Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
Edward, Prince of Wales, was about to learn his first great lesson in the arts of love: when the rival wins, show no sorrow, for the love you bear your lady. But these were only words, and this thing stabbing through his every vein was living, breathing grief. This was his heart crying out for what might have been. The ache in him was a dagger blade twisting in his heart.
Sir Thomas and his bride—her tight gown of white samite revealing so well the body Edward loved, paused on the chapel steps to stare at him. Joan’s face was grave beneath the golden caul that held her yellow hair, and there was grief and shock and sorrow in her staring eyes, as there was madness in his.
Triumph made Sir Thomas smile against the fear that ran through him at sight of Edward’s wild glare. Joan was paler than the stuff of the gown she wore.
Now Edward knew why the king had kept to his bed. Not understanding the motive that brought Joan of Kent to him begging banishment from Windsor and a good marriage, but grasping at the chance she offered, Edward III had joined in her conspiracy. The crytic words he’d uttered: Let fate decide the winner! Edward could understand them now, knowing that the king pitted his hopes for his son against the speed of Thomas Holland’s black mare. Just an hour faster. Only sixty minutes between his life’s happiness and this desolation.
He was sick, nauseous and feverish, so great was the shock of what he saw. Ironically he thought of Tristram and Lyonesse, the child of sorrow, whose fate it was to love a woman married to his uncle, Mark of Cornwall. As he was Tristram, so Joan was Iseult.
Blindly he turned, fumbling for the bridle-rein, thrusting his boot at the stirrup….
King Edward III lifted high the great goblet that bore the three lions of England and the rows of French fleursde-lys worked into its rim in champleve enamel. All about him were the great nobles of England. Lancaster, York, Warwick, Salisbury, March, Stafford, Chandos, Stapleton, Fitzsimon, Eam, Loring, De Audeley, Courtney, Mohun. They stood resplendent in scarlet gipons, golden cotehardies, blue garnaches, their devices worked cunningly on breasts and collars. In unison, they elevated their own goblets.
“To the Round Table!” they roared.
The king had built a great circular hall all in stone, with a leaden roof. In this was set up a great table, perfectly round, divided into sections, over which was laid a beautiful tapestry marked on each section with the arms of those dukes, earls and knights selected for membership. Behind each high-backed chair was a figure in stone, cunningly wrought by the ablest sculptors in the land in the likeness of each noble. These figures acted as piers for the fan vaulting of the groined roof. Banners hung above them with the crest of each house and the royal livery.
This was the culmination of a dream of Edward III, a living symbol of the age of chivalry. It was more than that, as the king himself would have admitted freely to certain men who had his confidence. In this manner, with show and ostentation, he surrounded himself with the cleverest soldiers of the realm, held them close to him against possible sedition and treason. Each of them could furnish lesser knights and esquires, men-at-arms and archers to make up a great army. And Edward III needed an army to invade France.
The Black Prince stood at his father’s elbow, sipping lightly of the white Flemish wine. The tournament was over. With his own hands he had distributed prizes to the winners. Where once he would have taken a keen delight in this panoply of royalty, now he knew only an empty grief. If Joan were here—and belonged once again to him—he would have gloried in the moment.
On the long ride back from Woodstock, he had made a vow.
The ferment of emotion that was in him at that time made the rest of his life seem gray and barren. Without Joan, what was left to him? The tilted breasts she had let him hold belonged to someone else. The slim legs his palms had learned to stroke would be given to Sir Thomas Holland. The twilight hours in which he and Joan wandered over the manor walks at Woodstock, the sight of her running to greet him after an absence, the ring of her laughter in the great hall, the manner in which she sipped wine so thoughtfully while her eyes danced at him across the goblet rim: all these were more bitter in his heart than henbane to his tongue.
Tristram had known this feeling, too, as he watched fair Iseult wed to King Mark. Yet Tristram had not died. He had dedicated his life to his love and gone on to greater heights than before, making every day and every deed a memento to his love. What Tristram could do, he would do.
“I swear it, by the Trinity,” he had called out into the Kentish weald. “Never shall I wed! Only Joan of Kent shall be my bride!”
And since Joan was already wed, he would live and die unmarried.
So he took his place at the Round Table, making a secret vow that he would always honor it, and hold it second only to the love that ate in his marrow.
Edward was very young at the time: only fifteen, and filled with tales of high daring.
Warfare was all that was left to him.
His every waking moment, and even some hours when he should have been asleep, were given over to a study of battle camps and troop dispositions. From Henry of Lancaster and the Earl of Warwick he learned what he could of French tactics, listening patiently as they described the lands of Languedoc and Guienne where they had raided in the past. He went personally to armory and forge shops, watching the half-naked smiths beat red-hot iron into pike-heads and bills. Walter Burley came down from Oxford to play chess with him on rainy afternoons and read with him about Caesar and Alexander, and how they marshaled their hosts before a fight.
One day in late September a blacksmith from Thuringia came to visit him. He was a big man with a round face under a perfectly bald head. He kept twisting a rolled-brim hat in his huge hands.
“You’re my last hope, Your Highness,” he blurted out. “I’ve been to see the dukes of Lancaster and Warwick, and even the king. They laughed at me.”
The Black Prince was not in a laughing mood these days. He listened as the Thuringian explained that he made cannon: long brass cylinders banded about with iron that used gunpowder—Roger Bacon mentioned that in his essays, Edward remembered—to cast round balls farther than the strongest catapults could throw stones. All he needed was the gold to make the castings and buy the glossy powder.
With silver groats and gold nobles, but especially with his interest, the Black Prince won the loyalty of Hermann of Thuringia. When the cannon were cast and mounted on a wheeled platform fitted with a hinged wooden shield, they practiced side by side in a Windsor meadow at this whimsical new form of warfare.
“It’ll never be any good in the field, Your Highness,” admitted Hermann gruffly, “but against castles and walled towns—”
The court twisted the prince with sallies about his latest love, but he ignored them. A time would come, he promised Hermann, when these cannon would make their face. More then twenty years before, cannon had been used by the Germans during the siege of Cividale in Italy. Hermann, only a boy then, had served with his father, who cast them.
Edward even interested himself in the huge fleet massing at the Cinque Ports that would be used the following year to ship King Edward and his army into Normandy. Almost five hundred ships were needed, to be furnished from more than fifty seaports from Hastings north to Newcastle. These big vessels, with towering castles fore and aft, from which archers could shoot and knights be swung over into enemy ships, were lumbering and ungainly. They boasted one mast each, that held a large square sail. They were steered by huge oars, and sometimes required more than a week to go forty miles.
He gave himself no time for thought. When he was in the saddle and galloping along the Watling Street road, or poring over shipbuilders’ plans in a Sandwich yard, or sweating by an open forge fire as a blacksmith hammered a vambrace against an anvil, he could not remember Joan of Kent. He became a deputy to his father and showed such promise that the king made him second in command.
It was only the nights that bothered him, when he lay restless, tossing and turning.
After a few months, he learned an antidote for his sleeplessness.
It was at Woodstock on a wet evening in late October.
The day had been misty and cold, and the damp woodlands seemed to draw heat from the manor house so that the big stone fireplace must be lit in the solar. As he scowled at the flames, seeing Joan in every leaping tongue of fire, he heard soft laughter and the sound of running feet. He turned when a boy ran into the room with a woman close behind him.
The boy was his younger brother, Lionel, and the woman was the Lady Ermingarde. At sight of Edward, the woman flushed a little, and catching up her skirts, curtsied gravely. This was not the first time he had seen her since he walked into her bedchamber through the blue door, but it was the first time they had been alone.
“Your Highness, forgive us!” she murmured.
“Edward, Edward!” Lionel shrilled, coming to pluck at the rich velvet gipon his brother wore. “Don’t let her send me to bed!”
Edward sighed. “I’m not sleepy myself,” he admitted, regarding the woman.
“Let me stay with you,” shouted the boy, sensing the other’s mood. “And tell me a story. A story about the Crusades!”
Lady Ermingarde was very quiet. Only the rising breasts under the taut sarcinet of her green kirtle revealed her awareness of his lingering eyes.
Edward smiled gently. “Come then, on my knee, here before the fire. And the Lady Ermingarde too, may sit beside me.”
She sank to the floor, feeling his hand at her shoulder, drawing her head to his thigh so he could stroke her perfumed hair. The flames were warm and his voice was soothing, and the gentle stroking of his hand on her soft neck beneath her coiled hair stirred a languid hunger in her veins. As he talked, his hand moved down across her shoulder, disarranging the kirtle so that his fingers could pasture from throat to shoulder on her bared skin.
“My prince,” she whispered when his hand ventured more boldly beneath her bodice, “the child—”
“Then let me take him to his bed!”
“Yes. As a matter of fact, I’ll come with you!”
Her head had been resting on his thigh. She turned it now to stare up into his eyes. It did not need the pressure of his hand behind her head to bring her mouth upward to fuse with his. She arched against him, crooning softly against the flooding tide of desire that made her tremble.
Against his lips she whispered, “It won’t take long. Not long at all!”
Nor did it, though he was wild with longing. The lady Ermingarde fed his gaze with the sway of her rounded hips beneath the tight gown as she bent to undress the sleeping boy, and never bothered to close the gaping bodice over the intimacy of her ample breasts.
Hand in hand, she drew him with her into the small bedchamber adjoining the larger room where Lionel slept. This night was a memorable one for Prince Edward, for the lady Ermingarde was in a mood for dalliance and artful caresses, and she made a game of their love, demanding breathlessly that he conquer this breast as he might a strong keep, with lips and hands for archers and men-at-arms, or this slim white limb as he might a drawbridge to a baronial castle. In this manner Venus joined with Mars, and the long winter nights grew shorter for the prince, and he had no more trouble sleeping.
With the coming of spring across the English downs, with the apple blossoms putting forth their buds in Lincoln and the sheep flocks converging on their Sussex pasturelands, all eyes turned south toward the Cinque Ports. Here the fleet was assembling. Here came the nobles with their retainers and their war banners. Edward threw himself into these feverish preparations with a passion that he had expended heretofore only with the royal governess.
The English set sail from Sussex in July, and landed on the Normandy beaches twenty thousand strong.
At Saint-Vaaste-la-Hougue, Edward the Black Prince was created a knight, together with his young friend the Earl of Salisbury. Then he was given his own command, with Sir John Chandos and the Earl of Warwick to act as his advisers, and told to lay waste the lands of Normandy.
There was no pleasure in such a task. Poor peasant people in tiny clay huts with straw roofs, or shivering town merchants in timbered houses, with no knowledge of arms or the will to use them, sought only to win friendship with the invaders. They brought their farm produce in tiny carts and offered their services as sumpters and tinkers.
Once when a band of traveling nomads was brought before him—they were looked on with superstitious dread by the English yeomen, who fancied they were in league with Satan—he held court before his cone tent. These dark people in tattered cloaks and ragged jerkins, the man with thin black mustaches and the women with flirtatious glances, were new to his experience. There was one girl among them who caught his eye: a wench with dusky skin that showed through the rents in her bodice where a hand had torn it, with a full red mouth and gold hoops in her ears below long, tangled black hair. She was sullen and snarling, but her nose was straight and her profile piquant. Edward studied her while he listened to the impassioned testimony of a Hampshire archer who swore she’d cast a spell on him, making him sleep so that her nimble fingers could relieve him of his purse.
“He lies,” the girl snarled. “He bought a trinket from my cart!”
Her name was Rosette.
She came forward almost insolently, with a contemptuous twist to her young hips. A gamin, she seemed, all rags and smooth brown skin and ear-hoops jingling. White teeth flashed to her calculated smile. There was pride and grace in her coppery body. A gypsy girl, someone whispered; and the Black Prince leaned forward in curiosity.
These gypsies were just now coming into the outlying provinces of Europe, though they would not reach Paris for another half a century. Egyptians, they called themselves, part of the “mixed multitude” that followed Moses out of the land of the Pharaohs in Biblical times. Other men said they were from Hindustan, fleeing the enmity of a royal prince. There was gossip too, that they were the remnants of the scattered Mongol horde under Batu after their smashing defeat of Bela IV on Mohi Heath, a century before. Thieves and practitioners of the black arts, the rumor went on, they were also excellent hands with horses, in the shaping of iron and the repair of all metal things.
“I speak the truth, Lord,” the girl said, and the black eyes flirted with him. “No gitano lies to such a one as you!”
Edward chuckled. “Then you’ll have no objection to returning his coins to my soldier, when he gives back whatever it was he bought from your cart?”
The girl hissed and shook her head angrily so that the gold hoops clattered. “A trade is a trade! Chee, chee!”
“Do as I order,” Edward said, and there was something in his voice that made the gypsy girl stare at him queerly.
She smiled faintly, reached inside her torn skirt, and brought out a worn leather purse. This she threw at the soldier, who tossed back to her a small brooch. Rosette bent lazily to pick it up, aware that the prince watched her closely. As she tossed it behind her so that a dark, slim man might catch and store it with the other trinkets piled high on their two-wheeled cart, Edward beckoned her to follow him.
He brought her inside the coned tent, toward a small trestle table on which was set an iron coffer. This he opened and reaching in, brought out some gold coins.
“Take one of these nobles in payment for the profit you lost. Take the rest in proof of my friendship.”
The girl stared from the gold nobles in her palms to the sober face of this great lord. Her sly eyes went to the wide divan where the quartered lions and fleurs-de-lis were brocaded on its hangings.
“You want Rosette, eh? For all this gold?”
Edward smiled. “No, I don’t want Rosette. Or anyone else.” His face sobered for a moment, as if a cloud had crossed his eyes. That last was a lie, he thought, remembering Joan. “All I want is friendship.”
The gypsy girl stared at him. Abruptly she reached out and caught his hand, studying the lines on his palm. “You love someone, eh? That is why you do not want Rosette! This girl you love—is she forbidden to you?”
“She’s married to someone else.” As Iseult was to Mark!
Rosette laughed. “I can give you a drink to make her love you. Only you! For this much gold I would do that.”
A love potion! Well, Blanchefleur had prepared a love potion for Iseult, too. Only thing was, Tristram and Iseult had taken it themselves. Was this gypsy girl to play Blanchefleur for him? He smiled wryly at the thought.
“No,” he told her. “I don’t want that. Only your friendship.”
Rosette was puzzled. “But why, noble lord?”
“Why? Because of, my love for—for this other woman. Even if I can’t have her, I can still be the kind of man she wants me to be, the kind of man I would be if she were mine. Does that make any sense to you?”
Rosette studied him, remembering the stories of this chivalrous English riah that peasants and common people had told her and the other gypsies when their traveling had taken them past ruined castles and burned villages left behind in the wake of the English army. He showed mercy to the helpless, preventing rape and molestation of the village women when he could, allowing only looting for this was how the soldier of their times made their pay—and the necessary burning of the French strongholds.
Reaching up to her ear, the girl drew off one of the gold hoops and handed it to him. “A friendship token, lord. Show this to any of my kind, and they will be your servants. Not for gold, but for friendship.”
He watched the little cavalcade of carts and horses move out along the dirt road of the Normandy countryside until they were gone in a cloud of dust. Staring down thoughtfully at the earring, he put it carefully into his belt pouch….
Orders came, when he was five miles from Evreux, to return and join his column with the van under Edward III. In order to consolidate his rear, and because the city of Caen was filled with rare treasures, the king had decided to plant the English lions over its towers.
Caen straddled the river Orne. Here William the Conqueror had lived before his invasion of England. The twin stone abbeys and his powerful citadel lay to the west, while the city itself was to the east, approachable only over a barbicaned bridge. High walls surrounded the citadel and the abbeys. The town itself was undefended except for the strong bridge-works, which included stone ramparts and a huge iron gate.
Edward III ordered up his siege engines. With these came the Black Prince and his cannons.
Catapults and mangonels were almost useless against such a target, for the huge stones went sailing high above the barbican that guarded the narrow bridge to splash uselessly into the river, when they did not chip away at the stone causeway itself. Used mostly to bombard houses and tower defenses, they needed a sprawling target to be effective. And a battering ram that was brought up perished under a load of stones cascaded down from the barbican wall walk.
In a dark mood, the king sent for young Edward.
“Can these cannons of yours help me here?” he asked savagely. “Or are they as useless as the rest of my siege engines?”
“Give me men to roll them forward, and men to carry the powder kegs and iron balls they fire, and I’ll have those gates down before the hour is gone.”
Edward III scowled gloomily. “If I take you at your word, I should order my lances to ready a charge, and my archers to follow them.”
“It would be a wise thing to do,” smiled the prince. “My cannon will not fail me.”
The wooden platform with the tilting shield affixed to uprights on either side of it was rolled within fifty feet of the bridge barbican. A shower of stones could not reach it here, and the mantlet that was hung by leather hinges to its frame took all the arrows and crossbow quarrels that came at it. The long brass cylinders gleamed in the July sunlight. Edward dismounted and rode with Hermann of Thuringia on the platform.
Together, the prince and the Thuringian poured the black powder, hoisted in the black iron ball, rolling it tight against the padding. It was Edward who walked behind the cannon, sighting them. His nod caused Hermann to bend and thrust a glowing torch against the tiny touch-hole. There was a deafening roar and a puff of smoke. The platform rocked back on its wooden wheels.
The first of the iron cannonballs broke the brittle iron bar wedged tightly behind the great doors. The second brought one of the doors down off its hinges.
A cry of dismay came from the barbican. It was echoed by the throaty roar that lifted from the massed English throats.
The swinging mantlet that had been lifted to enable the cannon to fire swung down now to protect the prince and the Thuringian as they readied the cylinders for a second volley. They must wait for the brass to cool before they poured more powder, and the barrels must be swabbed of all impurities. Only three times an hour could the cannon be fired, but its results each time were devastating.
After the second volley, the English lances lowered and moved forward past the cannon platform that was being pulled back off the roadway. The iron gates were in the dust and as the mounted chivalry of England clattered over them, they rang with the hollow thunder of defeat. It was as if they drummed a funeral roll for the fate of the city they had failed to guard.
The Black Prince left Hermann with his precious artillery pieces. He mounted and rode across the bridge into the cobbled streets of Caen. He found them filled with fighting, cursing men: Frenchmen in salades and mail shirts hammering with sword and ax at English men-at-arms who were under orders to clear the streets and capture the constable of Normandy.
Two Norman ax-men came for him, but he took their blows on his shield and drove them from him with swinging sword cuts. When they turned and fled, he went after them, pursuing them into a squat stone tower that overlooked an open square. The oaken door to the tower was open. He followed them, realizing too late that he was stepping into a trap.
The men had turned, and were standing with their mailed backs to a wooden stair. The round tower room itself, held a bare table and a pair of wooden stools. In the recess over which a wooden balcony was built there were three more men: knights, to judge by their plate armor and gipons.
A woman sat in a high-backed chair, legs crossed under her clinging kirtle of embroidered baudekin. Her chin was on her fist, and she was smiling grimly.
“Welcome, Your Highness,” she said. “Surrender to my men. I would not kill you, if I can prevent it. All I ask is your word.”
The three knights came forward slowly, shields upraised and swords lifted.
The trap had not shut completely on him. The open door was at his back. Edward backed slowly out into the sunlight, where there would be room to swing his blade. The knights came after him, and with them came the two men-at-arms.
Hoof-beats sounded on the cobblestones.
Edward whirled to meet this new attack, but the man who rode the big bay stallion into the square was no Frenchman. The cut of his armor was English, as was the styling of his cloth cyclas. It was then, as his eyes ran over the golden leopards and diamond-shaped fusils, that Edward recognized him.
“Pepin!” he shouted. “Pepin of Chambroix!”
“Rare sport, Edward. Rare sport! My men have found a rich merchant’s house filled to its rafters with treasure. I’m on my way now to inspect them. I’m rich, Edward! Rich!”
With a wave of his metal gauntlet, Pepin of Chambroix rode on.
Edward stared after him, feeling numb with cold. Was this his friend, this Pepin who cared more for gold and silver than for friendship? True, he’d lost his temper with him back at Windsor, but these five men he faced were enemies. To turn his back on a fellow soldier’s danger and ride to loot when all the rest were fighting: this was the act of a felon knight!
“Yield, Your Grace!” said one of the French knights.
The weight of his sword in his hand reminded Edward that his life might well end this summer day in Caen. The odds were five to one, and there was no rescue force in sight. Well, then! He would take more than one of them with him. His shield rose up before him, held in such a position that he could look above it.
“Take me,” he said quietly.
They came in a rush of mailed feet on the cobbles and their three swords fell on him as one. His shield bent and he was driven to his knees. His left arm was on fire, and for the moment, so great was the shock, he thought himself wounded. The three knights were half over him, stumbling in their run. One of them was so close that all he had to do was lift his sword and thrust up under the mail shirt he wore into his unprotected belly.
The man screamed and fell away, clutching himself as a great flood of blood came down over his mail trousers.
Edward was on his feet now, facing the two knights who stared from their fallen comrade to the prince in his black armor. The men-at-arms were moving around on either side of him to get at his back. If they completed their encirclement, he would be helpless.
Where the stone tower joined an arched street gate, there was a flight of stone steps. Edward ran for them. One of the mailed men saw his goal and cried out; a man-at-arms ran to stop him.
His sword was up and swinging, cleaving through leather hacqueton and plate mail into a shoulder. The man fell forward and lay face down on the street, twitching spasmodically. Edward ran on and planted his back squarely against the round tower, two treads up the stone steps.
“Now come to me,” he shouted to them.
Through the narrow slits of this helmet he could see the open door of the tower and the woman who stood there with a white hand resting on the lintel, staring at him. Even at this moment, with the two knights and the one remaining man-at-arms coming for him, he was struck with her beauty.
Only one of the Frenchmen could come at him at a time. His sword rose and fell, clanging and raising sparks from shield and blade as he drove him back, until another took his place. The woman cried out something to the man, and their careful manner fell away. The city was yielding all around them to the English. Soon now a troop of archers or mounted knights would come into their tower square. Before that happened they must secure the prince and ride fast to escape.
Their haste made them reckless. When two of them came shoulder-to-shoulder at him, the man on the inside could not wield his blade properly because of the round stone wall. His shield dropped a little as his body half turned. It was such an opening that Edward wanted. He stepped down and his sword’ darted out, point first. It caught the Frenchman between in the throat.
Almost instantly—in the same movement with which he pulled his steel from the throat of the dying man—the Black Prince struck sideways at his fellow. His blade rang off his shoulder roundel, but it unbalanced the French knight so that he tumbled sideways. Edward was off the stone steps in a wild leap that brought him down straddling the fallen man, point at his throat. “Get back!” he roared at the man-at-arms, who was pausing indecisively at this sudden change of fortune. “Back, or he dies!”
The woman cried out sharply and the man-at-arms, his face sullen, threw down his round shield. He was about to release his sword when he looked to left and right, up and down the square. He glanced once at the woman, and once at the Black Prince. Then he whirled and ran, sword still clutched in his fist. He disappeared from sight under the arched street gate.
Edward used a sword belt to tie the wrists of the fallen knight behind his back, and strips torn from his gipon to bind his ankles. Then he looked at the woman.
She retreated before him slowly, backing into the round stone tower. Her eyes were wide and fearful, but there was courage in them. Only by the tight fist her hand made at her thigh did she show any sign of emotion.
“What do you intend for me?”
“First, who are you?”
“Ysabelle of Morsalines.”
Morsalines was a small castle not too far from Caen. Ysabelle was the widow of Sir Arnaut de Marne. She had come into Caen two days ago to escape the ravages of the English army, and to offer prayers at the Abbey aux Dames. The three knights and the men at arms were her retainers. When word had come to her of the English prince in the black armor whose cannons battered down the bridge gate, she had conceived the idea of luring him to the stone tower and making him her prisoner.
“Your father the king would have paid a royal ransom for you,” she concluded, her shoulders moving in a shrug. “Your sword was stronger than we thought. Now it is I whom you will hold for ransom.”
Her eyes told him that she expected to pay a more intimater toll than golden gros tournois. She was smiling faintly, well aware that her tight blue baudekin gown clung to mature breasts and wide hips. Her lips were very red, and overly full. Against the fall of her skirt, her thigh made a curving rondure.
“Fortunately,” she went on, “I can pay you something. My husband did not leave me impoverished. If you will ride with me to Morsalines, I will pay whatever ransom you claim.”
“To Morsalines—and another trap?” he asked. “Bring men with you, if you fear me.”
Unstrapping his helm, he lifted it off and threw back the camail hood so that it lay behind him on the small of his back. For the first time, Ysabelle saw his face and golden hair. She stirred against the table where she leaned, and a little of the tension went out of her.
Edward said, breathing deeply of the air, his face shiny with sweat from his heavy armor in the July heat, “I may do just that, milady. I have never taken ransom before.”
“And to begin with a woman!” she taunted him.
She smiled, and moved forward. From her corded belt she drew a scented kerchief and wiped his forehead and his cheeks, smiling gently up into his eyes. “Morsalines can be very lovely in the summer, with the breeze cool through its tower rooms, and the water in the moat clean for swimming.”
“I should at least see your castle before setting the price of ransom,” he said hoarsely.
“The fields are ripe with corn and our vines with grapes about now. There will be lamb roasting over the kitchen fires, and perhaps some traveling minstrels to entertain us. It could be a form of holiday for Your Highness.”
“We’ll find my father,” he told her suddenly. “I’ll borrow twenty knights and ride before the sun sets.”
He found his black war horse tossing its head against the reins that held it to an abandoned cart filled with hay for the marketing. Mounting, he drew the Frenchwoman up before him, so that she rested in the crook of his arm. There was no haste in him to find the king. Ysabelle of Morsalines was soft and pleasurably heavy, and it had been a long time since Lady Ermingarde….
Edward III was jubilant as he sat on the great chair that did duty as his field throne beneath the cloth canopy that had been raised on lances in the town square. Nobles and rich merchants were hurrying from all quarters to do him homage. The constable of Normandy and its Lord High Chamberlain were in custody, as were a dozen famous French knights. The city of Caen was outranked in size only by London itself in all England, and only by Paris in France. She was a not inconsiderable prize, and all the early reports said she was as wealthy as she was large.
“Take forty men-at-arms, if you want,” he told the Black Prince.
Twenty would be enough, Edward assured him. And he needed them only against any wandering band of French mercenaries who might have lost their liege lord and turned robbers in his absence.
He did not see Pepin of Chambroix move to the front line of the knights surrounding the royal dais, nor did he observer the strange look that passed between Pepin and Ysabelle of Morsalines.
They came down on Morsalines Castle in the dusk of early evening. From the sloping road that wound through the forests of Cotentin they could see its curtained walls and four corner towers, and rising high above them the spired chapel steeple and the huge gatehouse, the great hall and kitchen. A pennon with the Morsalines arms flapped lazily from the prison tower. A deep moat that seemed a large pool in the midst of a vast sea of reeds was bridged by a piled causeway leading to the castle drawbridge.
“My home, Your Highness.” Ysabelle smiled, gesturing.
Pages ran to take the horses as Lady Ysabelle escorted the Black Prince into the gatehouse. There were chambers prepared for him and his squire in the Marne Tower. Fires had been lighted against their arrival, for the prince had sent a rider on ahead with word of their approach. Within the hour, Ysabelle assured him, they would be dining in the great hall.
It was over white Flemish wine and Brie cheese that the Black Prince had his first surprise.
The string music of rebecs and gitterns swept in to them from the court outside the hall. This was wild, stirring music, quite unlike the slow and sedate rhythms of harps and dulcimers with which Edward was familiar. This was wild music; savage and untamed. It set the feet to moving almost in a stamp. It conjured up visions of forest glades, with satyrs and centaurs pursuing screaming nymphs.
Ysabelle of Morsalines smiled slyly as she watched Edward from the corners of her eyes. She sat in regal ease in the high-backed chair that was a mate to his own, its dark oak arms carved at the hand-grips in the form of tusked boars’ heads. Her taut kirtle was of Genovese velvet trimmed in ermine, outlining her rich hips and rounded breasts.
“A Tartar tune, Your Highness. My seneschal discovered a band of wanderers camped in the forests. One of their women is going to dance for us. I promised that you would find pleasure in Normandy!”
The red Languedoc wine that a serving man poured steadily into the silver goblet at his hand was warming stuff, but not so warming to young Edward as the ample charms of Ysabelle of Morsalines, with her shoulders white and full above velvet bodice.
“You seem to have made a study of pleasure,” Edward smiled.
Her shoulder moved. “There is nothing else in life. The mother pleases the babe in her arms, the young lover pleases the maid, the wife pleases her husband. Even the grave must please the old and the tired.”
“You turn philosopher. But a pleasing one.”
Her laughter was rich and soft. Her white hand sought his where it lay on the damask cover of the long dining table. Her fingers were warm and strong as they pressed it promisingly. Her wide brown eyes gently mocked him.
“I am even more pleasing as a hostess,” she whispered.
Edward laughed and brought her hand to his mouth, discovering its texture to be living satin as he kissed it. If her hand was so soft and tempting, what would the rest of her be like? England was far away, and Joan of Kent was an ache that he tried to forget with war and battle. Perhaps there was another way to put her from his mind. Though he would never marry—his vow he kept always in mind—there was no reason why he should not enjoy the fruits of conquest. Even the code of chivalry permitted that!
Ysabelle clapped her palms and now the music grew louder. The heavy brocade curtains at the far end of the great hall below the railed gallery parted and three musicians carrying stringed viols and a lute came into the room. They were ragged fellows, faintly familiar. Where had he seen them before? As the pounding rhythms swept over him, Edward remembered.
Tiny bells began to tinkle. A hand caught at the draperies and drew them back. A woman stepped into the candlelight. She was dark and sleek, with black hair cut in bangs above her oval face. Black eyes brooded from under thin, plucked brows. Her mouth was a red gash in a dusky face. She wore only a faja about her coppery loins whose fringed ends flared outward, swirling as she moved, baring her legs below the knees, showing tiny bells looped about her ankles. Her full young breasts stood up proudly, darkly crested.
Rosette—the gypsy girl who’d pressed her gold earring into his hand as a sign of friendship!
Edward leaned forward. Now Rosette was swinging her shoulders from side to side as she came forward, sliding with feline grace in time to the music. On bare feet she came into the open space between the tables and her hips paraded in rhythm with her shoulders.
For an instant the strings muted, grew soft and distant. Then abruptly they leaped to wild life. In echo to that furious twanging, Rosette appeared to erupt. Her hips went lurching from side to side as her head jerked this way and that, throwing her long black hair like a wild mane. She launched herself into the dance as if she were possessed of a fire. Her mouth opened widely as her head fell backward, her black hair brushing against the floor.
Her shoulders wriggled savagely. Harsh cries came from her throat like flailing whips that forced the musicians into even faster rhythms. Her back arched as she pointed her breasts at the groined ceiling; then she was bending forward, face toward the floor.
Her legs flashed out and sideways, kicking. She strutted, writhing her arms as if they were boneless. She swung about the hall, within the enclosure of the tables, her hips looping. It was a wild, unrestrained dance, a giving of the body into a series of muscular contortions that followed the play of the strings as if they moved a puppet.
For long minutes, Rosette held her audience in a spell, sweeping them up with her into these mad convolutions and spasmodic wrigglings. From whatever land that had spawned this dance, either Egypt with its mystery and its pyramids, or the wild steppes of Tartary with its rice wine feastings, the gypsy girl made it come alive for each of them.
The music reached a crescendo.
Rosette paused, legs spread, hips lifted, head back. She quivered all over, then slowly sank to the wooden plankings, head bowed.
Then she was gone, trailing soft laughter over a dark shoulder.
“An exciting woman,” murmured Ysabelle of Morsalines. “An even more exciting dance!”
Edward lifted his silver goblet and let the heady wine pour down his throat. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes bright. He could sense the blood drumming in his veins, making him restless. His habitual English reserve was gone, lost in the pulsing magic of the moment. It occurred to him that this noblewoman who sat beside him might have arranged for Rosette to perform the most fiery dance she knew. But why? To seduce him from a normal caution and make him as uncaring as he felt at the moment? Again, why? A woman like Ysabelle of Morsalines needed no help when it came to rousing a man to madness!
He put away his thoughts. They were bothersome things at the moment. It was much more pleasant to reach out and place his palm on the thigh of this woman beside him, stroking it gently, sensing its smoothness and softness through the blue velvet.
“There is a hunger in Your Highness,” she whispered softly, peering down at the fingers that explored her.
“A hunger you don’t despise!” he breathed. “Why else did you summon the gypsy girl to do such a dance? To capture me by my senses as you once tried to do with your knights?”
He brooded at her, undecided whether Morsalines Castle might be a trap or tryst. His palm had discovered that this velvet kirtle was her only covering. Beneath it he would find skin as smooth as the back of the white hand he had kissed. And yet this, too, might be a calculated move. Her body could accomplish what her knights had failed to do in Caen. ” Ysabelle flushed at what she read in his eyes. She whispered, “Did I destroy all, trust in me at Caen? Must I explain that the late duke—my husband—was eighteen years my senior? Cold of nights, with neither beef on his bones nor imagination in his mind. Will you destroy my pride as you destroyed my soldiers?”
Her mouth grew moist as her tongue touched it. Tiens! He was a handsome youth, even if he was one with so many other men, with Alexander, and Hannibal and Caesar: a war captain, commanding men to victory, and with his victories, winning spoils. Ysabelle told herself that she was a spoil of the fight at the round tower. Curiously, she enjoyed the feeling.
“You must be tired after the fighting and the traveling,” she smiled. “Let me summon a serving maid to show you to your room.”
He laughed a little. “You disappoint me, Ysabelle. I remember a suggestion about the scent of honeysuckle vines from your bedchamber window.”
Edward fought back his traditional caution. Was he to retire to a chamber and remain awake and clad in mail and plate armor with his sword-hilt under his hand while the ransom of the lady of Morsalines was being counted out in the bailiff’s room? There was another way to spend the night. He remembered the tales old soldiers had told him of the delights of conquest in Guienne and Languedoc.
“Show me your chamber, yourself,” he said, and pushed back his big oak chair.
The glance she gave him was enigmatic, but she rose at his gesture and walked ahead of him, from the dais to the fight of wooden stairs at the rear of the great hall that mounted upward to the railed balcony. In the yellow light of a wall cresset he pulled her back against him, bending his head to find her soft mouth parting to his kiss.
“Your Highness has forgotten his mistrust in his meretriciousness,” she teased when he let her go.
“Your Ladyship has forgotten how impatient a man can be to see your bedchamber. After all, I am not eighteen years your senior.”
“It is a fact I try to overlook. It is I who am older.”
“By less than five years. Women marry young in Normandy!”
Her arms were soft weights about his shoulders as she whispered with him in the torch-lit gallery. Her body was soft and giving where it pressed calculatedly, as if to prove that her seniority did not detract from her seductiveness. With a deftness that might have warned a more experienced man, Ysabelle of Morsalines set herself to make Edward of England forget everything but the fact that she was a very attractive woman.
“By the Rood!” he whispered in the shadows. There was a madness in young Edward as he bent and lifted her. He ran with Ysabelle making a soft, heavy weight on his chest; ran until she called to him to halt, to turn in under a stone archway where a wooden door stood open to a chamber lighted by yellow tapirs set in floor-stands of gleaming brass.
A bed of heavy oak was hung with dark blue drapes, on which the three boars heads of Morsalines were embroidered. The covers on the bed had been turned back. Edward lowered his burden to the coverlet, but when he would have risen, he felt her hand tugging at him.
“No, Your Highness! Do not rise to undo your gipon—Morte de Dieu! How that buckle scratches! Here, let me–”
She was a laughing witch in the candlelight, disrobing him; pausing at times to disrobe her own body. Gently mocking him with kisses and with laughter, she held him off: running to lean his sword against a big oaken chest, pausing to draw herself up before the standing mirror that had come from Venice, kneeling on the bed to serve him with a small silver wine cup despite his growled protestations that the only wine he wanted was her kisses.
Ysabelle tried to evade his mouth, but he was too strong. He pulled her down—
It may have been the scrape of a sandal on the gallery floor beyond the chamber door that warned him, or the fact that at the sound the woman beside him went so tense. Edward started up just as the door crashed open.
A knight stood there, all in armor from crested helm to the plate sollerets on his feet. Still in his wild daze, his palm holding the memory of her heavy breast, he stared uncomprehendingly.
“Pepin!” he whispered.
“Aye. Pepin!” boomed the man in armor.
He seemed more gigantic, somehow, in the candlelight and shadows. The silver leopard on his helm and the rich velvet mantling flowing from it gave him added height. As he advanced slowly from the door, his plate armor clanked faintly against the mail hauberk he wore beneath it.
His own sword lay tilted against a chest beside the bed. His armor was in the Marne Tower solar. In dismay, Edward realized that all he wore against this man who came toward him so inexorably was his bare skin.
Lady Ysabelle was drawing up the coverlets to cover her nakedness.
“You were late,” she said to Pepin accusingly.
Edward looked from one to the other in bewilderment. This was a trap, then; the same sort of trap into which he’d plunged in Caen when he followed the two men-at-arms into the tower. His instincts had been right.
“I was quite a fool, wasn’t I?” he said hoarsely, eyeing his sword in its leaning scabbard.
“Enough of a fool for our purpose,” said the woman.
“Ah? And that would be—my death?”
Pepin snorted. “Alive, you mean two hundred thousand gold nobles to us! Dead, you mean only English vengeance following us to our graves. If I’ve the choice, I’ll take the gold.”
Edward was curious. “When did you arrange it between you?”
His duties in the Cinque Ports brought him often into Normandy this past year, Pepin explained. On one of those visits, his gaze had been caught by the ripe haunches of the Lady Ysabelle. A visit or two to the abbey where she prayed, a mutual friend discovered, and they were conspirators.
“She likes gold as much as I do myself,” Pepin laughed shortly. “It was she who conceived the trap at Caen. My only contribution was to appear and lead off any Englishmen who might arrive to interrupt. I was not needed, for none came. Yet your sword was too much for the three knights and two men-at-arms detailed to capture you.”
Pepin took a firmer grip on his own blade. “Yield now, Edward. You cannot fight me without armor or a shield!”
“No,” said Edward, but even as he spoke, he was moving.
His hand came up with the coverlets balled in a fist, yanking them sideways and away from the tumbling Lady Ysabelle, sending them whipping out as he might a fishnet, in a spraying arc toward Pepin. Like a graveyard shroud those sheets and quilts came down around the eye-slits of Pepin’s helmet, blinding him.
In the same motion, Edward was off the bed, running naked to the chest where his sword leaned. He snatched its scabbard in his left hand, lifting out the sword with his right. He hurled the scabbard at the plated legs of the Frenchman just as Pepin was dragging the coverlets free of his eyes. The heavy scabbard banged into Pepin’s ankles and made him stumble as he took a step.
That was all the help that Edward needed. He moved in, his sword flashing. The edge of his blade rang loudly on the ailettes strapped to Pepin’s shoulder, on which were enameled his coat of arms. Pepin roared with fury, and went to his knees.
Edward waited for no more. He turned and ran, naked as he was born, out into the hall and up the tower stairs. If he could reach the ramparts, he could circle the great hall and reach the tower room where his own armor lay.
A shout from below carried into the night. They were waiting for him on the stair below. Pepin and the Lady Ysabelle had planned this well. He supposed that two hundred thousand gold nobles was worth some thought. His men would be prisoners by now, being escorted toward the dungeons. All that remained was to put manacles on his wrists or secure his word that he would surrender, and their trap was sprung.
But they did not have the Black Prince yet. “To the wall walks! He’s up there somewhere. You in the ward cry out when you see him!”
That would be Pepin, directing things. He must have come into the castle while they were at dinner. The barbican and gatehouse would have been expecting him. The portcullis would be lifted and the drawbridge lowered. How many men would Pepin have brought? Fifty? A hundred? And all of then Frenchmen from his Chambroix estates, too. He could never trust an Englishman for this night’s work!
Edward was on the rampart walk now, and running fast. A tower door opened ahead of him. He caught the flash of moonlight on metal as a dozen men-at-arms charged for him. He whirled to turn, but he was being followed by a score. He was between two forces, with only the flagging stones of the middle yard below to offer an escape.
His fingers tightened on the hilt of his sword.
“Now, by the Trinity!” he swore, when another thought came to him. The moat. He might break his back on its flat surface or a leg on its bottom, for it was summer and the waters were shallow. Still, it was a chance for freedom!
His sword went first, arching up and over a stone merlon. Then he was leaping to the parapet between the merlons, gripping the stone coping, staring down at the silvery waters of the moat, a hundred feet below. His toes gripped stone a moment. Then he was hurtling outward and down, feeling the rush of air past his mouth, arms flung wide to maintain balance. He hit the water hard; felt it close wet and cold around him.
The shock of the fall numbed him for a moment, just before he rammed hard against the bottom. His legs doubled under him, driving the breath from his lungs. Frantically he fought for escape, striving to swim as he had swum in the waters of the Woodstock ponds. Slowly his strength came back. His legs kicked out and his arms flashed, and he felt the cool summer night against his face. His legs beat steadily as he gulped air into his lungs.
An arrow hissed into the water, three feet away. A voice shouted from the wall. “Flesh him only! I want him alive, not dead. Only flesh him while a boat goes out to get him!”
They would have fen boats hereabouts, moored to the causeway wharf in all probability. He must reach the shore before they reached him. Edward began to swim. He was halfway to the shore when an arrow caught him in the back with numbing force and he went down like a stone. . .
A naked arm slid around his waist. He felt the surge of legs beside him in the water. Then a hand—how soft and smooth it was, he thought despite the pain in him—was cupping his chin, lifting it into the air.
“Easy now, my lord. Easy!’
He knew then, even without looking, that it was the gypsy girl, Rosette. The pain in his back was like white fire-eating into his flesh. She did what she could to ease him, but she must swim to keep him afloat, and the occasional brush of an arm or kicking leg against the arrow-shaft that was deep in his body, was maddening.
Then she was standing in the water and he felt her flesh warm against his body as she lifted him, calling out in a harsh voice. “Socorro! Give me a hand with him!” Strong hands were under his legs and arms then and he was swung up and carried.
The moonlight gave him a momentary glimpse of the naked gypsy girl as she bent to lift her single garment high over her head, wriggling a little as it dropped around her hips. Then she was pushing back her long wet black hair and smiling at him with a flash of white teeth.
“We’ll get the arrow out of you in a little while. But right now it’s more important to lose ourselves.”
Her pointing finger showed him a flat-bottomed fen boat being poled across the moat. Pepin would be out there, searching for him and hoping against two hundred thousand gold nobles that he was not dead. If they saw some of his blood in the water, they’d think that soon enough.
“Good girl,” he whispered, and tried to smile.
Her hand was warm on his fingers. “Sleep now, riah! When you wake, you’ll be safe in a gitano tent!”
A two-wheeled cart was waiting. He was lifted into it and laid gently on a folded woolen blanket. Then the girl was swinging up beside him, raising his cheek from the wool to pillow it on a smooth thigh. Her fingers stroked his yellow hair and she crooned softly to him, deep in her throat. He slept.
They fed him raw brandy while they took the arrowhead out of his back, but he could feel the pain stabbing through his alcoholic daze. Soft fingers were on his cheeks, soothing and caressing, and he dreamed in a little while that it was Joan of Kent beside him. He murmured her name, again and again.
A candle glowed in the tent. It was night, and the gypsy-girl was seated cross-legged looking down at him. When she saw his open eyes, she clapped her hands, laughing.
“You’re well again!”
He stirred and felt the fire in his back. Relaxing, he smiled ruefully up at her. “Almost, Rosette. All I need is rest.”
“And good broth, and little bits of meat cut up.”
He was not well, though. The arrow that had driven deep into his back seemed to leave a psychic poison in its wake. The flesh was clean and healthy, and the wound was healing nicely, but inside him, Edward was a mass of festering thoughts. The constant treachery of Pepin, his attempt to capture him for ransom, the lying blandishments of Ysabelle of Morsalines, tumbled one after another through his troubled dreams and restless waking hours. And always among them was the lovely face and golden hair of Joan, who now shared another’s bed.
Was all the world rotten to the core? Was chivalry a dead and forgotten thing? A guest in a medieval castle was inviolate. Not only had he been betrayed, he had been lured to Morsalines with such treachery in mind.
He dreamed of wet torture dungeons and of himself hanging in chains set into the stone walls as Ysabelle brought glowing iron rods to thrust against his flesh. Or his bare feet were encased in the boot, as Pepin turned the screw. Sometimes he hung by his thumbs from ceiling chains while Ysabelle danced and Pepin lashed him with lead-tipped whips.
He lost weight. His cheeks were gaunt and hollow; his eyes became feverish. The strength of his body wasted swiftly.
He felt no interest for anything. When Rosette came to feed him he would turn his back on her and stare blindly at the bare wall of the little tent.
A gypsy gourie said to her, when she questioned him about her patient, “He has no will to live, girl. You tell me the woman he loves wed another. Now his best friend has betrayed him to the French.” The man shrugged. “Who can blame him? Everyone seems to have turned against him. Why should he go on living in a world that seems to want to be rid of him?”
Rosette was thoughtful. “What one woman did, another woman can undo Tonight when I bring his broth, he won’t turn his back to me!”
Usually, only one candle burned in the little gypsy tent. Tonight a dozen flamed, making the tent interior almost white. As Rosette slid in through the tent flap, Edward lay flat on his back, staring straight upward at the pole hole.
“Broth, my fine lord,” she whispered.
“Take it away. I don’t want any.”
“It will be good for you.” She sat, making a faintly musical sound. For a few moments he continued to stare at the pole hole in the tent roof. Then his eyes moved sideways. Edward came up on an elbow, and his jaw dropped open. She wore thin trousers of black lace through which her skin gleamed like old bronze. About her throat were looped a dozen necklaces of copper links, set here and there with pink rubies. Her feet were bare, but two toes held large rings.
Her smile was friendly. “This is how the harem women dress, back in the Mongol lands from which my people come. It is a very warm country, as you can guess.”
He could not take his eyes from her body. Automatically he ate the broth she fed him, and the beef thumbits. He did not object when she sharpened a knife and wet his cheeks and shaved him, and then set his thick yellow hair in order. The fragrance of her body, daubed with musky perfumes, and the touch of her heavy young breasts where they brushed him as she combed his hair, were rousing a slow, thick fire in his loins.
Once his hand seized her wrist and brought her down against him, but she only laughed and twisted free.
“You are too weak for kisses, my lord!”
He did not dream of the wet dungeons that night, but of Rosette.
Now when she came to feed him, always wearing the lace trousers and the beads and the rings on her toes, he ate voraciously. Nothing was quite as important to him as full recovery. When he was well and strong again—he must be sly about this, he told himself—some night she would enter the tent and not leave it. It became a game between them, with her tender mockery and laughter like a wall before his growing strength.
Within three days he was walking about the tent, feeling only an occasional twinge where the arrow had been. On the morning of the fourth day he went out into the early dawn and breathed deep of the summer fragrance of jasmine and orange blossoms.
The gypsies came flocking around at sight of him, white teeth flashing in dark faces. They brought him to the cooking fires and seated him on a log and fed him eggs and cold milk. After a while some of the men gave him word of his father.
“He marches, marches! Always, he marches!” a heavyset Romany said, shaking his head. “From Summereux, to Poix, to Paris!”
“He went north when he heard of Philip’s large army!”
“The English are outnumbered by two or three to their one!” Cried another.
“He must live off a strange countryside, and he is none too sure of his Flemish allies!”
Young Edward was in a fever of impatience. “I must ride for Beauvais. The French will catch him, and I won’t be there to help. He must wonder what has happened to me!”
Rosette gurgled laughter. Now she wore the loose silken blouse and short fustian skirt of all the gypsy women. “And what good will such a son be to him, with a back so sore he cannot wield a blade?”
He brooded at her, remembering her as she had been these past few nights in his tent. “Come and feed me tonight, as you have done in the past. Judge for yourself how strong my back can be!”
Her eyes glowed hungrily. “I will do that, Prince. Yes, I will come tonight with meat and broth to test your strength.”
She came as she promised, when the moon was a slim crescent above the poplar trees. The tent flap fell behind her and she poised for a moment, watching him with bright eyes as he stood staring at her. Her dark eyes were sensuously inviting. The soft red mouth that had challenged him was only a few feet away.
Then Edward was striding forward. His arms went out and around her, making her drop the bowl and platter that held the broth and meat.
“I want a better food tonight,” he whispered into her ear.
His mouth was fire on her soft brown throat. Against his lips he could sense the thick laughter building in her. Two candles threw long shadows against the tent wall, and gave the tent interior a soft translucence. She was fragrant, soft, continually moving as if to escape the embrace that held her.
“You are too weak! Ah, my lord—don’t hurt your back—” To tease and tantalize, to stir to madness, to caress and kiss and lure. these were gypsy arts in which Rosette was schooled to perfection. She roused him until he quivered. Still she mocked him tenderly, holding him off.
“You must not. You are a sick man!”
“Sick with love for you!”
“Ah, no! Not—”
He cornered her against the tent pole with the two candles behind him casting black shadows on her face, out of which her eyes gleamed hungrily. His hands roamed her brown velvet skin, feeling her twist against him feverishly.
“Am I a sick man now, Rosette?”
“Ah, no! No—no!”
There was silence in the tent for a long while, broken only by the guttering of the candles. And then, like the wind sweeping up through the defile at Roncesvalles, high and keening came the wild cry of a frenzied woman.
The Lady Ysabelle of Morsalines brooded with chin on fist. Her brows were drawn together in a straight line. There was fear inside her bodice linens, and anger, and a frustrating sense of helplessness. Why had she listened to that slick-tongued rogue, Pepin of Chambroix? If she’d done what her own senses counseled, she’d be lying languidly on tufted cushions imported from the Moors of Granada in one of the solar rooms of this Caen fortress, instead of sitting her rump on the hard wood of a dungeon bench!
She came to her feet and went striding from the bench to the window with its single pier. Her hands clenched into fists. Shortly now they would be sending a man for her, to bring her before Prince Edward of England: Edward, whom she’d first tried to trap in the tower in Caen, then later in her own bedroom in Morsalines. What kind of vengeance would he ask of her?
Her mind remembered the sight of him standing naked with his sword in a hand, daring Pepin to come and take him—and later, as he leaped outward from the high wall of Morsalines to plummet down into the moat, daring them to follow him, if they could.
A mailed foot on the flagging outside her cell brought her from the window. The blood was draining from her face. So soon? So soon? Must she go now and face this man she had betrayed, and listen to him condemn her to the torturers? Her knees grew weak at the thought of torture.
Too often she had seen the cumbersome rack with its living victim stretched out on its supports, screaming for mercy as his joints were slowly and painfully pulled apart. Her eyes had shut tight against the sight of a man’s back being lashed to pulp with the cat. Which of these torments would Edward choose for her? Or would it be a merciful death by poison?
The man-at-arms gestured roughly and she went meekly ahead of him down the corridor and up the stone steps to a solar room.
Edward turned from the sheepskin scroll he had been studying, tossing the parchment aside with an air of relief. “Imprisonment has put a touch of pallor on your cheeks.” he said slowly. “I am sorry.”
Ysabelle stared at him. This man was the Black Prince about whom she had heard so much in her little cell. Her guards had told her gleefully of the battle of Crecy, at which young Edward had so distinguished himself. Only last week he had been in a gypsy camp, recovering from a wound. A wild ride across the Ponthieu countryside, a close escape from a band of French knights, his arrival at the English camp in time to command the van against the flower of French chivalry: they told her all that, with howls of laughter.
His placement of his English bowmen so they could cut down the Genovese crossbowmen hired by the French, and later the armored knights themselves; his stand with a handful of Englishmen about him on a little knoll, taking and throwing back every thrust that the Duc d’Alencon could manage against him, were all engraven in her mind as the crude guardsmen had yowled them at her through the bars of her cell.
So fair he was, and so young, to be such a very Mars. Her heart increased its hurried slam as he halted before her and smiled down. Those eyes that once had searched her body now seemed to search her soul. Those hands that clung by their thumbs to the plaque belt he wore low across his loins once searched her flesh with maddening slowness.
“My father the king has given you into my care, Lady Ysabelle,” he said gently. “He directed me to name the manner of your punishment for attempting to capture a prince of the royal house.” He smiled, showing his even white teeth in honest delight. Then he said, “It seems to me that I was escorted by twenty lances, and went of my own free will into your castle. If there should be any punishment, it should be meted out to me for my own recklessness.”
Ysabelle gasped. Her eyes were locked tight with his so that she could read the sympathy in them. Her dry lips whispered, “My Prince! Do you mean—is it really your intention to show me mercy? To forgive?”
She rose to her feet and took a step toward him. Her breathing had increased in fervor until her bosom rose stormily. Her intuition had not deserted her, then! This man was a man among men, of the stuff of which heroes were fashioned. He was strong but gentle, firm but understanding, royally gracious. In her agitation, in the relief that flooded her middle, Ysabelle almost threw herself into his arms.
“I have never forgotten what occurred between us,” she whispered, eyes glowing, “in the privacy of my bedroom before—before” She shook her head, fumbling for words. “I am putting it very crudely. I wish I had the tongue of a Froissart to make you understand what I feel, how ashamed and sorry I am for yielding to Pepin and his promises.”
“Pepin is a very engaging young man,” Edward commented wryly. “More than one lady has done what he asked, to my sorrow.”
A spasm crossed his face as he remembered Joan of Kent outside the blue door of the Devil’s Tower while he lay beside the Lady Ermingarde. Then his features were serene again, and he laughed.
He said, “I can understand how Pepin could have swayed you, very easily. Gold is for Pepin what honor, fame, love and religion are to other men. It gives him courage and cleverness, and a kind of twisted loyalty to his own greed.”
“I looked on you as an enemy,” she said gently. “I am a Frenchwoman. You are an Englishman. Now I would undo all that has happened between us, and begin over again.” She hesitated, wondering if he would understand her avowal for what she meant it to be. “I have nothing to offer you but myself. Yet I offer that—”
Edward shook his head, deliberately misunderstanding her. “I would not demean you, Lady Ysabelle.”
She bit her lip. Hesitatingly, she began again. “Morsalines was burned to the ground when your father sent troops to take me prisoner. Already, I had regretted the rashness that made me follow Pepin instead of my own heart.”
There was a little silence in the room. Then Edward bowed slightly. “I am deeply flattered by what you suggest, my lady. But you must know that I’ve made a vow to wed only one woman. Unfortunately, that woman is married to someone else. It seems that neither of us can ever achieve our goal, doesn’t it?”
Ysabelle felt fury bubble inside her. Some whey-faced English damsel, unlearned and untutored in the love arts, he would prefer to her! Anger blinded her to her inconsistency. An hour ago, she expected torture, or at best, a painless death. Now she raged because the heir to the throne of England would not take her to a marital bed.
“You are free to go at any time, of course,” Edward went on. “I will order a horse and saddle prepared, together with food. I will furnish you with whatever monies you will need to reach Morsalines.”
“Morsalines is in ruins,” she said dryly. “I find myself penniless.”
She moved to the bifore window, staring out at the blue sky and at the gabled rooftops of the city of Caen. A leaden dullness sat in her every limb. She had been a fool to offer herself to this man. How laughter must be twisting him inside, despite the polite face he showed her. Red shame tinted her cheeks and throat, and she found that the fervor of her love for him was changing slowly, becoming warped and twisted.
Pepin of Chambroix hated this Black Prince as much as he loved gold.
She herself was beginning to hate him too, and if anyone needed gold, she did! Then why not ally herself with Pepin? Work together with him against this golden-haired youth who stood for everything in life she had ever wanted, and could never have!
Edward watched her head go back and the stark pride come into her face. He wondered if she would appreciate his informing her that he was sparing her life because of that same Joan of Kent she affected to despise. Probably not. Even if she understood his motives, they would seem the merest folly to her. She would despise his weakness. She was that kind of woman.
It came to Edward that for all his splendid victory at Crecy, for all that he had earned himself a great reputation as a strategist and swordsman on that field of battle, he had nothing to show for it. The victory was credited to English arms. The fact that Philip of France was running for his life and that France lay before Edward III, his for the taking, was an added bauble in his father’s crown.
But he wanted none of those things. All he wanted—just one woman out of so many in the world—was forever denied to him. He sighed and watched Ysabelle of Morsalines stalk from the room. Despite his mercy, he had made an enemy of her.
Crecy was a national victory, but this meeting with Ysabelle was a personal defeat.