A father should not lose sons before him, she thought. It was a cruel thing to bear, for man or king
‘Where are my sons?’ he said, raising his head so that it left the pillow, then falling back. His right hand trembled on the sword hilt, taking comfort from it.
‘They are coming, Edward. I’ve sent runners for John, to bring him back from the hunt. Edmund and Thomas are in the far wing. They are all coming.’
As she spoke, she could hear a clatter of footsteps and the rumble of men’s voices. She knew his sons well and she prepared herself, knowing her moments of intimacy were at an end.
‘They will send me away, my love, but I will not go far.’ She reached down and kissed him on the lips, feeling the unnatural heat on his bitter breath.
As she sat back, she could make out the braying voice of Edmund, telling the other two of some wager he had made. She only wished the oldest brother could have been among them, but the Black Prince had died just a year before, never to inherit his father’s kingdom. She thought the loss of the heir to the throne had been the first blow that led to all the rest. A father should not lose sons before him, she thought. It was a cruel thing to bear, for man or king.
The door came open with a crash that made Alice start. The three men who entered all resembled their father in different ways. With the blood of old Longshanks running in them, they were some of the tallest men she had ever seen, filling the room and crowding her even before they spoke. Edmund of York was slim and black-haired, glowering as he saw the woman sitting with his father. He had never approved of his father’s mistresses and, as Alice rose and stood meekly, his brows came down in a sour expression. At his side, John of Gaunt wore the same beard as his father, though it was still rich and black and cut to a sharp point that hid his throat from sight. The brothers loomed over their father, looking down on him as his eyes drifted closed once more.
Alice trembled. The king had been her protector while she amassed a fortune. She had grown wealthy from her association, but she was well aware that any one of the men in the room could order her taken on a whim, her possessions and lands forfeit on nothing more than their word. The title of Duke was still so new that no one had tested their authority. They stood over earls and barons almost as kings in their own right, finding their peers and equals only in that room, on that day.
Two heads of the five great houses were absent. Lionel, Duke of Clarence, had died eight years before, leaving only a baby daughter. The son of the Black Prince was a ten-year old boy. Richard had inherited his father’s Duchy of Cornwall, just as he would inherit the kingdom itself. Alice had met both children and she only hoped Richard would survive his powerful uncles long enough to become king. In her private thoughts, she wouldn’t have wagered a penny on his chances. The youngest of the three was Thomas, Duke of Gloucester. Perhaps because he was closest to her in age, he had always treated Alice kindly. He was the only one to acknowledge her as she stood and trembled.
‘I know you have been a comfort to my father, Lady Perrers,’ Thomas said. ‘But this is a time for his family.’ Alice blinked through tears, grateful for the kindness. Edmund of York spoke before she could respond. ‘He means you should get out, girl,’ he said. He didn’t look at her, his gaze held by the figure of his father lying in his armour on the pale sheets. ‘Off with you.’
Alice left quickly at that, dabbing at her eyes. The door stood open and she looked back at the three sons standing over the dying king. She closed the door gently and sobbed as she walked away into the Palace of Sheen.
Alone, the brothers were silent for a long time. Their father had been the anchor on their lives, the one constant in a turbulent world. He had ruled for fifty years and the country had grown strong and rich under his hand. None of them could imagine a future without him.
‘Should there not be a priest?’ Edmund demanded suddenly. ‘It’s an ill thing to have our father attended by a whore in his last moments.’ He didn’t see his brother John scowl at the loudness of his voice. Edmund barked at the world with every word, unable to speak quietly, or at least unwilling. ‘He can be called yet for the last rites,’ John replied, deliberately gentling his tone. ‘We passed him in prayer in the little room outside. He’ll wait a while longer, for us.’ The silence fell again, but Edmund shifted and sighed. He looked down at the still figure, seeing the chest rise and fall, the breaths audible with a deep crackle in the lungs. ‘I don’t see . . .’ he began.
‘Peace, brother,’ John said softly, interrupting. ‘Just . . . peace. He called for his armour and his sword. It won’t be long now.’ John closed his eyes in irritation for a moment as his younger brother looked round and found a chair to suit him, dragging it close to the bed with a screeching sound. ‘There’s no need to stand, is there?’ Edmund said smugly. ‘I can at least be comfortable.’ He rested his hands on his knees, looking across at his father before turning his head. When he spoke again, his voice had lost its usual stridency. ‘I can hardly believe it. He was always so strong.’ John of Gaunt rested his hand on Edmund’s shoulder. ‘I know, brother. I love him too.’ Thomas frowned at both of them.
‘Will you have him die with your empty chatter ringing in his ears?’ he said sternly. ‘Give him silence or prayer, either one.’
John gripped Edmund’s shoulder more strongly as he sensed his brother would reply. To his relief, Edmund subsided with ill grace. John let his hand fall and Edmund looked up, irritated by the touch even as it ended. He glared at his older brother.
‘Have you thought, John, that there is just a boy now, between you and the crown? If it weren’t for dear little Richard, you would be king tomorrow.’
The other two spoke at once in anger, telling Edmund to shut his mouth. He shrugged at them.
‘God knows the houses of York and Gloucester won’t see the throne come to them, but you, John? You are just a hair’s breadth from being royal and touched by God. If it were me, I’d be thinking of that.’
‘It should have been Edward,’ Thomas snapped. ‘Or Lionel, if he’d lived. Edward’s son Richard is the only male line and that’s all there is, Edmund. God, I don’t know how you have the gall to say such a thing while our father lies on his deathbed. And I don’t know how you can call the true royal line a “hair’s breadth” either. Hold your wind, brother. I’m sick of hearing you. There is only one line. There is only one king.’
The old man on the bed opened his eyes and turned his head. They all saw the movement and Edmund’s tart reply died on his lips. As one, they leaned in close to hear as their father smiled weakly, the expression twisting the good half of his face into a rictus that revealed dark yellow teeth. ‘Come to watch me die?’ King Edward asked. They smiled at the gleam of life and John felt his eyes fi ll with unwanted tears, so that his vision swam. ‘I was dreaming, lads. I was dreaming of a green field and riding across it.’ The king’s voice was thin and reedy, so high and weak that they could barely hear. Yet in his eyes they saw the man they had known before. He was still there, watching them.
‘Where is Edward?’ the king said. ‘Why isn’t he here?’ John rubbed fiercely at his tears. ‘He’s gone, Father. Last year. His son Richard will be king.’ ‘Ah. I miss him. I saw him fight in France, did you know?’ ‘I know, Father,’ John replied. ‘I know.’ ‘The French knights overran where he stood, yelling and smashing through. Edward stood alone, with just a few of his men. My barons asked me if I wanted to send knights to help him, to help my first-born son. He was sixteen years old then. Do you know what I said to them?’ ‘You said no, Father,’ John whispered.
The old man laughed in short breaths, his face darkening. ‘I said no. I said he had to win his spurs.’ His eyes turned up to the ceiling, lost in the memory. ‘And he did! He fought his way clear and returned to my side. I knew he would be king then. I knew it. Is he coming?’ ‘He’s not coming, Father. He’s gone and his son will be king.’ ‘Yes, I’m sorry. I knew. I loved him, that boy, that brave boy. I loved him.’
The king breathed out and out and out, until all breath was gone. The brothers waited in terrible silence and John sobbed, putting his arm over his eyes. King Edward the Third was dead and the stillness was like a weight on them all. ‘Fetch the priest for the last rites,’ John said. He reached down to close his father’s eyes, already lacking the spark of will.
One by one, the three brothers bowed to kiss their father’s forehead, to touch his flesh for the last time. They left him there as the priest bustled in and they walked out into the June sunshine and the rest of their lives.