Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Curse Upon the House of York

BIRTH OF A CURSE
Chapter I:

      The year was 1337, and Edward III sat on a tumultuous throne. His son Edward, not yet known as the Black Prince, was barely in his seventh year, but already had a keen instinct for his father's moods and tempers --and by default, those of the kingdom. The discontent among the noble houses of England required careful maneuvering and a firm, but seemingly friendly hand in order for Edward to retain his crown and a semblance of peace at home while not losing momentum in his wars abroad. He sought advice from many sources: from his earls, from the Church, and from his personal counsel with God. Perhaps most unconventionally, he also sought advice from his wife, and she gave it neither shyly nor harshly, always guiding him with both good sense and compassion. Still, the truce between king and kingdom remained fragile, and it wasn’t until Edward called an unexpected Council meeting at Windsor Castle that the situation seemed on the verge of resolution. After the unusual meeting, word of Edward's intentions spread through the ranks of both courtiers and soldiers, down through the servants to the subjects and peasants. It was something so completely unprecedented, so surprisingly radical, that the date scheduled at Westminster a fortnight later could not come fast enough, nor slowly enough.
      With great trepidation, Edward was about to change the history of England.

      He stood in front of a long mirror, examining his appearance critically.
      “You look wonderful, dear. Don’t worry,” his wife Philippa admonished kindly, smoothing some of the folds in his ceremonial robe.
      He rebuffed her hands more out of agitation than any harsher emotion.
      “I am about to create more nobles than any other king before me for a hundred years. I could be about to cripple a nation.”
      “Or make it all the more powerful,” his wife reminded, for she had heard the argument back and forth many times before. She was aware her husband was making a dangerous political gamble, but its real ramifications did not fully penetrate her consciousness. The titles --the earldoms, to be exact --meant little to her. To Edward though, they were income and arms and potential allies, or potential traitors.
      He snapped his robes behind him and paced the large room that served as his dressing chamber. Several male servants stood nearby awaiting his word for whether he would need anything else. He ordered them to leave him be with his wife. Once they had left and shut the door behind them, he leaned against the table that held his crown on a silk pillow.
      “God give me strength,” he prayed allowed.
      “And keep you, amen,” his wife agreed, crossing herself.
      “Philippa,” Edward said after a pause, and she approached without hesitation. “There’s something I haven’t told you yet about today.”
      Philippa herself was dressed as befit a queen on a ceremonial occasion. The clasps on her robes were as large as her thin hands and heavier by far, but she moved with a grace the belied the weight of all she wore. She stood patiently before him, curious, but somehow certain that whatever he was about to reveal couldn't be truly terrible.
      “What is it, Edward?” she asked.
      “In addition to the six earldoms, I will grant another title tonight.”
      “For who?” she asked, which is what she presumed he wanted her to ask. “For Lancaster?”
      “No, for our son.”
      “But he's already an earl.” Philippa’s face showed her mild confusion. “And you surely cannot mean to name him Prince of Wales while he’s still so young, can you?”
      “No, not today, although some day soon enough. I am creating a new title for him. Not an earldom, a dukedom.”
      “A dukedom?”
      “He will be styled the Duke of Cornwall from now on.”
      “Cornwall? Your brother’s title?” Edward’s younger brother, John, had been the Earl of Cornwall, but had died less than a year previously.
      “His estate, but a new title. From now on, dukedoms shall sit between the Earls and the Crown. Only members of the royal family will be able to receive the honor. And Edward shall be the first.”
      Pleased with the thought that her eldest and only son would be granted further land and income and therefore power, Philippa smiled and put a hand on her husband’s arm. He put his own over it, acutely aware where his wife was unaware of the danger the new title could pose for their son.
      “I trust your judgment, dear,” Philippa assured him.
      And with that, she offered another smile before leaving him completely alone in the room to finish preparing for the ceremony. He stayed hunched over his crown, feeling its weight before it even touched his head. With a deep breath, he lifted it from its cushion and placed it over his freshly washed and brushed hair.
      Edward believed unflinchingly that God’s will would be done no matter what he, a mere mortal, decided to do, and in that sense, his fate was entirely out of his hands as he turned sharply on the heel of his boot and threw open the door of his chamber. The corridor was lined with servants and the occasional soldier. They all bowed as he passed, but Edward was still lost in his own thoughts and barely saw them until he approached the din of the courtyard where the carriages were being prepared to take him and his queen to Westminster.
      “Majesty,” bowed one of the footmen, opening the door to the royal carriage and lowering the footstep.
      When Edward had stepped up, the same footman swept in the robes that extended for several yards and would otherwise have been caught and dirtied in the closed door. On the other side, Philippa had already been seated with their son Edward, pale and quiet beside her. The horses jerked into motion over the rough ground and behind them, a dozen other coaches in the royal entourage followed suit, all save the two young princesses who were too young to travel and likely sleeping sweetly in their nursery.
      The younger Edward was tall for his age, looking more than just seven years old. His face showed a solemnity bordering on sourness that the elder Edward was familiar with from his own childhood. The burden of ruling pressed into one’s shoulders almost from birth.
      “How are your studies, Edward?” he asked his son, his own voice sounding foreign in his ears, coming out too gruffly and too much like his own father’s had been when he was that similarly tender age.
      Edward sent a quick glance to his mother before answering in a tone that was not necessarily afraid, but was nonetheless lacking in any enthusiastic emotion.
      “They’re very well, sir.”
      “And you ride daily, I hope?”
      “Yes,” Philippa answered, placing a hand on their son’s knee. “He’s quite accomplished on his pony. You should ride out with us one afternoon. He’s almost old enough for the hunt, after all.”
      Little Edward’s eyes and ears seemed to perk instantly at the word “hunt,” and the older Edward, who was not so far removed from childhood and the excitement of such prospects himself, was not ignorant to it.
      “The hunt,” he mused playfully, rubbing the bit of beard on his chin. “That’s true. We should likely host one in celebration of Edward’s new title.”
      “My new title?” asked the boy, suddenly less timid.
      “Yes, boy. Tonight I’ll make you a duke. The first and only duke of the Realm.”
      “What’s a duke?”
      “It’s a title I’ve made just for you.”
      “Is it better than an earl?” the boy was astute enough to ask.
      “Better than an earl. Better than anyone but the King and the Prince of Wales. And in a few years, I’ll make you Prince of Wales, too.”
      “I’ll be both? Duke and Prince of Wales?”
      “Yes, both,” Philippa smiled.
      “What will I be duke of?”
      “Of Cornwall. In the south. You’ll have all your Uncle John’s property and people. And we’ll teach you to be a good master and manage them well. So that you’ll manage England equally as well some day.”
      “Cornwall...” the boy whispered, gazing out the window and no doubt imagining where he had seen it drawn on maps of the British Isles.
      The rest of the ride to Westminster was uneventful, but their arrival found the abbey surrounded by interested townspeople, many seeking alms, but others just craving a glimpse of their monarch. The elder Edward emerged first, turning to help out his wife and then the younger Edward. Philippa walked ahead holding her son’s hand while Edward greeted subjects and threw some of the gold coins they had brought for just such a purpose. When the pouches were empty and the people were distracted by fighting over the last few shillings, Edward ducked inside the cool and cavernous building, his footmen scrambling to control his billowing robes.
      In the main hall, the sunlight filtered dimly in through the narrow windows and several servants were in the process of lighting the last of the candelabra. The majority of the court had already arrived, all dressed in their finest, and none so fine as those preparing to received the six new earldoms. The men moved through the crowd with a new sense of self-importance, and the other courtiers seemed drawn to it, fawning over them, craving the favor their new honors would have to offer. Edward watched through one of the archways, hidden from view, and wished he could hate what he was about to do.
      But it was a necessary evil. If he could unite the nobility by multiplying their numbers, if he could make more grown men beholden to his beneficence, and therefore less likely to contest his kingship, he was determined to do it. England had known too much inner strife, and with wars to be fought abroad, now was not the time for squabbles amongst themselves. He needed their support, and not just in word. He would need their funds and their armies.
      The courtiers grew quiet and, at the front of the abbey, Edward saw Philippa and Edward enter on a few notes of music. They were seated calmly in the thrones designated for each, and Edward knew he should hurry himself so as not to keep the ceremony waiting. He took his time moving along the inner hall though, catching more glimpses of the knights and squires and barons and earls, their families all gathered closely about them. All of their eyes were hungry with political intrigue, political calculus. All hoped to gain from the events of the day, but none of them knew of the trump card he held.
      The trump card was his own son.
      As Edward was about to enter the antechamber that would lead him through to the back end of the dais where his throne sat empty, he discovered a tall, thin woman in his path. She was plainly dressed, neither richly nor poorly, but she somehow commanded respect and attention in her presence. She held by the hand a pale, little girl, perhaps of an age with the young prince.
      After letting the king’s eyes rove over her, she curtseyed only slightly and, with a forthrightness that bordered on rudeness considering his royal personage, she addressed him directly.
      “Your Majesty,” she said, her chin held almost level with his own. “You are embarking on a path from which it will not be easy to stray, and though the consequences will amount to little in your lifetime, they will shape the future of this whole nation, still only in its infancy. Please do not go through with this madness.”
      “Who are you?” Edward demanded, dismissing her unusual manners in favor of her unusual message. “How did you get in here?”
      The young girl cowered behind her mother’s skirt --Edward presumed the woman was the child’s mother.
      “The Truth does not discriminate, my lord. It knows no barriers,” the woman said without wavering. “And I speak only the truth; only what I see.”
      “So you’re a Seer then?” Edward took an involuntary step backward.
      “Some have called me by that profession, but I don't claim it as my own.”
      “And what path is it from which I will have difficulty in straying?”
      “You seek a peace, but at what cost, Majesty? If you insist on creating this new honor for your son, you will have the peace you seek, but you’ll drink it from a bitter cup.”
      Edward was encouraged by her suggestion that he would gain the peace he so desperately sought --so encouraged he wholly disregarded the thought of any cup being as bitter as his formerly divided kingdom. “What more can you tell me, woman?” He could not bring himself to call her lady.
      “Your wife is with child, though she herself will not know for several weeks yet.”
      “With child?”
      “A son. The first of many others to come.”
      He and Philippa had almost despaired of her ever conceiving another son after seven years. Two daughters had followed Edward with difficulty, and three children had died young or in the womb over the same span of years. The prospect of finally having more sons to secure the lineage made Edward’s heart swell.
      “Do you swear it?”
      “I swear it, but don't count your blessed chickens before they hatch. Like the cracking of a new chick's egg, between them they shall bring this House down.”
      “They will usurp my throne?”
      “They will not. You will be the only king of this age to have five grown and able sons and keep your crown.”
      “Then that is good enough for me.” Edward made to pass her and enter the dais. He became suddenly aware of time and space again, and the court was murmuring at his tardiness.
      “You would willfully bring a curse upon this House? Upon the throne of England?” the woman demanded incredulously, releasing the hand of her child to open her arms and block his way.
      “I would, madam. A superstition is a small thing next to peace in the land, and if God wills it, then His will be done. Now if you please.” And he stepped easily around her, entering on a louder and more triumphant play of music than his wife and son.
      The sensation of kingship was never greater than on ceremonial occasions. The threat of curses from the woman in the antechamber were erased, and Edward could think only of the peace he would bring his land as he read the parchment that a page handed him. It was full of praise for the men he was honoring. He recited the history of each, of their victories in battle and the services they had done for him and thus for the glory England. Edward was sure to emphasize that he was honoring them only for what they had each done for him, and should their usefulness or loyalties ever waver, the price would be as dearly paid as the reward they received. This sentiment was symbolized in the form of a sword and belt Edward himself would tie around each of their waists.
      When it came time for this portion of the highly ritualized evening, Edward named them in turn: the Earl of Derby, of Gloucester, of Huntingdon, of Northampton, and of Salisbury. More than a ceremonial sword though, the men seemed to glow with gratitude for the lands and income they would control from then on, and God willing, pass to their own sons, so long as they also remained in the sovereign’s good grace. Edward could feel both their vulnerability and invincibility each time he wrapped his arms around the back of each man, all approximately of an age with him, if not older. He tried to draw strength from the thought that the sword belt was like a gilded collar, symbolizing his ownership of them. He would struggle to trust them, but he would do it. For England.
      The men, puffed with pride, stepped down off the dais and beamed at the court as Edward read another, more congratulatory parchment, this time reminding them of their duty to the crown, to their lands, and to the people who inhabited them, though the latter was the one most oft forgotten. He cautioned them to be just and attentive and follow God’s creed when governing their shires. With their new rank came great responsibility, but none which he did not have faith that they would manage successfully.
      Cheers and music greeted the end of the ceremony, or rather what the court presumed to be the end until the music faded and Edward raised his hand to silence the premature celebration.
      “And with these six earldoms, I create yet another title,” he announced, delighting in their surprise, for it was rare to catch the court unawares. Word traveled fast in such a tightly woven circle, especially when servants had loose tongues, and the priests even looser ones.
      They all looked at one another, craning their necks in curiosity, no doubt wondering who had kept such a wonderful secret. Edward paused to let them do so, gesturing behind him for his son to rise while everyone was thus distracted.
      The seven year old prince came forward, urged at first by his mother’s hand on his back, and Edward spoke even louder, enunciating each syllable carefully.
      “Today brings a new class of nobility to England. Six new earls is more than has been seen in this country in centuries. Today is an historic day, and I’ve chosen this occasion to make another historic decision: that in the peerage there should be enrolled a new rank. Between the earldoms and the Crown shall sit another noble class, populated only by the relatives of kings. They shall be known as dukes, their lands and property as dukedomes. One will bow to the knee, and refer to such men as ‘Your Grace,’ instead of merely ‘my lord’ to distinguish their royal birth. And the first duke of the land shall be my son.”
      Edward put his hand down on his son’s shoulder, applying enough pressure to make the lad come around in front of him and face the assembly of his most difficult and demanding subjects. A servant approached with a jewel-encrusted short sword, which Edward knelt to tie around the younger Edward’s waist, holding the boy’s eyes to offer reassurance that he was doing well and precisely as he ought to.
      “Henceforth, he shall be known was Edward, Duke of Cornwall, Earl of Chester, and son of King Edward III. And when he reaches a suitable age, he shall also inherit his birthright as Prince of Wales, that no man be above him save the King and God. Kneel, you six, and all earls. Kneel to His Grace and pledge your allegiance.”
      Caught up and carried away in the moment, the whole room bent low and sent up a cry in unison for God to save their king.

      Within a year, Edward had another son, followed by another and another, until he felt himself rich in sons. In fact, it began to appear that there was never a time when the queen was not pregnant, making it obvious to all that the king did not strictly observe the mandates of the church on when a man was allowed by the holy calendar to lie with his wife.

      His second son was Lionel, and born in Antwerp while Edward was abroad laying claim to the French crown. He had tried to persuade Philippa to remain in England, but she had insisted on accompanying him. It was enough that he had forced her to remain at a stronghold far from the battlefield. She gave birth screaming in a foreign tower, surrounded by a foreign tongue, without her husband by her side, though Edward rode hard for three days to get to her when the news reached him that the babe had been born. This was how Lionel had come to be nameless for his first days of existence. In that time, the Queen fell into the habit of referring to him as her lion cub. Not only did she feel like a lioness protecting him in the safety of their Antwerp castle, but he had emerged from her womb with a full head of bright red hair which flopped over his forehead like a disheveled mane.
      The endearment spread quickly around the castle and the town so that by the time Edward arrived, he felt the chance to give his son a name had been effectively stolen for him.
      “But there are worse names than Lionel,” Edward had mused, holding his wife in bed the night he arrived from the west of France, their new son nestled in between their bodies. “May God grant him the strength and bravery He gave to the noble beast.”
      “Of course he’ll be brave and good,” Philippa smiled. “He’s your son, after all.”
      She kissed her husband’s lips over the head of her newborn child before setting the sleeping infant in his cradle near the fire and returning to the king’s side and wrapping her thin and tired arms around him. She had had time since childbirth to regain her strength, and having her husband back gave her renewed energy to mask any lingering exhaustion.
      “Have you heard word of our other children?” Edward asked, his fingers untying the laces of Philippa’s nightdress while her own fingers untangled the knots of his doublet.
      “Little Edward’s letter arrived shortly before Lionel was born. He does well and looks after his sisters.”
      “I shall have to read it when I’m through with you,” Edward smiled, kissing his wife’s collarbone, that rare stretch of skin that the fashion of the day insisted on hiding, but which, in his mind, represented all her strengths an vulnerabilities.
      “And how is the battle?” she asked him, her hands smoothing the skin on his back in small circles, inching herself beneath him and pulling them both deeper into the feather mattress.
      “Deadly as battle ever is, my sweet, but I’ll tell you about it in the morning. Tonight I just want my wife, my good queen.” He kissed her as he’d not been able to kiss her for weeks, almost since they’d arrived on the other side of the channel.
      “And will you be leaving your wife and son when the sun rises? Or shall we keep you another day?” she seemed compelled to ask, despite or perhaps because of the depth of his kiss.
      “You’ll keep me two days at least, but no longer than the week.”
      It was a sickeningly short time, and Philippa felt the inside of her torso twist around the ache that Edward’s body always created. Two days before harm’s way. Two days before what could be his last days --as king or on earth, God only knew. She sent up a silent prayer for her husband, and a second for herself, feeling guilty, as she always did, addressing God during the beautiful but indecent --and decidedly impure things that went on behind the closed door of the bedchamber.
      When Philippa woke the following morning, it was to find Edward already out of bed, half-dressed and holding their son in the morning light at the window. It was November and the breeze seeping in through the closed glass was cool, making the infant make small noises as his uncontrolled muscle movements fought the confines of his swaddling clothes.
      “Come back to bed, darling,” Philippa said, reaching out her hand toward him. “It’s early and cold yet. There’s no battle to fight or even to see out that window. Just the muddy back pasture and perhaps some stable hands.”
      She was right, Edward observed. The evidence of war was, in fact, a hundred miles away. But in his own mind, he could see it clearly in front him. Scores of men encamped on hillsides, lucky to be under the thin shelter provided by tents as battle weary as they were. Supplies were ever a point of contention, and rarely arrived on time, and even more rarely in necessary quantities. Edward was already worried, though his excursion into the Continent had been of relatively short duration, that the governing of England was being poorly managed in his absence. He had deprived the Parliament of too many of solid heads because it so happened those heads were attached to powerful arms. That left the too cowardly or the too clever behind to manage affairs, and unfortunately, to manage the young prince, as well.
      Edward was most loathe to leave his eldest son and daughter, though they were in the care of trusted friends, the St. Omers. Their younger sister, still being an infant, was left in the hands of yet another friend, de St. Pol. Both families had pledged their lives and lands and all that their children would stand to inherit before taking the royal brood into their households. It was not the caretakers that preyed on Edward's thoughts so much as the ministers and councilors and earls. It would be bad enough to have them emptying the Tower coffers, but worse still to have them filling the young prince’s head with venomous lies.
      “Why such worried eyes, Edward?” Philippa asked, having emerged from the bed to stand beside him. She reached her hands between his arms to remove the sleeping infant and held him against the warmth of her own chest.
      She was taller than most women, and her body had thickened from childbirth over the years since they were thin, young children taking vows they didn't fully understand in a church before God. She had come fully into womanhood and carried it confidently, naturally. She was a consort so unlike what Edward’s mother had been to her husband that Edward occasionally found himself marveling at her. Even in that quiet moment, the knowledge that she could be so much more a mother than a queen enchanted him. And at night, that she was always a wife, a lover, he considered that a blessing as well. It was these things, more than her insightfulness and forthrightness that made her a queen beloved by the court as well as the people of England. Though not without ambitions, he felt safe from worry that she would ever involve herself in a plot against him. With his mother, there had never been any such assurance, only suspicion. --Suspicion that ended being well-founded.
      “You’re still worrying,” Philippa accused, pressing her cheek against his firm shoulder and leaning into him for warmth as the draft from the window easily penetrated her dressing gown and sank November’s teeth into goose bumps on her flesh.
      “Perhaps you ought to return to England,” Edward said, putting his arm around her, but not turning to look at her, his gaze still transfixed on an unknown point on the horizon outside the window.
      Philippa shook her head against his shoulder so that he would feel it. “Not until you come with me.”
      “I was foolish to let you stay once we knew you were with child, and now that he’s come, it’s not safe, Philippa.”
      “We’re plenty safe in Antwerp. No more nor less so than we would be in England without you.”
      “There our friends could protect you at least. And you could keep an eye on Edward and little Isabella and Joan.”
      “The children are fine. Don’t worry over them, Edward. I hear from Marie and Elizabeth often, and the girls are carefree and happy. Isabella misses you, of course, but it’s because you spoil her so. And Edward is studious and misses you as well, but it is only natural that he become used to missing his father and finding his own way if he’s to make a proper king one day.” She could see that Edward was about to interrupt her, and so she took two steps backward. “No,” she said firmly. “We will not go until this nonsense in France is over.”
      “It’s war, Philippa, not nonsense.”
      “War is nonsense. Keeping kings from their countries and husbands from their wives and sons from their mothers. Someday you’ll send Lionel to battle, and do you think for one minute that I would let him go alone?”
      Edward closed the newly formed distance between them, enfolding his wife in his arms, which had remained warmed despite standing so close to the cold window.
      “Of course you’ll let him go. Because he’ll be a man then, and likely with a wife who will worry in your stead.”
      Philippa sniffled at the thought, but made to cover it with an indifferent cough. She knew it was not befitting of a queen to be so sentimental about children, especially children who may not live to adulthood, and if they did, would be lucky to die swiftly and honorably in battle, instead of in the myriad of less pleasant manners available in that day and age.
      “Philippa,” Edward began, his tone sympathetic and cajoling, which alerted the queen to his renewed purpose in sending her back to England and put her on her guard.
      She stepped back out of his arms.
      “I’ll hear no more of leaving, Edward. Where you stay, so shall I stay. When we were wed, the bishop took our hands in his and said that what God has joined, no man shall break apart. No man, Edward. And war is composed of nothing more than men in the end. So as I said, I stay. And Lionel certainly stays with me. He’ll fill my days when you go south again. Now let’s not fight.”
      She replaced the babe in his cradle and returned to her husband’s side, putting her hand in his pleadingly.
      “Come back to bed a while, Edward. Two days is very little.”
      Edward put his hand to her cheek and looked deeply into her eyes: two clouded crystal balls that held his future like a goblet full of wine.
      “I couldn’t bear for something to happen to you. All I wish is your safety. Damn the French, and damn their wretched crown. I will burn this Godforsaken land to the earth if any harm comes to you.”
      She put her hand over his on her cheek. “And I would do the same if I ever lost you. But it will take more than this to take you from me. Even from a distance I am hanging on too tightly.”
      She stood on tiptoe and kissed his lips, prompting him to hurry back into bed for another hour until Lionel’s cries roused them and the wet nurse came to interrupt their solitude.
      “Another day of being king, abroad or no,” Edward whispered in her ear before he rose from the bed. He kissed her forehead. “Rest a while longer. I’ll be in the hall reading the correspondence from London, and hopefully signing whatever decrees the Council has sent over.”
      “I’ll join you soon,” Philippa smiled, pulling the blankets closer to her nearly naked body as more servants entered to go about their daily tasks. “There will be plenty of time to rest when you’re gone again. Since I have you now, I want every waking minute.”
      Edward smiled again, almost wistfully, almost wishing that they were two ordinary youths who could enjoy their love. But they were not, and he was not, and duty called. As ever, he answered it, pushing thoughts of his beautiful wife into the rear of his mind as he closed the door behind him.
      “A bath for my wife,” he told the nearest maidservant. “And boil the water, it’s freezing in there.”
      It was small thoughts such as those that proved most his love for her. With all the other challenges for his attention --including the pile of parchment he referenced earlier --she was still first and last. And now their son, too. She was right, at least, that she would have the small prince to fill her otherwise empty days.
      But he worried still about their other children.
      “Ink and quill,” he ordered a page when he arrived in the hall of the castle. “And parchment and wax. I need to write a letter.”
      “But Majesty, these papers from Parliament…” objected one of the messengers.
      “They will wait. I write a letter to my son, our crowned prince. Or so he will be as soon as I return to London.”
      The messenger shut his mouth quickly at his monarch’s sharp tone, and the paper and pen were squired in swiftly and placed before him. It was a brief letter, asking little more than how his sister fared, and after his studies. Edward inquired of young Edward’s advancement with the sword and in riding. The boy was graduating from his pony to a full mount, which Edward the elder was loath to miss. It was a significant moment in his son’s life, after all. A key component to his larger education.

      Your mother worries over you, and you’d do well to write her more often to assure her that you and Bella are well in the care of the St. Omers. And similar notes ought to attend your sister at de St. Pol’s. You are newly a brother again, as surely you will know before this letter reaches you. Kiss your mother’s two cheeks for granting you a brother to guide and to teach and keep under your care. Treat him kindly and he will serve you well when you are both grown.

      As ever, Your Father,



      And then he signed it with a simple R. for Rex --King.
      “Send this across the Channel immediately,” he instructed a messenger in his entourage after sealing the folded parchment with his signet. “And wait for word back. Take the return immediately to Her Grace, Philippa, on your life.”
      The young lad, perhaps fourteen, bowed three times in succession, like the bobbing head of a bird. “At once, Your Majesty,” the boy assured, his nimble feet carrying him out of the hall at a speed that assured Edward he had chosen the right person for the task.
      “What be that boy’s name?” he inquired of the messenger who had earlier dared to suggest that matters existed that were more urgent than the king’s wish to write to his son.
      “That be Gregor, Majesty.”
      “Upon his return, see that he takes my wife’s letters to me in battle. I’ll have no one else.”
      The messenger to whom he spoke, clearly more senior than the boy, nodded his assurance that it would be done as was bade.
      “Now to these other documents you promised me, man.” And the messenger reached into his satchel for a handful of rolled parchments and letters, already discussing the order of their importance.
      It was a day of administrative business, and Edward caught only the occasional glimpse of his wife as she strolled through the garden, or went to and from the kitchen. It was near midnight by the time he could join her in bed, but the fruit of his labor was the following day in which he was able to read her poetry and hold his new son in his arms before leaving the following morning at pre-dawn.
      Philippa stood in the center of the castle’s courtyard, accepting Edward’s kiss as he bent down from his horse to press his lips to hers. He put his hand gently on the back of her neck, and she resisted her own urge to touch his hair and pull him closer. She knew it would be indecent, and ill-suited to her position as consort, and in his absence, unofficial regent.
      “Take care, Philippa,” he said, pulling reluctantly away, his fingers slipping slowly away from her soft skin. “And send word at the slightest hint of trouble.”
      “Antwerp is quiet, Edward, there will be no trouble here. And what little there may be, rest assured I can handle on my own. Look after yourself. And for the men that other wives and mothers have trusted to your command.”
      “Bless your good heart for remembering those men even as your husband, who I may add happens to be your king, faces the same dangers.”
      “You are ever in my heart and prayers though, Husband. Whereas I have only a heart good enough to remember those men to you on occasions when you leave me, and I join the ranks of all other women who must accept the leaving of their men.”
      Edward smiled at her wit and took her hand to squeeze one last time.
      “God bless and keep you, Wife.”
      “And you, Edward,” she said with tears in her voice. “God grant you to me again soon.”
      She watched as he rode off, surrounded by the royal retinue that would remain with her at Antwerp castle. It would feel empty until Edward’s return though, and she embarked on that drudgery with a heavy heart.
      Over the weeks, Lionel was able to raise her spirits, once he had leaned to smile and reach for her when she visited the nursery. Her eldest son’s letter reached her in record time, speeded by the young footman whom Edward had recruited, unbeknownst to the lad, to be his personal courier. She wrote a lengthy response to her son, accepting his congratulations and guiding him in what new duties a younger brother would require. She reminded him of his manners and his honor, of the chivalry a knight must always exhibit, even before he properly is one.

      You are an earl, after all, Edward, and Duke at that, as well. The people of England look to you while your father and I are abroad, though it seems that the Council governs in his stead. Look to the people as you would look to your sisters, and let this be a lesson in what sovereignty holds in store for you. It’s no easy or simple task to which God commends to you. But He does do it, Edward, and you must answer His call.
      Pray for your Papa, like a good boy. Ask that God keep him, along with Mama and Lionel, and your sisters; and the St. Omers, who are good and kind to keep you while we’re apart.
      God bless you, with love, Mama


      “And have you a missive for his Majesty, Ma’am?” asked the thin messenger anxiously, bobbing up and down to her as he had done to Edward, though his address was less than proper.
      Philippa found the request slightly odd, unaware of the boy’s new role in the household, but she answered kindly enough that since he had mentioned it, she would pen one directly if he would wait.
      “I was told to wait. His Majesty said I am to bring any word from you straight to him on the battlefield. And I’ll do it, Ma’am, though it may kill me to try. ‘Tis an honor to serve my lord this way. God save the king.”
      “Yes, God save the king, and keep him safe in his quest to subdue the French,” Philippa echoed. “And may God keep you, boy, as you do this duty. What be your name?”
      “Gregor, Madam.”
      “Gregor, ask the cook to make you a hot meal while I write. You’ll not be like to get another for the days it will take you to deliver this.”
      She smiled to herself as he gratefully took himself off to do her bidding. Alone with her thoughts, she measured the wisdom of writing a love letter to her husband, which is what she wanted to do. But as the property of the king was the property of the people, and might be easily intercepted by the enemy, no doubt hoping it would contain some clue to his motives or actions, she instead penned an ordinary letter and willed him to read her love between the lines.
      Over the next several months, as Lionel grew bigger, Philippa saw Gregor frequently as the fight against the French kept Edward busy. Philippa wintered in Antwerp alone, seeing her husband for the Christmas season through Michaelmas, but then afterward not until Spring was well under way. When he finally returned, it was after a small success, but enough to make him eager for her arms.
      “I could not truly call it Spring until this morning,” he told her when they woke and held each other in the tangled linen.
      Philippa kissed his chest, her hair still wrapped around him. “Surely you jest. The snow has been melted for months now, and the sun stays out long past evening prayer.”
      “The snow may have melted, but the winter was cold enough that I’ve needed more than sunshine to warm these old bones.”
      “Old bones,” she laughed. “You’re younger than I, and we’re both still plenty young.”
      “With a son half-grown, I hardly feel young. To think it’s been neigh on two years since we last saw him,” Edward mused.
      “We ought to commission a portrait of him,” Philippa said. “Of all of us, perhaps, once we are together again.”
      Edward kissed her. “Whatever you wish. When this is over, and I am rightfully king of France, as well as England and Lord of Ireland, I shall give you whatever your heart desires. And mind that you keep me as one of those things you desire,” he laughed, kissing the bone of her chest just above her breasts.
      Edward hadn’t laughed in months, and it was ages since Philippa had heard the particular sensation of his chest rumbling with mirth.
      “Right now, you are all I desire, Edward,” she breathed, her fingers curving around the soft part of his ear. “And as you are determined to leave me again, won’t you trade your battle weariness for some bed weariness.”
      “You’re a wicked wife,” Edward accused with a grin that would have assured anyone he would not have her any other way.
      “You’ve been a wicked tutor,” she parried.

      Three months later, Gregor delivered a short letter to Edward on the battlefield. He immediately recognized Philippa’s slanted letters, and opened it with pleasure. The news inside was certainly such to give him pleasure, too, although it brought its fair share of worry.
      She was with child again.
      “Gregor, how fared my lady when you left her to bring this letter?” Edward asked the page.
      “Well, Majesty. Flushed a bit in the summer heat. The waters in Antwerp are a little sour this time of year, but she seemed none the worse for them.”
      “Perhaps Her Majesty ought to move to a more pleasant location,” Edward mused in a questioning tone as he sat down in his own stifling tent to pen his response. All the words and thoughts fled his head the moment he had the quill in hand though, so he made conversation instead. “Have you any suggestions?”
      “They say Ghent is lovely in this weather, although she’d do just as well in Brugge, my lord.”
      “Ghent, you say? Is that not where the Count of Flanders holds strong?”
      “It is the very place. Do you know of him, sir?”
      “Indeed, I do, and Louis would do well to earn his keep in this bloody conflict.”
      “Truly, is Flanders in support of England?”
      “Aye,” Edward answered, “though he does little to aid us.”
      There was a pause as Edward set a few strokes of his pen to the page, and Gregor let his eyes roam around the sparsely furnished tent he was accustomed to seeing his lord use.
      “Gregor.” Edward cleared his throat to get the lad’s attention before holding out the folded parchment. “You will take this to my lady, and then you will take Her Majesty to the Count of Flanders where she will enjoy his protection. Ride ahead of the entourage with another message I will write in a moment and take it directly to Louis. See to it that he sees it bears my seal as you hand it to him, and dress yourself in the colors of the House of Plantagenet, for Christ’s sake, Gregor. It is fitting that you should be so poorly dressed on an inactive battlefield such as this, but when you leave it you are an emissary of the King and ought to be afforded all the respect that duty entails.”
      Gregor made his characteristic bobbing motion at the command and murmured his willingness to do all that was asked, “At once, Majesty.”
      As the boy was about to leave the tent in his eagerness, Edward reminded him that he still required the letter for Louis, and so to return to the tent within the hour, wearing fresh clothes and ready to depart.
      Gregor, as ever, did as he was bid, and was on the road north to Antwerp in no time, where Philippa was once again preparing to pass the days of pregnancy without the comforts of England and the attentions of her husband. She struggled to remain optimistic about the progress of the battlefield, knowing as she did that war was a lengthy endeavor, but she found herself too often resenting her husband’s insistence upon his right to the French crown when he had, for the most part, troubles enough in his homeland. True, he was much less plagued by dissent than his father and grandfather, but that did not mean the rest of his reign would pass as easily, no matter what the strange woman Seer had told him before the Day of Appointment, which is how Philippa had come to refer to the day Edward had invented the dukedom for Edward and granted six other men earldoms.
      It was in the midst of indulging in these dark thoughts that Gregor was announced in the garden where Philippa was sitting. The ladies attending her fluttered to a wider periphery, offering more, but not complete privacy for the encounter with the king’s personal courier.
      “Good day, Gregor,” Philippa greeted as the young man approached, now almost fifteen and hardly to be considered a boy or lad anymore. “How does my lord fair in the southwest of France?”
      He bowed deeply, finding his queen to be one of the most beautiful women in all of Christendom, and therefore the world. He was wont to compare her to “My lady Guinevere of Camelot” when he told tales to the messengers without his privileges in the royal retinue. Indeed, for the most part, Philippa had become a recluse since joining her husband on the continent for the war with France, and it was only a select few who would ever clap eyes on her.
      “Majesty, your husband had wings on his feet at the news you sent in your last letter and bid me not only send you his love and joy, but this letter.” Gregor produced the missive with flourish, hoping that the pretty words he had composed on his journey to Antwerp would please the fair queen.
      “Gregor, your words are kinder every time you come to me. I trust it means that Edward treats you well, and learns you well, and that you're not finding your tasks in our household too troublesome.”
      “Indeed no, my lady, it is as much pleasure to serve my King and Queen as it has ever been.”
      Philippa smiled while opening the letter, looking on young Gregor as fondly as she might one of her own children.
      “That does my heart good to hear. You must be weary though from riding. Won’t you let one of my ladies see you to the kitchen for a meal and rest?”
      “You are ever kind, Majesty, but I’m afraid my lord does bid me to another task, unless you have word you want sent back to him.”
      Philippa’s eyes were already scanning the parchment, and she was thus apprised of what other task Gregor referred to.
      “I see our lord has been busy making plans for the both of us, Gregor,” she said as she came to her husband’s conclusion and blessing that God keep her and that she remember always his love for her. She looked up when she had finished and asked, “Can he really mean me to travel to Ghent, so much the farther away from him?”
      “'Tis not more than half a day’s riding from here, Majesty,” Gregor protested. “And His Majesty does wish you to be under greater protection than that of Antwerp, which is governed only distantly by the Count of Flanders. Ghent is larger and will offer your Majesty more amusements before your confinement, as well. Not to mention sweeter air.”
      Philippa frowned, her hand instinctively settling over her abdomen.
      “There’s much to be done before I would find myself ready to trade this castle cage for another,” Philippa said after another pause.
      “Think not of Ghent as a cage, my lady, or if you must, a much larger one than this. I vow on my life that it be more pleasing than Antwerp.”
      “You need not vow anything on your life, Gregor. As my husband and lord and king does bid, so must I obey. Shall we leave within the fortnight?”
      “I imagine that my lord would have you leave for Ghent as soon as possible, Majesty, but if that is, by your calculation, the soonest you may depart, I will see to my other tasks and return to escort you.”
      “What other tasks could Edward have granted you? Is this not quite enough?” Philippa asked, mildly irritated at Edward’s management from a distance.
      “I ride ahead to ensure that the Count has a proper welcome and quarters prepared for you,” Gregor bowed, sensing Philippa’s change in mood, no matter how carefully veiled. "I doubt it shall cost me more than a day or two.”
      “Well, if you are off so instantly, surely you must get provisions from the cook to sustain you while serving your lord’s bidding.”
      “My lady,” Gregor said in a lowered voice, for though her ladies were sitting at a distance, they were still vultures for gossip. “You mustn’t be out of sorts with our lord for taking a heavy hand in this matter. Truly his concern is only for your safety and that of the new child the Lord is good enough to grant you. You and young Lionel are very isolated from help here in Antwerp, but the Count of Flanders’ protection will serve you both, you shall see. And his generosity will surely see to a fitting beginning to Prince Lionel’s education.”
      Philippa smiled at the messenger’s attempt to keep peace between husband and wife, and her tone softened when she said, “I am just feeling the effects of the summer heat and am always a little out of sorts to be apart from Edward so long. I’m sure I shall enjoy Ghent well enough, and never more so than the next time Edward finds me there. Now go and eat, Gregor. As for my ladies and I, we shall begin to pack our things.”
      She rose at that moment and made a small gesture with her hands that brought said ladies flurrying to her side. Gregor bowed as they trailed Philippa out of the garden amongst whispers and exclamations over their new location and the preparations that would be needed within the fortnight in order to get there. Last in the gaggle was the nursemaid, holding young Lionel and smiling a little to herself, no doubt eager to have another royal charge in her care.
      Gregor put his cap back on his head and straightened his doublet emblazoned with the colors of the House of Plantagenet. It wouldn’t be a long trip to Ghent, and he was eager to get the next message delivered there. With that thought in mind, he picked up nothing more than bread and cheese from the cook’s pantry and placed them in his saddle bag before mounting up and turning back toward the dusty road.
      It was midday and the sun beat down mercilessly as Gregor pressed his horse to its limits. The countryside melted behind him, skimming his leather boots just as a light breeze brushed his fevered cheeks. Yellow fields swam across his vision until he came across the river leading into Ghent, and gradually the river split into winding canals and the lights of little shops and tall church spires. Gregor arrived in Ghent just after sundown, and the Count was not thrilled to open his doors to the travel weary young man, but the colors of the King of England were too obvious to ignore.
      “His Majesty bids you good health, my lord,” Gregor greeted with his practiced flourish. “He sends this message in hopes you will look kindly upon any request he makes, given your alliance with the House of Plantagenet.”
      Gregor bowed with a smile, knowing that Edward would be pleased with the subtle reminder of where the man’s loyalties and responsibilities were supposed to lie.
      “Indeed. Let King Edward make any request of the House of Flanders. I am prepared to fulfill my pledge,” assured Louis, Count of Flanders, accepting the message sealed with the coat of arms of England’s monarch.
      Opening it before his wife and the guests of court that frequented most meals in the castle, Louis was no doubt relieved to find the request made of him to be so small in comparison to the fears he must have surely felt at what could have been asked instead.
      “This is news to celebrate,” he told the gathering. “Her Majesty, the Queen of England, will join us in Ghent, and she comes with child. Wife, surely you will care for her, and delight in the new company. And we will all make merry upon her arrival, and see that she is afforded all the protection that Flanders has to offer while her lord and husband is reclaiming his rights in France. Messenger!” Louis turned to Gregor. “You must tell your mistress and your Majesty that as I have been bade, so shall it be done. Flanders welcomes the Queen Philippa of Hainault, wife and queen of Edward III. When may we expect her?”
      “Within the fortnight, my lord,” Gregor said with a bow. “Rest assured, I return to Antwerp to escort my lady and the young Prince Lionel myself. Is your household ready to also greet those who wait upon Her Majesty?”
      “All will be ready in time, and I will see to it that all your Queen’s needs are met. Now come and eat with us, lad. For Flanders is a friend of the Plantagenets, and you have brought us reason enough to celebrate our fortunate alliance.”
      Gregor joined briefly in the revelry, but abandoned it long before it came to an end, exhausted as he was from his exertions that day. The Count offered him a room in one of the towers, and he gratefully accepted, falling heavily on his pallet fully clothed. He stared out the open window, where a small breeze was creeping in and cooling the stones of the floors and walls, hopefully enough to keep the room at a tolerable temperature throughout the night. The sky was clear enough through the window, and south-facing, so that his thoughts were drawn inexorably to all the happenings in that direction.
      He thought in particular about King Edward and Queen Philippa, and the trials that separation had put them through. Not only the separation between the two of them, but between their children still in England. Gregor hated the war in France with a new passion. He, himself, had left behind a mother and father, and three sisters and two brothers at home in Shropshire, England, not to mention a sweetheart he could no longer be sure was waiting for his return as she had promised the night before he had boarded the ship. Then again, he had come a long way since that day, just one of many young men of the royal household that would traverse land and sea in service of the king and the lords who braved the battlefield with him. It was little more than luck that had singled him out so haphazardly to serve his king so closely, but now that he was so closely invested in his duties, and held so highly in the king’s confidence and trust, it was no doubt only a matter of time until he could expect certain rewards for his continued good service. So long as he was not killed while performing that good service. Which, again, was why he disliked this war in France so badly. It put in jeopardy so much that he held dear in his life.
      He would set out the following day, perhaps before dawn, to return to Antwerp, and perhaps on again to the battlefield before returning at last to escort Her Majesty to the Count of Flanders' protection. Louis seemed a generous and fair enough man, although perhaps a little reluctant to make any serious sacrifices for his alliance with England. In part, Gregor hoped he might be commanded to stay in Philippa’s service until Edward returned next from battle, but as Edward found him increasingly indispensable, he knew this would be highly unlikely. Particularly as they pressed deeper into the heart of France. Still, perhaps he could convince the good king to send a few extra pages to be of service. After all, another royal babe would soon enter the world, and if battles increased, and the Count of Flanders were called upon for reinforcements, heaven forbid, the queen would be in need of assistance and escorts, and a quick route back to England. Unfortunately, Ghent was not the perfect point of departure, requiring instead a trip further north to Brugge.
      But now Gregor’s thoughts were just gloomy, and so he quickly sent up a prayer that the Lord look after the righteous King Edward III, his wife, and all their issue. The royal family was closer to him now than his blood kin, who had long since fallen out of his prayers, even if not his thoughts and heart. After more than a year abroad, the idea of England as his homeland, with homestead and family awaiting him, seemed quite distant, whereas the sovereigns were ever nearer at hand.