8

For three days, the French army and York’s soldiers shadowed each other, moving north through Anjou. Duke Richard’s men pulled far ahead after that, in part because the French king stopped and held court in every town. The royal party made a grand tour of the Loire valley, making camp whenever King Charles saw something of interest or wished to see a church with the bones of a particular saint. The rivers and vineyards stretching over many miles of land gave him especial pleasure.

Hundreds of Anjou families were evicted by rough French soldiers running ahead of the main army. In shock and despair, they took to the roads in carts or on foot, a great stream of suddenly beggared subjects that only grew each day. York pulled his men back to the new border of English land in France, picketing them on the outskirts of Normandy as the flood of evacuees kept coming, filling every village and town with their misery and complaints. Some of them called angrily for justice from King Henry for their losses, but most were too stunned and powerless to do more than weep and curse.

The evictions went on and there were soon tales of rape and murder to add to the chaos and upheaval as the families came in. As the weeks passed, minor lords sent furious letters and messengers demanding that English forces protect their own, but York set them aside unread. Even if the evictions hadn’t been by decree of an English king, he wanted them to come home with their tales of humiliation. It would fan flames in England, making a fire that would surely consume Derry Brewer and Lord Suffolk. He did not know if the unrest would reach as far as the king himself, but they had brought it about between them and they deserved to be shamed and vilified for what they had done.

Each evening, York went to the church tower of Jublains and looked south over the fields. As the sun set, he could see hundreds of English men, women and children staggering towards the safe border, each with their own story of violence and cruelty. He only wished Derry Brewer or Suffolk, or even King Henry himself, could see what they had brought about.

He heard footsteps on the stone stairs as he stood there, watching the sun set on the forty-third day after the wedding. York looked round in surprise as he saw his wife ascending.

‘What’s this? You should be resting, not climbing cold steps. Where is Percival? I’ll have his ears for it.’

‘Peace, Richard,’ Cecily replied, panting slightly. ‘I know my own strength and I sent Percival away to fetch me cold, pressed juice. I just wanted to see the view that keeps you up here each evening.’

York waved at the open window. In other circumstances, he might have appreciated the dark gold and rose of a French sunset, but as it was, he was oblivious to its beauty.

Cecily leaned on the wide sill after edging around a great bronze bell.

‘Ah, I see,’ she said. ‘Those little people. Are they the English you mentioned?’

‘Yes, all coming north into Normandy with their sorrows and petty rages, as if I do not have enough troubles. I don’t come to watch them. I come because I’m expecting to see the French army marching up here before the year is out.’

‘Will they stop here?’ Cecily asked, her eyes widening.

‘Of course they will stop! Evicting families is more to their taste than English archers. We’ll turn them round and send them south again if they put one foot on English land.’

His wife relaxed visibly.

‘Lord Derby’s wife was saying it’s all an awful mess. Her husband thinks we should tear up whatever agreement has been made and begin again. He says the king must not have been in his right mind …’

‘Hush, my dear. Whatever the truth of it, we have no choice but to defend the new border. In a year or two, perhaps I will be given the chance to take it back in battle. We’ve lost Maine and Anjou before, under King John. Who knows what the future will hold?’

‘But there is a truce, Richard? Lord Derby says there will be twenty years of peace.’

‘Lord Derby has a lot to say to his wife, it seems.’

The tower was as private a place to be found in France, but even so, York stepped close to his wife, running his hand over the bulge of the child growing within her.

‘The mood is ugly among the men, my dear. I have reports of unrest and it has only just begun to spread. I would prefer to know you are safe at home. King Henry has lost the faith of his lords. This will not end well, when enough of them learn it was his hand behind it — and Suffolk’s name on the treaty. I’ll have William de la Pole tried for treason, I swear it. By God, to think I am separated from the throne by the distance of one brother! If my grandfather Edmund had been born before John of Gaunt, I would be wearing the crown that sits so poorly on Henry’s head. I tell you, Cecily, if I were king, I would not give back a single foot of land to the French, not till the last trumpet blast! This is our land and I have to watch as it is given away by fools and schemers. Jesus wept! King Henry is a simpleton. I knew it when he was a boy. He spent too much time with monks and cardinals and not enough wielding a sword like his father. They ruined him, Cecily. They ruined the son of my king with their prayers and poetry.’

‘So let them fall, Richard,’ Cecily said, placing a hand against her husband’s chest and feeling the heart beating strongly. ‘Let them reap the whirlwind, while you grow in strength. Who knows, but you may find yourself in reach of the crown in time? If Henry is as weak as you say?’

Paling, York put a hand tight over his wife’s mouth.

‘Not even here, my darling. Not aloud, not even whispered. It does not need to be said, do you understand?’

Her eyes were bright as he removed his hand. The last rays of the sun were shining into the tower, the entire sky darkening to claret and soft lilac.

‘My dear, no matter what happens next year, this summer must come to an end first. While King Henry prays, good rivers and valleys are taken back by those French whores … I’m sorry, Cecily. My anger soars at the thought of it.’

‘It is forgotten, but you will not teach our child such terms, I hope.’

‘Never. You are as fertile as a vineyard, my fine Neville bride,’ he said, reaching out and touching her belly for good luck. ‘How is the Neville clan?’

Cecily laughed, a light tinkling sound.

‘My nephew Richard is the one doing well, or so I’ve heard. He married the Beauchamp girl, if you remember? Shrewish little thing, but she seems to dote on him. Her brother is Earl Warwick and I’m told he is failing faster than the doctors can bleed him.’

‘The one without a son? I know him. I hope your nephew will still come to visit, Cecily. What is he now, eighteen, nineteen? Half my age and almost an earl!’

‘Oh, he worships you, you know that. Even if he does inherit the earldom, he’ll still come to you for advice. My father always said Richard was the one with the wits, out of all the family.’

‘I’m sure he meant me,’ her husband said, smiling.

She tapped him on the forearm.

‘He didn’t mean you at all, Richard York. My brother’s son is the one with the wits.’

The duke looked out of the window. At thirty-four years old, he was strong and healthy, but he felt again the sense of creeping despair at the thought of a French army marching into view in the distance.

‘Perhaps you’re right, my dear. This Richard can hardly think his way past tomorrow, at least for the moment.’

‘You’ll beat them all, I’m certain. If I know you at all, I know you don’t lose easily — and you don’t give up. It’s a Neville trait as well. Our children will be terrors, I’m quite sure.’

He placed a cool hand along her jaw, feeling a surge of affection. Outside, the evening had come in shades of purple and grey. He reached out to gather her cloak closer around her.

‘I’ll come down with you,’ he said. ‘I don’t want you to fall on those steps.’

‘Thank you, Richard. I always feel safe with you.’

Margaret stood in the main yard of Saumur Castle, watching the man who had declared himself her protector teaching her brothers a thing or two about sword work. Her father was away to oversee the return of Anjou, busy with the thousand details of rents and estates he had won with the marriage of his daughter.

As she came back to Saumur on that first day, it had seemed at first as if nothing had really changed. She was not properly a queen after the odd ceremony and England felt as far away as it had always been.

She watched Suffolk correcting little Louis as he overreached in a stroke.

‘Guard, boy! Where is your guard?’ Suffolk said, his voice booming back from the walls.

Margaret felt a wave of affection for the big English lord. Her father had returned briefly to Saumur after a week of riding with the king. Seeing his daughters, he’d told them gruffly to fetch their mother, giving orders with his old authority. The moment when Suffolk had stepped forward and cleared his throat had become one of the most cherished memories of her young life.

‘Milord Anjou,’ Suffolk had said. ‘I must remind you that Queen Margaret is no longer at your command. As her husband’s representative and champion, I must insist that she be treated with the dignity of her station.’

Ren? of Anjou had gaped at the Englishman standing so solidly between them in his own courtyard. He’d opened his mouth to reply, then thought better of it, glaring around him until his gaze fastened on the unfortunate Yolande.

‘Fetch your mother, girl. I am weary and hungry and in no mood for such English games.’

Yolande had scurried away with her skirts held in bunches. Her father’s face had grown pink, his lower lip protruding like an offended mastiff as he walked on into his home. Duke Ren? left again three days later and in that time he had not said another word to her, or her English lord.

Margaret blushed at the memory. It had been a moment of pure joy to see the white slug forced to back down. She did not doubt Suffolk in his willingness to defend her honour. The man took his duty as her protector very seriously and she suspected his sword training with her brothers had a similar aim in mind.

She looked up at the clash of swords. Her three brothers were all faster than the English earl, but he was a veteran fighter, a man who had suffered wounds at Harfleur and been commander at the siege of Orl?ans. He knew more about fighting than John, Nicholas or Louis, and in fact he had fought them all together to demonstrate how armour could protect a man in a m?l?e. Nonetheless, he was no longer young and Margaret could hear him panting as he blocked and struck against Louis’s shield.

The sword he carried was huge to Margaret’s eyes, four feet of solid steel that he held with both hands. The weapon looked clumsy, but Suffolk made it come alive, moving it in complicated patterns as if it weighed nothing. With the blade, all sign of the kindly English lord vanished. He became simply terrifying. Margaret watched in fascination as Suffolk made Louis defend stroke after stroke until her brother’s blade fell from nerveless fingers.

‘Ha! Work on your grip, lad,’ Suffolk said.

They were wearing thickly padded tunics and leggings under light armour segments for the practice. As Louis massaged his numb fingers, Suffolk pulled off his helmet and revealed a bright red face, streaming with sweat.

‘There is no better way to build your sword arm than by using the blade itself,’ Suffolk told her panting brother. ‘It has to feel light to you, as speed comes from strength. In some battles, the winning edge will come if you can break the two-handed grip at a crucial moment. John, step up for me to show your brother.’

Her brother John was fresh and he looked confident as he took his position, holding a blade upright while he waited for Suffolk to put his training helmet back on. It was a heavy thing in itself, of iron lined with thick horsehair padding. The wearer had to breathe through a perforated grille, while his field of sight was reduced to a narrow strip trimmed in polished brass. Already overheated, Suffolk eyed the sweat-stained lining with distaste. He placed it carefully on the stones behind him.

‘Turn your right foot out a fraction more,’ he said to John. ‘You have to be in balance at every step, with your feet planted solidly. That’s it. Right foot to lunge. Ready?’

‘Ready, my lord,’ John replied.

He and Suffolk had fought a dozen times already, with the Englishman taking the honours. Yet John was improving and at seventeen he had great speed, even if he lacked the strength built by decades of swordplay.

John struck fast and Suffolk batted the blade away, chuckling. The blades clashed twice more and Margaret saw how Suffolk was always moving, his feet never still. John had a tendency to root himself to the ground and hack away, which meant Suffolk could increase the gap between them and draw him off balance.

‘There! Hold!’ Suffolk barked suddenly.

John’s sword had arced round at head height and Suffolk held it steady with an upright blade. For an instant, John was exposed across his chest. Her brother froze at the order, remaining in place.

‘You see, Louis? He is open. If I have the strength to take his blow with one hand, I can remove my left gauntlet from the hilt and strike with it. A punch will do.’ He demonstrated by touching his mailed fist to John’s helmet. ‘That will ring his bell for him, eh? Better still is a punch dagger, held in the fist with the blade between your knuckles. A punch blade will break his gorget if you hit it hard enough.’ To John’s discomfort, Suffolk showed Louis another blow to the exposed throat. ‘Or even the eye slit of a helmet, though it’s hard to hit if he’s moving. It all comes back to the strength of your arm — and you must beware of him doing the same to you. Break your grip, John, and I’ll show you some defences against those strikes.’

Suffolk stood back as he spoke and saw that Margaret was watching. He took a pace towards her and dropped to one knee with his sword in front of him like an upright cross. Margaret felt herself flush even more deeply as her brothers witnessed it, but she could not escape a feeling of pride that this big man was hers to command.

‘My lady, I did not see you there,’ Suffolk said. ‘I hope I have not been neglecting my duties. I wanted to show your brothers some of the new techniques that have become popular in England.’

‘I’m sure they have learned a great deal, Lord Suffolk.’

‘William, please, my lady. I am your servant.’

Margaret spent a moment considering the satisfaction it would bring if she ordered William to stuff her brother John into a cauldron in the castle kitchen. She did not doubt he would do it. With regret, she denied herself the pleasure. She was a married woman now, or half-married, or at least betrothed.

‘My mother asked me to tell you a friend of yours has arrived from England. A Monsieur Brewer.’

‘Ah, yes. I was wondering when he would show his face. Thank you, my lady. With your permission, I will withdraw.’

Margaret allowed Suffolk to kiss her hand. He strode into the castle, leaving her alone with her three brothers.

‘No hunting today, John?’ Margaret asked sweetly. ‘No chasing your sister? I imagine Lord Suffolk would take his sword to you in earnest if I asked him to; what do you think?’

‘He’s an English lord, Margaret. Don’t put too much trust in him,’ John said. ‘Our father says they are all vipers, for cunning. He said the snake in the Garden of Eden would surely have spoken in English.’

‘Pfui! Our father? He is so consumed with greed I’m surprised he says anything.’

‘Don’t insult him, Margaret! You have no right. You’re still my sister and a member of this house, and by God …’

‘I’m not, John. I am Margaret of England now. Shall I call William back to make my case for me?’

John’s brows lowered in anger, but he could not allow her to recall her protector.

‘Your marriage has brought Anjou and Maine back to the family. That is what matters — that was your only purpose. Beyond that, you can do as you please.’

John turned on the spot and stalked away from his sister. Nicholas followed him and little Louis stayed only a moment longer, exchanging a wink and a smile with her over their brother’s pompous manner. Margaret was left alone. As she looked around at the empty yard, she felt the pleasure of victory.

Suffolk was amused to find himself taken to the great hall of Saumur Castle. Since the wedding, the servants had been at something of a loss where he was concerned. England was an avowed enemy, but then the families had been joined in marriage. The reality of the truce between nations would take time to sink in, he thought. For the moment, only a small group of lords on both sides of the Channel were privy to the details.

Suffolk suppressed a snort of amusement as the steward bowed with the utmost reluctance at the door. Perhaps the status of an English lord had already risen a little, at least in Saumur.

Derry rose from a stuffed and padded chair to greet him.

‘You seem to have become part of the family, William. I suppose you did marry one of the daughters, so it’s only right.’

Suffolk smiled at the jest, looking up automatically to see if the children were listening on the balcony above. He saw nothing, but guessed Margaret at least was quite capable of eavesdropping on a conversation that surely concerned her. Was that a moving shadow in the gloom?

Derry followed his glance.

‘Odd construction. Is it a minstrel gallery?’

‘I have no idea. So, Derry, what brings you to Saumur?’

‘No greetings? No inquiring after my health? Mine is a lonely business, William Pole, I’ll tell you that. No one is ever pleased to see me. Come, sit with me by the fire. It makes me nervous having you standing there in pads like you’re about to charge off to battle.’

Suffolk shrugged, but he seated himself on the arm of a huge chair where he could feel warmth from the hearth prickle his skin. After a moment’s thought, he jerked his head up at the gallery.

‘We may not be completely private here, Derry,’ he murmured.

‘Ah, I see. Very well, I’ll use my famous subtlety and craft. Are you ready?’ Derry leaned forward. ‘The biggest frog, the royal frog, if you understand me, is making a right meal of Anjou.’

‘Derry, for God’s sake. You haven’t come here to play games.’

‘All right, Lord Suffolk, if you don’t like codes, I’ll speak it straight. King Charles is taking his time in Anjou. There have been some very nasty tales coming back to England, but for the most part, he’s going by the law and our agreement over the evictions. The one thing that has slowed him down is distributing the wealth to his favourites. Old Ren? may own the province again, but the businesses can be passed to anyone King Charles wants to favour. He seems to be enjoying himself, sending English merchants on their way. Half a dozen have already petitioned Henry’s chancellor for the king to intervene. A dozen more are calling for soldiers to defend their property, but Lord York is sitting tight and warm in Normandy and he isn’t moving a step to help them. That’s to the good.’

‘If it’s as you expected, why come here?’ Suffolk said, frowning.

For the first time, Derry looked uncomfortable. Wary of the balcony, he leaned closer and dropped his voice to a murmur that was almost lost in the crackle of the fire.

‘One of my men sent me a warning about Maine. With all their king’s trips back to court, the French forces are moving so slowly they may not even get there until next year. Either way, the word is that Maine won’t roll over with its paws in the air. As close to Normandy as it is, there are a lot of old war-wolves living out their retirement in Maine. They have yeomen and farmhands by the hundred and they’re not the sort to bend a knee just because some French lord waves a treaty in their face.’

‘So King Henry must order York to do the work with an English army,’ Suffolk replied. ‘We’ve come too far on this road to see it broken apart now.’

‘I did think of that, William, as I still have a spoonful of wit in my head. York isn’t answering letters or commands. I’ve sent him orders under the king’s seal and it’s like dropping them into a pit. He’s letting this run its course while he keeps his hands clean. It’s a clever move, I’ll give him that. I have plans for Duke Richard, don’t you worry, but it doesn’t solve the problem of Maine. If fighting breaks out, your new French wife will be a hostage and we can’t let that happen.’

Suffolk thought for a long moment, staring into the flames.

‘You want her in England.’

‘I want her in England, yes. I want her properly married to Henry before it all falls apart. In time, I can send another man to take command of the Normandy army, maybe Lord Somerset, maybe even you, William. If the king sends York to some other place — somewhere like Ireland, say — he’ll have to go. We’ll manage the evictions in Maine next year without any French lord getting his nose bent. I’ll arrange the wedding in England, don’t worry about that, but I need a bride for it. We can’t let them keep a valuable piece like Margaret while the evictions go on.’

‘The older sister is to be married in a month. Margaret will want to be here for that, I’m certain. Will they even let her leave?’

‘They should,’ Derry replied. ‘She’s already married, after all. It’s just a matter of etiquette now and they love all that. Henry will send an honour guard and a fleet of ships to bring his French bride home. We’ll make a great celebration of it. It just has to happen before they stop for winter.’ For a moment, Derry rubbed his temples and Suffolk realized how weary the man was. ‘This is just me thinking of everything, William, that’s all. It may be that King Henry will send York to Ireland and you’ll be the one putting our army into Maine to make the evictions run smoothly. It may be there’ll be no trouble at all and all my reports are wrong. But I’d be a fool not to plan for the worst.’

All your reports?’ William said suddenly, his voice back to a normal level. ‘I thought you said one of your men? How many reports have you had about Maine?’

‘So far, eight,’ Derry admitted, holding the bridge of his nose and rubbing away tiredness. ‘I don’t need to see the glow to know my house is on fire, William Pole. I can juggle the balls, I think, as long as you get your little princess back to England.’

‘How long do I have?’ Suffolk asked.

Derry waved a hand airily.

‘As long as five months, as little as three. Go to the sister’s wedding, drink wine and smile at the French — but be ready to jump after that, the moment I send word. In truth, it all depends how quickly the French move north — and how many of our own people we can persuade to leave homes and lands they bought in good faith in that time.’

‘I’ll see to it, Derry. You don’t have to worry about this part.’

‘I’ll worry anyway, if you don’t mind, William Pole. I always do.’

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