Super User

Super User

Saturday, 05 November 2011 06:17

Read an excerpt

April 1483

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.

‘He’ll mend.’

‘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.

‘Your grace?’

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.’

Saturday, 05 November 2011 06:07

About the book

A real life 'game of thrones'!

1483: England has a new king – a mere boy – but who is to rule the kingdom until he comes of age? His ambitious mother, Queen Elizabeth Woodville, or his uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester?

Into this impasse steps the eloquent and charming Harry, Duke of Buckingham, Richard’s cousin, but what are his true intentions? Here for the first time is his account of that fateful summer when Gloucester became King Richard III. But of the two, who is the statesman and who the villain?

In this novel, rich in intrigue, Isolde Martyn, author of Mistress to the Crown, draws Richard III and Buckingham, two of history’s most enigmatic men, out from the shadows.

Saturday, 05 November 2011 06:17

Read an excerpt

Soper’s Lane, the city of London, 1463

At fourteen, we make mistakes. I had been a fool to come to this old man’s chamber on my own but I was desperate for legal advice on how to annul my marriage. He had told me he was a former proctor, a church lawyer – exactly what I needed – and he had seemed as friendly as a kindly grandfather when I spoke to him after Mass on Sunday. But now he was tonguing his cheek as he eyed my body and dancing his fingers slowly on the table between us. Behind him, in the corner, I could see his half-made bed.

I would not scream, I decided, slowly rising to my feet. Shrieking for help would mean my name would be all over the city by suppertime. No, I had to deal with this on my own.

‘Thank you, sir, I shall pass your counsel on to my friend, but now I have to go.’ My voice emerged creakily. I had meant to sound brisk.

He smiled, nastily now, no longer bothering to mask his purpose. Both of us had been lying. In truth, I was ‘the friend’ who desired advice, and his legal counsel was not ‘free’; it came with a fee that was still to be exacted.

‘If you are desperate, Mistress Shore,’ he declared, rising heavily to his feet, ‘you’ll be willing to please me.’

Yes, I was desperate for an annulment, but I had rather be hanged than ‘please’ this revolting old goat. My maidenhead was intact and I intended to keep it that way.

‘I made no such bargain,’ I said, fisting my hands within the folds of my skirts, cursing I had not brought a bodkin to defend myself.

‘We won’t go all the way because that would spoil the evidence,’ he wheezed, fumbling at the ties beneath his tunic. ‘Some fondling will do. For now.’

‘Oh, just fondling,’ I said with a pretend smile of relief. ‘I thought you meant—’

I rushed to the door but the latch tongue stuck. He grabbed my left forearm, dragging me back.

This was the moment, or never. I swung my right fist with all the fury I possessed into his face. I heard something crunch. He went staggering back and crashed against the table, the bright blood spurting from his nostrils. That and the toppling inkpots would spoil his clothes or so I hoped as I ran down the stairs.

It was realising the enormity of my folly that rearranged the contents of my stomach once I reached the street. I did manage to hide my face as I retched and the moment I could stand upright, I ran past the tenements up to Cheapside and with a gasp of relief, plunged into the chaos of carts, pigs and people. My mind was still in panic. What if the old man threatened to blab to my husband or to my wealthy father?

My slow progress through the crowd calmed my shakiness. Being small, I felt concealed. Outsiders might be afraid of London cutpurses but this wonderful, raucous hub of noise was my neighbourhood, safer to me than any quieter lane. I pushed further along to where a tight press of people was clogging the thoroughfare and wriggled in amongst them. In their midst, a hosier’s apprentice was standing on a barrow. I had heard his silver-tongued babble before. He was good.

‘The best price in Cheapside,’ the lad was yelling, waving a pair of frothy scarlet garters. ‘Just imagine your wife’s legs in these, sir.’ Laughter rumbled around me. His gaze scanned our faces. ‘And what about the jays and robin redbreasts among you sparrows?’ he challenged, flourishing a pair of men’s hose – one leg pea green, the other violet, and then his cheeky stare sauntered back to my face and slid lower.

Lordy! Squinting downwards at the gap in my cloak, I realised what the proctor had glimpsed as well – a woman’s breasts straining against an outgrown gown. And it was not just on the outside my body was changing. I knew that. Dear God, that was why I needed the urgent annulment. I was an apple almost ripe for plucking and my husband Shore was watching – waiting – like a hungry orchard thief.

I gave the apprentice a hands-off glare, tugged my cloak tightly across my front and, aware that the proctor’s neighbours might still raise the alarm, I determined to stay where I was with every sense alert.

No hue-and-cry was coming from the direction of Soper’s Lane and I said a silent prayer of thanks for that. Maybe the foul old fellow was as fearful for his reputation as I was for mine. That welcome thought made my shoulders relax. And, apart from learning that men of all ages were not to be trusted, I had at least gleaned one piece of useful advice. The proctor had told me that ‘my friend’ needed to have her case heard by the Court of Arches, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s especial court for hearing divorce petitions. St Mary-le-Bow, the church, which housed the court on weekdays, was just a few moments’ walk back along Cheapside. Perhaps the Almighty was watching over me, after all. If I went to St Mary’s straight away…

‘Pretty mistress? Hey? Anybody home?’ Lapis-blue garters pranced before my eyes. The glib-tongued apprentice had singled me out again. ‘Pet, you’re not listening,’ he declared with feigned dismay, reaching out to tweak my nose. ‘Come, give your husband a surp––’

‘Exactly my thoughts!’ I exclaimed fervently and elbowed my way out.

One of St Anthony’s wretched sows blundered along in front of me, as though she had some similar mission. At least she cleared my path.
St Mary-le-Bow lay almost a stone’s throw from the alley off Bow Lane where I now lived. Richard Lambard, my grandfather, was buried beneath the church’s nave so that was why my family sometimes worshipped there to pray for his soul. My brothers used to tease me that the steeple was haunted and if you stood in the churchyard for long enough, you were sure to see a chunk of masonry fall from the roof and that was Grandfather’s ghost making mischief.

To my relief, the doors of St Mary’s stood open. I crossed myself and prayed to Our Lady the Virgin to give me strength. After all, Our Lady’s marriage had been arranged, too, and I doubt she had cared for St Joseph at first, especially when he was so angry about the Angel Gabriel.

I could, would, do this now – go in, swear on the Gospels that I had been wed against my will and that the marriage had not been consummated. They might insist upon a midwife to examine me but my body’s evidence would prove I was no liar. Of course, I’d need to move back to my parents’ house and I could not be sure Father would take me in; but first things first. With a deep breath I grabbed up my skirts. Freedom was just steps away.

But I was wrong. A pikestaff dropped obliquely across my path. I had not noticed the sergeant on duty.

‘I have business inside, sir,’ I announced, imitating my mother’s tone when she addressed the household. ‘It’s a matter of urgency.’

The soldier jerked a thumb at a parchment nailed on the door. ‘Plaintiff or defendant, mistress? What time is your hearing?’


He propped the pikestaff against the wall and shook his head at me. ‘The rule is you cannot go in unless you are on today’s list.’

‘But I need a marriage annulment, sir. By the end of this week. Today, if possible.’

‘Bless me, young woman,’ he clucked. ‘Have you been sleeping in some toadstool ring? Don’t you know it takes months, sometimes years, to get a hearing?’

Months? Years? My first monthly flow might be only days away.

‘They’ll understand the matter is urgent,’ I assured him, wondering if I could duck beneath his arm, but he was no fool.

‘Listen, first you find a proctor to write your petition, then it has to go all the way to Rome and the Pope himself must be told of it. His Holiness may say you have a case to be heard or he may not.’

‘But I do. Oh, please, let me through.’

‘How old are you?’

‘Almost fifteen, sir.’

‘Fourteen, then. Well, pardon me for asking but does this husband of yours cuff you around when he’s had a bellyful of ale?’ He peered down, inspecting my face for bruises. ‘Is he unkind to you?’

‘No, sir.’ This was becoming embarrassing. Next he would ask whether Shore had lain with me. Instead he said, ‘Does your father know you’ve come here?’ And that angered me.

‘No, sir, this is my business. I am quite capable of handling it.’

‘I can see that.’ I could tell he was trying not to laugh. ‘So, who is to pay the legal fees?’ He cocked his head towards the door. ‘None of the carrion crows in there will take your part unless you pay ’em. They can’t live on air, you know. It’s business, see.’

How naïve of me. I thought it a matter of justice.

Dismayed, I stared down into the churchyard, biting back my tears, looking so forlorn, I daresay, that the soldier creaked down upon his haunches and took my gloved hands. ‘Give your marriage time,’ he advised, with a kindly tug on the end of my blonde  plait that must have been showing beneath my coif. ‘Lovely girl like you can twirl your husband round your little finger if you play it right. Now you go home and make him his supper, eh?’

Someone cleared his throat impatiently behind me. Three churchmen were waiting to pass. My self-appointed counsel snapped up to standing, his chin turning a dull red beneath his stubble. ‘Go home an’ forget all about this, eh?’ he muttered after he had waved them through.

Forget? The rest of my life is staked out unless I cut the ropes.

Saturday, 05 November 2011 06:09

Author's notes

The thought of being married at 13 to someone twice your age without any say in the matter could make you determined to escape somehow. The more I researched Elizabeth Lambard aka Jane Shore, the educated daughter of high-ranking John Lambard, the more I admired her. If you think about the problem Henry VIII had in obtaining a divorce, for a housewife to achieve that half a century earlier was pretty magnificent.

Sir Thomas More says people thought very highly of Mistress Shore and she was known for her kindness and wit. I wanted to have a heroine who was at the heart of the court so she was just perfect – a royal mistress who could wittily put men down without giving offence and who suffered adversity as well as success.

Originally, the manuscript contained a lot more chapters on Elizabeth’s married life as she was with William Shore for at least ten years before she became a royal mistress. These chapters were deleted from the published edition. However, writing them helped me get to know my character better and see her in the context of London life, especially the hierarchy of the guilds. Whenever I am researching real people, I like to look at their childhood and adolescence as it helps me understand the decisions they took later.

My agent asked me to bring out what it must have been really like to be a royal mistress – the negative side as well as the good life. I imagine it would have been very lonely for Elizabeth when the king was on progress. It is highly likely that neighbours, family friends and the guilds would have initially ostracised her because of the scandal.

Elizabeth’s father got into great trouble over a house he rented from the Goldsmiths’ Guild. They accused him of removing a lot of expensive fittings. In trying to make sense of it (the guild records do not give his motives), I supposed it was possible that he had rented the house for a mistress and she had carried away stuff in retaliation when he broke the arrangement off. It explains one reason why he might condone his daughter’s relationship with the king.

I’ve been reading more about Edward IV’s death recently and there are theories that he may have died from diabetes. When you think about it, here must have been plenty of cases among the rich and well-fed, so it is quite possible that is what carried the poor fellow off. That’s the beauty of research; it’s on-going, always more discoveries and some new light bulb moments!

Saturday, 05 November 2011 06:07

About the book

Wed at thirteen to William Shore, beautiful and resourceful Elizabeth Lambard is determined to free herself from a loveless marriage and manage her own destiny. But freedom means persuading the Pope in Rome to hear her case, a costly enterprise, so when the King’s friend, Lord Hastings, visits her husband’s shop and they see each other again, Elizabeth offers him an irresistible bargain.

But it’s not just Hastings who is hungry for the delectable Mistress Shore, King Edward IV is determined to have her, too.

So long as these great men protect her, she is safe from public scorn and the Queen’s enmity, but when the king eventually falls ill and his brother, Richard of Gloucester, comes south to take control of the realm, Elizabeth finds herself charged as a traitor.

Under the new regime of Richard III, is there anyone left for Elizabeth to trust? Or will help and love come from the most unexpected quarter as she faces a humiliating penance as a whore and a cruel death for treason?

For more information about the historical Elizabeth Lambard's life, read Inspiration for a new novel.

Saturday, 05 November 2011 06:19

Read an excerpt

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.'

There was.

Heloise's nightmares always came true.

Chapter One

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.

Saturday, 05 November 2011 06:10

Author's notes

A lot of readers have asked me what happened to the real historical people in The Maiden and the Unicorn after the novel ends. Well, some of them are in my third book Moonlight and Shadow aka The Silver Bride, which is set twelve years later during the Buckingham Rebellion of 1483.

The political events of 1483 have always intrigued me. Like 1470–71, this was a year of tremendous upheaval with people changing sides and taking huge risks. Looking back from the 21st century, the truth of what really happened is hard to glimpse. Few records survive from that period and those that do exist have been gone over again and again by historians and writers with truth detectors, hoping that some undiscovered nugget of insight might lie there still. This lack of knowledge, of course, makes it much more exciting for the historical novelist. There is room for conjecture, and because the chief protagonists are shadowy figures, it is very satisfying to try and flesh them out.

While I have enjoyed researching the politics of these fifteenth century dukes, I haven't forgotten that it's a love story as well. Neither Margery nor Richard Huddleston have lost their delight in political intrigue, but it is a different hero and heroine who now take centre stage. Miles Rushden (nicknamed Y Cysgod (the Man of Shadow) by the Welsh, is a close friend and companion of the twenty-nine year old Duke of Buckingham, Harry Stafford, and both men are ambitious and prepared to embark on a ruthless, risk-all bid for political power.

Heloise Ballaster, the, fey heroine, is a maid of honour in the household of Richard, Duke of Gloucester. She has the voice of an angel, the face of a Madonna and the hair of a witch. She is also cursed with glimpses of the future – not a blessing in such a superstitious age. But her biggest problem is her father. He's a small, strutting rooster of a man, and a family tyrant. And quarrelsome, too, especially when there is land at stake, which is how he comes to blows with Miles's father and challenges him to a duel. However, what sensible father would put on armour if his adult son is at hand to play his champion? And if Heloise's father turns lily-livered at the thought of combat, which of his daughters is going to defend the family honour? Heloise!

Miles and Heloise, like all my heroes and heroines, are flung into the thick of royal intrigue as Richard, Duke of Gloucester seizes the crown.

Research for this novel took me to Brecon (headquarters of the Duke of Buckingham in 1483) in Wales and to Weobley in Herefordshire. The combat scene between Heloise and Miles was prompted by the Northamptonshire folktale of Skulking Dudley, and the kidnapping of Miles was based on the real-life abduction of Margery Huddleston's son.

And for animal lovers – no dogs or pigs this time but a Welsh mouser called Dafydd (modelled on Cagney, a cat of California) and a noble stallion named Traveller, named after a friendly horse in Dorset, UK, who never said no to an apple.

Saturday, 05 November 2011 06:33

Author's notes

I 've always wanted to set a novel in Paris during the French Revolution without the usual cliche of aristocrats tumbriled to the guillotine.

Why did things go wrong, I wondered? After all, when the Bastille prison fell, it must have been a time of great hope (just like when the Berlin Wall came down). So I began the story in 1793 a year before Robespierre's 'reign of terror'.

For my heroine, I chose a young aristocrat in hiding, a resourceful young woman who had acted in lots of plays in her father's chateau. For my hero, I created Raoul, a young man who has become a deputy in the new republic – a man who sees things starting to go wrong. In the supporting cast is Charlotte Corday (Marie-Anne as she called herself back then) and the infamous Marat, a clever doctor who has learned how to manipulate the mob and turn it on the inexperienced government. Then there's a python called Machiavelli and a very strange lodger!

Saturday, 05 November 2011 06:08

About the book

A novel of survival, courage and love in a world turned upside down.

When Fleur, the hunted daughter of a hated duke, interrupts a murderous attack on an elderly traveller, she doesn't expect the dying man to generously offer her marriage and the chance of a new identity. Famished and weary of hiding from her enemies, she accepts, even if it means risking the dangers of revolutionary Paris to claim her new property – Le Chat Rouge, a theatre-café in the Marais.

Intrigued by the lovely new widow and suspicious that he has encountered her before, Raoul de Villaret, a deputy and member of the Committee for General Security, becomes Fleur's greatest danger. Is he determined to destroy every member of her family or will he compromise his loyalty to the Revolution for her sake?

As political unrest plunges Paris yet more deeply into chaos, Fleur discovers even those she trust have secrets. In a glittering, dangerous world where anything can happen, can love survive?

Saturday, 05 November 2011 06:18

Read an excerpt

January 1789

Since the stable behind the Clef d'Or was where he had been initiated into making love some seven years earlier, Raoul de Villaret rode into the town of Clerville in the January twilight, wondering whether he should just pass through, or halt and revisit the generous ‘magdalene’ who had provided such a delightful tutorial. Not for an anniversary encore, of course – Bibi must be prodding forty by now, and at twenty-two, he had become choosy – but perhaps to say a thank you for the only decent memory he had of the place.

His stomach complained of hunger and he frowned against the knife-edged wind as he rode towards the town square, knowing he would be unlikely to find a decent supper before he reached Rennes. The rivers were frozen over, the grindstones of the watermills were locked in ice and there was little flour. He had seen desperate hunger in the haggard faces of the migrating workers he had passed on the road. He doubted they would find labour in Clerville or anywhere else in the region; he doubted also that the King's call for every parish to submit a written list of grievances would make much difference. The incidents were growing and it looked as though he was encountering one now.

The place Saint-Denis was still crammed with the poorer people who had come in for market day and there was great deal of angry shouting going on. They had snared a grain transport. The carters, pulled from the running board, were struggling within the crowd, and the four-dragoon escort had foolishly let themselves be isolated in front of the market cross. Astride on top of the grain sacks, defying the soldiers' muskets, a gaunt workman was addressing the crowd.

‘The King does not wish our children to starve, patriots!’ he exclaimed, his dialect proclaiming him a local man. ‘It is his evil counsellors and that Austrian bitch who are trying to squeeze every last sou from us. Take the grain to feed your children, mes braves, and you,’ he snarled at the dragoons, ‘shoot us if you dare!’

Another man sprang up onto the cart and jabbed a finger in the air. ‘Go and observe the fine English lawns, mes amis , the strutting peacocks, the mulberry trees. Why should we labour while the Duc de Montbuillou leads a life of idleness? We're not even allowed to shoot his doves for eating our peas. Has he done anything to keep us from starvation? No! Break open his barns, I say! Allons! Let us seize the grain and feed our children!’

‘To the chateau!’ a woman bawled. ‘Burn it down!’

‘And be broken on the wheel?’ scoffed someone.

‘Starve then!’ The second orator exclaimed. ‘The only difference between us and the noblesse is in the ledgers! I say burn the records which make slaves of us! To arms!’

One of the dragoons fired above the head of the speaker, merely to frighten him, but the crowd erupted in bitter fury.

Raoul reined his horse Nostradamus round. The chateau ? For years, he had tried to forget the Chateau de Clerville, vowing never to set foot within its detestable proximity, but the painting was there. Jacques-Louis David's painting! He could not let David's work be destroyed, even though he loathed every oiled pore of the canvas; even though to see its brilliance again would make him remember that humiliating month at Clerville when he had been David's apprentice.

With hatred burning anew, he circumnavigated the square through the back streets and spurred out of the town ahead of the mob to that loveless chateau. It was not just David's impatient snarl Raoul recalled, but the sting of the Duc de Montbulliou's horsewhip across his shoulders and the sniggers of the duke's daughters. Their hateful laughter whirled around his temples as he rode, so infecting his senses that he grew hot with shame beneath his greatcoat, remembering the ripe, pointing breasts flaunted to torment him.

He drew rein at the gates of the chateau, smiting his riding crop against the ironwork, gratified that the old gatekeeper hobbled forward in his sabots with a respectful touch of forelock. Thank God for that! So no ghost of a thin gauche, sixteen-year-old was recognisable any more.

‘There is a mob on the way,’ Raoul exclaimed, but the ancient cupped his ear and grinned. ‘Open the gate, damn you! Holà, you!’ Raoul snatched off his tricorne hat and gestured frantically to a boy loitering in the doorway of the gatekeeper's cottage. ‘Run to the servants' quarters as quick as you can and warn them. There's a rabble coming to burn the chateau. And you, man, for Christ's sake, let me through!'

He swung the horse round impatiently. The torches flaring behind him on the road were distant enough. The old fellow, fumbling now with sudden fear, unlocked the gates to let him in. Instead of following the carriage drive, Raoul turned into the basse-cour. His memory served him well; beyond the clipped hedges that hemmed in the lawns and en broderie flowerbeds was a copse sheltering an English grotto. Little had changed in six years. The old, artificial cave was as he remembered it, large enough to tether Nostradamus out of sight. He listened again but the winter dusk was quiet. Even on foot, the rioters would not take long to reach the chateau, for it lay but one mile from the outskirts of the dirty, impoverished town like a pendant jewel around a beggar's neck.

Jamming his hat firmly down and with his neckerchief back to front so he might draw it up to hide his face, Raoul made stealthily for the rear terrace and tested the second window of the billiard room. The frame slid up easily as it always had. He adroitly climbed over the sill into the cold gloom of the unlit room, and skirting the billiard table, he softly opened the door to the grande salon. Despite the heavy odour of lavender polish, the faint hint of mustiness spoiled the elegant room like the whiff of sweat from beneath a nobleman's expensive waistcoat.

Only the candelabra on the harpsichord had been lit. Raoul's gaze slid round the walls and halted at the artwork which hung beside the opposite door. Not David's, but a more recent portrait of Montbulliou and his son. Both faces mocked Raoul with their supercilious expressions just as they had done in real life. The duke's eyes bore smugly into his, forcing him to remember the shame and the violence, the raised whip beating him painfully to his knees. Merde , it was tempting to drive his knife into that smirking, canvas mouth. Raoul dragged his stare away with an iron will and, pulling his neckerchief up over his mouth and nose, let himself into the vestibule. David's painting did not hang there either. Time was running out. The tick-tock of the grandfather clock echoed up the great staircase and he could hear raised voices in the common room.

Could the painting be in one of the bedchambers? The sound of breaking glass drove him to take the quickest way – up the backstairs – to Montbulliou's dressing-room. A startled footman collided with him in the hall and thrusting the man roughly aside with a warning to save himself, he hurtled up the stairs to the duke's apartments. Glad of the scant lighting, he edged cautiously forward. The upper floor was chill and silent. The family was not in evidence. Just as well. It would have been a unique pleasure to scar the duke's face; anunwise pleasure that might send him to the galleys or the Bastille.

Orangeflower water and pomade! The dressing room stank of the duke, but there above the shining, polished sidetable hung his quarry – David's masterpiece, a greater work than any of the artist's more heroic paintings. Or so Raoul thought. He stared at it for a moment, reabsorbing its magnificent sensual power. Gauzy, lascivious and heartless, the duke's three oldest daughters –the goddesses, Venus, Minerva and Juno – watched from their frame as he came closer.

The fourth daughter in the painting was not looking at him. She had been nine years old and too fat to play a beauteous goddess. Instead, she had been coerced to model as the chubby Cupid offering a golden apple as a prize. A fruit so real and luscious that Raoul could have snatched it from the canvas; the apple that the youth Paris was to award to the goddess he judged to be the loveliest. But Paris was not in the painting; David had made the beholder of the painting Paris. No , you judge, he had said to the world.

The sound of splintering wood and shouting jolted Raoul back to reality. Swiftly, he dragged a Louis Quinze chair across to the wall, laughing softly as he sprang with mudded soles onto its fine brocade. Then he drew his knife from its sheaf.

‘Get down!’

A young girl stood in the inner doorway, pointing a pair of duelling pistols at him. The weapons wobbled but there was determination in the plump young face. Cupid! He had no trouble in recognising her. Long brown hair, loose, save for a band that held it free of her forehead, tumbled down to an undiscernible waist clad in tawny velvet. About fifteen now, but still round as an English pudding!

‘Shoot me then.’ He challenged, and turned his back to her.

Copyright Isolde Martyn
Excerpt by 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.

Page 1 of 2