Belaset's Daughter - By Feona J Hamilton

CHAPTER ONE

The kestrel flew straight up into the air, while the man who had flung it into flight stood watching, his arm shading his eyes from the sun. The South Downs seemed empty of all animal life except these two, the man standing tense with concentration and the bird, now hovering above him, with its wings outstretched. Suddenly, it dived and snatched a small, unwary creature from a tuft of grass, before flying up again. The man below gave a piercing whistle and the bird responded by circling lazily down, to land on the hand which was held out to it. Jervis quickly caught the trailing jesses, and fastened the decorated hood over the kestrel’s eyes. It sat, silent but fierce even when captured and held by a human. Whatever it had caught, it had eaten immediately.

Jervis stood admiring the view the small town in the cleft of the Downs, with its castle perched on a manmade mound, and the great priory on the outskirts. The river meandered round the town, while a tributary served the priory. Both were only half full of water now, but in a few months it would be different, when they were both swollen by spring rain. He turned his back and squinted the other way. Sometimes, if the light was good enough, it was just possible to see the faint blue line of the English Channel, seven miles away. He thought he could see it today, but perhaps it was just because he wanted to think so. The kestrel shifted uneasily on his hand as he turned, and he soothed it, clicking his tongue and stroking its front with a finger, until it settled down again. He sighed and turned to where the boy squatted on his heels, waiting patiently, while the horse and pony that he guarded cropped the short, sweet grass beside him.

"Come along, lad!" he said. The boy stood and took the bird from him, while he mounted, then held out his hand again. Jervis called to the kestrel, with the peculiar clicking sound once more, and it cocked its head in recognition, as it scrambled on to the gloved hand which he nudged gently against the cruel talons. He turned his horse towards the town and urged it forward, the boy following close behind on his pony. They rode down a track which had been a descent from the Downs for thousands of years. The steep banks on either side were covered in long, rank grass, unlike the short turf on which they had been standing. Small gorse bushes clung precariously, and brambles sprawled between them. A deep silence surrounded them, with only the sound of the horses’

clopping hooves and the jingle of their bits to break it.

They emerged abruptly onto the lower slopes of the Downs, where a wider path stretched ahead of them to one of the town gateways. Breaking into a canter, Jervis and the boy covered the ground quickly, until they were almost there. They slowed, so that the gate-keeper could see and recognise them. It was not wise, in this year of 1264, to appear without warning at any entrance to any town particularly one as well-fortified as Lewes. The castle might conceal any number of skilled longbowmen within its square keep, and an arrow would be meant to kill, rather than maim.

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Belaset’s Daughter

The massive gates remained open and the gate-keeper merely lifted his arm in greeting, as Jervis and the boy rode slowly past. The hard mud under the horses’ hooves was more rutted and uneven inside the gate, scored by the marks of carts bringing produce to the weekly market held in the town. Here, too, there were patches where the thin soil had been completely worn away, and the chalk showed white in such places, with here and there a flint to strike sparks from the horseshoes clattering across them. After rain, the muddy streets and the bare, flinty patches combined to make travelling a nerve-wracking business, but today the ground was firm under the horse’s hooves.

The two turned sharply to the left a short way along the main street and under another gateway, into the castle grounds. The horses plodded up the steep slope of the castle mount and into the forecourt. Jervis dismounted, the bird still on his wrist and gave the reins to the boy. As he did so, a woman’s voice called his name and he turned.

"Madeleine!" he said, not disguising the pleasure he felt at the sight

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