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Authors: Helen Burton

The Lords of Arden

THE LORDS OF ARDEN

 

 

 

by

 

 

 

Helen Burton

 

 

 

All rights reserved

Copyright © Helen Burton, 2013.

 

Helen Burton is
hereby identified as author of this work in accordance with Section 77 of the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

 

No part of this
publication may be reproduced, copied, stored in a retrieval system, or
transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of
the copyright holder, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or
cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition
being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

 

A CIP catalogue
record for this title is available from the British Library.

For my friend,
Mary McLean

 

 

 

 

Also by Helen Burton

 

Waterwitch
The Scarlet Splendour
Blue Days and Fair
No Time for Dances
PROLOGUE

 

 

PART ONE - THE
BEAR AND RAGGED STAFF

 

 

PART TWO - FLEUR
DE LUCE

 

 

PART THREE – THE SONS
OF BEAUDESERT

 

 

PART FOUR - VOWS
OF THE HERON

 

Prologue

 

 
1324

 

Moss-green and gold, brightly feathered as
a falconer's lure, the finch bobbed in flight, sang out his warning and
fluttered into the heart of the hazels, scattering raindrops. Drenched and
bedraggled, a thrush poured out his song to the grey skies and the dripping
woodland from a perch up in the summer-bright foliage of an elm. The rains
filtered down in monotonous tympani through the dark leaves which screened the
tree-covered ridgeway and blotted out the skies for those beginning the ascent
from the castle. The path rose steeply up to the old track where once, long
before the Romans came, the first men forged a roadway across the hills.

 Lora Astley, cloaked in brown, led her
mount, picking a way over mossy hummocks and tree roots, wresting her skirts
from clinging briars and clutching brambles, afraid that the gleam of white
from her jennet's flanks would be seen by the look-out on the Audley Tower. Once, she dared to look back, to pause in her flight and survey the fortress,
framed in glistening leaves, misted over. They had lit the cressets in the
solar; soon the watch would be changing and Geoffrey Mikelton, ten years
Constable, would be bawling at his men; speed never was their attribute in such
weather.

 Lora half turned to move on and caught sight
of the sodden standard, limp against its masthead above the Great Gatehouse. The
wind caught at it and drew out the heavy folds of rayed cloth, blue and gold. Peter
de Montfort's colours streamed out, licking greedily, viciously, at the rain. Lora
lifted a gloved hand in a brief, final salute and hurried on.

 Out of the trees she mounted to cross the
lonely road stretching away northward into a greying distance. Her path lay to
the east, across furze-dotted common lands to Yarningale. She paused again at
the foot of the whispering hill where the ancients, who had cut the first
trackways, had built their camp; only the heath-covered hillocks, challenging
shadows in the growing dark, remained of their thriving community.

 Lora knew no fear of the lonely place. How
often had she and Peter led the chase on the long, late-summer days, sometimes
dismounting there amongst the harebells and bilberries, the sun warm on their
faces, to trail their mounts. She swung herself down from her jennet's back,
her slippers brushing the short, springy turf. She turned to look back across
her tracks. The trees stirred but did not part - she was alone. The harebells
were already blooming here at the foot of the hill. Lora stared down at the
frail flowerets for a while, then, grinding a clump beneath her heel, she
jumped again into the saddle to ride away. The brown hood fell back from her
face and, carried by the rain-wind, her buttercup hair streamed behind her. The
breeze tugged at her cloak, whipping it away from the soft folds of the gown
beneath, rose silk; her favourite colour always. Even in flight her vanity
would not see it relinquished for a sober hue.

 Out of the trees, a young man in crimson
paused to draw rein. Stringing out on either side of him ranged his henchmen,
liveried in blue and gold.

 ‘There she is!’ The cry went up and the
chase was on.

 Lora had seen them now. She spurred her
jennet cruelly and found her destination in sight - the dark block of buildings
which sheltered the White Ladies of Pinley; the Cistercians had built their
abbey far away from the world. Lora tethered her mount, out of sight, beneath a
canopy of hawthorns, and fled towards the Church of Our Lady. The door swung
open beneath her impatient hands and then she was fastening it hastily behind
her and running the length of the nave towards the aged Sister at the High
Altar, until she sank at last onto her knees at the altar steps. Her voice was
breathy, her words jerking out. ‘I claim the right to the Church's sanctuary,
for myself and for my child - my unborn child,’ Lora concluded on a somewhat
dramatic note. ‘Now, may I speak with the Mother Abbess?’

 Elizabeth de Lotrynton was very still in
her high-backed chair; a slight figure with a smooth, oval face, hands
motionless in her lap, displaying the sapphire ring of her office, ice-blue and
as cold. Lora was pacing the painted room where the bright figures of St.
Catherine and St. Margaret, forever smiling, looked benignly down upon her. She
turned, rose skirts swishing, hands distractedly twisting together or wildly
cutting the air, and at last she brought a white fist down upon the table
before the Mother Abbess, with a crash that shattered the peace of the White
Ladies' seclusion.

 ‘Reverend Mother, in minutes from now
Peter de Montfort will force his way into this office. A clutch of nuns, even
the stout bulk of the Porteress, is hardly likely to hold him for long. All I
ask is sanctuary until after the child is born and your oath that none shall
know of the event. Afterwards, if you find no objection, I have a
benefactress….’ she uttered the word with a wry, twisted smile, ‘she will see
me endowed here and will take the child from me; Lady Maud de Montfort herself.
I hardly think you will gainsay Madam Maud!’ she giggled, on the verge of
hysteria.

 Elizabeth rose stiffly, carefully, to her
feet. ‘But why? Oh, I know your story, child, who does not hereabouts. I know
you have one son, not three years old, by the Lord of Beaudesert. I know you
have been many years with the de Montforts. Oh, we're not without our contacts
here, news does creep in from the outside world, willy-nilly. You have reigned
a queen at Beaudesert, despite all efforts on Lady Maud's part to estrange you
from her grandson. My gossips bring tales of your bower hung with rose samite
and white cendal, of your gowns and your gauds. Now you wish to relinquish them
all. Am I to hazard at sudden realization of sin committed?’

 Lora turned violet eyes of incredible
loveliness upon the abbess. ‘This week an embassy arrived from the Papal Court,
an answer at last to My Lord's plea that should our union be sanctified, then
my son's birth would be legitimized along with further heirs of my body. But
no, the Pope, in his wisdom, will not allow it. In spite of everything I have
or may have my son will still be Little Sir Bastard. Oh, I'm sure you know his
story; it is, after all, one of the most romantic, the most scandalous, in the
shire - conceived under a hedge, the union of a tonsured clerk and a renegade
novice. Peter can never marry me now, and marry he must for the sake of the
dynasty. There are many, nobly born, who will be inclined to consider him as a
suitor providing I am safely disposed of - so, here you see me!’

 Elizabeth moved to the window. The scent
of the marjoram, growing in the bed beneath the sill, was pungent; it brought
her back to the present. ‘Think again, Lora, you are too much of the world. You
haven't the makings of heroine, still less of martyr. You storm out because
your pride will not allow you to relinquish your position to another woman. Turn
back before it is too late!’

 ‘It is already too late!’ The storm had
spent itself. Lora faced her with quiet finality.

 

~o0o~

 

Elizabeth
was relieved when her interview with the Lord of
Beaudesert was at an end. Peter de Montfort had thrust his way into her
presence, followed by a trio of twittering nuns. He had stormed and threatened Holy Church with a vengeance which would have rendered him outlaw had he the slightest notion
of carrying it out. He had demanded the return of his mistress, had cajoled and
pleaded to be allowed to speak with her and, finally, had broken down and wept,
promising Lora marriage in the face of all, swearing that their son would be
well provided for, and imploring the Mother Abbess to go to her and bring him
her answer.

 Elizabeth went slowly down to the abbey
church, kneeling awhile before the High Altar. The last of the light had gone
now from the windows, only the sanctuary lamp burned with a cool blue flame. Eventually
she rose, determined now to keep her wild young convert, and glided back to her
unbidden guest. His eyes, hungry for news, searched every detail of her face.

 ‘The demoiselle Astley wishes to abjure
the world. There is no more to be said on the matter, My Lord. Now will you be
pleased to leave us in peace?’ She watched him ride slowly away into the summer
darkness.

PART ONE

 

 

 

THE BEAR AND
RAGGED STAFF

 

Chapter One

 

1327

 

The landscape which had witnessed Lora
Astley's flight to the White Ladies of Pinley was transformed in the blackness
of a winter's night. Only a scattering of stars braved the torn cloud mass,
here and there, and already the snow was falling, soft and white and silent.

 A lone horseman took the road down to the
Lady Gate at a gallop; they let him pass over the bridge and into the eastern
ward. A boy of thirteen, he cut a slight figure, cloaked in scarlet cameline,
soaked to the darkness of wine lees. His hair was plastered to his head and, as
he reined in at the East Gate to speak to the sentry, his mount steamed in the
torchlight; he had ridden her hard.

 It was bitterly cold up on the
fortifications and Peter de Montfort had cut short his nightly inspection of
Beaudesert's defences and was ready to retire to the solar fire. He stood above
the East Gate, slapping his arms about him to try and keep warm, whilst
Geoffrey Mikelton, his Constable, outlined a tale of breaches in the southern
section of the curtain wall, and muttered into his beard about the ineptitude
of the masons.

 Peter had heard the thud of hoof-beats
crossing the ward but, as their owner had passed almost unchallenged, his
curiosity waned. There was a strong gust of wind from the ridgeway and,
somewhere, a heavy door slammed to and a flight of roosting pigeons took off
from the Mellent Tower. Peter was searching for a good reason to extricate
himself from his Constable's earnest exposition and turned thankfully at a
sudden clatter of footsteps upon the stair below them. The door giving onto the
roof was set crashing back upon its hinges and a figure burst out into the
night air. The door smashed home again and Peter saw a sliver of a boy, small
yet for thirteen, with plenty of growing time to come. The sodden scarlet cloak
was fastened untidily with a large sapphire pin, there were gold studs in the
belt which loosely girdled the waist of his shapeless woollen tunic, and the
spurs about his scuffed leather boots were tarnished silver.

 ‘My Lord.’ He gave Peter a sketchy bow;
it was Mikelton who made a slow, deep obeisance. The gold crosslets on the
boy's cloak were the crosslets of de Beauchamp, and this quicksilver child was
the heir to the mighty Earldom of Warwick.

 ‘Thomas, so that was your dramatic
entrance? Where did you leave your escort, at least a mile back, I suppose?’

 ‘No,’ the boy was out of breath, a hand
pressed to his side where he had a stitch, ‘I came alone.’

 Peter raised expressive dark eyebrows and
signalled for Mikelton to leave them together.

 ‘You're welcome, Tom, but why couldn't
you visit in style? I suppose you left word where you were bound?’ He supposed
nothing of the sort and Beauchamp glanced up at him from beneath a fringe of
thick dark lashes which shaded clear blue eyes; his mouth was set:

 ‘I did not. I'm not a child.’

 ‘No?’ asked Peter, an arm about his
shoulders, guiding him across the leads towards the private staircase which
wound straight down to the solar. A single torch lit the foot of the spiral,
sending its lemon light to meet the darkness.

 The solar was a pleasant room: firelit,
torchlit, painted and tapestried. The shutters were fastened against the winter
darkness. Beauchamp made straight for the hearth.

 ‘If you'd fallen among thieves,’ began
Montfort.

 The boy shrugged, ‘If they'd slit my
throat there would have been an end; I have brothers.’

 Peter poured him a cup of hippocras which
had been warming on the hearth. ‘Flaunting the crosslets of Beauchamp you'd far
more likely have prompted a ransom demand; a king's ransom for an earl,
wouldn't you say? So the Honour of Warwick, your household, your tenants, all
would have been bled white to redeem your august person. Not, on the face of
it, a very responsible attitude. Think about it next time you plan a solitary
escapade.’

 Thomas wriggled out of the half-circle of
his arm. ‘I had to come.’

 ‘Then you can sit for a while and thaw
out whilst I rouse an escort to get you home.’

 ‘No, you can't! It's too late, it’s pitch
dark and I've ridden so hard …’

 ‘And I have my guest bedrooms full; my
sister, Lady Butler, is here. You know Lady Butler, if she has one failing it's
her inability to travel light; her household is legion.’

 ‘Then I'll sleep here by the fire; it
doesn't matter.’

 ‘You're Warwick, lad, you'll be treated
according to your state whilst under my roof, or not at all. If you're saddle
sore it will teach you to think ahead in future. Do you imagine I'm going to
enjoy the journey on a night like this? But the whole of Warwick will be
scouring the countryside for you by now; I can't let them sweat it out all
night.’

 Thomas sniffed, ‘Who cares! I'm not going
back. I won't!’ The blue eyes were challenging. Peter cast him a shrewd look
and settled back into his carved armchair, drawing the boy to stand before him,
a hand on each arm. He shook him lightly.

 ‘Now, My Lord of Warwick, let's hear your
story and if you're going to lie, make them good ones!’

 ‘On my honour, My Lord, I wouldn't!’ The
boy was indignant. ‘But He's there! He's at Warwick, strutting through My hall,
instructing My garrison, chivvying My household, pacing My walls, threatening,
shouting ...’

 ‘Who?’ roared Peter. ‘For God's sake slow
down, lad.’

 ‘The White Wolf,’ said the boy, ‘Roger
Mortimer. My father always hated him; you know how he hated him!’

 ‘Yes,’ said Montfort reasonably, ‘but
your father died eleven years ago; death can wipe out enmity.’

 ‘Sanctimonious twaddle, My Lord!’ said
Beauchamp scornfully. ‘He has no right to assume command at Warwick, to order
me about. He said I didn't know how to wear a suit of clothes, that my
education had been sorely neglected, that by now I should be able to read and
write a fair enough hand, that I rode like a gypsy and ate like a peasant. He
called me a sullen brat and, when I answered back, he threatened to have me
whipped for my insolence. He has no right!’ He kicked at the rushes with the
toe of one boot.

 Peter drew him against his knee, an arm
comfortably about him. ‘Roger Mortimer is now your legal guardian, Tom - in
loco parentis - he has a father's rights in your minority. He's obviously
ruffled your feathers but things will mend. What was between him and your
father is all in the past and you will have to submit to him until you come of
age.’

 ‘Submit! Submit to that whoremonger!’

 ‘Dear God, child, what stories have you
been listening to? Keep silent! Even in this house walls have ears.’

 ‘But it's true, you know it is. He
debauched the Queen; everyone knows that!’

 ‘And you are too young to sit in
judgement; wait until you come into your own, the time will pass quickly enough,
I promise.’

 ‘But you will speak for me? Let him know
I am past needing a nursemaid, that I can handle my own affairs?’

 Peter shook his head sadly. ‘I have no
jurisdiction over you. The King made you Roger Mortimer's ward. I cannot
quarrel with that.’

 ‘But you were my father's friend; you
counselled my widowed mother; he’ll listen to you. We'll ride home together, My
Lord, you and I at the head, your retinue streaming out behind us in a river of Montfort blue and gold. Remember how you used to let me ride before you on
Brigliadoro? I though you could see the whole world from his broad back. You
taught me everything about this shire; showed me each river and hill and copse
and field, every hidden village, and what to look for at the change of the
seasons; the coming of the cuckoo and the flight of the swallows. I learnt more
from you than I will ever learn from him. You made me love this land in all its
moods, told me that in the end it was the only thing that mattered.’ The blue
eyes lit up, giving Peter a glimpse of the man he might one day become, with
the power to fasten grown men to his side, if others, mantled in avarice, did
not crush the spirit out of him before he grew up.

 ‘Tom,’ he said, ‘you're all night and day,
no room for dawn and dusk, soaring to the heights or sunk in the mire. I've
decided you can stay the night, there's a pallet in my chamber, and we shall
set out at dawn with that cavalcade you talked of. But I want your oath on it
that you'll be civil to My Lord Mortimer and make your apologies.’

 ‘Yes, My Lord,’ said Thomas demurely.

 ‘And if you're crossing your fingers
behind your back you can uncross them,’ Peter growled. ‘Now get off to bed.’ He
turned him for the door and prodded him between the shoulder-blades.

 ‘Don't I get a bedtime story?’ Thomas
paused to help himself to Lady Butler's comfits from a silver dish on the
table. Peter tossed a feather cushion at his august person and the boy fled laughing
for the stairs. But when the dust had settled again and only the crackle of the
fire penetrated the silence, Peter sat back thoughtfully, chin on his hand, and
knew how Judas felt in the hours before Gethsemane.

 

~o0o~

 

When they set out to ride to Warwick next morning, the wind had died away. A pallid, liverish sun reduced the world to
shades of sepia. The snow had disappeared but there was cat-ice in the rutted
lanes, sheeting the puddles. The clouds evaporated as the morning wore on and
the sky was clear, pale as water-forget-me-nots, as Peter and his impressive
retinue crossed the Avon and rode up towards Thomas Beauchamp's crumbling
gatehouse. Warwick was less than a ghost of the glories of a century ago,
before Simon de Montfort's sons had sacked it, before Thomas Beauchamp's hated
uncle, Hugh Despencer, had begun to systematically raze Black Guy's fortress to
the ground, so that all its worth had been a few shillings for the herbage that
grew in the grass-covered ditches. The old keep still sat precariously atop its
mound; the battered gatehouse straddled the road from the river-bridge; a line
of shabby penthouses abutted a length of curtain wall, tenaciously clinging to
the river cliff. Peter, used to the sight, suddenly felt a pang of compassion
for the slender boy, riding proudly beside him, whose battered patrimony this
was. As if he could read his thoughts, Thomas turned and smiled ruefully at his
mentor. ‘Damnosa hereditas,’ he said with a slight shrug of his shoulders.

 All about them were Roger Mortimer's
retainers, liveried in canary yellow; above the gatehouse flew his Wolf's Head
standard. They passed into the bailey and Mortimer's men closed in about them. Beauchamp
urged his mount a little closer to Montfort's mare and then Roger Mortimer,
Earl of Wigmore, strode out into the winter sunlight; bare-headed, splendid in
sea-green velvet jupon and close fitting hose, hands beringed, a golden circlet
about his brow. In spite of the richness of his attire, there was nothing of
the effete about him. The muscles rippled beneath the firm flesh like that of a
healthy leopard. Montfort dismounted and bowed, but not too low, the name of
Montfort carried with it its own provenance.

 Mortimer said, ‘You are welcome, Peter de
Montfort. I see you have the Black Hound's whelp. From whence did you flush
him?’

 ‘He arrived last night. I guessed at the
uproar his disappearance must have caused but he was saddle-sore and weary. I
hadn't the heart to make him ride out again; thought him better tucked up in
bed. He came to Beaudesert on a whim, nothing more; boys never think.’

 Beauchamp had jumped from his saddle; he
turned furiously to his guardian. ‘That was not so, I knew what I was doing!’

 ‘Thomas….’ warned Montfort.

 Roger Mortimer seemed to tower over the
boy as he said, ‘Inside; and you can go straight to your room!’

 Thomas Beauchamp drew himself up to his
insignificant height and lifted his chin a shade too high. ‘I will be pleased
to enter my own fortress, sir, when you are pleased to strike your standard
from my walls!’ and he stood his ground.

 Montfort, who, after years of enmity, had
finally been brought to friendship with this child's father, felt his heart
turn within him at the flash of those blue eyes. Thomas had more than a half
share of Black Guy's blood in his veins and what Montfort, who loved him, had
seen, so had Mortimer who had had good reason to hate the boy's father. But the
White Wolf put back his head and laughed out loud and the tension seemed to
sigh away through the assembled retinues: the yellow and green of Mortimer, the
blue and gold of the Montforts and Beauchamp's own scarlet livery, with the
double badges of Bear and Ragged Staff. Then, with a deliberate violence,
Mortimer brought up his right hand and cracked it across the boy's face. Loaded
with the weight of his signet, the blow set the boy's nose bleeding and tore
his mouth.

 Peter winced. Several of Beauchamp's
household knights took a step forward, fingering their sword hilts. Thomas put
up a hand and wiped at his face with the sleeve of his cote. Sir John
Durvassal, whose family held the hereditary butlership of the Earls of Warwick,
put a hand lightly on the boy's shoulder, ‘Come, My Lord, let's have that seen
to.’ He turned him away but Beauchamp swung back to face the Lord of
Beaudesert, secure with his own retinue at his back. Montfort said nothing, as
he had known he would say nothing. Mortimer had possession of the boy, of his
lands, of his person; he was also the most powerful man in the kingdom, with a
deposed King behind him, prisoner at Kenilworth, and a boy king awaiting his
coronation in London. He could have taken Beaudesert and raised her to the
ground like a monkey swatting a flea. Peter had a son of his own, lives he
could not put at risk for this boy's ruffled honour.

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