Wednesday 7th of February 1470
Susanna Mandeville felt safe at her aunt’s house in Bourne. Rebels preyed on travellers and isolated buildings but even a woman as beautiful as herself—a woman, moreover, devoted to the Yorkist king—could reasonably expect to get through the day unmolested, if she stayed in town, minding her own business.
Today was the best weather in months, a good chance for her to concentrate on the great business of her life, so she exchanged the smoke-blackened rafters and busy noise of the chimneyless house for the sunlight and quiet of the neighbouring orchard. Families used to live here once, but recurring bouts of plague had left it vacant and survivors had claimed it as their own. Aunt Marian’s portion hosted plums, apples and pears, presently reduced to wintry trunks and leafless branches, bordered by the barren sticks of a hawthorn hedge.
“Try to keep still,” Susanna urged the boy trembling before her.
“B-b-but I’m-m-m c-c-cold!”
He was about ten years old, wearing only a tunic. A greasy woollen coat lay at his feet and he was clutching a bundle of sticks.
“Think Summer,” she urged him.
It was important to work quickly, while the paint was fresh on the bristles, and the world still fired her imagination with its mysterious impulses. High overhead, white clouds disappeared wisp by wisp, uncovering a background of wintry blue. Meanwhile the white background facing Susanna kept disappearing stroke by stroke of her quick brush, acquiring the first, dark suggestions of a tragic scene.
She had been planning something big throughout the winter, sketching with charcoal on wooden boards, drawing in ink on bleached paper, perforating a cardboard template for bagging with crushed charcoal, till at last the outline of her subject had emerged as delicate as a spider’s web, ready for painting. The opportunity hadn’t come cheap.
The frame and backing were common limewood but the surface was the best plaster, painstakingly layered to produce a texture as smooth and glossy as silk. The whole thing weighed as much as a small child. Propped up on a chair, carried from the house with all her equipment, it weighed almost as much as an adult. The artist too needed a seat. Susanna made do with an upturned barrel, conveniently placed next to an apple tree, one of its gnarled branches stretched out like a helping hand. Her tray of paints hung balanced in the wooden fingers.
Now at last her masterpiece was coming to life in vivid colour, applied with quick dabs of her brush, and even the mundane task of breaking an egg thrilled her with immense possibilities, its yellow lustre begging to be dyed with the colours lurking in the phials set out alongside. She was painting a boy collecting firewood for a hillside altar: Isaac, the son of Abraham. God had commanded the father to sacrifice him in place of the usual lamb, but what was a test of faith for Abraham and for the Church was a test of skill for her. Only a great artist could bring everything to life with the right colours and the right brushwork, evoking the boy’s sudden awareness that he, not one of the lambs, is destined for the knife. Moreover, there had to be something vital and brave in the way he looked out from the painting, or she could take no joy in his suffering. Here in the leafless orchard, where there was a powerful suggestion of tinder, and the imminent promise of Spring, it was above all the presence of a real boy that fired her inspiration.
He was Adam Galt the Younger. His parents and elder brother, another Adam, were common thieves and idlers, and no doubt he was destined to become one too. Aunt Marian had taken them under her wing out of charity, because the town was over-crowded with travellers stranded by the rebellion, and nobody else could find room for them. They should have felt grateful, but the parents had stubbornly refused to let Susanna use their son as her model, until finally she had promised them a shilling. Something about him demanded to be painted: a look of innocent self-respect peering from a life already too big with betrayals.
His trembling with cold was a minor distraction. A worse distraction kept hanging about with a hairbrush, always looking for an opportunity to tame Susanna’s wild locks, which the damned woman kept stroking in the abrupt manner of a cat licking a kitten.
“Put that stupid brush away,” Susanna objected.
“You put yours away.”
“Matilda, you are interrupting my work!”
“You are interrupting mine.”
“And stop crowding me.”
Matilda was supposed to stay out of sight but she kept edging forward for a better look at her own handiwork. The woman was obsessed with appearances, especially her own, highlighted now by a hooded cloak of scarlet, finished like felt, with an annoying lining that kept winking yellow. Susanna was interested in appearances too but only as a painter. The daughter of a wealthy merchant, she usually dressed like the daughter of a respectable peasant, and today was no exception, with a plain woollen cloak draped over an ankle-length smock.
“A woman should take pride in her looks,” Matilda insisted for the thousandth time, though plain-faced herself and overly tall.
“You take enough in yours for both of us.”
“Ask the boy what he thinks of your beauty, since he is so important to you. Ask him if he has ever seen a more beautiful creature. Ask!”
Susanna lowered her brush and gave Adam one of her appraising looks.
“When do I g-g-get our sh-shilling?” he asked.
“After the face is finished. Faces always come last.”
“Faces come first!” Matilda objected. “Yet here you sit wasting
yours on a mere boy.”
Susanna rolled her eyes in search of patience. Her beauty was a topic that bored her. Her father had kept a letter by one of his would-be sons-in-law and often read it aloud just to embarrass her. It praised her mouth, “red and proud as a summer rose”, her nose “petite as a wild lily half-hidden in snow”, her eyes, “blue as the sky at mid-morning”, her cheeks, “round as apples that ask to be bitten”, and her hair, “the colour of copper.” She was a picture. She was a picture without any effort at all. That was what bored her.
“Ouch!” she cried, her hair snagged in Matilda’s brush. “By God, Matilda, do that once more and I will knock you down, you nuisance, I promise you that.”
“You brought it on yourself,” pleaded the maid. “The only men you are interested in are painted ones. A spinster in spite of your face and figure! Me twice a widow in spite of mine. Ha! Is it any wonder that I grow careless! Is it any wonder that your father has banished you here, as punishment for disobedience, your aunt so pious, we might as well be nuns in a convent!”
“My father has betrothed me to five men so far, and they have all regretted it,” Susanna acknowledged while picking up a new brush. “If there is a sixth, I’ll make him eat one of my paints—cinnabar, I think.”
“Cinnab-b-b-bar?” asked Adam.
“Pleasing to the eye,” she explained, “deadly to the taste.”
“Then it is like you,” Matilda opined. “For you are pleasing to the eye and deadly to anyone that dares say it.”
“It is my beauty, and I will do with it as I please.”
“It is more mine than yours. I see it all day, and you only ever see it in a mirror.”
The maid thrust her brush at Susanna’s hair again and again snagged it.
“That does it!” cried Susanna, jumping from the barrel with clenched fists.
Most people who had heard anything about Susanna Mandeville knew she was good with her fists, but few knew that she could paint, unless it was painting noses red. There were prostitutes in Southwark, where she had been raised, who swore she could hit harder than most men. Matilda had been with her for over a year but had yet to experience a thrashing. It was only luck that prevented her experiencing it now. A worse nuisance was approaching.
“Oh no,” Susanna observed: “Watt.”
Watt was one boy too many for Susanna at any time, let alone now. Aunt Marian had adopted him at birth. Nobody knew anything about his real mother, except that she was fortunate to get free of him. Watt was always a disaster looking for somewhere to happen. A week ago, he had stolen some of Susanna’s paints and had lost them in the vegetable patch. A goose had died the next day, undoubtedly poisoned. Boys like Watt were a good reason never to get married. Only five years old, he was now bringing along a dead rat, trailed on the end of a long string. Earlier this morning, he had been swinging it at Aunt Marian’s enormous watchdog, Thunderbolt, currently tied up by the stable door for the boy’s own protection. Thunderbolt could be vindictive.
“Matilda,” said Susanna, thinking to kill two birds with one stone, “find something for Watt to do somewhere else, preferably before he gets here.”
“I already gave him the string,” Matilda reminded her.
“Adam, why don’t you go play with Watt?” was Susanna’s next option. “I have got all I need from you for now, and we can do the face later.”
“I don’t like Watt,” Adam answered defiantly.
“I’ll pay you another shilling,” she pleaded.
“As if you are made of money!” scoffed Matilda.
Susanna’s living allowance had been cancelled by her father—part of her punishment for rejecting another husband—and now she had no money left. Matilda had made good the loss with small sums from her own savings. It was a secret agreement between them: two pennies back for every penny lent, all to be settled by Christmas. Susanna already owed her four pounds, five shillings and fourpence, and that wasn’t taking into account the two shillings now promised to Adam.
“Ding, ding, ding!” Watt gurgled on arrival.
He dangled his rat over a low branch of the apple tree, almost upsetting the paints balanced in the gnarled, wooden fingers. Susanna rested a steadying hand on them.
“Go away,” she cautioned the boy, “before I lose my patience.”
“Ding, ding, ding!” Watt insisted, making the rat rise and fall by tugging on the string.
“He thinks the tree is a bell,” Matilda surmised, “and the rat is a clapper.”
“Somebody is ringing a bell somewhere,” Susanna realised.
A tinkling noise was coming from the hawthorn hedge. Strange noises were nothing unusual from that direction, the lane beyond the hedge being a shortcut for stranded travellers, passing between the abbey, where many of them had lodged, and the taverns and various alehouses where they drowned their sorrows. A gate in the hedge was resting on its side, the hinges having been stolen about a month ago—probably Adam’s father—so it was prudent to keep a careful watch on that corner of the orchard, in case trouble entered unseen. Susanna soon spotted something unusual. A hawk half-hopped, half-fluttered along the hedge, a small leash and some bells attached to one leg. It was the kind of hawk that a baronet might wear on a fashionable glove, unleashing it to catch supper on the wing, or just for the pleasure of watching it fly. It had only to get its leash snagged in the hedge to add one more distraction to Susanna’s already over-crowded morning. She tried to see the funny side of things.
“Oh look!” she said, pointing it out to everyone. “A jester has lost his cap-and-bells, and now it’s looking for another head to put itself on. I wonder whose?”
“Yours!” said Matilda. “A beautiful spinster is a joke worthy of a jester.”
“Jesser jesser jesser!” Watt squealed, always happy to discover a new word he could mispronounce.
“The word is jester,” Susanna told him, before taking the string from his fingers and lifting the rat out of the branch. “A jester, Watt, is someone who amuses kings. Shall I tell you about kings? There are two. One is called Edward of York, who lives in a great big palace at Westminster—he is very handsome—and the other is a grubby lunatic called Henry of Lancaster. He lives in the Tower of London. Why are there two kings? A good question! It is because there are two kinds of people in England today: people who try to do great things, and other people, like maids and small boys, who try to stop them.”
“When it comes to doing great things,” Matilda objected, “twice a widow trumps a spinster by a hundred miles.”
“Shall I tell you my idea of marriage?” Susanna scoffed. “It is when the heart is a mix of colours, all embracing a form that seems forever—but I get that from painting.”
“A painting can’t keep you warm at night,” was Matilda’s next tilt.
“Adam, I want to be alone with Matilda, so please take Watt and his rat somewhere else—or don’t you want that extra shilling?”
She dropped the rat on the firewood that Adam was holding. Adam pondered it for a moment, wondering what to do. A shilling is a lot of money, so he soon dropped the firewood, put on his coat and dragged the rat off by the string, Watt following behind, laughing at the trouble he had caused.
“They will be tormenting Thunderbolt with it soon enough,” Matilda surmised. “Men and boys are all the same creature, forever bent on their own destruction.”
“Two of them married you,” Susanna conceded.
“The first one fell under a waggon, and the second fell off a roof,” Matilda affirmed. “But nobody is reckless or bold enough to marry you, Mistress. A man’s eyes and other parts might wish he could, but then you speak, and his ears hate you.”
It was for this impertinence that Susanna at last struck her across the face. She only did it with an open hand, not with the closed fist, but small mercies were wasted on Matilda. She burst into tears and ran back to the house. Susanna had never regretted striking anyone before and she wasn’t inclined to regret it now. Still, she wished Matilda hadn’t taken it so much like a cry-baby, because now she would have to say sorry. However, there was no hurry.
She sat on the barrel again and pondered her progress. Mostly it was still bare plaster, but already she could see great prospects of success. This painting was like a child. It was seeded in her life’s experiences, and someday soon it would take on a life of its own, when many others would see it as she did, with a mixture of wonder and gratitude. Maybe then she would be given the respect she craved. Respect buys freedom. She could paint the way she wanted, if she were free, free to soar to the heights of human skill and imagination, gliding on the wings of confidence, and swooping to claim whatever prize caught her eye. Her present style of painting was technically accomplished but—it was important to be honest with oneself—a bit stiff. She had learned the English method, working step by step in tempera, with its studied air of unearthly beauty. She would much rather practise the new, more spontaneous style of painting in oils, because then she could capture the real world in its own colours, making dreams come true. Only the Dutch had mastered the new materials and routines, and she had often begged her father to let her live with his brother in Utrecht, a Dutch city where raw, English wool could be traded for expertly crafted wares. In Utrecht, she could learn the new style from some of its greatest exponents, and yes, she might even consent to marrying one of the city’s burghers, provided it was someone with enough money and talent to indulge hers, and with too little skill in English to annoy her with a man’s so-called conversation. Men could be so bovine. No Englishman had ever excited her marriage hopes, though maybe one had captured her heart.
The king of England.
Edward, the glorious fourth of that name, was the darling of the whole country, or that half that was Yorkist, and she had loved him, as many young women had done, from a distance, ever since he had burst on the public imagination almost ten years ago, the embodiment of male perfection. She had met him just once, when they had shared a brief dance during May Day celebrations in the Strand, two years ago. His impressive height, the gracefulness of his moves, his manly confidence, his pleasant and good-natured way with everyone—these she had often heard about, yet it had still come as a shock to find that it was all true. That dance had been the greatest moment of her life.
Her love for His Majesty was too pure and intense to be spoken of, and she had always kept it to herself, a jealously guarded secret. If her father ever came to know of it, he might think she was interested in men generally, and then he would never stop pushing fiancés at her. Others too must never know, or she could end up the butt of their jokes, especially back home in Southwark. Here in Bourne, she was her aunt’s respected niece, but back home she was her father’s torment and the terror of their neighbourhood: the Shrew of Southwark. Oh, how her enemies would laugh, if they thought she was just another mawkish female dreaming of impossibilities! And His Majesty was an impossibility, a man far beyond her reach. Or maybe not. There had been rumours lately that he was now the pampered and self-indulgent companion of liars, cheats and profligates. It was even rumoured that he had almost as many mistresses as he had female subjects. Surely this last accusation couldn’t be true, or Susanna would have enjoyed more than just a dance with him. But if there was any truth in the gossip, there could only be one explanation: he had married the wrong woman. He was like a painting in the wrong hands.
Thinking about the king, and remembering the enchantment of their brief dance, Susanna began looking through her brushwork as if it no longer mattered. Painting isn’t everything, is it? This was an unusual sensation. She resisted it and forced herself to dabble the brush in some fresh paint. The paint dried on the bristles before she could think what to do with it. She put the brush down. If only she could have that dance once more, that flirtation with majestic strength and grace, the touch of a man so winning, she could still feel his presence even here in a distant orchard two years later! So she got to her feet and closed her eyes, willing the moment back. It returned like music, a step to the left, a step to the right, forward and backward, in unison with the perfect man, to the accompaniment of pipes, tabors and bells.
Opening her eyes, she observed the hawk, now perched in the apple tree just overhead. It looked sleek and muscular, eyes cold as winter, the prettiness of its bells refuted by the ugly talons. Its presence was disturbing but not frightening. It was wholly intent on a rat scurrying through the orchard: Watt’s rat, following Adam at the end of a long string. The moment Adam stopped, the rat stopped too, crouching low in the grass. It was too much temptation for the predator. It pushed off the tree and glided like a bead on a string unerringly towards its target, arriving as quietly as death. Talons plunging into soft fur, it buried its prey and its own tinkling bells in the shadow of outstretched wings, excluding all hope of escape. There was something almost beautiful about its command of the moment, and Susanna was not alone admiring it. Watt emerged from behind a pear tree, gurgling for joy as he ran towards the hawk.
“Watt!” Susanna shouted, now running too.
The thing that happened next was so shocking, it was as if her portrait of Isaac had been lifted from the chair and smashed against the apple tree. She reached Watt too soon to protect him, the hawk launching its outrage at her instead, buffeting her with the fury of a storm, its claws branches enmeshed in her hair, sticks tearing at her tresses, knives questing for the scalp, stabbing at her eyes, wings beating wildly, while Thunderbolt barked, somewhere women screamed and, louder than anything else, bells, bells tolled like a town on fire, until suddenly she seemed lifted off the ground, wrestling with the sky itself, impossible to shake off. If she screamed, it was lost in the uproar, thoughts reeling in the terrible grip of a moment that had latched onto her with an artist’s own passion for the ultimate sacrifice, even as she fought against it, lest the pain bite deep and her beauty be marred forever, never valued till now. This was no bird. This was a struggle growing out of her, or turning into her, the whole world feathered in human skin, strong of bone and mighty of muscle, legs greater than hers, arms greater than hers, fingers as powerful as claws, all grabbing at her as if they owned her or she owned them, slapping at her head, flapping to get clear, yearning for freedom, for mastery of the future. She could fly to Utrecht, if she were winged like this beast. She could break all holds. She could do anything she wanted.
“Old still, Lahl Dingy!”
Was this the hawk talking? Was it herself emerging as someone or something else? It was not her usual voice. It was not how they spoke here in the Midlands or back home in London and Southwark. She was thrust aside, meeting the ground with a jolt, springing her eyes open. Something human towered over her, wings beating around broad shoulders, almost an angel but for the green and brown garb, coloured like the woods. The apparition had grey eyes, large with concern, bright with curiosity, until stepping back, becoming suddenly a grim-faced man with a hawk perched on a leather glove, the bird’s wintry gaze hooded, the bell silenced for now. He said nothing. There was no explanation, no apology. He merely turned and headed for the gap in the hawthorn hedge, where the gate used to be. Watt? He was sitting nearby, crying his eyes out. Susanna grabbed him and held him close, then she drew Adam in with a frantic wave and grabbed hold of him too. Matilda arrived with a flurry of alarm, enfolding them all in the yellow lining of her cloak. Aunt Marian burst from the house.
“Ho Thunderbolt!” the good woman cried on reaching the stable, where a great tug released the knot from the dog’s collar.
The animal was the size of a small horse, and bayed like the Devil, bounding after the stranger with six, seven, eight ferocious leaps, before suddenly stopping, taking up the dead rat and savagely shaking it from side to side. The man with the hawk sheathed a knife he had momentarily produced, then turned and vanished into the lane.
Sir Robert Welles staggered under the weight of the young deer draped across his shoulders, almost thankful not to have caught the large stag he had been hunting. Reaching the long table by the fireplace, he paused for a big breath, lowered his head then lifted the inert mass off his shoulders and down beside some waiting cups of wine, producing a thud that reverberated around the great hall. His companions cheered and piled a dozen or so lifeless birds next to his catch. It had been a good day’s sport in the park attached to Grimsthorpe Castle, one of the bastions of the Welles clan, a few miles from Bourne. Its wooden palisades and stone towers dominated western Lincolnshire.
“Find me some Yorkists,” Sir Robert rejoiced, “so I can add them to the pile!”
“They’re getting to be as rare in these parts as unicorns,” said his lieutenant, John Denby, adding a pheasant to the kill before accepting one of the cups the servants were handing out.
Sir Robert clapped him on the back. Denby was a man’s man and the best company in the world. It was he who had felled the deer, thrusting it through with a lance when it had sprung between their startled horses, otherwise they might have returned to the palisades and towers with nothing to brag about.
“A toast to your father!” said Denby, personally handing Sir Robert a mighty chalice studded with gems, a family heirloom. “God bless Lord Welles!”
“God bless my father,” Sir Robert concurred, raising the chalice as a prompt to all their companions. “Lord Welles, God bless him.”
“Lord Welles, God bless him!” cried the assembly, some thirty strong, each man with an embossed silver cup gleaming at the end of his reach. Lord Welles had gone to Westminster for talks with the king, escorted by a great cavalcade of retainers, about a week ago. If the talks had gone according to plan, Lincolnshire would end up his personal fiefdom, even if ostensibly ruled on the king’s behalf. News of his success was expected any day now. It would be their crowning triumph after years of hard work, peeling supporters from the king’s friends and grafting them onto their own cohort. Lord Welles was a bulldog for courage and persistence, and Sir Robert was devoted to him, yet it was good to be out from under his shadow for once, the first man in Lincolnshire, at least for now.
“God bless him,” he repeated as he prepared to drink from the chalice.
“What a coincidence!” said a tall figure all in black, emerging from behind one of the pillars in the hall.
Kilsby was an agent of the mighty earl of Warwick, an important ally in the fractured politics of the realm. Ally? The earl was nobody’s ally. His only ambition in a conflict with the throne was to go on being the real power behind it, no matter whether a Yorkist or Lancastrian happened to perch there. Creatures like Kilsby were Warwick’s eyes and ears, always sticking his nose where it didn’t belong. He had been a guest of Lord Welles and Sir Robert for a month now, at Grimsthorpe Castle and other bastions of the Welles clan—wherever he could be kept under close watch by his hosts, while he kept watch for the earl’s benefit, maybe in support of the rebels, maybe not.
“Coincidence?” asked Denby. “What are you driving at, Kilsby?”
“Yes, what are you driving at?” said Sir Robert, since the man in black seemed in no hurry to explain himself, casually strolling in and out between pillars, as if he owned the place.
“A messenger has just reached me from the earl,” Kilsby said as he finally approached the trophy-laden table, “while you were out hunting. The man is still here for questioning. Shall I spare you the trouble? Lord Welles never met the king. The talks were bait for a trap. But fear not, Sir Robert! Or at least not yet. Your father got wind of the mischief and sprinted for the closest refuge, Westminster Abbey. His retinue has been stripped of all their heraldic trappings, weapons and horses, and set loose like beggars. So now you get the picture! Your father’s safety is in God’s hands, holed up in the abbey, minus friends and supporters, and here you are, mentioning him and God in the same breath! Uncanny co-incidence, wouldn’t you say? God bless Lord Welles!”
Kilsby lifted his eyes in mock piety towards the rafters.
Sir Robert was stunned. So were his men. They all exchanged looks of dismay.
“Hellfire and fury!” Sir Robert thundered—what was the point of being left in charge if he didn’t take charge now! “My father goes to the king for talks and this is the thanks he gets? We ride to Westminster! Send word to our cohort! Raise up the whole of Lincolnshire!”
“Now wait a moment,” said Denby, resting a hand on Sir Robert’s shoulder. “Let’s not rush into anything just yet. We don’t even know if Kilsby’s report is true.”
Kilsby responded to this with one of his supercilious looks. He was naturally suited to looking down on people, his green eyes being separated by a long nose, like an elegant stone mullion dividing lancet windows, so that the eyebrows had a lofty quality even when he wasn’t being supercilious. It was a face Sir Robert wanted to admire but when a man looks that haughty, anyone below knows he is being scorned. Sir Robert rose to the challenge. He set his untasted chalice on the table, signifying an end to frivolity, then stroked his moustache. It was a wild collection of brown whiskers and Sir Robert was proud of it. A clean shave was customary, even the law for other Englishmen, but the son of Lord Welles could do as he damn well pleased, and a moustache proved it. His father was the only other Englishman sporting anything like it, and it was intolerable thinking of his whiskers being confined to Westminster Abbey.
“How do we even know your report is true, Kilsby?” he demanded to know.
“Question the messenger yourself, if you don’t believe me,” said Kilsby with a shrug, meanwhile helping himself to a cup of wine.“Better still, ask the earl. He’s headed for Middleham Castle.”
“That’s a week’s ride there and back,” Denby confided in Sir Robert. “We’ll hear from our own people before then.”
“Your own people?” was Kilsby’s response, eyes twinkling over the rim of his borrowed cup. “Do they know what the king is planning, let alone the earl, and do they have a counter-plan, these people of your own, Denby?”
“What are you talking about now?” said Denby.
“Yes, God damn it,” said Sir Robert. “The king has a plan, and your earl too? Is that it? Let’s hear them then.”
“Of course, I can say nothing of the earl’s plans,” said Kilsby, after another sip of borrowed wine. “A man as brilliant as England’s greatest nobleman has many friends, plans, contingencies, complexities that require the subtlest thought, the most careful co-ordination, information distributed when and as required, so that, in summary, only he ever knows all his own plans. You and I might know something of them once your rider returns from Middleham Castle. I can only tell you what the earl’s messenger has told me about the king’s plans.”
“Then get on with it,” Denby prompted him.
“This is a mighty hole,” Kilsby said as he inserted a finger into the deer’s punctured hide. “Your work, Sir Robert?”
“It might as well be,” said the young knight, irritated more than ever by Kilsby’s manner of not getting to the point straight away.
“The king is the creature of his wife’s family,” Kilsby continued, pausing for another drink of wine, “and his plans are theirs. They are still smarting over the deaths of her father and her brother in last year’s rebellion, and they have begun preparations for amassing a large force. Officially, it will be to keep the peace here in Lincolnshire, as if they mean to broker an agreement between their people and yours. Officially, mind you. In fact, they mean to crush you rebels once and for all. By the time they are finished, your heads will be looking down from the gates of your own castle, though it will be no longer yours by then. A collection of heads, like so many trophies on the table here.”
He waved a careless hand at the day’s catch.
“Good God,” said Sir Robert.
Grimsthorpe Castle, without his father, was a void, a question framed in timber and stone, and no amount of staring from the parapet, or following in his father’s footsteps, had prepared Sir Robert for the kind of tricks being played now. It was fortunate that Lord Welles had left behind a good counsellor in Denby the Dasher, a man of action that knew the right time to pull back on the reins and when to dig in the spurs. Sir Robert looked to him now.
“It was the earl of Warwick got us into this trouble, starting with the rebellion last year,” Denby reminded him. “Now he must show himself on our side or lose face with his allies everywhere—assuming that these reports are even true.”
“That’s right, Kilsby,” said Sir Robert. “Your earl loses face if he doesn’t help us now, if what you say is true.”
“The earl loses face if you lose your heads?” Kilsby mused. “But speaking of reports! The messenger sent here by the earl must continue to France, so that our friends in exile will be ready to respond appropriately. You have ships in the fens. Let’s place him in one of those.”
This was a quick shift in business and Sir Robert wasn’t surprised when Denby shook his head.
“The earl has ships of his own,” he reminded Sir Robert. “This is just Kilsby’s latest excuse for snooping in our affairs.”
“The fens are the most direct route to France,” Kilsby persisted. “There is no time for delays. Or shall I report to the earl, whom you now rely on for your heads, that you have been—how shall I put it—unhelpful?”
“Our people in the fens don’t take kindly to outsiders,” Denby insisted.
Sir Robert wasn’t deaf to good advice but Denby could already claim credit for the deer, and it was bad policy to rely on anyone too much, so Sir Robert fingered his moustache again, like a man still considering the issue. He was still fingering it some moments later when one of the servants heralded the arrival of the abbot from Bourne Abbey, barely preventing the abbot announcing himself.
“I am in no mood for niceties!” he said as he advanced impatiently on Sir Robert. “I want something done. Your family has made itself the only power here in Lincolnshire, and I have come to you for help. The rebellion has turned my abbey into an inn. It is coming apart at the seams. People have nowhere else to go. Where is your father? I want to speak with him.”
Usually the abbot was a model of courtesy, and Sir Robert was too taken aback to say anything at first. Kilsby filled the void.
“It is the season for hiding in abbeys,” he remarked with a laugh: “Lord Welles at the abbey in Westminster, and his enemies here at the abbey in Bourne.”
The abbot stared at him.
“Who is this?” he asked Sir Robert. “Everywhere I look these days, it’s another face, another name I am expected to know. My abbey is full of them. Yet enemies? Who says my abbey houses anyone’s enemies? They are frightened travellers anxious to go home. But Westminster Abbey? Lord Welles has taken refuge at Westminster Abbey? Who says?”
“Bertram Kilsby,” said Denby, passing the abbot a cup of wine. “He is merely a clerk that the earl of Warwick has yet to find a proper use for. Meanwhile we are making our own enquiries and, needless to say, we are still the power in Lincolnshire.”
“I am no less a man than my father,” Sir Robert affirmed, this being both a matter of pride and something of a joke, since he and his father were equally diminutive in stature, and big hearted in spite of it.
The abbot however was in no mood for pleasantries.
“This rebellion must end for everyone’s sake,” he said, flushing scarlet. “I am at the end of my wits. Only today there was a fresh outrage. One of your ruffians invaded the home of the spinster, Marian Kempe, a pious woman, and a great friend to me, the abbey, Bourne manor and the entire town. He set his hawk on her niece. A hawk! So, what is to be done about it?”
“Ruffians?” Sir Robert objected, now no longer in a mood for pleasantries either. “My men are all men of the best stamp, I’d have you know. But this Kempe spinster is a stranger to me—and who is her niece? Some whore by God or she wouldn’t be spreading lies about any man that rides with Sir Robert Welles.”
“Susanna Mandeville,” the abbot revealed. “As chaste as a drift of snow, and almost a nun in her steadfast love of solitude! Her father is a merchant in the bishop of Winchester’s manor in Southwark, almost a neighbour to his palace. These are not people you can take lightly.”
“Chaste as a drift of snow,” Kilsby queried, wandering around a nearby post, “from Southwark? I had heard it is all whores on that side of the Thames.”
“Envy is tongued like the Devil,” said the abbot, glaring. “Marian has ever been as beautiful as an angel, in body and in character, and her niece is cut from the same cloth. No ill must be spoken of those two women in my presence.”
“But who was the fellow with the hawk?” said Denby. “Does he have a name?”
“Oh yes, everyone has a name,” the abbot complained, “which is why I am always struggling to remember them all, and why it takes forever investigating damages, missing items and endless complaints. Like a common inn! But he never gave his name. He said little. According to the niece, his accent was so far north, it nearly had a kilt on it.”
“Tom Roussell,” said Denby, quick as a flash. “He is still out hunting.”
“Tom Roussell,” affirmed Sir Robert’s other hunting companions, nodding to each other. “It must be Tom. He is a northerner, a Yorkshireman. Who else could it be?”
“Tom Roussell!” marvelled the abbot. “Isn’t he—”
“The Beast of Ferrybridge!” said Sir Robert, eager to see the effect.
Roussell was the hardest of hard men, the foremost of all the heroes that the Lancastrian cause had ever summoned to its banners. He had once fought an entire county single-handed—and won. Most people in authority were familiar with his reputation, including the abbot, and he nearly choked on his wine.
“It was him? The man that flew the hawk at Marian’s niece was the Beast of Ferrybridge? A man like that in our neighbourhood! I should have been warned.”
“We don’t like to brag,” said Sir Robert, “so we have kept his visit here quiet, like a sword in its sheath, biding the hour when we strike terror into the hearts of our foes.”
‘When better than now,” said Denby, “though scaring girls wasn’t quite what we had in mind.”
“They have been frightened enough already, even without knowing the man’s name,” mused the abbot. “But someone must apologise, if not the Beast himself, then someone on his behalf.”
Kilsby circled around to the abbot and presented himself with an elegant bow.
“Roussell is more a colleague of mine than a friend of Sir Robert,” he declared in all his dark impudence. “We are both indentured to the earl of Warwick. But my apologies for speaking out of turn a moment ago. Pray allow me to introduce myself properly. My name is Bertram Kilsby, a cousin—”
“A distant cousin,” Denby interposed, “almost no cousin at all.”
“—of the earl of Warwick,” Kilsby persisted, “whom it is my pleasure to serve as a kind of roving steward. That is to say, I oversee the work of other stewards, helping out wherever I can: dusting off contracts, adding new clauses, investigating discrepancies—”
“Snooping,” added Denby.
“The Beast of Ferrybridge helps with that?” the abbot wondered.
“He is a lamb when not a lion,” Kilsby assured him. “We are heading to the fens tomorrow, on business for the earl, and I will personally see to it that Tom offers both the Kempe woman and her niece his humblest apologies.”
“Tom saying sorry is something I’d like to see myself,” Denby volunteered, “and a visit is just what our people in the fens will need, if Kilsby’s reports are true, but there is no call for the earl’s snoop to tag along.”
“There can be no apologies then,” said the man in black. “Tom goes nowhere in Lincolnshire without the earl’s authority, which, for present purposes, is invested in me.”
“But an apology is essential,” pleaded the abbot. “Someone must apologise.”
“Enough of all such wrangles!” said Sir Robert, actually glad of this chance to assert himself, since they all seemed to have forgotten who was in charge here. “There is no friendship without trust, and trust is what we must have. Tom Roussell is my guest and he will apologise tomorrow. Kilsby is also my guest and he may travel with Tom to the fens. Denby will go too, just to keep a watch on things. That’s final.”
“And what of all the people in my abbey?” said the abbot. “They’ll never leave without a guarantee of safe passage. The county is swarming with bandits. These troubles cannot to be endured a day longer.”
“These are difficult times for me too, damn it!” Sir Robert snapped. “I have responsibilities, not just here but—where?”
“Lincoln,” Denby advised him. “Yet the abbot is a good friend. You should be able to visit him—tomorrow week?”
“Expect me at your abbey tomorrow week,” Sir Robert advised the abbot. “If I like what I see, I’ll arrange an escort out of Lincolnshire for all who require it. But why people want to leave, when things here are better now than they ever were under the Yorkists, is something that makes me wonder whose side those people are on.”
Susanna was embarrassed at how little damage the hawk had actually done: a gash to the palm of her right hand, some punctures high on her forehead, and a few scratches on her scalp. The real hurt had been to her pride. She had needed rescuing from a bird hardly bigger than an alley cat, and her rescuer hadn’t even thought her worth an apology. She was still wrinkling her nose at one of Aunt Marian’s home remedies—a poultice that stank of crowfoot and vinegar—when the abbot arrived late in the afternoon, with news that the apology was on its way. This was the first time, in Susanna’s recollection, that he had ever visited the house in all his Church regalia, a measure of the occasion’s seriousness. The invasion of a respectable home, especially one belonging to a force like Marian, was not to be tolerated.
“It is intolerable!” he said, banging the floor with his crozier. “An attack on your household, Marian, is an attack on us all. It is an attack on the abbey itself. However, I have made enquiries and I have discovered the culprit.”
“He is indentured to the earl of Warwick, and he has been staying at Grimsthorpe Castle off and on for a month now. He will make his apologies tomorrow, sometime in the morning, I think.”
“Name and details?”
“A man-at-arms from Yorkshire: Tom Roussell.”
The abbot looked ready to say something else but pursed his lips instead. He was often more eyes than words in their company, and he finally left after kissing Marian’s hand as devotedly as if she were the pope.
“Sometime in the morning?” Susanna mused after the door had closed on his visit. “That doesn’t sound very sorry to me. Today would be sorrier.”
“Tomorrow gives us more time. We must look our best.”
“Look our best for a rebel?” Susanna scoffed, her pride disallowing any change to her usual routine. “You heard what the abbot said. Roussell is indentured to the earl of Warwick, and we all know that Warwick is the biggest trouble-maker in the kingdom. And Grimsthorpe Castle! A festering sore we all know is the seat of rebellion here in Lincolnshire. That Roussell creature is a traitor’s lickspittle if he is in with that lot. I am not going to dress up for the likes of him.”
“He is just an untutored Yorkshireman,” her aunt conceded, “but he must be made to see how important you are, or he won’t know how wrong he is.”
“I must make myself look as bold as an alehouse sign, as a woman of consequence, or he won’t know any better?”
“What about that beautiful blue gown I bought for you, when I presented you to Lady Margaret Beaufort? That will put him in his place.”
Aunt Marian’s piety was seasoned with lashings of worldly wisdom, otherwise Susanna could never have loved her so much. However, Marian didn’t know everything. The blue gown had been ripped almost in half and Susanna had been keeping it from her notice for over two months. Lady Margaret Beaufort was one of the greatest women in England, and the damage had been done by Sir Henry Beaufort, her husband. Matilda knew most of the story, and Susanna confided in her next.
“I need you to do an errand for me,” she whispered: they shared a tiny room partitioned from the hall by a screen of white swans, painted by Susanna herself during a previous stay. “Did you hear me or are you deaf?”
Matilda was sitting on the bed, face averted, arms folded. The slap across the face had not been forgiven in spite of everything else that had happened since.
“I’m sorry I slapped you,” Susanna now volunteered.
“It was meant to. Now stop sulking and listen. I have to wear something suitable for tomorrow’s apology.”
“Apologies matter to you?”
“I am really, really sorry I slapped you.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Then lend me some forgiveness until Christmas, when we settle my other debts, and I’ll apologise twice. This is important. That blue gown I asked you to keep hidden for me—”
“After Sir Henry ripped it.”
“Hush! I told you it was an accident.”
“Such accidents never happen to me.”
“He said he was going to show me some paintings in Lady Margaret’s solarium, he tripped on the stairs—”
“Grabbing your gown, just to steady himself.”
“I don’t want trouble between Lady Margaret and my aunt. We must pretend it never happened.”
Matilda brightened for a moment.
“I have the perfect cloak for that gown. It’s English wool, French design, all in lemon and white, with a drawstring at the collar.”
“How will that improve things?”
“You want to hide the damage, don’t you?”
“Your cloak won’t hide it from me.”
“Then how about I lend you one of my own gowns! A few nips and tucks are all it needs for a good fit.”
“I don’t want to look like you. We have to repair the blue one.”
“It’s beyond even my skills, but I know the right woman. She won’t come cheap: an expert seamstress working late into the night, making invisible repairs—sixpence at least.”
“A nice, round sum. That’s always the way with you, isn’t it! Anyway, I’ll pay you back later. Tell the seamstress it’s one of yours.”
“The style is elegant enough to be one of mine. Your aunt has good taste.”
“You’ll have to come up with some excuse for leaving the house,” Susanna reflected. “Marian is on the alert now and she is watching everyone and everything like a ... like a ...”
“And now I have thought of a good excuse! Watt’s dog went missing. We can say you are out looking for it.”
“It is hardly a real dog, nothing like Thunderbolt.”
“Watt calls it Dog, and I wouldn’t call Thunderbolt a real dog after today’s episode.”
“Why must your aunt always take in riff-raff? It is probably out killing the neighbours’ chickens again.”
“She wants Dog found and that’s good enough for me. Now, hide the gown in your shawl, and off you go.”
“I am charging you at the usual rate—two returned for every one borrowed—so the sixpence I am lending is another shilling. That’s now four pounds, six shillings and fourpence, not including the money promised to Adam, all payable to me by Christmas.”
“Yes, yes, off you go.”