Read an Excerpt
East coast EnglandSeptember 1326
'Success?' Waleran called up, softly, inching forwards on his stomach.
From the top of the slope, Katerina smiled down at her friend, mouth curving generously in her pale, heart-shaped face, and held up her heavy satchel. 'Success,' she answered, tucking her catapult back into the bag. She moved down through the trees, the drab colours of her boy's clothes blending in with the surrounding vegetation, loose, flapping garments that camouflaged her true sex. Her stomach growled at the prospect of eating roast rabbit for breakfast; the last time she had eaten meat had been three days ago. Since then, they had been ekeing out the last dusty contents of a sack of oats, watered down and cooked to make a sloppy gruel. John would be pleased with them; the rabbit was fat enough to feed at least half the circus troupe.
'Come, let's go.' Waleran pulled his thin, wiry frame upwards, heavy dew darkening his patched tunic.
'It's still early.' Katerina cocked her head on one side, grinning; her grey eyes sparkled. The sun peeked above the horizon, a crack of golden light firing the white birch trunks, touching the wisps of tawny hair that poked out from beneath her hood. She patted the bulge in her bag. 'These rabbits will feed only half of us.'
Waleran shifted uncomfortably, hunching his shoulders. 'I don't want to risk it, Katerina. Even at this hour, the Earl's men could be about; I don't want to be caught poaching.'
Katerina snorted. 'And when have we ever been caught? I doubt he'll miss a couple of rabbits from his vast estates.'
'Why not return to the camp along the beach?' Waleran suggested. 'At least the fish are free.'
'All right, Waleran' Katerina tucked her arm through his 'we'll do it your way this morning. Roast rabbit and fish, what could be better?' She lifted small hands to pull her hood more firmly forwards, obscuring the brilliant colour of her hair.
An amused look crossed Waleran's narrow features. 'Have you forgotten?' He stared pointedly at their linked arms. 'Two boys, arm in arm, would certainly draw attention.'
'Oh!' Katerina clapped a hand to her mouth. Her laughter echoed out, sweet and clear, amongst the trees, against the slight breeze dislodging the occasional leaf from the branches spanned above their heads. 'Forgive me, I forget sometimes.'
'It's for your own safety, Katerina.' Waleran grinned at her, his gaze soft. Who could have known? he thought, as they walked through the forest, lapsed into a friendly silence, calf-length boots scuffing through the fallen leaves, kicking up the desiccated papery shapes. The daughter of a lord, no less, now sunk to the level of a common acrobat. None of the other entertainers, the jugglers and the jesters, the other acrobats, not one of them in the troupe had a clue about who she was, where she came from. All she wanted was a place to hide, to disappear.
Nearer the shore, the woodland trees grew sparser; the sound of waves breaking against shingle, then sucking back to lurch themselves forwards once more, reached their ears. The bent pines on the edge of the forest turned to scrubby blackthorn, bramble patches sprawling across shifting sands. The wind blew in from the east, keen and nippy, straight from the vast plains of the northern countries and Katerina hugged her arms about herself, against its cruel bite knifing painfully through her threadbare tunic, her worn chemise. Eyes watering against the wind, she turned towards the expanse of river estuary, salt marshes bisected by deep, muddy creeks, an immense sweep of mudflats, peppered with scores of pale-grey birds, yellow beaks bright against the dun-coloured mud.
Descending towards the salt marsh, they began to pick their way across, heading for the beach, the suck and crash of waves that landed on the shore in a boiling froth of foam. To their left, shallow cliffs, grass-topped, began to rise: sandy, amber-coloured flanks striated with clay. The wind snatched at Katerina's cloak as they rounded the base of the cliff into the next bay, Waleran walking a little in front of her, playing the role of her protector, as always. He stopped suddenly, abruptly, staggering back, swinging one arm back to stop Katerina.
'What ?' she blurted out, confused by his unexpected halt.
And then she saw.
Further up the coast, bathed in the pinkyorange glow of morning, a fleet of maybe thirty ships clustered to the shore, coloured square sails flapping in the wind. Horses, muscled, shiny warhorses, their eyes rolling in fright at the prospect of entering the water, were being led down wooden ramps, pulled by their bridles through the foaming surf to the shore. Men, hundreds of men dressed in glittering chainmail, helmets obscuring their features, swarmed over the sides of the ship, running through the shallow sea to gather on the beach. Already, some had mounted up, swinging their horses about with a look of intent, orders shouted in a harsh guttural language.
'Lord in Heaven!' breathed Waleran. 'Who are they?'
In the rising sun, the metallic shields of the soldiers shot back the light; it was difficult to decipher the colours. Heart thumping, Katerina screwed up her eyes, forced herself to focus on one shield only. Dark-blue background, gold fleur-de-lys. A gold crown above. Her stomach dropped, hollowed out in panic, and her legs began to shake.
'It's the Queen, Waleran,' she managed to judder out. 'Queen Isabella of England.' She touched a hand to her face, unsure, confused. 'But I don't understand. Those are not English knights '
Waleran paled. He grabbed her hand. 'This bodes ill, Katerina. We must run and run fast, away from this place. It's not safe.'
Heeding the wavering panic in Waleran's voice, the warning, Katerina spun on her heel, leaping the ditch behind them with the easy agility of a deer, her tunic's loose hem fluttering out over slim legs encased in woollen braies. Waleran paused, assessing the creek's wide gap, wondering if he would make it.
'Got you!' a gruff voice echoed in his ear.
Something, someone, hauled roughly at his belt, dragged him unceremoniously backwards. All he could see was Katerina's expression, white and stricken on the other side, the safe side of the creek, her mouth falling open in horror at whoever was behind him. Fear crawled in his gut; he had no intention of turning around.
A group of four or five soldiers clustered around her friend, the oldest and burliest of the group holding on to Waleran. There was no doubt as to their identity: gold fleur-de-lys glinted dully on their dark-blue cloaks and on their shields. Steel helmets obscured their faces, shining silver, the rest of their bodies clad in chainmail.
'What's in the bag, boy?' The lead soldier indicated Katerina's satchel, his eyes glinting out, narrow and mean, from the shadowed confines of his helmet.
'Let my friend go and I tell you,' Katerina replied. An angry helplessness swept over her as she watched Waleran's futile struggles within the soldier's burly grip. There was little point in her going to him; she hadn't the physical strength to wrest him away, but every instinct in her body wanted to do it, to go there.
The soldier's features darkened; he shook Waleran, but kept his eyes on Katerina. 'Don't play games with me, lad. You're in no position to bargain. I ask you again, what's in the bag?' His voice was threatening.
One of the other soldiers, a younger one, shuffled uneasily. 'Hey, Bomal, take it easy. We weren't sent out to torture the locals, remember?'
'Keep out of it!' Bomal snarled back. Katerina lifted one hand self-consciously, making certain that her hood was pulled over her fine features. If they worked out she was a woman, the situation could develop into something far more serious for her.
The soldier set his head to one side, waiting for her answer.
'A couple of rabbits,' she relented, finally, remembering to keep her voice pitched low.
'Been poaching on the lord's land, eh?' the soldier jeered at her. 'Hand them over, then.'
Despite the spurt of fear in her veins and Waleran's soft brown eyes imploring her, beseeching her to follow the soldier's instructions, her fingers clutched more firmly around the bag-strap.
'Let my friend go and then I'll chuck over the bag.'
The soldier scowled, pulling a short knife from a leather scabbard attached to his belt. The steel blade glinted, the light bouncing off the shiny metal. He held the blade to Waleran's throat.
'What do I need to do to convince you?' he shouted over to her.
Katerina was convinced. Body quaking with fear, she threw the bag over. Sheathing his knife, the soldier caught the bundle in his meaty fingers. 'Thanks very much, young squire,' he addressed her, his tone mocking, false. 'And now you, young man' he kept a firm grip on Waleran's upper sleeve 'you're coming with us. We need someone to lead us to the nearest village.'
'Let him go!' Katerina's voice rose perilously close to a screech. Stop playing with us! she wanted to shout out loud. We are nothing, nobody. We are just humble travellers, trying to earn a living, trying to find a morsel of food to fill our stomachs from one day to the next. And now these fat-bellied soldiers had stolen them, stolen the rabbits that they had spent all morning trying to catch. They couldn't, they wouldn't get away with this!
She watched dismally as Waleran was boosted up into the saddle behind the youngest-looking soldier, endeavouring to smile at her friend as he looked back at her, eyes pitiful. She refused to succumb to helplessness, to a wavering vulnerability that threatened to encroach her, to weaken her. A few stupid soldiers wouldn't beat her! Without a doubt, she would find the means to outwit them.
'Don't worry, Waleran,' she whispered, as the horses' glossy rumps retreated, heading northwards to a dark stretch of trees. 'I will come for you.'
Lussac, Count of Belbigny, leaned his elbows against the wooden rail of the forecastle and watched, through narrowed turquoise eyes, as the last of the soldiers, a jumbled mix of hired mercenaries and exiled English lords, made their way to the shore, dutifully following their Queen. Some were fortunate enough to clamber into the few rowboats brought with them across the North Sea from Hainault; others were not so lucky, splashing and stumbling in their heavy armour through the knee-deep waves, raucous curses splitting the morning air. Behind him, taut stay ropes now released, the huge square sail hung limp, ineffectual, beneath the crow's nest, flapping dismally in the breeze. It had taken two days to sail from the Flanders coast, two long days and nights of churning seas, and an unexpected storm that had thrown the ships off course. Their exact location was unknown; it could be anywhere on the east coast of England north of the wide mouth of the river that led to London.
'Lussac, come now, you are the last!' A shout from one of the row-boats drawn alongside the high-sided wooden cog hailed him. He peered over the side, straight chestnut hair falling over his tanned forehead, trying to locate the owner of the familiar voice who shouted to him from the shadows of the vessel.
'Come on, man! Do you want to go back? The ships will leave directly.'
Lussac smiled tersely, a muscle leaping in the shadowed hollow of his cheek. He had no intention of going back. After four years of battling the demons, of never being able to rid himself of the black bile that clagged his heart, King Charles of France, his friend, had offered him a life-line, a way out. When Queen Isabella, Charles's younger sister, had announced her intention to overthrow her husband, King Edward II of England, by way of an invasion commanded by Roger Mortimer, Charles had suggested that Lussac travelled on the ships to England, to seek revenge and heal his tattered soul.
Lussac had agreed readily to Charles's proposition. The passing years had failed to wash away the pain, to dull his memory. The scenes burst into his brain again and again, as if they had happened yesterday, vivid colours etched with dreadful clarity: the pall of smoke rising above his home, the charred rafters collapsing around him in plumes of hot ash. And the running, the breathless sprinting up the steps to find his family The slipping time seemed only to intensify his feelings of loss, of desperation, of anger. Revenge burned, deep in his solar plexus, coursing through his veins like a sour, bitter liquid; he could taste it on his tongue. Around the bare skin of his wrist, the leather cuff wrapped tight, chafed at his skin, reminding him. Scooped up from the scene of the crime, the only clue to the identity of the English knight who had killed his family.
Ignoring the rope ladder, Lussac placed one lean, muscled hand on the side of the ship and jumped down into the rowboat, planting his feet out to steady himself against the inevitable rocking from his weight. His substantial frame tilted the smaller vessel from side to side, threatening to tip them both into the sea.
'Careful! You'll have us over, fooling around like that!' Philippe clutched at the oars as they threatened to slide, pulling them back into the row-locks.
'Philippe?' Lussac sprawled opposite his friend, tilting his head in a quizzical look. He stretched out his long legs, encased in the fine silver mesh of chainmail. The sturdy boots that covered his calves were made of thick Spanish leather and stained with sea-water, each toe carrying a wavering line of white, drying salt. 'Am I'm seeing things? A nobleman rowing a boat?'
Philippe grimaced, pushing a strand of fair hair out of his eyes. Sweat plastered his fleshy face, mottled cheeks flushed with a greasy sheen. He wore no helmet and the hood of his chainmail hauberk gathered at the back of his neck.
'Do you think I have a choice?' he hissed, although they were still some considerable distance from the shore. He wrangled tetchily with an oar, trying to angle it so he could manoeuvre them away from the ship. 'I don't think the Queen has any idea who I am! Me! Philippe, Comte de Garsan! She ordered me to come and fetch you, like I was some low-born soldier! All the others are running around, trying to make her comfortable! Look, they've even constructed a tent for her, already.'
'And a fire, too,' Lussac commented drily. The smoke rose, billowing up from the white-grey shingle, fanning out against the low, ochre-coloured cliffs that lined the shore. 'Let's hope the smoke doesn't draw any unwanted attention; we have no idea whether we are in a safe area or not.'
'I said that!' Philippe jabbed the air triumphantly, the woollen tunic that covered his chainmail pulling tautly across his rounded stomach. 'I told them the exact same thing. But would they listen? Nay, says Mortimer, our Queen is freezing and her ladies are cold after such a horrendous journey and we need to warm them. Christ, I swear that man will do anything for that woman. I know that they want to keep their adultery a secret, but honestly, it's plain for anyone to see!' He turned his attention back to his friend, noting the familiar, bleak look in Lussac's eyes, the shadowed expression. 'Not that any of this concerns you.'