Leeds Castle – October, 1321
Two swans, wing to wing, their bills tucked to their downy breasts, floated across the lake encircling Leeds Castle. The ripples of their wake broke the mirrored surface in a broadening fan. A bank of white rolled across my view, obscuring the limewashed walls beyond and the helmeted figures that watched us from the crenels of the uppermost towers. Even the sun, climbing toward its pinnacle now, had not chased away the morning mist.
While I had gone to Canterbury and knelt before the shrine of Thomas Becket a week past, Edward had ridden out to the Isle of Thanet—where he met Hugh Despenser. I know this not because he admitted it, but because he went with such haste and purpose that it left me no doubt. While he made to return to London, he ordered me to come here to Leeds Castle, “To befriend and forgive,” he had written. And so I came, even though the pretense of my visit was as flaccid as a wet rope. I considered it a diplomatic gesture, if nothing more. This morning, however, I had awoken with my bowels churning. The day, I feared, would not end well. My breath hung trapped in a cloud before me in the damp air. Draping the reins of my gray palfrey across the horn of my saddle, I called my newest squire to me. Arnaud de Mone parted from the rest of my guard, some thirty armed men, and came to stand before me.
“You sent word ahead as soon as we left Canterbury, requesting lodging for us?”
He nodded. Pearlescent beads of moisture shimmered among the golden ringlets of his hair. Although young—and temptingly beautiful—he had, in a very short span, proven himself devoted. “I did, my lady.”
“And just now—you asked that we be permitted entrance?”
“And what was Lord Badlesmere’s reply? They have had ample time to prepare for our arrival. Why have they kept us waiting?”
“Lord Badlesmere is not inside, my queen.”
“Then who refuses us?”
“Lady Badlesmere. She says that her husband gave the fortress into her care with firm orders that no one, for any reason, was to be permitted entrance.”
“But I am not no one!” I protested impulsively. How dare she? Indeed, I traveled with armed guards, but that was only a precaution. I had not come here to take possession of the fortress, but to engender harmony. That had been clear in my message. Why must even the simplest of good intentions be suspect? Edward had given in to strict demands. Pardons had been issued. The peace may have yet been a fragile one, but it was peace. Trust first had to be a matter of practice before it could become belief. This . . . this disobedience threatened that very premise to the core. If she would not do it willingly, then Lady Badlesmere would need to be forced to open up her home. “Go back to the gate. Tell her that her queen demands entrance and lodging.”
Arnaud moved a foot, hesitating. “If . . . if she refuses?”
My mare twitched her ears, as if she, too, awaited my response. “We go back to London. This will be dealt with later.” By Edward—who would not likely find it in him to be lenient this time.
He dipped his head in a nod and trotted away. With a detachment of two dozen soldiers, he rode across the narrow bridge of land connecting the mainland to the island on which Leeds Castle sat and up to the gate. A guard appeared at a crenel atop the gatehouse. Arnaud shouted my orders. I could not make out the guard’s reply, but it had the terse ring of a warning. Arnaud stood his ground and repeated my demands. The guard disappeared.
A moment later, one of my mounted soldiers behind him snapped back in his saddle, an arrow protruding from his chest. Clutching at the shaft, he uprighted himself. Blood poured between his fingers. He swayed, then slumped to the side, his other hand still entwined in the reins. As the wounded man tumbled to the ground, his horse wheeled around, feeling the sudden yank of its bit. Unable to scramble free, the man threw an arm over his head. But too late. An iron-shod hoof circled through the air and cracked squarely against his skull, shattering it like an eggshell beneath the blow of a hammer.
I gaped in horror, barely able to comprehend what I had just seen.
Then, the air hissed. Arrows sailed above the breaking mist, arced downward and plunged into flesh. Two horses went down, pinning their riders. Another man fell from his mount, eyes wide in death. His party trapped on the narrow tongue of land, Arnaud flailed an arm, signaling retreat. But even as they turned to go without ever having put up a fight, another volley of arrows sang their requiem. The causeway was too narrow to allow them to all flee at once. Corpses clogged the way.
I could not move or speak. A dozen dead or wounded lay scattered before the gate and along the land bridge. One man staggered to his feet and took two steps before he was struck through the neck. Another behind him, his way blocked, leapt into the water, desperate to escape. His head bobbed above the surface, then flew back as an arrow pierced his cheek. Blood sprayed around him. With a drawn-out gurgle, he slipped below, crimson bubbles marking the spot where he had last drawn air.
Trumpeting in alarm, the swans beat their wings and arose in a cloud of white above the silver-dark water. Sleek necks stretched out before them, they ascended, going higher, higher. Above the pandemonium unfolding in the mist. Away from the massacre.
The remaining men cleared the causeway and rounded the lake with a rumble of shouts. When Arnaud came to me, he said nothing, but grabbed my reins and led me away.
My heart thudded in my throat. Hooves clattered around me. Taunts rang out from the castle.
The moans of the dying fell away behind me. But I could not look back.
It had begun.