With three older brothers, Ludovic expects no inheritance, no sympathy and no surprises. He has taken to a life of smuggling as his source of income. But he is not the only one with secrets and Sumerford Castle is a home of of brooding unease. Yet amid the conflict, Ludovic finds love, unexpected and passionate. Alysson does not at first appear to be his match, but he is determined to find a way to keep her.
These are dark years in England’s history with the first of the Tudor dynasty on the throne. The fledgling rule is under threat from other claimants to the crown. One of the Sumerford brothers supports the 'pretender' Perkin Warbeck and gradually draws Ludovic into the conspiracy. Treason, if discovered, means certain death but when escaping from one danger, the twists of mystery and subterfuge can lead to others.
Following arrest, imprisonment and torture in the Tower, Ludovic seems likely to lose his fortune, his barely awakening romance, and possibly his worthless life. But once again, not everything is as predictable as it would seem.
It is the mystery of Perkin Warbeck that principally inspired this book. Ann Wroe’s fascinating book “Perkin, A Story of Deception” was not the first I knew of this misunderstood character, but it seemed to be the definitive biography, considering how little we actually know about him.
As Ms. Wroe’s book title tells us, this is a story of deception. But whose deception is it? Did the young man deceive, claiming to be the younger of the two princes in the tower and son of the late King Edward IV? Or was it Henry Tudor who deceived, knowing the claim to be true, but refusing to relinquish his crown and so sewing a web of lies and tales to deceive the people, present and future?
The traditional explanation of the pretender who was finally shown to be an imposter, has long been accepted by historians with little or no attempt to examine the facts. But Warbeck’s supposed confessions are dubious and contradictory. Confession under torture is never convincing, but in this young man’s documented life there are far more puzzles than that. Henry VII’s dogmatic accusations of fraud are also suspect, and some seem more propaganda rather than truth, but the truth may not lie with Perkin Warbeck’s claims either. I cannot be sure and my mind is not entirely made up, but the mystery and the excellent book by Anne Wroe aroused my curiosity.
Nothing is certain. And that’s exactly when inspiration begins to form. And so Sumerford’s Autumn slipped into my mind alongside the wretched Warbeck and his tragic end.
The boy died at once, one quick smash to the skull, another to the chest. His bones caved in, his life went out. An hour after the boy was killed, they found the bramble thorns; one spike still wedged up hard into the horse’s hoof. Another had been kicked free and was found later in the straw.
Ned and the under groom were sweeping up bloody shards of bone as the late September warmth oozed like melted butter over the hills beyond the castle turrets. But the dew still seemed to bleed where the broom had missed.
Just ten days out from the skirmish at Exeter with Turvey only back in his stable since last night, orders had been relayed for the old charger to be treated with reverence, scrubbed down and well fed. Instead the horse had taken to his huge hind legs, bared tooth and gums, thundered like Prince Harry in a tantrum, and kicked the new stable boy into splinters.
“Turvey’s a war horse,” the earl objected afterwards. “The damned animal’s trained to kick and gouge. Am I expected to ride a damned palfrey into battle? I assume the groom was an inexperienced fool.”
“The new apprentice. Little more than a child.”
“He will therefore not be missed. Go and make sure Turvey’s settled. Give him mashed apple in his grain and if he frets, set him up with a mare.”
“And the dead boy, my lord?”
“I’ve spent two years training Turvey. He anticipates every command I give on the field. That’s worth more than gold. A peasant boy has no value at all.”
The horse, mountainous mottled grey, rolled huge eyes and shivered like a baby. The chief groom held the bridle hard to the bit and wedged his heels against what was left of the stable door, holding firm. Little scarlet beads sprigged the straw. The boy’s corpse was dragged away. It took four strong men to control a rearing destrier, and the apprentice should never have stood so close. A kick from both front legs had crushed the boy’s skull like a tin cup. Flecks of brain pooled in the sunshine.
At first the incident had been reported to Lady Sumerford, the yellowing bruise across her left temple and cheekbone another reminder of his lordship’s return, the horse normally less irascible than the master. Her ladyship said, “Hamnet, get the remains cleaned up and take the body back to its parents. I presume it had parents? Tell them the Sumerford estate will pay for the coffin and the priest. And you’d better take a purse. Give them a sovereign. A little generosity is better than encouraging back stairs gossip.”
“Indeed, my lady. But I have been informed – his lordship’s personal groom is convinced, my lady – that the horse was purposefully enraged.” Hamnet’s voice faded; a murmur as unconvincing as the story. “Even tortured. Thorns inserted into the hooves, my lady.”
The lady laughed. “What nonsense. Who could get close enough? Who would want to get close enough? They are lying, to cover their own ineptitude.” She clicked her fingers. “Hamnet, do we employ anyone else from the same family?”
The steward didn’t think so, but a recent attack of the gout hindered memory.
“Hamnet,” barked the countess, “don’t gawp. Go and find out.”
The household, pausing in its bustling, muttered at rumours and thrived on gossip. The apprentice’s death became a welcome diversion, replacing drab routine with a satisfying and bloody mystery and even a hint of murder.
“Were a nice enough lad,” muttered Ned. “Had no enemies far as I could tell, and no warranting of them. All the horses took to him kindly till Turvey come back. But I seen them thorns myself, and they was spiked up intentional.”
“Bramble thorns? That’ll sting right enough. Sounds like they aimed on hurting the horse more’n the boy,” said Alan Purvis, small master of the dairies.
Red haired Remi, youngest of the castle pages, hugged his knees. “Just a weasely groomsboy and I don’t care if he was done in or not. Besides, probably some girl from the village did it. Jealous females, my Pa says, being worse than them Swiss pikers.”
“No young miss hammered thorns up Turvey’s hooves,” sneered Ned. “There’s no female as could get near that horse.”
“Lived out with them weird old spell-makers in the forest, didn’t he?” remembered the dairymaster.
Ned snorted. “Bugger off, Purvis. Ain’t no one under no spell in this castle ‘cept the Lord Humphrey hisself. But I’m telling you, that horse were thorn spiked – and been done deliberate.”
Outside the rosy dawn quickly paled and the rising sun turned sullen. The dust speckled sunbeams sank and the clouds hinted at afternoon rain.
“Who was the child anyway?” demanded Sumerford’s youngest son, eyeing the ruined stable door.
“My lord, just some insignificant lad old Ned was training for a groom.”
“None too well, it seems.”
Hamnet acknowledged the implied criticism without bowing low enough to exacerbate the gout. “His lordship’s battle charger was in a fury, sir. Ned informs me the creature had been spooked. Thorns, my lord.”
“Rubbish,” said Ludovic.
“Whatever you say, my lord. I must now carry out your lady mother’s instructions sir, and arrange the return of the body to its parents. A coffin has been ordered from the jobbing carpenter. He’s nailing it up now in the small courtyard before starting work on the stable doors. I’ll send the porter’s two lads with the cart.”
“I shall go with them,” said Ludovic.
Hamnet hesitated. “To some outlying hovel? My lord, his lordship your father will object.”
“He objects to everything I do on principle,” said his lordship’s youngest son. “So I shan’t tell him.” Ludovic paused momentarily, eyeing his father’s steward. “And nor will you.”
“Naturally not, my lord.”
“And Hamnet. Three sovereigns.”
The staff, aware that since completing his knight’s apprenticeship in the south some years past the earl’s younger son fostered lofty pretensions to an idealistically high standard of justice, considered he would doubtless soon grow out of it.
Hamnet’s hunched shoulders shuddered imperceptibly. “And does your lordship require me to accompany the cart, sir?”
“Certainly not, Hamnet, what conceivable use would you be?” Ludovic shook his head. His hair caught the last sheen of light, gold on gold, as the sun now huddled behind the clouds. “Just find out where the child’s family lives and give the direction to the porter’s boys. I’ll ride beside the cart and deliver the purse myself. You can stay here and keep your mouth shut.”
“As your lordship wishes.”
It was raining as promised and a silver drizzle spun through the cart’s churning wheels. The youngest Sumerford pulled his hat low over his forehead and followed the cart ruts through the mud. It was a longer journey than he had expected. He shook his head, spraying raindrops from his feathers.
The cart stopped. The cottage was no more than a croft hidden under the autumn leafed beeches, its single thatch sodden and caved, losing its bindings. One tiny window below, another above, and a threshold of dirt. Ludovic dismounted, boots to the slush and last year’s fallen leaf. The small door looked as though it would break if he knocked upon it. In any case they should have heard the trundling of the cart, though the rain was heavy enough to muffle sound. His fist was raised to knock after all when the door swung inward to shadow. A dark apron shuffled into a curtsey, vague movements within obscurity. Ludovic peered into the deep shade. The woman had browless eyes squashed vacant over a beaked nose; pigeon faced. The darkness behind her smelled of urine and grime but her apron was clean and the blotches on her skin were only the leathering of age.
“My lord?” She was frightened and hesitant. Ludovic strode into the lightless interior, following the bobbing shadows. His eyes adapted slowly. The stench thickened, heady and nauseous.
He did not know the boy’s name and had never asked. “There has been an unfortunate accident, madam. My father’s stable apprentice; your son I presume. The Earl of Sumerford’s sympathy of course, goes without saying.” A lie his father would dismiss with blank indifference. “His lordship will naturally pay all expenses. I need to speak with the boy’s father.”
“The boy’s father is long gone, my lord.” Whispers, in case her words might seem somehow discourteous or unwelcome. “Killed fighting for the king years past, my lord.”
She shook her head and her starched cap dropped pins. “At Bosworth field, the good man fought for King Richard, and even though the king was killed, my master lived on. But he was killed ten years past at Stoke, fighting for the new king, Henry Tudor.”
“You’re the boy’s only parent then.”
“I was the babe’s nurse, sir. Then with the poor mites being left orphans, I brought them here to my brother’s house. Now he’s gone too. There was the Sweating Sickness, my lord.”
He could barely hear her respectful and nervous murmurings, and saw only shrinking shadows. “So who is the guardian of the boy training at the Sumerford stables?”
“There is none, my lord.” She stepped back timidly. “Since young Gamel is fourteen years now and the man of the house. But I’ve looked after him, best as I was able, most of his young life.” She paused, gazing earnestly.
The woman curtsied. “Gamel, sir. As went to apprentice at the castle stables a month gone, my lord.”
“Gamel then.” Ludovic sighed. “I must inform you that the earl my father returned last night from the siege at Exeter. A fractious war horse is murderous in a temper. Your boy came too close. My sympathies. The cart is outside with the coffin, the body washed and sewn. I can order it taken on to the church immediately, if you’ve a wish to accompany the cart.”
The woman sniffed, eyes wide and moist, struggling to keep a respectful silence. It was from behind him that the voice said, “I’ll go with my brother.”
Turning from the dingy interior and half blinded by the incoming light, Ludovic watched the small shape emerging from its damp glistening aura. Another child, a girl in long skirts with black hair to her waist. Ludovic was surrounded by whispers; the misery of the frightened woman, the drip of rain on leaf, the breeze amongst the trees. Now he spoke only to a silhouette. “As you wish. I’ll instruct the boys to drive straight to St. Edmund’s. You may ride on the cart.” He held out the purse, soft leather and heavy with its three sovereigns. She did not take it. “This will cover the priest and grave diggers, and keep your family for a few months.” Ludovic placed the purse, cords untied, on the stool beside the empty hearth.
The girl came from the doorway into the cottage and stood before him. He saw only the intensity of her eyes for no candle was lit and the shadows hung dark. The entering swirl of soiled skirts reignited the inherent stench; damp soot, rancid goose grease and stale cabbage water, but the rain in her hair smelled suddenly sweet.
She said at once, “My brother was killed by a horse? How? Were you present? Did you see what happened, sir? Gamel was – good – with animals. He loved horses.”
Ludovic raised an eyebrow. “I was not present, no. I did not witness the accident, nor do the daily routines of my father’s stables ever inspire me to conjecture. However, I have been apprised of the events and am sorry for them, but they are not my concern. Now your brother’s remains have been prepared for the grave, and if you wish to accompany the coffin to the church, I will make the appropriate arrangements.”
He thought the girl blushed, but the shadows remained unresponsive. She said, low voiced, “I didn’t mean to question your word, my lord. I only wondered if Gamel had time to love – the horse that killed him.”
Ludovic stared at her. She did not look up or meet his gaze. He asked, “Do you pay rent or tithes here? Without your brother, do you have other means of support?”
The girl paused, then shook her head, still intent upon her toes.
He turned on his heel. “Come to the castle tomorrow,” he said over his shoulder. His velvets were steaming. His body, warmed from the ride, was chilling quickly. “I’ll leave orders for the steward to put you into service. Tell him I sent you.” He strode back outside and gave instructions to the porter’s lads. The sumpter, bedraggled in the rain, tossed its mane. Ludovic spoke briefly to the horse, calming it, then turned again to the girl at the doorway.
The old woman had draped a threadbare kersey shawl around the girl’s thin shoulders. Now reaching to clutch at her apron skirts was a younger boy, as skinny as his sister, who had appeared from the upstairs chamber.
The girl pulled the shawl over her head and came back out into the rain. Together in the drear of drizzling daylight, Ludovic watched her, now seeing her clearly. She was a little older than he had at first imagined. Her eyes were large like huge hazel bruises, stark against pale skin. She was gazing at the box on the cart. Ludovic would not normally choose to touch some village brat, but, without thought, reached out his hand to her. “The boys will take you to the church.”
The girl did not curtsey. She moved back and did not take his hand. Ludovic stepped forwards and put both palms to the girl’s waist, hoisting her up impatiently. He felt the coarse shapelessness of her gown between his hands, the slippery veneer of old grime, and beneath it the small warmth of her body. His fingers brushed the narrow curvature of her hips. Avoiding intimacy, he moved and caught instead the sleek wet coils of her hair. He looked up suddenly, read her expression and was startled. The girl looked neither grateful nor melancholy. The bitter, smouldering fury in her eyes matched that of any war horse. He bumped her down onto the cart’s wide bench. Her wooden shoes thumped against the boards and she tugged down the frayed hem of her skirts. There were flea bites on the bare protruding bones of her ankles.
She did not thank him. Ludovic turned, looking back over his shoulder to the cottage. The elderly woman had sunk into a deep curtsey, stiffened knees painfully bent. She was thanking him profusely. “Oh so incredibly gracious, my lord. And the purse – so very generous.”
He looked up again to the cart bench where the girl sat hunched. She had bundled her skirts around her feet, and her face was dark beneath the shadows of her hair and her shawl. He still felt grease on the palms of his hands from the decrepitude of her clothes. Her anger and contempt were in some way equally defiling.
Ludovic nodded to the porter’s lads to drive on. He wiped his hands on the damp velvet of his coat, turned, mounted his own horse, and rode back through the rain to Sumerford castle. He rode slowly, curbing impatience. His thoughts seemed more burdensome than usual.