Before the strange messenger arrived, I could have been struck by a lightning bolt and made no difference to England’s history. But in April 1483, the planets that favoured my birth sign moved into unparalleled amity. In one day, one hour almost, my fortune changed.
Instead of attending King Edward at Westminster Palace, I had taken leave and returned to my castle above the town of Brecknock – Aberhonddu as the local Welsh call it. I was weary of hanging about the royal heels like an idle dog. Being Duke of Buckingham and the last legal heir of the House of Lancaster might engender envy in some but they would be misguided. I hungered for the respect that comes with high office, the respect that had been accorded to my grandsire, the first duke, but Edward gave me no opportunity to prove myself. At twenty-eight years old, it was little wonder I was so discontent.
On the afternoon of the day the messenger rode into Wales, I admit to frolicking. My servants had done their best to alleviate my tedium by finding me two pert wenches in a hamlet south of the town. These twin girls were pretty as briar roses, fragrant, black-haired, blue-eyed, mischievous and, mercifully, clean. I was welcomed into their dwelling, where they blindfolded me and tormented me so exquisitely that I could not tell who nuzzled me or which one of them sat astride me first.
When I was sated, their sweet whispers and girlish laughter lapped around me – as gentle as perfumed bathwater after a day in the saddle. One of them slid from the bed to stoke the cottage fire. The other girl fetched sweetmeats and, while her sister fed me, she teased me to hardness once again. I might have stayed longer in their company but Sir William Knyvett, my uncle by marriage, rapped upon the cottage door and straightaway let himself in.
‘Harry, are you going to be much longer?’
‘You wish to join us?’ I asked, but something in his face made me toss aside my delightful rider and reach for my shirt.
‘And have your aunt strangle me with one of her garters? No, Harry, it’s John Shenmore – the bailiff you sent to Abergavenny, remember. He has just has been carted in with broken ribs. He was attacked down by Tretwr on his way back this morning.’
‘The Vaughans?’ I asked. It had to be the Vaughans, the greediest marauding whoresons this side of the Black Mountains.
‘Aye, who else?’
‘Excellent.’ I turned and gestured for my clothes. ‘We can ride down tomorrow and whack the hell out of them. It may not be as satisfying as sitting on the Royal Council, invading France or—’
‘Or risking the pox,’ Uncle Knyvett cut in. He moved aside to let the girl bring me my gipon and underdrawers. ‘Good, were they?’ His stare was appreciative
‘Very good, eh, cariad?’ I smiled down at the girl as she knelt to slide my feet into my woollen stockings. I thanked her in Welsh and carried her sister’s hand to my lips. ‘So, is Shenmore badly hurt?’ I asked Uncle Knyvett. No doubt extra payment would ease the fellow’s pain.
‘Come, then, I am done here.’
I teased the wenches by striding to the door without giving them payment. But as I grabbed the latch, I turned, laughing, and paid them double their worth, amused to see their dismayed mouths tilt into merriment again.
It was a shock to leave the warm stew of the wenches’ abode. The chill wind scourged our backs. April still had the breath of winter. Last night’s toss of snow garlanded the hedgerows and the road was hard with frost beneath our horses’ hooves. As we neared the river, I glanced over my shoulder. The clouds above the ebbing sun had parted over the mountains in a splendour of gold and vermilion as if Christ’s return was due. Was it an omen?
I gave spur to my horse and hastened across the drawbridge of my castle with new heart. The murrey sandstone walls were blushed a deeper hue beneath that glorious light and the grisailled windows of the great hall were conjured into a hundred tiny, shining mirrors. I do not exaggerate. I had never beheld such an immodest configuration of clouds and I tossed my ambler’s reins to a stableboy, hurtled up the stone steps and stood gasping on the battlements. But already the beauty of that sky was fading. So soon? Did it mean nothing? Oh God, surely there had to be some worth to life instead of the constant yearning that obsessed my soul.
Pershall, my bodyservant, had come to find me. His dark blue eyes were concerned. He had reason; I do not usually behave as though stung by a gadfly.
‘Observing me for signs of fever, Pershall? I came to see the sky.’
‘Not like you, my lord.’ Impertinent, disbelieving, he stared across the rooftops of the town to where the hills reared like an angry sea, and instantly dismissed the fading clouds. ‘Were the girls not to your liking, your grace?’
‘Most satisfactory, Pershall. Quite imaginative.’ I guessed the blindfold had been his suggestion.
‘Thank the saints for that. Well, I should stay up here a bit longer if I were you, my lord. Your youngest is bawling fit to wake the dead.’
I narrowed my eyes against the rising wind as I looked towards the great ridge of Pen-y-Fan, the inevitable horizon of Brecknock. It was dark and brooding now, its green-gold collar lost in the half-light. Maybe I believed in far too gracious a god. No gentle hand had clawed out those valleys and slapped those crags against the sky.
‘Should be good fishing on Llyn Safaddan soon, my lord.’
I shrugged sourly.
‘What about the Myddffai girl for you tonight? You remember, my lord, the red-haired wench with duckies to die for.’
Was that my reputation? Naught but a horny Plantagenet? Sweet Christ, any lord can have a warm-thighed woman who by night willingly creases the sheets she has so lovingly laundered by day. I would have given my soul to be useful instead of rutting in Wales.
Pershall would have earned a terse answer had not the barking of dogs and the trumpeting from the river gatehouse proclaimed the monthly arrival of the messenger from the Queen, my sister-in-law.
‘Shall you go down, my lord?’ Pershall looked hopeful.
‘What for, Pershall? News of the latest royal runny nose can wait until suppertime. Go and make ready my bath.’ I kept walking, the black dog of despair following behind my spurred heels like a shadow.
‘Harry! Harry, where in Hell are you?’
Uncle Knyvett emerged from the upper floor of the nearest tower. For a man in his forties he was very fit but the stairs had made him breathless. ‘Th…the messenger that has just come from Westminster, Harry, he’s a strange one. I think you should go down. He’s not from the Queen and he will speak only with you.’ I shrugged, but Uncle Knvyett had the bit between his teeth. ‘He’s poorly clad and yet he rode in on one of the King’s post-horses. Something’s up, lad. Something’s definitely up.’