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Seasons

Spring: Westminster

 It was the first warm day this year, too fine a day to be indoors, with a breeze blowing from the south-west, laden with moisture from the sea. No rain as yet, though there was a hint of it in the clouds that sailed down to the estuary, like ships in the sky.

 Henry was out in the pastures beyond the palace and abbey walls, watching the new foals as they raced in a bunch around the meadow. Dickon the stable-master was at his elbow, to tell him the blood-lines of the foals, and to give his opinion on their quality. Some of them looked promising, both the ones that would become warhorses and the riding-horses. There was a glossy black that appealed to him in particular; she had a smooth gait and a proud bearing. Fit for a queen, perhaps, when he took one. And as he watched her further he decided that she was, in fact, fit for a king.

 He talked for a while with Dickon, discussing which others of this year's foals would be suitable for his own stable, and which could be given as gifts, or sold. But then voices sounded from the quay below the New Palace Yard. A barge had come in there, one of the ones kept at the Tower of London away downriver, and its passengers were disembarking.

 A tall man, with a couple of attendants, and one of the Household escorting him to the king where he stood waiting in the meadow. The visitor was Montjoy, the Herald of France, who he'd seen a time or two before, though only while his father was alive and himself unregarded in the background. Now he could meet such men in his own right, and in his own way, and if that meant in a green field beyond the Palace walls, with a stableman as attendant, and the smell of horses upon him, well, so be it.

 Montjoy halted before him, removed his hat, and bowed. A courteous bow; due deference to his position, not servility. Henry regarded him as he straightened up. Dark hair, steady grey eyes. This man had doubtless been to many of the courts of Europe. Perhaps he had not met a king in a meadow before, though.

 'Be welcome to Westminster, King of Arms,' said Henry civilly.

 'I thank your majesty.' And that voice; he'd forgotten that voice. Was it the reason Montjoy had been chosen for his position? It was, oh, he could not quite describe it. Arresting. He would not forget it again.

 'We'll hear your embassy later. It's too fine a day to go indoors just yet,' looking round at the meadow with its herd of horses, and the hawthorn blooming white in the hedgerow, and the sailing clouds. 'I've been looking over my brood-mares. Tell me, what do you think of my herd? Does the king of France have any to equal them?' A smiling, informal opening for conversation, acknowledging the rivalry between their nations and poking gentle fun at it.

 Montjoy half-turned to survey the herd. The mares had their heads down for the most part, grazing; the foals had ceased their mad dash and were playing king-of-the-castle on a little rise in the centre of the meadow. 'Why, your majesty, they are fine beasts indeed, though his highness the Dauphin says that his own mount is the finest horse in Christendom.'

 'I'm sure he does!' A sideways smile. 'I've been looking to choose a riding-horse for my own use; which would you say is the most suitable?'

 The herald, seemingly taken aback, glanced from Henry to the foals at their play. 'On such short knowledge of them, sire, it's hard to say. But the black filly will be a queen among horses, I think. She's a beauty.'

 'She is indeed. We'll perhaps give her that name; Bella; what do you think, Dickon?' and the stable-master said, 'Aye, my lord.'

 'For the rest, the grey will make an excellent charger, I think,' continued Henry; 'any knight would be glad to have such a warhorse... Well, herald, we must indoors, I suppose, and I'll hear your embassy.'

 They left the grassy meadow, and went in through the gate to the palace yard, past the great crouching bulk of Westminster Hall and the stables, where Dickon returned to his kingdom. Henry and Montjoy, and their attendants, crossed the little private garden under the Jewel Tower; then up the steps to the door of the King's House.

 And that was the first time Henry spoke to the French Herald.

 -x-

 There were more meetings after that, as the herald went back and forth across the sea with this message or that. But the note struck at the first meeting seemed to set the tone for all the rest. Not quite friendly, not quite familiar, but as king of a small country and king of arms of a large one they could almost talk as one man to another. At one of these meetings Henry was in a presence-chamber, at another on the terrace overlooking the Thames, and once he was in St Stephen's chapel. As spring progressed and the trees across the river came into full leaf, he found he was beginning to look forward to the Herald's visits. And in those clear grey eyes he sometimes thought he saw an acknowledgement of a similar liking.

 -x-

 Late one evening he was in the stables in the Old Palace Yard. He liked it here; liked taking time with dumb beasts who would not demand this or that of him, or try to use him as their puppet or force him to their own way of thinking. Horses and dogs and hawks; they were good, restful companions.

 One of the mares had had a late birth, and she and her gangly foal were stabled in a loose-box, for the nights had been chill this last week. The stable door swung open; he looked over the wall of the loose-box to see what was going on.

 'The Herald, sire,' said Edmund, his chamberlain. They had fallen into the way of bringing Montjoy to him straight away, if he were at leisure. Did they see what he was feeling? Did Montjoy?

 'Herald, welcome once more. Come in, come in; bring some grain from the bin there, will you?'

 And though he was clad in his silk tabard and white cloak, which might surely get grubby in Henry's stables, well-kept though they were, Montjoy did as he was asked and let himself into the loose-box.

 'Your majesty,' that formal half-bow again, but Henry had little patience with this.

 'It was a difficult birth, but they'll do well, I think,' he said, gesturing for Montjoy to look at the dapple-grey, dark-eyed little foal that lay in the straw, her spidery limbs curled under her. Her mother stood over her protectively. 'Softly, sweetheart, we mean her no harm.' He and Montjoy made themselves small against the timber partition.

 The mare lost her alert stance, and became interested in the grain that Montjoy had brought. Henry laughed, and took the scoop from him, tipping the kernels onto his palm and offering them to her. She nosed at them; softer than velvet, that touch! and crunched them up, cracking the grains between her teeth, and came back for more.

 'You are welcome here again, herald; what brings you this time?'

 'My lord the king sends greetings to your majesty.'

 'Can they perhaps wait until we have seen these two settled for the night?'

 'Yes, should it please you.'

 'It would indeed. For Sweetheart knows of nothing in the world so important as her foal, and just at this moment, I think she may be right.' It was odd that he called her Sweetheart, for that was not her real name.

 More grain disappeared between those strong teeth. Henry passed the scoop back to Montjoy, and sat down on a bale of straw, motioning Montjoy to do the same. A pity about that white cloak, but the washerwomen would deal with it if necessary. And now here they were, sitting side by side, in a lantern-lit stable with no-one overlooking them. 'Herald, I have never asked about your own horse.'

 'A mare. Marron, she's called. Steady and strong. I'm very fond of her.'

 'I'll see her, perhaps, one day.'

 Montjoy offered Henry the grain once more, but he smiled, and shook his head, and indicated that the herald himself should feed the mare. The little foal struggled to her feet, to see what this apparently delectable treat was, but decided it was not to her taste, and turned instead to her mother's teat. The two enemies, sitting side by side on the straw bale, watched benevolently as she sucked.

 'Sweetheart,' said Henry to the mare, 'you have a fine daughter... Tell me, Herald, do you have daughters?'

 'No, my lord, nor sons.'

 'A wife, then.'

 'Nor that, sire.'

 'A sweetheart of your own?'

 'Not at this time.'

 'Nor I. At this time.'

 They sat on, watching the mare give suck to her foal. Love, in its purest form.

 'Sweetheart,' said Henry, low and gentle, but this time he was not addressing her; Montjoy's hand, empty of grain now, slipped from his lap and came to rest alongside Henry's where it had fallen in among the folds of the white cloak. Their fingers brushed; entangled.

 The mare settled down in the straw, the little foal curled against her side. Henry and Montjoy did not notice; for in their little pool of lamplight, they had dared their first kiss.

 -x-

 Summer: Oxford

 The barge pulled in to the jetty; sturdy wooden piles beyond which rose a golden city, a forest of spires, towers and colleges, all dedicated, in their own way, to the glory of God. Montjoy had the illusion, as the barge slowed and drifted to a halt, that the whole city was floating between water and heaven.

 The journey from the jetty by the Jewel Tower had taken three days, stopping only to sleep and for the king to show his face at the market towns on the way. They had stayed at the best inns, taken over wholesale for the purpose, and generously paid for. Here in Oxford, though, they were to stay at Henry's new foundation, Bohun College, just a short walk away from the river.

 'The students are down; we'll have a quieter time of it than we might have done,' Henry had said with a smile last night at Goring. 'But my brother Gloucester is there; he's always had a liking for the place, and he's helped to set the new college in train.'

 The young man was indeed waiting for them on the jetty, and as a bargeman leapt up with a rope and made fast, the drifting, gliding sensation that had accompanied Montjoy all the way upriver left him. Now the city lost its otherworldly feel and became -- no, not just another town. It still aspired.

 'Welcome, brother!' Gloucester, a younger and more slender version of the king, came forward as Henry climbed the steps. They embraced; exchanged the kiss of greeting. 'We didn't look to see you so soon.'

 'The river's low and we had good passage,' replied Henry. 'I trust you are ready for us, though we're early? Bed and board at least? It would be a shame to go hungry.'

 'We'll find you somewhere; if all else fails, there are the students' rooms,' smiled Gloucester.

 Montjoy, coming up the steps in his turn, could see the affection between the brothers in the gentle teasing. Their sunlit hair matched the colour of the stone.

 He sighed a little inside. It was useless to hope that one day he too might enjoy such closeness with the English King. He told himself this for perhaps the dozenth time; though in the informal circumstances of the journey upriver he had learned to relax in Henry's company. They had spoken from time to time of French colleges, and of rivers that he had travelled on; the Seine, the Rhine, and even the mighty Danube once.

 But now the King and his brother were walking the short distance to the College, through the golden streets, and the townsfolk scarcely stopping in their business to see the entourage go by. Under the arch of the gatehouse, with the de Bohun lions rampant above it, and into the quadrangle; ah, that was a noble sight! Gloucester was pointing this way and that; fragments of talk drifted back to Montjoy, 'chapel' and 'library'.

 Perhaps he could find the time to visit the library, while the king was in conference with this noble lord or that.

 -x-

  Henry had the Warden's lodging, over the gatehouse; quite where the Warden had gone, Montjoy never did discover. And he and the rest of the entourage were indeed accommodated in the students' rooms, and very acceptable they were too. They all dined in the refectory, then went to Compline in the college chapel, where prayers were sung for the soul of the king's mother.

  Then the king and his kinsmen made their quiet way back to their lodgings; but Montjoy crossed the quadrangle, and found his way through an arch and up a staircase to the library. Wherever he went, in Europe or beyond, a library was home to him; often he encountered old friends among the books, and there was always a librarian, of varying degrees of fierceness, but who could be counted on to come to the aid of a travelling scholar. Here was one now, a typical example of the breed, clad in a academic's gown and regarding him with slight suspicion.

  'I would like to see an atlas,' said Montjoy, the talk of river journeys last night having reminded him of his travels in the past. The librarian, a small elderly man with fingers twisted by rheumatism, looked at him narrowly, 'You're the Frenchman, come up with the king, aren't you?' he enquired unexpectedly. 'He's sent word that I was to help you, if you wanted it. Follow me.' He took up a branch of candles, and led the way further into the library. 

  And Montjoy followed, utterly surprised at this remark. The librarian unchained a large volume, and between them they carried it to a desk between the book-cases.

'I'll be in my office at the entrance; call me when you're ready to go,' and the little man departed to his lair.

Montjoy stared unseeing at the big leather-bound book before him for a few minutes, then mentally shrugged and opened it; and began to trace the line of the Danube. All those journeys he had made, to places that most kings and princes could only dream of. And now he in his turn dreamed of a king.

After a while, he glanced out of the window beside him. In the half-light of dusk, he saw the object of his dreams crossing the quadrangle in his turn, in company with his brother. They were talking; Gloucester was pointing here and there. They were making for the very arch he had entered by.

'And you'll see, it's a fine library, for all it's new.' That was Gloucester's voice. Now they were coming up the stairs that Montjoy had climbed half an hour before. 'But one day, I'd like to see a finer here at Oxford; the best in the world, maybe!'

'You have large ambitions, brother!'

'How can I not? I am a Lancastrian prince, after all.'

And then their voices hushed as they entered the library, as was proper even for kings and princes.

It was no business of a foreign herald to hear what they were talking of in such quiet tones. Montjoy took his attention back to the atlas; it was a very fine one, though rather imaginative about the further reaches of the known world. He smiled at some of the illustrations; dragons and sea-serpents, he had seen never a one in all his travels. Outside the long summer evening was drawing to a close, but all the candles in the library were still burning.

A shadow fell across the book. 'Well, Montjoy, here you are. I thought you might find your way here. No, don't get up.'

And Montjoy sank back down onto his bench, and the king sat next to him, and looked at the atlas.

'The librarian said you had sent word to help me, sire; I am most grateful.'

'Nay, it's little enough. But you'll have time to kill, while I deal with my business here, and I haven't even considered your message yet. And it seemed to me that a library would be a place you would enjoy; so I sent a page to the librarian. Make use of it while you can!'

'It's a very fine one, sire, and stands comparison with the best in Europe.'

'The older colleges have their libraries too, but my brother Gloucester has plans for something better yet. He's talking with Master Francis now.'

Both of them immured in that little office at the entrance to the room. He and Henry, alone with the books.

'Do you read, sire?'

'When I have time,' sighed Henry. 'I've a pile of books by my bedside, waiting to be read, and not all of them are mine! I must find the time, and return them to their rightful owners. But they've got the measure of people like me, in this place; the students have to come here to study, they cannot take the books away with them,' and he looked at the book-cases with a hungry eye, and laughed at himself. 'So tell me, Herald, what do you study now?'

'The course of the Danube, down to Hungary where I went once with a message to their king.' And Montjoy traced the line of the river, with (he had to admit it) a long and elegant finger, and Henry followed it with his own, pointing at this city or that, that his father had visited while on pilgrimage, and asking questions about them, which Montjoy did his best to answer. Outside in the quadrangle now, Gloucester and Master Francis seemed to be discussing possible sites for the greater library, from the fragments of talk that floated up.

'These are all places I'll never see, unless I go to Jerusalem myself one day. My father was luckier than I in that respect; and so are you,' observed Henry. 'But in my dreams I can go wherever I wish.'

'We all have dreams, sire.'

'Aye, even kings,' said Henry. 'And heralds, too? What do they dream about?'

It was full dusk now, and the candles were all the light they had. The library was very still all about them. He could feel the warmth of Henry's body as the man sat next to him, though they were not touching. And Henry was looking at him, waiting for an answer.

'Things they should not, sire.' He looked down at the atlas again; all these distant places he could go to, and the young man sitting next to him, who was the most distant of them all. He moved his hand aimlessly on the vellum.

Henry caught it; warm, callused fingers. He held it for a moment, and Montjoy turned amazed eyes upon him. But he did not withdraw it, and after a heartbeat Henry carried it to his lips and kissed the knuckles gently. 'Who says they should not?'

And Montjoy made a soft noise of astonishment, and opened his hand and laid it along Henry's cheek, and the other hand joined it to frame his face, and he went to kiss his mouth and halted for a moment in sudden fear, but Henry grasped his shoulders and slid one hand around them and the other into his hair, and they kissed, and the books in the library looked down on them and perhaps smiled, in their own way; the wisdom of the ages, benevolent.

-x-

Autumn: Hainault Forest

The royal hunting-party had ridden for an hour and a little more, from the courtyard under the Jewel Tower, straight through London and out the other side, and lastly crossed a small river making its slow way down to the Thames. Now the forest gate welcomed them, heathland and copses and thicker woodland; small meres and thickets of gorse. The leaves were on the turn.

They were an assorted party, the king and his brothers and the Earl of Westmoreland, and the few ladies of the court, and servants behind with all the items necessary for a king's day at the hunt; and one Frenchman, who had ridden at the king's side for much of the time. A courtesy, that, though whether it was to himself or to his position as the new ambassador, Montjoy was not sure. But now the group of lords and ladies gathered around the huntsman, waiting for his words.

'Your majesty,' this man said, bowing; black-haired, with a weathered face, dressed in homespun, and carrying - of course - a longbow. 'We have a fine beast marked out for you to follow, if you wish it; or there are harts enough for bow and stable if you prefer.'

'Ah,' said Henry, 'well done, Anselm! We've given you little enough warning, and you've set us up for a fine day's hunting. Well, I think bow and stable, today; the Palace can always use more venison! My lord Westmoreland, do you take your lady and the rest to the tryst; we will do our best to send the deer to the ladies' bows.'

'We will be there, my lord; no beast will escape their arrows if we can prevent them! Come, my dear.' And the earl and his countess wheeled their horses away to the north-east, and the rest of the ladies and some older gentlemen followed, and the palace dogs with them. Anselm sent half a dozen men off with them; he and two or three huntsmen stayed with the king's party, with their own small hounds, patient and well-trained, at their heels.

'Now, friends, we'll begin,' said the king. 'Spread your net wide and take your time. Montjoy, stay by me; you're not used to this kind of hunt, I think.' The other men fanned out to either side, quiet and intent, and were lost to view among the trees and bushes.

'I've heard of it, sire, and read about it in Gaston of Foix's book; but no, I have not seen this before.' And trust the English to hunt with a bow, though he had not heard of ladies being the ones to achieve the coup de grace. Would they send an army of women down upon France next? 'You take the beasts down to the place where the archers are waiting, do you not?'

'Yes. One can take a-many beasts home from the tryst, and it'll leave all the more fodder for the hinds, over the winter. Now, you'll need this.' And with his own hands the king broke off a spray of oak-leaves from a sapling nearby, and twisted it into a chaplet. 'Be rid of that hat, Herald; we need you to look like a tree! Not but what you're near as tall as one; here, bend your head.'

Montjoy, smiling, stowed his hat away, and Henry brought his horse in close and crowned him with oak-leaves, with an almost formal air. 'There, now you're properly dressed.' And Henry made himself a similar chaplet, while Montjoy adjusted his own upon his head, touching the place where Henry's hands had been moments before.

They had become almost friends, these last few months, and the French council had made him ambassador on the strength of it, though he was no noble; if he could be on friendly terms with this fierce young king the post was his.

And of course he wished to have more than formal speech with him, and sometimes he had an inkling that this might be possible. And today, maybe today, that might happen, and he had express permission to let it happen. 'Lie with him, Montjoy, if you can; they say he likes you, and God knows we need someone to tame him. But don't be too obvious about it; he's no fool, for all he's young.' Thus Queen Isabeau, whose appetites knew very few bounds. And Montjoy, whose own desires were of the heart as much as of the flesh, had been glad of the permission but drew the line at deliberate seduction. He trod a delicate path between duty and love.

Henry's chaplet was now in place, leaves of green and tan and russet crowning his bright hair, and he grinned across at Montjoy, who smiled back as easily as he could. Henry turned his horse to the north-east, where the ladies would be waiting for the harts to come down upon them.

'Tell me, sire, what I should do.'

'Stay close, ride quiet, and we'll take the deer along slowly. There's no rush; the ladies will be comfortable enough at the tryst. It's the place where the deer usually go when we herd them like this, and there's a little bower for them there. But if we go too loud or too fast we'll panic the deer, and they'll scatter and maybe escape. The craft lies in going slow and gentle. Like diplomacy, Montjoy; you should excel at this!' And with a wicked smile he touched his heels to his horse, and began to walk it through the forest.

For a quarter-hour or so they simply rode. Montjoy enjoyed warmth of the the sun on his shoulder; not too often that they had seen it, this last year. The Forest was quiet, with just the sound of horses moving through grass and shrub, late grasshoppers still calling, and the thin wandering song of a robin now and then. He wondered a little that Henry should allow a foreigner so close to him, and alone; but of course Henry was armed and few men in Christendom knew better how to defend themselves than he. And Montjoy did not even carry a dagger. His office had always been his protection; that, and his mind.

They came to the edge of a glade, with crab-apple trees covered with small red fruit around its further margin. Greedy birds squabbled among them. Rose-briars, bright with hips, grew in a tangle below. Warm yellow sunshine fell between the trees.

A group of young bucks was feeding quietly in the grassy open space . 'There they are! Fat as butter. They'll make good eating,' whispered Henry, so quietly that Montjoy has to lean in to hear him. 'We'll start them now.'

He clicked his tongue, like a man calling a horse, and an antlered head came up, and another. Over on the other side of the glade was came the sound of a soft cough, very like a deer's alarm call, but not urgent. One of the harts took a step away from the unexpected noises. And another did the same; slender legs taking the beasts towards the distant tryst. Henry brushed his hand against a low bough. Now all the herd was stepping softly away from them.

'Follow,' whispered Henry, and the hunt was on. But it was like no hunt Montjoy had attended before; no music of horns or hounds, just the footfalls of the horses and the creak of saddle-leather, and their breathing and the beating of his own heart. The net of hunters drifted through the forest.

Henry, a little way away on his right, looked like some woodland god, with his crown of oak leaves and the sun touching his hair with gold from time to time; though to be sure he was far too solid a figure to be sprite or faery. He would make a good armful... Montjoy twisted his thoughts away from that direction, and concentrated on the deer.

Down into a little valley, and across a muddy stream, careful and slow. From time to time, Montjoy, understanding the hunters' rôle now, tapped his hand on a bough or made a soft hissing noise. Up ahead, the herd moved on. Under oak and cherry and thorn they went, skirting a marshy hollow, its mud criss-crossed with tracks. Soft sounds came from the other hunters, invisible on either hand. So far, so good.

Up the other side of the hollow, and a long shallow valley lay beyond the rise; 'We'll send them down this valley; the tryst's at the other end, a few miles away,' murmured Henry, so quiet that Montjoy could hardly hear him.

But suddenly the hush of the forest was shattered by a pheasant's alarm call, which nearly shocked Montjoy into an exclamation, though he bit it back just it in time.

Henry was likewise keeping a curb on his tongue, but the deer startled, milled around for a moment, and broke away with a soft drumming of hooves, up the further side of the valley and out of sight beyond its brow. There was the whip and swish of foliage as they passed.

'Ach,' said Henry, 'that always happens at some point. Never mind, the other fellows will bring them back to the valley. We'll stay here and wait for them; no use everyone going crashing about, we'll just panic them. Well, we can give the horses a breather.' So saying, he dismounted and looped the reins around a low branch, and invited Montjoy, with a gesture, to sit by him on an earthy bank beneath a small tree. An apple tree, he saw, but this had big bright fruit, unlike the crab-apples they had seen earlier; perhaps grown from a core thrown away by some other hunter, in years gone past. He seated himself; not too close to the king, nor yet so very far away.

'Will they take long to round them up, do you think?' Because, if they did... His heart was beating louder than ever now, and he was hunting quarry that mattered more to him than any deer.

'They'll be slow about it,' said Henry; 'better to be careful and take the prize than snatch at it and lose it.'

They sat quiet under the apple-tree, watching the little dell. Now and then a leaf broke from its twig and drifted, dipping from side to side or spinning lazily, to the ground. Small birds hopped and cheeped among the branches.

'The ladies, sire... they shoot well?' The silence was becoming awkward, to him at least.

'Why, yes; some of them have trained since childhood, and are as sure to hit the mark as I, and the tryst is in a good place; they've been taking the deer there for hundreds of years.'

With a sudden feeling of inadequacy, Montjoy said, 'I have no skill as a huntsman. I can handle a sword indifferently well, and have used a dagger on occasion. But to bring down a running deer? No, I'd be as likely to shoot a friend as the mark.'

'You are too modest, Herald,' said Henry, 'you have just proved that you are adept at hunting the hart.' And that was said with a sidelong smile.

Oh. If his English served him well, that could be taken two ways. He sought for a way to continue the double-entendre, could not in the heartbeat of time that such an answer would be appropriate, and snatching a glance away in embarrassment, spied an apple hanging from a bough above him and a little to one side.

He half-stood, reached up and plucked it; turned and sat again, and offered it to Henry on his open palm.

'Will your majesty eat?' and his hand was trembling and so was his voice.

'Ah, Herald, you tempt me,' said Henry with half a laugh, and put out his hand and covered Montjoy's with it, and the apple too. Fingertips skated for an instant across his wrist, sending a flush of pleasure right through Montjoy's body; and then Henry took the apple and bit into it.

'It's sweet,' he said, chewing the while, and offered it back to Montjoy with a conspiratorial smile, who took it and bit also. Waited.

'We've tasted the apple, Herald; we are doomed,' and Henry's hand came back to cover Montjoy's for a moment before taking the fruit from him and placing it on the earthen bank.

'I always was,' said Montjoy simply, and leaned in and kissed him, because it was the only thing to do; and it was indeed sweet.

Away in the forest, the hunt went on unheeded for a good hour; the hunters soft-stepping through the woodland glades, the dogs at the tryst dozing or alert, the ladies entertained with music and singing, and though many of the quarry escaped, thanks to the intervention of the pheasant, the harts were well and truly caught.

-x-

Winter: The King's House

'Don't stand on ceremony, man. Go in, go in,' called the King.

The barge had docked at the steps of the jetty. The passage up the Thames had been slow; there had been rain aplenty for the last week, and the river was up. At London Bridge it had surged loudly through the arches. The boatmen had pulled strongly at first, to avoid being swept through.

Montjoy had run up the jetty stairs in another sharp flurry of rain, and now made his bow to Henry, who had just come out of the gateway beside the Jewel Tower that led to the Abbey close. Half a dozen attendants with him; private prayers maybe, or a meeting with the Abbot.

 

Henry did not stand on ceremony either, but bustled him around the corner to the steps of the King's House. In a group they almost ran into the palace doors, stopped in the entrance hall and handed their cloaks to the servants waiting there. Montjoy's was sodden; it had rained steadily all the way from the Tower Steps. The noise of rain was loud, even indoors.

'You have dispatches, Montjoy? Are they urgent?'

'No, sire, a fine point of negotiation, I believe.'

'Then get to your quarters and dry yourself out; the usual ones, I think, Edmund?' The chamberlain, who had come to meet them in the hallway, nodded. 'And then come and deliver your message in my private quarters. At seven o'clock. Edmund, go with him and make sure he has all he needs.'

'I will be there, my lord, and thank-you.' There was a fine pearling of rain on the King's bright hair, gleaming in the warm candlelight. He had no need of crowns to draw all eyes to him. Montjoy bowed again, and followed Edmund up the stairs to the now-familiar room. The King, less thoroughly soaked than he, went through into the main hall of the palace, where no doubt a noble fire awaited him, and all his courtiers too.

Montjoy spent the intervening hours resting, and eating the light meal that was brought in to him - the crossing of the Narrow Seas had been one of the more unpleasant ones of his experience - before making himself presentable for his audience. Not that any amount of effort on his part would make the impression his heart wished; nor should he want that, he was a Frenchman to the bone.

Yet still his heart called out, when he saw the enemy king, 'I desire thee; lie with me; give me thy heart and I will give thee mine!' A brave boy, leading a doomed army; a stern judge; a man exhausted and on the point of tears, finally losing control and dignity in the mud of Agincourt. He had all but wept in Montjoy's arms.

But it was pointless, impossible even to think about. He rose from his chair at half past the hour, and put the dispatch ready, and donned his armour; a silken tabard that protected him from what was inside him, as much as from what was without.

When the page knocked at his door he was as ready as he would ever be. He followed the child along a corridor, turned and made his way down another, wider one. The King's apartment looked out across the river on one side of the Palace, and to the Abbey on another. He had been there once before on a similar mission, but not to the king's private study before.

They crossed the ante-room; warm with firelight, wood-panelled, hung with tapestries. The door to the study stood half-open.

'Enter,' came that unmistakeable voice, and the page stood back. There was the King, at his ease in a chair before the fire. 'Shut the door, Herald, I swear the draughts come straight from the snows of Scotland.' Montjoy swung it closed behind him; heavy oak door, the grain smooth against his hand. Turned back to the king. He was dressed in a red houppelonde, a golden collar of esses around his neck. With his hair gleaming softly in the candlelight, he looked like the personification of firelight, of the lions on his coat of arms. And that velvet garment was so very touchable.

He bowed, and held out the packet of dispatches like a shield before him. 'Sire, I bring greetings from my master.'

Henry took the packet from his hand, scanned the contents, and grunted. 'My greetings to him in return, Montjoy. I will give you my formal reply after council tomorrow; there's nothing of urgency here.'

'Then I will take my leave, my lord, and disturb you no longer.'

'No, Montjoy, stay a while, if you wish it. I have an hour or two to spare. We might play at chess.'

'Your majesty, I am out of practice,' but he wished, oh, he wished to stay, and perhaps it was plain in his voice.

For Henry replied, 'Then we'll be well-matched. But... you do not have to stay; you had a bad crossing of it, perhaps?'

'Cold and rainy and rough, sire, but we came through it well enough, and my rooms here are comfortable.' Very comfortable, in fact; extra rugs and cushions had appeared since his last visit. Perhaps the last person to occupy them had been of greater importance; some peer of the realm maybe.

'Ah. Mulled wine, then, perhaps? And we will play. A friendly game only.' The King got up, and with his own hands put a canister of wine into the fire to heat. 'The chess-table is behind you. Set out the men, if you will.'

Montjoy turned and picked up the table. It was small and heavy, inlaid with ivory and some dark wood. The box of men - he looked at it again - was familiar.

Henry turned from the fire, and smiled, almost mischievously, at his expression. 'I had to find a use for it, and it's too fine for tennis-balls. I usually take red; do you take the white.'

Between them they set out the men. The red-stained ivory was the exact colour of Henry's houppelonde.

'Now. Let us begin, Herald of France.'

And Montjoy's heart suddenly beat fast, for it seemed to him that the game they were playing here might not be chess. But he collected himself as they began to play, their hands moving knights and castles, bishops and queens and kings across the board. Henry poured them wine when it was ready, and they talked, now and then, of this and that. Rain beat on the window from time to time, but here in this little room they were warm and dry and bathed in firelight, and there was Henry of England, sitting across the table from him.

And despite the warmth beginning to grow in his body, Montjoy suddenly decided that he could play his own game too, and fought the chess-match as hard as he could, taking Henry's bishops, and his queen (losing a knight or two in the process) and the chess pieces clicked on the board, and they exchanged their pawns for prisoners, and from time to time there were laughing exclamations, and at last he had the red king pinned in a corner.

'Why, that's the first time anyone has dared beat me in a long time,' said Henry, in mock outrage. He put his hand out, the red sleeve of the houppelonde falling back from the strong wrist, and tipped the red king over.

'Herald... I yield me,' and he said this low and soft, and with an unmistakeable meaning.

Montjoy's breath caught. He had enjoyed the seduction. He had never thought it would come to this; flirting and laughter were the limits of his imagination, and more than he had ever dreamed he would get. But Henry's eyes in the firelight were suddenly serious, suddenly anxious. He looked a little aside, disappointment and embarrassment almost, but not quite, masked. Montjoy put his hand out to the red king, still afraid to touch just yet.

'We might play another game, and perhaps this time I will lose,' he said, and at last closed his hand on Henry's, and the chess piece he held; who with a little exhalation of relief, turned his own within it, and took it in a strong grasp.

'Have we time to play this game tonight, do you think, Herald?' Henry gave a tug on his hand that had them both rising slowly to their feet.

'Tonight, yes. Maybe other nights too, if your majesty so desires.'

'I do indeed,' said Henry, and drew his head down and their lips touched and yes, that velvet houppelonde was soft under his hands, very warm on the shoulder and arm closest to the fire. Henry put the chessman down on the board at last, the better to embrace his herald, and his hands slid over the silk of the tabard, and under it. They kissed again, and the fire leapt on the hearth, and the candles shone golden on Henry's hair, which filled almost all of Montjoy's vision now. All this warmth for him.

He must have made a sound, for Henry suddenly loosed him; Montjoy apprehensive for a moment. But Henry said, 'My bed's through there,' and gestured at a further door. 'If you should wish it.'

'Yes, I wish it. I have always wished it.'

The words were out of him before he realised, and Henry smiled, and said, 'So have I. We will find a way, you and I. But for tonight, no thinking, no plans. Tonight we'll play that other game you spoke of.'

They went through the door, and the chess-set was forgotten behind them.

And though Montjoy returned to France a few days later, as the Herald of France must always do wherever his heart lay, he took a red ivory chessman with him on all his travels thereafter; and when he came back to England, he and the king continued the match they had begun on that fire-lit winter's evening.

-x-

New Year: The Jewel Tower

The King of England looked up from his accounts, stretched and got up from his chair, and dropped another log on the fire. For the last few hours he had been sitting at his desk in the little room on the second floor of the Jewel Tower, going though the records for the Privy Wardrobe over the past year. A sheaf of papers, initialled as correct by him, lay at one hand, his clerks had done well; but knowing that their king would be looking over their work doubtless concentrated their minds!

The room was warm and still, with just the crackle of the fire to keep him company. The logs smelled sweet, apple-wood brought down in the storms of two years back. Across the dark courtyard was the palace, and all the bustle of preparation for the New Year's Feast tonight; and thus he had taken refuge here earlier this afternoon. There would be time enough for ceremony later on.

The thick walls of the tower did an admirable job of keeping out the cold and frost. It was a still, clear evening, calm after the storms of the previous day, when even the Thames estuary had been rough, with choppy brown water breaking into foam here and there, and the sky full of water too. Once or twice he had got up from this very desk, when an especially hard gust had blown a spatter of rain against the window, and looked out across the palace roof, and wondered how travellers were faring, out there on the sea, and hoped that one traveller in particular had stayed safe in port. But that traveller had ridden, wind-blown and soaked, into the palace yard as the early darkness fell, not coming up-river by boat as he usually did. He had apparently had enough of water-craft for a while.

Henry had told off his chamberlain to see that the Herald of France and his attendant had warm rooms and hot food, and had refused to listen to his message until this morning. Montjoy had appeared none the worse for his rough crossing, but Henry had been thankful that the storm had blown itself out so thoroughly that a stay of a few days appeared to be necessary. And the Frenchmen seemed to be nothing loath at the prospect of steady ground beneath their feet for a while. So there they were, accommodated in some corner of the palace, and here was Henry, catching up on the year's accounts; or at this moment, staring into the fire, the pen laid by.

Montjoy the Herald of France, his enemy and his enemy's servant, who had come to Henry through wind and rain so many times. Truly, they had never really been enemies, though both of them had done their duty as they saw it, and that had held them apart even as it brought them together. What he now wished he could ask of the Herald did not involve enmity at all. That rangy figure had walked in his dreams a few times.

His reverie was interrupted by a scatter of voices down in the courtyard. He looked up from the fire as he heard footsteps coming up the spiral stair in haste. A knock at the door, and on his call, Ranulph, his clerk, came through.

'Sire...' there was consternation in his voice, 'the Northern Lights are shining!'

'What!' Henry got up swiftly out of his chair.

'It's true, sire, such a sight, the people are dismayed!' Now there were more voices below, the palace emptying by the sound of it.

Henry was out of the little chamber in an instant, and ran down the steps to the door. Through the archway, past the guards there, he saw people milling about in the lantern-lit courtyard, all staring up at the sky, doubt and uncertainty in their voices. Some were calling on God and the saints.

He looked up, urgent, and far overhead were slow flickers and pulses of light, green and blue. The hair on his head and forearms lifted slightly, his heart stuttered; this was an enemy he could not fight. For once he was at a loss for words. He could not think what to say to reassure his people.

But coming stiffly down the steps of the palace was Sir Thomas Erpingham; he moved purposefully across the courtyard and to the door of the Jewel Tower, where Henry waited for him. 'Your majesty. This is no ill portent,' he said quietly, but with conviction. 'I have seen the Northern Lights before, when I was in Lithuania with your father. They know them well, there. And they're unusual, but not unnatural. The people need not fear them.'

And another man, in a white cloak, hastening up with long strides, added, 'I have seen them too, your majesty, in Oslo, on my first embassy abroad. Maybe it was that same year...' he glanced at Erpingham, who nodded in sharp agreement.

'Aye, most likely. It's not a common sight.'

'But not to be feared,' stated Henry, though it was half a question.

'No, nothing bad followed; and in Norway?' Erpingham glanced at the other man.

'Nor there, sire.'

'Well, then.' Henry glanced up again at the sky, where the flickers had changed to curtains, hanging pale and glowing from the very vault of the night sky. The hasty conference was over; once again it was time to be a leader. He lifted his voice.

'My friends! Our travellers tell me that this is not to be feared. In the northern kingdoms these lights are well known, and there's been no ill consequence there. We may look upon them as God's handiwork; rainbows, His sign, in the night, perhaps! And we may say a prayer or two, but in thanks and praise; see, who knew that heaven could be so high!' as the curtains shimmered, and seemed to climb higher yet.

'I've heard tell of them too, in the northern isles, and when they dance slow like this they say it's a sign of fair weather,' that was Captain Jamy's voice, from somewhere down in the press of people.

And the edge of panic had gone from the crowd, and people were now staring up in dawning wonder rather than fear. The lights were faint and far, but immense. Henry felt a strange euphoria creeping over him.

'Who'll ride to London for me, to tell the folk there they have naught to fear?'

'I will go, your majesty.' Faithful Sir Thomas, ready to answer Henry's need as always.

'I thank you, my good friend! Captain Jamy, will you go with him?'

'I'll do that service gladly, sire.'

'Go then, and my thanks go with you.'

Together they went off to the stables, calling their followers to them; and the northern lights slowly shifted to blue above them.

'The colour of Our Lady,' called Henry, 'no, we have nothing to fear from this. I'll to the leads of the tower; I would see this in all its glory. Herald, come with me, tell me what I see!'

And he went back in through the tiny lobby of the Jewel Tower, and hastened up the narrow stair, and behind him the Herald followed; but no-one else.

They were up to the first level of the tower and out of earshot of the guards at its door before Henry asked quietly, 'Truly, Herald? No ill came of this?'

'No, sire, though it's a strange enough sight. Even in Oslo they do not see the Lights very often.'

'Then we should perhaps hurry. For it's wonderful as well as strange.' And that intangible exhilaration, that he had sometimes felt in the face of a thunderstorm, was still running through him. 'Come, Herald!'

He stopped at the little office on the second floor to catch up his cloak and a candle, before leading the way further up the stair; swung open the little door at the top, and stepped out onto the tower roof. Here he halted for moment, suddenly remembering the dangers of lightning. But it would not do to be seen to hesitate, either before his own people or the Herald of France. So he left the meagre shelter of the stair-turret, and went down the narrow walkway between the parapet and the leads, to the angle of the tower where it overlooked the courtyard. He set the candle down on the battlement, and looked up.

The cold air struck through his lungs, but he hardly noticed, for there, still hanging in immense shimmering folds from the vault of heaven, were the Northern Lights. He could scarce take his eyes from the living opal curtains.

'Ah, Herald. That's a sight to marvel at,' he said softly. Up here the arch of the sky seemed so much greater than it had in the courtyard. 'Was it like this, in Norway?'

'Yes, though the lights were brighter, and there was more red in them.' Montjoy was close beside him; his voice was hushed too. 'They shone all night, and faintly for a few nights thereafter. They said that in the far north of the country they appear more often.'

'I would wish to see that.'

'I too, your majesty,' answered Montjoy.

'Oh, forget that, Montjoy, the majesty is all in the heavens tonight!' And Henry heard the laugh, the delight, in his own voice.

He could hear a new note in the voices coming up from the courtyard below, too; less of fear and more of wonder and awe. He leaned his hands on the parapet and called down, 'My friends! We see God at work in his heaven tonight, and He is greater than we can imagine!' That strange exaltation was running free in his blood and body now, and from the cries of assent, others felt it too.

He turned away from the wall, and went hastily out to the middle of the roof, and Montjoy followed. Here between the sloping leads, away from the stair-turret, the view was wider yet, and the sound of the voices from below died away a little.

'See, the stars are shining through, even where it's brightest; there's Orion still, and the Pole Star above him,' Henry said, his head tilted up to find those familiar friends, faint now behind the streaming light. He glanced at Montjoy; the Herald was close beside him, looking where he pointed, and he too was smiling now. He was holding his white cloak close around his throat, and together with his lean face and his height it made him look a little like an angel.

Angelos, which in the original meant simply: a messenger.

'This is something I'll remember all my life,' said Henry, and now it was not the Northern Lights that he spoke of, but the two of them, alone on their little island in the sky.

'And I, my lord. Thank-you for asking me up here to see it with you. I would not have missed it for the world.' A soft response, full of wonder.

'Nor I,' and Henry turned to Montjoy and set his hands on his shoulders. 'Nor I.' His cloak fell back from his arms, all pretence falling away with it. 'Might we not take it as a sign, you and I, Herald of France?' And all the persuasiveness at his command was in his voice.

And Montjoy looked down into his face, his head outlined against the shifting curtains of blue and green and pearl-colour, and smiled, and said softly, 'Yes, King of England. I think we should.'

So they kissed, king and herald, there on the roof-leads of the tower, in the cold glinting frost that echoed the stars, and the unearthly, wondrous light. The murmur of voices of dozens, maybe hundreds, of Henry's people came up to them all around, but the two of them were safe and private here atop the Jewel Tower. And the world turned around them, from the Old Year towards the New.

 

-x-X-x-