Royal Palace of Woodstock, Oxfordshire,
Awakening to darkness in the soft feather bed she shared with her nurse, Joanna gasped as she surfaced from the grip of her dream.
At her side, Mabel’s familiar, warm weight dipping the mattress anchored her to comforting, blessed reality. Grainy light from the night candle outlined the other beds in the room and the slumbering forms of the Queen’s ladies mounded like foothills before the inner chamber where the King was sleeping with his wife.
The dream was already fading, but it had been about her home at Swanscombe, and her mother – her dreams always were. Rolling on to her back, she gazed at the painted gold stars on the chamber ceiling, gleaming in the dim flicker of the candle light. Six months had passed since she had arrived at court on her eighth-year day to be raised and trained in the young Queen’s household. With scarcely a backward look, her father had left her here and returned home to his new wife and child.
Joanna had a vivid memory of touching her mother’s cold tomb slab, knowing that she lay beneath the stone, wrapped in her shroud, inches away but unreachable. The marriage vow said no man should separate a couple whom God had joined, but God himself had sundered her parents’ bond, and a new wife had taken her mother’s place and borne a son. The past, herself included, had been swept aside as of little consequence – a failed effort. Her father said a place in the royal household was a great honour and a magnificent opportunity for a daughter who possessed better connections than prospects of wealth, but Joanna knew it was because neither her father nor stepmother wanted her at Swanscombe under their feet.
Thirsty, she eased from the bed and tip-toed, agile and barefoot, around the sleepers to the flagon of spring water standing on the sideboard. Dame Willelma’s fluffy white lap dog Sausagez raised his head to watch her, and then curled around again, nose to tail in his cushioned bed.
From behind the closed inner chamber door, Joanna heard Queen Alienor’s light voice, and the King’s rumbled reply, ending on a throaty chuckle. He had visited his young wife almost every night since their arrival at Woodstock and Joanna had lost her initial shyness and grown accustomed to his presence. Her tutor, Dame Cecily, said it was the Queen’s duty to bear children now she was old enough, and King Henry’s to beget them.
Joanna liked the King. His skin smelled of roses and incense. Sometimes he would pat her head and enquire with a kindly smile how her lessons were progressing. He was always giving the Queen thoughtful little gifts and surprises and clearly doted on her. To Joanna it was a magical thing – a man who loved and paid court to his wife.
Drinking her water, Joanna noticed that the outer door was a crack open with a glimmer of light beyond, which meant that Madam Biset was at her prayers again. Perhaps she might like a drink too. Joanna carefully poured a fresh cup and, slipping into the vestibule, approached Madam Biset who was kneeling at a small table counting her rosary beads before a figurine of the Virgin Mary. Joanna’s arrival shadowed the candle flame and Madam Biset looked up, two thin, vertical lines creasing between her eyebrows.
‘Child, what are you doing out of bed in the middle of the night?’
Joanna curtseyed and held out the cup. ‘I woke up, and I was thirsty, madam. I knew you were at prayer and I thought of you.’
The frown relaxed. ‘Bless you for your kindness, child.’ Madam Biset took the drink. ‘The Queen has asked me to pray for her fruitfulness, so that she may conceive an heir for England tonight.
Come, you may say a prayer with me.’ She patted the folded cloak at her side.
Joanna obediently knelt upon the cloth. Clasping her hands, she focused her gaze on the exquisite little statue. The Virgin’s robe was blue and she wore a delicate golden crown. The baby Jesus sat in her lap, one arm extended to the world. The Queen was so anxious to bear the King a son. Only this morning she had been consulting a treatise on conception from the medical school at Salerno, and tonight Joanna had helped to prepare the tub containing special herbs and rose water in which the Queen had bathed before retiring to bed with her lord.
Madam Biset implored the Virgin to grant the Queen succour and grace regarding the matter in hand, counting a bead on each plea, but suddenly stopped in mid-flow as angry shouts rang out, followed by several loud crashes that sounded like furniture being smashed.
A drunken voice roared, ‘Where is he? Where is the man who has stolen my crown? Where is the liar who calls himself King! I will cut out his beating heart and feed it to the crows!’
A man shambled out of the darkness towards Joanna and Madam Biset, his clothes in stained disarray, one leg of his hose wrinkling around his calf, exposing a hairy thigh. He swiped the air with a long knife, slashing wildly at an invisible foe.
Joanna screamed and grabbed Madam Biset’s arm.
‘You, woman, where’s the King?’ He bared his teeth and Joanna caught the stench of sour wine and vomit from his open mouth.
Madam Biset, on her feet now, pointed to the small chamber used by the clerks. ‘In there,’ she said. ‘He went in there a moment ago.’
He turned and stumbled towards the room, knife poised.