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The Counterfeit Noble

 

In 1399, with the violent end of the reign of King Richard II, there ensued two generations of fighting that would become known as the Wars of the Roses. Two houses of royal blood, enmeshed in dynastic struggle, threw the Realm of England into turmoil. The White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster battled and traded petals so often that loyalty was a word entirely forgotten amongst the tumult of men’s ambition. And while men fought for their own ends, the discord of the Wars spread to the very reaches of the Kingdom, afflicting man, woman, and child. There was no escape from the bloodlust of those accursed roses, for there was nowhere left to flee.

 

Chapter One

Merioneth, Wales

Friday, 14th March, 1477

 

Huddled, wide-eyed, against the side of a large boulder, nearly hidden by the fog that muddled the rays of the rising sun, Isolda took in a trembling breath and watched as men invaded her home. They were not crusading, these men; they did not ransack or set fire to her childhood citadel. Instead, they had come to retrieve her, to take her from the wild Welsh shores of Merioneth to their lofty castles and their church spires that scraped Heaven. She had known they would come before her father had died, but now that they were here, fear clutched her heart. The dreams of her short childhood were ending. The Wars of the Roses had found her at last.

These men could steal nothing from her but her life, for she owned very little: a few books her father had inherited, some jewelry her mother had brought with her from England, and three dresses. Her green eyes welled with tears as she gathered the skirts of her kirtle and surcoat into her hands, trying to avoid the trampling feet of a man as he passed closely by. Her father had not realized the depth of her love for their home, hidden from the small village only two miles away. Perhaps he had assumed that Isolda, like her older brother, would want more than the meager existence of a peasant for her future; or that she would one day be enisled by her extremely un-Welsh appearance, and would dream of a day when she could escape the confines of their impoverished rustic life. He had not known that he would die when she was but eleven, an unmarriageable age; but Lady Fate had struck, and Isolda was now vulnerable to the whims of the knight whom had been awarded her aegis.

Isolda had a foggy memory of the Worcestershire knight from many years ago, returning to Merioneth with the news that her brother, Arthur, had died. Her brother, after all, had been squired to the knight. The knight had then suggested marrying Isolda to his son, even waiving a cash dowry in exchange for Isolda’s aegis should Master Sevin die prematurely. And so, six years later, she belonged to him.

A horse’s whinny echoed through the fog. The mare pawed anxiously at the muddy ground as her master slid off her back. Isolda watched the Worcestershire knight tug at his cotehardie, a thick, padded vest that reached halfway down his thighs. Through her welling tears, she saw the knight stare about himself in disgust as a caravan of his servants reined in their horses behind him. He smirked and, patting a servant on the back, pointed to the boulder, where Isolda still sat buried beneath her moonlight hair.

“Fetch her, man,” he ordered.

“Damsel Sevin!” called the servant, his fat hands cupped round his mouth, his lips puckering like sausages that had been cooked too long. “Damsel Sevin, come here!”

When the knight saw that Isolda was ignoring them, he shoved his servant toward the boulder, demanding that he physically retrieve her. With a growl under his breath, the servant stomped across the muddy ground separating them and grabbed her roughly by the arm.

“Damsel Sevin, prove to your new father that you be none so insolent,” the servant warned, little pools of spittle forming at the corners of his mouth.

Isolda had recoiled from his grasp, and now reluctantly met his eyes. “I did not hear you,” she whispered as her scant excuse for disobedience.

The servant was in no mood for a child’s antics and reprimanded, “All manner of untruths will be known to God’s ears.”

Isolda did not reply. As they crossed the terrain, Isolda silent at the servant’s side, her eyes drifted to the invaders hastening to and from the cottage. Her belongings, those that she had inherited from her father, were being collected and piled in the mud, often carelessly thrown from the door. Hot tears rolled down her cheeks. She saw her scant belongings being carelessly thrown to the mud. Fear silenced the temptation to cry out for them to stop. She wrenched her arm from the grasp of the servant’s thick fingers and stumbled toward her cottage, but was jerked to a halt as the knight blocked her advance.

He tilted up her chin with his fingers, smiling at her coldly. In a quick moment, Isolda studied him. He was a man nearing his forties, of medium height and stocky build. His hair was dark and cut short, his eyes a pale brown, like the old mud beneath their feet. He looked far more Welsh than Isolda ever would. On his face were signs of warfare; small scars scattered about his cheeks and forehead, with the remains of a jagged slash running down the side of his neck. The opulence of his clothes bespoke the money he was sure to possess, for the puffed sleeves of his cotehardie were made from a fine, green fabric and adorned with gold-threaded embroidery.  His thick, sleeveless surcoat was cut from rich black leather. The skirt of his cotehardie ended at the mid of his thighs, where dark green and yellow chausses tightly encased his bulky legs, ending in black poulaines upon his feet, their pointed ends extending at least a hand’s length from the tip of his toes. Unlike any of his servants, his hands were gloved, and under his arm he held his chaperone, a velvet hat with a long sash colored green to match his cotehardie and bearing a large, golden feather.

“Isolda Sevin,” the knight began in an authoritative voice, his Welsh without any hint of an English accent. “Do you remember me?” With the shaking of Isolda’s head, the man continued, “My name be Sir John Perry. You were betrothed to my son and I be here to collect you under my aegis.”

As she stared at the gold leaves and berries embroidered on the sleeves of the knight’s cotehardie, a murky memory of the last day she had ever seen her brother, in 1471, filtered into her mind. She remembered the year well, because her father had told her, again and again: her brother had died in 1471. Isolda did not know who fought or who won, but she knew it was upon that battlefield that her brother was killed, trying to prove himself worthy of being a knight, battling for a rose against a rose. She had prayed that Sir Perry would forget about her, though her father had promised her the knight would come. Of course, Sir Perry did not forget. Had her father been still alive, she would have had one more year to enjoy her childhood, but now that she was an orphan, she was no longer a girl; she was a pawn upon a chessboard littered with the discarded petals of roses.

In response to her silence, Sir Perry pressed his fingers into her chin and gave her a slight shake, forcing her to meet his eyes. “Your father left no stipulations as to what should be done with you,” he said harshly. “As such, you be now my ward and my responsibility.”

He stopped again to wait for her reply, but Isolda could think of nothing to say. She stood at the edge of a great abyss of uncertainty, and there were no words to describe her feelings. And so, with a trembling breath, Isolda only wondered meekly, “We leave soon, sir?”

“Before noon,” he replied with a sharp nod. “I plan to be back at Fennis Castle in two days, and that shall be a hurried trip.” He looked up at the sky, then at the farmland to the south and the knolls to the north. “Lord knows this Godforsaken place be so far out from any town, we shall be lucky to sleep abed this night,” he continued. “Be this your only gown?”

“I have two others,” she whispered. “One for mass and another for celebrations, but only this kirtle. Can we not rest at the village?”

“A pigsty,” he scoffed, then asked with a sneer, “Which gown fits you best?” and studied the current dress she wore. The linen kirtle hardly touched her ankles, and the open side of the surcoat which should have sat upon her hips wrapped awkwardly around her waist. The sleeves of the kirtle reached just past her elbows, the buttons undone, instead of ending at her knuckles. The back and hem of her skirts were soaked in mud, where she had been sitting upon the ground.

“For mass fits me best, sir.”

“Wear that,” he ordered. “Leave your others behind.”

“But it be for mass!” she maintained with a child’s stubbornness. “It be too nice!”

Sir Perry grabbed her shoulders, dug his fingers into her skin savagely, and met her gaze with his hard, cold eyes. “You shall accustom yourself to obeisance so that you might learn to be a good wife. Now go. Avaunt!”

At first she hesitated, whimpering under his cruel grasp, but urged by a shove from Sir Perry, she quickly entered the cottage. Within, things were in disarray. Some men were stacking the few inherited books upon which Isolda’s father had prided himself, for they had been a testament to his heritage. Others were dismantling various old arrases. In the darkness, Isolda could see her nurse helping a man move an old sword aside. As soon as the nurse saw Isolda, she abandoned the sword and swept the girl into a motherly embrace.

“Oh Nan!” Isolda wailed.

“Stay your will,” Nan sighed in a comforting voice.

They shared a moment in silence, but at length Isolda remembered that she had been sent into the cottage with a specific task. As she pulled away from her nurse, Isolda quietly explained, “He told me to wear my dress for mass.”

“Then you shall wear your dress for mass. Come.” Nan took Isolda’s hand in hers. They wound their way through the men in the front room, rounded the partition separating the front room from the kitchen, and began to climb the ladder leading to the cottage’s last chamber.

The loft above was the width and length of the entire bottom floor. There were two beds, one where her parents had slept, and one where she had slept with her brother and sister when she was young. Isolda sighed sadly, tears gathering again in her eyes. First, her brother had left, and shortly thereafter, her sister. Isolda remembered feeling lonely in such a big bed by herself, and so she had abandoned her bed in favor of the warm space between her mother, from whom she had learned to speak English, and her father. But then her mother died, and her father followed soon after. Now the second bed was about to be abandoned as well. She sat down on the pile of hay on the bed, running her hands over the sheet through which the blades of hay made her itch terribly throughout the night. This would be the last time she ever saw this room.

Nan had lifted a surcoat out of a near-empty trunk and shook out the dust. With her nurse’s help, Isolda changed into the garment. It was grey and embroidered with deep blue thread along the hem, a beautiful dress according to the standards of Merioneth. There was a grey wimple to match the dress, but Nan and Isolda were undecided as to whether they should bother fastening the headdress around her hair or not; so Isolda held it in her hand as she returned to the kitchen below, her feet now encased in her matching poulaines, determined to seek Sir Perry’s advice.

Sir Perry had been leaning against the wooden screen between the kitchen and the front room as Nan and Isolda descended the ladder, and he motioned for them to come to him. Isolda held out the wimple, her mouth open to ask if she should wear it, but Sir Perry snatched it from her hand and threw it to the floor. To quiet Nan’s protests, he coldly ordered, “My men be hungry, woman, do your duty.”

Nan stiffened visibly. It was customary, however, that when a person of rank came to one’s household, those of the household should provide food and drink for him and his entire retinue. Whether the intruders had been invited or not did not matter. Nan placed a gentle hand on Isolda’s shoulders, offering her a comforting smile, before silently turning to obey the knight’s command.

Sir Perry waited for Nan to leave them before he nodded toward the front room. “You may choose one thing,” he said.

With a sweep of her eyes across the trunks of books and piles of tapestries, she murmured, “I… I only want a book.”

 “Then find your book and wait for me in this… hall,” he finished with a disdainful sniff.

Isolda walked to where the trunks sat loaded with old books, and peered into them. “My book has a wooden cover painted green,” she described to a young man who was rummaging through the books. “Can you find it for me?”

“It seems you be richer than you thought,” the young man told her, his Welsh thick with the accent of a southern Welshman. “Books be expensive, but can you even read?”

Isolda shook her head as the man shuffled through the trunks looking for her book. “My father did not know how,” she murmured.

“How did he come by the land and books, then?” the man wondered.

“Inherited,” Isolda responded quietly.

He stood up from stooping next to the trunk and asked, “Be this it?” With a nod of Isolda’s head, he handed it to her, then introduced, “My name be Humphrey Persivall, esquire. Since Thomas and I be friends, Sir Perry wanted me to look after you until we reach Caldwell Hall. I be Buckingham’s man, but he commanded that I accompany Sir Perry here.” He tilted his head to the side, observing her blank stare. “Do you know Thomas? He will be your husband. Or the Duke of Buckingham? Know you what be an esquire?”

As Isolda shook her head, she murmured, “I do not know… any of those things,” and Humphrey gasped sharply in surprise, turning to gape as Sir Perry approached them.

“Did you hear?” Humphrey exclaimed. “She does not know what an esquire be – verily, she does not even know who Thomas be!”

“Yes,” Sir Perry mumbled in response with a small laugh, joining her again and gazing at the books surrounding them. His mind, however, was focused on another topic. “I suppose I will be receiving a dowry after all,” he said, then presented a wooden box, to which Isolda reached expectantly. “We shall sell the books when we reach Ludlow. Any jewelry worth aught will be sold as well. The money will pay for her dresses and the rest be her dowry.”

“But it be my mother’s jewelry!” Isolda cried, jumping for the box.

Sir Perry pulled it out of her reach and sneered, “Once, lass. Your mother be dead, and you only have what money these things be worth. I will not take a lass without a dowry. The books, arrases, and jewelry be just that, and I prefer coin.”

“They belong to me!” Isolda wailed, trying to climb up Sir Perry’s arm to the box held high above her head.

Sir Perry pushed her back, grinning as she tumbled to the floor. “I be not asking for your permission, lass, certes,” he scoffed. “I be only giving you the benefit of knowing what shall happen to them. If you must argue with me, then in the future I shall not tell you anything.”

Nan had been covering the table in the front room with food during their argument, turning a blind eye to Sir Perry’s cruel treatment of Isolda. As the men now filed past Isolda and Sir Perry, drawn toward the table as if the food was the Holy Grail, Humphrey helped Isolda to her feet. Sir Perry tucked the jewelry box under his arm with smug satisfaction and left their company in search of food as well. Humphrey took Isolda’s hand and led her into the kitchen, where Nan was searching for flasks of ale.

“There be none left,” Isolda muttered to her nurse as Humphrey returned to the front room. “Sir Perry will sell my mother’s jewelry!”

With a long sigh, Nan once more wrapped Isolda into her protective arms. “He be your father now,” she whispered. “Just obey him. Everything will turn out for the best.”

 

By the time the men finished eating, the fog had dissolved but clouds had moved across the sun, now at zenith in the sky. While they had slovenly eaten their meal, Isolda and Nan had hidden themselves in the kitchen, where Nan imagined a thousand times and more explaining to Isolda that she would not be accompanying her out of Merioneth, that there would be no place for her in Sir Perry’s household. But, alas, she could not bring herself to tell her.

After their meal, the men stepped outside the cottage into the wet March air, as Isolda and Nan busied themselves with the mess the men had left behind. Aimlessly wandering through the small rooms of the cottage, Isolda gazed longingly at the bare walls, an empty shell of what it once was. She felt as if she was leaving her soul behind, for every memory she possessed was connected to this house. Her heart was burdened with the pain of leaving as Nan wrapped her arms around her shoulders and nudged her out into the noon, the sun darkening as the clouds floated across the orb in the sky.

Nan’s heart was pounding hard as she reached beneath her wimple and pulled out a comb. A beautiful example of Welsh craftsmanship, the comb’s teeth were made of twisted silver and inlaid with garnets. She placed it in Isolda’s hands and whispered, “Keep this safe and close,” then folded Isolda’s tiny fingers around it.

Not understanding, a bright smile broke across Isolda’s unassuming face. “Nan, this be your favorite comb!” she gasped. “Will you not need it for our new home?” Nan’s face twisted into an agonized expression, but Isolda had closed her eyes to secure a clump of hair with the comb and did not see the pain in her nurse’s eyes.

Sir Perry approached them and took Isolda’s hand firmly in his own. As he led Isolda away from the cottage, Isolda cried, “Nan! We leave!” but Nan did not respond.

In an urgent voice, Isolda called for her nurse again, and suddenly she realized why Nan had given her the comb. She gathered her skirts into her hand and slipped out of Sir Perry’s grasp, but Sir Perry caught her arm and wrenched her back to him. She slammed into him with such force that she clutched his puffed green sleeves to keep from falling.

She regained her balance, screamed for Nan and begged to be released. Unaware of the eyes of his retainers fastened upon her, and faced with no other recourse, she bit down hard on Sir Perry’s hand. The knight flinched, but did not release her. He raised his hand and coldly boxed her ear; she collapsed against the side of the litter.

“Nan shall stay here, in Merioneth,” Sir Perry explained, directing the shocked child into the litter. He could feel her trembling beneath his hold and felt vindicated for her disobedience. He knew this was the first time true violence had entered her life, and he was sure the force of the blow would sit therefore more clearly on her memory. He watched uncaringly as she stepped into the litter and held her head between her hands.

As she cradled her head, trying to clear the ringing from her ears, she felt for the comb and found it to be missing.

“My comb!” she screamed in sudden desperation, leaning over the side of the litter. “Sir, I beg you, my comb be there!” She pointed to the comb that had dropped in the mud just before the threshold of her home.

Before Sir Perry could reply, Humphrey had scooped up the comb and, with her book in one hand and the comb in the other, offered her the last remaining relics of her childhood. “Sorry,” he apologized. “I could not clean it better.” He smiled at her and winked kindly, trying to put her at ease.

With a sniff, Isolda gingerly accepted the comb and book. From beyond the walls of the litter, Sir Perry gave her a warning look and grinned when she shrunk afraid against the opposite wooden wall. The litter started with a jerk and she tenderly touched her aching ear. So this would be her new life, she thought to herself, a life of fear and violence, a life of war and roses.

                                                            ***

Two days had passed, and another was ending. As the sun set, her sanctuary of wood and velvet slowed to a stop and Isolda curiously leaned over the edge of uncovered litter, pulling the heavy blankets tight around her shoulders. She could hardly see the modest castle of wood and stone through the gloom of twilight, humble compared to the gargantuan heights of Ludlow Castle only a two hour’s ride west. The day before, they had found the city of Ludlow after noon and Sir Perry had sold her books and arrases there, using some of the money to purchase expensive gowns and headdresses. They left late the next day and passed Ludlow Castle, where (Humphrey had explained to her) the King’s oldest son lived under the instruction of his uncle, the Earl of Rivers and Viscount of Scales.

Sir Perry reached for her hand to help her out of the litter, onto the muddy ground. She hugged her book to her chest beneath the furs on her shoulders and shivered in the cold wind. To the east, the sky was already dark, but to the west the sun still shimmered with all the magic of its Welsh spirit.

Sir Perry left her side and climbed the stairs within the wooden fore building leading to the first floor of the small castle keep. Isolda called after him, her breath rising in a cloud before her face, but he ignored her. The other men passed her as if she did not exist, and Isolda knew that soon she would be left there alone. She lifted the hem of her skirts and hurried up the wooden steps, entering the warmth of the castle.

The great hall was empty but for three long trestle-tables and benches. There were fires burning in the two massive hearths, facing each other from across the hall. The walls were nearly covered with arrases, each one depicting the colors of Sir Perry’s family. Beneath her feet, the wooden floors were piled with rushes, and dark smoke from the fires in the hearths began to gather in the ceiling.

“Be this Fennis Castle, sir?” she wondered quietly of Sir Perry.

“It be,” he replied, nonchalantly. “We shall stay here until the rest of your gowns be ready. Thereafter, we shall continue on to Caldwell Hall, which shall be your new home until such time arrives that another family takes you. And, Isolda, heretofore you shall not speak another word of Welsh. It be a barbarous language. You must always speak either English or French.”

Without another word, Sir Perry once more abandoned her for the heat of the fire in the hearth, engaging himself in conversation with one of his retainers. Isolda felt lost, not knowing where to sit or what to do, as she shuffled her feet beneath the hem of her surcoat. A tap on her back took her by surprise, and she turned to see Humphrey grinning at her, his chaperone tucked beneath his arm. He motioned toward a table and guided her to the bench, sitting down beside her.

 “Did you sleep the whole way?” he asked in Welsh. Isolda nodded wearily and the squire continued, “That must have been hard, over the rocky roads. I daresay I could not sleep in such circumstances. Can you ride?”

“Sir Perry told me not to speak Welsh,” she whispered.

“Then,” Humphrey said in English, “can you ride?”

“A little,” Isolda muttered, also in her broken English, and managed a small grin beneath her heavy eyes. “A friend in the village had a mare once, and he let my father teach me.”

With a change in subject, Humphrey inquired, “Do you want to know who the men of the Realm be?”

With a coy grin, Isolda nodded, “I admit, I know nothing of this Realm.”

Humphrey pounded the table with his fist. “You be indeed far removed in Merioneth. Know you of Clarence, or Gloucester? They be the King’s younger brothers.” Isolda shook her head, biting her lip in shame, but Humphrey quickly reassured her, “I daresay you shall know them all by the time you reach Caldwell Hall. Clarence be on the tip of everyone’s tongue these days.”

“Why?”

Humphrey took a deep breath and looked about himself carefully. “You see, Isabelle, the Duchess of Clarence, just died. Everyone knew she was ill, but Clarence has gone a little mad with her death.”

“And Clarence be the King’s brother?” Isolda repeated, trying to keep the names clear in her head.

“The Duke of Clarence be the King’s younger brother, yes,” he confirmed. “The Duke of Gloucester be the youngest of them, and be as different from his brothers as night be from day.”

“How do you mean?”

Humphrey explained, “The King and Clarence be liken unto you, pale of skin and hair. Though, the King’s hair be almost red in the sun. But Gloucester be dark, having black hair and skin like olives. The only similarity between them all be their eyes, which be blue like the sky on a perfect Lammas. Plantagenet eyes.” He leaned in closer to whisper, “You must be wary, however, not to give your loyalty to those in power right now. They be from the House of York, you see, and we all observe the Red Rose.”

Isolda shook her head again, frowning. “My brother died for a rose. But what do the roses mean?”

“There be two roses, one red and the other white. The White Rose be the symbol of the House of York, the Red Rose be the symbol of the House of Lancaster. Both houses descend from His Grace in Loving Memory, King Edward the Third. Both houses have claims to the throne. His Grace the King comes from the House of York, but our Duke of Buckingham comes from the House of Lancaster. It matters not, now. The King has a better claim than anyone. But those wars were a matter of inheritance. We only pray to God the wars be over. His Grace our King seems to have a long life, yet, ahead of him, and he be kind to the adherents of the Red Rose, as long as they be loyal to their sovereign.”

“I understand now,” Isolda replied, nodding. “My brother died, fighting for a knight, at… Tewkesbury, I think?”

“Your brother died fighting for me,” Sir Perry interrupted, rejoining them with a plate with raised sides made of stale bread, called a trencher, and filled with stew, in his hands. He placed it on the table before Isolda and fell into the seat beside her. “And it was at Tewkesbury.”

Isolda opened her mouth to retort, but Humphrey cut her off before she had a chance. “I was explaining to her our Realm’s nobility. She knew nothing of them,” Humphrey commented.

“Forsooth?” Sir Perry scoffed with a sarcastic laugh. “No, she would not. Those in Merioneth know nothing of wars or politics. They still be barbarians, the lot of them. Stupid rustic cows.”

Isolda lowered her eyes to the trencher and stew in front of her and silently began to eat. Indifferent to her presence, Humphrey and Sir Perry began to speak of the political scope in England; things concerning Clarence, a unicorn’s horn in a cup, and malmsey wine. The Duke of Burgundy had died, which meant the King’s sister was ruling Burgundy as the Duchess. But Isolda did not know where Burgundy was. Then they spoke of a man called the Spider King, and although she did not pay particular attention to the details, she wondered about the strange name all the same.

As Humphrey and Sir Perry continued to talk, Isolda glanced up from her food occasionally to observe Sir Perry, who would be her father from this day forward. Since the day he had come to claim her, she had been afraid of him. Sir Perry was, indeed, an intimidating man, despite being nearly the shortest of the men in his company. And yet, even given his short stature, it was apparent by the muscles of his arms and look in his eyes that he had seen many battles.

Isolda was in a different world now. No longer was she a child free to roam the wilds of Merioneth. In little more than a year, she would be twelve, and therefore of legal marriageable age. In little more than a year, she would become mistress of her own household and consort to a man she could not remember having met, this violent knight’s son.

The prospect terrified her, and her terror was exhausting. She had not finished her food by the time she succumbed to her lassitude. She folded her arms on the table and was lulled to sleep by the jumble of male voices echoing off the wooden walls of Fennis Castle. It was nearly midnight when Sir Perry gathered Isolda into his arms and carried her to a bedchamber. Since Sir Perry saw no reason to employ maids at a castle he rarely frequented, he took it upon himself to help her under the blankets of the most extravagant bed in which Isolda had ever slept. There was a canopy over the bed and a bar that extended horizontally across the headboard called a perch. The comb and book, Sir Perry placed on a chair beside the bed, folded her kirtle over the perch and her surcoat over the back of the chair, and placed her chausses and poulaines on the ground. As he took his leave, Sir Perry extinguished the single candle on the nightstand and left Isolda alone in the darkness of Fennis Castle.

 

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© Copyright 2009, Kora Stoynova

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