This midsummer dawn is so early that the world seems barely to have slept. I pull on my gloves, for my hands are still cold: the leather presses the Jason ring into my skin as if Louis himself touches me. Even the horses, dozing in the chill mist, hang their heads as if exhausted, with none of the scuffles and nips that horses do, as men do, to find out who is master this morning. It is sixty miles to Pontefract. We will ride it in one of these days, almost without end, that are bringing me so swiftly to my own.
The Constable has given me his word that at Pontefract lie Elysabeth’s boy Richard Grey, and my cousin Haute, and good old Vaughan. They were taken because they were doing their duty, and under my command. God send that I am allowed to see them. God send them courage.
When most of the men are horsed and ranged about me, I mount too. They are never insolent, rarely even surly, yet I feel their presence about me as I would a steel chain. The Constable has a pouch of dispatches for Anderson, who commands the troop; they say a few words.
It is the horses as ever who know before we do that the time has come. They are suddenly alert, shifting and tossing their heads, then orders are spoken, the dark bulk of the main gate cracks open, and we ride over the drawbridge and through the bailey, on to the open road.
I look about, for we were muffled in darkness when they brought me to Sheriff Hutton, and I have not been in this country for many years, though once I reconnoitred it as carefully as any commander must. It is flat, quiet land, seamed with innumerable streams that the men call becks. Could it be – could one of my crazed hopes be granted – that deep in the trees I shall see a shadow that is Louis? I must not hope it, for neither safety nor fortune can come to him here in Richard of Gloucester’s country. Ahead the forest begins, and the warming sun breathes the smell of pines towards us, above the peat-scented mist that lies over the marsh and breaks into wisps about the horses’ legs. The road lifts to a bridge over the Fosse itself where Whitecarr Beck joins it, and as we clatter across a heron turns its head to gauge this new threat, then shakes out its wings and, with a few, quick steps, rises into the air.
The body has its own memory. My left hand shortens the reins before my mind knows it, and my right arm aches with remembering the shift and grip of my goshawk’s weight. She was big, even for a goshawk, and her name was Juno. When she bated on her block in the mews her wings were the best part of four feet from primary to primary, and my care for her, that summer, was such that any day I could have told her weight down to the nearest ounce and grain. ‘Goshawks are delicate,’ Wat the austringer would say. ‘They’ll not take much lightening, but if you overfeed her by so much as a fieldmouse, Master Antony, she’ll rake away and never come back’. My belly would quake at the thought of losing her. Even now I remember the steely blue-grey gloss of her back as if I could touch it, the soft, white speckled chest-feathers that she would let me rub when her mood was good, her long, strong legs that took possession of my fist like a conqueror.
‘She sees every feather of that heron,’ Wat said, ‘even your young eyes, master, they’re nothing to hers. Now, gently off with her hood. Let her see it first. You’ll feel when she wants to fly.’ I unhooded her and unknotted her leash, and she shifted her talons, loosing her wings at the shoulder as if she readied her sword in its scabbard. She turned her black-capped head, her gaze fixing on each part of her new surroundings in turn, like a bowman on guard duty.
My father sat still on his horse in the water-meadow’s morning light, and Wat nodded to me as the heron’s flight steadied, high above and before us. I did my best to throw Juno into the air. My arm was puny against the weight and power of her surge and my hand clenched tighter before I realised and opened it to let the jesses go.
Up she rose, not in pursuit but surveying the ground; the sun was behind us as we watched. Then, after what seemed little more than a breath, she fixed on the heron and went after it.
I was a boy then, twelve years old and home for the harvest. Home, perhaps, for good. Only the night before my father had declared it more fitting that I be brought up in my own inheritance than in that of another.
But of him I dare not think.
The eye of my mind can still see how the birds flew, raptor and prey, Juno streaming after the heron, the heron’s steady wing-beats quickening at some sign or sound of danger that we humans could not read, thrusting through the air. But Juno had more speed and soon was close enough to rise up high above her prey, and pause for a moment of suspended time, before stooping like some sleek and taloned cannonball. Down and down she stooped, and the heron tried to twist and double back, its head weaving, its great wings clumsy in such unaccustomed need. Then Juno reached forward and, with a surge of power, seized the heron’s neck and bore it, struggling, to the ground among the reeds. All we could see was a puff of feathers floating downwards against the sky.
By the time we cantered up, Juno had killed the heron and was beginning to plume it. Wat walked forward and took her off, at which she bated angrily before she would jump to my fist and be hooded. Wat gave the heron to one of the men who, with a flick of his fingers, tied its feet and slung it on his belt.
‘She must think she deserves it,’ I said.
‘She does, son,’ said my father. ‘But if she eats it, where’s our dinner? And she’ll not be hungry for more, and will not hunt for us. Or she will eat her feed as well, and sicken.’
‘Sire, do you think I would feed her back at the mews, if I knew she’d had so much in the field? Wat has taught me better than that.’
‘No, I know you would not. But she’s wild, don’t forget. She’s not a dog, or a man. You cannot teach her loyalty. She has none, and she’s no use for yours. You are not her liege lord, nor she your servant to command. She will not work for you now in the hope or certainty of favours or protection later. All she knows is that today she was hungry, and we helped her to her food. Tomorrow? Who knows?’
He was silent, looking over his land – so carefully manured and tilled, coppiced and drained, as it was by his order and with his overseeing – as if it, too, might be lost to him on the morrow.
Then he shortened his reins. ‘Come, son. Perhaps we can put up a hare and give the dogs some sport.’
In the forest insects hang where the sun’s streams warm the air; as we ride through they dart and nip. The horses toss their heads and snort to shake them off, but we trot too fast for all but the biggest flies to stay with us. How it will be when the horses are weary, I do not know. The marshes north of York are low-lying, and agueish even in winter; on a hot summer’s day they swarm with gnats and midges.
‘Where do we change horses? Or do we not?’
‘I have not yet decided.’
I know what I would order in such a case, but this journey is not mine to command. After a moment Anderson says, ‘Have no fear, my lord, it is provided for, as are all matters to do with the security and good ordering of His Grace’s affairs.’
‘I have no doubt,’ I say, and indeed I have none. Richard of Gloucester has ever been thus, and thus he commands the allegiance of men as much as does his royal blood and the confidence of his brother whom I have learnt to call the late King Edward. Have I not made Richard the chief executor of my will, though he be my captor and my enemy even to death?
Men are not hawks: we have allegiances. It is our nature and our safety, for no man is so strong that he has no need of other men, as liege lord or servant, as confessor or Father or server at the Mass. Then there are those men who become companions by chance or design, whose friendship knows little of command or obeisance, at least till their own allegiances drag them apart. Nor can one who has sisters such as Elysabeth and Margaret, or a mother such as ours, disdain even the companionship of women, though I never found it in my first wife. She was all that is commonly looked for in a wife, but we were not well matched. In my second marriage I had hoped to make amends for my fault in the first. That I failed in love for Mary too, and now have failed in guarding even her bodily safety, is not the least of the things for which I must pray forgiveness.
I have no hope for myself, not for this world, though I hope for forgiveness in the next. Only one small flicker, like a dancing insect, will not quite leave me. Louis may yet be at liberty, and no man is more cunning in dangerous times. This tiny hope should comfort me, and it does. Yet still I fear for him. When there is so much awry among the rulers of the realm, so many secrets that threaten so many men of power and mettle, even one such as Louis may take one step too many in the shadowy world he knows so well, for my sake and for Ned’s. Perhaps even now he is fled to Burgundy or his own Gascon lands. Perhaps he has even been taken.
But that I cannot believe easily: he is too clever for that. And if he is fled . . . it will be from policy, not fear. I comfort myself with knowing that our love has reached further than this, in its time, and endured. I will believe that it endures still, and for ever.
The country now about us is more open, and to the east, through the mist, burns the sun. We ride west, and I may not yield to my desire to turn aside and seek the light. I long for it, even as lovers’ souls are drawn to the moon though clouds shadow it. And thus, too, are pilgrims’ souls drawn through incense smoke to the great candles of the shrine, where they may at last hope to touch God. My soul is as weary as a pilgrim’s. This day, I must believe, is my final earthly pilgrimage, though none can know what will be asked of his soul on the other side of death.