The Uncrowned Queen: A Novelby Posie Graeme-Evans
As England tears itself apart in the War of the Roses, Anne de Bohun lives far from the intrigues of cities and courts. Once King Edward/b>/i>/i>
The thrilling climax to the trilogy that began with The Innocent and The Exiled brings Posie Graeme-Evans's bittersweet story of two lovers divided by the throne of England to its dramatic conclusion.
As England tears itself apart in the War of the Roses, Anne de Bohun lives far from the intrigues of cities and courts. Once King Edward IV's mistress, Anne has found safety with their son in Brugge. But now Edward himself is a hunted fugitive, and Anne's real father, King Henry VI, rules again from Westminster. Summoned by an enigmatic message from her lover, Anne is drawn once more to the passion, the excitement, and the deadly danger that Edward brings into her life. But now, the girl who was once a penniless servant has a child to protect and an inheritance to defend. Can she let her love for Edward threaten everything she has? Or will she need his help to protect her from the powerful enemy who means to destroy her?
Boasting an extraordinary heroine and intense, intersecting plots, The Uncrowned Queen is a dazzling and satisfying finale to Anne de Bohun's incredible story.
Read an Excerpt
Snow was falling again. Soft, lazy flakes. She tasted them. Held up her hands to catch them. They touched her like a kiss.
There were footprints in the fallen snow. Large. Not hers. Marks made by a man. But they were old, the edges of the outlines rounded, blurred. The man was long gone. She looked down at her own red shoes. Would she fit her feet within the marks the man had made? They led away across the white field toward the fence of trees that was the edge of the forest. Stark black trunks, limbs burdened, clotted with snow. Yes.
Suddenly convinced, she hurried forward, the deep, soft powder creaking beneath her Spanish slippers. But she was hot, not cold, as she stepped into the hollows of the footprints in the snow. She had to stretch to match his stride -- he'd been tall, this man -- and she could feel it in her thighs, her knees.
And then she was among the trees, breathless, starting to hurry, trying to run, trying not to flounder, stumbling on though her skirts were wet and heavy. Her mantle was a burden. Throw it away, that was best, she would not be so hot. Impatiently she dragged at the cloak pin, a gold dragon with milk-white eyes of pearl. It ripped the heavy velvet as she tugged, but she didn't care. She threw the precious garment down beside a naked hawthorn tree, the last blood-dark berries shriveled on the twigs, some caught into icicles, the fingers of winter. Perhaps she would come back and find the blue cloak later. Only perhaps.
She was strong, she knew that, but every part of her was in pain as she struggled to be faithful to the marks in the snow, her chest heaving with the effort of moving forward, plowing forward. The footprints led her on. She allowed herself to feel hope now, to believe that she was close. That soon, if only she ignored the agony in her knees, her side, her throat, she would find him, the man who'd made them. She was clear on that -- she wanted that. She must find him, ask him why he had . . . what? Gone on this weary journey, of course, when all the world was deep asleep, locked in the depths of rigid winter.
And it made her happy, knowing she would find him, so happy that nothing else mattered. She would see this man, touch him, hold his face between her hands. She would feel the sharp day-old stubble on his skin, she would taste his mouth softly, and he would hold her. Not concentrating, Anne stumbled, falling suddenly into the cold, soft snow. She laughed. She liked snow, liked the feel of it, only it was important to brush it off quickly so the cold did not travel to the skin. First she would sit up, then she would stand, and then . . .
She saw the wolf. Smelled her. This white world had no smell, but the wolf did -- a rank, dog-slobber stench. The creature was yellow-eyed, all sinew, no fat this deep in winter. Ravenous, and pregnant. Anne was fresh meat, a happy bonus in the frozen world of the wolf.
Anne heard herself scream, the sound given up from deep in her chest, as the wolf sprang. The animal's weight hit her and teeth, hard yellow teeth, ripped and connected within her throat; blood, blood was everywhere. White pain, white snow and blood, a sea of blood, soft red blood. How could blood be so soft?
The wolf was shaking her now, shaking Anne's shoulder. Addressing her, while ripping at her tender flesh.
"Anne? Anne, all is well. Anne?"
Yes, perhaps all would be well. Dying was easy; she'd always known that. Anne sighed. These were the last things she would ever feel; she allowed her hands to pat the soft red snow as her body flopped this way and that, shaken by the wolf as the creature went about her work.
"Anne? Wake now, sweetheart. Wake!"
It was the counterpane -- red silk and goose down, that was all. Her hand was white against it and there was no blood.
Deborah, Anne's foster mother, swallowed acid fear as she held the girl tight against her own body. "No blood. All's well now."
The dream had gone but the forest had not quite left Anne de Bohun. She still saw the footprints leading her on. Old footprints, lost in the snow. The girl closed her eyes against tears as Deborah kissed her brow, soothed damp, tangled hair back from her face.
Anne knew who the man was now. Edward Plantagenet.
"Will you pray before the break-fast?" Deborah's tone was carefully brisk, formal, as she tidied the bed. Anne was glad, suddenly, that her foster mother -- her housekeeper in the eyes of the world -- was practical. She was right. It was time to begin the day, time to leave the night world, and there was much to be done as autumn approached winter. They must also think about protecting the farm from brigands, in these uncertain times. For that they would need money.
Anne sat up, huddling the bedclothes around her bare shoulders. It was dark still but the branch of candles on the shelf beside the fire made a show of challenging the gloom, as did the fire on its newly built hearth.
"Yes, I should like to pray with the household. But I've slept late. Perhaps I'm the last down and they're all about their work already?"
Deborah, splashing hot water from an ewer into the washing bowl by the fire, smiled at the girl in the great bed.
"Do not distress yourself. We've all been working hard these weeks with the harvest. You most of all, and -- " She'd been about to say, "You needed a good sleep," but stopped herself. There'd been far too many nightmares recently, as this last night showed.
Anne was determined the wolf's shadow would not enter her daylight world. Slipping down from the high mattress, she groped on the boards beneath the bed for her felt house slippers. "And little Edward?" Anne shivered, naked, toward the fire and the comfort of the dressing mantle -- an extravagance from her former life.
"In the kitchen. A matter of new bread, I think. He could smell it when he woke."
Both women laughed and the dark air moved and shifted with the sound. Anne's son, the boy she called her nephew, was three, though tall for his age, quick, and speaking well. She was proud that many people, on first meeting him, thought him at least five. She would laugh and say, "Ah, yes. It's the good food he gets here. He grows like a weed outside the town. Boys need space."
There was always comfort in the ritual of washing and dressing for Anne and Deborah. It was almost the only time during the day that they could expect to be alone together; that was, if the noisy boy they both so deeply loved was not bouncing around on the great bed, demanding that they both hurry, hurry, down to the kitchen and break-fast.
"House dress, or fine?"
"House dress, Deborah. We've much to do today."
Anne avoided her foster mother's glance. Their current situation was her responsibility and it weighed on her. Hoping for greater freedom outside the narrow life of the city, she'd brought them all to this little farm beyond the walls of Brugge. Yet now that war, rumored and actual, was spreading through Europe, she could not avoid the uncertainty of their situation. There were hard questions to be asked. And there were no easy answers.
Preoccupied, Anne washed herself quickly in the warming air. Light from candles and the fire touched her body like a loving hand. She was gracefully made, with curving hips; a straight, well-muscled back; high, delicate breasts with tawny rose nipples -- larger for having had a child -- and strong, slender arms and legs from all the work she did.
Deborah sighed and turned away to find the girl a house dress. There were so many things they did not speak of anymore. Marriage, that was what Anne needed. A real flesh-and-blood marriage, not an insubstantial, passionate dream that receded, day by day, into enchanted mist. Marriage was an alliance, a contract designed for mutual aid and support between a man and a woman; such a contract would protect Anne and the boy and her household as the constant dangerous wrangling between Burgundy and France escalated. It was a shame, and a waste, that nearly two years since their last meeting, her foster daughter still yearned for the one man she could not have. Edward, the English king; Edward Plantagenet, her son's father. A thousand miles away over the sea, but closer than thought to Anne -- always closer than thought.
But things changed when they needed to and there was an unexpected cause for new hope in their lives. Last night, very late, Leif Molnar had arrived from Sluys -- too late to talk, except to say he'd come from Sir Mathew. Perhaps Leif brought Anne a solution? Perhaps they would all go back to London, to Sir Mathew's house, until the wrangling between France and Burgundy resolved itself? Yet England, too, was in turmoil. There was even talk that Edward Plantagenet might lose his throne. Perhaps nowhere was safe anymore?
Deborah took a house dress down from its peg and shook it vigorously. Concentrate on the moment, banish gloom with hard work. "The worsted? It's clean still. Which sleeves would you like?"
"You choose, Deborah. I don't mind."
The kirtle was designed for work and not for show, but it was still a pretty thing. Dark red, it had several pairs of sleeves that could be swapped depending on mood. Deborah, thinking the day would be sullen, chose a set in cheerful crocus yellow, piped with blue to match the blue lacings of the dress. She knew that Anne liked color, particularly as the days drew in. The older woman also found a linen chemise for her daughter. Anne appreciated the warmth and durability of her own good woolen cloth, but was sensitive to its itch against her skin. She always had been, even as a little girl.
Footed hose, a practical luxury, were laid up in a fruitwood coffer. These would be tied beneath the knee with ribbon. Lastly, there was an apron of forest-green serge and a thick shawl, its warp bright blue wool with a startling weft of yellow silk.
Helping the girl dress, Deborah worked, crabwise, toward her design for the future. "So, what do you think our neighbors will ask for the plow land?"
As Deborah laced the kirtle, Anne stared out toward the first faint light in the east.
"I'm not certain. Perhaps I'll not offer much coin at all. An annuity might be better for them and for us."
Deborah tied the blue laces into a serviceable double bow where the bodice joined the skirt. "Do you think mother and son will agree? It's her dower land, isn't it?"
"I don't know what Meinheer Landers's mother expects. He'd be more interested in money paid now, of course. But if I can bring them to accept an annuity, she'll have an income against her expenses now that she lives in his house. That will help them both and we will not have to give so much when we sign the contract. I have plans for that land -- it will return the value of an annuity tenfold when it's used properly. River land is always good soil."
Deborah finished dressing her daughter and returned to pummeling the goose-down pillows energetically. She was determined to be positive. Perhaps speaking of the future of the farm would open a way to talk more broadly about other things. "What will you grow there?"
Anne looked up from tying the ribbons on her stockings. "Crocus. Saffron crocus. I believe it will do very well: good soil, water close by. There's always a ready market for saffron and the flowers are so pretty. Perhaps we can increase your physic garden too? Comfrey, and the plants that like rich soil. Angelica? That would sell well if we candied it in honey. We can use the knowledge you've given me."
Anxiety flashed in Deborah's eyes.
Anne laughed. "I mean the plant lore. I've already talked to the potter in the village. I want him to make me little bottles with stoppers. And little pots. We can make face washes and creams for the ladies of the court here, such as I made for the queen, and sell them." Briefly she paused, thinking of Elizabeth Wydeville, the queen of England. Her enemy. A flicker of compassion touched her. It would not be easy being queen in England now. Anne shrugged, moving on with an effort, smiling brightly. "Beauty will come from beauty, you'll see."
Deborah nodded as she finished smoothing the coverlet on the bed. Anne made the most unlikely farmer. She'd bought her farmstead last spring, after some months of haggling. The River Zwijn formed one of its boundaries, but the farm buildings and the home orchard had been shamefully neglected. Anne saw the value of the access to Brugge that the river would give her and had walked every chain of the land, carefully noting the deep soil, the dense woods -- good foraging for pigs in autumn -- and the south-facing meadows. The previous owner, a wealthy peasant, had bought individual strips of this good land long ago from his own impoverished lord and combined them into substantial fields -- a forward-thinking departure from usual practice. But age and sickness meant the old man had lost interest and the farm slid into neglect and debt, both of which his son had inherited with the land when his father died. Yet Anne had seen that cows did well on these meadows and where cows were happy, wealth came from the earth. But Deborah knew none of this would have been enough for her foster daughter if the place had not been beautiful also.
"Well, it is a good plan if you can bring Meinheer Landers to accept it on behalf of his mother. Now, there is another matter of which we should speak -- "
A loud crash came from below, followed by a woman screaming, then the terrified howl of a child.
Anne ran from the room and down the wooden stairs to the kitchen, where she found her son hiding among the skirts of the cook, Lisotte. He was sobbing but unharmed. It was another matter for the stranger lying on the flagged floor, blood a veil for his face.
"He came through the door so quickly, with a sword, and there was the boy . . ." The cook was wavering on her feet from shock. "And I had this, so . . ."
Lisotte saw the moment again, all too vividly. She'd been using the long poker to stoke the fire under the three-legged pot when the stranger entered from the dark with a drawn sword. Her first thought had been to protect the child. The result lay before them.
Edward ran to Anne. She scooped him up and he hid his face in her neck. She felt his heart pound in the fragile chest though he'd stopped crying. "There now, my darling. I have you, I have you." She kissed her son and held him tight, wrapping his small body in her arms and using her own body to shield him from the sight of the man on the floor.
"Now, Edward, you must go with Deborah. I need to speak to Lisotte. Sit, Lisotte. Come, here on the settle."
Edward patted Anne's face, concerned. "You all right? You frightened?" Anne's heart lurched with love. He was terrified of the man and what had happened, but he was more worried for her. Please, never let him lose that kindness. Let him grow to be a kind man. It was a silent, passionate prayer as Anne carried the boy to her foster mother.
"Take him. And find Leif Molnar. Quickly!"
"I am here, lady." Three strides from the open door and the Dane was kneeling beside the intruder. The man's sword lay where it had fallen. Leif Molnar removed it and glanced toward Deborah. "Take the child, woman. Go!" Deborah did not think to contradict him. Scooping the boy up, she hurried away.
Leif looked at Anne. "Lady, this man cannot die before we know more."
Lisotte gave a horrified sigh and slumped off the settle in a faint. Anne caught her before her head hit the flags. She nodded at Leif. "Do it. I agree." There could be no pity in these war-plagued times.
Outside the kitchen door, a butt collected water from the red-tiled roof. Leif removed the plank cover quickly, smashed the first thin ice of autumn, and filled a leather bucket. He was back beside the unconscious man in a moment and threw the freezing water full into his face and open mouth. The effect was instant and violent. The intruder vomited red water and jerked on the floor like a fish in a boat.
Anne turned away, close to retching herself, but when she looked back the stranger's eyes were open, though he was groaning.
"Who are you? What do you want?" Leif spoke quietly, but he'd hauled the man to a sitting position, his knife against the stranger's Adam's apple.
The man swallowed and coughed, straining away from the blade as he tried to speak. "I come from the king for Lady Anne de Bohun. Urgent. No time. Must speak, must . . ." His eyelids flickered and his eyes rolled upward. Anne leapt to her feet, pulling Leif's knife away from the man's throat. There was only one king in Anne's life.
"Sweet Christ, he's a messenger! Ah God, no, he must not die. Leif, more water. Quickly!" As the Dane ran to the door, Anne knelt beside the man. He was a soldier; she could see ringmail beneath his surcoat. Unwittingly, Lisotte had struck at the only place a woman could have damaged him: his unprotected face and head. Light from the fire showed an open gaping crescent above the man's right temple; through the blood, it was possible to see the broken white bone of his skull.
Anne searched the man's body, looking for a written message. There was nothing. The realization was a bitter one: this man carried information for her, certainly, but it was in his head. The head that Lisotte had broken like a nutshell.
"Oh, please wake. Do not die. Tell me what he said to you. Tell me, tell me . . ."
She rocked the man's big body as she knelt beside him, as if he'd been her own child, and pressed one corner of her apron hard against his wound to stop the blood. Light from the fire touched the edge of a small medal on a chain around his throat. A crucifix?
"Thor's hammer, lady."
Anne looked up. "Thor? Who is Thor?"
"One of the old gods. My people worship him still, though the church thinks otherwise." For a moment Leif grinned, though it was a mere flash of white teeth and did not reach his eyes. "This man is Thor's servant."
Surprise replaced fear. To worship other gods than the Christian one, to be a pagan in these times, was not only remarkable, it was very dangerous. Anne and Deborah lived with that knowledge each waking day of their lives.
"But he is English. He's wearing York colors." The seaman shrugged as he inspected the filthy tunic, murrey-red quartered with blue. "Lady, it is the truth. English or not, this man belongs to Thor. He would not wear the hammer, otherwise."
Anne looked more closely at the medal. It was crudely made, but yes, it was a hammer, not a cross, though the shapes, quickly seen, were similar. The fire sparked and belched smoke; she coughed and turned her head away. And, in that moment, something glittered beneath Leif's half-opened shirt.
"You have this sign as well?"
Leif smiled at her amazement. "It was how I was raised. I am his servant also."
The man in Anne's arms stirred and spoke, though his eyes were closed. It was as if a corpse had spoken. "As are we all his servants when war comes. But, lady, you must help the king."
"How? How can I help the king?" Anne pleaded. "What does he want from me?"
"Truth, from those who deal in lies."
One breath more and the man was still.
"No! No, come back to me. What do you mean? Come back!"
Leif bent and lifted the messenger out of Anne's arms. Big as the soldier was, Leif looked like a man carrying his sleeping son.
"No use, lady. He spoke from the fields of death. Now he has gone farther and we cannot call him back."
Anne clasped her hands together to stop them shaking. "How can I answer this riddle?"
Leif turned back to her, the soldier in his arms. She could not see his face because he was silhouetted in the open doorway.
"We all seek truth, lady. I will help you find it." Then he was gone.
Anne's knees shook when she tried to stand. What now? What should she do?
And how could she help the king of England?
Copyright ©2005 by Millennium Picture Pty Limited and Posie Graeme-Evans
Meet the Author
Posie Graeme-Evans is the internationally bestselling author of five novels, including The Island House and The Dressmaker. She has worked in Australian film and television for the last thirty years as a director, commissioning executive and creator/producer of hundreds of hours of drama and children’s series, including the worldwide smash hit McLeod’s Daughters and Daytime Emmy nominated Hi-5. She lives in Tasmania with her husband and creative partner, Andrew Blaxland. Visit her website at PosieGraemeEvans.com.
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