Unwilling mistress of a great lord, Isobel Fenton discovers that power comes at a price. Divided by love and loyalty, she becomes embroiled in the struggle for dominance between the royal houses of York and Lancaster, an enmity echoed in personal feuds and the decaying relationship of the two brothers who seek her love.
From the amber stone of the tower parapet, Sir Geoffrey Fenton made out the distant blur of movement on his land. “Who are they?” he demanded, and his sergeant-at-arms strained forward, shielding his eyes from the fine mizzle falling from a shrouded sky. He made out men – armoured men – riding hard, earth tearing beneath iron hooves.
“Less half a score, my lord, and no banner. They make for the ferry.”
Squinting, the older man ground his fist into his weakened eyes. “Curse these; I would see for myself. Even a half-score will bring trouble if they head this way. Muster the household. Isobel, go to your mother.”
Close to her father’s shielding arm, the young child hesitated as a shout, more a cry, rose on the air, and the group turned like silver fish and headed up the rubbled rise of the road that led to the gatehouse on which the watchers stood. One, two… seven men in full harness; swords, a poleaxe, their visors raised but too distant to make out their faces. The sergeant-at-arms urgently sought the problem that had thrown the riders off their course towards them.
“Shut the gate!” Fenton took hold of his daughter and pushed her towards the stair. “Isobel, get inside.”
Distracted, Fenton turned, his child forgotten, and followed the sergeant’s pointing finger. From amidst the bare-branched spinney, more horsemen crashed out of the undergrowth onto open strips of barely greening soil, merging as one as they found the track. Sensing victory, they accelerated, churning tilth in a plough of hooves as they rode hard on the heels of the hunted. Standing on tiptoe and peering through the battlements, the girl could just make out the faces of the small band as they neared, eyes wide, lips pulled back over teeth clenched so tight the air could barely pass through, now staring forward, now casting over their shoulders, driving their horses on. Haunted, hounded animals. Prey.
The girl tugged at her father’s mantle. “Let them in, Fader, let them in!” As one, the small band of desperate men veered towards the church, which stood proud of the village and apart from the manor by a bowshot. Horses stumbled on the new-turned clods and furrows before finding surer footing on the way-worn paths.
Echoing her words, the sergeant said, “They seek refuge. My lord, will you allow it?”
Mounting a rise where the strips, ploughed before Michaelmas and plush with winter wheat, made firmer ground, the pursuing horsemen curved in an arc seeking to cut off the men’s flight to refuge. Within his sight at last, her father followed the chase, his face burning with a hunger Isobel had not seen before, his mouth pulled into a grim smile of recollection. He stabbed a finger in the direction of the hunting party. “Look – they’re driving them towards the cliff edge. Hah! These men know this land. George, can you make them now?”
With the riders too far away to make out distinguishing marks, and without colours to denote their affinity, the sergeant shook his head. They watched as the hunted scattered in confusion, their escape blocked, their horses floundering in the marshy ground besieged by recent rain. The river cliff cutting off their retreat, the little group of men, exhausted by flight and fear, had no option but to turn to defend themselves. Dragging their horses around, they faced the onslaught. A confusion of cries from animals and men came to them across the land – faintly, like children playing – as steel clashed on steel. Men called out and then fell silent.
For a moment the watchers remained still, reading the movement at the cliff edge, then Isobel’s father spoke quietly. “They come this way. Take what men we have and place them on the outer wall in plain sight. Reinforce the gates and put bowmen on the walls to cover the road. Is the message took to the village to make ready? Look to it!”
The sergeant shouted to the waiting men as his lord scanned those remaining of his household who had not yet been called to serve in the recent unrest – too young, too old; wanting in years, or too many, they were willing but no match for the victorious knights now riding towards them.
“Will you take your armour, my lord?” A boy proffered the padded jack.
Taking the sword held out to him by his young squire, he shook his head. “No time. Arm yourself – these lords will not spare your youth, nor none else here. Not in these times.”
He secured the broad leather belt around his waist, adjusted the lie, and loosened the sword in its scabbard, feeling the welcome weight of it in his hand. Only then did he see his daughter, overlooked until that moment. “Isobel!” He reached out to pull her towards him, but she flinched from the unaccustomed anger in his face. Surprised, he said more gently, “I told you to go to your mother. It is not safe for you here. Go – now!”
She turned and ran diagonally from the gatehouse’s wall-head to the door of the stair turret, down the narrow spiral where, hearing men rising the steps to take up positions on the parapet, she pushed into the door arch to the sergeant’s chamber to let them pass. Unlatched, it swung open. Glancing to see if any would notice, she stepped inside. The shuttered windows stole light from the dull day and, safe from view, she paused to catch her breath, listening for the sound of challenge and answer from the heavy gates guarding the entrance beneath her. Unseen, heart jangling, she waited.
* * *
Above the chamber in the gatehouse, her father pulled the heavy cloak close about his neck and watched the progress of men and horses across the broken ground until they gained the road towards his manor. Of the seven horsemen, two had been bound and slung over the sweating flanks of the animals. More or less arrayed, the remnants of his own household clustered the walls, mumbling between themselves and shifting uneasily.
Faces still obscured in the shadow of their helms, the horsemen reached the narrow wooden bridge crossing the dry moat. In armour of blued steel, a man on a fine-necked great horse flecked with foam urged the animal forward. Leaning on the high pommel, sword still unsheathed and wet with blood, he called, “Will you not give way to your lord, Fenton?”
The older man again cursed his blindness, raised a hand, and jerked the thumb upwards to his men guarding the gate below. “Open the gate. Open the gate for the Earl!” And then turned and, as swiftly as his lameness allowed, descended the same stair his daughter had done, passing the girl hidden in the sergeant’s chamber, listening to her father’s laboured descent and the rumble of the gates as they ground open.
* * *
As his footfall faded, Isobel nipped across the chamber and slid onto the deep window embrasure facing inwards on the courtyard. She inched the plain-faced shutters open, adjusting her eye to the crack she had made just wide enough to see, but not be seen. Metal hooves struck worn stone as men and horses, ducked and bunched by the confines of the gate, now spread in a fan into the courtyard, and came to a standstill some yards from where she watched yet close enough for her to see the horses’ breath in the cold air curling like dragons’ smoke. She heard her father’s voice before he came into view, tight with tension and breathless from haste. He bowed as low as his stiff limbs allowed.
“Forgive me, my lord.”
The Earl swung his metalled leg over his horse’s back and landed with a greater degree of grace than the mired armour suggested. He allowed his squire to remove his helm and arming cap, revealing crow-black hair cut short.
“Has it been so long that you no longer recognise me?” A hand taller and still in the vigour of youth, the Earl came close and stood looking down at the older man. “It has been too many years, Fenton.” Then, abruptly, “There are matters to attend; you’ll like as not thank me when done. We have old wounds that need scouring before they can heal.” He gestured and the two men on horseback, hands still bound, were dragged from their saddles. His plated foot catching the high pommel, the younger of the two fell heavily against the stone, his horse shying at the metallic clash. Isobel’s curiosity gave way to pity. The two men were forced to their knees, their heads hanging.
The Earl spoke, nodding in the direction of the older prisoner, “He became separated from the rest of his household. We’ve tracked him since dawn. He sought to make the river before the tide turned, perhaps take refuge in Hull and thence to France. They’ve removed all identification, but I never forget a face, nor the injury done by it.”
“You bring war to my demesne, my lord,” Fenton said.
“I bring you justice.” In a stride, the Earl reached the nearest prisoner and, with his fist thrust under the man’s chin, forced up his head. “Recognise him?”
Blood from a wound above the man’s eye obscured part of his face, but Geoffrey Fenton drew back, his shoulders straightening. “Why have you brought him here?”
No longer cowed but defiant, the wounded man stared at the Earl, his lip curling, and Fenton’s demeanour changed. “Ralph Lacey.”
“And his crime?”
“This is the man who killed your father, the old Earl, I would swear to it.”
“And gave you the wounds you now bear.”
“Aye, and those, too.” Fenton grimaced.
With a jerk of his head, the Earl indicated to the men-at-arms and the prisoners were shoved lower, exposing their necks.
“Not the boy. Not my nephew!” Lacey, rough-voiced from exhaustion, struggled to free himself from the metal foot against his back. “In God’s name, mercy for the boy; I ask none for myself.”
The Earl bent his head close to the man’s face. “You showed none for my father,” he hissed. “You cut him down though he lay wounded and cried out for quarter. You took his life when mercy was yours to grant and made a mockery of his state.” Blue-grey eyes burned despite the ice in his deliberate articulation. “I will wipe your blood from the face of this land, and none shall remember you except your bastards, and they will curse your name.” He stood and indicated to the men standing behind, but Geoffrey stepped towards the Earl and, bowing his head, spoke swiftly and earnestly and so softly Isobel could not hear. The Earl threw a look at Fenton, then at the kneeling pair, and gave the briefest of nods.
Now Geoffrey addressed Lacey directly, his bass tones gruff and strong with authority. “It pleases my lord Earl to grant the boy mercy on condition he hereby forswears allegiance to the former King, Henry Plantagenet, and his son, and he and his heirs will take an oath of fealty to King Edward, the fourth of that name, witnessed here by the grace of God and in the name of the King.”
“By whose authority?” Lacey demanded.
“By my own hand as King’s Justice of the Peace for these parts.”
The prisoner cast a vicious look at the Earl, and then to the boy said, “Do it, Thomas.” The boy looked up and at that moment Isobel’s head swam in recognition of the wide-eyed and ash-faced gangly youth: Thomas Lacey, her friend. Her own face paled as he stumbled over the few phrases that would bind him to life without tasting the flavour of his words. When he finished, he turned his head from his uncle, biting his lip.
Lacey said, “You do what you must, Thomas.” And then to the Earl: “May you live long enough to reap what you have sown.”
As the long sword swung high, Lacey deliberately looked around him at the courtyard, the great hall, the tower, as if imprinting them on his memory. Then he raised his head skyward, his eyes squeezed shut, mouth moving silently. In the instant he opened his eyes, Isobel fancied he looked directly at her, and as his lips curved in what might have been a smile, the sword fell. His severed head struck the ground and rolled to a leaden halt, leaving the body upright and kneeling for a few seconds longer until falling forward, spilling its lifeblood – red against yellow – across the rough stone flags. It pooled in the hollows, gathered in the joints, and turned new grass livid. Mesmerised by the sightless eyes that continued to stare, Isobel clutched her hand and repeatedly pinched the flesh between thumb and forefinger until she controlled the fear that welled unbidden.
The Earl pursed his mouth, considering the carnage before him. “Bag it and take his head to the King. Send the body to his widow.”
“And the lad, my lord?”
With dispassion, the Earl looked at the boy still kneeling by his uncle’s body, lank, pale yellow hair damply clinging to cheeks rounded with youth and not yet stubbled with manhood.
“What do I care for the boy? He bears his family’s shame. He is… nothing.” The Earl turned his back and stood for a moment with his hands on his hips contemplating the blank face of the sky. Then he breathed out. “It is done,” he said. “Justice is served.”
“Alfred, you are crushing the plants! Get off and take your smelly bone with you!” Isobel hauled the long-limbed dog off the cuttings’ bed and he loped onto the path, showering soil from his shaggy fur. She surveyed the damage – a few bent tender stems that would recover as they grew – decided the dog would be forgiven, and turned back to where her gardener was fumbling a cutting. “No, John, not like that, or it will fail to take root. Like this.” Isobel took the blade from his big hands and cleanly sliced at an angle through the stem, narrowly catching the expression on the young man’s round face. “And you need not look at me that way.”
She handed back the knife and sank the new cutting into the fresh-sifted soil of the raised border sheltered from the east wind by the high brick wall. “Water it well; this warm weather will help it take.” She brushed specks of soil from her hands and wiped them on the coarse cloth of the gardening apron protecting her skirts.
“Buena,” she called, and an older woman, once dark-haired and handsome, appeared around the side of the trellised arbour, carrying a woven basket. “Have you the seed?” The woman, her pronounced cheekbones and sallow olive skin making her gaunt, indicated the basket and small bundles of twisted cloth, lying among strips of green bark and the gloves Isobel should have been wearing. “Give them to John. He can sow them when he has finished here.” She heard a barely audible sigh from behind her. “And when he has taken his dinner,” she added, trying not to smile and already leaning towards the other woman to inspect the contents of the basket. She picked out a vivid strap of bark.
“With the sap still green, these will have much potency, so my lady mother would say,” she murmured. The older woman grunted a response meant to comfort, but Isobel turned away at the sound of a two-note whistle – high then low. A tall, fair-haired youth, of perhaps a few years her senior, stooped under the low-arched gateway to the garden, raised a hand in greeting, then lowered it awkwardly on seeing Isobel’s surprise. Leaping the woven willow hurdles separating the narrow borders each side of the path, he came to a breathless stop in front of her, his taut doublet bearing witness to broadening shoulders as he strained to control his breathing.
As Isobel rose, a strand of hair loosened by the breeze tickled her ear and she used the back of her hand to brush it aside, leaving a smudge of mud on her cheek. “Thomas. I did not expect to see you today.”
“Sir Geoffrey said you were in your garden.” He frowned at her soil-smeared apron. “He said that I might speak with you.”
Replacing the bark strips in the basket, she said, “Why?”
He noted the soil beneath her nails, noticed her caution. “And why should I not? Come, I would speak with you alone.” He took her hand and pulled her towards the greater seclusion of the arbour, where buds broke the reddened stems of the twisted plants covering it. Picking up his bone, Alfred followed them with his loping gait.
Once inside and free from the curious eyes of the gardeners, Thomas bent to kiss her, but she broke away laughing before his lips made contact with her own. “You said you wanted to talk, Thomas!”
He grinned, revealing the chipped tooth she had given him when they were younger, and pulled her to sit by him on the broad stone seat instead. He smelled of horse and leather, and the damp air of the river.
“Where have you been?”
Removing his riding gloves, he reached inside his close-fitting doublet and withdrew a small packet. “To our manor across the river and thence to Hull, to get you… this.” He pressed a silk-soft bundle into her hand, warmed by his body, and held it there longer than he needed. Isobel eased her hand from under his to look at what lay there. “It’s Genoese silk. As the ship brought it into harbour, Queen Elizabeth herself was said to be so desirous of it that the whole consignment was bought before it reached land.” He watched Isobel let the length of blue-green ribbon, the colour of rue and woven with silver, unroll in a lustrous fall in the half-light of the arbour.
“It is beautiful. How came you by this if the Queen bought it?”
Stretching until his toes touched the sunlight at the arbour entrance, Thomas reminded Isobel of a sandy-coloured cat, all skinny-bellied and smug as it spread out in the warmth of a good hearth. “I have some influence. The ship’s master was pleased to do me this service.”
His nonchalance failed to impress. Isobel poked his stomach. “What influence? Come, tell me.”
He caught her hand. “A kiss first, in payment.”
Pushing him away, she became conscious of his greater strength, and ducked sideways under his arm then stood up. “A gift requires no payment, Thomas, and I cannot be bought.”
Still sitting, he tried to grab the ribbon from her, but she snatched it and hid it behind her back.
Thomas held out his hand, trying to look serious like his father, but failing. “Give me the ribbon back, then, and I will find another sweetheart who will wear it for me.”
Isobel stuck out her chin, dangling the ribbon in front of him. “So I will,” she declared, handing it to him, and immediately regretted it as his smile faded and his eyes dulled. “No, Thomas, it is mine and I am thankful for it.” She bent down and kissed him swiftly on his cheek. “There, now you know I am. Tell me what influence you have in Hull?”
His fingers briefly caressed his cheek where her lips had lain before he looked at her again and she saw herself forgiven.
“I merely mentioned your father, and the ship’s master made this little gift to me.” He hesitated at her expression. “Why should I not? It is nothing; I thought it would please you…”
“The ribbon – or that you used my father’s name to secure it? Thomas, how could you? My father holds his office from the King and will not see it abused. Is the custom paid?” She ground her teeth when he didn’t answer. “He will be furious. What did you think to do?”
He rose to his feet. “I wished to please you. Isobel… do not tell him. It is a trifle. I wanted you to have something only the Queen would wear.”
“I am not the Queen,” she answered, angry, “and nor are you the King to use my father’s name so. Here – take it.” Shoving the silk into his hand, she turned her head, not daring to look at him in case she saw his rejection and softened.
He moved closer, trying to see into her face. “You shall be my queen, Isobel. Look at me, be not so harsh.” But within the confines of the arbour she backed away and thorns snagged her hair. She put up a hand to free herself but pricked her skin instead. Cross, she sucked at the bead of blood and Thomas, forgetting to be hurt, smiled at her familiar impatience.
“Wait, be still.” And he unwound the threads of her shining hair, smoothing it with his palm, his touch becoming a caress.
She twitched away. “Thomas, don’t…”
He tutted in the peculiar way he had of pressing the tip of his tongue behind his two front teeth. A slow tut, and one he had taken to using lately when showing his displeasure. He withdrew his hand, looking disgruntled. “You should cover your hair. It is not seemly to have it loose; the men were watching you.”
Her mouth pressed into a stubborn line. “It is of no import to them and anyway, I am unwed, and this is my garden. I will do as I please.”
Puffing out his chest, he assumed his full height and as much dignity as he could muster in such a small space. “When we are married, you will do as I please.” The cat had become a cock, fluffed up and vivid in his fine feathers of red wool fastened with silver.
Isobel imagined his next words might be crowed and her lips quivered on the verge of laughter. “We are not even betrothed,” she reminded him.
He forgot to be haughty in his eagerness. “But soon will be. That is what I came to tell you. My father wishes to make a contract now I have reached my majority, and he will talk to Sir Geoffrey. Isobel, we can be wed this side of Michaelmas – in the summer, perhaps.”
Her inclination to smile evaporated. “Not until I am eighteen, Thomas. I cannot marry until then and that is two years away.”
“You can persuade your father; I know you can. He will do anything you ask of him.”
“My mother made him promise…”
“Isobel, your mother is dead.” He regretted saying it the moment the words left his mouth. Isobel turned her back on him and fiddled with a rose stem loosened by a winter storm. “I mean that she has been gone, may she find eternal peace, for nigh on two years—”
“One and a half.”
“One and a half years, and might there not be room to reconsider? Did she not wish you to make a good match? And you want it too, don’t you, Isobel?”
Isobel found the tattered end of the twine and re-secured the stem without answering.
“Leave that be, and tell me,” he pressed.
She followed the stems upwards with light fingers, curving the tips around the thorns, feeling the roughened bark of the old wood and the silk-skin of the new. “She planted this rose with her own hands when she bore me and tended it every year that I can remember. She said that I and the rose would grow together.”
Hardly glancing at the plant, Thomas saw nothing but bare wood and spite. “Isobel, you think more of your garden than you do me.”
She came back from her memory and looked at him, saw the growing manhood in the shadow on his jaw, the brash shock of hair the colour of yellow clay, eyes as light blue as the sky before sunset. She had known his face for much of her life and never thought twice about it. Now he was asking her to make it part of her future and the twist of uncertainty she felt disturbed her.
“But I might not wish to marry,” she announced, watching him pale and then flush as he saw she teased. “I might enter the convent and live out my life as a nun.” Before he could answer, she danced out of the arbour into the welcome warmth with the dog bounding in front of her, and down the narrow path between borders where new shoots ruptured the earth as they pushed towards the sun. Thomas caught up with her, slipping his arm around her waist, aware of Buena’s watchful gaze. The dark woman had not moved from where she stood before.
“You are not meant for a nunnery,” he mouthed into Isobel’s ear, squeezing her hip through the thick cloth of her skirts, and warming at her protest of his intimacy. “You are not obedient enough to be a nun. I’ll tame you, my Bel.” He let go abruptly as Buena approached, returning her resentful glare. “And you will have a more suitable servant woman when we wed.”
Isobel bristled at his use of her fond name and at his threat. “I have Buena; I need none other.”
“You will be my wife, and you will have what I give you. You shall be Lady Lacey, and when I inherit—”
“You are too ready for your father’s death!”
“Though it please God he remains in health,” he continued, “when my father dies, I shall inherit my uncle’s title. And together with your lands—”
“And you are too eager for my father’s,” she snapped. “I wonder if you think of aught else.”
Feeling her temper blossom, he moderated, although he liked the way her lips quivered and her eyes looked like the glint of the sun on blue-green water. “It is not all I think about.” Her immediate puzzled expression gave way to flustered annoyance. She pushed past him, but he caught her by the elbow and lowered his voice. “Do you not think of it, too? The King’s wife is nothing compared with you. Be queen of my bed and my heart.”