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Revamping the Fence

I haven’t touched this blog in ages! Part of the problem is ‘writing about writing’ isn’t quite as rich a vein as I’d hoped. It is for others, but my ‘self-indulgent claptrap’ needs a deeper quarry to mine.

In the last few months, there’s been a lot of interesting discussions on Facebook that I might have contributed more to, but my thoughts quite often run to several paragraphs and that isn’t (always) ideal for a Facebook conversation. Here might be a better place for that. I’m still going to be talking about my writing, when something strikes me as worth talking about, but it’ll be far broader than that. My thoughts on life, responses to interesting articles and blog posts, views I can’t always express succinctly in other forums.

But, first, to catch up on that writing thing.

Last year, I published Haine & the Hunter, which readers tell me is quite good. Next month, it’s going to have its first book club airing and I’m quite excited about that! I shall be reporting back and hopefully the post will be filled with sunshine, not tears.

Thomas & Maud has had a title change and is still being finished. My difficulty there has been getting over a particularly tricky obstacle towards the end. I have now found a way and the last five chapters are being worked on (almost) as we speak. The new title is And All to No Purpose. I shall continue to report on progress both here and on my history blog A Nevill Feast, which has also been a little quiet lately.

Bridges, the next book in the series that began with Dissolution is well into the prepublication phase. It’ll need several more read-throughs for proofing and making sure I have things right and the cover artist and I are working on the cover. So that’ll be happening some time soon.

But the most exciting news… I’ve been contracted by History Press to write The Nevills of Middleham, due for publication in October 2016. There’s a lot of research still to be done, but the first few chapters are down. It is quite a challenge, but that’s what life is supposed to be full of! I’m enjoying every minute of it so far.

You can find my books through Lulu (for print copies) here: KL Clark’s Books & Publications. And, for ebooks, through Amazon: KL Clark’s Author Page. I can also be found on Goodreads and Facebook and Twitter.

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Two of my all time favourite tv shows were made in New Zealand. It’s not that we get a lot of Kiwi television in Australia, but what we do get to see shines. There’s something fresh about it, and the stories they tell are unashamedly Kiwi stories.

Outrageous Fortune (2005-2011)  introduced me to the work of Rachel Lang from South Pacific Pictures. Despite its last few disappointing episodes, this is a brilliantly conceived show with strong storylines and a great ensemble cast. The language is raw (which I quite like) and there’s nothing sanitised about the characters. I first started watching it in season 2, went back and caught up with season 1, expecting to find the acting a little flatter while the actors were settling into their roles, but it’s one of those shows where the entire cast hit the ground running. The energy, the believability and the complexity of a decidedly off the wall family was there from the start. One of the things I most love about it is that three minutes before any given episode ends, there’s no way to intelligently guess bow  it’s going to end. Internal logic (apart from, as I said, the last few eps) is maintained throughout. Characters change and grow (or don’t) in response to their lives and each other.

Another Lang show (that she co-produced with James Griffin) is even better. The Almighty Johnsons is a comedy-drama with a strong underpinning of fantasy. Norse gods in New Zealand. How could you beat that? Again with strong writing and a strong cast (including appearances by several members of the Outrageous Fortune cast), it’s a show that keeps the audience guessing. It has an organic feel, with some storylines fizzling out (and taking characters with them), and others adapted (some a little more adroitly than others) as the story moves along. I watched season 1 on tv, was too impatient to wait for season 2, so watched all 13 episodes online in three mammoth sessions and am now waiting, as eagerly as anyone, for season 3.

So, strong cast, good scripts, high production values… But lots of tv shows have all that. These two are something else again and it took me some time to work it out. I thought about some of the world’s more popular shows that have left me underwhelmed. Stuff like House and the Law & Order franchise. They also have strong casts, good scripts and high production values. I know I should like them, but I don’t. Or not very much. That was when the answer came: neither Outrageous Fortune nor The Almighty Johnsons could be said to be written to any kind of formula. (And some shows that do, I quite enjoy. Boston Legal comes to mind here.) In the two Kiwi shows, there’s nothing that even remotely resembles a formula. Episodes end abruptly, problems aren’t resolved in the last act, the sick don’t miraculously recover (well, ok, once) and the guilty don’t get their comeuppance. (Considering Outrageous Fortune is populated entirely by the guilty, this is a good thing.) Characters do things that the viewer thinks (at the time) they understand. A slippery Norse goddess, villain at the start, who might just be on the side of the heroes’ by season two, clocks one of the gods (initially their bitter enemies) across the head with a branch of a tree (an important tree, The Important Tree) and we think “Oh, she’s wicked! Just when we thought we could trust her!” and her reason, given two lines later, isn’t at all what we expect. There’s an iconic use of the flashback – we see the story from one character’s pov, then in delightfully surprising flashbacks, from another’s. Red herrings are strewn about the place and what we think we know isn’t always right. The ‘guess how this episode ends’ game is even more engaging with The Almighty Johnsons.

The other great thing about both shows (about New Zealand in general) is the high profile of Maori characters and actors. The love of Axl Johnson’s life, Gaia, is played by the beautiful and talented Keisha Castle-Hughes, who turns out to be a goddess of some sort, but is she a member of the Norse or Maori pantheon? That question sets up a wonderful friendship/rivalry between Axl and his Maori counterpart. Kirk Torrance gets a gig in both shows, much to the delight of those members of the viewing public who appreciate a gorgeous man.

Lang has worked on other tv shows in New Zealand, not all of which have made it across the Tasman. If you can catch any of them, particularly Outrageous Fortune and particularly, particularly The Almighty Johnsons, do yourself a favour, shelve all plans for the day and just watch!

Formula Drivel?

Ross Kitson, over at Skulldust Circle, linked to this post on face book: Fantasy by Numbers. I was intrigued and thought I’d run my first fantasy novel through the process.

Seems that David Eddings believes there are ten essential ingredients to a fantasy novel. Some of them are not unique to fantasy, of course, but it doesn’t seem to be a ‘choose any two’ kind of situation. I think I might have maybe six of them in Dissolution, but let’s just see, shall we?

1. A Theological Arena

Hmmm. Not sure about this at all. There are no discernible religious hierarchies in my book and my main characters are pretty godless.     0/10

2. A Quest

Ok, does this mean goals that various characters want to achieve? Like Tamsin’s recovery of her grandmother’s kingdom? And Finn’s goal of settling down in a nice little castle with the woman he loves? Is that a quest? Well, for either of them, there’s no great trek (a couple of bijou trekettes, perhaps), no gathering up of supplies and starting off at the beginning of the book and still trudging along at the end. So no, Dissolution doesn’t include a quest.     0/10

3. A Magic(k)al Element

Yes. My main characters have some kind of magick, even though they don’t inhabit a typical sword and sorcery universe. Their magicks are quite specific to them and they come with consequences, sometimes quite significant ones. No-one points a wand and speaks Fake Latin, there are no potions and no spells. But it’s magick nonetheless.     1/10

4. A Hero

I’m not sure Finn would agree with anyone calling him a ‘hero’. He much prefers the term ‘male protagonist’ or ‘hey, you in the corner, ready for another drink?’. But, dammit!, he’s a hero whether he likes it or not. so…     2/10

5. A Resident Wizard

No. So no.     2/10

6. A Heroine

That’d be Tamsin. And she has no problems with the word.     3/10

7. A Villain

Well, there is one, hidden away behind the villains-of-the-moment – Finn’s brother Rain and the oh so duskily sexy dangerous Tully. But if you scratch the surface, he has motivations that don’t entirely fit the category of ‘evil’. (In fact, the word ‘evil’ appears only once, and the man who says it is corrected. “She’s not evil,” Tamsin says. “Just bad.”) Oh, and maybe there’s another hidden even deeper that I’m not planning to out until the second book. But I’ll have to take a hit for this one, I think.     4/10

8. A Group of Companions

Tamsin has her posse and Finn has his, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what’s meant here.     4/10

9. A Group of Ladies Attached to the Companions

When exactly was this list compiled?     4/10

10. Kings, Queens and Emperors  to Rule

They’re all bloody princes and princesses, aren’t they? Tamsin’s Queen of This who marries the jaw droppingly gorgeous winged Prince of That; Kyren and Rain are King of The Other; Lily’s Regent for a while; Tash has a mini-queendom of her own where she can go and smell the roses and sleep with fishermen. Ok, one fisherman. And Finn gets to be a happy-go-lucky youngest son Princeling, until fate sets him on the road to Aurora. Ok, his father sets him on the road to Aurora, but that’s where he meets his fate.     5/10

Less than I predicted at the start! So Dissolution might not be forumala drivel* after all!

*Disclaimer: Books that meet 6 or more of the criteria are not necessarily drivel at all. I used the term for its comic effect.

4.  Pretending Him to Bee Erl of Northombrelond

August 1453

 

It wasn’t much use telling Maud to wait with Mother if Mother didn’t wait where she was supposed to. She was coming towards them, Scrope clearing the way for her, men and beasts moving aside to let their Lady pass. Papa watched her progress, his expression unreadable.

Beside Thomas, John shifted on his feet. Behind him, Fitzhugh yawned. Thomas looked over to the cluster of litters. Maud he couldn’t see, but there was Ailie, stretching her cramped legs, turning her face towards the sun. His belly rumbled. Breakfast was long behind him, dinner still far away and there’d be no stopping in Thirsk.

“Salisbury!”

The knights of the household stepped back to let Mother through. Papa moved forward, a hand on her shoulder, drawing her closer.

“There’ll be no trouble, lass,” he said. “He’ll not risk grieving Eleanor with her brother’s death so close to her door. We have promise of safe conduct. He is at pains to keep the peace.”

She looked unconvinced. “Why have we stopped?”

“I want no mistakes. Nothing that might cause offence or affront. We ride in good order.” He smiled. “We’ll show them what a well disciplined army looks like.”

“An army, Salisbury? Is that what we are? Are we at war?”

John made a sound halfway between a snort and a laugh. Papa glared at him.

“I’m doing all I can to avoid that,” he said. “And so, I believe, is Northumberland. Get back to your litter, Alice. Look after the girls.”

Mother looked at her sons, briefly at Thomas, longer and harder at John. “I’ll go in your company.”

She turned her face up to Papa’s to be kissed.  Thomas motioned to Stephen.. The lad gathered the reins of his horse and his master’s, waiting to follow at a respectful distance.

“I’m not sure my heart can take another day like yesterday,” Mother said as they walked. “I’m surprised your bride didn’t turn tail and run, Tom.”

“We didn’t begin this,” John said.

“No, but you do nothing to bring it to an end.”

“Our business!”

Mother took hold of John’s arms and stopped, bringing him to an abrupt halt. “Do you think the men who galloped our way were come to pay their respects? I have never feared for my life before. Your father tells me we were in no danger, and I bless him for that. But the truth is, if those men hadn’t been spotted…”

“They were, Mother,” John said. “They were seen and they were dealt with.”

Thomas laid a hand on her shoulder and gently led her forward. “We have our uncle’s promise. You have Papa’s and now you have mine.”

“Aye,” John said. “But can we trust the word of a Percy?”

Northumberland’s response came just as they left Sheriff Hutton. It didn’t hold all that Papa had hoped for, just a blunt statement that his sons were not at Topcliffe and that if Salisbury could keep his men in check, their passage through Thirsk would be unimpeded. It humiliated John and he’d not hesitated to share the feeling, every mile of the way, every hour of the morning. The first jeer, the first taunt, the first hiss from a villager would test his self control.

Still waiting for an apology, Papa said, folding the letter and tucking it into his doublet. I might have to write in stronger terms.

All I’m waiting for, John said, is to get my hands about their throats!

He should take a lesson from his father. The long running quarrel between Papa and Northumberland had begun with letters, and so it continued. We have to work together in council, Papa said. The King has neither wish nor need for private quarrels to be brought into his presence.

The Percies were still recovering from the disastrous actions of the current Earl’s father. Hotspur had led an army against his King and lost his life and his son’s inheritance for it. Instead of accepting the restoration of his title and estates with quiet gratitude, Northumberland had arched his back and let fly the first arrows, calling into question not only Papa’s right to the Salisbury title, but Mother’s. If not for John and Egremont, a paper quarrel it would have remained.

The letter to Northumberland wasn’t the only one penned in the night. He’s written to Richard, John said, hunched over his breakfast, nodding to where Papa sat. Sent the messenger out while we were talking. Mother’s all aquiver at the thought of seeing her favourite son. We’ll see some action now. Richard will allow no insult to pass him by. Thomas wasn’t sure how he felt about this and suspected that their older brother was more likely to take Papa’s side than John’s.

“It’s one thing to question Northumberland’s word from behind the walls of Middleham,” Mother said. “I’d rather not do so this side of Thirsk.”

“And we’ll still be here at nightfall if you don’t do as your husband told you,” John said.

“Oh, I obey your father in all things.” Her words were soft but there was a momentary flash of anger in her eyes. “It’s a pity you can’t follow my good example.”

Thomas’s men were waiting. He bent down to kiss Mother and turned to where Stephen stood with the horses. He took the reins from the boy’s  hands and mounted. Minutes was all it took to set them in good order. Thomas took his place at the head of his men, John not far behind. Four abreast, Papa and his knights in the lead, they moved towards the village.

The first thing that hit Thomas was the smell of roasting meat. It seemed to come from every doorway, wafted straight towards him on the wind. His mouth watered and again his belly voiced its protest.

Thirsk was a busy place, five hundred men in Nevill livery on their doorstep intimidating the inhabitants not at all. They encountered no smiles, no cheers, just blank faces and a deep hostile silence. These were Northumberland’s people. They worked for him, spent their lives in his sphere of influence, depended on him. If called to, they’d reach for what weapon they could to defend their homes and their lord’s land.

They crowded the doorways, mothers holding children by the arm, fathers standing with shoulders set, lips tightly pressed. They watched the Nevills ride through their town, only their eyes moving, taking in the banners, the red livery and the blue, the richly decorated litters, the Nevill wealth and power on display for all who doubted to see.

Safe conduct they’d been promised, but Thomas knew that Northumberland’s men were close, somewhere between Thirsk and Topcliffe, just twelve miles away. He saw no-one in Percy colours, but the lad leaning against the wall of a tavern, his horse within easy reach, the man they passed on the edge of town, the two in the blacksmith’s yard… any or all of them ready to ride to fetch their lord and master, with all the hounds of hell at their heels.

Papa’s main concern, the one John didn’t understand, was getting the women to Middleham in peace and safety. They couldn’t be abandoned, nor again left to be sitting targets. It wasn’t Papa’s own life he cared about, nor his men’s, or even his sons’. Mother, Ailie, Katheryn, Margaret and Maud… all defenceless and likely to suffer worse than death if they fell into Percy hands. Not that the danger was great here, not with the Earl so close. But out there, beyond the villages, out of sight of castle and church… Egremont’s men would follow his commands so long as it suited them, and even he would hesitate to harm his aunt and cousins, but a mob is a mob. Egremont drew the worst of men to him, freemen of York some of them, grown bitter by poverty, ready to blame the nearest scapegoat, ready to deal out punishment to any who were weaker than them. He’d not control them long if things turned bad.

Thomas turned in his saddle, hoping to catch sight of John, to gauge from his expression how he felt and what he might likely do. He was too far back, his face a blur to Thomas’s straining eyes. His head moved neither left nor right, his face, Thomas imagined, a mask of stone.

He turned back, glancing sideways at Stephen. The lad sat proudly in his saddle, pleased to have been given the great honour of riding beside his master. He’d not spoken to him yet about John’s request and wasn’t sure if he would. Thirteen was young yet for a boy to be sent out on his own.

“Is there to be another fight?” Stephen said, his eyes gleaming a little too brightly.

“Pray to God there won’t be,” Thomas said. “Certainly not here.”

He frowned to see the disappointment on Stephens’ eyes. He’d not been quick enough to stop the boy from snatching up a weapon and following him into the roil at Heworth. He should have made sure he stayed with the women; the boy’s life was more important than his dignity.

“You’ve plenty of years ahead of you for war,” he said. “And there are some things to be said for peace.”

From the look on Stephen’s face he doubted this very much.

“Next time my father sends me to the marches,” Thomas said, “you can come with me. Get yourself a taste of strife. See if that doesn’t cure you.”

Stephen grinned. “I’ll kill my fair share of Scots, Sir Thomas. Smash their savage heads in, rip their guts out!”

Thomas grunted and looked away, wishing the conversation closed.

They were close to the end of the village now, Papa already beyond it. Once Thomas was clear, it would be some time before the last of them was through. Looking over his shoulder, he saw that the litters were well guarded, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was about to abandon his wife. Breaking ranks, motioning to Stephen to carry on, he waited for his men and John’s to pass and the litters to catch him.

Silent villagers drew back, as if he were a plague carrier. A little girl peeped out from behind her mother’s skirts. Thomas smiled at her and she smiled back, waving her stubby baby fingers. Brought out of doors to see the Nevill demons pass, stern warnings in her ear to keep clear of such men as these. He had a wife who might even now be carrying his child, so diligent had they been. Perhaps a little girl, like this one, wide eyes staring at the world, secure in the protection of her mother’s arms. She’d look like Maud, black hair, black eyes, lips like roses. Such a prize she’d be! The pride of her father’s heart.

The ranks of men plodded past, their horses kicking up a cloud of dust knee-deep. When John came, he raised a questioning eyebrow. Thomas waved him on.

“Keep moving!” he said. “It’s clear ahead.”

The men were closer to their wives and sweethearts with every step. Closer to home and hearth. Thomas himself felt the pull. For all that he’d looked over Tattershall with the eye of its future owner, there was nowhere quite like Middleham. He was looking forward to showing it to Maud. He’d have a hot bath when he got home, wash away the dust and mud. Maybe she’d kneel down beside the tub, a soapy cloth in her hand. He’d lean his head back, her hands on his wet skin, bare arms plunging into the steaming water. He closed his eyes and swallowed, picturing Papa’s stern face. There are other things to think about, son.

The first of the litters drew level. Mother and Ailie were hidden behind drawn curtains, neither wishing to be an object of curiosity. Ailie would be grumbling at her sisters, Mother sighing with impatience. They were and always had been the most important women in his life. Mother, so small in stature she could almost walk beneath his outstretched arm, fiercer than a tigress when provoked, gentle as a lamb… He grinned. Perhaps when they were small there might have been some motherly tenderness but Thomas hadn’t experienced it for years. And Ailie grew more like her every day.

He remembered the little girl who toddled after her brothers, eager to be part of their games. He remembered the gentleness of Fitzhugh, who was the one who picked her up when she fell and dusted her down; set her on her feet and dried her tears. That was something they should have kept an eye on, but when she was five and he was nine it mattered little. And now even Papa had to concede that he’d have struggled to find a more suitable husband for her. It was as good a match as any he could have hoped to arrange. Better in fact, for it bound Fitzhugh to the Nevills like nothing else could.

The man who rode beside Maud’s litter, seeing Thomas and guessing his intent, pulled his horse up. Thomas took his place. The face of a woman peeped out through a gap in the dusty fabric. She looked up at Thomas with eyes wide with fear.

“Is your mistress about?” he said.

The woman stared at him in incomprehension.

“Lady Willoughby,” he said. “I’d speak with her if I could.”

The face disappeared, replaced moments later by Maud’s. She looked up at him, blinking. The woman, he realised with a start, who must now come first in his esteem and affection. Tied together for life. They hardly knew each other.

“Is anything wrong?” she said.

“Nothing that I can see,” he said. “Are you comfortable?”

“As comfortable as one can be. It’s so hot in here I can barely breathe!”

“We’ll be through the village soon. When we stop for dinner, you can ride with me again if you like.”

She scowled, as if the idea was the worst one he could have come up with. “If there’s no danger, why are we cooped up?”

“The Earl of Salisbury’s orders, I’m afraid.”

“Well, it’s taking an age! My legs are stiff and cramped.”

He tried smiling, but that did nothing to smooth away her frown. Tired, he thought. Cooped up, as she said, in a stuffy litter. Still, she could temper her words and greet him with more grace.

“I thought to ride beside you for a time,” he said. “But if you find my presence an irritant…”

She shook her head, knocking her hat askew on the roof of the litter, laughing self-consciously as she straightened it.

“Not an irritant at all,” she said. “I should be glad of the company.”

“Papa will notice me gone from my place before much longer. He’ll want to count his sons and his daughters.” His smile returned, and this time she smiled back. “You’d think we were children still.”

“Margaret is. And Katheryn.”

“Neither easily torn from Mother’s grip.”

“There doesn’t look to be a soul in this village who could stand up to her.”

“Oh, there probably good enough souls. They can’t help who their lord is.”

They were coming to the last cluster of buildings. A portly man stood in the doorway of a tavern, watching the train passing by. He looked so woebegone at the sight of so much custom eluding him that Thomas had to laugh.

“I could do with a mug of beer,” Maud said. “A shame we can’t stop.”

Such a small thing it would be to toss the taverner a coin. Yesterday, he’d rescued her from a band of armed men, today he could rescue her from thirst. A leather purse hung from his waist and from this he took a coin, holding it up as he drew level with the taverner and spinning it into the air. The man caught it in one hand and called out over his shoulder.

They moved on.

“I shall be glad when we get to Middleham!” Maud said. “I’ve not travelled so far since the last time I went to London.”

“And now you’ve come as far again.”

“I shan’t move again for a year, I swear I shan’t!”

Something tugged at Thomas’s leg. He looked down into the grubby face of a small boy. He had in his hand a mug, which he held up, trying hard not to spill it. Thomas reached down and took it from him, smiling his thanks. He passed the mug to Maud.

“Ale, I’m afraid,” he said. “And I can’t vouch for its quality.”

She drank its contents in two long drafts and gave him back the empty mug. He took another coin from his pocket, gave this and the mug to the waiting boy and turned back to his wife. He blew her a kiss, which she returned, and urged his horse forward, back to his place in the line, just as the litter passed the last house in Thirsk.

3.  Hir Most Comford Suerte and Worship

August 1453

Sometimes it felt more rescue than marriage, though Maud did her best to pretend otherwise. Her husband was gracious enough not to correct her, treating her like a bride not the supplicant she was. When Willoughby died, there should have been time to mourn, to collect herself together and give thought to the future. When Willougbhy died, she found herself besieged, writing anxious letters to her uncle, begging him to give her sanctuary.

She’d never got along with her late husband’s daughter, though she’d tried for almost the entire first hour after they met. The Bitch Joan, she called her privately. Papa’s little princess! Maud had no son to protect her, no baby boy to displace the bitch and keep her firmly anchored in the Willoughby lands. Servants, tenants, even neighbours she’d thought of as friends – none of them lifted a finger nor raised a word of protest against the actions of Joan and her husband. For Maud there was no option but flight.

Overnight, she became irrelevant, an embarrassment, the wealth and independence promised her in widowhood vanishing like smoke in the wind. She grasped the lifeline thrown her with both hands. Anything was better than poverty, anything better than living like a ghost at Tattershall, dependent on the charity of Uncle Ralph.

He it was who brought the marriage about, the negotiations begun almost as soon as she was safe behind the red walls of Tattershall. The Earl of Salisbury’s son would take her, in her current necessity and the promise of future wealth.

A Nevill? she said when he first broached the subject. The few times they’d come to Tattershall, tall, good looking, cultured, accomplished – but  wild – she  hadn’t been favourably impressed. You need a husband, my dear, he said. You can’t wither away here for the rest of your life.

Thomas was younger than her by some five years and more than tolerably good looking.  The second son of the Earl of Salisbury, younger brother to the Earl of Warwick, there were women, Uncle Ralph told her, who’d consider him quite a catch. It wouldn’t have much mattered if he was old and fat and ugly. Her uncle was right. Maud had no choice.

The Nevills were close to the King, rewarded handsomely for their services.  But there were stories of feuds and lawlessness, refusals to appear before the King’s Council in London, crimes against property, disruptions of order. Yesterday, she came face to face with it all. Yesterday, she feared for her life and his.

Her family, the Stanhopes, were quiet and well behaved Nottinghamshire gentry. She, her brother and sister grew up between their late father’s house in Rampton and their uncle’s castle in Lincolnshire. It was there that she married her first husband, Robert Lord Willoughby. And it was there that she married her second.

Uncle Ralph would hear no ill of the Nevills, explaining away even the worst of their behaviour.  Self defence, he said.  Defence of the property and lives of others.

The King wrote them letters summoning them to London, which they ignored. He wrote more letters, threatening them with forfeiture should they not cease their stirrings and riotous gatherings. These, too, were ignored.

Their grandmother was a princess. Your children will have royal blood. Maud brushed this aside. Her own people had once been farmers in Durham. Ancestry counted for little, wealth and status were all that mattered, and wealth and status she meant to have. An illegitimate princess, she said. And royal blood’s not always a blessing.

Uncle Ralph was thinking of her and her future. He was also thinking of himself. A man of dignity, pugnacious and unafraid to wage a battle of wits against any foe, he feared sometimes for his own safety. He was not a man of war. A connection with the Nevills is worth cultivating, he said.  And this marriage is my only means of achieving that. I have few powerful allies and you have property to recover. There aren’t many I’d trust with that task. Look at the energy young Warwick spends ensuring his wife gets all she’s entitled to.

Her argument was hardly strenuous, her objections more a matter of form than anything else. If Thomas was half the man his brother was, her rights would be assured within a year. Warwick was a man to be admired in many ways. Four years ago, he was a knight and nothing more. The whiff of a title, the glitter of the Beauchamp wealth, spurred his energies. He doesn’t do it for her but for himself, she said. Her uncle shrugged. So long as it carries her along, she’s content.

Her mother sent her brother a letter telling him in no uncertain terms that this wasn’t a marriage she could countenance. Maud replied to it herself, setting out with as much daughterly respect as she could muster that the decision was hers alone to make. This prompted Lady Stanhope to send her daughter word that she was a silly girl who had no business making any decisions at all, let alone one as far reaching as who she should marry. Look at the mess you got into last time, she wrote. Not even your dower lands left in your control. It might be thought that it was her mother’s interference that made up Maud’s mind – their relationship had never been what might be called easy.

Then they descended on Tattershall, the whole impressive Nevill party, bringing an energy to the castle that blew away the cobwebs and the dust. Maud dressed in her best gown, brushed her hair until it shone, and greeted them graciously, her gaze flicking to Thomas’s face, her eyes sweeping over his more than impressive frame. Dry mouthed and utterly self-conscious, she’d accepted his friendly kiss, momentarily dazzled by his smile.

Willoughby was sixty when they married, and an old sixty at that. Years of war in France had wearied him. He was bedevilled by debt and aching bones. Sometimes he looked at Maud as if he couldn’t quite remember why she was there. Kind enough and gentle, if perfunctory, in the bedchamber, he did little to stir her blood. Thomas did, just by standing there, just by smiling.

She was a woman of passion. Her flesh was weak and always had been. Years ago, almost despairing of a husband, she’d come close to giving herself to the man she was sure she loved. Maybe if she had, he wouldn’t have broken her heart. She could smile about it now, had danced with him at her wedding, but in those last dark days in Greenwich, the sound of the German woman’s laughter in her ears, the poet turning her pain into music, hearing his name had been too much to bear.

There was a feast that night, the Earl of Salisbury seated in the place of honour, the intricate dance of stewards and sewers centred around him. Maud sat by Thomas, aware of him even when her face was turned away. When the tables were pushed back against the walls and the music of the dance began, she took his offered hand, acknowledging his courtly bow. Maud danced well and was pleased to see he did the same. When his fingers brushed against her breast entirely, she was sure, by accident, she drew in a sharp breath. He was a man who knew his power. He’d find out soon enough that she was a woman who knew hers. That night, she let the memory of that moment guide her hand beneath the covers.

All you’ll have is your beauty and your wit, Papa used to say to his girls. Maud’s looks had been given to her by God. Her wit was hers alone. She let him see it the next day as they walked together in the garden. Just enough to let him know she was no fluff headed girl. Not enough to make him think her learned.

Maud was level headed, practical. She looked at things through the eyes of a woman growing in wisdom. But when Thomas smiled his eyes lit up and the world around him glowed. Lust, want and need threatened to overwhelm her. She’d let him have her now, if he wanted. Down in the meadow, burrowing into the straw in a nearby barn, up against a wall like… like the sort of woman who let a man take her up against a wall the first time they were alone. It was difficult to breathe.

He caught her hand and lifted it to his mouth, his breath warm, the nearness of him making her head spin. She laughed to cover her confusion. You have been coached well, Sir Thomas. I doubt there’s a woman alive who can resist you.

When they reached the quiet corner she’d gently led him to, shaded by trees, the May air full of the scent of blossoms, she let him kiss her. Tonight, she said. If the contract is signed. Come to my rooms. I’ll send my women away. Another kiss, his hand on her waist. I shall be there, he said. Her knees almost gave way. She let him hold her up.

Uncle Ralph and the Earl of Salisbury remained shut away for much of the day, hammering out the details of the contract. The Countess and Aunt Margaret stayed in the solar, addressing more immediate and practical matters, summoning her to join them when her walk with Thomas was done. She shall come north to Middleham, the Countess said. There’s plenty of room and Salisbury isn’t quite ready to let Thomas go. There is business to attend to that requires him to be in Yorkshire for a time yet.

We shall offer as much assistance as we can, Aunt Margaret said. Poor child has had to leave so much stuff behind!

And so lists were drawn up, over which Maud wasn’t consulted. She sat by the window and watched Thomas ride out through the gate, a small escort behind him, her uncle’s forester beside him. Tattershall might be his one day. This gave her some pride. Such a gift Uncle Ralph would give her. Such a gift she would give her husband.

What? All her clothes?

As good as.

Maud turned her head to find the Countess staring at her aunt.

I had little time, my lady, she said. My late husband’s household gave me no help, preferring instead to ready themselves to welcome their new lord and lady. Such a greedy spiteful girl! The Countess turned her gaze towards Maud. No more a girl than you. She’d have had a time of it turning me out! Maud didn’t wonder at this. The Countess didn’t have the look of a woman who sat back and let things happen to her.  She had a time of it with me, too, my lady, Maud said. I didn’t go easily nor quietly. But in the end, for my own safety and comfort, I had no choice. My uncle and aunt have shown me nothing but kindness, and I never needed it more than I did then. The Countess held her gaze for a moment then, with a grunt, turned her attention back to her business.

Maud’s business

That night, after the terms were agreed, after her consent was formally sought and formally given, after the documents were signed, after yet more feasting and dancing in their honour, when all was quiet and still, she sat on her bed, waiting for his knock on her door.

There was no shyness, false or otherwise. They stood before each other and spoke quiet words of troth. Maud was not so young and foolish to believe either of them did so because they had fallen in love in the days since they met. She was hungry for the touch of a man. She saw that hunger reflected in Thomas’s eyes. There might be a few sharp looks and pursed lips in the morning, should anyone come to know of what they did, but they were within their rights.

He touched the side of her face and drew it towards his. For a brief moment, she was fearful. What if this was a game? What if he had no intention of honouring the contract and his promises? What if… Then he kissed her and she didn’t care anymore.

Afterwards, lying beside her on her bed, he let out a long sigh of contentment. I could be marrying a maid, he said. An innocent, pure of heart and body. She’d tremble in my hands and beg me to be kind. Fear closed around her. Did he think her tarnished? Spoiled and used? And I am not, she said. He turned towards her. You are not. But you’re good for a man’s soul, Lady Willoughby… Maud. I’ve lain with a maiden only once. She was terrified and wept, though she tried to keep me from seeing. And when I was done, I felt sad and sick and shamed. There can be no shame with you.

He paid several more visits to Tattershall, sometimes with his father and once with his brother, John. Each time, Maud found a way for them to be alone. Each time he swept her away. He called her beautiful, and stroked her hair. He watched her undress, his gaze lingering on the breasts she’d always thought too small.

The wedding itself was splendid.  Tattershall had never been so full of people and noise.  She and Thomas made their vows, and that was that.  She was his, no longer a widow, once again a wife. That night, there was no need for secrecy. They became liquid when they lay together, flowing into each other. His eyes, half closed, looked into hers…

Maud jerked her head up, blinking in the early morning sun. She was so close to Thomas that she could feel the heat from his body. In the months since they’d met, she’d learned more about him than just the pleasure his body gave hers. He laughed loudly at things no-one else found amusing. He sang heartily but not tunefully. His countenance turned from light to dark in an instant. He danced like he had clouds beneath his feet.  He lived his life as few others did. He felt things, made decisions and stood by them. If he had any regrets about marrying Maud, or balked at the work that must be done to secure her dower, he gave no sign. She was his wife, her troubles now his. But the Nevill self-assurance that bordered on pride, the northern wildness, wasn’t far below the surface. For all the promise, for all the respect and affection Thomas showed her, Maud feared he wasn’t going to be an easy husband. From what she’d seen, his father wasn’t.

She moved her hand, ever so little, until her fingers touched the base of his spine. Just shifting her grip, the better to keep balance on the uneven road. She could lean against him, close her eyes and drift back into sleep.

She was weary to the point of exhaustion – yawning through breakfast and yawning now. The journey was nearly done. Tonight they’d be at Middleham at last. Her new home. At least until her husband and his father helped her sort out the mess her widowhood, and the avarice of her stepdaughter, had created.

Already she missed the soft greenery of Lincolnshire. The countryside was beautiful here, but on a massive scale, overwhelming, almost forbidding. York had been less grand than she expected.  It was dingy, frayed around the edges and an undercurrent of discontent rumbled through the streets, barely contained.  As many people spat as hailed her new family when they passed.

The Nevill retinue was impressive.  A little over five hundred men rode with them.  Apart from the Countess of Salisbury and her husband, the family was well represented.  John of course, the next brother down, keeping a wary eye out for trouble. More trouble. Warwick hadn’t managed to tear himself away from his business in the south and his brothers mocked him, pretending he spoke to them, mimicking poorly southern ways of speaking. They were talking now, their voices growing softer, their words more urgent the closer they got to Thirsk. This was Percy country and they must ride through it to get home.

The brothers were a lot alike, both darkhaired, with grey eyes that looked out from faces tempered by sun and wind, their mouths as quick to sneer as to smile. John was as handsome as Thomas, taller and leaner. There’ll be some broken hearts in Middleham, Thomas said, when he marries. She wondered how many her husband left behind him.

Henry Fitzhugh stayed close by Salisbury’s side. Ailie, his wife, pregnant, crotchety and uncomfortable, rode with Katheryn, twelve years old and almost grown. Margaret, at eight the youngest Nevill of all, stayed close to the Countess’s litter, keeping up a constant stream of chatter which was, for the most part, ignored.  All three were astride and had been since York.  This had surprised Maud. At the wedding, the sisters were the picture of elegance, the younger girls attending to their mother, and Ailie to her husband, with uncomplaining grace. Scratch the surface and who knew what lay underneath.

This was who she was now. These were her people.

On the edge of Thirsk, they stopped, Thomas dismounted and helped her down.

“Go and wait with Mother,” he said. “We have a promise from my uncle of Northumberland that we might pass in safety. But I’d rather be ready, just in case his sons are about.”

He handed her to a waiting man-at-arms and turned away.

She wouldn’t have thought that anything could threaten such a host, had she not witnessed it herself.  Five hundred men, led by a man who’d fought in France and acquitted himself more than well. Everywhere, the Nevill saltire was on proud display, dotted with the blue and gold of Fitzhugh and the Scrope bend. There was a smell in the air, the smell of men and horses. The jangle of harness, the shouts of the captains as they sorted their men out followed Maud to where the litters stood, ever patient beasts standing quiet between the shafts.

The curtains of the Countess’s litter were open, the Countess being helped out, determined, it seemed to Maud, that this time there’d be no surprises.

Behind it was Maud’s litter. Hot and stuffy on such a warm day. Mary and Agnes moved aside to give her room.

“Is there to be more trouble, my lady?” Agnes said.

“I hope not. Salisbury is promised safe passage.”

Mary’s rosary was in her hands and she prayed, her lips moving soundlessly.

“We’ll be easy prey, if they think to attack us here.”

“They won’t. The ones who did are long gone. My husband told me. Fools and cowards, is what they are.”

She sounded more sure than she felt. Agnes eyed her doubtfully. Mary prayed faster and more fervently.

“We shouldn’t have come here,” Agnes whispered.

Maud caught the woman by the arm and shook her hard. “Never look back! Never wish something undone! We shall  be safe within the walls of Middleham tonight.” She smiled. “And if we’re not, you can berate me in Purgatory all you wish.”

She looked at both her women wish scorn and settled back among the cushions. She’d close her eyes and sleep, just to show them how little there was to fear. But her heart was beating fast and her mouth was dry. If she died now, she had a great weight of sin on her shoulders. The weakness of her flesh, her attachment to its pleasures – when they got to Middleham, she’d find the chapel, find the priest, and pray all night if she had to. When she thought of all that she and Thomas had done together… She expected a stab of shame, but all she felt was the warm glow of memory. All that she and Thomas had done, and all they were to do in the years that stretched between this moment and their eternal rest.

2.  Late Wyfe of Robert, Lorde of Willughby

AUGUST 1453

 

Thomas lay on his back, his hands behind his head and smiled into the dark. He liked being married. More than that, he liked being married to Maud. Her beauty, recalled wistfully by Uncle William, had not been overstated. Dark of hair and eyes, there was a depth to her he’d found in few women. And she melted when he touched her, which pleased him greatly. What pleased him more, was that he did the opposite when she touched him.

She’ll be a handful, Uncle William said, his eyes twinkling. She can split a man in two with her tongue.

Thomas watched them at the wedding, surprised at how quick he came to jealousy. But the two old friends danced without a hint of impropriety, Uncle William’s friendly kiss lingering not a moment longer than it should. Thomas claimed his bride soon after and bestowed on her such a kiss of his own as to rattle the very bricks of Tattershall.

It had all happened so fast.

I have a wife for you, his father said. Lord Cromwell’s widowed niece.

That caught Thomas’s attention. Marriage must come some day and, as a second son with no title to inherit and precious little property, it would be better if his bride brought him wealth. One day, a goodly share of the childless Cromwell’s property would come Lady Willoughby’s way, the way of the man she married. It might as well be Thomas Nevill.

It’s a good match, Mother said. And not just for the wealth it will bring you. She has as much wit as any woman I know. She’ll keep your house well and she’s young enough yet to give you children.

All that mattered, Thomas knew, but there was something else that spoke not just of financial and domestic comfort, but also the comfort of his heart and soul,

Will I like her? he said. That was important. Love wasn’t, not in marriage. It would be wonderful if it came, but friendship, mutual respect, a sense of a shared future: a marriage couldn’t survive without these. His parents had that, as well as a love that had grown over thirty years and more, a love few outsiders glimpsed. And Ailie and Fitzhugh… Well, love, or its precursor, had got them into trouble. That was a night – and the day that followed – that wouldn’t soon be erased from his memory. His sister’s washed out face, streaked with blood and tears. Fitzhugh standing up to first their father’s anger, then a beating at the hands of her brothers. Ailie, her arms wrapped around her belly, Mother’s pursed lips and stony face. I didn’t mean to. Ailie rocking, terrified that the final blow, the one that had slammed her hard against the wall, would end the illicit life she sheltered…

Maud sighed in her sleep, and Thomas shook his head to clear away the images. He moved a hand from behind his head and gently pulled away the blanket that covered her. He wanted to touch her, just a soft hand on her shoulder while she slept. Her skin was warm. Just like the first time he touched her.

They walked in the grounds of Tattershall while their elders haggled over the details of the contract. He held her hand and once they reached the quiet sheltered corner she led him to, he kissed her.

Tonight, she said. If all goes well and the deed is signed. I’ll send my women away.

He was spellbound.

A tapping on the door irritated him, mirroring as it did the memory of his own quiet tapping on the door of Maud’s chamber, deep in the night. He lay still, praying the intruder away, remembering.

She opened the door and held out her hand, dark hair spilling over her shoulders…

The tapping continued. Soft sounds followed, the rustle of blankets, the crack of a flint, bare feet on the floor. The door was opened. Someone spoke. Thomas knew the voice

With a sigh, he drew back the bed curtains and swung his feet onto the floor. Two shapes were caught in candlelight, vague and shadowy. They came towards the bed. Thomas stood up, drawing the curtains closed behind him.

“You’re awake,’ John said.

“Might have been busy.”

“We need to talk. Your wife can spare you for a moment or two.”

“My wife’s asleep,” Thomas said. “And if you wake her…”

“You’re the one making all the noise. I’ll be outside.”

“What does he want?” Thomas said when John was gone.

“I don’t know, sir.”

He was tempted to get back into bed, send the shivering boy to his. But John would only knock again, and louder.

“Find my clothes,” he said. “And keep quiet!”

Stephen helped him dress, asking no questions. He was a good lad, quiet and sober in his habits, eager to learn and quick. And quick he was now, though he could barely see what he was doing. It was a small skill, dressing a man in the dark, but one early morning, with clamour and rush and a call to arms ringing in their ears, it might mean the difference between a battle lost and a battle won. Thomas shoved his feet into his shoes as Stephen tweaked the last fold of cloth into place.

“It’s my brother who waits,” Thomas said, “not the King.”

John was outside on the stairs, leaning against the wall, his eyes closed. He straightened up when Thomas shut the door, wide awake. Like a cat caught by the scent of a passing mouse.

“We’re just waiting for Scrope,” he said.

“Who is?”

“Me. Fitzhugh. Couple of others.” He went down the steps, Thomas close behind. “They’ve overstepped the mark, Tom. When I think what they might have done to Mother and the girls…”

John stopped outside a partly open door. Flickering light and murmured voices leaked out.

“This is serious,” he said. “And our father does nothing but writer letters! It’s going to take more than parchment and ink to settle this, a good deal more.

Last night, there had been words between John and Papa, the first pitching his voice low, struggling to keep his tone and his language mild, the second redfaced and fuming. Tomorrow, if we want to keep our journey short, Papa said, we must pass close by Thirsk. I’ll be assured no trouble waits for us. This did nothing to calm John. And if it does, I shall be ready! he said.

“He’s right, John,” Thomas said. “We need to get home. And if you’re concerned for the safety of the women…”

John’s lip curled and his eyes flashed. “Don’t think to turn my words against me!”

He pushed through the door and into the room. Thomas followed, wishing the coming argument could be postponed.

Three men sat at a table, their faces turned towards the door. Two were bound heartfast to John, with him in every venture. They’d die beside him and think it an honour. The third was their brother-in-law, Henry Fitzhugh. He lifted a hand in greeting and Thomas nodded, wondering how he’d escaped his bed without Ailie calling him back. Too many men in this family ruled by their wives, though all would deny it if pressed.

Thomas took his seat as a boy emerged from a dark corner with a jug of beer, filling cups already emptied and setting a fresh one at Thomas’s right hand.

“So?” Thomas said. “Whose murder are we plotting?”

John pressed his lips into a line, the nameless men on either side of him bristling but not brave enough to leap to his defence.

“We need to find out where the pricks are hiding,” he said. “Can you spare me Stephen for a day or two?”

“You’ve set aside your latest letter from council, have you?” Thomas curled a hand around his cup. “Forfeiture holds no threat to you?”

John brushed the words away. “What can they do? And how can I be the one who stops? We sit on our hands and they’ll burn Yorkshire from end to end. Now, if I got a letter saying they were sending someone north to help, then I might pay it some mind.”

“Why all the secrecy? Creeping about in the dead of night…”

“Because our father’s eyes are too sharp in daylight. Can you spare me Stephen or not?”

Fitzhugh yawned. Thomas rocked back in his chair, his hands behind his head.

“Don’t you care?” John’s eyes glittered in the lamplight. He leaned his forearms on the table, glaring at Thomas. “They were out for blood today, Tom! Maybe if Mother’s head had been split, our sisters torn apart, your bride taken from you. They’d have made you watch what they did to her before they let you die…”

“John!”

Fitzhugh’s voice was sharp. John ignored him.

“This isn’t a game, Tom.”

“You think they’d go that far?” Thomas said. “To rape and murder women?”

“You saw how close they got to them.”

Maud’s face was white as a sheet when he came back to her. There was blood on her lip where she’d bitten it. He wiped it away with his thumb.

“They were in no danger,” he said.

John was about to respond when the door opened. He stood up, expecting trouble.

What he was doing was sanctioned by no-one, though Thomas thought their father didn’t work quite so hard as he might to bring his third born son to heel.

Scrope closed the door behind him, his gaze flicking to Fitzhugh and Thomas before settling on John. “We going after them?”

“I don’t think we have a choice,” John said.

“Tonight?”

John shook his head. “Not until I know where they are.”

“Heading west, last time anyone knew,” Scrope said.

“I’m sending some men towards Skipton.”

“Unless they’ve swung back and come north.”

“We’ll see how the land lies tomorrow,” John said. “When we pass through Thirsk.”

“What do you want with Stephen?” Thomas said.

“To keep an eye on movements around Topcliffe.”

“If I leave him here, it will be noticed.”

Fitzhugh yawned, loud and long. John scowled at him. Scrope drummed his fingers on the table. Thomas could do without his squire for a day or two, and if he was on John’s business, he could be doing double duty. Someone needed to keep an eye on John.

He nodded, his consent reluctantly given and soon, he feared, regretted. “Once we’re back at Middleham. I have a feeling Papa will want to count everyone before we leave here.”

“And at every stop along the way,” Fitzhugh said. “I’ve never seen him so rattled.”

“Well, he’s seen it for himself now.” John’s smile held no warmth. “He can’t pretend it’s just wild boys playing games. He’ll have to back us now.”

Us?” Thomas said. “Since when has this had anything to do with me?”

“Since they tried to kill your wife.”

It was all bluff and bluster, the younger Percy boys with a need to shake their swords in Nevill faces. John was as much to blame as anyone. He’d stirred the pot more than once.

“They object to your marriage, sir Thomas,” one of John’s nameless men said. “Cromwell riches ending up in your hands, the title yours and your son’s. And Lord Egremont with no prospects of his own.”

“Maybe our uncle can find him a blind woman,” John said. “With no sense of smell.”

His men laughed at that and Scrope managed a smile. Once again, Fitzhugh yawned.

“We should get back to our beds,” Thomas said.

“I’ll give you all the help I can, John.” Scrope peeked sideways at Fitzhugh. “So long as it stirs no-one’s anger.”

“There’s little I can say,” Fitzhugh said.

“And you, Henry?” John said. “The thought that you could have lost both wife and child…”

“If Ailie were hurt by them, I’d tear their balls off with my teeth. The danger of that is distant. Your father isn’t.”

“You’re afraid of him?”

“Aren’t you?”

John gave no answer.

Maud was sleeping still when Thomas slipped back into bed. John was right about one thing at least, the Percies’ actions couldn’t be allowed to go unpunished. They had got close to the women. Two of them had got close to the women. He hadn’t seen what happened, just the evidence left behind – the man on the ground; Mother shaking but upright; Ailie’s arm curved around her belly, the fingers of her other hand entwined in her rosary; Katheryn in a heap on the ground; Maud’s white face, the blood on her lip…

This was John’s business, John’s fight. He was young, restless and untested. He was also unable to suffer fools and acutely aware of the place of the Nevills in the north of England. It wasn’t a place he wanted to share with anyone. Papa should find a job for him, a real one where he could test his muscles and his mettle. A spell up in the Borders, perhaps. There he’d find foes enough with more courage and less scruples than their cousins, a more fitting outlet for his aggression and energy.

Egremont, with his landless title, lack of wealth and deprived of the prospects of a good marriage, had first recruited his younger brothers to his cause, then a good many of his father’s less principled retainers. They did what they pleased, boasting to all who might hear that they were above the law.

Maud rolled onto her back, flinging out an arm, her hand falling onto Thomas’s chest. There he let it lie.

That was something else John was right about. It was difficult to put into words. It hadn’t been love at first sight, but something had happened, out in the garden, up in her room… He linked his fingers in hers and lifted her hand to his mouth. She sighed and rolled towards him. Thomas settled onto his side, his hand still covering hers, her breath warm on his skin. He’d let nothing harm her, and no-one.

“My wife,” he said softly.

He closed his eyes, the sound of her breathing, the feel of her hand under his melting his hard thoughts and mixing them with memories of their lovemaking. He dreamed of her, held in the grip of a faceless man, calling out to him for rescue.

Lords of the North Book 1 

NEVILL
KL Clark
Vol 1
Thomas & Maud

1453 – 1461

August 1453 – May 1457 

And I kno well how scornefullye
ye have mistane my true entente
and hidreto how wrongfullye
I have founde cause for to repente
but if yor herte doth not relente
sins I do kno that this ye kno
ye shall fle me all wilfullye
for me and myne
and all I have 
ye maye assine
to spill or save
whye are ye then so cruell foo
vnto yor owne that lovis you so.

                                    Sir Richard Roos


1.  DIVERS RIOUTTOUS ASSEMBLES

AUGUST 1453

 It was a stiffening of Thomas’s back, the crack of a brief curse carried through his bones to her ear, that woke Maud. She jerked her head up. They’d been just outside York when she leaned herself against him, closing her eyes and yawning. Now the walls of the city were somewhere behind them, open moor on one side, the beginnings of a village on the other. It had been such a peaceful lazy morning. Shattered now.

“Percy!”

She blinked sleepily. Must be a dream, the recent upheavals catching up with her in sleep. They’d come to a stop… All around her, men and horses were moving. Shouts and cries assailed her ears. She shook her head, but failed to clear it.

“Get the women out of here!” Salisbury’s voice rose above the din.

Swinging a leg over the neck of his horse, Thomas dismounted. He helped Maud down, a hand on her waist steadying her until she found her feet.

“What is it?” she said, but her words were swept away by the rushing tide of men, arms at the ready, the clamour of battle carrying them past.

“Move your arse, Tom!” John rode close to his brother. “They’ll be on us soon!”

He spurred his horse and cantered away, a slew of men behind him.

Then she saw them, ahorse and afoot, pouring out of a dip in the ground to block their way. Like rats from a drain. Or demons from hell. Above their heads, blue and gold banners fluttered. Already, men in Nevill livery were riding to meet them, swords drawn, their rallying cry rising above the hubbub.

“À Nevill!  À Nevill!”

Thomas moved away. Maud clutched at his arm, trying to hold him back.

“What is it?” she said.

“Wait here. Stay with the others.”

“Lady Willoughby.” A hand on her arm, pulling her away.

“Thomas?”

But he was back on his horse and already halfway down the road.

“Lady Willoughby!” The man’s voice was anxious, urgent.

She looked at his face, her eyes caught by the scar that ran from temple to jaw. He’d survived, and worse than this. She let out the breath she’d been holding and let him lead her away.

The Countess, free of her litter and ignoring the man who would take her to safety, looked around for her husband. She spied him atop his dancing horse, shouting orders to the milling mass of men. She started towards him.

“Salisbury!”

He turned in the saddle, frowning. “Go back with the others, woman! I’ve enough to worry about without you getting under my feet.”

“Then tell me why we’ve stopped.”

He jerked his head towards the men that lay in their path. “Use your eyes woman!”

“Do they hope to kill us all?” She sounded puzzled. “Are we to let ourselves be butchered?”

“Get back with the others, Alice! Keep our daughters safe. I’ve no time for this. Go, before I send someone to carry you away.”

He turned and rode off after the others. The Countess watched him go.

Maud was more than a little dazed. The scarfaced man wanted her to follow him, but she could see nowhere that they could go. Behind a stone dyke, half hidden by trees, was a cottage. It was small, too small to hold them all, and if the men were routed, the women would be nothing more than rats caught in a trap. Out in the open, they might at least have a chance to run.

From what? Robbers and ruffians… Too close to York. There were banners. She could see them. A blue lion on a gold field. And a name. Percy.

“Lady Willoughby?”

Maud straightened her back, trying hard to shake off the last shreds of sleep.

Cut off from the village, too far from York to seek shelter within its walls, women gathered behind the scant cover of the dyke. Some of them wailed and some of them screamed. Maud cast a disdainful eye over them. Silly creatures, moaning and fluttering and shrieking; talking to each other in overloud whispers, eyes rolling, hands clutching at each other’s arms. She was relieved to see Agnes and Mary among them, less pleased that they, too, were cowering and whimpering. Not much of an advertisement for the brave folk of the Midlands!

Nearby a pair of priests prayed, though what good they thought they could do was beyond Maud. Everyone knew – God didn’t live in Yorkshire.

“Have you seen the girls?”

Maud spun around, ashamed of being startled.

“My girls,” the Countess said. “Have you seen them?”

Maud shook her head.

“Best you get in the litters.”

The Countess looked up at the scarfaced man. “So they might find us all in one place, the easier to cut to ribbons? You have your orders from my Lord of Salisbury and I have mine.”

She held his gaze, her head tilted back. She was half his size, but it was a braver man than this who’d risk an argument. He nodded and moved away, joining the dozen or so others already fanning out, weapons at the ready, prepared to defend the women or die.

“There!” The Countess laid her hand on Maud’s arm. “Katheryn and Ailie at least. Where on earth has Meggie got to?”

Lady Fitzhugh – Oh, do call me Ailie, now that we’re sisters! – leaned against the dyke, Lady Scrope on one side of her and Katheryn on the other. As Maud and the Countess drew near, the child pulled herself free of her sister’s hand and threw herself into her mother’s arms. The Countess held her for a moment, then set her back on her heels, her hands on her shoulders.

“Be calm, my girl,” she said. “Be quiet and still.”

“What’s happening, Mother?” Ailie said.

It was strangely still. The two armies didn’t meet in violence, but stood facing each other, strung out across the road.

“Your cousins,” the Countess said. “Stirred to folly and thoughts of murder by the Lord knows what.”

“Papa will stop them,” Katheryn said. “Won’t he?”

“If he doesn’t, he shall have some questions to answer. Have you seen your sister?”

Katheryn nodded and pointed towards the terrified women behind the dyke. A mop of brown curls and a pair of eyes could be seen peeking over it.

“Mistress Kendall is with her,” Katheryn said. “Ailie said it was best to leave her there.”

The Countess made the sign of the cross, a whispered prayer of thanks on her lips.

“We shall soon be on our way, God willing,” she said. “Salisbury will stand for no nonsense.”

Even as she spoke, a cry of fury rose above the massed men and the calm was shattered. A small group of riders charged at the Nevill line, which rolled back and almost broke. Salisbury shouted at them to rally and hold. Still they were pushed back.

Maud couldn’t see which one was her husband. At this distance, his banner was too like his brother’s. She held her breath as the two armies closed, there was a great deal of confusion but not much blood.  Three men were on the ground and when the fourth fell she heard a sharp intake of breath beside her.  Ailie took two steps forward before she was caught by her mother’s restraining hand.

“Henry,” she said, but he was already on his feet, his sword raised to slash at a man who hoped to take advantage of his fall.

Maud’s heart was in her mouth, the sounds of the skirmish stirring something deep inside her.  It frightened her, this strange excitement to see the exertions of the men.  Here it was, the lawlessness she’d feared. Not quite a fortnight married and she was to be widowed again.

At the edge of the fray, two men in Lord Egremont’s red and black livery peeled off and headed for the women. The men around them tensed, shifting their weapons.  Two archers stepped forward, bows drawn, arrows nocked.  A cry, its meaning lost on the wind but its urgency unmistakable, sent three Nevill riders galloping in their direction.  The shrieking women drew back, mercifully silenced by the prospect of real danger.  Maud’s own voice was lost, and she barely breathed. She drew courage from the Countess’s hand on her shoulder. If she was to die today, she’d take her cue from her mother-in-law and die like a Nevill.

An arrow was loosed, narrowly missing both its target and the man who rode hard behind.  The attackers closed in and still the Countess stood her ground.  The pursuers steadily narrowed the gap and Maud prayed that there was distance enough for them to catch up before the attackers reached the poorly protected women.

She couldn’t move.  Above the noise of the approaching horses, her heart beat, strong and fast.  The men around them closed ranks. What manner of men were these Percies to slay women while their menfolk were kept busy? And what offence could they have done to deserve such treatment? Maud thought then that the Countess was the bravest woman she’d ever met. Her chin was up, her eyes blazed and she stood firmly on her feet. Nothing would shift her. She’d meet her death at the hands of these men in silence, and her accusing eyes would haunt them all their lives. Her fingers dug into the flesh at the top of Maud’s arm. As the riders approached, Katheryn let out a cry, her sister’s arms offering flimsy shelter.

There followed a time of confusion, of noise and disjointed images.  The great head of a charger … its lips pulled back, its eyes wild … the sweep of a sword as it arced down … Ailie’s prayer … a stifled yelp from Katheryn … razor sharp hooves slicing inches from their faces … the grunts and shouts of men.  There was no retreat and no shelter. Then an almost silence as one of the Percy retainers broke away, the other falling from his mount and landing heavily at Maud’s feet.  She jumped backwards, wondering if he was dead. The victors gave the Countess their salute, wheeled around and rode back to rejoin the fight.

Maud breathed again.  Ailie’s plea to God for deliverance became a trembling whisper of thanks.  The Countess let out a long slow breath.  The man on the ground groaned and tried to get up.  His revival lasted scant seconds as he was clubbed once more into unconsciousness.  Katheryn, despite her best efforts to stay upright, dropped to the ground, sobbing.  Maud was shaking, wishing she could do the same.  The Countess straightened up and gave her a weak smile.

“Welcome to Yorkshire,” she said.

The fight was winding down.  The Percies’ men were called off, Lord Egremont and his brother Richard shouting at them to pull back and follow.  They were half heartedly pursued for a little way, shouts of derision sent after them. Salisbury, his sons and son in law behind him, all intact, God be thanked, returned to the women.  Thomas, breathing hard and smiling, held out his hand to Maud.  She stepped over the prone Percy and let herself be pulled up onto her husband’s horse.  Sitting awkwardly in front of him, one of his arms about her waist, her head resting against his sweat drenched shoulder, she wondered for a moment if any of it had happened, so quickly was it done. Thomas’s breath brushed against her cheek. The sharp smell of him filled her nostrils. The joy in her she couldn’t explain had she a week to do it.