The Court of the Midnight King
an extract from the novel
There was turmoil in the outer world, as always. Edward's victory hadn't stopped the fighting. Marguerite, in exile, had not ceased trying to reinstate Henry on the throne, and she also had a half-grown son to promote, Edouard of Lancaster, whom many suspected was not Henry's offspring at all. When he was told of his son's birth, so the story went, Henry was astonished and remarked that the conception must have been effected by an angel, since he had no recollection of it.
Kate still laughed delightedly every time she thought of this.
The conflict grew worse. The Countess had not appeared at the last two gatherings of the sisterhood. On their travels to York and to Nottingham for the meetings, Eleanor and Katherine gathered news. King Edward and the Earl of Warwick -- the Kingmaker who had placed Edward on the throne -- had quarrelled.
Kate asked her mother what the quarrel was about.
'Jealousy,' Eleanor answered flatly. 'I like the Countess well enough; I don't like her husband, at least not from anything I've heard of him. He thought he could manipulate Edward like a puppet, but Edward has a mind of his own. So now Warwick probably thinks he will make a different king instead, one who is more easily bullied.'
'Who?' Kate asked in amazement.
'I don't know,' Eleanor said thinly. 'The one woman who might know the truth of it, the Countess, has not shown her face since this began.'
'There'll be more fighting, I suppose,' said Kate.
'Dear, it's never really stopped.'
Within her mother's demesne, it was hard to imagine nobles at war in the outside world. Here, everything was peaceful. Spring was in full, lush bloom, warm as summer, dew-heavy and brilliantly green. Kate rode her young dapple-grey mare Mab up to Lytton Edge, where lines of rock swept above them like the crumbled ruins of a Roman fortress; over the heathery slopes of Bride Cloud and down into the oak-veiled chasm of Lytton Griffe. Along the banks of the surging Melandra she went, across the Sheepwash Bridge, through heavily-scented avenues of may-trees. It was impossible to imagine anything disturbing this sweetness.
On this morning, she'd been to visit a sick villager, a man who'd fallen from a cart and impaled himself on a stake. The wound was healing now, thanks to the skills Kate had absorbed from her mother. Brews of certain herbs for cleansing, others to ease pain, honey ointment for healing. Incense to draw kind elementals and repel the less savoury ones. The man had joked about battle wounds, and she wondered how she would feel if it was a sword-thrust she was tending. She thought about Raphael.
'There is something worse than having to be married,' she said to her mare. 'What if you married a man you loved, and he went off to be killed in battle?'
Sweat prickled her skin, made her head itch under her hennin of green silk. Impatiently she tore it from her head and the fluttering of the veil made the mare dance. Kate let her gallop.
Arriving at the house in disarray with her hair loose, the mare skittish and sweat-hot beneath her, she was shocked to find visitors in the stable yard. There were a dozen horses, clad in bright leather and silver. What did this mean? Conquest? Theft?
A handful of men stood about, as magnificently clad as princes in violet and gold and green; and those only the esquires of the party, she suspected, from the way they were joking with Eleanor's grooms. They were bawling with laughter, but as she rode into the yard they all stopped and stared at her.
Katherine bristled. She'd meant to walk Mab around to cool her down but she couldn't do so under their scrutiny and it would look peculiar if she rode away again. Tom was already there, waiting to take the mare from her.
'Who are they?' she whispered.
He shook his head, nervously excited. 'Lady Lytton's asking for you, my lady.'
'Cool Mab down, will you?' she said, slipping from the saddle. The esquires were bowing to her, but there seemed a sarcastic quality to the gesture. Scorched by their burning stares, their apparent judgement, she gave Mab to Tom and passed, with head high, into the coolness of the house.
Inside, Martha and Nan intercepted her, and rushed her up the servants' stairs to her own bedchamber. Nan was guilelessly excited, Martha tense. They undressed her, sluiced her hot body with rose water and stuffed her into the best dress she had, a gown of deep blue velvet embellished with gold net. A hennin was pressed on her head, her black hair tucked away beneath its structure of golden satin and lace-froth. The two little horns, Kate thought, shown her reflection in a glass, gave her a devilish aspect. Her eyes looked storm-blue and furious. She was hardly the demure gentlewoman the visitors would be expecting.
'Martha, who are they?' she asked impatiently for the third time. 'Why must I be trussed up to meet them?'
'Lady Lytton will tell you. It's not my business.'
'Don't slide out of this. You must know!'
'Your distant cousin,' Martha whispered, thin-lipped. 'Thomas, Lord Stanley. But I didn't tell you.'
When Katherine entered the great hall, she found her mother entertaining in high estate -- as high as they could manage. The four visitors were grouped in chairs around the fire, the table being readied for the noon meal. She'd thought their house luxurious, with its softly-faded glow of red and bronze, tapestries, and a firegrate the size of a small kitchen. Now, as a backdrop to the visitors' glory, she realised how shabby it was. The tableware was dark with age and dented, and there were tapers instead of good candles on the board. She noticed the mended patches of her mother's brown velvet gown. All their finery had long ago been sold, at first to finance the late Duke of York's armies, later to support her mother's waifs. Her guests, Eleanor called them, affording them more respect than these intrusive lords could conceive.
'Here is my daughter Katherine,' said Eleanor, rising. 'She shares my duties, ministering to the sick...'
'A worthy cause of delay,' said one of the visitors as they rose.
Eleanor was encased in an aura of grandeur and ice, almost her priestess-self. Katherine felt foolish, annoyed and apprehensive. Her eyes blazed upon each man in turn. There was an older lord with black hair, a neat moustache and beard, his face narrow but handsome and pleasant enough. The younger one had unkempt curly hair and a rosy, eager face that shone in the firelight. They wore the finest materials, cream and blue and red, slashed and shaped in fashions she'd never seen before. Gold chains hung upon them, bearing the white rose and other emblems. They dripped riches like honey from the comb.
They'd brought a cleric with them; a bishop dressed quietly in earth-colours rather than the ceremonial silver and saffron. He had a neat little face in a round head and a neck so short and broad that his double chin rested directly on his chest. The thin dark hair was oiled to a high shine. He smiled, appraising her from small brilliant eyes like a polecat's. Although his garb was modest, there were jewels on his fingers, and the Lamb on his chest was made of pearl and diamond, with rubies for the blood.
He had a companion, a thin stooped priest in ochre. An expression of well-intentioned interest sat strangely on the priest's cadaverous face.
'Your daughter's virtues, my lady, are highly praised and praiseworthy,' said the senior lord. 'As are yours.'
'It is flattering of you to say so,' Eleanor said stiffly. 'Katherine, greet kindly your cousin. Thomas, Lord Stanley, to whom we have the honour to be related on my father's side.'
As the older lord kissed her hand, she sensed his condescension. He was beautifully groomed, and smelled of an exotic but subtle perfume.
'Our dear friend, Bishop Morton,' said Stanley, stepping aside to present her.
As protocol required, Kate kissed the Lamb with thin, dry lips. 'Your Grace.'
'His assistant, Dr Fautherer ... '
The man in ochre only grasped her fingertips for a brief moment. The touch sent a shudder through her. His hands were parchment-dry, like lizard skin.
'And allow me to present my son, George Stanley.'
The son, like his father, was huge in his puffed and padded finery. His fingers were hot and soft on hers as he bowed low, pressing clammy lips to the back of her hand. He smelled of sweat, as if radiating nervous heat. At least he wasn't condescending. Rather, he regarded her with a wide-eyed eagerness that, after a while, she found worse.
'We are honoured,' said Kate, not knowing what else to say.
She exchanged glances with her mother. Eleanor's face was drum-tight. They both knew who these men were, the danger they represented, and the utter presumption of their visit; but there was no choice but to present a gracious fašade.
It had been easy to believe that their small estate, their minor title, tucked in a lush fold of the Derbyshire Peaks, was unknown beyond its boundaries. So easily was the illusion shattered.
'Come, you must be hungry after your journey,' said Eleanor. 'It's been too long.'
'Indeed, I would have come to pay my respects before now,' Stanley said in a flat tone, 'if the news of your husband's demise had reached me sooner.'
Roast capon and goose was brought to the table while her mother's musicians played; a rough country affair it must have seemed. A drum tapped gently beneath the sound of reed pipes. The bagpipes' two chanters played in thin, haunting harmony.
At first the conversation was of generalities; what a fine small church the village had; such a splendid tomb to honour John; the excellent grazing afforded by Eleanor's demesne; the special softness and quality of the wool from her sheep. They spoke of trade, land management and music. Only Dr Fautherer said little. His bulbous pale eyes flicked back and forth as if he were committing every word to memory.
Lord Stanley and his son were personable enough, if dull. Katherine forgot her unease and longed to ask a series of babbling questions. How many times had they been at court, and what happened there? What was King Edward like in person? If she saw him, would she fall in love with him, as all women were said to do? Was his wife, the widow Grey, Queen Elizabeth, as beautiful as everyone claimed? She bit back the rude, ridiculous questions.
'A fine little church,' said Bishop Morton, 'but the arrangement is somewhat ... old-fashioned. If you wish, I could send some men to aid your priest to effect the, ah, improvements.'
Katherine saw her mother stiffen from head to foot, as if she'd turned to glass. 'I appreciate your kind offer, Your Grace, but we are quite happy with our church.'
'The pagan remains can draw negative influences,' Morton said off-handedly. 'Where the Devil can find a crack in the door, he'll be in. That old stone -- I won't grace it with the term altar -- it ought to go, really. I'll send someone; it's no trouble.'
Kate thought her mother was going to explode.
'Truly, Your Grace, there's no need,' she said, delicately polite. 'The villagers would be extremely upset if anything were to be disturbed. The church has served us well for hundreds of years. The old altar has always been there. No good could come of removing it.'
'I understand.' Morton acquiesced, raising plump neat hands. 'It's your demesne, of course, my lady. I was not suggesting that you are anything but a devout believer.'
He backed down, but the damage was done; the threat made. Morton sat serene, watching Eleanor silently fuming. Kate was outraged. Her mother would never pretend to be something she wasn't, just to appease this man; nor did she see why she should defend her own beliefs, which were not forbidden. There was nothing she could say.
Delicately the conversation pressed onwards. Surely the management of an estate was a difficult matter for a woman alone, Lord Stanley suggested. It was a tragedy that she had been widowed, and was without a son and heir. Her mother neatly deflected each question, but the insinuations kept coming; all disguised as concern for her future.
Throughout the ordeal, George Stanley's stare never left Katherine's breasts.
He spoke to her breathlessly. He seemed good-natured, clumsy as a calf. His father exchanged narrow smiles with Morton, as if to say, 'He's well pleased.'
'Gentlemen, my husband -- may his soul rest in peace -- was the devoted servant of the King's father,' Eleanor said coolly. 'If a single one of the misfortunes you suggest should threaten us, the King himself would not refuse me his protection.'
That halted them in their tracks.
'Indeed, we're all devoted servants of the King,' Stanley countered. 'He would not deny you our protection. In these uncertain times, if anything were to happen to King Edward -- which God forbid -- you might find you have dire need of us.'
Eleanor paled. Katherine chewed at the cushion of her lip. There was a fog of deceit and compulsion in their honey words but she couldn't tease out the true meaning. Or if she could, she feared to believe it. In dread she sat watching her mother's face.
'Katherine, would you leave us now?' Eleanor said.
'What?' Kate was taken by surprise.
'Go up to the solar and wait for me there.'
'But Mama -- '
'Katherine.' The word hit her, precise as an arrow-head. Kate could not be seen to defy her mother in front of visitors. Defeated, she feigned subservience and left with all the grace she could muster.
Nan came running after her, but Kate, too brusquely, sent her away.
In the solar, her mother's private chamber, she sat watching the sunlight flooding through the stained-glass windows, filling the room with a watery red-gold glow. She pulled off the stifling headdress and shook her hair loose. What a waste of a glorious afternoon, when she had so much to do. She bitterly resented the visitors for intruding on them. What did they want?
Perhaps all was innocent. Eleanor was alone and they genuinely wanted to help her.
George Stanley's young face glimmered in front of her, beads of sweat on his lip. Earnest, eager, made almost stupid by that eagerness. Many would have called him handsome. He was pleasant enough in his way, but there was nothing about him that attracted her. She had often wondered about love but it was not nervous, moist-eyed and sweaty; love did not wear the face of Lord Stanley's son.
The idea of marrying him ...
A thread of panic startled her. Katherine sat amazed at the strength of her disgust. It wasn't so much the suitor himself as the idea of compulsion. Should I be expected to take the first man who is offered to me? she wondered. Does it matter, will anyone care that I can't love him, or even tolerate him? Does anything matter at all, except that he wants me and that's an end of it?
No, no, she thought. My mother would never do that to me. She promised.
Edith was dust moving through the sunbeams, saying nothing.
After an hour or so, the door was thrust open and her mother came in.
Eleanor looked stern, her eyes bruised with anxiety. In her hand was a parchment, folded in three and sealed with a thick clot of wax.
'They have left,' she said.
Kate jumped up. 'Already? Thank goodness!'
'They will return in ten days to hear our answer.'
'What answer, Mama?'
'I don't know what I'm going to do.' Eleanor's voice was low, her eyes molten iron. Kate had never seen her like this before. '"Might I remind you, madam," Lord Stanley said to me, "that when your father died, without sons or nephews, that left me his closest male heir. That gives me a claim upon this land. I have so far chosen not to pursue it." As if I should be grateful to him!' Eleanor cried.
'Mama ... '
'He wants my land. He means to take it. He will generously let us stay in a small corner of the house, while he moves in his own household, takes control of my estate, my Cauldron Hollow ... '
'The Church has an interest, too. Although the Motherlodge is lawful and permitted, they're desperate to end that. Another sacred place quietly destroyed would be a great satisfaction to them.'
'They can't! You laughed at them and threw them out, didn't you?'
Her mother's lack of response chilled her.
'I don't know what I'm going to do,' Eleanor repeated. 'If Stanley chooses to fight me in court, with the Church's backing, he could well win. Corruption, favouritism ... '
Katherine drew herself up, trembling like a birch. The shuddering rushed through her until it felt as if the house itself were shaking. 'He has swathes of land! Why does he need ours?'
'It's a place of rare beauty. Why would he not take every morsel, if he can?' She struck her palm with the parchment in a slow, sinister rhythm.
'What's in the letter?' Kate asked.
'Our way out. He offered me a compromise. I know I said this would never happen, but it might be the best answer after all. The only answer.'
Her mother's eyes were blank with shock. Now they turned ruthless. 'Stanley's son is a decent man, not at all in the mould of his father. He would be gentle, and cherish you. It would not be the worst thing in the world to marry him. That is Stanley's offer. The only way for us to keep our demesne is for you to marry George.'
Katherine cried, 'So he makes it a wedding present to his son, with me thrown in! I was right, then! All the time they were looking me over as if I were a mare at market! I wonder he didn't thrust his fingers in my mouth and examine my teeth.'
A frown creased Eleanor's forehead. She looked dangerous. 'Did you find him offensive?'
'I'd sooner marry Tom in the stables!' Tears of rage rolled down her face. 'You promised! You promised you would never do this to me!'
'I know, Kate. But it may be the only way. Calm yourself and think! Yes, if you marry George, Stanley's descendants will inherit our demesne, but so will ours. Thomas Stanley himself will rarely be here, and George will prove malleable. We can ease him into our ways, make him a good lord. The land, then, will pass to your children.'
'Are the Stanleys Yorkists?' Kate demanded.
'When it suits them.'
'Lancastrians the rest of the time? Father would never forgive you!'
'Don't you dare throw your father's name at me! I cannot lose this land! I know it's hard, but for once in your life you are going to do as I say. Read it.'
Eleanor held out the letter. Her daughter glared at it, recoiling. 'What's in it?'
'George Stanley's proposal. He insisted I read over his shoulder as he wrote it, and it's surprisingly sincere and touching. Otherwise I would not have considered it.'
Kate snatched the parchment, crying, 'I will not read it! How can you consider it, even for a moment? How can you just give in without a fight? You're not my mother! After all you've said, all my life -- this! I'll not be bought and sold like a sheep, I'll die before I marry that sweating overdressed oaf!'
Dramatically she tore the letter in half and threw it in the grate. She pushed past her mother and fled the room, driven harder by the imperious roar that followed.
She'd never known such rage. It was a black flurry, almost blinding her. After all her mother had said, year after year, 'We need no lord to protect us, we are strong, we can survive, Auset is our protection,' on and on.
Kate ran from fear as much as from anger. Denial pushed hot heavy fingers through her. If she only fled hard and fast enough, she could prevent the whole thing from ever having happened.
Still in her best dress, she ran to the stables and bridled Mab. Ignoring Tom's pleas to step aside, he would do it for her, and why the hurry, she fastened the buckles with trembling fingers, led the mare outside and vaulted on bareback, sitting astride like a boy. Tom's face became a fading blur. Mab loved to gallop and she flowed like silk between Kate's thighs. They were running away.
Deep in the countryside, Kate felt free. Her fury cooled. She dismounted and looked up at the sky of the sweetest blue. A valley cupped her, with green meadows folding around her, a narrow stream chiming along its lowest crease to feed the Melandra. On her left was a steep rise of woodland; on all sides stood oak, ash and birch, rustling endlessly in the warm breeze, lush and dewy and limpidly green. Tethering Mab to a branch, she scratched the mare's neck affectionately and left her to graze.
Kate sat down in her favourite place, a spread of grass within a loop of the little stream, with an oak tree at her back. This was her retreat, Blackthorn Griffe. Her meadow, wholly secluded by the trees and bushes growing along the curves of the stream. There was such a feeling of enchantment here that it could well be another Hollow, a sacred way to the hidden world; one that even her mother hadn't found. Hers.
A bee bumped against her face and she felt the velvet of its body. All her senses were alive. The grass was thick with buttercups. A layer of shimmering air peeled up from the bank and tumbled, full of flashes and rippling laughter, into the water. Kate glimpsed the forms of naiads, transparent and laced with rainbows, like bubbles. She felt the intense shimmer of the hidden world. The veil between her and the faerie realm seemed so thin she was certain she could pass through as if through a cobweb.
Here it seemed possible that nothing else existed. She could simply stay here, or just run and run, and never go back. And then?
Kate didn't want to run away. She wanted to go home, and everything to be as it always had been. Perhaps if she'd been brought up in an ordinary household, taught to bend to the will of men, she would have accepted her fate. But she had not, and she felt utterly betrayed. My mother is not Edith, she thought. How has Mama become so worn down by struggle that she would go against all our principles and sell her only daughter?
Kate was cut adrift and felt wretched. She half-thought of killing herself. No, she was too full of life to martyr herself like that. Too angry. There was something wild and desperate boiling up inside her, impelling her to take drastic action; but not suicide, and certainly not a nunnery, Auset help her.
She closed her eyes. Her lips moved in a plea to the great Serpent Mother.
'Sweet Auset, Mother of All, please help me. I beg you, show me what to do. If not an answer, give me a sign, a clue, anything. Whatever path you show me when I open my eyes, I will take it.'
Beyond the red wall of her eyelids the world grew loud, the rustle of trees, the hum of insects and birdsong blending in one vibrating roar, drowning her.
Her eyes snapped open. Nothing had changed. The meadow was just as it had been; exquisite, serene, revealing nothing.
Kate sighed. She should have known better than to expect an easy answer from the goddess. She leaned back against the warm trunk, sunning her face. She'd have to go home eventually, but not yet. At this moment, she couldn't bear the thought.
A noise startled her. Animals running about in the trees ... and then a steadier noise. Hoofbeats on dry earth.
She sat up, infuriated. Had someone been sent to look for her?
Through the trees on her left she saw a man on horseback, following the narrow path that ran along the foot of the slope. It was a magnificent horse, a glossy bay with an arched neck and a high-stepping gait. No one she knew, at least. If she sat still, he would go straight past and not see her.
Then Mab put up her head, and whickered.
The man turned his head and looked straight at her.
Kate cursed. No one ever came here! Why today? The last thing she wanted was an encounter with a stranger, whether he offered a threat or protection. She wanted neither. His intrusion was an echo of the Stanleys' visit, a reminder of her powerlessness in the outer world.
Then something extraordinary happened. A furious growling broke out, issuing from a copse that lay behind and to her right. A feline squawling, tangling with darker snarls. Kate leapt up and ran to quiet Mab who was dancing from side to side in alarm.
She saw, striped by tree shadow, two astonishing beasts. One had stepped out of heraldry; a small lithe leopard, pure white with blue eyes. Silver dapples ruffled its coat and there was an aura around its head, like a sun. Light shone through a stiff mane raised in aggression; it looked like a crown of spiked silver. The leopard was growling, swishing its tail.
Its adversary was a heavy, charcoal-grey beast, all bunched muscles. A lion's mane, black; an ugly, furious face, all fangs. Not much bigger than the pard but three times its weight. A graylix.
Kate had never seen one loose before. She felt sick with terror. They could bite a small child in half. They could bring down a fleeing horse and lame it for life. Nothing frightened them, and they attacked anything that moved.
The two beasts stood face-to-face, roaring threats. She saw the brave leopard crouch, ready to spring. It stood no chance. With a flurry of snarls both creatures leapt and clashed.
There was a whirr, a dull thud. The graylix twisted in mid-air and fell, squealing like a boar, with an arrow in its ribs. Kate glanced round and saw the man riding towards her and jumping the stream, the bow still in his hand. Half-way across the meadow he leapt off his horse and ran onwards into the copse. He threw his bow aside as he went, and drew a broadsword.
Kate lifted her heavy skirts and ran after him. Twigs cracked under her embroidered slippers. As she entered the edge of the trees, she saw him pierce the graylix through the heart. The terrible noise ceased. The creature lay still, its thin dark-grey coat turning black with blood. Kate stood there, panting, watching the man carefully wipe and sheath the sword. He was slim and raven-haired, and no older than her. He turned and looked at her. Neither spoke. There seemed nothing to be said.
And then another extraordinary thing happened, that convinced her she must have crossed into the hidden world, or at least be standing on its borders.
The snowy pard came to her, just as her mother's cats would. Although it was another dangerous creature, a hunter, it didn't occur to her to be frightened. The pard reared up, placed its big paws on her shoulders and touched its tongue to the tip of her nose. The tongue was edged with purple-black, like an orchid. It held her gaze for a moment with eyes as blue as her own. Then it jumped softly down, slipped away through the trees, and vanished.
'It was a silver pard,' said the young man, very quietly. 'I've never seen one before. Not even in the royal menagerie.'
'Neither have I,' said Kate.
'I thought they only existed in myths, like the unicorn.'
'There's something strange about the unicorn,' she said. 'My mother has the horn of one, but she says it came out of the sea, far up in the northern lands. They're shaped like horses, but they live in the sea; how is that possible?' She shook her head, feeling she was talking nonsense and was suddenly tongue-tied. 'Still, if they can exist, so can the silver pard.'
He was staring at her. She stared back, seeing him properly at last. He was lean, very graceful, only a few inches taller than her, and wearing clothes of dark hues, midnight blue and mulberry, beautifully sewn. The doublet was cut into long, curved points over slim velvet trousers, and edged with jet beads. He had high boots of umber leather, fine but well-worn, and the sword in a sombre sheath inlaid with dull gold. He had a subtle air of confidence.
A nobleman, obviously. Kate thinned her lips, out of humour with nobles. But he wasn't like Lord Stanley or his son. Nothing overbearing or self important about him. His presence was a relief; slender and quiet. His face was very fair, she noticed. Fine-boned, like ivory, with dark soft eyes; the brows and lashes black, the irises crystalline grey. His thick dark hair shone in the sun.
He looked like someone who would not be easy to befriend. His eyes managed to be gentle and remote at the same time. But he appeared captivated by her, or at least mystified. She found it oddly pleasing.
'Who are you?' he asked. 'Apart from an enchantress of animals.'
'That doesn't tell me much. I'm Richard.' Hesitantly he took her hand, and kissed it. 'I'm sorry, my lady. You must be shaken. I didn't mean to startle you, but I had to ... '
He waved a hand at the fallen graylix. In curiosity she went to it and stroked the fur of the strange half-lion, half-human face. In death it still looked defiant.
When she rose, he was regarding her in even greater astonishment.
'It's probably the only chance I'll ever have to touch one,' she explained. 'It's a shame you had to kill it, but you saved the pard's life, and that of my mare, and probably mine as well. Thank you, Sir Richard.'
He gave a diffident smile. 'You're welcome, my lady. You seem very calm.'
'I'm not, I assure you.' She laughed, placing a hand over her bodice. She could feel the gold-thread device of lilies under her fingers, and remembered that it was coming unpicked and needed repair, yet again. She became aware that her hair was loose and wild, her sapphire velvet covered in horsehair. Did she look like an enchantress to him, or merely bizarre?
'I have a flask of wine,' he said. He caught his horse and tied up the glossy beast next to Mab, who looked tiny next to the huge gelding. Kate walked back to her oak and Richard reappeared with the leather flask, uncorked it and offered it to her.
She drank gratefully. The wine was delicious, tasting of elderflowers.
'Thank you, sir. My mouth was very dry.'
'You should sit down and rest for a while.'
'Yes, if you'll sit with me.'
'Gladly,' he said, and they sat next to each other on the warm, smooth roots of the oak. They passed the wine back and forth, taking sips, which seemed unnervingly intimate. His hands were beautiful; long and silken. 'Are you alone?'
'Obviously,' she said. 'It's my mother's demesne. I always come here alone.'
'I think I have got lost,' he said. 'I thought I knew where I was, but this all looks different. Er ... I should be on my way, my lady, but I don't like to leave you.'
A small, thrilling pang; she didn't want him to leave. 'And I don't want to keep you from your destination, but if you can stay a little while, I'd be grateful.'
'I was only riding around, trying to clear my thoughts,' he said quickly. 'I've nowhere to go.'
'Nor have I.' She sat with her knees raised, her hands dangling loosely between them over the folds of her skirt. Leaning her head back, she felt her hair sliding over her shoulders, and was aware of him watching her. It felt delicious, like being stroked. 'It's such a beautiful afternoon. I've never had anyone to share it with before. Let's hope nothing else disturbs us.'
'No wolves or wild boars.' He passed her the wine again. It was going to her head.
His eyes were serious and watchful. Wounded eyes; she saw a guarded intelligence in them and something else, unreadable. Her mother had taught her well how to read people but this man was elusive, as if there was a veil over him, dark and silver. He unnerved her. Never in her life had she felt so powerfully, physically drawn to someone. She wanted to sit closer. It would have seemed natural to touch him. The thought shocked and excited her.
He frowned suddenly. 'Have we met before?'
'I don't think so,' she said. 'I think I would have remembered.'
A smile flickered. 'So would I. Still, you remind me of someone, my lady, but I don't know who, or why ... '
'You can call me Kate.'
'Katherine, after the saint? It means Pure.'
'I doubt my mother was thinking of saints when she named me. And Richard, that means Hard Rule, or something of the sort, doesn't it?'
It was a little sword-thrust, to show her knowledge was equal to his. His smile thinned. 'I was named for my father. If he had ruled, I suppose he would have been hard, but certainly fair. There must be something in names.'
His remark about his father seemed off-hand; she read nothing into it. 'So you're hard, and I'm pure,' she said, then laughed, her cheeks heating with embarrassment.
He laughed with her, his gaze dropping under long eyelashes, then meeting hers again.
'I thought I was dreaming when I saw you,' he said. 'Do you always ride about on your own?'
'All the time. I go wherever I wish.'
'But it's not safe, Kate.'
'Usually it is. I have never seen a graylix or a pard here before, and I doubt I ever will again.'
'There may be boars in the woods, horned toads ... '
'A horned toad lives in our garden,' she smiled. 'I think of it as a pet.'
'A witch's pet. They're poisonous!'
'Only if threatened. You were riding alone too. Is it less dangerous for you?'
'I have a sword.'
'And know how to use it, clearly.'
His laugh had a sour edge. 'As I've been taught by the greatest master in England, I hope so.'
'And you defended me well, Richard, but all my life these woods and their inhabitants have been my dear friends. One incident won't stop me going where I please.'
'But friends can turn on you,' he flashed back, and his eyes were all shadow and smoke from a bitter fire. 'The dearest and best will betray you. You can know and love a wolfhound all your life, but there's no guarantee it won't turn and savage you!'
Katherine drew back from his outburst. She waited; he rested his elbows over his knees, and stared at the stream.
'What's wrong?' she asked. 'Someone has hurt you.'
'Ah, well. Not me, but my brother, which is the same as betraying me. Someone who was dearer to us than our own father ... dearer to me, at least. If I talk about this, you'll know who I am.'
'Will that matter?' Kate placed her hand along his arm, just below the shoulder. He didn't shake her off, rather he seemed to move closer.
'I don't know. It's pleasant to talk with someone who doesn't know me, and has no ideas about me, and doesn't want me to petition the King for them ... '
'You're obviously not a shepherd, Richard,' she said. 'Tell me whatever you want, or not, as you wish. I won't tell a soul.'
'And you won't treat me any differently?'
'No,' she said, with gentle conviction. 'You're in my demesne. The enchantment won't be lost.'
'This man who betrayed us, he's one of the most powerful in the land. I grew up in his household. He helped my brother to achieve his high estate but now he's turned against us and sided with our enemies. He tried to persuade me to join him in betraying Edward! So I've had to choose between them. If I seem distracted, and poor company, Kate, that's why. I'll soon be required to take up arms against a man that I used to love like a father.'
'You are not poor company.' Kate felt a flare of pain. Ridiculous, since she didn't know him. But it had been easier not to know who he was. Anonymous, he'd been hers alone; now he had a weight of responsibilities about him, a whole life that had nothing to do with her. He was on his way into battle. 'I'm sorry.'
'Thank you. Tomorrow I'll be angry about it. Today I was riding alone to exorcise the sadness without anyone seeing.'
'Are you talking about the Earl of Warwick? And King Edward?'
'So it was that obvious.'
'We hear rumours, even here.' She touched the white boar pin on his shoulder. A haunting excitement went through her, which was, she sensed, the last response he wanted. She kept her voice even. 'You're the king's brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester? Or it could just be something you tell unsuspecting maidens.'
'Yes.' He looked at her with warmth. 'That's all it is.'
'I won't tell a soul. Why did they quarrel?'
A hardness came into his face that made him look older. 'They're two highly ambitious men who are never content. Edward is King, but Warwick still only the Kingmaker and he can't be satisfied with that. He's a great man, Kate, but driven. It was mostly over Edward's marriage; you must have heard something of it? Edward embarrassed Warwick horribly. Warwick went to immense trouble to negotiate an important foreign union for him, only for Edward to tell him, "Oh, did I forget to mention that I am already married to this Lancastrian widow?" I don't blame Warwick for being angry. They are as bad as each other, in some respects. But at least I know where my loyalty lies.'
'I don't know how they can question it.' He pushed a hand through his hair. 'He's the King, for God's sake! But Warwick will use anybody in the slightest bit vain or malleable to further his ambitions and George ... ' His eyes were flint. 'My stupid brother George is jealous of Edward and I'm sure Warwick has seduced him with some ludicrous promise of getting him on the throne. Warwick wants his daughter Isabel to marry George; Edward won't permit it. It would make Warwick even more powerful. He's done nothing but cause trouble this past year and he has got to be stopped. I don't know that it's entirely the Queen's fault, but it all went wrong when Edward met her.'
'What's she like?' Kate asked, fascinated.
Richard's face hardly moved, yet a look of poisonous hatred flickered over it as clear as light across water. 'She's very, very fair, Elizabeth Woodville or Dame Grey,' he said diplomatically. 'If only Edward had married just her and not her entire family. It's hard for the old nobility to see a great clan of Lancastrian commoners receiving so many rewards; high positions and marriages they don't deserve. Warwick has a right to be angry; but not to commit treason, not that. I can't forgive him for what he's doing. He promised me the earth to go with him. He couldn't believe it when I said no, I know what loyalty is and there's no reward under heaven that would induce me to betray Edward. And I'm sick of thinking about it all.'
Where her hand rested on his arm, she gave it a quick, gentle squeeze. 'Don't, then. Forget about it for a while and be comforted. That's why we met.'
He smiled at her. 'And you? You had a face like a storm when I first saw you. Aren't we meant to comfort each other?'
She drew a breath. Strong instinct warned her not to tell him her own troubles. She would only hold him as long as she seemed unreal to him. 'Nothing. Just a quarrel with my mother. I assure you I have no identity to guess.'
'Good. As long as your name isn't Woodville. The Queen has dozens of sisters, and they lie in wait everywhere.'
'It isn't, I promise,' Kate answered, amused.
Her fingertips were still touching the boar badge. His hand slid up and closed around hers. Her breathing grew quicker and deeper. The sun-warmed velvet of his doublet smelled delicious, fragrant like cedarwood. The scent was on his skin. Beneath the doublet, his linen shirt was white and crisp as may-blossom.
'I'm glad I met you, Kate. You're so pretty.'
He kissed her, his lips light and sweet on hers. His arms went round her and she was pressed against him, certain he must feel her heartbeat shaking her whole body. Then she knew that her fear of marriage was not a fear of men. In the space of a day she'd discovered the difference between a man who repulsed her, and one who drew her in like a bee to nectar.
Kate hadn't planned it, but she saw the path in all its shining glory and ruin. A way to ensure that no marriage would be forced upon her. Drastic and wild, but that was the action she must take.
She felt him exhale. 'I ought to go,' he said, reluctantly. 'This isn't right. I didn't mean to take advantage of you, Kate.' She felt him trembling, his young body taut against hers. There were too many layers of clothes between them. Her own hunger startled her, a sensation of dissolving heat. 'I'll ride with you back to your house.'
He spoke without conviction, but he gave her a choice. He was a gentleman. If she said, yes, escort me home, he would do so without argument. Her choice. She stood poised on the fork of the path and her heart was pounding.
There was only this cocoon of time, suspended on the fringe of the hidden world. Nothing else existed. The world breathed around them, as rich and iridescent as a dragonfly.
'No, don't go,' she said, laying her hand along his cheek.
He stared at her with intense dark eyes, torn. 'Kate, if we stay here...'
'It isn't right.'
'Yes, it is,' she breathed, her mouth almost touching his. 'It is.'
'But I may never see you again.'
'Yes, that's it!' She kissed his neck, and he gasped. 'We are never going to see each other again. This is our only chance.'
'Oh, Kate.' He groaned, surrendering.
She expected to be frightened and wasn't. It was easy. Awkward, for they both suffered the clumsiness of inexperience. If he'd done this before, she was sure it wasn't many times, if at all. They laughed at their ineptness and then it didn't matter. There was only a slight pain, nothing she couldn't bear, and soon the pain eased into a richer sensation. Yes, the easiest thing in the world. It wasn't terrible but sweet, as her mother had told her it could be, ineffably delicious, gentle and transporting, a flight through the mysteries of the hidden world.
And forbidden. She could not possibly be doing this with someone she had met barely an hour ago, a stranger ... but she was and exaltation filled her. They laughed together. The green world trembled.
There was a spring nearby. Kate went to refill the empty flask with water and brought it back to him. He took the saddle from his horse; she watched the care with which he tended the animal. Then they quenched their thirst, twined their bodies together joyfully, and made love again. Dusk fell. The world turned blue and the denizens of the hidden world whispered around them. Kate saw their firefly eyes over her lover's shoulder, and smiled.
Eventually, forgetting themselves, they slept.
Kate woke suddenly to a cold, dewy dawn and found herself looking at a stranger.
They'd loosely pulled their clothes back on for warmth and the night had not been cold, but now, without his arms around her, she was freezing. Her dress was soaked. Richard was kneeling, dishevelled and trying to lace his shirt with shaking hands. As she rose, he regarded her with a wary look, bordering on accusation. All enchantment had gone.
Kate sat up in sharp dread. 'Oh, dear Iesu, my mother will be going out of her mind.'
He said nothing. He looked very young, grim and almost frightened.
'Richard?' She tried to shift her dress into a more comfortable shape, shaking out the damp underskirts. 'Are you all right? You're looking at me as if you'd seen a ghost'
He took a deep breath. He was as white as the dawn. 'I've remembered where I've seen you before.'
'Oh? Are you going to tell me?'
'I think you know.'
'Really, I don't.'
He rose, fastening his doublet and making a poor job of it. When she went to help him, he stepped back.
'What have I done?' she said, frowning.
'I should have realised.' He glanced around him. His face had the hardness she'd seen when he had been talking about the Earl of Warwick. 'It's obvious you're a witch. I shouldn't have been taken in.'
'I recognise this ... otherworld. I've been here before. Yesterday, too beautiful to be real, and then spectres all around us, demons in my dreams all night ... '
Kate's face gave her away. What he said was true, at least in part. 'It's not what you think.'
'You don't deny it, then! No doubt you thought I'd have no idea what was happening, and you lying in wait to ensorcell any unsuspecting knight who happens to be passing.'
'Ensorcell you? Don't flatter yourself! Great Goddess, you make me sound like Morgana lying in wait for King Arthur! Richard, don't be angry. It wasn't that at all.'
'I thought it was something beautiful and innocent. It was all a deceit. They warn us against demonesses who lie in wait to tempt men into sin. I should have known. Iesu's blood, what have I done?'
He went to saddle his horse. She followed him. 'I suppose they've told you that the otherworld is evil. They know nothing about it.'
'And I know too much,' he said. 'It's profane, it's outside the realm of God, it's full of horrors -- and deceitful enchantments. The world is a battleground of light and dark and I won't be dragged into the dark!'
Kate stood hugging herself against the cold. She was hurt and offended. To her the hidden world was a place of wonder. Yet she couldn't summon the strength to argue. If that was what he'd been taught, she was unlikely to change his mind. The shock of what she had done was setting in.
Suddenly she wished it had been a lad like Tom, after all, and not this guarded, difficult nobleman.
She couldn't argue with Richard, because he was right. She'd asked Auset for a sign, and he had come; but Auset had still given her a choice. Kate had drawn him into the hidden world and enchanted him.
Other men might have been grateful.
'You should know, I don't make a habit of it,' she said tightly. 'It was my first time.'
He stopped buckling straps, and gazed at her across the bay's saddle. His eyes were like ice. She began to hate him for looking at her like that.
She added, 'You must have realised.'
The flicker in his eyes was guilt. Of course he'd realised. 'How could you do that? Just -- give yourself to a stranger?' he exclaimed.
Kate arched her eyebrows. 'How could you, gentle knight?'
He was almost speechless. She could imagine that, when he grew older, his severity would be frightening. 'That's different. That's utterly different!'
'It's obvious. How could you give a stranger your virginity, which should have been for your husband?'
'Because they were forcing me to marry a man I found loathsome! So I set out to ruin myself, so that no one would want me!'
If she'd meant to prove she was human, and not a succubus, she had failed. He looked horrified.
'And you thought you'd use me in this monstrous scheme?'
'It wasn't a scheme.' She wanted to pacify him, so they could part with affection, not angry words, but he'd gone too far. If he wanted a witch, he would get one. 'My poor suitor shall be ten times more outraged than you, and I shall laugh in his face. And be careful whom you call monstrous. It will come back to haunt you.'
He finished saddling the bay, checked its legs and hooves, and flung the reins over its wide neck. Mab's nostrils flared and she shifted, eager to follow.
When Richard spoke again, some of the zeal seemed to have gone out of him. 'How shall I find my way out of here?'
'The hidden world is everywhere,' said Kate. 'Tell the King that the faeries abducted you, and you woke up a hundred miles away.'
'Haven't you had enough sport with me?'
'You wandered into the hidden world and you've been here a day and a night. I could keep you here forever. Didn't they teach you not to offend the faerie folk?'
He led his fidgeting horse in a half-circle, which brought him face-to-face with her. 'Please, Kate.' The intense sombre radiance of his face struck unexpected pain through her. She recalled the silk of his hair under her fingers. 'I didn't mean to offend you. Is there a correct way to behave? If I give you a gift, will you tell me the path?'
'Something to remember you by?' She thought of asking for a lock of his hair; then he'd fear her witchcraft for the rest of his life. She wanted to ask for a kiss, but pride wouldn't let her. 'Give me your white boar.'
'I'll keep it close and secret,' she said. 'I won't use it for sorcery against you, on the word of a witch. I'll look at it and never forget you.'
'I don't suppose this will be easy to forget,' he said thinly. He unpinned the jewel and pressed it into her palm without touching her skin. 'Which way?'
His eagerness to leave hardened her heart. Disillusioned, all she wanted now was for him to go. He'd served his purpose. Did people always feel guilt after lust and turn the blame on each other? If so, it was hateful.
'That way,' she said, pointing to the track on which he'd first appeared. 'You'll see your path. You may see many paths, so choose the right one.' She heard her mother's voice coming out of her, and it made her feel powerful. 'No creature of the twilight will harm you while you are under our protection. Go.'
He gave her a last glance, grim and fearful. Then the big bay carried him off through the trees in plunging leaps. Katherine stood and watched him until he was out of sight.
Once he was gone, her heart sank. Now she must go back and face her mother's anguish. It had been a mad act of defiance, coldly regretted in the dregs of dawn. And now, because of the way he had reacted, she couldn't even remember her lover fondly. She was no sorceress, just an unhappy girl; but neither aspect, apparently, could please the Duke of Gloucester.
Kate went and put her arms around her mare's neck. 'Nothing I've done has made anything better,' she said against the damp mane. 'All I've done is make it worse, Mab. Come on. I'll go back and face my punishment with my chin in the air.'
Arriving home, she ran up the stairs into the solar and collided with her mother, who'd come rushing to the doorway to meet her. Katherine braced herself for loud fury, even for a blow. Instead, Eleanor threw her arms around her, and held her so close she couldn't breathe. She didn't even mention her ruined dress.
'Kate, where have been? Thomas has men riding over the whole demesne, looking for you! Thank Auset you're all right.'
'I've done something terrible,' said Kate. Her voice came out rough with regret. 'I'm sorry, but I'd rather die than have a husband forced upon me. I met a man in Blackthorn Griffe and I let him ... '
'What? Kiss you? What?'
Kate shook her head, and held her mother's horrified gaze. 'Everything. I lay with him all night. So that George Stanley wouldn't want me, and no one else would want me either. With any luck, I'm with child. If not, I shall stuff a bolster under my dress and moan and sigh and have Martha help me out of my seat to greet him!'
Eleanor gaped at her. Never before had Kate managed to place such astonishment in her mother's eyes. And then such complete agony that Kate would have done anything to take back all her words and actions.
In the dreadful silence, a shape moved in the shadows on the far side of the firegrate. A broad silhouette, sheathed in plum damask, was rising from a chair.
Too late, Kate saw Anne Beauchamp, the Countess of Warwick. The last person in the world she would have wished to overhear her confession.
'Eleanor, perhaps I had better leave you and your daughter alone?
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