Yuletide, January 1483, Middleham, Yorkshire
Packed like a row of spoons, the maids of honour to her grace of Gloucester snuggled together in the great bed for warmth against the icy wind howling across the moors of Wensleydale. It should have been impossible for a nightmare to insinuate itself amongst them, but Heloise Ballaster awoke as she hit the floor, bringing the candlestick crashing down with her and bruising her elbow on the wooden bedsteps.
The shriek of her nearest neighbour awoke the others and four faces peered down at her from the edge of the coverlet, their braids dangling like a row of bellropes.
'Your pardon,' whispered Heloise ruefully, goose-fleshed as she scrambled quickly back up into the high bed.
'Was it him again?' asked someone.
The dream of an armoured knight, visor down, thundering towards her with a deadly lance aimed at her breast?
'Yes. And I always fall. Why do I always fall?'
'Mayhap it was not his lance he was aiming at you, Heloise,' giggled the worldliest among them. 'Maybe there is something you are not telling us.'
Heloise's nightmares always came true.
Bring us in no bacon, for that is passing fat,
But bring us in the good ale and give us enough of that,
And bring us in good ale!
Bring us in good ale and bring us in good ale,
For our Lady's blessed sake, bring us in good ale.
Tankards slammed bawdily upon the trestle tables and the great hall of the Duke of Gloucester's castle at Middleham guffawed with Yorkist laughter as the cockatrice, a gaudy, four-legged monster with the head of a rooster and the tail of a crocodilus, capered round among the revellers. By rights, the legendary creature should have had a piglike rear but no one could be bothered arguing. It staggered and swore with two voices as someone grabbed hold of its scaly tail.
'Ouch!' spluttered Heloise Ballaster, who was playing the head. She recovered her balance and craned the cumbersome beak round to see which drunken lout was impeding her progress. The merrymaking had become suddenly too boisterous and some of the more unruly youths were trying to discover who owned the cockatrice's legs.
'I'll deal with this knave,' exclaimed the cockatrice's tail. Will, the duke's jester, loosened his arms from Heloise's waist and jabbed two fingers out the rear end of the costume into the fellow's nose, and then he squirted the contents of a leather bladder after it. The onlookers collapsed in fits of raucous laughter as the esquire staggered back in humiliated surprise, his face dripping with pudding ale.
'We must end this, Will!' Heloise muttered, lurching away as a reveller tried to peer inside the beak. Thank heaven she wore a black mask as well. Yes, definitely time to make their exit. This prank was growing far too perilous. God's mercy! If it should be discovered that one of the duchess's maids-of-honour was prancing in doublet and hose – with a man's arms and face against her waist (not that the jester ever showed any interest in women) – her virtue would be put to the question. Besides, it was not just fear of disgrace that was fraying her wits but a gnawing sense of evil about to happen.
'Shall we make for the great chamber then, mistress? Mistress?'
Heloise did not answer. She swayed as the rush of blood that precipitated a vision flooded her mind. Not now, please God, not now! But it came unwanted – the nightmare image of the duke's son choking for breath, writhing upon the floor.
'Mistress?' Will's arms shook her back to the reality of the smoky hall. He turned her towards the dais, for the great chamber where they had left their outer garments lay beyond the high table – the high table where the duke's heir, a giggling ten year old, was reaching out to the golden platter of wafers and sugar-coated almonds. Almonds that could choke a laughing child!
'Jesu!' Fear of discovery, not just of shamefully playing the cockatrice but her terror that the entire castle might shrink from her as a witch-warred with her duty. But how could she risk the life of Richard Gloucester's precious only child?
'No,' Heloise exclaimed. 'No!'
The cockatrice hurtled up the hall-its rear staggering-dived under the cloth of the high table and heaved. It reared up to grab the platter of almonds and tripped. Silver dishes skidded, sweetmeats flew as if magicked, goblets splashed their contents down the sumptuous cloth, the central trestle tumbled, crashing down the steps and the duke and his guests sprang up.
The music and the laughter stopped in mid-breath. Heloise, blanching behind her mask, took an anguished look at the coloured shards of costly glass spattering the tiles, and gazed up wretchedly at his grace's astounded face. But the boy was safe. Uncertain, surprised, but beside his father, safe.
Silence, growing more menacing by the instant, surrounded the grotesque cockatrice. Heloise backed into Will, wishing the floor would swallow her up. For an instant, it seemed to the onlookers that the monster's back and front legs were trying to go in different directions and then the creature shook itself into some sort of unison and hurtled out the nearest door.
'That was impressive,' commented a female voice, laced with humour. 'We shall have to remember that for next year as well.' Lady Margery Huddleston, the creator of the costume, had hastened after them into the great chamber. Briskly, she gripped the painted edifice that had been stifling Heloise and wriggled it free. Already there were raised voices beyond the door.
Heloise blinked at her helplessly, wishing desperately that she might turn time backwards. How could she possibly explain? 'I am sorry, madam. I am so sorry.' Here was the last person she wished to anger; Margery, the duchess's bastard half-sister, had been a good friend to her.
'They will want to understand.' Margery tilted her head towards the great hall. 'I want to understand? God's mercy, where –' Scanning the chamber, she snatched up Heloise's discarded over gown. 'Quickly!' Hastily, she tugged it over Heloise's head, struggling to hide the shirt and borrowed hose just as the door opened.
'Aye, Mistress Ballaster!' exclaimed the jester crawling with sweating pate and scarlet face from the beast's entrails. 'Would you care to explain what in hell you were about? Oh, lordy, here is the judge and jury.'
Despite his thirty-one years, Duke Richard of Gloucester was not a tall man but being a brother to the King, his authority gave him the extra stature and he was looking stern enough to hang a man-or woman. His brown eyes took in the discarded skin of yellow fustian, the scaled, flaccid tail, and rose questioningly to the scarlet-beaked head that his sister-in-law was hugging to her bosom. Margery gave a tiny shrug and the duke stared beyond her to his wife's crumpled maid-of-honour.
'Close the door!' he ordered grimly.
Heloise's face burned with shame as his shocked gaze fell upon the ungirded gown with its collar slatternly awry, and the loosened ginger legs of the cockatrice puddled around her ankles. Gravely, she removed her mask. At least her accursed hair, bonneted into a coif, was out of sight. They had been so courteous and decent to her, these people, and this was how she repaid them. All the warmth and respect she had sought to kindle in her few months atMiddleham was turning to ashes. Controlled though it now was, Gloucester's voice was like a lash to her already bruised morale.
'Since you seem to be the brains of this creature, mistress, perhaps you would care to enlighten me as to why you upset our table?'
Others had followed the duke in; the chamberlain and his grace's chaplain, and she could hear an inebriated crowd gathering outside with the excitement of carrion crows anticipating a killing.
'I thought my lord your son was about to choke.' It was the truth. 'I was wrong. I beg your pardon, your grace.' Please do not send me home, your grace, her eyes beseeched him. Not to the beatings and the anger.
'How could you discern such a thing?' Dr Dokett, the chaplain, stepped forward, his huge black sleeves aflap with malevolence. 'You were at the end of the hall. How could you possibly see?'
'I –' The right words evaded Heloise. How could she tell these noblemen of her premonitions without making them loathe her, fear her? Even Duke Richard, sensible as he was, would send her away. People did not want to hear. It terrified them. Dear God, it terrified her.
Then suddenly there was shouting and the oaken door was wrenched open. The throng crowding its portals separated as Anne, Duchess of Gloucester, eyes awash with tears, pushed through to sag against the doorway.
'What is it?' Gloucester asked, his voice serrated with the edge of sudden fear.
'Our son,' whispered the duchess, fingers pressed against her lips. 'He choked on a sugared almond but Richard Huddleston turned him upside down, thank God, and he is restored. Oh, my dearest lord.' With a sob of relief, she flew across the chamber to the comfort of her husband's arms. Although Gloucester lovingly stroked the back of his fingers down his wife's cheek, above her head he was staring at Heloise.
'When? Just now?' he asked his duchess.
'It was probably the excitement. Foolish child.' Anne of Gloucester raised her head cheerfully, knuckling her tears away, and then she sensed the tension around her and recognized Heloise and Lady Margery, snared in the midst of it. 'Let us not spoil the feast,' she said quietly, receiving a plea from her half-sister. 'I pray you, my lords, let us return to the merrymaking.'
The duke hesitated, confusion behind his frowning brow. The duchess drew him away, but he was still glancing back at Heloise as the company thronging the dais drew aside deferentially to let their lord and lady pass.
'Cockatrice!' sneered Dr Dokett, delaying to cast an evil look at Lady Margery and her accomplices. He drove a sandalled foot savagely into the belly of the carcass. 'A work of the Devil! And that foul Fiend already has your soul! Cavorting shamelessly and you a maid. You should be dismissed!' He hurled the words at Heloise over his shoulder like salt as though she was a demon. And, perhaps, thought Heloise, shaken by the ugly hatred, perhaps she was.
Copyright Isolde Martyn
Reproduced with the kind permission of Pan Macmillan Australia. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.