By James Hall
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 29th contest was Birthday.
13th October, 1483, Koeur, Duchy of Lorraine
“The king will see you now.” The retainer - some Grey or other, John thought - wore a once resplendent livery of scarlet and blue, but the whole ensemble looked somewhat past its best now. Past its best was a good way of summing up this whole charade of a court, he thought. Then again, he wasn’t sure it ever had a best.
John inclined his head in thanks to the attendant. Luckily, this also helped to mask the warring emotions on his face. As he made to enter, the attendant leaned in close, dropping his voice to naught but a whisper.
“I must warn you, my Lord. The king has been celebrating his birthday rather, enthusiastically, for the last few days. He is likely to be in his cups.” John nodded, with barely a hitch in his stride. Alas, he couldn’t help the slight wrinkle in his nose. The retainer noted it, with a frown. John thought about telling him that it wasn’t his king’s behaviour he was disgusted at; he was thinking less of a herald-cum-doorward who, to judge by the acrid scent of stale wine on his breath, was also deep in drink. Reaching the door, John decided that such a thing was beneath his dignity. He would ignore the man, just as he had grown accustomed to ignoring the other breaches of etiquette that the king’s increasingly ruddy-faced hangers-on were committing on an ever more regular basis. There was a reason that he was spending less and less time here, after all. Almost subconsciously, John brushed his hand against the letter inside his doublet. The man took one more look at him, just to check he hadn’t changed, and proclaimed his name to the room.
“Your Majesty, Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Earl of Oxford.”
John swiftly glanced around the room, before bowing to the figure sat at the far end.
“Oxford! You return!”
“Indeed, your majesty.” Oxford kept his eyes down.
“Rise, and join us. You have only missed the first two courses!”
As John rose, he looked at the King. He thought once again about the message hidden on his person. The man looked dreadful.
King Edward the fourth, the true king Edward IV; king of England and France. Lord of Ireland, Duke of Lancaster. He was the son of King Henry the Martyr, descendent of the thrones of France and England, Grandson and Nephew of the King of Naples. Yet Edward had barely set foot in England since he was seven years old, much like his royal uncle had never even seen Naples. Edward had been a handsome youth, the hope of his dynasty and the promise of continued peace and prosperity to an England that had suffered greatly since the demise of his royal grandfather, Henry V. Now, he was a bloated mess, with a florid complexion and bloodshot eyes. He looked like a man much older than his thirty years. Just as time had mocked England’s hopes of peace, so too had it made a mockery of the herald of that peace. As disappointments mounted, he became more of a disappointment himself. However, for the last decade or so, England had been relatively peaceful once again. Almost silent, in fact. With that thought, John realised he too had spent too long in silence.
“Thank you, your majesty. I apologise for my late arrival.” He took the seat that was being gestured to, between Courtenay and a knight called Vaux. He glanced around the rest of the table. The company was much diminished since the heady days of the 1460s. Gone was Good Queen Margaret, dead these three years, bitterly disappointed at the debauched life her son was leading, and the lack of loyalty to him from his English subjects. Henry Holland, once Duke of Exeter, was dead, having perished in an abortive rising in the south west. Two of his bastard brothers now argued over whose claim was greater. As far as John could see, they were both deplorable excuses for men, and neither deserved a single acre. Not that it mattered, when they both sat in exile in Lorraine, bickering over their imaginary duchy while Edward roared with laughter, encouraging the feud. One of them - the thinner of the two - was snoring on the table. There were no more Courtenays in the world, save the distant cousin of no consequence to his immediate right; there was a further Grey or two at the table, but Greys were everywhere, and most of them were on the other side. Certainly the ones with any power or influence. Similarly, the three Nevilles squatting to John’s right were not close to the Earldoms of Warwick, Salisbury or Westmorland, and two of them spent all day eating and wenching. The third was harmless enough, but about as much use as a gelding on a stud farm. At the far end of the table from the Nevilles - as was only sensible - was the so-called Earl of Northumberland. This unknown Percy cousin had actually fled England due to a falling out with his cousin the true Earl, although that wasn’t quite the story that he’d told the king. As a result of his imagined heroics on behalf of the house of Lancaster, Edward had proclaimed him, the ‘only loyal Percy’, as his new Earl. This hatred of all other Percies wasn’t enough to see him right by the three Nevilles, so they were kept apart unless Edward wanted sport.
Richmond was the only one who saw him survey the gathering, and nodded meaningfully. Young Henry had been lucky to escape the fate of his father and uncle, and sensible enough not to fall into the vice and indolence of his companions in exile. Beyond those he cared to name, Oxford vaguely noted the ragtag and bobtail of knights of little worth; their numbers down from even his last visit. Of course, there were two reasons that they could be missing. The first was that they’d left to try their luck elsewhere. The second was that they had displeased the king. Either was equally plausible.
The king was drunk more often than not; varying wildly between a genial and convivial host, and a murderous tyrant. In his youth, he had been a fearsome and effective fighter, although one far too pleased to inflict injury on his sparring partners for Oxford’s liking. Over the years, however, the multitude of disappointments had left him bereft of purpose; the turn to alcohol had dulled his senses and reactions, without satisfying his bloodlust. Even now, he would roar about beheading all those who had defied him. He came up with increasingly elaborate ways of punishing the Yorkist dynasty and their foremost loyalists. Above all, the man who Edward referred to as “the traitor Earl of March” was to be punished in brutal and horrifying ways. Oxford feared Edward had discussed torture methods with heathen Turks, for no Christian could come up with such horrors. The problem with all of these plans, of course, was that the Earl of March was the one who most of Christendom called King Edward IV. He sat in honour in London, while John’s own king Edward skulked about in Lorraine, occasionally fleeing to another Prince in a fit of paranoia or jealousy.
Back in England, they knew about the Beggar of Koeur. He was referred to as Edward of Lorraine by most. When they bothered at all, it was only in jest. Or as a tale to frighten children, for the execution of Scrope was well known, in all its gory details. Of course, this just heightened Edward’s paranoia, for the fact that these incidents became known proved, in his mind at least, that there were traitors and spies in his midst. Some of those who had been punished might have been spies, but they probably weren’t. People talked. A handful of rulers still sent the odd ambassador. And frankly, the horrors Edward inflicted on Scrope were always going to be discussed. It all helped to feed the febrile state of the king, though. The lapses were getting worse too. Not like his royal father, of course. It probably would have been better for them if Edward’s malady was the same. Spitting incoherence, screaming for hours on end without due cause and aggressively and belligerently insisting that his father had been a fish were not part of Henry’s repertoire. How much of the disquiet was from his father’s blood, and how much due to the torments that he had suffered, Oxford did not know. What he did know is that it had become far worse since the death of Somerset and Jasper Tudor in 1474. The defeat at Sherborne really was the tipping point for their hopes, although they hadn’t realised it at the time. The last nine years had been defeat, disaster and dwindling strength. Strength that the king had asked him to assess.
“Oxford!” Here it came. “How fair our supporters in the West Country?” The question was punctuated by an enormous belch.
“It is difficult to judge, sire,” a lie, “for loyalists fear that March, and his lackeys in the area, Bedford and Stafford, have agents everywhere.” A half truth at best. They had supporters, not agents. The exile king had precious few of either. “Nevertheless, there are still those who call you the true king.” Mainly old men, too wizened to fight, and impoverished malcontents who resented paying taxes. “We may be able to harness enough discontent to affect a rising, given time to lay the groundwork.” It would need a lot of time, and would be crushed without too much hardship.
The king beamed. Beneath the blotches, John could just about see the handsome youth that Edward had once been. “Excellent, Oxford. The pieces are coming into place.” Oxford didn’t see it quite like that. He thought most of the pieces were missing, but most of the assembled grunted their agreement, and Edward continued. “Between our loyal men in the South West,” he waved in the direction of the Holland bastards and Courtenay, “and Tudor’s men in Wales,” the royal hand gestured towards Richmond, “we will split their western forces in two. Then, Percy will valiantly rouse the northmen.” At the supposed Earl’s look of confusion, Edward reassured him, “I know you tried before you came to my court, but this time will be different. The traitors will be too scared of the forces in the west, and the country will be rising with them. The northmen will rise, and the king of Scots will lend them his aid” Oxford felt his heart drop. The king had no idea what he was talking about. Imaginary armies rose up across the realm, to fight for a king who had set foot in it twice as an adult, and ran away defeated both times. The last he’d heard, the king of Scots was struggling to command his own castle, with rebellion breaking out all over his wild kingdom. But Edward wasn’t finished,
“Then, when the traitor March moves either west, or north, we will have him. Oxford will land in the Eastern counties, and rouse a great army, larger than the others.” John’s mind boggled. If the army he could rouse from Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk was the largest of all the forces that could be brought to bear, the thing would be over before the first day. Then again, it probably would be, whether he landed or not. With a jolt, he realised that the king was still speaking, “trapped between Oxford and whichever of our forces he moves against, the traitor will surrender, or be crushed. Either way, he will be taken alive, and I will personally arrange his punishment.” There it was, the twitch. If he kept talking about punishments, the twitches would get worse, and he might have another lapse. Oxford had to break him out of-
“A fine plan, your majesty. When will you return to your kingdom?” Richmond had clearly spotted the warning signs, too, although the question was rather dangerous.
“Ah, Richmond, worry not.” Oxford sighed in relief. He hadn’t taken offence. “I will be in the van of the fight. As soon as Oxford’s force is raised, I will arrive, and additional numbers will flock to our banners. Then, we will crush the traitors beneath our boot heel.” The twitching was back.
“Your Majesty.” Oxford called out, before the king could continue down his current line of thinking. “A toast! Your next birthday, in London!”
A cry bounced around the hall, “In London!” Had there been a few more people, there might even have been an echo. Madness, Oxford thought, but it seemed to have stopped a madness of a different kind. The king and those around him fell back on the food and wine; Richmond, however, had an eyebrow raised in John’s direction. Once again, Oxford fought the urge to touch the envelope concealed in his doublet. He didn’t need to. He could feel that it was there; tucked against the left hand side of his ribcage. Another hour or so of revelry, and Oxford had completely sickened of the affair. Excusing himself from the king, who was well in his cups by this point, he went to grab some fresh air. He leant, with his back against the wall, revelling in the cold air. He didn’t know how long he’d been out there when he heard a noise. Turning, John saw Richmond approaching, and nodded in greeting.
“Your investigations in the South West.” Oxford waited, turning his eyes back to the treeline. He couldn’t abide this circumspect way of discussing things, as had become too common, for fear of upsetting the king.
“There is no force ready to rise, is there?” Well, Richmond had struck straight to the heart of the matter this time. Oxford shook his head, sighing.
“I expect it’s as large, and fervent, as that of your colleagues in South Wales.” Tudor merely laughed at this response, leaning against the same wall, about eighteen inches away from Oxford.
“Even worse than I feared, in that case.” A drunken roar sounded from the hall. Maybe the Exeter bastards were fighting again. Tudor stared straight ahead, not looking Oxford in the eye.
“It’s not going to happen, is it?” Oxford kept his eyes resolutely forward.
“No,” he agreed, “It’s not.” He’d known it for years. Probably before the Queen’s death. Possibly since Henry’s. But he’d never admitted it, even to himself.
“The Yorks are too well entrenched. Even if something happened to Edward, like that chill earlier in the year, he has heirs of his body, and brothers, and nephews.”
“Whereas we,” continued Tudor, “have a king who chews the furniture.”
Oxford just shook his head, still refusing to look at the man next to him. “Careful.”
“We were not followed. I made sure.”
After a moment or two of silence, Tudor shifted uncomfortably.
“When I was last in Wales, I was handed a letter. From king Edward.” Oxford didn’t ask which one. He didn’t need to.
“I can guess the contents. I had a visitor when I was in Devon. They gave me a letter, too.”
They stood in silence. Something flitted across the sky. A small owl, perhaps. Or possibly a bat.
“What’s Hedingham like?” Tudor asked gently.
“It’s everything. I haven’t seen it for fifteen years now. I’m worried about what may become of it. Whatever else, it’s home.” Oxford realised he was rambling, and silenced himself. The flittering shadows were in fact two bats, catching insects on the night air.
“Home.” Muttered Tudor. “An interesting idea. The few times I’ve been to England, I’ve never even seen Richmond. Maybe it could be home, given time.”
“Do you trust them?” John asked, trying to track the bats’ flight
“Not really, but they could have had me arrested. The fact that they let me go suggests that they don’t wish me too much harm. Do you?”
“My visitor?” John responded, “It was Gloucester himself. If they’d wanted, they could have executed me there and then.” Tudor’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Aye, on behalf of his brother. He said he wanted exiles of note to return to their lands while he was still hale and hearty - although there would be some losses to those who had shown him loyalty from the off.”
“Exiles of note?” Tudor queried.
“Indeed.” It seems that spring chill has started him thinking about his mortality.”
Tudor cleared his throat. “What about the... most… notable exile of them all?
Oxford rubbed his chin, and his voice dropped to a whisper. He kept his eyes on the shadows, not daring to look at Tudor.
“Gloucester said he’s more useful to them alive than anything else. If anything happened to him, then the malcontents might find somebody genuinely troublesome to rally around. As it is, everybody and his dog knows about the…” he faltered.
“Eccentric?” Tudor offered,
“Thank you. Eccentric, nature of the king, and so nobody is too keen on seeing him disturbed.”
“How cynical.” Tudor responded. “Although it does make sense.”
Another minute or two elapsed, and Oxford lost sight of the bats. Beside him, Tudor stirred.
“You’ve decided?” Oxford let the silence drag on for a moment before answering.
“Yes. I needed to return, to see him one last time, and pay my respects to the Queen. I have some men in the village, they are ready to leave at first light.”
“Why wait? I thought to leave now. Nobody will notice until the sun is high tomorrow. Best not risk him guessing what you’re about to do.”
John considered his options. Tudor spoke sense.
“You are ready to leave?” He finally looked at the young Henry. There was no step back, now. This was treason. Albeit against a king without a kingdom. Tudor turned to look at him.
“All I’ve been waiting on was to speak to you. I can leave within the half hour.”
Twenty minutes later, two horses walked out of the stables, led by Tudor, and Oxford. As they were engulfed by the trees, Oxford glanced over his shoulder, muttering,
“Happy birthday, your majesty.”
James Hall has a story in the Sea Lion Press Anthology 'Fight Them on The Beaches'