The Sunne in Splendour
By Sharon Kay Penman
Pan McMillan Copyright © 2013 Sharon K. Penman
All rights reserved.
Richard did not become frightened until darkness began to settle over the woods. In the fading light, the trees began to take on unfamiliar and menacing shapes. There was movement in the shadows. Low-hanging branches barred his path; rain-sodden leaves trailed wetly across his cheek. He could hear sounds behind him and kept quickening his pace, until he tripped over the exposed roots of a massive oak and sprawled headlong into the dark. Unknown horrors reached for him, pinning him to the ground. He felt something burn across his neck; his face was pressed into the dampness of the earth. He lay very still but he heard only the unsteady echoes of his own breathing. Opening his eyes, he saw that he had fallen into a thicket, was held captive by nothing more sinister than brambles and branches broken off by the weight of his body.
He was no longer drowning in fear; the wave was receding. In its wake, he felt shame burn his face and was grateful that none had been there to witness his flight. He thought himself to be too old to yield so easily to panic for, in just eight days' time, he would be seven years old. He rolled clear of the bushes and sat up. After a moment's deliberation, he retreated to the shelter of a lightning-scarred beech. Bracing himself against the trunk, he settled down to wait for Ned to find him.
That Ned would come, he did not doubt. He only hoped that Ned would come soon and, while he waited, he tried to keep his mind on daylight thoughts, tried not to think at all about what might be lurking in the dark beyond the beech tree.
He found it hard to understand how so perfect a day would so suddenly sour. The morning had dawned with infinite promise and, when Joan yielded to his coaxing and agreed to take him riding along the wooded trails around Whitcliffe, his spirits had soared skyward. His excitement proved contagious and his pony had responded with unaccustomed élan to his urgings, breaking into a gallop even before they'd passed through the gateway that led from the outer castle bailey.
With Joan trailing him like an indulgent, sedate shadow, he raced the little animal through the village at an exhilarating pace. Circling the market cross twice, he jumped the pony neatly over the ancient dog dozing in the street by Broad Gate and then drew rein just before the small chapel of St Catherine, which stood on Ludford Bridge. As Joan was not yet in sight, he leaned recklessly over the stone arch and tossed a groat down into the currents swirling below. One of the village youths had once assured him that he would gain great good fortune by so doing, and the superstition now became engraved in Richard's faith as Scripture even before the coin sank from sight.
Riders were coming up the road that led south toward Leominster. The leading stallion was white, marked with a queer dark star; the favourite mount of Richard's favourite brother. Richard sent his pony towards them at a breakneck run.
Ned wore no armour and the wind was whipping his sun-streaked tawny hair about like straw. He towered above his companions, as always; Richard had seen few men as tall as Ned, who stood three full fingers above six feet. He was Earl of March, Lord of Wigmore and Clare, eldest of the four sons of the Duke of York. At seventeen, Ned was, in Richard's eyes, a man grown. On this summerlike September morning there was no one he would rather have encountered. Had Ned permitted it, Richard would happily have trailed after him from dawn till dusk.
Richard thought Joan was pleased to see Ned, too. Her face was suddenly the colour of rose petals and she was looking at Ned sideways, filtering laughter through her lashes in the way Richard had seen other girls do with Ned. Richard was glad; he wanted Joan to like his brother. What Joan thought mattered a great deal to him. The nurses he'd had in the past, before he'd come this spring to live at Ludlow Castle, had not been at all like Joan; they'd been dour, thin-lipped, without laps or humour. Joan smelled of sunflowers and had burnished bright hair, as soft and red as fox fur. She laughed at his riddles and had enthralling tales to tell of unicorns and knights and crusades into the Holy Land.
Seeing now how she was smiling at Ned, Richard felt first a warm contentment and then incredulous delight, unable to believe Ned was truly going to come with them. But Ned was dismissing their escort, waving his own companions on, and with the prospect dawning of an entire day in the company of these two people he loved, Richard wondered why he had never thought to throw a coin over the bridge before.
The day seemed likely to surpass all his expectations. Ned was in high spirits; he laughed a great deal and told Richard stories of his own boyhood at Ludlow with their brother Edmund. He offered to show Richard how he had fished for eels in the swift-running waters of the Teme and he promised to take Richard to the faire to be held in Ludlow just four days hence. He coaxed Joan into putting aside the head-dress that covered her hair and, with nimble fingers, he adroitly loosened the upswept braids that gleamed like red-gold rope.
Richard was caught up in wonder, captivated by this sudden cascade of bright hot colour; he knew, of course, that red hair was said to be unlucky but he found it difficult to understand why. Joan had smiled and borrowed Ned's dagger to cut a lock, wrapping it in her own handkerchief and tucking it inside Richard's tunic. Ned claimed a lock, too, but Joan seemed strangely reluctant to give it to him. Richard rooted about in Joan's basket while Ned and Joan debated his demand, a murmured exchange that soon gave way to whispers and laughter. When he turned back to them, Richard saw that Ned had a lock of her hair and Joan was the colour of rose petals again.
When the sun was directly overhead, they unpacked the food in Joan's basket, using Ned's dagger to slice the manchet loaf and cut thick pieces of cheese. Ned ate most of the food, and then shared an apple with Joan, passing the fruit back and forth between them and trading bites until only the core remained.
After that, they lay on Joan's blanket and searched the grass about them for lucky clovers. Richard won and was awarded the last of the sugared comfits as his prize. The sun was warm, the air fragrant with the last flowering of September. Richard rolled over onto his stomach to escape Ned who was bent upon tickling his nose with a strand of Joan's hair. After a while, he fell asleep. When he awoke, the blanket had been tucked around him and he was alone. Sitting up abruptly, he saw his pony and Joan's mare still hitched across the clearing. Ned's white stallion, however, was gone.
Richard was more hurt than alarmed. He didn't think it was quite fair for them to go off and leave him while he slept, but adults were often less than fair with children and there was little to be done about it. He settled down on the blanket to wait for them to come back for him; it never for a moment occurred to him that they wouldn't. He rummaged in the basket, finished what was left of the manchet bread and, lying on his back, watched clouds forming over his head.
Soon, however, he grew bored and decided it was permissible to explore the clearing while he awaited their return. Much to his delight, he discovered a shallow stream, a narrow ribbon of water that wound its way through the grass and off into the surrounding trees. Lying flat on his stomach by the bank, he thought he could detect silvery shadows darting about in the icy ripples but, try as he might, he was unable to capture even one of the ghostly little fish.
It was as he was lying there that he saw the fox; on the other side of the stream, watching him with unblinking golden eyes, so still it might have been a carven image of a fox rather than one of flesh and blood. Richard froze, too. Less than a fortnight ago, he'd found a young fox cub abandoned in the meadows around the village. For more than a week, he'd tried to gentle the wild creature with limited success and, when he'd carelessly let his mother see the teeth marks in the palm of his hand, she'd given him the choice of freeing it or drowning it. Now he felt a throb of excitement, an absolute certainty that this was his former pet. With infinite care he sat up, searched for stepping-stones to cross the stream. The fox faded back into the woods but without apparent alarm. Encouraged, Richard followed after it.
An hour later, he was forced to concede that he'd lost both fox and his way. He'd wandered far from the clearing where the horses were hitched. When he shouted for Ned, he heard only the startled rustling of woodland creatures responding to a human voice. As the afternoon ebbed away, the clouds continued to gather; at last all blue was smothered in grey and, soon after, a light warming rain began to fall. Richard had been attempting to chart his path by the sun, knowing that Ludlow lay to the east. Now he was completely at a loss and felt the first stirrings of fear, until, with the coming of dark, he gave way to panic.
He wasn't sure how long he huddled under the beech. Time seemed to have lost its familiar properties, minutes to have lengthened into unrecognizable proportions. He tried counting backwards from one hundred, but there were queer gaps in his memory, and he found himself fumbling for numbers he should have known without hesitation.
'Dickon! Shout if you can hear me!'
Relief rose in Richard's throat with the intensity of pain. 'Here, Edmund, I'm here!' he cried and, within moments, he was being lifted up onto his brother's horse.
With one arm holding Richard securely in the saddle, Edmund skilfully turned his mount, gave the animal its head to find its way through the thick tangle of underbrush. Once they emerged into a splash of moonlight, he subjected Richard to a critical appraisal.
'Well, you're bedraggled enough, in truth! But are you hurt, Dickon?'
'No, just hungry.' Richard smiled, somewhat shyly. Edmund, who was sixteen, was not as approachable as Ned, was much more apt to react with impatience or, when provoked, with a quick cuff around the ears.
'You owe me for this, little brother. I assure you I've more pleasant ways to pass my nights than prowling the woods for you! The next time you take it into your head to run away, I rather think I'll wait and let the wolves find you first.'
Richard could not always tell when Edmund was serious. This time, however, he caught a telltale glint, knew Edmund was teasing, and laughed.
'There are no wolves ...' he began, and then the import of Edmund's words struck him.
'I didn't run away, Edmund. I got lost following my fox. ... You remember, the one I tamed. ... Whilst I was waiting for Ned to come back ...' His words trailed off; he looked sharply at Edmund, chewing his lip.
'I should have guessed,' Edmund said softly, and then, 'That damned fool. When he knows how our father feels about taking our pleasures with the women of the household!' He broke off, looked down at Richard with a fleeting smile.
'You do not have any idea what I'm talking about, do you? Just as well, I daresay.'
He shook his head. Richard heard him repeating, 'The damned fool,' under his breath and, after a while, Edmund laughed aloud.
They rode in silence for a time. Richard had understood more than Edmund realized, knew that Ned had somehow done something that would much displease their father.
'Where is he, Edmund?' he asked, sounding so forlorn that Edmund ruffled his hair in a careless gesture of consolation.
'Looking for you, where else? He sent your Joan back to the castle for help when dark came and they still could not find you. We've had half the household scouring the woods for you since dusk.'
Silence fell between them again. When Richard was beginning to recognize landmarks, knew they would soon be in sight of Ludford Bridge, he heard Edmund say thoughtfully, 'No one knows yet what happened this afternoon, Dickon. No one has talked to Ned yet, and the girl was so distraught it was hard to get anything sensible from her. We just assumed you took off on a lark of your own.' He hesitated and then continued, still in the unfamiliar yet intriguing confidential tones of one adult to another.
'You know, Dickon, if our lord father were to think that Ned had left you alone in the meadows, he'd be none too happy about it. He'd be most wroth with Ned, of course. But he'd blame your Joan, too, I fear. He might even send her away.'
'No!' Richard twisted in the saddle to look up at his brother. 'Ned did not leave me alone,' he said breathlessly. 'He did not, Edmund! I ran after the fox, that's all!'
'Well then, if that be true, you need not worry about Ned or Joan. After all, if the fault was yours, none could blame Ned, could they? But you do understand, Dickon, that if the fault was yours, you'll be the one to be punished?'
Richard nodded. 'I know,' he whispered, and turned to gaze into the river currents flowing beneath the bridge, where he'd sacrificed a coin so many eventful hours ago, for luck.
'You know, Dickon, I've been meaning to ask you. ... Would you like me to make you a wooden sword like the one George has? I cannot promise you when I'll get around to it, mind you, but. ...'
'You do not have to do that, Edmund. I'd not tell on Ned!' Richard interrupted, sounding somewhat offended, and hunched his shoulders forward involuntarily as the walls of the castle materialized from the darkness ahead.
Edmund was distinctly taken aback and then bit back a grin. 'My mistake, sorry!' he said, looking at his brother with the bemused expression of an adult suddenly discovering that children could be more than nuisances to be tolerated until they were old enough to behave as rational beings, could even be distinct individuals in their own right.
As they approached the drawbridge that spanned the moat of lethal pointed stakes, torches flared to signal Richard's safe return, and by the time Edmund passed through the gatehouse that gave entry into the inner bailey, their mother was awaiting them upon the ramp leading up into the great hall. Reining in before her, Edmund swung Richard down and into her upraised arms. As he did, he flashed Richard a grin and Richard was able to derive a flicker of comfort from that, the awareness that he, for once, had won Edmund's unqualified approval.
* * *
Richard was sitting on a table in the solar, so close to the east-wall fireplace that the heat from its flames gave his face a sunburnt flush. He winced as his mother swabbed with wine-saturated linen at the scratches upon his face and throat, but submitted without complaint to her ministrations. He was rather pleased, in fact, to command her attention so thoroughly; he could remember few occasions when she had treated his bruises with her own hand. Generally this would have been for Joan to do. But Joan was too shaken to be of assistance. Eyes reddened and swollen, she hovered in the background, from time to time reaching out to touch Richard's hair, as tentatively as if she were daring a liberty that was of a sudden forbidden.
Richard smiled at her with his eyes, quite flattered that she should have been crying so on his behalf, but she seemed little consoled by his sympathy and when he'd explained, rather haltingly, to his mother that he'd become separated from Ned and Joan in pursuit of his fox cub, Joan inexplicably began to cry again.
'I heard you're to be locked in the cellar under the great hall as your punishment ... in the dark with the rats!'
His brother George had sidled nearer, awaiting the chance to speak as soon as their mother moved away from the table. He was watching Richard now with intent blue-green eyes, and Richard tried to conceal his involuntary shudder. He had no intention of letting George know he had a morbid horror of rats, aware that if he did, he was all too likely to find one in his bed.
Edmund came to his rescue, leaning over George to offer Richard a sip from his own cup of mulled wine.
'Mind your mouth, George,' he said softly. 'Or you might find yourself taking a tour of the cellar some night.'
George glared at Edmund but did not venture a response, for he was not all that certain Edmund wouldn't, if sufficiently provoked, follow through with his threat. Playing it safe, he held his tongue; although still a month shy of his tenth birthday, George had already developed a sophisticated sense of self-preservation.
Setting Edmund's cup down so abruptly that wine sloshed over onto the table, Richard slid hastily to the floor. He had at last heard the one voice he'd been waiting for.
Edward was dismounting before the round Norman nave that housed the chapel named for St Mary Magdalene. He saw Richard as the boy bolted through the doorway of the solar and in three strides he covered the ground between them, catching Richard to him in a tight, bone-bruising embrace and then laughing and swinging the youngster up into the air, high over his head.
'Jesú, but you did give me some bad moments, lad! Are you all right?' (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman. Copyright © 2013 Sharon K. Penman. Excerpted by permission of Pan McMillan.
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