Isolde Martyn

Isolde Martyn

Tuesday, 15 June 2021 05:19

Author's notes


Well, this has been a very long term project. I had this idea ages ago when researching all the towns in Australia for Events and Places. I wanted to create a picture book that reflected the glooms and booms of a typical country town as well as show how national events impacted the community. I can't draw to save my life so what I needed was a very special illustrator with artistic magic.

Enter Louise Hogan. I don't think she realised what a massive task this would be but she possessed the painstaking skill and patience to translate the lists of changes for each spread into a beautiful and useful book.
Life got in the way a lot of times but gradually each scene was done and it's been fascinating and thrilling to see this little town coming to life.

We gave Walker Books quite a challenge in coming up with a design for our concept but Louise and I are delighted at the result and we thank the publishing team for all their support and encouragement. We are also very grateful to Susan Moylan-Coombs, our indigenous adviser, for all her kind help.

We hope COUNTRY TOWN will be a fun asset in understanding Australia's history.

Tuesday, 15 June 2021 05:19

About the book


Country Town tells the decade by decade history of a fictional Australian town from the First Nations mob living by the river crossing in the 1820s through to the present. Each page has several little characters for young readers to find as well as a timeline highlighting major events happening in the town at that time in history. Young readers can pore over each spread to discover the stories of the community.

Tuesday, 02 March 2021 04:23

Malleus Maleficarum

In writing about a medieval clairvoyant in The Silver Bride, charges of witchcraft in Mistress to the Crown and more recently in my new mss on the death of Shakespeare’s patron, I have had to research sorcery in the Middle Ages and Tudor eras. That was how I came across the legal treatise Malleus Maleficarum.

Most people have never heard of this treatise but it is arguably the most important document in the history of witchcraft. It was first published in about 1486 and became a regular bestseller. At least 30 editions were published between 1487 and 1669. The literal translation of the title is The Hammer of Evil but the more common translation was The Witch Hammer and this document became the bible of inquisitors and witchfinders throughout the Christian world. Not just a fifteenth century All You Ever wanted to know about Witchcraft but were afraid to ask with FAQs such as ‘Whether witches can by some Glamour Change men into Beasts’. No, it was destined to become the legal procedure manual.

Malleus Malificarum was commissioned by Pope Innocent VIII, who was determined to take a strong stand against the witchcraft, especially in the Holy Roman Empire. The treatise was written by two professional experts, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. Kramer was a Dominican and inquisitor from Lower Alsace. Sprenger, who came from Basle, was a Dominican inquisitor, high ranking academic and a mystic.

Up until that time, churchmen probably used their common sense in cases of sorcery that came before them but once they had this document, officially sanctioned by the pope, things changed. While the treatise may have been intended originally merely as guidelines, once it was in print, its clauses were interpreted as standard procedure and any flexibility was stifled. Malleus Maleficarum became the handbook of inquisitors.

How to question a suspected witch, how to torture them, and the different types of sentencing, depending whether the charge was thought to be serious or light. The attempt to be objective and just in dealing with suspects is clearly present in the writing but the medieval ignorance of Kramer and Sprenger, highly intelligent men of their day, is chilling to a modern reader. Killing children, aborting babies, making men impotent, turning people into animals and summoning hailstorms are some of the issues that the authors eagerly discuss. They also ask why it is ‘Women are chiefly addicted to Evil Superstitions?’  Over the next two centuries, the misogynistic slant in Malleus Malificarum would sanction the torture and death of many innocent women.

Even before Malleus Maleficarum, there are incidences of men using accusations of witchcraft and playing on people’s fears to get rid of women who have become a personal threat. Kings’ mistresses and even duchesses and queens were not immune from such charges. However, the biggest witchcraft age of terror was the mid-seventeenth century when professional witchfinders journeyed throughout England.   

During the war between King Charles I and Parliament, the central justice system fell into disarray and because the itinerant judges who usually listened to village trials with impartial ears were not doing their rounds, local magnates were able to exert more control over the district courts. For the most part, these men were definitely not impartial.

Late twentieth century academic research into many of the cases indicated that it was often the Puritan ‘lord of the manor’ and magistrate who ‘encouraged’ the witchfinder to seek charges against an aged busybody woman in the village.

If a local gentleman had been ‘quite a lad’ in his youth, he certainly wasn’t keen on some old village woman with a long memory muttering, ‘Ooooh, I can tell you some spicy tales about him that would knock that superior smile off his face. He maybe a holier-than-thou Puritan now, but there’s plenty of children around this neighbourhood with his ears and chin.’

If such an old woman had no son or husband to protect her, she was extremely vulnerable. Today, it is impossible to believe that the huge number of women found guilty in mid-seventeenth century England were witches. Agreed, it is likely some of them were amateur healers, who brewed up natural medicines, but the evidence suggests that many women died because the local gentry wanted them silenced.

Isolde Martyn 2021

Friday, 03 February 2017 05:00

About the book

Forced to flee the English court after the lecherous King John attacks her, Adela, the queen’s hairbraider, finds employment in the entourage of Lady Alys. Alys is on her way to marry the Lord of Mirascon, a fiefdom in southern France. However, the south is under threat from Pope Innocent III’s military crusade against the heretics.

After trying in vain to rally his fellow lords against invasion, Richart, Vicomte de Mirascon, makes an alliance with King John. A political marriage to the Lady Alys – the king’s discarded mistress – will allow Richart to safeguard his people from a merciless land grab and cruel slaughter.

When the bridal party is ambushed, Adela is mistaken for her dead mistress by the people of Mirascon. Adela knows she must tell Richart that she is not his betrothed, but as she is dragged deeper into the deception, she is also powerfully drawn to the beleaguered man trying to protect his people and his culture. Adela is recognised by the dwarf Derwent, Richart’s English jester, who seems willing to keep her secret for the time being. Yet as suspicion builds up against her, paying with her life seems inevitable.

As the pope's savage army marches south, can Richart and Adela overcome a web of deceit and treachery and evade the bonfires of the crusaders, or will their land of troubadours and tolerance be destroyed forever?

Friday, 03 February 2017 04:30

Read an extract

In this scene, Adela, a hairbraider, is mistaken for the bride of Richart, Vicomte de Mirascon. She and the laundress, Maud, are the survivors of a brigands’ attack on the bride’s retinue.


GLISTENING in gold upon the rippling banners of blue ciclatoun was the crossed-swords insignia of Ricart, Vicomte of Mirascon. He had dispatched help but it had taken hours and there was no need for the musicians.

‘Christ save us!’ whispered Maud, falling to her knees, her lips drawn tight in awe. ‘He’s sent a blessed army.’

‘They’ve probably been in readiness. We were supposed to arrive several days ago, remember.’

The foremost riders astride fine mounts were of noble birth, judging by their golden adornments and clothes of costly scarlet. Behind them, mounted on amblers and sorels, the lesser in rank were clad in dull reds of cheaper dye, with perse blue chapes and silver badges stitched upon their tunics. In their midst Adela glimpsed the cream canopy of a women’s chariot with several other wagons in its wake. The procession slowed and the loping minstrels re-assembled and began to play once more.

Where was Ricart of Mirascon? The lord in charge was staring at her through narrowed eyes. Rebelliously, Adela stood her ground, hugging the coffer to her breast. She was no peasant to grovel before this man but it needed every drop of courageous blood to keep her shoulders straight and look him in the face.

‘What if they don’t believe us?’ wailed Maud, tugging at her skirt.

‘We had better make sure they do.’

‘Well, from now on I’m speaking naught but English, that way they can’t question me about wot happened to my poor lady.’

As the noblemen walked their horses closer, Adela’s confidence teetered. Oh, there was such hauteur in their faces. Her starved gaze beheld the glistening saddlecloths, the jewelled collars across the men’s shoulders and the expensive scabbards that gleamed upon their thighs. Their riches made her feel even more like a tightened tabor skin—primed for a beating! Would they believe her? But what if she could show her learning, pass for a companion of the dead woman? She wanted respect not further servitude.

The procession halted, close enough for her to see the arching of eyebrows. Lips, framed by clipped moustaches and neat beards, jutted warily. Irritability definitely creased the forehead of the noble who led the company. He kneed his white horse forward, clearly not prepared to dirty his boot soles unless it was worthwhile.

Adela curtsied with dignity, her curled hand at her heart, and it was the southerner broke his gaze away first. At some imperceptible command, a groom ran up to hold his master’s horse and the elegant lord dismounted and came to stand before her. He coughed a fraction disdainfully as if to show his companions that his first disgust at these strangers might be justified.

‘We seek the Lady Alys.’ A curt bow.

‘Whom am I addressing, seigneur?’ Adela replied in perfect Norman French.

The noble’s haughtiness thawed somewhat. ‘Sir Tibaut de Saint-Pons, cousin to Ricart, Lord of Mirascon.’

‘Seigneur Tibaut, I regret to tell you that we alone survived the journey.’

‘Dieu!’ He recoiled. ‘Pestilence?’ His gloved hand darted up to defend his nostrils.

‘No, seigneur, brigands. We were set upon several days ago and have been forced to make the rest of the journey on foot.’

As Sir Tibaut gravely repeated this to his companions, she almost felt sorry for them. All this splendour to no purpose. At least the cruel tidings had punctured their arrogance. Observation of the bruise on her forehead, the dust on her feet, and her far from pale complexion was now performed with sympathy.

‘My lord vicomte will be most distressed to learn of this misfortune,’ Sir Tibaut assured her. ‘Have no doubt that he will hunt these felons to the death.’ He unfastened a leather flask from his belt, removed the stopper and offered it courteously. The greatest gift she could ask for.

Adela received it solemnly, restrained herself from taking more than a few swallows and then before his haughtiness could object, she passed it to Maud.

‘Have the dowry chests arrived?’ she asked to distract him.

‘Yes, indeed, ma dompna,’ he began and then remembered to slide once more into the langue d’oeuil of northern France. ‘They arrived from Gascony two days ago.’

‘I am relieved to hear it,’ she answered.

Her innocent reply seemed to spark some decision in Sir Tibaut. He stepped towards her, and crooked a swift, imperious signal to the company behind him. With a rattle of harness and babble of astonishment, the southern lords slid from the saddles and a clutch of demoiselles hatched from the curtained chariot. Maybe they were going to turn the procession around but then she realised her error. Everyone was making obeisance to her.…

Before she could explain that she was not Lady Alys, …poles and canvas were being plucked from the wagons.

‘Well, I never did,’ Maud whispered in English, clearly feeling it was safe to rise to her feet. ‘You certainly put ’em in their place. Is that ’im?’

‘No, but I think I’ve just made a monstrous error. I believe they’ve mistaken me for Lady Alys.’

Maud shrugged. ‘I don’t care whether they think you’re the Queen of England, just ask ’em for some ruddy food.’

Adela was too concerned to answer. The demoiselles were advancing on her with battle-phalanx determination in their faces. ‘Maud, this is getting unfortunate.’

‘Aye, look at them pails being filled. I reckon you’re about to experience a proper sponging.’


‘Don’t squawk at me. Try telling ’im you’re the apprentice laundress.’

Adela tried—well, not the laundress part.

‘Later, later,’ an impatient Sir Tibaut assured her and, regaining possession of her hand, he joyfully surrendered her to the women.

The unclothing was embarrassing, not to mention the attention with the Castilian soap, but thank Heaven she knew the bathing procedure (she’d usually been the one with the jug), and if she closed her eyes as Queen Isabella usually did, it would make the these twittering maidens disappear.

Her exhausted body welcomed the lap of the perfumed water and for a few wonderful moments, she forgot her predicament and enjoyed the pleasure of being a noblewoman, of having her hair washed, scented and wrapped in soft cloths. It could be like this every day if she was a real lady—violet and rose petals bobbing round her breasts and the grimy existence of Adela de Handley washed away. With regret, she allowed their gentle hands to compel her to her feet and closed her eyes in delight at the soft towels that embraced her. Oh to be Lord Ricart’s bride!

She opened her eyes with a start as something furry touched her thighs. A demoiselle, armed with a rabbit tail of powdered myrtle proceeded upwards, whisking across Adela’s nipples and beneath her arms. Oh Heavens, despite her dilemma, the faux Lady Alys laughed. She had not known her breasts could blush. Encouraged, her ardent attendant giggled in appalling northern French. ‘Perhaps, you are thinking of your wedding night, madame?’ She repeated her jest in her own tongue and there was immense merriment.

Still giggling, they brought Adela clean underlinen, a kirtle of robin egg blue and Cordovan leather slippers stitched with tiny marguerites. This was getting out of hand.

‘I must explain … ’ Adela began again but they took her reluctance for displeasure at the garments and it was necessary to smile once more like a cheerful stone saint and be accepting.

Sir Tibaut was impatient to have her loaded into a chariot, but at least he offered her some sweet wine, figs and cakes.

Maud looked tidier and better tempered when she appeared at the back steps of the chariot ready to elbow her way on but the demoiselles made room.

‘I scrounged some of your bathwater,’ Maud muttered. ‘You haven’t told them yet, I gather?’

‘No, I keep trying.’ At least they both smelled sweeter.

‘Trouble is you plaguey well scrub up like a princess an’ they won’t like it when they found out you ain’t.’

Friday, 03 February 2017 04:21

Author's notes

Inspiration for this novel came from staying in Languedoc in southern France. It’s the beautiful land of the troubadours but it was also witness to some terrible injustices. In 1209 Pope Innocent III persuaded the King of France to permit an army of northern knights to join a crusade against the south. The pope was angry because there was a heretical sect called the Cathars or Albigensians who had rejected the teaching of the orthodox church, and he wanted them destroyed. The soldiers who joined the crusade, however, were more interested in looting and a land grab than in Christian principles.

Everywhere we went, we heard stories about this crusade and how it devastated the southern culture. What would it have been like to face that army? This gave me the idea of a noble lord trying to save his people. Should he be a real historical figure or a fictional character?

The weekend we visited Carcassonne, my imagination was fired by the wonderfully restored medieval citadel. Standing within the walls which are dominated by watchtowers, you can feel such a vibrant sense of the past. There’s a cathedral and C12th castle and it was easy to imagine the narrow streets crowded with citizens watching their noble lord ride in procession. The perfect setting for a hero! Should I use a real historic figure? Well, the poor Vicomte de Carcassonne lost everything and died in the castle dungeon. He actually tried to join the crusade to save his lands but they turned him down. No, I wanted a more heroic figure and so I created Richart, Vicomte de Mirascon, and the fictional city-state of Mirascon, which is loosely based on Carcassonne.

And the woman in my story? I wanted a servant who gets mistaken for her mistress so Adela, my latest heroine, is resourceful, intelligent and courageous. She’s the daughter of a lady, who was rejected by her family because she fell in love and ran away with her father’s chaplain. Educated by her father, Adela has dreams of being useful and respected and she seizes the opportunity to join a bridal party heading for Mirascon. Surely in the land of the troubadours, life may be better.

Tuesday, 08 May 2018 05:56

Thornbury Castle

Just north of Bristol is the modest town of Thornbury, and for most users of the M5 motorway, it’s just a name on the road sign. Beyond the town, however, lies a palace that was meant to rival Hampton Court. It belonged to Henry VIII’s cousin and rival, Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham. If Edward had his sights on Henry’s crown, his ambition came to an abrupt halt when he was arrested at Thornbury in 1521, taken to the Tower of London and beheaded for treason.

I was keen to visit Edward’s beloved Thornbury as he was one of the characters in two of my novels – the boy Ned – in THE SILVER BRIDE and THE DEVIL IN ERMINE. Some readers might be more aware of him as the duke beheaded at the beginning of Philippa Gregory’s THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL or in the early episodes of TV series THE TUDORS.

Today Edward’s palace is now a very up-market hotel but the public can explore the beautiful grounds. We were fortunate to meet a receptionist who not only appreciated the history but was delighted to show us round. She’d even read some of my novels!

There are no visible signs of the medieval castle that once stood here but archaeologists have excavated the fine tiled floor of the great hall. Because of cost to maintain it, the tiles were re-covered with about a foot of turf and, sadly, now lie unseen beneath one of the hotel lawns.

Edward Stafford made Thornbury his chief residence and began rebuilding in 1511. The central gatehouse, corner towers and newfangled brick chimneys have all survived but a much later building nestles behind the splendid oriel windows of what was Edward’s new hall. The luxury bedrooms of the hotel (for those that can afford them) offer fourposter beds and tapestried walls so tons of atmosphere. We had a peek into some of them.

Originally, a covered walkway ran atop a high wall that linked the duke’s apartments with the neighbouring church grounds and would have overlooked the gardens. The latter are beautifully maintained and still retain a lovely early Tudor atmosphere. It is easy to imagine a lady in a brocade kirtle strolling through one of the hedged archways.   

Around the periphery wall of the grounds, Edward began to build lodgings for a great number of retainers. Probably many of them were mercenaries, who might be used in a rebellion against the king.  Maybe, since they were soldiers, it was considered better to lodge them away from the main palace.  At first glance, these buildings look like they’ve been ruined at a later date by Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads but that was probably not the case. Because of the duke’s sudden arrest on Henry VIII’s orders and the palace being seized by the crown, they were never finished. The castle was returned to the Staffords in the reign of Mary but never reoccupied until it was taken over by the Howards who began its restoration in the nineteenth century.

The hotel contains a small Tudor Hall and kitchen. Even on a very cool day, these rooms have a lovely warm feel about them which is unexpected and which people remark on. However, like most ancient palaces, Thornbury does have ghost stories. The receptionist told us about the misogynist poltergeist who knocks things about when women are in the staffroom but behaves when there are no females present. The staff call it Jasper (after Henry VII’s uncle?) and it seems to respond when it is told off using its name. Then there’s a man in black and a woman in grey who have been seen in the bedrooms area and other people relate glimpsing a lady with greyhounds. Much less believable is the story of ghostly children who appear when the hotel enjoys a firework night.

Edward inherited Brecon Castle and Thornbury from his father, Henry Stafford, Richard III’s erstwhile ally and cousin, who was executed for treason in 1483. After the Tudor takeover in 1485, Edward’s mother, Katherine Woodville, married Jasper, Earl of Pembroke and Duke of Bedford, Henry VII’s uncle. In August 1486, wardship of Edward and custody of his inheritance was given to Margaret Beaufort, the king’s mother, and her right to revenues was made retrospective from September 1485. Thornbury, however, was retained by Catherine Woodville as part of her marriage jointure.

The crown levied extensive fines for Katherine’s remarriage in 1596 and then later when Edward entered his inheritance before he came of age. Because of his claim to the throne as a descendant of Edward III, Edward was always a potential threat to Henry VIII. He did hold the post of Constable of England and showed flair as an efficient administrator but Cardinal Wolsey blocked his political ambitions and increasing influence.  He managed to survive until 1521. King Henry must have maintained Thornbury in tis luxuriant state after that because  in 1535 he and Anne Boleyn enjoyed a honeymoon there for ten days. The dukedom was restored to Edward’s son  by King Edward VI.

Although Edward Stafford was not the most popular man, it is possible to feel sorry that he was never able to complete his palace and grow old enjoying its beautiful setting. The property was on the market in 2016 for £8.5 million. Fortunately, it has continued as a hotel so that visitors like us can still have access to the grounds and be able to appreciate its unquestionable splendour.

Tuesday, 08 May 2018 05:19

The Hastings heart brooch

Having written about William, Lord Hastings and Katherine Neville in THE GOLDEN WIDOWS, it was a delight to hear about the heart brooch found through a metal detector in the grounds of Lord Hastings’ castle at Kirby Muxloe earlier this year.

It’s a gorgeous piece inlaid with white enamel and with the words ‘honor et joie’ inscribed on it. The trouble with jewellery, however, is that unless it is mentioned in a will (and it wouldn’t be if it was lost) then it’s guesswork who owned it and when they lost it. The Times and the BBC jumped to the conclusion that it had belonged to Katherine, especially as they could mention that her husband was beheaded by Richard III.

Well, yes, it could have been Katherine’s. When Kirby Muxloe was being rebuilt in 1483, she would probably have ridden down from Ashby de la Zouche, which was their other castle, to oversee what was happening, and the duty would have most likely fallen to her since Hastings spent most of his time at court as chamberlain to Kings Edward IV and Edward V before he was beheaded.

Could the jewel have belonged to Katherine’s daughter by her first marriage, Cecily Bonville, who married Queen Elizabeth Woodville’s oldest son, Thomas Grey? Another possibility is William and Katherine’s daughter, Anne (c.1471–1520) who became Countess of Shrewsbury and served as a lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon. Or it could have been a noble lady visiting Kirby before the castle was renovated. Maybe more research will find the motto ‘honor et joie’ in connection with one of these ladies. Click here to read The Times article.

Sunday, 09 December 2012 06:22

The Silver Bride

Published in Australia and the United States with different titles. There is also a German edition.

  • Australia (The Silver Bride) ISBN 0 732 91127 3, paperback ISBN 0 330 36403 0
  • United States (Moonlight and Shadow) ISBN TBC, paperback ISBN 0 425 19328 4
  • e-book published by Momentum

  • Author's notes
  • Read an excerpt

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.

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.

Sunday, 09 December 2012 06:21

The Lady and the Unicorn

Published in Australia and the United States with different titles

  • Australia (The Lady and the Unicorn) trade paperback ISBN 0 733 80144 7, paperback ISBN 0 733 80199 4
  • United States (The Maiden and the Unicorn) published by Berkeley ISBN 0 553 58168 6
  • e-book published by Momentum

Audio edition published by Bolinda ISBN 9 781 74317897 3, read by Rebecca Macualey

  • About the book
  • Author's notes
  • Read an excerpt

In 1470 the Wars of the Roses between the house of York and Lancaster threatens to tear England apart once more. In the middle of the conflict is a most unlikely heroine. For Margery, the beautiful and spirited ward of Warwick the Kingmaker, freedom is the only prize worth having. But it is a prize that could cost her her life. Sent to France on a mission for King Edward IV, she finds herself the target of a man who may be one of the king's most dangerous enemies.

Richard Huddleston is bold, enigmatic and devastatingly handsome. He is used to getting what he wants, and he wants Margery to be his wife. Margery suspects that Richard has abandoned the king and the House of York and is conspiring with the rebel queen and the traitorous House of Lancaster. Caught between her role as a spy and a fierce passion that neither she nor Richard can deny, Margery finds her heart exposed to the ultimate danger: falling in love. Yet she cannot admit her real mission to Richard. For if she stays true to her noble cause, she'll save many men ... and lose the one that matters most.

This was the novel I always wanted to write. When I was fourteen I came across the mention of a woman spy in the Wars of the Roses, and I promised myself that one day I would write a novel with her as the heroine. Imagine my delight when I came across the mention of Warwick's bastard daughter, Margaret Neville, and her husband being present at the coronation of King Richard III and Queen Anne Neville, her half-sister. It made sense that the woman spy mentioned by the Burgundian Chronicler, Philippe de Commynes, was Margaret and now I had a name for her and for my hero – Richard Huddleston! As a historian, it was a joy to use real people and it gave veracity to the story.

While the main plot is the relationship between Margaret and Richard, the subplot concerns the intrigue and turmoil of 1470–71. This required a supporting cast of some of history's most intriguing characters: the overmighty earl, Warwick the Kingmaker, the gorgeous womaniser, Edward IV, and his treacherous young brother, George. Then there's his tenacious, ruthless enemy, Queen Margaret of Anjou and her wily cousin, the 'spiderking', Louis XI and, of course, the young Duke of Gloucester, the future Richard III.

I never dreamed this novel would win the top awards for romance writing in both America and Australia and I am not only in the debt of my wonderful critique group for all their help and encouragement but above all grateful to editor Fiona Henderson and the publishing team at Transworld Australia who believed in the story so wholeheartedly.

The banns were called at mass again next morning, sending Margery into such a state of inward panic that she was scarce aware of the buzz of conversation about her or a page's tug at her sleeve, summoning her to attend my lord of Warwick straightway.

The Earl was waiting for her in his solar.

‘My dear Margery,’ he exclaimed as made obeisance to him. ‘I am so pleased at your change of heart that I have decided to hold your wedding this week. Since your bridegroom is busy on my behalf, it will be more convenient to have it all signed and sealed immediately.’

‘My lord, you ride roughshod over my feelings. I am against this marriage. What makes you suddenly think otherwise?’

Her guardian gave a snort of disbelief. ‘Ah no, you merely flirt and dance with the man as if you care for him. Have you no shame?’

‘I danced with one man last night. Ankarette danced with him t–’ she faltered and her eyes flew to Warwick's as shock and disbelief flooded across her face. She wanted to sink down onto a stool; surely her legs would collapse beneath her.

‘Come let us be done with this fast-and-loose nonsense. You are marrying Richard Huddleston tomorrow and have done. Ah, Richard lad, Margery is a little overcome at the haste of all this but I have explained the situation.’

Richard Stone came through the doorway, removing his plumed beaver hat, and bowed to the Earl. If he knew Margery's appalled eyes were upon him, he seemed unruffled.

‘My lord. I think it may be the matter of my horse's tail.’ He looked round at her now. Did the Devil look so on the acquisition of a new soul? Oh, Jesu, how could she be so stupid? His name was not Stone. Agnes Guppy had told her wrongly. All that time he must have thought she had been deliberately calling him so to rile him. He was Richard Huddlestone.

Be calm, talk yourself out of this, an inner voice advised. Calm? When the deceitful knave was deliberately reminding her who had won all their past battles!

‘No, sirrah, it is the matter of you! I had rather wed a heathen than be yoked to you in matrimony. As I have made very clear, my lord of Warwick, one, I do not want to marry; two, I do not want to marry this week; and, three, I do not want to marry Master Richard Sto – Huddleston.’

‘At least you have finally gotten my name right at last.’ Richard laid his hat and gloves on the table. ‘My lord, there has been some misunderstanding. It seems the lady thought that she was marrying someone else.’

The Earl, appearing half-irritated, half-indulgent at their quarrel, glanced sharply at Margery. ‘Is this true, child?’

‘Yes, my lord.’ Her fingers writhed in front of her. ‘You led me to expect it was someone of your lordship's years. Old was the word, you used, I recollect.’

‘Old!’ Richard regarded the Earl with polite astonishment.

Warwick snorted, ‘So now he's not old, he's known to you and he wants to marry you, though why I cannot imagine, and I want you off my hands, Margery, so there's an end to it. What pleases me and Master Huddleston shall satisfy you. I have two emissaries arriving from the King of France the day after tomorrow. You will be wed before mass and I shall feast you together with the French lords. Tomorrow, Huddlestone, we shall hunt.’

Margery fleetingly closed her eyes and gave an angry sigh, prepared to sweep away in dignity before tears overwhelmed her. Huddleston stepped to block her way. She refused to look at him.

‘My lord,’ he said across her shoulder to the Earl. ‘Permit me to speak to my betrothed privily. This is obviously a shock to her.’ She flinched at the word betrothed, recoiling as if he had struck her.

The Earl shrugged, ‘Well, I suppose there is no impropriety in that since you will soon be man and wife. You may speak with one another here but there is the contract to draw up so make haste.’

Huddleston bowed as the Earl passed them but remained an obstacle between Margery and the door. She turned away from him, her eyes on the ceiling. It was pain enough to endure being married to a stranger but that it was Richard Sto ... Huddleston. She cursed herself for a blind and stupid fool.

His voice was kind. ‘Mistress Twynhoe told me last night that you did not realise that my name was Huddleston. I had no intention of misleading you, believe me.’

Margery took a deep breath, her shoulders proud. ‘Master Huddleston, I value my freedom. I repeat that I do not want to marry anyone. I will not be sold like some Paynim slave to a harem. I came here this morning expecting a public apology and instead’ She waved her hands in despair.

‘If it is the business of my horse's tail that still angers you then I admit my error. You have my belated but humble apology.’ The humility in his voice sounded genuine enough but she turned to see if the sincerity was in his eyes. It was, but he was playing kind, of course.

‘No, it – yes, of course it is your horse's tail and all your insults. How dared you abuse me so for your amusement because I am a landless woman and lack a father's name! Do you imagine I have no feelings because I was born in some unblest bed?’

‘Lady, you shall have land, name and your bed will be blessed.’

The blood flooded into her cheeks at the thought. ‘Blessed, sir, with you in it? I do not know why you have chosen me as a butt for this madness of yours but please change your mind. It will not suit. It will be a marriage made by the Devil.’

He laughed and half-seated himself on the edge of the table, one leg swinging. ‘I am resolved on it.’ He selected an apple from the silver platter and bit into it with his fine white teeth.

Margery's hands curled into fists at her side and she paced the room before she swung back to confront him. ‘Why do you want to enslave me? What have I ever done to you? Why should it be your choice? Why cannot it be mine?’

‘Because I know what is best for you.’ Warwick's voice came from behind her. Huddleston slid off the table respectfully to face the Kingmaker. The Earl's hands settled upon Margery's frozen shoulders, his breath was upon her cheek. ‘I make this marriage for you out of loving kindness, child. Trust me in this.’ He put a finger beneath her chin and made her look at him. ‘A firm hand is needed on your bridle, Margery. Once you start bearing you will no doubt calm down and become a sensible wife and mother.’

‘I am not a horse!’ she exclaimed hotly, and snatching up her skirts, she fled.

Richard left the Earl some half hour later well pleased with the bargain. Everything was going according to his plans. Warwick's fondness for the girl and his determination to dispose of his defiant ward had permitted Richard to demand a higher dowry. Of course, it was all on paper but six manors definitely made it worthwhile.

He was not expecting a slender female hand to reach out from behind a curtain and grab the coney-fur tip of his hanging sleeve. His right hand flew to the handle of his sword as he whirled round.

‘By Christ's blessed mercy, lady!’ He slid the sword back into its black scabbard as he recognised that the blue brocade enclosing the feminine arm belonged to the gown Margery had been wearing.

Her face peeped out at him. ‘Could we please speak about this matter?’ Pink tinged the white around the delightful blue of her eyes, hinting at angry tears. He hated seeing her distressed but you needed to break eggs to make a custard. What was the little witch up to now?

‘Right willingly, mistress, but it seems there is little more to say unless you have changed your mind. This curtain is mighty dusty. Do we have to stand behind it like lovers? Is this locked?’ She gave an angry growl. He rattled the door ring. It opened onto a small storeroom stacked with broken benches, brooms and buckets. ‘Hardly something out of a French romance. Would you prefer somewhere with tapestries?’

His betrothed stamped her foot at him. He grinned at her, revelling in his consistent ability to arouse the desire in her to hit him.

‘I think we should discuss this marriage in a sensible manner, sir. You will have to persuade my lord to reconsider this match.’

‘You want to marry someone else?’ If she did, would he change his mind? There went that little foot again.

‘'No, Master S–Huddleston, I thought I made it clear I do not want to marry anyone.’

‘Least of all me.’' He allowed the good humour to fade from his voice.

‘ Thank goodness, you are intelligent enough to see that.’

‘May I ask why?’

‘Why’' she spluttered. ‘Because we do not like each other.’

‘I am sorry I teased you.’

‘Teased me! You taunted, insulted and riled me. Your arrogant behaviour was insufferable. Just because I have no parents–’

‘–and a doubtful reputation.’

‘Exactly! I am quite unsuitable for you. I am sure your parents - if you have not annoyed them to an early grave – would not approve.’

‘I admit, lady, your besmirched reputation pleases me not one whit but as to your lack of parents, I am pleased to disregard the fact. Besides you come to me with a substantial dowry. I shall be wealthier by several manors.’

‘Dowry!’ He could not decide if she looked like an owlet or a kitten at that point. Tendrils of honey hair were rapidly escaping from her embroidered cap. ‘How many manors?’

‘Five so far, one more to be arranged. Now what's amiss?’

‘Can you not see he's only doing this to mend my reputation and wash his hands of me. You have no need to marry me.’ His patient expression must have exasperated her further for she stuck her hands on her hips like a little fishwife. ‘Jesu, you are not prepared to make him change his mind, are you?’

‘No, mistress, for his mind is fixed like the north star.’ He curbed the desire to pull her across the pace of flagstones between them so he could slide his hands down over her lower curves and cradled her hard against him. ‘You must be a heavy responsibility, Margery. Perhaps I should have bargained for seven manors. The sixth is for your little sin with the King.’

‘If were a man, I should run you through for your continual insults’'

‘But you are not a man, my mistress, so why not try your woman's wiles on me instead?’ It was time he showed her what he wanted from her. By all the Saints, he had been waiting long enough.

‘To Hell with you, Master Huddleston!’

She ran out and down the passageway before he could stop her and flung open the Earl's door. ‘Sutton Gaveston! Let the sixth manor that you sold me for be Sutton Gaveston!’ Then she grabbed up a fistful of her skirts in each hand. ‘You said you did not want used goods. You said I was a bad bargain,’ she snarled at Richard as she hurried back towards him. She would have torn past had he not seized her arm. He was about to kiss the anger out of her when the Earl loudly opened the door of the antechamber.

Warwick's face struggled in a contortion of anger interbred with laughter. ‘Margery, enough!’ he thundered.

Richard's fingers bit into the top half of his betrothed's sleeve. It was like trying to hold onto a spitting cat but he had a point to make and he made it loudly. ‘You said you wanted me shackled and bound. Well, I shall be, for all eternity.’

Margery gave Warwick a deadly glare before she wrenched her arm from Richard's grasp.

‘But I did not mean to me, Master Huddleston, not to me!’

Copyright Isolde Martyn
Excerpted by permission of the Transworld Division of Random Australia Pty Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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