23 July 2015

Excerpt Thursday: THE WARRIORS OF THE CROSS (Book Two-Robert: The Wayward Prince) by Austin Hernon

This week, we're pleased to welcome again author Austin Hernon with his latest novel, THE WARRIORS OF THE CROSS, book two in the series, Robert: The Wayward Prince. Join us again on Sunday for an author interview, with more details about the story behind the story. The author will offer a free copy of book two of Robert: The Wayward Prince to a lucky blog visitor.  Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's post or Sunday's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

Robert, Duke of Normandy, eldest son of William the Conqueror, responds to the clarion call of Pope Urban II to Christendom. In the company of the foremost nobles from Europe he undertakes a mission to liberate Jerusalem in what comes to be known as the First Crusade.

Robert, passionate and idealistic, is inspired by the idea of fighting for God against the heartless infidel – but comes to change his mind as he witnesses the godless behaviour of other Christian lords, some of whom he counted friends.

Over a long arduous journey Robert discovers that the hearts of men, Christian or not, are swayed by lust for blood, land and power. As the physical privations set in, through the deserts of Asia Minor and especially at Antioch, and fear and danger take their toll, he sees avarice and treachery overcome Christian motives and is appalled at the resulting bloody chaos. But like it or not Robert is a leader, and if he hopes to return to the woman he loves in Italy he must bring his military skills to bear to ensure his decimated war-band survives to take Jerusalem.

**An Excerpt from The Warriors of the Cross

(Book Two-Robert: The Wayward Prince)**

Robert is re-acquainted with Matilda, la Gran Contesse, in Lucca, Italy, on his way to Jerusalem.

Chapter 2: An Italian Winter

At the reception.

That evening, suitably cleansed, we attended Urban’s court. He was surrounding himself with the mighty of northern Europe, who, coming to give muscle to the holy cause, did not entirely believe in his positioning as the leader of this venture. He might have the words to move people’s hearts, but this was now a military matter, prayers having failed so far to release the holy city of Jerusalem. Nevertheless we attended in good spirit being quite certain of our impending success in the matter.

            Stephen of Blois, Robert of Flanders, Duke Allen of Brittany and me: together we were all dressed in our finest. Odo and Gilbert had also dug out some suitable vestments from their baggage and we made an impressive entrance to the cathedral where Urban was due to lead us in prayers.

            At the front, only partially visible through the fug of incense, and suitably shielded by her close attendants, Matilda was sitting in demure majesty, ensuring that none would mistake the fact that here sat the chiefest woman in all of Europe. I made no attempt to approach her, what secrets we held would remain between us.

            When the prayers were over, Urban made full use of the opportunity to deliver yet another tedious homily, in praise, it seemed, of his idea of bringing all these magnificent warriors here to one place in order to fulfil his heavenly vision. In the end the message lingered too long and went a little astray, so that the congregation were pleased to hear the amen and were ready to leave but there was another little ceremony before that release came.
            A priest came to speak to Odo, who after a word turned to me and asked, ‘Where is your papal banner, Robert?’

            I looked at Ragenaus and he nodded his head towards the door.

            ‘Will you fetch it for me, please, Ragenaus.’

            He went off and I turned to Uncle Odo.

            ‘There is to be a blessing of emblems and the prince of France will also receive a banner of St Peter like yours,’ explained the bishop.

            ‘What prince of France?’ I queried.

            ‘That colourful youth sitting at the front, that is Hugh of Vermandois, brother to King Phillip.’

            As I peered through the fog of incense to try and see this royal brat Ragenaus returned and thrust the lance with the banner into my hand and Odo pushed me towards the front, where the pope was wai
            I approached, and Hugh turned to give me a glance before he knelt. He was well above me in height and I might have detected a little in-built sneer upon his lips. Snotty little git. I knelt alongside him and the pope uttered another well-rehearsed homily as our banners were  drenched by a pair of over-enthusiastic priests. My head received a share of the holy water and I grinned at Hugh as we stood up; he smiled a little and seemed less haughty. We might get on, if he behaves himself.

            ‘Are you Robert of Normandy?’ he asked politely.

            ‘I am,’ I replied. He hesitated as if awaiting some kind of accolade, then introduced himself.

            ‘I am Hugh, Prince of France.’

            ‘Then, Hugh, we have a common purpose in coming here. We may meet again.’

            ‘D’accord,’ he said as I spied Matilda looking at me from her front seat, a definite smirk playing around her lips. I threw my gaze to the heavens and walked back to Odo, my mind on things other than the blessing of banner
            The principal guests were escorted to a grand chamber where the atmosphere became a little less formal and we were able to circulate freely.

            Among the movers was Matilda. She gradually drifted in my direction so that after a while we were able to engage in a conversation, of suitably public content, in public.

            ‘Contessa Matilda,’ I bowed and almost made a meal of her proffered hand, ‘we must thank you for the arrangements you have made to receive us. Here are those who would help us in our quest. Stephen of Blois, my brother-in-law. Robert of Flanders, my cousin, and my former brother-in-law, Allen, Duke of Brittany.’

            ‘Thank you, Prince Robert, quite a family affair I see. It is the least that I can do when you have travelled so far in our holy cause.’ She turned to Stephen and Flanders, neither of whom could resist a modicum of flirting when the opportunity presented itself. ‘My lords! Have you found your quarters to your satisfaction?’

            Stephen and Robert fell over themselves to claim the hand of this regal power broker. Diminutive, her hair now a fading russet blond, but her eyes still a piercing blue, she commanded the space about her in a way that few men could manage. Matilda could charm and flirt with the best of them – and proceeded to do so. I watched a while in some amusement as the trio did their best to outshine each other in courtly manners.

            Looking about the hall I noted that Odo had cornered Urban, oh well – he has bored us for long enough tonight, I expect that Odo will return the favour. Then I spotted Payne and Ragenaus standing against a wall, appearing bored.          

‘What?’ I mouthed. Payne cupped his hands under his chest and lifted up non-existent breasts, casting his eyes to the ceiling. Of course, the hall was bereft of women; only we had the privilege of Matilda. I thought to enquire.

‘You seem to be the lone ambassadress for women tonight, my lady,’ I said, nodding towards my young men. ‘Are there no ladies for my young dogs to talk to?’

            Matilda, sharp as a blade, took in the situation at a glance and beckoned over one of her attendants. ‘Take those two down to the festival in the marketplace, and keep them safe.’

            ‘Sì, Contessa, they will enjoy la musica, no?’

            ‘Sì, and anything else they can lay their eyes on.’ She grinned at me and lifted an eyebrow.

            ‘That big one will be very popular, I believe.’

            ‘Mm, that is Payne Peverel. He comes from the hills of northern England, so not the same as my Saxon archer you’ll remember.’

            ‘No, but interesting all the same.’ Capricious Matild
Suddenly I became irritated by my unctuous comrades’ efforts to impress the lady and I turned the subject of the conversation to more pressing matters.

‘What news do you have you for us, Contessa? Has my friend Bohemund reached Constantinople yet?’

‘I’ve not yet heard, Robert. But no doubt he’ll be in the company of Emperor Alexios soon.’

‘Huh! That will be an interesting meeting; they were at war with each other not so long ago.’

‘True, and who says that they will not resume their squabbling after the holy city has been recovered? There is more to tell. Raymond of Saint-Gilles is marching his French army across northern Italy towards Hungary. Duke Godfrey of Bouillon is leading a large formation of his own troops from Flanders and Lorraine. Some German soldiers have joined him, and I believe that he favours the same overland route.’

My brother-in-law replied, ‘He commands great respect in the north, and has lots of money. It seems that we will be well supported, my lady.’

‘Yes, Count,’ she responded, a little awkwardly as the points of his perfect beard threatened her very eyes. She moved back a little from his too close attentions and replied politely. ‘The Lord has provided; we are blessed in our endeavours.’

‘And our horses.’ I remembered that small point. ‘What of Aethilheard; you remembered him from our previous visit?’

‘Ah, yes!’ responded the Contessa with a light in her eyes, ‘and the Saxon prince, Edgar, sent by your father as our wedding guest. Are they all like that in England? I must pay a visit.’

‘My lady,’ I replied, ‘the land is full of blond-haired, blue-eyed warriors with moustaches. You liked the Saxon?’

‘I did, he was amusing, Robert. He idolises you.’

‘He does? I suppose so. You know how much I trust him?’

‘He was carrying quite a lot of your money. Anyway, Aethilheard has gone with some fine horses to Constantinople; I made some good deals and your blond friend has some spare monies in his purse.’

‘Thank you. We will need it, I expect, before this matter is done with. You said some.’

‘Yes, we have a limited supply of steeds suited to the North African climate, I am arranging for more to be taken to Cyprus. They will be kept there in readiness for you; and I am helping you with the costs, to include placing some Genoese ships at your disposal.’

‘You honour me, gracious lady.
It was difficult to keep my hands off her… and she knew it, laughing silently in her eyes. I hoped that her under-linen was as wet as mine.

‘Not so, Prince Robert, we both honour God in this matter, and trust in his blessing.'
I nodded, and dribbled, and she went to engage in conversation elsewhere. I caught Stephen studying my face and he made to speak, but I gave him a warning glance, so he swallowed his words and kept silent. There would be no rumours to trouble the lady’s reputation, not if I had anything to do with it, but I could not stop Allen, who was not so well informed as to the purpose of my previous visit.

‘What wedding, Robert? Have I missed something?’

I pondered for a moment.

Stephen said, ‘You might as well tell him, everyone else knows.’

‘Tell me what?’ the irritated Breton asked.

‘My father had marriage plans for me and Matilda. We decided otherwise.’

‘Jesu, Robert. You mean you and she have never…’

‘No, Allen, by God’s bollocks, we have never…’

‘Mon Dieu!’ chortled Flanders, with a snort of derision, ‘you are all over each other like panting dogs.’

‘Piss off, Rob, someone will hear you.’

But they would not leave the subject and Allen tried again.

‘King William sent you to marry the Contessa, and you returned to Normandy bride-less?’

‘I heard that he was not pleased, Robert,’ said Stephen.

‘By God he was not likely to be. What did he say?’ probed Allen.

‘Quite a lot,’ I mumbled.

‘Yes indeed, Robert, you went off somewhere just after your return, I remember it being a cause for discussion with your sister,’ Stephen added, being helpful.

‘Why wouldn’t she marry you?’ Allen persisted.

I pulled them close, and in a whisper told them.

‘Matilda has Normans to the south, Germans to the north, and a reputation to keep inviolate with the Church. Marrying me would not be helpful.’

‘God’s bollocks,’ exclaimed Allen, ‘a Norman domain stretching to the Alps? The Germans would not like that.’

‘Mon Dieu,’ added Rob, ‘she cannot have men clambering into her bed; the Church is strange about such things. No wonder she will not marry.’

‘God’s miracles, you are too loud, someone might overhear us,’ I whispered in frustration.

‘It will only be a blind man, my prince, everyone else can see how you are with her for themselves.’ Stephen was trying to calm me.

‘Oh, please don’t make it worse,’ I pleaded.

The trio looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders in unison, and chimed in unison.

 ‘We see nothing, Mighty Prince.’

‘Bollocks, you lot. I’m going to rescue the pope from Uncle Odo.’

‘Before you go, Robert,’ the solid figure of the Duke of Brittany placed itself in my path, ‘tell me something. Did your father withhold the crown of the English from you because of this?’

I looked him in the eye. A bit rough was Allen, but sharp.

‘It did not help… that’s all I know.’ I left to find Odo, and in truth, that was all I knew.

After a few days, when the great and good had finished with their intelligence-gathering, bargaining, wheeling and dealing – and attempts at flirtation – we set off for Rome in three parties. Firstly the pope and his never-ending retinue, skirts and banners flapping in the breeze, followed by Matilda and her troops, armour and standards flying, then I came along behind with my northern cavalcade with my standard and gonfalon held high – and of all that display of pomp only mine were bound for Jerusalem.

Learn more about author Austin Hernon