The king was amused by their fits of jealousy. At every opportunity, he pitted one against the other. In his mind, they were his pets who would do any trick he requested just to please him. He knew about their obsession with Baron Geoffrey’s daughter, Gabrielle, but he had no intention of giving her to either. She was far too valuable. He preferred, instead, whenever it suited his needs, to dangle the possibility that each man might still have a chance to win her hand in marriage.
Everyone who was anyone in England knew who Gabrielle was. Her beauty was legendary. She had grown up in Wellingshire not far from the king’s palace. Her life there was quiet and relatively secluded until she came of age and was presented to the court. With her protective father, Baron Geoffrey of Wellingshire, at her side, she had endured an audience with King John that lasted no more than ten minutes at the most, yet that was all it took for the king to become completely enchanted.
John was in the habit of taking what he wanted when he wanted it. His reputation for lechery was well known. It wasn’t unusual for him to seduce the willing—and the unwilling—wives and daughters of his barons, and then, the morning after, boast of his conquest. However, he didn’t touch Gabrielle, for her father was one of the most powerful and influential barons in England.
John had enough conflicts on his hands. He didn’t need another. He was being assaulted from all sides, and he believed that none of the conflicts were of his doing. His problems with Pope Innocent III had recently increased tenfold. Because John refused to accept the pope’s choice of Stephen Langton as archbishop of Canterbury, the pope had placed an interdict on England. All church services were banned except for baptisms and confessions, and since bishops and priests had fled their churches to get away from John’s wrath, finding one to perform either of those two sacraments was nearly impossible.
The interdict infuriated King John, and he had responded by confiscating all church property.
The pope’s reaction was severe. He excommunicated John, thereby undermining his ability to rule his country. Not only did the excommunication damn John’s already black soul to the eternal fires of Hell, but it also absolved his subjects from their oaths of allegiance. In effect, the barons no longer had to be loyal.
Through reliable sources John knew that the king of France had his eye on the English throne and was being urged by some of the traitorous barons to prepare an invasion. While King John believed he had the men and the resources to meet this threat, it was still an expensive undertaking and one that would require his full attention.
There were minor problems plaguing him as well. The out-bursts in Wales and in Scotland were becoming more and more organized. King William of Scotland wasn’t a problem. He had already pledged his fealty to John. Nay, it was the Highlanders who were out for blood. Though King William believed he had them under his control, the chieftains didn’t much care about answering to anyone but their own clansmen. The farther north one traveled, the more violent and ruthless the clans became. There were so many feuds going on it was impossible to keep track of them all.
There was only one laird in the northern Highlands who wasn’t a threat to the others and who actually garnered a bit of respect: Laird Alan Monroe. He was an older man, soft-spoken, with an easy disposition, traits that were unheard of in a Highland chieftain. He was content with his life and didn’t have any designs to increase his holdings. Perhaps that was why he was somewhat liked.
In a surprising attempt to appease some of his more influential barons, and taking to heart a suggestion from Scotland’s King William, King John ordered a marriage between Lady Gabrielle and Laird Monroe. Though he had no need to, he sweetened her dowry with a large piece of land in the Highlands called Finney’s Flat, which he had acquired years ago. Laird Monroe’s home was at the southeast corner of this coveted property.
John’s worries about a gathering army from the Highlands with many of the border lairds wishing to join in, all bent on attacking England, would be put to rest for the time being, and King William would no longer have to worry about a possible insurrection. Already restless and sympathetic to their northern neighbors, there was a fear that some of the lowlanders would add to the rebellion.
When the proposition to marry Gabrielle was put to Laird Monroe, he eagerly agreed. He also believed that with John’s royal edict the fight among the lairds for control of Finney’s Flat would end, and there would be peace in the area.
Only two would raise their voices against the marriage, Percy and Coswold, but John would ignore the pathetic pleas and protests by the two barons.
Gabrielle’s father, Baron Geoffrey, was also in favor of the marriage. As much as he would have liked for his daughter to marry a proper English baron and live in England where he would occasionally see her, and his future grandchildren as well, he knew that Gabrielle wouldn’t be safe as long as John was king. Baron Geoffrey had seen the lust in the king’s eyes as he watched Gabrielle. He’d acted very much like a spider patiently waiting to ensnare and devour his prey. And from what Geoffrey had heard from his distant relatives in Scotland, the Buchanans, Gabrielle’s intended was a good man who would treat her kindly. This was high praise indeed for Laird Monroe, as the Buchanans didn’t much like anyone outside of their own clan. Baron Geoffrey and Laird Buchanan were related by marriage, but the laird could barely tolerate Gabrielle’s father, though ironically, Laird Buchanan, who hated all things English, had married an English lady.
With King John’s blessing and Baron Geoffrey’s approval, the wedding was scheduled. The only person who didn’t have a say in the matter and the last one to hear about the upcoming ceremony was Princess Gabrielle.
T HE DAY BEFORE BARON COSWOLD WAS SCHEDULED TO leave St. Biel, he became a believer.
King John had sent him on this fool’s errand, and Coswold was determined to get the task done as quickly as possible, for the king had finally promised him that, when he returned to England, Gabrielle would be his. And while Gabrielle’s father despised Coswold, the king had assured him that he wouldn’t have any trouble forcing Baron Geoffrey to accept the marriage.
Coswold also knew that the king had sent his rival, Baron Percy, on an errand into the northern wilderness to meet with Scotland’s King William. His duties would take some time, and Coswold hoped to get back to England and quickly marry Gabrielle before Percy found out about it.
Coswold’s orders were specific. He was to check on and verify that the steward King John had placed in charge of St. Biel, a whiny little man named Emerly, wasn’t stealing from him.
John had invaded the country several years ago, and in the fierce battle for possession had nearly destroyed it. As soon as St. Biel was under his control, he set about looting the palace and the churches. If there was anything of value left, John wanted to know about it. The king didn’t trust anyone, even the man he had personally chosen to oversee the country that now belonged to the crown.
The king was still intrigued by the rumors of hidden gold, though when pressed, he admitted he thought they were all nonsense; still, on the off chance there was a fragment of truth in them, he wanted Coswold to investigate. John didn’t have faith in Emerly’s report.
When Emerly had first arrived at the port of St. Biel, he had dragged forth each man and woman over the age of twenty who might have heard something about hidden treasure. Every single one admitted to having heard the rumors, and all of them thought the treasure probably had existed. Some thought the gold had gone to the pope, others that King John had stolen it. Nothing was conclusive, and after his own inquiry, Coswold’s findings were no different.
It was late afternoon, and there was a decided chill in the air as Coswold strolled across St. Biel’s palace grounds to stretch his legs. The path led down a gentle slope to the harbor, and he could see his men moving his possessions onto the ship that would take him back to England. Before nightfall he would be in his cabin awaiting the tide.
Coswold wrapped his heavy cloak tighter around his shoulders and pulled the hood over his ears. He couldn’t wait to be away from this godforsaken place.
He was walking past one of the thatched cottages when he spotted an old man carrying branches in his arms, no doubt for tonight’s fire.
The stranger noticed the shivering Coswold and said, “Only men without blood would think this mild weather be cold.”
“You are impertinent,” Coswold snapped. “Don’t you know who I am?” Evidently the man was unaware that Coswold wielded the power of King John, and with just one word could end his life. “Even the steward, Emerly, would do well to fear me,” Coswold boasted.
The old man looked unimpressed. “’Tis the truth, I don’t know you,” he admitted, “but I’ve been near the top of the mountain tending to the ill. I’ve only just returned.”
“You are a physician?”
“Nay, I’m a priest. I look after the souls here, and I’m one of the few priests left in St. Biel. My name is Father Alphonse.”
The baron cocked his head and studied the priest’s face. His skin had been ravaged by age and climate, but his eyes shone like those of a young man.
Coswold walked over to face the man, blocking his way. “As a priest you cannot tell a lie, can you?”
If the clergyman thought the question peculiar, he didn’t let on. “No, I certainly cannot. It is a sin to lie.”
Coswold nodded, pleased with the answer. “Put those branches down and walk with me. I have questions to put to you.”
The priest didn’t argue. Dropping the branches by the door of the closest cottage, he clasped his hands behind his back and fell into step beside the baron.
“How long have you been assigned to St. Biel?” Coswold asked.
“Oh my, it’s been so long now I can’t recall the exact number of years. I am most content. St. Biel has become my home, and I would be sorry to leave.”
“So you were here during the upheaval?”
“Is that what you call English soldiers ripping our country apart, killing our beloved King Grenier II, and destroying the monarchy? ‘An upheaval’?” he scoffed.
“Guard your words and your manner with me, priest, and answer the question.”
“Yes, I was here.”
“Did you know King Grenier before he died?”
Father Alphonse let his anger show. “Don’t you mean before he was killed?” Before Coswold could respond, he said, “Yes, I knew him.”
“Did you ever speak to him?”
“Did you know Princess Genevieve?”
The priest’s expression softened. “Yes, I knew her. She was the king’s niece…his younger brother’s daughter. The people of St. Biel loved her so. They didn’t like the English baron taking her away.”
“Baron Geoffrey of Wellingshire.”
“The wedding was here, wasn’t it?”
“That’s right, it was, and everyone in St. Biel was invited.”
“Did you know that Princess Genevieve had a daughter?”
“Everyone here knows. We are not so isolated. News travels here just as quickly as everywhere else. Her name is Gabrielle, and she is our royalty.”
“King John is your royalty,” Coswold reminded him.
“Why are you asking me all of these questions?”
“Never you mind. Living here all this time you must have heard the rumors of hidden gold.”
“Ah, so that is what this is about,” the priest muttered.
“Answer the question.”
“Yes, I’ve heard the rumor.”
“Is there any truth in it?”
The holy man considered his answer carefully. “I can tell you there once was a large sum of gold in the king’s treasury.”
“I know this already. Your countrymen have told me of the heavy toll your king collected from those who traveled over your mountains, and they also told me about his homage to St. Biel and his offering to the pope.”
“Ah, St. Biel.” The old man nodded. “Our patron and our protector. We have a great love for him.”
“That is apparent,” Coswold answered mockingly. He swept his hand around in a wide gesture. “Look at the place,” he sneered in disgust. “Your saint is everywhere. One cannot step foot on the soil of this wretched land without being followed by those prying eyes and that smug expression. If the pope were to hear that this country worships a saint, he would excommunicate all of you.”
Father Alphonse slowly shook his head. “We don’t worship any saint. We pray to God; we honor the pope, but we believe we owe St. Biel a great debt. He is our patron saint. He has watched over us through many adversities.”
“All right then,” he muttered. “In honor of your patron saint, was all the gold sent to the pope?”
The priest didn’t answer.
“Tell me,” he demanded, “did you ever see the gold?”
“Over the years I’ve seen several gold coins. Princess Genevieve had one.”
He was deliberately being vague, but Coswold pressed on. “Did you see the gold in the treasury?”
“Only once,” Father Alphonse said.
“Was this before or after the donation to the pope?”
The priest paused for several seconds. “It has been so many years. My mind is not as clear as it once was.”
Coswold’s curiosity was piqued by the evasive response. “Your mind is clear enough, old man. I demand in the name of John, your king, to tell me. When did you see the gold?”
Father Alphonse didn’t answer quickly enough. Coswold grabbed the neck of the priest’s robe and yanked him forward.
“If you don’t tell me,” he snarled, “I swear you will not see another day in your beloved country, and I’ll have every image of your holy saint destroyed and dumped into the sea.”
Father Alphonse gasped for air. The look in Coswold’s eyes told him that he would carry out his threat.
“I saw the gold coins in the treasury after a donation had been sent to the pope.”
“I would hear the details,” he said.
The priest sighed. “I had only been here a short while when I was given an audience with King Grenier I. He was a kind and clever man. He showed me his palace and the grounds—”
“He showed you the treasury?”
“Yes,” he said, “but I believe it was by accident. I don’t think the king meant for me to see it. As we strolled down the hall conversing quite pleasantly, we passed the treasury. The doors were open and two men were stacking bags of gold on top of other bags. The gold coins filled the shelves and the floor with only a narrow path to the door. Neither the king nor I acknowledged what we had seen.”