Authors: Vanora Bennett
Tags: #Historical Fiction Medieval, #v5.0
Out side the gates of London,
the victorious army of
King Edward IV and his brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is
camped, waiting to make a triumphal pro cession into the capital
tomorrow. It is nearly a year since the popular Edward, king of England for
a decade, was forced to flee his country, as a result of a plot to put his old
rival for power, the former Henry VI, back on the throne. The plot has come
to nothing. Pitiful, mad Henry VI is a prisoner in the Tower of London
again, and will soon be dead. King Edward, handsomer and more golden
than ever, is down the river at Westminster Palace for the night, being re-united with his wife, who’s spent the past winter in sanctuary. He’s taking
a first look at the baby son born to her during his absence
his heir, the future King Edward V. Meanwhile, the relieved citizens of London, making
preparations to welcome the returning king and his family, are hoping
they’ve lived through the last convulsion of the fighting between the royal
houses of York and Lancaster that we know today as the Wars of the Roses.
Isabel knelt with a rustle of tan silk. She didn’t know the church, but she was aware of shadowy people moving round, or kneeling in corners. Not many, though. It was too late for Sext and too early for None. Most people would be out working. She put her hands up to her face, palmer fashion, staring down at the long, undecorated fingers in front of her eyes, shutting everything else out until even her eye’s memory of the candle halos in front of her had faded. Her father couldn’t really mean to marry her to Thomas Claver, could he?
Her lips began to form the Latin words of prayer. She tried to ignore the picture in her mind, of Thomas Claver’s thighs spreading on a window bench at the Tumbling Bear, and his mouth forming that slack, leering grin as he and her uncle both lifted their tankards to an embarrassed serving girl (trying to ignore them, as all servants did) and nudged each other obscenely. She shivered, but perhaps that was just because the prayer that had come to her mind was so somber. “O most sweet lord Jesus Christ, true God,” she muttered, fixing her eyes on the calluses and needle pricks on her fingers, “who was sent from the bosom of the almighty Father into the world to forgive sins, to comfort afflicted sinners, ransom captives, set free those in prison, bring together those who are scattered, lead travelers back to their native land, minister to the contrite in heart, comfort the sad, and to console those in grief and distress, deign to release me from the affliction,temptation, grief, sickness, need and danger in which I stand, and give me counsel.”
But however hard she concentrated on her fingertips and the movements of her mouth, she couldn’t retreat into the muzz of incense and contemplation she was seeking.
Wisps of voices came unbidden into her head. Her father’s:“an honor for the family . . .” and “. . . important for the family to have Alice Claver’s goodwill . . .” and “. . . an excellent businesswoman; she’s well connected, you know; she’ll introduce you to people who can help you in life . . .” and “. . . it’s not what you know, it’s who you know . . .” and “. . . I’m relying on you to do the right thing for the family.” Her nurse’s hurried, worried whispering, trying to make peace: “at your age you think it’s all about love . . . but all men are the same really . . . I know he’s a bit wild now, but you’ll set him right in no time, get him working . . . the important thing is to be in a good family; once you have babies you’ll understand that children are all that matter in life anyway.”
Her sister, Jane, giggling under the bedclothes, somehow managing to be philosophical even in this misery: “Well, at least you know he likes girls. What am
going to do with that old stick Will Shore and his all- night ledgers? Just imagine trying to kiss
It wasn’t half so bad for Jane, Isabel thought furiously, trying to fight back the hot prickle behind her eyelids as she remembered her elder sister’s bewitching face, all pale blond hair and flirtatiously downturned green eyes and charm, breaking into that rueful smile at the idea of having to marry Will Shore. Will might be a walking cadaver with no chin and no conversation except for what was on his books, but at least he was a man set on his path in the world. He was a freeman and a citizen; he had an honorable apprenticeship behind him and a business already set up. He’d bore Jane to death, but he’d keep her in the silken idleness she liked so much too, lolling on cushions and reading romances and planning her next gown. And she knew it. What did she have to complain about?
Isabel’s shoulders heaved. The lump in her chest swelled to bursting, and, she found herself holding her head in her hands, squeezing helplessly at her closed eyes to stop the tears coming out, with her fingers salty and wet and her breath as fast and anguished as if she were running for her life.
A shadow moved nearby. Footsteps stopped a few paces away.
She heard the faint click of spurs. She didn’t care anymore. Now that she’d abandoned herself to the helplessness of her emotions, she couldn’t have stopped the storm inside herself even if she’d wanted to. The footsteps moved away. But not far enough to forget them. A new candle flame blazed around the Virgin, enough to still Isabel’s heaving chest for a moment. She fell silent, aware of the tears still coming through her fingers and the smeary mess her face must be, trying to breathe deep to control her sobs, rubbing at her skin to try to dry it off , waiting for the unwanted fellow worshipper to go away.
But he didn’t. He came back and stood right next to her. Peeping out from between her fingers, she could see the spurs and the mud on his boots. She kept her head down. He’d go, she thought, in an agony of impatience; she just had to keep quiet.
There was a silence the length of a long- held breath. Then, with dread, she felt a hand on the small of her back: a warm hand; a deep, comforting caress. When the surprisingly beautiful bass voice murmured, from just above her head, “Forgive me, but are you all right?” that silken male touch was enough to dispel her irritation.
She raised her head. The face she could half- see looking down at her was thin and dark and hard. But it was softened by an expression of concern. He couldn’t have been more than a few years older than she was: eighteen or nineteen, maybe, like Thomas Claver. But he was an adult, with a shadowed jaw and the wiry strength of a man in the neat movement of his arms as he leaned farther toward her, with enough delicacy of understanding to realize he shouldn’t touch her, clasping his hands together as if to stop himself. She was strangely warmed by the kindness in those narrow eyes.
“Just praying,” she said, with what shreds of dignity she could muster, looking straight back at him, daring him to give her the lie—how was he to know she wasn’t a hungry mystic, in the grip of a tearful vision?—but suddenly aware too of how she must look, with her kerchief pushed back and straggles of hair catching in her streaked wet face and her eyes all puff y and pink and swollen and her skin probably hideously blotched.
He didn’t respond except to go on looking unblinkingly at her, and there was something quizzical on a face she could see was used to weighing up new situations quickly. She raised a hand and wiped firmly at both cheeks, trying to master herself and surprised at finding that gaze was enough to quell her sobs.
She even managed a watery smile as she uncurled herself and sat up on her knees, feeling the darkness inside shrink as her back muscles straightened. “Well, I
praying,” she added defensively. “I was just crying too, that’s all.”
He smiled, now, and although he had thin lips it was an attractive, straightforward smile; she found her own lips curling briefly up in response, aware of her hands busying themselves in their own ritual of patting and tidying her face and head, trying to restore order to herself.
He didn’t comment on her appearance. She supposed there was nothing he could say without being either gallant, which would have been wrong, or discourteous, which would have been worse. He just carried on looking into her eyes, with the memory of a smile in his and with his body taut and still. She liked the stillness of him. She was aware of the sword buckled to his belt, the plain traveling cloak. He must have something to do with the troop movements, she thought. But his presence was so encouraging that she found herself hoping he wouldn’t hurry away soon.
He didn’t. Eventually he murmured, “I’m forgetting that I came here to pray too.” And he glimmered at her, with the beginning of another smile. “Like you. Sometimes your troubles seem so great that nothing but God’s guidance will be enough. And even that—” He broke off and looked away, and she felt the sadness in him, a helplessness that seemed as great as hers, without needing to understand it. “May I pray with you?” he asked in almost a whisper.
She gestured, caught up in the moment, happy to have him near. He knelt beside her in one fluid movement, bent his head over his hands, and closed his eyes.
Isabel shut her eyes too and steepled her own hands, but she had stopped doing more than imitate the appearance of prayer; what she really wanted now was to hear the muttered words coming from the stranger’s lips. She wanted to know what he was praying for. “Even so, Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, deign to free me from every tribulation, sorrow and trouble in which I am placed and from the plots of my enemies,” he was murmuring, a prayer as somber as hers but not one to enlighten her; “and deign to send Michael the Archangel to my aid against them, and deign, Lord Jesus Christ, to bring to nothing the evil plans that they are making or wish to make against me, even as you brought to nothing the counsel of Achitophel who incited Absalom against King David . . .”
And his voice dropped to a drone of Latin, and then fell altogether silent. When she stole a sideways look at him, his lips were still moving; she thought she saw a tear glistening on his cheek too. He didn’t seem to be aware of it. He was lost to the world.
She went on watching. He was visibly reaching a resolution.
His jaw tightened. Then, without warning, he dropped his hands, raised his head, and looked round at Isabel, so quickly that she didn’t have time to lower her own curious eyes. Without reproach, his bright gaze held hers; she felt it as a shock right through her body.
“So shall we both trust God to provide for us?” he said, and grinned, a bit wolfishly, suddenly looking cheerful and eager to be on the move. He was on his feet, holding a hand out to her.
Without thinking, she took it and scrambled up too. His hand was warm and dry with strong fingers. She found herself walking with him. To her surprise, they headed toward the bright arch to the street, feet in step.
As long as I’m out I don’t have to go home, Isabel thought, as the wind flapped at her skirts, with the fuzzy, fleeting contentment born of being caught up in an unexpected adventure. As long as no one sees me here, I don’t have to decide what to do. So she followed the stranger obediently into the Bush tavern, a few steps away down Aldersgate, where he headed straight for a table in a vaulted alcove under a window where someone else’s meal, and the game of chess abandoned on a stool, hadn’t yet been cleared away, ordering a jug of claret and what ever cold meat the landlord had as he passed. He stood looking down at the checkered wood, absentmindedly fingering the pieces left at the side of the board, while a serving girl piled up tankards on one of the greasy boards covered in pork rinds. Isabel edged round the tables and stools toward him, suddenly breathless at her own strange boldness in sitting down to eat with a stranger. But if he was aware of her discomfort, he didn’t betray it. He was grinning at some thought of his own; he held one of the carved pieces out to her as she approached, and said lightly: “After all, perhaps none of the moves that worry us so much in life are as important as we think.” He popped the piece into its bag. “We all end up equal at the bottom of a bag, don’t we?”
Isabel’s nervous ness vanished with the chess pieces he was whisking into their leathery resting place. She laughed and sat down. “I just don’t want to wait till I die before my problems get solved,” she answered, wishing she could achieve the same resigned tone. “I’m hoping something will sort them out now.”
She wasn’t made to be philosophical. Nor could she quite find it in herself to do what she wanted to—find out more about her vis-à- vis. As soon as the maid had dumped two wooden platters in front of them, and even before he had finished pouring out the wine, Isabel found herself pouring out the whole story of her own troubles instead.
She told him how her father had fallen from grace at the Guildhall—the City’s governing body—for losing his temper at a meeting. He’d lost it so badly he began shouting and blaspheming while he was trying, unsuccessfully, to persuade the City to support King Edward and his Yorkist army in the wars. Her father, John Lambert, had thought the rest of the merchants were being hypocritical to give in to the rival Lancastrian army—mad, pitiful King Henry, brought back to fight his last battles after ten years in forced retirement by the Earl of Warwick, who’d been King Edward’s closest friend until they’d fallen out and he’d turned rebel.