Extract 1 Kate Neville
Kate, the young sister of the Earl of Warwick, is married to twenty-year-old Will Bonville, Lord Harrington, and they have a six-month-old daughter, Cecily. In this excerpt from the opening section, it is January 1461 and Will is away fighting in the rebel army of the Duke of York. Kate is at home in Devon, sitting in the winter sunshine and gazing up at the wooded hillside that overlooks the manor of Shute.
… Stockton Wood made her afraid of the deep recesses of her soul, afraid that there was a reckoning to be paid.
That first leaf fall after their wedding, Will had spurred his horse through the great rutted puddles left by the woodsmen’s carts. She had been riding close behind, but the laughter had left her when he led her on foot deeper into the ancient grove of oaks that tonsured the hill. Everywhere, ivy snaked forth across the fallen logs, clawing upwards, tormenting the barks of the wizened trees. Less obvious, a few venomous greenish-white toadstools – death-caps – pierced through the rotting leaves, and the phallus of a single stinkhorn breathed its corrupt miasma out into the shadowy air.
‘This oak grove is haunted by the wraiths of pagan victims,’ Will had whispered. ‘Young virgins sacrificed on a stone altar to the sun god.’
‘Then we are trespassing,’ she had whispered, pulling free. Their presence seemed a sacrilege. ‘Let’s go back to the horses.’
He laughed, seeing he had upset her. ‘Pah, you are such an innocent, Kate Neville.’ His hands reached out to tether her but she guessed his intent and fled.
Whooping, he chased her around the oaks and then he deftly hooked his foot around her ankle, tripping her. She remembered screaming as she fell face down into the mess of ivy. Then he had turned her over, the merriment slipping from his face and she had recognised the silent intensity that always heralded his ardour.
‘I don’t want to,’ she said. ‘Not here.’
‘Hush, it’s your duty to obey me.’
Stifling her protests with kisses, he had fumbled beneath her petticotes, tossed her kirtle back and tumbled her as though she were some common shepherdess. Useless to be angry. Will was quite capable of sulking whenever she said no. Being ‘bloggy’, his father called it.
‘The Druids made love to the virgins before they sacrificed them,’ he lied with male authority afterwards, as he stood above her retying the points to his gypon. ‘It would have been a waste otherwise.’
‘But then they would not have been pure to sacrifice,’ she argued, hiding her resentment and tugging her skirts back over her garters and stockings. She pitied the pagan maidens; their ravishment an extra cruelty before slaughter.
He straightened the flap of his hose. ‘You are too clever, you Nevilles,’ he muttered. ‘Anyway, say your prayers, madame wife, that we have made a boy of this moment’s work.’ But there had been an uneasiness in his eyes, perhaps a fear that he could have provoked the primeval spirits of the grove – a desecration that might require punishment. But then his mood lifted, like a tossed caravel, swinging round to confidence again.
‘It looks to rain. I’d better get you home.’ He helped her scramble to her feet and then as he plucked away the leaves snared in her boisterous hair, the shadows about them seemed to shrink back, the gnarled trees became less ominous. With his arm about her waist, he had hastened her back to where the horses were contentedly cropping the moss. Maybe it was his new doublet that concerned him, whether the dye of the lining could run and ruin his shirt, or else he was afeared and too much the swaggerer to admit it. Yet they quit the wood with a new spirit planted inside her. It had been there that Cecily had been conceived and although the baby had been born free of any deformities, still Kate feared there was some curse attached to that coupling and that the skein of destiny for Will was tampered with that day. That fear still lay heavy behind her heart although it was fifteen months since the begetting.
Extract 2 Elysabeth Woodville, Lady Grey
It is Februay 1461 and Elysabeth’s twenty-nine year-old husband, John Grey, Lord Ferrers, is away fighting for the House of Lancaster. They have two sons, Thomas and Dickon. In this extract, the Ferrers household at Groby [pronounced Grooby] in Leicestershire is celebrating the news of Lancaster’s battle victory at St Albans. However, a messenger arrives desiring to have urgent speech with Elysabeth. Her mother-in-law, Lady Ferrers, joins her outside.
Two men were waiting in the courtyard, facing the steps of the hall. Right behind them, still held by its leading rein, was a laden ass.
The grey-haired man – this must be Bart – bobbed in respect and stepped aside. Elysabeth recognised the youth who was with him – one of the stable lads who had left Groby last week as an excited horseboy and returned as … ?
The young man bowed and as he raised his head, sorrowful eyes, gritted with weariness and suffering, pierced hers. Elysabeth, confused, skewed her gaze behind him to the pack ass – not one of theirs but a poor bony creature. Its load … was a body.
The corpse was slung across the horse’s back. It hung face down, wrists bound to bare ankles to prevent falling. A quilted brigadine, heavily and red-stained, had slid downwards to collar the man’s head.
Staring at Elysabeth, the lad reached out wordlessly and tugged the garment up so she was able to recognise the tousled, bloodied hair and the hands, ringless and tethered palm to palm.
'John!' she screamed and rushed forwards, falling on her knees. The ass was startled. The boy swiftly grabbed the reins.
‘How can this be?’ Elysabeth shrieked, twisting in anger to face the people behind her.
John’s mother’s face was as grey as ashes. ‘O Jesu,’ she whispered crossing herself in horror. ‘O Jesu, Jesu, Jesu!’
‘But it was a victory,’ protested someone.
‘What of Grey, my other son?’ Lady Ferrers was asking.
‘He be recovering from wounds, my lady,’ answered the boy. ‘That be why he could not come ’imself.’
Oh, if only John’s brother had died instead! Elysabeth wanted to shriek aloud in her wretchedness. How could God be so cruel? And she and John had parted in such anger!
‘No, no!’ she protested, her hands fists against the wrath of God.
‘My lady?’ Exclaiming and muttering, their people were all about them now, the women servants sobbing and the older men blaspheming in shock. And Elysabeth was reaching out in grief and pity to John’s brow as if her fingertips needed to assert what her mind refused to believe.
And then the voices halted, as though a knife had been thrust against each throat. She twisted round, dashing her own tears aside. The throng had parted to let Tom through. The chaplain was trying to hold him back but he jerked away the cleric’s hand.
‘No, no, don’t let him see!’ exclaimed Elysabeth. ‘Take him in! For the love of God, take him in!’ She stumbled to her feet, spreading her arms.
Ignoring her, his face like hewn stone, he came past her and halted, staring wide-eyed at the purple bruises that made his father’s profile almost beyond recognition. It was as if he was counting the wounds, forcing himself to register each one. Elysabeth, shaking with shock now, looked, too. There were so many. And the gash. The line of dried blood ribboning John’s throat.
‘Tom,’ she began but her son’s face was a mask of defiance.
‘This is victory, Mother? I do not think so.’
The servants parted in silence as he walked back through their midst into the house. For a moment no one moved and then his grandmother took charge. ‘Why do you stand in such idleness?’ Lady Ferrers cried, gesturing the servants towards John’s body. ‘Carry your master to the chapel at once! And you, sirrah,’ she demanded of the youth. ‘What of Lady Grey’s kinsmen and the rest of our men?’
Elysabeth clutched her fingers to her lips with a painful, guilty gasp. In her anguish, she had forgotten that her father and eldest brother were with the army, too.
‘They stay with the queen, my lady. She intends to march on to London. Two of the men from Astley were killed with the master but they’re like to be buried at St Albans and Nicholas Anstey had an arrow in his shoulder but the chirugeon got it out and reckons it’ll heal an—’
‘They will be in our prayers,’ cut in Lady Ferrers. ‘Come, Elysabeth! Let us to the chapel!’ But then rage and sorrow broke through her mask of briskness. ‘I’ll say this, though, lad, you could have brought your lord home with greater honour, not slung like a traitor!’
‘Beggin’ your pardon, my lady. It be not my fault nor Master Edward’s. Her highness would not spare the horses.’
‘No horse?’ Elysabeth exclaimed, her voice strange and shrill. ‘My lord husband died for the queen and she could not spare a horse?’ For an instant, her entire body shook with hatred, welcomed it, but the horror was overwhelming. She was conscious of the chaplain at her side, the murmur of concerned voices.
‘Pray go in, my lady,’ he was saying. ‘Your sons will need you.’ And then Lady Ferrers, with an arm about her shoulders, was turning her towards the steps. She could feel the same righteous anger pulsing through the older woman’s fingers.
‘Ahem! Please you, Lady Grey.’ They had forgotten the messenger who had brought his master home.
Both of them looked back. Elysabeth felt the words stick in her throat, but Lady Ferrers still had a stifler on her grief and nodded. ‘We thank you, boy. You shall be rewarded.’
He sniffed dismissively, waggling his lower jaw. ‘Not that, my lady.’ It seemed he had a speech for both of them but his gaze was for Elysabeth. ‘Master’s esquire, Andrew Chilvers, wanted me to say to you that the master fought bravely. He led the charge but it was them traps what did it.’
‘Traps?’ The word tasted raw, bitter as she turned and braced herself to listen.
‘Yes, Lady Grey, Lord Warwick hid traps – nets, caltraps and that ilk to wound the horses, see. That’s what brought the master down. His horse trod upon the caltraps and he fell upon the field and our enemy’s soldiers rushed forward with their halberds.’
‘Oh dear God! You saw this?’
‘Not I, my lady, but Master Chilvers did. And he bade me give you this.’ He thrust his hand inside his jacket and tugged out a crumpled piece of silk.
The St Valentine’s gift.
The youth was a blur beyond her tears as he tumbled to his knees at her feet like a penitent waiting for absolution. ‘An’ I crave you forgivene—
He broke off. Dickon had burst out of the hall and was pulling at her skirt.
‘Mama come, come! Tom is throwing the wooden soldiers that Father made us onto the fire.’
Elysabeth, torn, her heart breaking, caught the child to her side and set a trembling hand upon the messenger’s head. ‘God’s blessing on you for bringing your master home.’
‘An’ God be wi’ you, my lady,’ he said, with pity.