other, their leather boots squeaking on the tiled floor of the royal antechamber.
“Ranulf assures me you’re the man for the job,” King Henry Plantagenet replied, narrowing his blue-grey eyes. “You helped capture the upstart Scottish king at Alnwick last year during my son’s rebellion.” He turned to his advisors. “We quickly showed them where the true power lies.”
To a man, they nodded in unison, agreeing heartily with the monarch’s smug pronouncement.
Matthew risked a glance at Ranulf de Glanville. Few could claim England’s Chief Justiciar as a mentor. Only Henry wielded more power. Matthew was the second son of an obscure Anglo-Norman family—a nobody. It had been his great good fortune to have aided Ranulf in the capture of William the Lion in Northumbria. His unhorsing of the Scottish king that day had brought him to the famous warrior’s attention. “I am as always deeply humbled by the faith my lord Ranulf has in me,” he tried, “and it was a distinct honor to escort King William to imprisonment in Falaise, but—”
Henry waved him to silence as if shooing away a pesky gnat. He was clearly losing patience, his always florid face turning as red as his hair. Everyone recognised the bloodshot eyes as a clear indication he’d been away from his hunting addiction for over an hour. He’d arrived late, clad in riding attire. “The treaty is ratified and the Scots king has sworn fealty to me,” he declared in his gravelly voice, thrusting out his leonine head. “Hopefully my Scottish cousin has learned his lesson.”
While the assembled courtiers grunted their agreement with the regal optimism, Matthew’s attention drifted to memories of his visit to Falaise. It had been a challenge escorting a humiliated king in chains across the Narrow Sea, but it had brought him close to Montbryce Castle, seat of his ancestral family on his mother’s side. He’d trained as a page there, then as a squire. Normandie was the place of his birth and the fortnight spent at Montbryce had reminded him again of how much he loved his native land. Though he was an offshoot of a minor branch of the family, the Montbryces always treated him with respect. He thirsted to rise to the higher echelons of Norman nobility.
But his older brother had inherited the small de Rowenne estate, forcing Matthew to earn his living as a mercenary. The de Rowenne holdings weren’t substantial. It was family lore that their medieval patriarch had been a Frankish weapon-smith.
Ranulf coughed loudly, jolting Matthew back to the antechamber. Surely the king hadn’t just said—
“You’ve proven by your exploits with the army I sent north after William’s capture that you know how to subdue dissident barbaric factions,” Henry shouted.
The counsellors shifted their gaze from the king to Matthew, as if they were watching a jeu de paume. He cleared his throat while he considered his response. It would be useless, and probably imprudent, to retort that he’d found the Scottish court a surprisingly cultured place. But the ancient town of Scone didn’t seem to be the destination the monarch had in mind on this occasion.
“The king has granted William the Lion permission to return to Scotland,” Ranulf announced. “It’s to be expected his pledge of fealty to the English Crown has stirred unrest in certain regions. There are renewed rumblings of discontent and rebellion in the so-called Kingdom of Galloway,” he added with some sarcasm. “Castles must be built in the area. You will assist the Scottish king to bring these wandering sheep into his fold.”
Matthew racked his brain. Where in the name of all the saints was Galloway?
“It’s imperative we gain control of a region on our northwestern border,” the Chief Justiciar continued. “Gilbride MacFergus is already overrunning the Scottish king’s defences there. It’s a threat to Carlisle.”
The counsellors mumbled their consternation at this possibility. Carlisle was after all where King David had knighted Henry long ago during the Civil War.
Matthew deemed it curious that the folk of Galloway evidently didn’t want to be Scots.
Henry was already on his feet, heading for the door, shoving his big, rough hands into leather gauntlets. Matthew surmised he was off to play with his hawks. The king was fond of boasting that was the only time he ever wore gloves.
He breathed a little easier. At least he wasn’t being sent to the barren Highlands. All heads bowed as the energetic monarch strode towards the door with his bowlegged gait. But he turned unexpectedly and winked. “Oh, and I’ve instructed Ranulf to find you a bride in Galloway. Such alliances make for peaceful relations.”
Utter silence greeted this nonsensical declaration. The King’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine had resulted in years of civil strife among his children. Henry’s Council hurried out after him, leaving Matthew alone in the empty chamber.
Summarily being ordered to return to Scotland filled him with impotent fury and indignation, but the king was well aware he was a second son with no responsibilities to keep him in England.
Being an officer in an invading army was fraught with dangers. The prospect of keeping the peace now the Scottish king had been humiliated and forced to cede lands, castles and authority to the English king was daunting. The Scots would be in uproar if they were obliged to pay taxes to support the occupying English army.
As if those obstacles weren’t enough, there were folk in the northern wastelands who apparently didn’t want to be Scots. Their origins must lay elsewhere.
Henry apparently had confidence in Matthew’s abilities to calm the troubled waters and he resolved to do his utmost to carry out the mission entrusted to him. Eventually the king would reward him.
Marriage, however, was out of the question.
He fingered the blood red glass set in the cross-shaped pin that held his woollen cloak in place. A Frankish ancestor had acquired it long ago. A Latin palindrome was engraved into the glass. It was his legacy, the only thing of value traditionally passed on to the second son.
He supposed that three hundred years ago such amusing palindromes had been the fashion. They were the same no matter which way you read them. In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni. The clever humor was completely lost in his own language; we go around in circles at night and are consumed by fire. But the engraver had the humble moth in mind when he conceived the riddle, and that still held true in any language. Moths drawn to fly in circles around a flame were quickly consumed.
However, the legacy had proven to be a curse. The wives of the last three de Rowennes to possess the brooch had all perished by fire, his own mother included.
Marriage to Matthew carried a ghastly death sentence.