Candace Robb: King's Bishop

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Candace Robb King's Bishop
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    King's Bishop
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Candace Robb

King's Bishop


A Body in the Moat

Windsor Castle, March 1367

St George’s Hall was aglow with torches and lamps, creating a firmament of stars in the glazed windows lining the far wall. The voices of the King’s courtiers rang in counterpoint to the music, their silks rustled as their feet caught the rhythm. There was an exuberance of aromas — roasted boar, exotic spices, delicately scented hair and clothing, melting beeswax, smoke, sweat, and now and then icy air as revellers slipped out to relieve their wine-bloated bladders in the privies.

A latecomer impatiently pushed aside a stumbling lord, then paused as his senses, having adjusted to the dark silence of the snowfall outside in the upper ward, were now ambushed by the noise, the heat, and the smoky glare of the torches that made him cough and blink. As he shook the snow from his brown hair, Ned Townley searched the faces at the long tables near the door, where the pages and lesser officials huddled over their food. He was looking for a young face that had become all too familiar of late. A face seen too often bent towards Mary, Ned’s betrothed.

He should not have left it so long. But the signs of Mary’s turmoil had been subtle. Frowns shrugged off as nothing, a distracted air, unexplained tears. By the time Ned had suspected and had begun spying on Mary she had reached a level of comfortable intimacy with Daniel, a page in Sir William of Wyndesore’s household, that Ned had taken months to achieve. Not that he had caught them embracing; Mary was too loyal to let it come to that without confessing all to Ned. He could see that Mary was aware of her shifting loyalties and tormented by guilt.

But he had no intention of losing Mary. His rival was a mere page, recently come to court from Dublin. What could the pup know of love? Ned had sampled women’s charms in many lands and knew that Mary was the one God meant for him. How serious could the lad’s affections be? Ned judged it would take little to frighten him off. Some sharp words, veiled threats, no more than that.

As he caught sight of Daniel, Ned felt a twinge of doubt about his suspicions. In contrast to the retainers surrounding him, the page looked a pale, delicate creature. What woman would lose her heart to such a lad? Was it possible Ned exaggerated the lad’s threat to his happiness? But it was no time to weaken. Ned must do what he could to ensure his happy future with Mary.

He squared his shoulders, put on a threatening visage. Had his old comrades in arms been beside him tonight they would have laughed and slapped him on the back, calling him a fool for love. But behind the teasing façades, Owen and Lief would have understood; they were equally besotted with the women they had coaxed to the church door.

Ned had not reckoned with the solidarity of Wyndesore’s men.

Daniel stared at his feet, his head and shoulders weighted down by remorse. He wished he were anywhere but here.

The page’s grief centred on the tall, handsome man who had faced Sir William’s retainers with disdain. ‘I am not such a fool as to attack a man in full view of his fellows! And a lad at that.’ But the retainers had been ordered to protect their lord’s page and they meant to do so.

Glancing up, Daniel saw that the comely face of his accuser was red with indignation, his elegant clothes dishevelled by the men’s rough handling. Daniel wished it were he being escorted from the hall, not Ned Townley. Daniel admired Townley. He was all the page might wish to be. He was a spy for the King’s powerful third son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. He was a proven warrior, renowned for his skill with daggers. Yet he was no oafish brute — not like Sir William’s retainers; Townley was a courtier in dress, manner, speech. And with his gentle brown eyes and perfectly proportioned face and form, Daniel thought him the most handsome man he had ever seen. He would never have knowingly angered the man.

But moments ago Townley had informed Daniel of his inadvertent transgression. The warning had been delivered with an energy that had startled Daniel. Townley had grabbed him by the neck of his tunic, lifting him off his feet. ‘I will pin you to the tapestries if you persist in your attentions to my betrothed.’

‘Your betrothed?’ Daniel had squeaked.

‘Mary. Mistress Perrers’s maid.’

‘No! I pray you!’ Daniel had cried, hoping to be lowered to the floor so he might explain that his feelings for Mary were fraternal, nothing more. But his exclamation had drawn the attention of Sir William’s bullies, who now led Townley from the hall.

‘He’ll bother you no more, Daniel. Rest easy,’ Scoggins said, filling the lad’s tankard with ale.

Daniel lifted his tankard towards Scoggins and nodded, then both drank. It was the gesture Scoggins wanted, and so Daniel made it. But he was hardly grateful. If Scoggins had minded his own business, Townley would have pounded the table a few times while he threatened to tack Daniel to the rafters with his daggers, then he would have stomped off into the night, satisfied that he’d put the fear of the Lord in Daniel. And come morning, it would have been plain to Townley that Daniel had understood and meant to stay away from Mary, and all would have been forgiven and forgotten. But Scoggins obviously felt honour-bound to protect his lord’s page.

In faith, Ned Townley had every right to be angry. Daniel had been foolish; he could see how his attentions to Mary had been misinterpreted. He had not known that Townley was the Ned Mary spoke of incessantly. Not once had she mentioned that her love was Lancaster’s spy. Not once had she spoken of his remarkable skill with daggers. He had just been Ned, ‘beautiful Ned’, ‘gentle Ned’, ‘tender Ned’, ‘tall, strong, dashing Ned’. A mythical being. Not the Duke of Lancaster’s spy.

Daniel drank down his ale, pushed his tankard aside, listened half-heartedly to the conversations round him, all about how his lord, Sir William of Wyndesore, had met with the King that day. It was said Sir William had boldly blamed the troubles in Ireland on the Duke of Clarence’s poor judgement. Some said the King was angered; Sir William was to be banished to the Scottish border. Others said the King knew his son Lionel, Duke of Clarence could not be trusted; Sir William was to be promoted to a Marcher Lord and sent to protect the Scottish border.

Daniel pricked up his ears. Punishment or reward, what everyone agreed upon was the likelihood of marching north to the border country. His mood lifted. That meant they would soon be far away from Windsor Castle and his humiliation. He absentmindedly reached for his tankard, remembered he’d drained it, found it full again. Had he imagined he’d downed the contents? No matter, he took a long drink. His head was beginning to hurt, so he took another long drink. And another. Then someone filled it up, laughing at Daniel’s slurred protests.

‘Come on, lad, drink up. Scoggins saved your hide. Drink to him.’

Daniel remembered the snow that had begun to fall before the evening meal. It was a long, treacherous walk from the hall to Sir William’s quarters. Already he dreaded trying to stand. How would he navigate through the snow?

‘Lift it, lad, drink it down!’ A face floated in front of Daniel’s eyes, but he was so far gone he could not tell who it was. He blinked to focus. How many times had they filled his cup? He shook his head to clear it, felt the bile rise in his stomach. Oh Lord, he was going to embarrass himself yet again this night. He was cursed, that was certain.

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