05 April 2017

Prologue

Anno Domini 1377 

Bowls of dark royal blood lay beneath the bed, forgotten by the physician. Alice Perrers rested on a chair, panting from the effort of wrestling the king of England into his armour. The air in the room was sour with sweat and death and Edward lay like his own effigy, pale and white-bearded. There were tears in Alice’s eyes as she looked on him. The blow that had struck Edward down had come from a clear spring sky, unseen and terrible on a warm wind. Gently, she leaned forward and wiped spittle from the side of his drooping mouth. He had been so strong once, a man among men who could fight from dawn till dusk. His armour gleamed, yet it was marked and scarred like the flesh it covered. Underneath it, muscle and bone had wasted away. 

She waited for him to open his eyes, unsure how much he still understood. His awareness came and went, moments of fading life that grew fewer and shorter as the days progressed. At dawn, he’d woken and whispered for his armour to be put on. The doctor had jumped up from his chair, fetching another of his filthy draughts for the king to drink. Weak as a child, Edward had waved away the stinking mixture, beginning to choke when the man continued to press the bowl against his mouth. Alice had felt her resolve firm when she saw that. Over the doctor’s furious protests, she’d shooed him out of the king’s rooms, snapping her apron at him and ignoring his threats until she was able to close the door on his back. Edward had watched her lift his chain mail from the armour tree. He’d smiled for a moment, then his blue eyes had closed and he’d sagged back into the pillows. For the next hour, she’d grown pink at the labour, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand as she struggled with leather ties and metal, heaving the old man back and forth without his aid. Yet her brother was a knight and it was not the first time she’d dressed a man for war.

By the time she pulled the metal gauntlets over his hands and sat back, he was barely aware, groaning softly as he drifted. His fingers twitched on the crumpled blankets until she gasped and stood, realizing what he wanted. Alice reached out to the great sword standing against the wall of the room, having to use both arms to place it where his hand could take the hilt. There had been a time when Edward had wielded that blade as if it had no weight at all. She wiped hot tears as his hand closed on it in a spasm, the gauntlet creaking in the silence. 

He looked like a king once more. It was done. She nodded to herself, pleased that when the time came, he would be seen as he had lived. Reaching for a comb from her pocket, she began to smooth out the white beard and hair, where they had become matted and tangled. It would not be long. His face drooped on one side as if warm wax had melted and his breath came in crackling gasps.

At twenty-eight, she was almost forty years younger than the king, but until his illness, Edward had been vigorous and strong, as if he might live for ever. He had ruled all her life and no one she knew could remember his father, nor the great Hammer of the Scots who had ruled before him. The Plantagenet family had left a mark on England and torn France apart in battles no one thought they could win. Her comb snagged in his beard. Blue eyes opened at her touch and, from that ravaged body, her king looked up at her. Alice shuddered under the fierce gaze that had brought its own form of weakness in her for so long.

‘I am here, Edward,’ she said, almost in a whisper. ‘I am here. You are not alone.’

Part of his face pulled into a grimace and he raised his good left arm to grip her hand and lower it, with its comb held tight. Each breath was drawn roughly in and his skin flushed with the eff ort of trying to speak. Alice leaned close to hear the mush of words.

 

Stormbird

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.

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