Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Man in the Making Part 3

Title: The Man in the Making Part 3

Author: Ranger

"So what will it be lad?"
I indicated the paper again. I'd been thinking about this for some time and no few designs covered it.
"My father's was the three cups. And my grandfather's was the griffin."
"And what would you choose? The griffin seems your favoured from your drawings."
Ned leaned over the table beside me and sifted through the pages. I shrugged, sliding the pen back into the ink.
"Mayhap a griffin guarding a cup."
"That griffin looks more like a dragon." Ned said wryly. I flushed a little but grinned.
"I always did like dragons."
He gave me a grin in return, of understanding as well as amusement.
"Your land stands on the Welsh border lad, dragon country. Why not choose the dragon itself?"
"It should be part of the family standards though." I said hesitantly. "The griffin IS a family symbol."
"Aye." Ned said mildly. "But white, green and gold are the family colours. Your father's golden cups. My lion."
Ned's own badge of the lion couchant, the symbol of courage, in argent, the colour of peace. And mounted on vert, the colour of hope and constancy. At eighteen, fighting for the crown, those symbols had been chosen by him not only strategically but honestly: that lion to me had the look of Ned. Resting, serene, but deadly.
The dragon- defender of treasure. That was a suitable family gesture. And a suitable gesture too to Ned. I had long since understood my Lord John's own chosen badge, the sable stallion on argent- the horse was a symbol for a man ready to serve his king, of devotion and loyalty.
I knew the heraldic rules and symbolism for badges, had known them all my life, and knew too how the colours worked- mounted and chosen to show across a battlefield at distance, to be distinguishable at a glance as to what man they identified.
"A green dragon. Dragon vert." I said slowly. "On argent."
The constant defender on the colour of peace.
Ned gave me a faintly crooked smile and put a hand on my head before he got up, nodding to the two heralds who'd been sitting with us.
"Argent, a dragon vert- how lad?"
I admit, I thought immediately of the wooden green dragon - old now- upstairs in my chamber, crouched, one paw raised in readiness to spring. My eyes met Lord John’s across the table, quiet and smiling faintly, I knew he’d understand.
"Argent, a dragon vert, passant." Ned confirmed. The heralds bowed as they left the room. Ned poured himself a drink from the jug on the table and watched me gather up scraps of paper.
"You've given this a lot of thought Will."
I gave him a wry smile, getting up to pour a drink myself. What lad of my age did not? It was a bare few weeks since Ned and Lord John had spent some hours with the heralds to identify my coat of arms. The Graydon arms were just the Graydon arms- green and white quartered, with the white tower on the green- the symbol of the house of Ayrs- and the red cross moline. That I inherited, except we'd talked, and talked late into the night on several occasions and the orders the heralds had taken away for the arms that would identify me for life, was that across the top two quarters would run a black, embattled line that held a gold sword, point downwards in the middle. One of the central images of Lord John and Ned's own arms, that identified me as one of their close family, and the battle line in black mourning that stood a clear token that the family of Graydon had been decimated by war. I didn’t even remember my father’s face, but it seemed a fitting gesture towards him.
The day was gradually coming, Ned had woken me to it first in the Great Hall some months ago when he publicly called me Graydon. It was a cue rapidly picked up by the court around us, and men began to nod now when I passed, or stood to Ned or John's side. For the last few months Lord John and Ned had begun to stand by and watch me deal with the domestic quarrels, affairs and difficulties they dealt with on a daily basis with the castle guard and the village affairs. Especially with the Graydon troops. There weren’t many of them here, maybe thirty men whom Lord John commanded with his own men and were barracked with us at Ayrsford, but those men I knew in truth were mine. Would in time be my own guard, along with the other men who guarded the keep at Graydon, and Ned and Lord John both saw to it that they saw plenty of me.
“Isn’t Richard due back this afternoon?” Ned asked, accepting the cup I passed him.
“Overdue.” Lord John said mildly. “I expected to hear from George yesterday.”
”He’s not one to be delayed.” Ned said, frowning. “Which road would they take?”
“They were coming through Wilford.”
I said nothing. But we all three knew that Wilford and the surrounding towns there were loyal to the Faulks. The coming of winter had made nothing safer.
“Who are you practicing with if Richard’s gone?” Ned said to me after a moment’s slightly grim silence. “I’ve seen you out on the training grounds day after day, you’re getting obsessed lad.”
I shrugged.
“Mostly the master at arms.”
”I don’t have nearly enough time these days to practice with him.” Lord John said ruefully. “He’s getting past my teaching anyway.”
“I haven’t seen you in armour yet.” Ned said, grinning at me. I flushed but grinned back. I wasn’t yet large enough or old enough to warrant my first suit of armour but I lived in hope, the time couldn’t be far away. Richard had peacocked enough in his since his fifteenth birthday.
The bell up in the guard house began to toll and Lord John moved nearly as fast as I did to the window, then dropped a hand on my shoulder. I didn’t need him to say it. I slipped out ahead of him and Ned and ran, dodging down the stairs and out into the bailey. The gates were opening and I could hear the heavy thunder of horses crossing the bridge beyond. I climbed the wall beside the guardhouse and caught sight of the yellow standard with the badge of the grey hart on it. Lord George.
He was riding at the head of his guard, perhaps forty men, with Richard beside him. Who looked white and tired, and more grimaced than smiled as he saw me. I dropped to the ground and went straight to take Lord George’s reins, bowing as he dropped to the ground.
”My Lord King is in the solar, he asks you come straight to him.”
”Richard.” Lord George said shortly. Richard dropped to the ground beside him and handed his horse over to one of the stable boys now swarming in amongst the men at arms. And several empty horses I saw, not to mention two men blood stained and being taken down from their horses by other men at arms. One couldn’t keep his feet and sagged between the two men holding him, his face a ghastly white under his helmet.
“Get them up to the guard room and attended,” Lord George snapped to his sergeant, a big, blond haired man who looked equally tired and grim and who nodded shortly.
”Yes my lord.”
Lord George jerked his sword belt straight and strode up towards the great hall, Richard and I falling into pace beside him. I glanced at Richard as we walked, taking in the rigidity of his shoulders, the closeness with which he dogged his father’s heels. He wouldn’t look at me. In the solar Lord George dropped to one knee, Richard beside him, and Lord John had a cup in his hand before he’d straightened.
“Good Christ George what befell you!”
He’d seen what I hadn’t. Blood on his sword arm beneath his cloak. I slipped from the chamber and found the nearest page in the halls outside, sending him for the surgeon before I moved onto the kitchen. The arrival of Lord George’s men had thrown the kitchen staff into a flurry of activity, and my requests were met quickly with a promise of food and wine to be sent to the solar immediately. I returned with a basin of warm water and cloths, put them both down on the table and Richard without speaking came to help me unbuckle his father’s surcoat and swordbelt. Lord George was in the heavy chair by the fire, colour once more back in his face and his voice curt.
“We were challenged on the bridge at Malmesbury. De Montford’s men, de Montford himself and one of his brothers. Their men blocked our passage, to begin with they did nothing more than refuse to move. Taunts and pushing, until we threatened to draw swords. Then de Montford ordered his men to drive us off the bridge.”
I knew de Montford’s name, he’d been here for a few strained weeks during the winterfest court. He was a Faulk by birth, cousin to Wootton and one of the leading Faulkist men.
I looked across at Richard. He was working in silence to ease his father’s tunic off his shoulder and he didn’t meet my eyes.
”Two of my men died.” George said bitterly. “Two more were wounded. Although I’ll admit we caused as much damage to them, if not more. We drove THEM from the bridge. But Malmesbury, Ned. One of OUR towns.”
The wound was nasty, bleeding sluggishly and showing glimpses of white deep inside. I folded a cloth, soaked it and knelt to clean the blood. Getting knights in and out of their armour and handling battlefield wounds were part of our training as squires and after four years of it we were both well practiced. However today Richard moved back rather unsteadily at the sight of that blood and Lord John took his arm and put him down in a chair, putting a cup into his hands.
“Here lad. Are you hurt?”
“Thank God no.” Lord George said shortly. “Two of my men had the sense to keep him well back and covered. Ned, if we’re being challenged in our own towns-“
”I’ll have de Montford summoned.” Ned said grimly. George shook his head.
“Ned, there’s worse. Young Salisbury was taken in Wilford. He’s dead.”
Richard ducked his head, gulping audibly on his wine. Ned looked swiftly at him and then back to Lord George.
”De Montford?”
Lord George gave him a short nod. “The boy was taken and tried by de Montford as a spy Ned, although the trial itself was a travesty and he had no right to take that authority- they beheaded him on the market cross. His head’s on Wilford bridge.”
I swallowed hard on that, looking to Lord John. His face was expressionless, his eyes were shocked. Thomas, Earl of Salisbury was twenty two years old- a friend of Mark’s. He’d been a squire here at Ayrsford when I was a child and like Mark he worked- had worked- on Ned’s own errands, riding throughout the country, usually alone. Ned put his cup down with a quiet, decisive click.
“That’s tantamount to a declaration of war, Ned.” Lord George said quietly and urgently. “If the Faulks are overturning the King’s justice, if they’re setting up their own courts to execute men loyal to the house of Ayrs-“
Ned wasn’t listening, I could see it. He and Lord John were looking at each other, the flurry of quick and silent signals passing between them as I’d seen so many times in my life. A flicker of eyes and eyebrows across a hall could be enough for these two to talk, and I could read well what was being said. I already knew what was coming before Ned spoke.
“Johnny. Take Dickon and Giles with your full guards. Sack Malmesbury and Wilford, clear and burn them. Make it very clear that the house of Ayrs does not tolerate treason without exacting a good price for it. And if you find de Montford, I want him here alive.”
Lord John said nothing, just gave Ned a short bow and headed for the door. The surgeon was there, his bag in hand, and Richard was still sitting with his face white and the cup loose in his hand, so I left Lord George and went straight after my own lord, my heart thumping, hearing part of his short orders to a servant in the hall ahead of me before he ran up the stairs to his chamber. The orders were short and to the point: to find Lord Dickon and Lord Giles immediately, to rouse their guards and have them ordered to mount and ride out within the hour. I’d heard or seen nothing like this since my first days at Ayrs when Lord John first brought me here and Ned rode out to fight the battle of Havilant.
Lord John was changing rapidly with Aelric’s help when I caught up with him, buckling on the light, close fitting leathers that he usually wore under his light armour. Not the battle armour, but the chainmail and badged surcoat, enough to turn a sword if it came to hand to hand fighting. Aelric looked up and gave me a troubled glance, but went on helping him into the leathers.
Without a word, as a proper squire should, I went to Lord John’s oak chest and began to take out what he needed, last of all lifting out his sword. He shouldered into the chainmail Aelric held for him and stood to let me buckle the belt before I settled his surcoat. His badge of the black horse was stitched to the front of it, stark on a white background. Lord John’s face was still expressionless as he stood back and jerked on the belt sharply to test its position before he sheathed the sword.
“What shall I wear?” I said bluntly. Aelric’s head jerked round. Lord John looked up, then put a hand on my shoulder, pushing me back.
“No Will. I’ll not take a lad your age into battle.”
“I’m your squire.” I said sharply.
Lord John shook his head, taking the gauntlets Aelric handed him.
“You’re too young. I’ll have Lindsay with me.”
His ‘proper’ squire, as opposed to me, and to the other seven or eight well born boys who were officially fostered at Ayrsford at the request of their familiar and undergoing the squire’s training while they grew to knighthood - Lindsay was in his early thirties and would be a squire all his life, a lot less well born and a lot better at the job than me. I didn’t like him any better for his proficiency.
”I’m fourteen!” I argued, snatching up his helmet.
Lord John gripped my shoulder but moved past me, heading for the stairs.
“There are some things that must be done, but that does not make them things I’d want any boy to see who did not have to. Stay here with Aelric and Ned, we’ll be two days at most.”
”Richard was with Lord George at Malmesbury.” I said bitterly.
”Against George’s wishes and in danger.” Lord John said shortly, rounding on me. There was something in his eyes I hadn’t seen before and it stopped me, making me look at him with growing fear. “NO Will. I’ll tell you once and once only. And if I catch you after me or out of this castle I’ll give you the thrashing of your life.”
THAT was an empty threat and we both knew it, I’d dismissed it before he even started down the stairs.
Furious, I followed him, his helmet cold against my skin, my heart still thumping in my chest and tightening it until I felt sick. Something was about to happen here worse than I understood, I could sense it but not name it.
The bailey outside was alive with men and horses, and yet more men on foot behind them in assembling ranks, helmeted, surcoated. The courtyard rang with hooves and shouts and steel on stone, and no small crowd of servants and the various farmers and labourers who worked in and around the castle who stood and stared, and held horses. Lindsay, already helmeted and with Lord John’s brute of a stallion under impeccable control, stood near the steps and Lord John took the reins from him, looping them in his hand. I handed him his helmet and he paused, looking down at me with the familiar dark blue eyes.
“Your day IS going to come Will, whatever you and I do about it. But I thank God it’s not yet. Don’t rush towards it.”
I looked anger at him. He put a hand on my shoulder, gripped it hard enough that I felt the bones creak.
”Two days at most.”
He pulled the helmet over his dark hair, settled it and mounted, drawing the stallion tightly in as he began to skitter on the cobbles. Lindsay mounted his own horse, and beyond him I could see Giles and Dickon, familiar faces behind the silvered iron of their visors, surrounded by their men. It was Lord John who shouted, lifting a hand, and the columns began to move, perhaps thirty horsemen followed by over a hundred men. They filed out through the gatehouse, over the bridge, and the heavy gates were shut behind them. I stood until the heavy wooden latches were set, then shrugged off Aelric’s hand and raced up the steep stone steps beside the gatehouse. They led to the top of the castle walls, several flights, and I was out of breath when I reached the top, but from there I could see the small army march away until it was out of sight beyond the Nene river.

It was growing dark when the page cam up. One of the youngest fostered boys of the household, no more than nine or ten, large eyed and shivering out here in the frost and the mist rising from the river beyond our walls.
“My Lord Graydon? Richard Donnewell did send me for you.”
My first impulse was that Richard could go right on waiting for me. Then I looked again at the child and straightened. I’d been leaning against the battlements for some time, it took a moment for my fingers to unstiffen.
“In his chamber.” The child hesitated, looking through the battlements to the river which was now heavily hung with fog and silent but for the occasional wash and slap of water against its banks. “Where did the army go today?”
To Wilford and Malmesbury, barely twelve miles west of here. An easy ride. And I could ride far faster than that army could march.
“West, on the King’s business.” I said shortly. “It’s too late for you to be out, get you to bed.”
“What do you watch for?”
The child’s eyes were large. To his small size, I must seem to him a man grown, one of those he saw in full practice in the tilt yard, long past working with the quintain and wooden swords he and his peers were learning with, and moving amongst the men in the court as one of them. I remembered being his age, his size, and seeing the older boys around me. Mark had been one. The Earl of Salisbury had been another. I’d never before realised just how young twenty two was.
“Get you gone.” I said again, less sharply. “They’ll be looking for you.”
He gave me a jerky half bow and scuttled back down the gloom of the stairs. I followed, pulling my cloak closer around me. There was enough starlight to see, despite the fog. Enough to ride safely. I reached the bottom of the stairs and slipped quietly towards the gate, intending to take my mare from the stables. Lord John had taken his own guard, the men who’d known me all my life and might have refused me exit from the gates- the men on duty now would obey me without question. And I could catch up with the marching army by dawn.
I was half way across the courtyard when the gates began to open and I heard voices, one of which made me spin. The guards were calling welcome, and the single young man on the horse was familiar. Big, gangly, with a wide smile as he saw me- and a face that housed a smile well where once I’d only known glares and scowls.

As a child he had resented me as much as I mistrusted him.
“He’s in his difficult years and taking them hard.” Lord John said to me once after he and Mark had yet another of their clashes over Mark’s temper and impulses. Most likely after Mark had yet again been whipped for teasing or misleading me, something that for a year or two had been his main form of entertainment. The consequences of which hadn’t endeared me any further to him. He had been much the age I was now when he began to have the patience to talk to me, and when we began to form an initially wary alliance, aware that we both loved the same man. Now however, he dismounted, surrendered his horse to one of the guards and gave me an exuberant shove and as much of a dig in the ribs as he could manage as I pulled away from him.
“Christ it’s good to see you lad, is John here?”
I shook my head, nodding towards the empty stables, and he tousled my hair roughly.
”Still no words where gesture would do? Where did he go? I need to see the King, he’ll have to be woken if necessary.”
It wouldn’t be necessary. Ned slept little more than Lord John, in this middle of this stuffed court full of whispers, rumours and messengers. Of whom Mark himself was one. I knew from Lord John, he’d been riding as one of the King’s personal messengers for near two years, into Wales, Ireland and France when necessary. As a result he was dressed plainly, a grey wool cloak and clothing non descript enough to glance at him without having much memory of what he did actually wear.
He ran with me now up the steps from the great hall, and up the steeper flight of steps from that hallway that led to the King’s door. Two guards stood there and jerked upright at the sight of us. Mark spoke, voice calm enough but with authority.
“Mark de Bricatat to see the King, on urgent business.”
One of the guards went inside and re emerged within a few seconds, pushing the door wide for us.
I had been in Ned’s private chamber only a few times as a child. Like all the main chambers it was large, and the bed was also large, richly hung on all four sides. The fire was lit beneath the window and a picked over tray of food lay on the table, alongside paper, pens, ink and sealing wax. A few glass bottles belonging to the Queen lay on another table beside an embroidered stool, and the smell of her perfume lingered in the carpet- the only one in the castle- and the window hangings. Ned was out of the bed, deftly belting his robe. If he’d been asleep there was no sign of it. His gaze as it fell on me was quizzical.
”How urgent is this? Are we under attack?”
“No my liege, I thought it best to report to you directly.” Mark had gone to one knee and Ned jerked his head to raise him, giving me another sardonic look.
“I’ll guess then that you were haunting the guard tower little cousin. You have my brother’s appalling sleep habits. You look chilled to the bone and Richard will be needing you, you’d best find him.”
It was an order, discreet, but clear. I bowed and started for the door, halted by Amy who rounded the bed from the far side, also fastening a robe. It was a voluminous one, meant to cover the vastness of her swollen belly. She was very near her time from what I heard around the castle, and a small woman, she was now nearly as wide as she was tall. She had officially retired from court as was customary for women in the last stages of confinement. I’d had no idea that she and Ned had continued to share a bed. She smiled when she saw me, the sweet smile she always gave me, and I bent the little necessary to allow her to kiss my cheek in welcome. Ever since she married Ned she had tried to mother me, a gesture I appreciated but edged away from. Her golden hair was loose around her shoulders like a curtain and she moved slowly and with great care, taking my arm to lean on it.
“Will, how cold you are! What do you do at the guard tower at this hour?”
“Looking out for Johnny I’ll bet.” Ned said wryly. “And if he didn’t threaten you lad, I will. Ride out of Ayrsford on anything but my orders and I’ll skin you alive.”
That threat I believed. Amy touched my face, her green eyes soft, her voice low for my ears only.
“He’ll be back Will. Unharmed and unhurt.”
I knew. It did no more for my dignity being reassured than it did Ned promising to thrash me for leaving the castle without permission. And the wry amusement in Ned’s dismissing nod to me made it clear he understood but did not sympathise. I bowed to Amy and nobly resisted the urge to slam the door behind me.

Richard was in the chamber we shared, in bed but cradling a wine cup, one candle still lit. I did slam the door there and threw myself down on the windowseat, bitterly angry.
“Mark is home.”
”With what news?” Richard said calmly. I shrugged.
“The King did send me to bed, so I do not know. With a promise of a thrashing did I ride out of Ayrsford without his permission.”
”Rather if you followed Lord John.” Richard said ruefully.
“I should have gone with him.” I snapped back. Richard slid out of bed and came to me. He was naked, and still with the soft, angelic roundness to his limbs that he’d had when younger, white skinned and well curved. And with gentle hands that found my shoulders and rubbed soothingly.
“You do snarl like a wolf when you’re riled.”
“I do wonder how long I’ll be treated as a child!” I snapped back. Richard leaned on my shoulders, folding his arms around my neck, his cheek against mine. It was still smooth.
“I did watch that skirmish on the bridge today and feel very much a child. I’ve never been so frightened.”
I cursed myself silently. And turned within his arms to put my own arms around him. He was still shaking just a little. I cradled him, stroking his fine hair where it lay softly on his shoulders, and for the first time that day the anxiety over John subsided a little for anxiety over him.
“Are you hurt? How is your father?”
“He’s well enough.” Richard laid his forehead on my shoulder. “He did tell me not to hover over him and the surgeon stitched the wound. The two of our guard who were hurt will recover, I’ve seen them.”
I held him for a moment, listening to the shake in his breathing, and reflecting on the uniqueness of Richard. I would have done anything to pretend I was unaffected, it was part of the culture of our training- we were supposed to be brave, courageous, unshaken by battle, unmoved by death. Richard as ever spoke frankly without caring in the slightest for what I might say or think. He lifted his head after a while, kissed my cheek and gave me an unsteady smile.
“On reflection I do prefer the quintain. It does not bleed. Nor scream.”
I got up and pulled him with me across to the bed where he sat while I stripped to the skin, leaving my clothes folded on the chest. And slid under the brychans and furs with him, wrapping myself around him. It was the best way I knew to give comfort.


“Jesu lad….”
Mark stepped back from me, lowered his guard and pulled off his helmet. He was panting and he gave me a quizzical look, moving from my head to feet.
“I do not want to be match set with you when you do have some weight as well as the height.”
I lowered my sword more slowly, somewhat disappointed he was clearly tired and ready to stop. The practice ground gave somewhere for many of my frustrations to be vented, and there was almost always someone ready for sparring of some kind.
“As a child he was a hellion, he fought near every boy in the keep.”
Ned sounded sardonic. I looked around, surprised. It was unusual for Ned to be here: his time now was so precious and so thinly spread it was rare for him to find time to leave the hall and his private chambers where he dealt with envoy after envoy and his endless stream of messengers. It was early, not yet seven, and he was lightly dressed, not yet in the heavy and ornate tunics he wore for the business of the day. Mark and I both knelt but he waved us up at once, taking Mark’s sword from him to check the blade. We were both practicing with live steel, neither of us had any interest in the safety of wooden blades.
“This is well chipped. Well used Mark.”
”I must get the blade ground again.” Mark said ruefully. “It’s been too long. And too long since I practiced, my legs are near run off.”
””My cousin stopped using his fists some months ago in favour of grinding down the guard in the practice yards.” Ned handed the blade back and winked at me. “I’m told he does it well.”
I offered him my blade, hilt first, glaring at him, but he shook his head and laughed.
“No, I’ve no wish to try you this morning Will. I hear enough from Johnny about your prowess. Which rivers you’ve swam, which cliffs you’ve climbed, from what he tells me there’s no physical challenge within five miles that you can resist.”
I flushed a little on that. It was a habit I’d found indeed hard to resist in the past months- beginning with swimming the river back to Ayrsford with Lord John and Richard. Aelric condemned each new challenge roundly as looking for the worst danger I could find for myself, I’d been thoroughly scolded more than once for coming home scraped and bruised from falls. But Lord John, being my Lord John, understood and didn’t comment, other than to make me promise him to be careful.
Ned hooked an arm around my neck with easy familiarity.
“Should you reach sixteen without a broken neck you’ll most likely make a formidable knight.”
”What do you do up this early?” I demanded, shoving back as he was shoving me. For a moment he tussled with me, my cousin instead of my king as he had always been, then he caught me in a rough, exuberant hug.
“Amy’s pains began an hour ago. I look like to be a father by nightfall.”
I could see the joy in his face. Mark congratulated him and swiftly left, I suppose feeling this was too private for him to share in. All I could think of, seeing that look in Ned’s face and with the rush myself of delight in our family- was Lord John. Who would not know, who might not even be here when Ned’s child was born. Who was far away, doing God only knew what. As Mark left us on the quiet chill of the practice yard, Ned’s aquamarine eyes sobered on mine.
“He’ll be safe Will. Johnny taught you to fight, you know he’s well able. And he has the gift with his men, they won’t let him come to harm. Time was that he was the best commander I had and he did this kind of work constantly.”
”Until me.” I said shortly. Ned gave me a slow nod.
“Aye. You did change things. He wouldn’t leave you when you were a child. But after Havilant I had more need for a strong guardian force at Ayrsford than a short range attack force.”
I had still altered his life. I knew that. Sometimes it occurred to me- especially when Ned married Amy- that but for me, my Lord John might have been a husband or a father himself by now. I’d known some of Mark’s ladies when he was in his late teens, the ones he danced with or talked with, who giggled and blushed and flirted with their hair when he teased them- and the one or two I’d known share his bed in the days when I slept in the chamber next door. I’d known one or two of Ned’s mistresses too before Amy, been particularly fond of one of them who known endless stories from her native Wales of dragons when I was small and my green wood dragon stood guard on the hearth over my toy soldiers. But I’d never once seen anyone else share Lord John’s bed.
Ned’s arm tightened around my neck, pulling me against him.
“Don’t look like that lad. I swear to you. Johnny will come home, most likely tonight, and he’ll be unhurt. I’ve seen him on a battlefield, you don’t need to fear for him.”

Ned rode out on a hunt that day, and half the court went with him with many jokes of how they kept the King from pacing and from bothering his wife while she was most busy, and of how they would return home to meet the newest member of the house of Ayrs. They went in festival dress, with furs and velvets, with the hunting hawks and the boys running ahead with the dogs, with the ladies in their red, green and blue riding cloaks until Ned’s bright head and athletic figure on his grey stallion was surrounded with colour like a swarm of butterflies. The atmosphere within the keep was of hushed excitement and much running up and down the stairs of the tower with linens and water for the queen. I slipped away from it all and went up to the guard tower where the guards on duty met me with a wry smile, a nod and no pressure for conversation. I stood with them, ate with them, and watched the banks of the river beyond the ford, the direction from which my Lord John would come home.
It was near dark when I first heard the steady rumble of hooves on the hard packed earth road beyond the bridge. Torches were rapidly lit in our guard towers and the gates thrown open as the black stallion badge was recognised, flying on the pennant carried at the head of the returning horsemen.
I ran down the guardroom stairs to the cobbled courtyard as the horses walked through the archway to the stable boys, guardsmen and servants flooding from every doorway in the castle in the effort to be useful. I cared about none of them. Ducking under the heads of tired horses, in between the slide and drop of guardsmen from horseback and the rattle of many voices I found him. Dropping to the cobbles and throwing his red cloak back over his shoulders, unhelmeted and snapping orders to the Captain of the guard on watch. Messengers were running even as he left his horse in the hands of a stable boy and started towards the castle steps. I dodged between Lord Giles who tried to grab me, and the Captain of my own guard to reach him, saw the tired glance from his eyes and fell into step with him as he went into the great hall. Although his arm did reach out and rest around my shoulders as we walked. In the hall servants rushed to bring him wine and take his gloves and cloak, and fill his ears with babble about the baby to be born. He was listening to none of it, I could see. He left the guards and the knights to be fussed over and I trailed him up the stairs to his own chamber where Aelric saw me and moving softly past me to close and latch the door, put his finger to his lips. I took his message. I stood silently by the door while Aelric just as silently and with the ease of long practice, stripped my Lord John out of the chain mail and clothes we’d dressed him in. I scanned his body anxiously and jealously as Aelric took his clothes: long, flat bellied, wide shouldered, well muscled as he always was, I saw no blood, no bruising, only weariness. And a deep darkness to his face as he sank into the wooden tub of water Aelric had ready for him, sweetened with a handful of herbs dropped into the hot water and softened with linen laid over the rough wooden sides. My Lord John subsided back against the tub and shut his eyes, his hair trailing in the water and drops running down his throat and chest, and Aelric disturbed him no further. He made no sound while he laid out fresh clothes and Lord John didn’t stir to the movements of the old man around him. I slid down where I was, my back to the wall, and sat on the rushes to watch him.
It was a long time before he sighed, opened his eyes and sat up to wash, his powerful shoulders working as he ran water over his body and through his hair. Efficient and mechanical. Aelric brought him a sheet as he stood, water streaming down him, and he moved to the fire, rubbing sketchily at his arms and chest.
“How does Amy?” he said at length, without interest or caring. Aelric sounded equally careful and detached in his reply, bringing him a cup of wine.
“As well as can be your grace. Birthing does go on a while.”
”And my brother has not yet returned.”
”The King is not expected until past nightfall your grace.”
He said nothing further. Just stared into the fire while he dried. I stirred at last, not because I was unable to be still but to make him look at me, to see me, and at last his eyes moved in my direction. His lips barely stirred but his hand reached out to me and I got up and went to him. His arm wrapped around me and drew me to his side, and he kissed my forehead, once and hard. He said nothing, but I did stand with him, my arm around his square, dripping hips, and watched him drink.

Ned’s party returned by torchlight, much later that night, when the hall below was prepared for a feast that would involve near the entire court. Lord John was waiting by the fire, still drinking, and dressed in the rich reds and velvets Aelric could scarcely ever coax him into wearing. Tonight he’d donned them without a word, not even protesting the rings and neck chain Aelric brought for him. I’d never seen him drink like this either.
Not hard, not swiftly, but steadily, one cup following the other, with a certain grimness I did not like. He still had not spoken to me but I stayed close to him and I knew he was aware of me, and in his way he was glad I was there. I understood. He had stood by me for hour upon hour when I could not speak but was simply glad to have him near.
Ned burst into the hall, big and joyous with his tunic unbuttoned and his hat flung to the nearest pageboy.
“How does my wife? Have I a son yet? Johnny!”
He came at his long stride to my Lord John, his face alive, and my Lord John embraced him tightly.
“No word as yet, but congratulations Ned, I was glad to come home to such news.”
”Amy must have been waiting for us both to be home.” Ned said cheerfully. “How do you? Will’s fretted himself near sick for your safety and there’s no scratch on you I can see-“
“Your commission’s done with no cost to our people.” Lord John let him go with one last, powerful grip to Ned’s hand. “But tonight’s no night for discussing that.”
”Indeed!” Ned took a tankard and shouted instead for the steward. “Here! Someone fetch word from my wife and let us know whether her grace intends to make this feast last the full night! She ever did love a festival.”
The hall that night was filled from end to end and noisier almost than it was at winterfest. I sat by Lord John with Mark on my other side, and watched the dancing, unable to eat as Lord John beside me did not eat. He just continued to drink, slowly but unceasingly, although there was nothing in his voice nor movements to give away how much I knew now he had swallowed. The celebrations were moving well into the night when finally a lady in waiting from the queen’s tower came down into the hall, still in her apron, and Ned silenced the chatter with a roar of delight, erupting to his feet.
“My lady Anne! How does my wife? Have I a son?”
All the hall was quiet and the lady in waiting looked harried as she crossed between the dancers, her hands wringing in front of her. When she was close enough I saw the redness of her eyes in the whiteness of her face.
“Your Grace the Queen’s child does not come. We have tried and we have tried, but the child will not come forth-“ she trailed off, and the silence now had changed in the hall, even the rustle of the dogs by the fire sounded louder than thunder. The woman’s voice was shaking.
“Your Grace, the Queen grows very weak and she has begun to bleed…..”
Ned pushed the table aside in one lunge, crossed the hall, and before he began the run up the stairs towards the queen’s tower, my Lord John was after him. I followed, hearing Ned ahead of me throwing open a heavy door, a sharp voice that quelled women’s protests, and then silence. In the ante chamber of the Queen’s room several women were standing, pale faced and weeping, and Lord John stood with them with a pain in his face that frightened me still more than the words of Lady Anne. The door to the Queen’s bedchamber stood open and Ned’s voice was audible, although not the words. A soft, caressing murmur punctuated by a woman’s harsh gasps of pain.
“What more can be done?” Lord John said softly and sharply to the women in the doorway, but he got no sensible reply. Through the door I could see the surgeon, his shirtsleeves rolled to near his shoulders, his hair wet with sweat as he stood by the Queen’s bed.
There was nothing I could do here myself, I knew that as well as I knew the plan that came instantly to mind as I looked once more at Lord John’s white face. I left the room silently and ran down the stairs to the hall. The room down there was hushed, filled with people and muted talking, some of which stopped at the sight of me, but I was interested in only one face and found it quickly. Richard.
He followed my jerk of the head to the door and we slipped out together, through the heavy doors into the courtyard.
“Will? What happens? Where are we going?”
“To the guard room, for cloaks.” I told him, whistling to one of the stable boys who ran across to bow to me. “My horse and Lord Richard’s, quick as you can.”
”Yes my lord.”
“To go where?” Richard demanded, following me at a run up the stone stairs to the guard room. “WILL! Dearest God, Lord John has the right of it, you ARE insane.”
Nevertheless, he took one of the cloaks from me, fastened it and at the foot of the steps mounted his horse, reining it back to let me through the gates first.
“My Lord Graydon, where go you?” the captain of the guard demanded, hurrying across the yard to us as the gates were opened. I nodded to him, recognising him as one of my own Graydon men.
“To Milton manor, on the King’s business.”
The man hesitated, hand half way out to stop the two guards holding the gate. If he refused I knew I was powerless- they would take us back to the great hall to Lord John or more like tonight to Richard’s father, and ask there for permission for us to ride out alone in the dark- but I held his eye and after a moment he dropped his hand and stepped back, saluting.
“God speed my Lord.”
The gates were opened, my horse stepped eagerly towards the cold open fields beyond the bridge and I let him have his head, hearing Richard’s mount break into a canter behind me.

It was too cold and we moved too fast to talk. I had no idea what time it was or how long we had been riding when we saw Milton loom up out of the hills beyond the river. We slowed to a walk beneath the walls, seeing the torches flare on the ramparts above us.
“Who goes there!” came the shout from the guard tower, making my horse rear anxiously. I gathered him in, circling him to bring his head around.
“Graydon and Donnewell from Ayrsford, with an urgent message for the King’s Lady Mother!”
There was a hush for a minute and then a man leaned from the tower.
“You’ve no badge lad-“
I pulled my helmet off and lifted my head, letting him see my face in the torchlight. I had enough of Ned in my face that he reacted at once.
“Tell my Lady it’s Will Graydon.” I ordered. He straightened, and a minute later the gate opened.
“You’ve got no shortage of nerve.” Richard muttered as we walked the horses through into the yard. I dropped to the cobbles and nodded shortly to the captain of the guard who’d come to meet us.
”I’m here from Ayrsford on the King’s business. I must speak with the King’s Lady Mother immediately.”
We were taken through a doorway and left standing in the great hall while messages were sent; a woman in a blue dress who scurried up the stairs and a minute later returned and nodded. The Captain waved us ahead of him. I’d only been to the manor at Milton once before as a child, I didn’t remember the stone stairs we were led up nor the room we were ushered into at the top. It was warm, well lit with candles and tapers and comfortably furnished as a sitting room. Most likely ma Mere’s private solar.
Richard was close behind me, voice low as we reached the door,
“I do hope you’re half as nervous as I feel Will-“
“Why be nervous Richard?” Ma Mere said coolly, fastening her robe as she emerged from the far side of the bed. Her hair had been swiftly covered and she was wrapped in a gown of a deep and extremely expensive green. Richard and I both promptly bowed. She came a halt in front of us, her voice no less crisp.
“After all it’s a mere two in the morning, so this must be a life or death situation.”
”It is my lady.” I straightened and looked my great aunt straight in the eye, resting a hand on my sword hilt. “Amy’s baby is not coming, though Amy has been in labour since yesterday dawn. Ned has been told she does bleed and the surgeon can do no more-“
Ma Mere put me out of the way without ceremony and opened the door. “Alison! My lord Captain, my horse please, immediately.”
The Captain bowed, although looked somewhat anxious.
”And your escort ma’am?”
“We came as your escort.” Richard blurted out. Ma Mere paused to look at us both with her eyebrows raised, then continued to take items from trunks.
“How very chivalrous! We shall not mention of course that I’m far more likely to have to defend the pair of you should it come to it- no Captain, more than three would attract attention. The boys were right to come alone. You two wait in the hall please unless you intend to help me dress.”
We escaped in short order. Richard gave me an expressive look as we reached the great hall and hovered. Ma Mere came down within five minutes, dressed in a heavy grey wool cloak with a hood, pulled on gloves and led our way down into the courtyard where a third horse waited with ours. The captain helped her to mount. And I watched her flick the cloak back to check the release on a sword under the saddle and a dagger in her belt before she gave me an ironic bow.
“Do lead on my lord William.”

It was a swift ride back, ma Mere pushed our pace all the way and she called to the Ayrsford guard as we arrived, her voice clear and sharp.
“The King’s mother waits without!”
The gate opened immediately and guards rushed to take our horses. I went to help ma Mere dismount and found her already down and heading swiftly for the great hall. The house keeper met her there, flustered and curtseying, trailing after her as ma Mere swept up the stairs.
“Where are my sons?”
“In the Queen’s ante chamber my lady- “ the housekeeper looked at me with despair as I passed and I saw the tears on her face, an expression which froze me to the marrow.
“My lady, the Queen is dead. She and the babies.”
Babies? Richard didn’t follow as ma Mere and I climbed the tower to the private apartments, my heart starting to thump. Dead. Amy was dead.
Aelric was sitting on the top step outside the ante chamber, tears on his face too although he got up at once at the sight of ma Mere.
“Oh my lady-“
”Bring whatever you think necessary and keep everyone else away.” Ma Mere said calmly, “William help me please, I’m an old woman and these stairs are steep.”
I thought myself she was sweeping up them without any difficulty whatsoever but as soon as she felt my hand she gripped it firmly, drawing me after her where I would have hovered in the doorway. And shut the door behind us.
Ned was sitting on the window seat, his elbows on his knees, his hands loosely linked and dangling. They were bloody. Blood was on his shirt and on his face where he’d wiped his brow with a bloodied hand. And his face was white, absolutely white and expressionless.
Lord John was sitting on the arm of his chair with agony in his eyes, his one hand on Ned’s shoulder, gripping as though he tried to hold his brother back from drowning. Ma Mere let me go and unhurriedly unlaced her cloak, dropped it over a chair and went to them, touching Lord John’s face before she put him out of the way and drew Ned to her. She took Lord John’s seat on the arm of Ned’s chair and held his head, stroking Ned’s bright gold hair where it lay against her arm without speaking, fingering the locks back from his forehead. Lord John came silently to me. For a minute I looked at him and saw the shock there, well buried beneath the pain. He put a hand up to grip my shoulder and I took his hand and squeezed it hard, keeping tight hold of his fingers in mine as we stood and watched the King weep.


We kept the night vigil there with Ned.
Ma Mere sat in the bed chamber with him when he returned to Amy, and Aelric brought candles to light the room. Lord John’s arm folded around me and drew me out of the way when I followed, and he shut the door softly.
“No lad, you don’t need to see.”
I stared at his face instead and he cupped his hands behind my head, looking down at me with those dark blue eyes I knew so very, very well.
“That was foolhardy, entirely disobedient and the best thing you could have done, Will.”
I couldn’t answer. My throat had tightened, I couldn’t find my voice, it had frozen as it sometimes did. But I clung to him. He sat by the fire all that night in the ante chamber and I sat at his feet, leaning against his legs, comforted that he was there. I was aware of his anxiety. It was tangible, that we sat in the presence of death. There was a stillness, a silence that was unmistakeable, and that I knew intimately. I had lived for days- perhaps weeks- in my silent castle at Graydon long ago, surrounded by it. Lord John’s hand brushed my hair, ruffled it straight in a tense motion, his voice gentle.
“Will. You should be in bed, lad, you shouldn’t be sitting here.”
Where else should I be? I shifted, saying nothing but laying my cheek on his knee. As when I was younger, I was determined if he tried to move me I wouldn’t go without a fight, but he said nothing more.
Some time early in the morning Ma Mere left the bedchamber and sent the servant on the stairs outside for food, and for Amy’s ladies in waiting. Lord John rose to his feet and I followed, heavy eyed and sticking close to him. Ma Mere looked at Lord John for a moment, then brushed his hair back from his face, briefly and gently.
“Take Ned to his rooms Johnny. I’ll see Amy made ready and have her taken to the chapel. Someone will need to go to the abbey and bring the abbot to us.”
”I’ll go as soon as Ned is taken care of.” Lord John said quietly. “What of the babies?”
“Two.” Ma Mere said softly. “A boy and a girl. So tiny. I don’t know, Johnny. They died unbaptized.”
Which meant they had no right to lie in sanctified ground. I thought abruptly of my sister- I had no memory of her, just the knowledge that she had died in her cradle nine years ago. I remembered the bonfires, and Lord John carrying me across the ford, out of sight. He had been nineteen- not so much older than me- when he led his men to Graydon to find the castle filled with the dead. And me. He was looking at me, his blue eyes dark, and I knew he’d seen what I was thinking. He went into the bedchamber, which left me with ma Mere. She was a tall woman, I still reached only her shoulder, and while she looked white, her face was still and composed. She took my arm as she moved to Lord John’s chair as if she needed the help to walk, and when she had seated herself she kept hold of my hand.
“Where was Johnny sent, Will?”
I looked at her, wondering how she had known. If word had reached Milton manor of the raid that Ned had sent Lord John and his men out to make. I looked dumbly back at her, my mouth refusing to obey me. She drew me closer, speaking quietly, steadily.
“Will, you cannot let this take control of you. You are an Ayrs. You are of my blood, and you have the strength to overcome this if you try. Take a breath and answer me.”
She sounded so convinced, so very sure, that I did exactly as she said. Took a breath, forced my frozen mouth to move. Her grasp on my hand remained steady.
“Clear your throat, and you will be able to speak.”
I forced myself to cough, compelled the sound to come out of my throat, and the words did follow, soft but clear.
“Ned sent him to sack and burn Wilford and Malmesbury for the execution of Thomas Salisbury. De Montford held a trial and took on the King’s justice.”
She squeezed my hand, eyes dark.
“I see. Did Johnny’s troops come back unchallenged?”
I had to clear my throat again to force sound from it, but the words this time came easier.
“I don’t know my lady. Lord George’s troops were held on the bridge at Malmesbury and challenged, he and two of his men were hurt, and they had Richard with them.”
”I see.”
Ned came from the bed chamber ahead of Lord John. He was ghastly pale, but his face was mobile, his hair was wet and the blood had been washed from his hands and brow. I trailed them through the torchlit halls to Ned’s own bedchamber, where a fire was burning and where two of his squires and his body servant instantly rose from their seats by the fire where they were waiting, and came to quietly take him in hand. I knew the two squires- they were two of the oldest of Ned’s personal servants, favourites and friends of his who would offer comfort as much as care and who must have pressed their right to be with him tonight. They had him out of his blood stained tunic at once, bath water steamed and food and wine stood on the table by the bed. Lord John put a hand on Ned’s shoulder and silently kissed his brother’s cheek, then steered me ahead of him into the hallway and closed the door behind him.
“Get your own cloak lad, the guard’s cloak makes you look like an outlaw. And bring my cloak and gloves. I’ll have the horses brought to the yard. Quick now.”
I ran up the stairs. Our chambers were deserted, Aelric had stayed with ma Mere and Richard, I suspected, had spent the night in his father’s chamber rather than be alone. I found the gloves and cloaks, fastened mine and took Lord John’s out into the yard where my cob and his stallion were standing, huffing in the first of the morning light.
We rode in silence out to Moulton Abbey.
It was well past Matins when we arrived, and the sun was above the orchard trees. A few of the monks were in the fields and smiled as we passed. Two more opened the gates for us at the massive grey stone gatehouse before the huge walls of the abbey itself, with its mighty windows arching up towards heaven. Our horses were taken to the stables, and we were being led by the porter across the stone yard towards the abbot’s house when he came out of a building towards us. Lord John sank down to one knee where he was, and I followed his example. The abbot’s voice was warm, and his dark eyes when he raised me to my feet were as deep and as kind as his voice.
“John. And William, how good it is to see you.”
”I come for Ned.” Lord John said bleakly. He hadn’t yet stood. The abbot rested a hand on his shoulder and drew him up.
“For Ned?”
“The Queen is dead, in childbirth.”
There was a moment where the abbot looked tired and sad, and then he said just as gently, “I am very sorry to hear it. Come inside with me John. Brother Owen, take Lord William to our brother hosteller at the guesthouse.”
I had never been treated here with anything less than the kindness I met now. I knew Brother Adam who was the abbey hosteller, the brother in charge of guests and the several rich apartments of the guest house, and as always I was met with no demands for chatter. I was taken into one of the chambers there to wash, which made it clear that I was far from presentable. There was a strange sense of unreality in making myself tidy and disposing of the evidence of last night. It had seemed at the time to have gone on forever. Using the ornate looking glass, I washed, combed my hair and submitted to Brother Adam’s attentions to my severely crumpled tunic. And once presentable, took a couple of the abbey’s own, small, sweet apples from the piled plate of food Brother Adam tried to press on me and slipped out of the door of the guesthouse and into the abbot’s rose garden.
It was one of the few places that visitors could walk freely without disturbing the community, and like all of the abbey grounds, it was kept with quiet and loving care. The lawns were immaculate, the roses carefully tended, although only a few of the most resilient bushes still held a few blooms. I followed the smooth paths of the garden, breathing in the silence and the stillness that this place held – an entirely different quality to the stillness of the chamber we had sat by all night. This place held an atmosphere of welcome and peace. I remembered Lord John bringing me here as a very small boy, of playing in these gardens while Lord John and the abbot talked, the gardens where my Lord John himself had played as a child.
I walked for some time before I saw the abbot come through the arch and walk unhurriedly across to me.
”Father.” I bowed to him and he put a hand on my shoulder, walking with me to the bench in the shelter of the wall. I sat there beside him and he leaned to brush a drop of dew from one single white rose on the branch nearest to us.
“Even with the frosts some of them still carry on, as strong and as beautiful. Lord John is in the chapel. He wished for some time to pray alone.”
“What will happen to the babies?” I asked, somewhat thickly. The abbot gave me a steady look. He was a big man, even the soft lines of his habit didn’t disguise the power of his build. Like Ned.
“They will be buried as the King wishes, either here or at Ayrsford.”
”With Amy?”
“As the King wishes.” The abbot said gently. “God has nothing against innocent souls.”
That was not in keeping with what I’d been taught and I knew it. The abbot rested his hands on his knees, keeping his eyes on mine.
“It’s still difficult for you to speak.”
”Sometimes.” I said, flushing. “Not as it used to be.”
“It will pass.” The abbot said with quiet conviction. “As you grow older.”
“None of my family were buried.” I said, not quite sure why I was telling him what I hadn’t even said aloud to Lord John. “I remember the soldiers burning the bodies.”
”Do you remember the dead in the castle?” the abbot said with a gentle matter of factness. I nodded slowly.
“Some. Not faces or people. The eyes.”
I still at times didn’t like eyes that looked too hard into mine. The abbot didn’t speak and the silence flowed between us, unthreatening and accepting. His eyes were on the grass and his hands were at rest on his knees, brown and peaceful.
“The first thing I remember is Lord John riding into the yard with the soldiers. And clearing the castle. I was the only one alive.” I said, more and more quietly as my voice was the only thing moving in this silent garden other than the birds. “I don’t even remember how I came to live when everyone else died. I don’t know what happened, or why I lived.”
He still said nothing, and yet I knew he was listening, that his silence held warmth. Even when I was spilling forth all of this without understanding why – all of this which had nothing to do with my grief for Amy, Ned’s sweet and gentle Amy who had done her best to befriend and to mother me in the few years I’d known her. Who should have seen her own children in this garden where Ned and John had been happy.
“I’ve been called damned.” I said eventually. “Lord John tried for years to stop the servants at Ayrsford making the evil eye sign to me, because I lived where no one else did. I don’t remember how. Even when I dream about it I don’t remember how. I heard Ned tell Lord John once that the servants said I sold my soul for my life. They were talking about whether I was mad. Whether I could be Lord Graydon. Because of the silences and the –“
I trailed off, at a loss as how to describe what we’d always called ‘those’ days.
”You are not damned.” The abbot told me firmly. “We never will know how by the mercy of God you survived that massacre. THAT was the work of evil, a wicked act, and the one good left from it was you. You’re beloved to John and to Ned, that is easy to see, and you’re strong in mind, body and spirit or you could not have survived as you did. You lived through a darkness that I’ve known of no one else enduring and you have had the strength to live beyond it. You will overcome it William. I knew your father, and you are a son he would have been proud of.”
I stared at the grass, aware of my face flushing hotly but with a rush of relief behind it. Others had said that to me, Lord John and Ned, but to hear it from someone else, someone from the outside, made it far more believable. The abbot got up, waiting for me.
“Perhaps you would like to join Lord John. I will make ready to return to Ayrsford with you.”
“What happened at Wilford?” I blurted out as we started to walk towards the archway. The abbot paused just inside the walls to let me pass through the narrow arch ahead of him.
“Has Lord John spoken of it to you?”
“He spoke to no one.” I said grimly as we crossed the cobbled yard towards the abbey. “Aelric and ma Mere knew as soon as they saw him, the silence, the way he looked- they expected it.”
”Some men excel on the battlefield and take satisfaction in the work,” the abbot said slowly as we walked. “Some men must do the duties they have been born to, without finding them easy. And try afterwards to reconcile their duties with their conscience. Go into the chapel, William. He’ll be wanting you with him.”
My Lord John was kneeling in the abbey church, before one of the stone altars, his hands clasped before him on the altar rail, his head bowed. In the distance, in their lines facing each other, the brothers were assembling, and as I knelt they began the quiet, unison singing of their mid morning prayers, their voices whole and pure in the body of the church. My shoulder pressed Lord John’s as I clasped my hands, not lowering my head but looking instead at the altar where fresh flowers lay. His face was quieter. I knelt with him but I had no mind to spare for my prayers. Only for him.


Amy lay in state in the chapel at Ayrsford for two days, before the slow procession was made to the abbey, and she was buried with the King’s children, in the crypt of the abbey church. Lord John, ma Mere and I stood behind Ned throughout the ceremony and rode with him at the head of the procession of courtiers as we returned to Ayrsford that evening. And we retired to the privacy of the small solar, since this was one night that the King would not be expected to make a public appearance.
Lord John went to the table and poured from the jug stood there, filling four cups. Ma Mere took a seat nearest to the fire, and Ned stretched out his great shoulders, making them crack noisily with his face still white and wearily expressionless. Then dropped his arms, stooped and hugged me tightly, lifting me off my feet as if I was still a child. I returned the hug with all my strength, only too well aware of what he’d lost and aching for him with all my heart. I loved Ned, I loved him dearly and I understood exactly what it was to lose those you loved. Lord John brought him a cup and he let me go, tousled my hair roughly and took the chair across from ma Mere. I moved to sit on the rushes by Lord John’s usual chair, but the knock at the door was loud and followed immediately by Lord George, cloaked and grim faced.
“Ned, de Montford has mobilised, Ayrsford will be under attack within the hour. The messenger just came in, there are three thousand men coming this way under the Faulk banners.”

I remember seeing Ned and Lord John run down the stairs in strides I couldn’t hope to keep up with, and the silence and atmosphere in the great hall below where a messenger in the Ayrs colours was standing, out of breath and gulping wine. He pushed the cup away at the sight of Ned and bowed, his voice rasping.
“Sire, de Montford and Lord Delapre ride this way with three thousand men, they are less than an hour from Ayrsford.”
”If they means to attack this openly then they have supporting forces moving this way too.” Lord John said sharply. “They wouldn’t risk this unless they were sure of their ability to take all the most powerful Ayrs allies in one place.”
“The word of the funeral appears to have got out fast.” Ned agreed, sounding ridiculously calm. “A weakened king and all the house of Ayrs gathered together, taken unawares. Can you swear to three thousand?”
The man looked terrified but nodded at once.
“At least, sire.”
Ma Mere's hands lifted and rested on my shoulders, a light and steadying weight, although she said nothing. Ned looked swiftly around the hall as he spoke, taking in every face now raised to his. I could only imagine what he was thinking: we were trapped here, and with less than an hour’s warning we were nowhere near prepared to stand and fight. His voice was calm as it ever was, but brisk and clear.
"Giles, send our troops to scatter from here, there is no way we can stand our ground. Tell them to go to safety where they can, away from the town, the Faulkists aren’t interested in men at arms and archers."
Giles was already heading from the hall at a dead run towards the guardhouse, even as Ned continued.
"We'll be long gone by the time they get here. Over the fens. It’s near dark now and we know that ground where they won't dare ride until daybreak. If we ride hard we'll stay ahead of them. Ma Mere-"
"I'll take sanctuary at Moulton Abbey." She said at once as men began to stream from the great hall, flinging their cloaks around their shoulders. "Go Edward, I'll take the children with me."
"Take Richard Ma Mere." I saw Ned's eyes fell on Richard who was standing by Lord George, his eyes wide in a white face, then his gaze moved on to me, his face unreadable. "Will we'll keep with us."
Richard's eyes flashed to mine in fear. Ma Mere's hands tightened on my shoulders although her voice didn't change.
"He's only fourteen Ned, he'll be safe enough at the abbey."
Lord John nodded to me and I went to him, feeling Ma Mere release me reluctantly as I slipped from her grasp.
"He's barely more than a child, he won't ride at the speed you'll need tonight-"
Ned kissed her, but the men were already moving, horses were being gathered in the bailey outside, the clatter of their hooves ringing on the frosty cobbles with the chill air through the wide open doorway. Lord John steered me after them, too fast to speak to Richard, whose eyes were tortured as they held mine. Ned's voice was soft but I could pick it out of the clamour.
"He be too easily recognised Ma Mere, and too useful to them. He’s the one child we have now with good Ayrs blood. I'd sooner trust to us than to his youth to protect him. Go safely, I'll get word to you when I can."
She did not argue or even try to detain him, but there was a tension in her voice that I'd never heard before and her voice was raised to follow us.
"God speed you Edward."
The dark shape of the horses moved and shifted like shadows in the bailey. Lord John pulled me close to him, found his own grey and took the reins of a second, large and powerful chestnut, holding him steady.
"This one lad. Keep good hold of him."
It was sound advice: all the horses around us were restless, stamping, aware of the tension, if not actual fear in the men rapidly mounting. Lord John boosted me the height of the chestnut and I found my seat, gathering up the reins and automatically bringing his head down to hold him in as John swung to his own seat on the grey. Not my own horse, the fast and high bred little cob Lord John had given me two years ago when I outgrew my childhood pony- this was one of the war horses. An ungelded stallion, whose temper and hooves were as wicked as a man’s sword in close battle. Richard and I had ridden these beasts, but only under close supervision in training and I knew my strength wasn’t yet much of a match for his. Lord John moved his grey in close beside me as Ned mounted, no more than an outline recognisable by his height. He moved at once as he reached his seat, kicking his stallion into a canter, and the horses around us leapt to follow, nervous enough to be running even on this uneven ground. As we streamed out through the gatehouse I caught a glimpse of Richard and Ma Mere, standing together in the thin light of the doorway, watching us go.
Ned led us away from the town, directly out across open land towards the fens, and once in that open land we moved at a flat gallop. Too fast to talk, too loud to hear with the wind whistling by and the thud of the horses on the turf, too cold to catch your breath after a while, I ducked my chin into the fold of my cloak, let my horse have his head and trusted to God that he'd keep his feet. I was, to put it bluntly, terrified. And at the same time exhilarated. Excited. And ashamed too. This was hardly a game, I should no longer have been boy enough to find excitement without understanding the ramifications of our situation. The men around me, those I had been raised to think of as 'we', the loyal to the house of Ayrs and of the blood of the great houses of England, they were the ones that de Montford and the Earl of Delapre and Wootton himself wanted. Any one of the knights around me- from seventeen year old David upwards, Mark, George, Giles- would be gladly taken for ransom, or worse. For the first time I truly realised, I too was of Ayrs blood and a threat to the house of Faulk. To them I was another of the house of Ayrs, only a few years away from being capable of raising and financing troops to Ned's banner, capable of holding land for him, capable of holding battle for Ayrs. And I had Ned's blood in my veins, came of Ned's line. That threat had been great enough that Ned hadn't been willing to leave me to be recognised by Faulkist men.
We might be no more than half an hour ahead of Delapre and de Montford, and we had no clue who else in this area was friend or foe, or if they would have the foresight to block our paths. I thought of Ma Mere and Richard, who would have left barely minutes behind us, most likely with one of Ma Mere's servants to make the ride to the abbey. Hopefully a short enough and fast enough journey that they would reach the abbot's protection before the waves of Delapre and de Montford's troops broke on the gates of Ayrsford. And I thought too of the town, deserted and undefended, unaware of us leaving like shadows in the night, or the men riding down upon them. When de Montford found us gone from Ayrsford, it was more than likely his men would turn their vengeance upon the town.
With hindsight and old knowledge, from the stories of that night from among the fifty knights who fled with Ned, John and I from Ayrsford, we kept that hard, maniac speed over rough ground for near two hours. Almost to the gates of the town of Hardwick, more than eighteen miles distant. There, in sight of the sea, Ned finally brought us to a halt and we let our exhausted horses walk to a standstill on the cliff tops.
To me, on that freezing night, it felt more as though we'd ridden to the end of the world. At some point I'd become tired enough to lose awareness of time, it was just pure mechanical knowledge from day after day after day of practice all my childhood that made me keep that chestnut on his feet and at that speed. On that cliff top, with what little light came from the rushing blue clouds overhead, Ned brought his panting horse through the crowd to Lord John and I. His cloak hood was thrown back, his breath cast mist as he spoke but there was nothing in his body or manner that spoke of exhaustion, and I knew as soon as I saw him that we were far from done tonight. He looked down at me and I met his eyes, trying to keep my back straight and to stop the overwhelming inclination to slide to the ground and lay where I fell. Then he looked to John, his voice low but curt.
"We won't make it south. If de Montford and Delepre have openly mobilised then Wootton is holding the land south of them and secure of it, and Ashby and my lord Wendell will declare for them too, especially when word gets out that we were forced to flee. We can’t assume less than ten thousand men between them all."
"We can stay on the coast road." Lord John said just as softly. "It'll take time for them to position, to know which way we've gone-"
"They'll know well Johnny." Ned interrupted, "We're ahead of them but by very little, and any town we enter here may close their gates to us or worse yet, on us. They’re making a serious gamble tonight and they would not be making it unless they were sure they could win and they were well prepared for it. They’ve slipped under our guard. Who knows now which towns are loyal in this area, or where armies are being stationed?"
There was silence for a moment, silence that told me that Lord John believed that. Then he said bluntly, "What do you mean us to do?"
"Send a couple of the youngsters south, to Brent Cross and Pickering." Ned said quietly. "Few enough to ride hard and wide of the towns. Send word to gather who we can there, see how far the rot has spread. I'll take the others north to take refuge for now with Rothersthorpe, that far north we know is still our land."
My heart sank as I heard that: Rothersthorpe was more than fifty miles from here, a long and hard ride, and now we knew the road likely lay through hostile territory. Ned's gaze once more touched me with a trace of understanding and sympathy but his voice was still firm.
"The lad's spent, and I don't want to take him into a battle Johnny. You leave us here, take him aboard a boat and get the two of you safely to Artois. Take shelter with Tante Marguerite. He'll be safe enough there, you both will, and I'll get word across when I can."
There was a long silence, and when Lord John spoke I could hear his voice cracking.
"Ned for Christ's sake-"
Ned cut him off, bluntly but kindly.
"I MUST have the two of you safe Johnny. Take Mark with you, the two of you will be enough to protect Will, and just the three of you together won't be noticed."
He rose in his stirrups and I saw him lean across, the arm flung around his brother's neck and the brief kiss they exchanged that told me there was more to this than they were saying.
"Go on Johnny, see you're gone with this tide. Give me that hope at least."
They separated and Ned leaned over to me, tousled my hair as always did, and paused, one hand briefly against my cheek.
"Look after him lad."
And then he was gone, moving to the head of the crowd of wheeling horses around us.
Lord John leaned over, put a hand on my rein and drew me away, and a minute later Mark separated from the crowd and came with us. We walked our horses down the path beyond the town, and within a minute that dark party of our family and friends, what stood at present for the royal army of Ayrs, was gone from sight. Most likely gone from here, continuing their flight north.

In the lapping shadows of the harbour Lord John dropped to the ground, held my horse's head and I more or less fell off at his feet, near to staggering with weariness. I trailed him, aware of voices, of money changing hands, of standing for what felt like hours in the cold of the dock, then a man with a lantern who led us aboard a ship that rocked in the gentle tide within the harbour walls. She was small, a trading boat, and the master was fetched from a local inn. We were shown two cabins deep inside the ship and as Lord John lit the lamps in the larger cabin we began to hear the voices and the activities of the crew as they gathered and began to man her, curious about the two men and a boy willing to pay well for an immediate departure on the tide. Lord John peeled my cloak from my shoulders and I came to life, well aware that any squire of any worth would be at this moment seeing that his master was dry, warm, fed – Lord John gave me a brief smile when I tried to loose his sword belt, turned me around and pushed me towards the nearer of the bunks.
"Lie down before you fall down lad, get yourself warm."
I was too cold to even shiver. He pulled my boots off, wrapped one of the heavy woollen brychans around me and I curled up, watching him shed his own wet cloak and shake the frost and night dew from his hair. Mark returned with a jug and cups, pouring something dark and syrupy into them. I took the cup he handed to me, too cold to protest, and gulped on something strong enough to make me choke, but it spread fire from my mouth to my belly in one rush.
"Where are we going?" I asked hesitantly, and somewhat hoarsely when I finished coughing. Lord John kicked a chair out and sat, slowly and heavily, propping his elbows on his knees.
"To Ma Mere's sister. Tante Marguerite. Her husband is the Baron de Crecy, it's a large court. Safe. Well protected."
"Will they come back to Ned's aid?" I demanded. "Will they raise men?"
Mark gave me a brief and silent look, and refilled his cup. Lord John didn't answer for a moment. Then shook his head.
"No lad. At present there's no use to raise men anywhere. All we can do is wait."

I was asleep when the ship set sail, exhausted and stupefied by the heavy wine. I roused briefly, somewhere towards dawn, to find myself curled under a brychan which had been well wrapped around me, and that I had the cabin to myself. Mark, when I looked in the adjoining cabin, was sound asleep, still fully dressed. I found my way up the steep wooden steps to the deck, past a sailor who gave me a look devoid of interest, and forward to the prow of the ship where I found my Lord John. His cloak folded around him above his folded arms, his feet square to counteract the rocking of the deck. His eyes looked back through the mist, as though beyond the sails and the creaking beams he could still see England. I knew he was with his brother, riding God knew only where towards God knew only what- if Ned was taken he was unlikely to remain long alive. Until now, the younger brother, the only heir Ned had, John had always ridden with him, his right hand. Now, with me, the further bloodline, for the first time he had been sent beyond the action to safeguard me. Too young, too slow, too much of a risk, I had separated them for the first time in their lives. I was the sole reason now that my Lord John stood here with that expression on his face, and that desertion on his heart. I was the reason that Ned was now alone.
I didn't make a sound but Lord John glanced around as if I'd spoken, saw me and for an instant he didn't move. Then he took my arm, drew me close and wrapped his cloak around us both, folding his arms tightly over me. And as Ned had leaned to him on that cliff top, he bent his head to me and kissed my forehead, once and hard. And in that way we stood until dawn.

~The End ~
Copyright Ranger 2010


jen vieira pinto said...

Great story. Wonderfully written and with well rounded characters.

So many loose ends and cliffhangers, I do hope there will be more to see what happens to Ned, Richard, John and Will. Their endings are all incomplete.

It was great, but I'm looking forward to the rest. If it's already there I'd love to know about it, so I can read it.

Thanks. High quality work, as I've come to expect from you.

kristinaa1 said...

I greatly enjoyed this story, I hope you continue it. Thanks for sharing it.

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