Read chapter One from The Conquering Prince

CHAPTER ONE

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Lady Agnes Stratford walked sedately along the gallery floor of the Woodstock manor house, unaware of the silence that hung over its walls. In her arms, wrapped in a long red swaddling robe embroidered with the Plantagenet lions, she carried the newly born Edward, heir to the throne of England. It was a warm June day in 1330, and a faint moisture lay under the wimple at her forehead. Her aproned kirtle swished noisily to every stride, loud in the hush of the gallery corridor.

Her thoughts were less on the babe in her arms than they were on the gasping woman she had just left. Poor little queen, she was thinking. Only sixteen years old, and a mother. No heavy-set mother like Isabella of France, that one, with her blue eyes and dark hair. Still, she was lovely, and it was easy to understand what Edward Plantagenet had seen in her when he’d taken her to be his helpmate on the throne, three years before at Valenciennes. Childbirth was hard for all the Valois women, and just a little harder for pretty Philippa of Hainault.

Lady Agnes wondered if they’d heard Philippa’s screams in the buttery, where the servants were readying the ale and wine even now for His Majesty, waiting on the dais to see his firstborn. She knew the staff would be huddled in the kitchen that lay beyond the buttery and pantry, whispering their orisons. Everyone here at Woodstock loved the little queen.

The clank of steel on steel made her walk more carefully, suddenly aware that she was approaching the great hall where King Edward III waited to see his heir. Edward the strong, the true, the clever general: son of a scatterbrained father and scion of a great-grandfather, Edward the First. Of course, he’d be delighted to see what his son looked like, fresh from the cradle. That was why he’d halted his hunting in Windsor Forest and hurried here to Woodstock manor.

Roger Mortimer came out into the staircase corridor and beckoned to her.

“The king will see the prince now, milady,” he smiled. Her eyes were angry, and she sniffed. This Roger Mortimer was now Earl of March and, some said, unofficial ruler of all England. The lover of the king’s mother, Isabella of France, he was one of the Welsh marcher lords who’d first deposed, then murdered Edward II.

Lady Isabel stepped past him, holding the babe carefully away from Mortimer’s piercing gaze.

Edward III was a very young man, only eighteen years old. He stood now before a recessed stone window with the sun glowing on the golden belt that he wore stylishly low on his narrow hips, his eyes turned southward toward Windsor and the more distant London. Was he restless already, when he’d been here just a few hours? There was a furious, driving energy in Edward III; Plantagenet energy, she supposed, the same energy that had sent Richard I off to the Crusades, and Edward I north to Scotland. In which direction was Edward headed? North to cancel out defeat at Bannockburn, or south across the channel into France? It was anyone’s guess, at this time.

The king turned, and now the woman saw the worry in his eyes.

“Is Philippa all right?”

He had the Plantagenet power to win over every woman on whom he cast an eye, Lady Agnes thought, even as she curtsied low before him. They’re all big, and lean in the middle, and there was something about them that made a woman want to open her arms to them. Her own arms trembled slightly as she extended the babe.

Edward smiled faintly, touching the smooth cheek with a forefinger. Is that their secret, Lady Isabel wondered, watching: this ability to be gentle and strong at one and the same time? The world knew Edward III for a mighty soldier. Only Philippa of Hainault and perhaps one or two noblewomen of the realm knew how tender he could be, at the proper time.

“A big child,” he nodded, pleased. “He must have hurt her.”

“Aye, sire. But a woman loves best the one that hurts her most,” she answered.

She drew back a little when he put a hand on his dagger and drew it, extending the blade toward the child. With the point, he nudged the little-hand until it opened and caught at the blade.

“An old custom of my family, milady. Blood and steel run with us. Begin him early to know the cut of a wound.”

Shocked, the Lady Agnes dared not protest. She quivered a little as she joined the king in watching that chubby hand open and shut on the steel, again and again. And yet, curiously, there was no blood.

“Lancaster!” cried the king sharply. “Mortimer! Here, to me! Look at this!”

“The steel can’t hurt him, sire. As Achilles was guarded everywhere but in his heel, perhaps the prince is also so protected.”

“Thetis protected Achilles,” Edward said softly. “Who shelters the prince? Mars? Or Venus?”

“Perhaps both,” smiled the Lady Agnes.

England in this year of 1330 was drawn between two political magnets. There were those in power who favored throwing every man in arms against Scotland, to punish it for the crushing defeat Edward II suffered at Bannockburn, which set the Scotch crown firmly on the head of Robert the Bruce. Others, and these were considered the more influential, wanted to move southward across the channel into Normandy and France. Here King Phillip VI demanded homage from the young English king, who was also Duke of Aquitaine, the province lying along the French coast of the Atlantic between the Pyrennes and Poitou. As such, under feudal law, he owed allegiance to France. But, since his own ancestry was as distinguished as that of Valois, if not more so, and since his claim to the French throne was as valid, except for the Salic Law, Edward III was poised between allegiance and attack.

Although he was already beginning his heavy taxation to pay for his foreign wars, Edward III was also at this time laying the foundations of the great English wool industry with a Parliamentary grant for a wool subsidy, and by the selection of ten Staple towns to handle its exports. He planned a new system of coinage, which was to last for several centuries. He encouraged the new style of architecture, distinguished by its vaulting and decorated stone work and stained-glass windows.

In general, it was a time of mounting prosperity, a time when men had silver pennies and sometimes a gold florin to put into their money bags. The price of living was high, it was true, and the poor ate bread and cheese and beans. But ale was cheap, and the women were free with their favors, and how much did a man want, anyhow?

That summer, the court moved from the manor house to Windsor Castle so that the king could be at hand for the repairs and new additions he was planning as part of a nation-wide building campaign.

The new little prince was made much of by the courtiers and their ladies. His body was sturdy and large. His blue eyes were bright and inquisitive. When he was held in the arms of his nurse, Joan of Oxford, he studied the ladies sewing on gold baudekin and Sicilian silks in the bedchamber rooms as if he sought to learn the secrets of their needles. On the few occasions when King Edward took him with him into the armory, he sobered and his gaze grew wide at sight of bluish basinets and cuirasses.

The Hundred Years’ War was still in its infancy. No blows had yet been struck, but its causes lay deep inside the minds of Englishmen and Frenchmen, and the warm breezes that swept the grassy meadows of Windsor Castle appeared to bide their time, as if listening for the sound of hammers clanging down on steel sword blades.

King Edward III was as much entitled to be King of France as he was to be King of England, but for the fact that recent French laws forbade a succession to the French throne except by Salic Law. Only a man descended through a male line could rule, and Edward III claimed his right through the great Eleanor of Aquitaine, Eleanor of Castile, and his mother, Isabella of France.

In the time of the Henrys, English lions flew above Brittany, Anjou, Normandy, Maine, Poitou, Guienne, and Gascony. This was more land than the French kings ruled today. It should belong to England, who first governed it. Only French cunning and guile prevented it.

These were the thoughts of young King Edward. The words that his noblemen spoke to him during the long summer only encouraged them. Good English longbows and cloth-yard shafts could win those territories back. There is a restlessness in Anglo-Saxon and Norman blood, a remnant of the days when Viking raiders came to loot and later to settle in East Anglia and Northumbria.

Edward III stood in his castle of Windsor and stared toward the channel and Normandy. In the days of Edward Longshanks, those people across the channel waters had given aid and sustenance to the Scotch. This fact rankled in the English hearts. They had not interfered when Philip the Bold won Navarre from Spain, or when he added Toulouse to the French crown, and overcame rebellion among his nobles.

France, like England, was divided into many duchies and lesser principalities. Its king depended on the loyalty and interests of his nobles to make him strong. Yet there were dukes and counts in France who owed allegiance to the English lions, rather than to the Lilies. During the past two centuries, this feudal despotism had grown stronger in France, and weaker in the closely knit island kingdom of England. And in this growing unity, this precocious nationalism, lay England’s strength.

To further strengthen his land, Edward III passed laws that encouraged the use of the longbow. His edicts forbade the playing of bowls, hand ball and all board games. Instead, the men of the English villages were to practice with their yew bows. There were prizes: a fat purse of silver pennies or a golden arrow to be given the best marksman. Arrow shafts whistled through the air to plunk into wooden targets, from Devon north to the Scottish border.

In this air of expectancy and inner restlessness, the young prince grew into boyhood. He was brawny and large of limb, even at an early age. His yellow hair grew long and hung to his shoulders. His laughter was quick and melodious when he ran to catch a ball thrown by his plump English governess, Matilda Plympton.

When he was three years old, they made him Earl of Chester. In another three years, he was created Duke of Cornwall. This latter title pleased him, for it was Cornwall that had sired Sir Tristram of the Round Table, and the Cornish knight was a boyhood hero to young Edward, who sat on his hard little rump before a castle fire night after night, listening to plump Matilda read from the scrolls that told of his deeds.

Sometimes he sighed sorrowfully over the love between Tristram and Iseult. “If only Blanchefleur had never mixed the love potion,” he would murmur. “Or if Iseult and Mark had never married.” The mark of Venus was on him even then.

Nor was the god of war forgotten. When he was eight years old, Walter of Ghent took him out into the courtyard and handed him a blunted sword and planted a steel cap on his yellow hair.

“You’ve handled a wooden one long enough,” said the old soldier whose duty it was to teach the prince. “It’s time you learned the feel of steel.”

Edward learned fast. His fingers curled around the braided haft of his sword as if especially grown for the task. No descendant of Richard Coeur-de-Lion and William the Conqueror could be less than excellent with a weapon. It was bred in their big bones and wide shoulders, nurtured in the Plantagenet heart. Even so, young Edward appeared gifted with that little extra flair which spelled the difference between a good swordsman and a great one. His footwork was flawless, his timing perfect. A shield became a part of his left arm. What old Walter could teach him, the young prince learned and practiced, and upon occasion he improvised to astound his tutor with a sly new stroke.

Mars smiled broadly. This all took time, of course, and there were other things for a budding king to learn. Walter Burley came up from Merton College, Oxford, with his scrolls and pen cases. A philosopher and scholar, he was pledged to wean the boy away from the courtyard jousts long enough to learn to read and write, and to understand something of the land he was to inherit.

Then one day, they brought him a playmate. The boy that Walter of Ghent brought forward was dark of hair, with an olive complexion. He wore tight blue hose and pointed shoes, with a blue jerkin on which were embroidered golden leopards sewn onto narrow, diamond-shaped fusils. A belt of chained silver squares rode low on his lean hips. There was discontent on his pouting lips, and a selfish vanity in the sly eyes that studied everything they saw with the bartering instincts of a Chepe stall merchant.

“Edward, I’m bringing you a friend. Little Pepin, from across the sea,” said Walter of Ghent.

“Hello, Pepin,” said Edward, coming to his feet.

The other boy was slightly taller than he, though not as stockily built. Bright black eyes looked back at him unwinkingly, almost impudently.

“My father has more gold than your father,” said Pepin suddenly.

“That’s silly,” said Edward. His father was king of England, and England was the greatest country in all the world. The king of the greatest-country should be the richest king. That was only common sense. He said something of this to Pepin.

“My father, the Comte de Chambroix, owns seven chateaux and three small castles. He has hundreds of men working his manor fields.”

“If your father’s so rich, what are you doing here?” asked Edward with simple logic.

Pepin darkened. “He is paying a visit to the king,” he shouted angrily. “He has come to offer his services. He is a great knight!”

Edward thought that over. “Then your father and my father must be friends. We’ll be friends too, Pepin.”

The French boy scowled, but grew mollified at Edward’s broad smile. Faintly he smiled and shrugged.

“That will be nice. I have never had a friend. Not a real friend. There was nobody of my rank to play with.”

“I’m an earl and a duke, and in a few years I’m going to be a prince. I guess I can play with you.”

“You outrank me,” muttered Pepin. “Maybe you won’t want to play with me!”

“Oh, but I do. Why, I play with Arn, who is our chief archer’s son. His father shows us how to use the longbow. Can you shoot a longbow?”

“No. But I can use a crossbow. My father himself taught me.”

The two boys were squatting down in a pool of sunlight filtering between the stone merlons of the exercise yard wall. This inner bailey was fitted with great poles, from which were hung the quintains when the knights and squires played at jousting.

Pepin picked up a pebble and tossed it. “I own a real sword. My father gave it to me on my last birthday.”

Edward frowned. He did not own a sword, not a sword that was really all his own. He said dubiously, “I can use any sword in the armory that I can lift.”

“Ho! That you can lift.” Pepin hooted. “I can lift any sword!”

“Not some of the swords we have,” protested Edward.

Pepin stood up, his face dark. “Any sword!”

Edward grinned honestly. “Come, I will show you.” When Pepin held back, he turned in surprise. “We can go into the armory. Walter lets me.”

Pepin shook his head. “It isn’t that. Don’t you want to wager about it? A gold florin against that ring you’re wearing?”

Edward stared down at his hand in surprise. A wager? The idea of the thing excited his blood, though he’d never made a bet in his life. “A wager? My ring that you can’t lift the sword I show you against the gold piece that you can? A deal.”

Pepin laughed. “That ring’ll be mine in a little while!” There was a fever in his black eyes that made Edward wonder. Rings and gold coins made no difference to him. Why should Pepin take such delight in them?

The armory was a large room set off the pillared gallery that ran the length of the bailey wall. It was dark and quiet inside, dimly lighted by the May sunlight slanting through the arrow-slits in the stone wall. There were racks holding helmets and steel caps, salades and mail hoods. Against the east wall was a long table on which was set broken armor to be mended. A grindstone, an anvil and a small hearth with a cooling tub beside it completed the furnishings of the chamber.

“Over here,” said Edward, leading the way.

Three swords hung in their scabbards from wooden wall pegs. Each one was six feet long in the blade and weighed fifty pounds, being fitted with a two-foot-long handle.

Morte de Dieu!” whispered Pepin, staring.

“Two-handed swords,” said Edward proudly, gesturing. “Let’s see you lift one of those!”

Pepin flushed and bit his lip. “It was a trick! We both meant a regular sword

“I said a sword only,” Edward pointed out. “I do not know what you meant, but I meant these swords here.”

“I’ll give you the florin tomorrow,” said Pepin thickly.

Edward grinned at him. “Keep the money. I don’t want it. What do I need money for? Some day all England will be mine. I will own everything, and anything I want, I can have.” This was not strictly true, as Matilda Plympton had pointed out to him more than once. There were limitations even on a prince. But he ignored her words. As far as Pepin knew, maybe he told the truth. Anyhow, it was only an exaggeration, which was not a lie, strictly speaking. “Anything at all that I want! That’s what I get for being a prince and heir to the throne.”

Pepin said slyly, “Then you ought to give me a gift, seeing that you’re going to be a king. That’s what kings do. Give gifts to their nobles, that is.” His finger pointed at the sapphire ring. “Give me your ring, as a gift.”

Edward pondered those words for a moment. Pepin was right; he was going to be a king. A king gave gifts. Did it hurt to bolt the mark a little? In three years he would be Prince of Wales. Hurriedly he twisted the gold hoop from his forefinger and pressed it into Pepin’s palm.

“Take my gift, Pepin! You shall be my first lord of the realm when I am fully grown.”

“Yes.” Pepin’s eyes were caught by the blue brilliance of the sapphire. This was a good gift. It pleased even him. With enough gifts from this English prince, he would become a rich man in hardly any time at all.

Edward and Pepin became close friends. In the jousting yard, Edward was usually the victor, beating Pepin to his knees with great glee, his sword showering his helmeted head or upraised shield with flashing sparks. In the quiet schoolroom before Walter Burley it was Pepin who excelled, reading the sonorous Latin phrases that made Edward sound like a bumbling village bumpkin. And of course, since he was French and the French language was the language of royalty, he preened himself on his patent superiority.

No king ever had a more faithful retainer than Edward had in Pepin, however. It was Pepin who showed Edward how, by dangling at the end of a rope from a wall merlon, he could reach in and draw out the berry tarts that Dame Margaret made every other day in the manor kitchen. When the prince was discovered after four months of high flying, Pepin ran off and left him dangling on his rope to take the punishment. When King Edward heard of the escapade, his hand smothered the wide grin that he dared not let his queen see.

Pepin conceived the ideas, and Edward executed them.

No one ever discovered, though Queen Philippa was quite sharp on the subject, who it was that put the toad in Lady Alicia Mohun’s big poster bed, or who cut halfway through the armor straps of the big Flemish knight during one of the springtime jousts at Windsor Castle. The fact that the Fleming had given Pepin a box on the ears the night before pointed straight to him, but Pepin was in full view of the queen herself when it was alleged the straps were cut. Nobody thought to look for Edward at the time.

The court laughed and sometimes it shouted angrily, and once in a great while it punished: but it always enjoyed them.

In the eleventh year of Edward Plantagenet, Venus came to visit him.

Her name was Joan of Kent, and she was two years older than Edward, with long golden hair and dark brown eyes, and a slimly rounded body. Edward took one look at her and went white. His whispered, “Iseult!” was lost on Pepin, who was looking at the governess instead. Pepin was a precocious child.

Only Joan seemed to hear the word. She dimpled and her hands lifted her kirtle for a curtsy. “My lord prince.” she said gently. And then, so that only he might hear, “Sir Tristram of Lyonesse.”

The governess was turning and walking away. Pepin was more interested in the cling of her cotehardie to her haunches than he was in girl visitors. He went after Lady Ermingarde into the shadows of the gallery where, after a moment, he got his face soundly slapped.

“Do you like to hear about the Round Table?” Edward asked.

“Oh, yes!”

“My father says he may revive it. He says the idea is very sound. It keeps the knights and nobles united, and gives him a hold on the whole country.”

“The king is a very brilliant man. I didn’t know he had such a big son, though.” Although Joan was his senior, Edward topped her by almost a foot in height. “You must be awfully strong!”

Joan of Kent was to acquire a name for coquetry in her later years. Already she was becoming a mistress of the art. Her eyes were wide and worshipful, and she seemed to breathe a little faster.

Edward expanded. “I’ve become good enough at the sword to equal my teacher, Walter of Ghent. He says in another two years, nobody in England will be my master.”

“Just like Sir Tristram, she told him, knowing instinctively it would please. “Only Sir Launcelot could ever outdo him.”

Edward scowled. “He never could! Don’t you remember the great tournament at the Castle of the Maidens? When they fought all day without either being named the winner? Sir Tristram was the knight of the Black Shield then!”

“Yes,” smiled Joan. “I remember that.”

“They said he was the winner of the jousts the first day. Over all of them, even including Sir Launcelot!”

Joan laughed softly. He was very handsome, this tall boy with the wide shoulders. His hair was as yellow as her own, and his blue eyes laughed at her in friendly fashion. He did not carry himself like a prince; that is, she thought hastily, he is not arrogant or overbearing. She could grow to like this young Edward very much. Too bad he was younger than she. Girls her age were ready for marriage. . . .

Later when they found Pepin, they laughed together over the fingermarks on his cheek. “The Lady Ermingarde is strong, it seems!” Edward grinned.

“I won’t forget her,” Pepin promised savagely. “Her and that waggle tail she throws this way and that. Her husband died two months ago. How long can she remain so virtuous?”

Edward roared with laughter until he fell off the stool on which he was sitting. “Until a man comes along, Pepin. You’re only a boy, like me.”

Pepin was the same age as Joan of Kent. They looked at Edward and at each other. Pepin said, “In France, I am considered a man.”

“Ermingarde is English, like myself,” Joan said slyly.

Pepin glared at her, then teased Edward until he went off with him to annoy the kitchen maids into giving them large slices of freshly cooked chicken pies. With their backs propped to a cart wheel, they munched slowly.

“Joan likes you,” said Pepin at last, wiping his greasy fingers on his tight hose. “I could see it, the way she looked at you.”

“We were talking about the Round Table. She knows I think much of Sir Tristram. She only shares my interest in him.”

Pepin grinned slyly. “Too bad you aren’t a little older, Edward. When you get to be my age, you can see right through a woman!”

Edward glanced at the red fingermarks on Pepin’s jaw and smiled.

Joan of Kent brought new life into the Woodstock manor house. Like a breath of salt sea air from her native Kent, she swept through the gloomy halls with light, running steps. Her laughter rang out from the buttery to the park lawn where they threw a leather ball back, and forth. Dominating both boys, she led them into the study of dancing, which was becoming popular, and even made them practice a little with her on the harp. At her insistence, the castle carpenter made a round table that sat on ten heavy Oaken legs. Here she held court, as the Queen of Love in imitation of that other queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Edward became Sir Tristram, and Pepin became Sir Gawaine. Their sham battles—when Pepin played the Saracen knight or Edward the Green Knight—became quite real. More than once, the boys went to bed at night with bruised heads and swollen limbs. . . .

When Edward III came with his court to Woodstock, Queen Philippa took Joan with her to the privy chamber above the wood cellar, and the king went hawking with the boys. Edward owned his own falcon, a great Valkenswaard duck-hawk with a four-foot wingspread. With his own hands he fashioned its hood of Flemish leather set with brass studs, and he carried the bird proudly on his gloved wrist through the sun-dappled woods. Whatever the huge falcon killed he gave to Joan at dinnertime, properly basted and spit-roasted above the kitchen hearth coals.

As the year wore on into the winter, with its whirling snows and biting winds, they set traps for hares and squirrels. Wrapped in long cloaks, they wandered at will among the bare boles of the forest trees, sometimes making a game of it, one or two hiding from the other, then racing back to the manor gate to be first and so claim a reward. Pepin excelled at this, for he was swift, and the greed that was a part of his nature powered his every step.

Winter was the time when armor was brought out and repaired and the hawks trained and hooded in the mews. Hunting took up the short daylight hours. The long nights, with rush-lights and candle-flames glowing from every corner, were spent in dancing and playing the harp or viol. These gloomy evenings, with the gray dusk falling early over the barren countryside, afforded the kitchen maids and young esquires some measure of freedom. More than once Edward, carrying a shield whose strap was broken or a helmet to be mended, saw couples straining together, kissing in the shadows.

He was a big youth, with the early maturity of his time. Lately he had been discovering how soft Joan of Kent was whenever she fell against him in their play. So different from Pepin, who like himself, was as hard as the moat stones from neck to foot. Now he began to examine her more closely, and his eyes were no longer the eyes of a boy.

When he was thirteen, Edward rode to London Town and was officially made the Prince of Wales. The Archbishop of Canterbury put the silver scepter in his hand, the gold ring on his finger, and the coronet on his yellow hair. He was now a peer of the realm, entitled to take his place with the Parliament, and vote on this measure or that for the good of the kingdom. The king bestowed Berkhamstead Castle on him, and ordered a fine hunting lodge built at Rostormel that would be his very own.

Joan was waiting for him at the entry gate when he came back to Woodstock. She ran into his arms and kissed him on the mouth. It was the first time Edward had ever kissed a girl, other than on the cheek. The touch of her sweet lips stirred something deep inside him so that he held her tight against him for a little longer than necessary.

“When my father comes to Woodstock, I’m going to ask him to let us be wed, Joan!”

“Edward! Do you mean that? I’m no great heiress like Emma de Beauchamp, or Maud de Chaworth!”

“Ho!” he scoffed. “What do I care about lands and castles? I’ll be King of England some day.”

Joan shook her head, though her heart leaped wildly inside her. “Your father will not permit it, Edward.”

“I am a prince now. My father will listen to me.”

They found Pepin sulking in the bittery. His back was resting against the rim of a huge wine tun, and there was an empty goblet and an almost-empty wine-jack at his foot. His eyes were hard, mocking.

“Hail the prince! Hail Edward!” he shouted, lifting the goblet. “I’ve been drinking your health, noble sir.”

“You’re a fool,” Edward told him.

It seemed to Edward that Pepin broke before his words, his face crumpling loosely from its usual sly humor. The French boy came to his feet, glaring at Edward from his stylishly pointed leather shoes to the golden collar about the throat of his short blue velvet cotehardie.

“You have everything, don’t you? Position. Family. Wealth. Strength. Even the girl you love!”

His eyes looked from Joan to Edward as they stood stunned. There was hatred and madness in them at the moment. Then he whirled on his heel and lunged for the shadowy depth is between the great tuns which lay on their sides on racks in the buttery.

Later they were to learn that King John of France had confiscated the possessions of his father, the Comte de Chambroix. Word had been brought to Pepin almost at the moment that the Welsh coronet was being placed on Edward’s head. Pepin was a penniless pauper, dependent for his living on the charity of the English king.

From the buttery, Edward and Joan wandered to the great hall, where they lounged on a wide stone bench built into the wall and covered with a quilted leather pad, just below the recessed stone window. At fifteen, Joan was already a woman, as Edward was on the threshold of manhood. As he eyed the slim length of her legs beneath the clinging white samite of her gown, he reflected that at her age, his mother was already a whole year married to his father. When she was only sixteen, Edward had been born to her.

With this thought in mind, and remembering the taste of her lips in the courtyard below, he reached for her. Joan came easily into his arms, resting against his chest as he sat with one long leg propped up on the brocaded seat. When his mouth touched hers, she pressed tightly against him, and opened her lips. There was fevered blood in Joan of Kent, a passion that would eventually demand the services of Pope Clement VI to decide which of two men was her rightful husband.

The morals of her day saw nothing wrong in casual relationships. Bastardy was a common thing, with the children of royal fathers often rising to knighthood, and being looked on with as much affection and respect as legitimate offspring. Only in the law courts were they barred from inheritance; and since the laws of primogeniture gave the demesne to the eldest son only, it made little difference whether a son was rightfully come by or the result of an evening of careless tippling.

So that now, as Joan clung to Edward, she might be justified a little in the honesty with which she roused his youthful body. Her tongue was a playful explorer and her hands were unashamed.

Edward came to his feet, breathing heavily. “Before God, Joan. This night we’ll marry!”

“My Lord Prince!” she whispered against his mouth, and moved her hips so that his cupping palms could grip her buttocks.

Only Pepin, coming to find them and apologize for his behavior, prevented their finding a nearby bedchamber and availing themselves of its curtained mattress. It is sometimes on such little things that the entire history of a nation hangs. Pepin was a wiser youth than Edward, and the sight of his two friends made him laugh against the bitterness in him.

“I’ll stand guard,” he offered and barely ducked the hand that Joan, her cheeks redly flushed, swung at him.

He joined them on the window-seat, relating the news that he was now a pauper. “Remember how I bragged to you how wealthy I was, Edward? Well, I’m not wealthy any more. The only things I own are the presents you’ve given me in the past.”

Edward smiled faintly. “You may not be as poor as you think, Pepin. While I was in London, I heard some of the great lords talking. Lancaster and Warwick, Salisbury and Stafford. My father is supposed to pay homage to your King Philip in Paris. It has something to do with the lands he holds in Aquitaine. And my father refuses. He says he has as much right to the French throne as Philip of Valois. And he has, too!”

Pepin listened intently, unconscious of the rising glitter of his eyes. “War!” he whispered softly. “A war with France, to put your father on its throne! Oh, this is good news! My father will win back our estates, and perhaps even enlarge them. Edward, I thank you.”

Nothing would do but that they join him in the great hall and drink a toast in Bordeaux wine to the recovery of his inheritance. Joan of Kent sipped slowly, looking at Pepin. She felt a little sorry for him. He was happy only when he was being presented with gifts, or being afforded an opportunity for riches at some future date.

None of them was aware that they were also toasting the last happy days of their youth.

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