By Loyalty Bound – Chapter One

Chapter One

March 1470

Anne Harrington paused, mid-stitch, at the sound of hooves on the stone bridge that crossed the river. Laying her work aside she hurried to the narrow window that overlooked the approach to Hornby Castle. She shielded her eyes against the March sun, which hung low in the sky, and watched as the group of horsemen came nearer.

“Who is it?” asked her sister, Izzie, coming to stand beside her, her breath unsteady against Anne’s cheek.

“I can’t see. Surely Uncle James would have told us if someone was expected?”

No one came to Hornby uninvited, except the Stanleys, and Anne and her sister lived in constant fear of the abduction and forced marriage that would follow any breach of the fortifications. Their uncle had kept them safe so far, but Anne feared that it was only a matter of time before Lord Stanley forced them to go with him.

She felt her heartbeat quicken as she watched. The men and horses were clearer now, yet the emblem on the unfurled banner that was snapping in the sharp wind was still indistinguishable to her.

“Who has the badge of a white boar?” asked Izzie.

“A white boar? I don’t know. But at least it isn’t the eagle’s claw that you see,” said Anne, though she didn’t find much reassurance in her own words. Any stranger was a potential enemy in this remote northern stronghold. She watched as the riders reached the gatehouse and guards stepped forward, sun reflecting off drawn swords and polished armour. Then a figure ran up the slope towards the gate of the inner bailey and disappeared from view. Moments later there was a shout of consent.

“They’re raising the portcullis!” said Anne as the creaking and groaning of the mechanism drifted upwards and a flock of rooks flew up in alarm from the woodland. “Uncle James must know who it is. Do you think we should go down?”

“Of course,” said Izzie. “How else will we discover who has come?”

“They must be Yorkists,” said Anne as she followed her sister down the dark winding stairs. Then she hesitated as they reached the floor below. “Wait!” she called. She grabbed at the trailing sleeve of her sister’s gown as Izzie lifted the latch on the heavy door that opened onto the steps down to the bailey. “Let’s watch from here − until we are sure it’s safe,” she said, pulling her sister to where they could peep down through a slit in the castle wall, through a gap designed for firing arrows but which equally fitted the purpose of observing people below.

As they peered down, pushing against each other to try to get a better view, Anne saw guards pull back the huge beam of wood that held the doors closed and, as they swung open, she saw Uncle James hurry down the wooden steps from the hall, pulling his best fur lined coat straight as he greeted the visitors.

“Welcome to Hornby, Your Grace!” he said, his voice carrying as it echoed off the surrounding walls.

“Who is it?” asked Izzie again.

“Shush!” scolded Anne. “I’m trying to hear, and to see if you’d move out of the way!”

She elbowed her sister again to watch the man her uncle was greeting. He dismounted agilely from his huge grey stallion and patted its steaming, muscular neck. He was dark haired and looked young, not much older than herself she thought, and not particularly tall, though his shoulders looked broad enough underneath his armour.  And as she studied him he glanced up in her direction, as if he was aware of being watched, and she drew back with a sharp intake of breath.

Her movement allowed Izzie to take her place and Anne’s view was blocked by her sister’s head, Izzie’s thick brown braids bouncing against her shoulders in excitement.

“I don’t recognise him,” she said.

“Come away,” said Anne, pulling at her sister’s arm again, embarrassed that they had been caught spying. “We will soon discover who he is.”

“Well Uncle James is treating him with too much respect for him to be a Stanley. Do you think he has come from the king?”

“Perhaps,” said Anne. The voices faded to a murmur as the men went inside, leaving only the gentle clip-clop of the horses being led away to the stables. “Now that the rebellion has been put down and Warwick revealed as a traitor the king may have changed his mind about our inheritance.”

“You sound as if you would be pleased if we were robbed of what is rightfully ours!” replied Izzie and Anne saw the blaze of defiance in her eyes. She knew that her younger sister was finding it hard to accept what was virtually imprisonment by their uncle and that at thirteen years old she was on the brink of both womanhood and a rebellion of her own. “This castle and its estates are rightly ours,” she said, waving an arm around to indicate the nearby villages of Hornby and Melling. “Why should we be forced to give them up?”

Anne sighed. “You know well enough that the control of our wealth and even of our selves belongs not to us but to our guardian. If we no longer owned these lands then Lord Stanley would have no interest in us and would leave us in peace. ”

“Stanley,” spat Izzie as if the name was a sour plum. “He can’t force us to marry. A woman cannot be married without giving her consent.”

“I doubt we would have that choice if he ever broke through these walls,” said Anne, running her slender fingers over the dark stone that was all that protected them from being carried from their home. “If the king changes his mind and gives the castle to Uncle James at least it will remain in the family. Stanley wouldn’t want our guardianship if he had nothing to gain from it, and then we would be free to accept a husband of our uncle’s choosing. Our ownership of Hornby brings us nothing but trouble and grief.”

“But it is rightfully ours!”

“You are so naive!” burst out Anne, tired of the way in which this argument always led them in circles. She often thought that Izzie would never grow up and see the truth – that women were always at the mercy of greedy men and that wealthy women were the most attractive.

“And you’re so feeble!” answered Izzie as she pulled open the door that led down to the bailey.

“Where are you going?” asked Anne as her sister lifted her skirts.

“To find out who our visitor is. Coming?”

“No,” said Anne, although immediately she’d refused she regretted it. She was eager to know who the dark haired man was and it was only her squabble with her sister that meant she would now have to wait until suppertime to find out.

She climbed back to the chamber in the octagonal tower where she and Izzie spent much of their time and the castle settled back into its brooding defiance, locked down and barricaded against all comers.  It was what she had become used to.  She had no reliable memories of her life before the deaths of her father and grandfather, just half remembered glimpses of days of laughter and sunshine and happiness when she had felt safe.  She had only been five years old when her life had changed irrevocably and for the last ten years she had lived here under the care of her uncle as the arguments raged around her about the Harrington inheritance.

She watched the cold east wind toss the branches of the trees that would soon be bursting into leaf.  She would be fifteen soon and lately she had found herself thinking more and more about what her future held.  Although Lord Stanley had already tried and failed to take possession of the castle, she knew that he would not give up.  She would either be forced into a marriage she not desire or she would remain locked in this tower for the rest of her life.  Neither was a prospect she relished.  She listened to the rooks quarrelling over their nest sites and she felt a gnawing desire to know what it would be like to be married to a man.  And as she considered it she found herself thinking about their visitor.  She remembered the way he had glanced up at her.  There had been something about his face that made her stomach flutter as it sometimes did when she heard the guards running up the stone steps to the battlements in response to the alarm call. Yet this was a different kind of fear – a fear that was not entirely unpleasant.

As the bell in the chapel chimed the hour Anne walked down to supper. She could hear a buzz of excited conversation coming from the hall and when she went in she saw that careful preparations had been made. Extra braziers were well alight and the room was uncharacteristically warm, if a little smoky. The best table linen and cups had been laid out with precision and there were delicious aromas rising from the kitchen. Uncle James had plundered the stores for the best of what Hornby had to offer and Anne was curious to know who it was that deserved such a lavish welcome.

Their guest was in conversation with her uncle and, as she approached them, both men stopped speaking and looked at her.

“Your Grace,” said her uncle, “this is my niece, the lady Anne.”

Anne made a slight reverence, finding it difficult to wrench her gaze away from the blue eyes that openly assessed her. “Anne, this is Richard, Duke of Gloucester.”

“Lady Anne,” he said in a voice that was deeper than she expected. He gave a formal bow though his eyes held hers and didn’t falter until she looked away ‒ a blush burning her face. When she glanced back his expression was a mixture of amusement and something else that she couldn’t quite define. There was an aura about him that was almost tangible.

“Shall we eat?” asked Uncle James, indicating that his guest should precede him to the top table and that Anne should sit beside him. She closed her eyes and clasped her hands in prayer as the grace was said and then, as the musicians began to play, the servants brought myriad dishes to the table – salted mutton and venison pasties, tarts filled with dried fruit and nuts. The supply of food and drink seemed endless and Anne wondered how her uncle had managed it.

After ensuring that her trencher was filled from the dishes of her choice, the duke turned his attention to his own food. He sliced his meat with a sharp, jewelled knife drawn from the sheath on his belt and ate eagerly.

“Forgive my lack of attention to you, my lady,” he said after a few minutes. “I fear my hunger has overcome my good manners.”

“There is nothing to forgive, Your Grace. I am pleased to see a guest who is so appreciative of my uncle’s hospitality. You must have had a long ride?”

“Long and difficult.”

“And you are on your way to join the king, at York?” He frowned slightly at her words. “Forgive me. I did not mean to pry…”

“As you said, there is nothing to forgive,” he replied. “No. I will not be joining the king at York. I mean to remain here.”

“At Hornby?” she asked.

“You sound surprised.”

“I must confess I am. We do not often receive visitors – well not of the welcome sort,” she added.

“I’m pleased you count me as welcome. As for the unwelcome I presume you speak of Lord Stanley,” he said, nodding permission to a servant to pour more wine into his cup. Anne watched him as he raised it to his lips and sipped. She was unsure what he knew of the dispute between her uncles and the Stanleys, but she could offer no other explanation for his coming.

He turned his vivid blue eyes on her again. There was a haughtiness about them that she had not noticed before. “Lord Stanley and I do not agree on many things,” he said, “one of them being your inheritance.” He hesitated as he replaced the cup with care on the bleached white cloth before continuing. “If my views cause you any offence, my lady, I can only apologise.”

“You cause me no offence,” she assured him.

“But you may not be aware that I have raised this matter with the king. I support the claim of your uncles to the Harrington inheritance. It seems to me only fair that the loyalty of your father and grandfather should not result in the loss of the family’s lands to Stanley. If that makes you dislike me then I am sorry.”

“I have no thought of disliking you!” she assured him, troubled that his earlier friendliness had been replaced by this cold tone.

“I would expect you to dislike a man who thinks your land and wealth should be taken from you.”

Anne shook her head slightly. “The inheritance makes me a prize to be awarded to a guardian of the king’s choosing. It is a fortune that does me no favours,” she said. “And I am not sure that my father would have wanted me and my sister to be left so vulnerable. I doubt it was his intention that Hornby should have passed to two children so young. He would have realised what trouble it would bring.”

As she spoke she realised that she was quoting words that her uncles, James and Robert, had repeated to her since she was old enough to comprehend them.

The duke nodded as she spoke.  “I think you are right,” he said, “and that you are wise to see the reason in it. Had things been different at Wakefield and your father had died before your grandfather then Hornby would have passed to your uncle without question. It seems to me a disservice to your family that the king chooses to award your guardianship to Lord Stanley. The man is an opportunist who only wants Hornby to add to his power across Lancashire, which is already too widespread. Your welfare is not his concern, Lady Anne, and he will only seek to use you. I will do my utmost to make my brother see reason and to ensure that justice is done and that you are kept from Stanley’s control.”

“Thank you, Your Grace,” she said as his face softened and he raised his cup to drink. “You are very kind,” she added as her imagination conjured images of St George, that gallant and brave knight who rode and fought the fearsome dragon to rescue the maiden who was held captive.

*

Anne did not remember much about her father, but she did remember the day, not long after her fifth birthday, when muddied and exhausted riders had arrived at Hornby Castle with their faces white from terror and exhaustion. She remembered how the men had crowded into the hall and spoken with hushed voices and how her mother had fallen to her knees and broken the silence by wailing and crying and calling on the name of the Lord God to save them all from the wickedness of such evil men.

It wasn’t until Anne was much older that the full tragedy and horror of that day had been revealed to her. Her grandfather, Sir Thomas Harrington, and her father, John, had both died at Wakefield fighting an army of rebel Lancastrians who were incensed at parliament’s decision to name the Duke of York as the heir to the throne. Led by the Duke of Somerset  they supported the exiled queen Margaret of Anjou and were determined that the throne would pass to her son, Prince Edward.

“It isn’t as if the boy is Henry’s son anyway,” Anne’s mother had commented as she told the story to her daughters. “You tell me how a man who can neither move nor speak can father a child?”

Anne remembered how she had squirmed at her mother’s words when her younger sister had asked why such a man couldn’t be a father. Their mother had ignored the question and gone on with the story. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see that the prince carries the features of Somerset,” she had told them, and although Anne hadn’t understood what her mother meant at the time she now knew that it was common gossip that the former queen and the Duke of Somerset were lovers.

Her mother remained bitter about what happened that day at Wakefield. “The Lancastrians broke the Christmas truce, she said. “But the Duke of York was impetuous. He should never have left SandalCastle to fight with so few men, even if their supplies were dangerously low. He should have waited until he had an army strong enough to defeat them. Then your father and your grandfather would still be with us.” She always began to cry at this point as she told the story.  “They cut the head from your grandfather’s body and stuck it up on a spike on Micklegate Bar,” she wept. “At least your father was spared that indignity.”

*

The door creaked open and her sister came in and sat down by the fire. Izzie picked up her embroidery, stared at it for a moment, then put it down again before beginning to speak. “The soldiers are taking up positions on the outer wall and I have heard that the Stanley army is not far away.”

“Stanley is never far away,” remarked Anne. “But we are safe enough if we remain in the castle.” She caught the expression of guilt on Izzie’s face. “You haven’t been out to the village, have you?” she asked her sister. She knew that Izzie didn’t always take her own safety seriously and was in the habit of putting on an old cloak and slipping past the guards, especially on a market day when many people passed to and fro.

Her sister’s face coloured a little. “It’s so dull in here,” she complained as she pulled away from Anne. “Surely no harm can come to me in Hornby?”

“Izzie! This is no game. We are not confined here as a punishment, but to keep us safe.”

“But it is boring!” she said. “I am going out of my mind with nothing to do but this… needlework!” She suddenly picked up her embroidery and threw it angrily onto the fire where Anne watched in astonishment as the flames first singed the edges and then took hold, consuming the painstaking stitching that her sister had taken the long winter months to complete. And as she watched it burn Izzie’s expression changed to one of regret and Anne had to restrain her as she reached towards the hearth to try to save what small fragments were left.

“Let it burn,” she said as the tears flowed down her sister’s cheeks. “You cannot save it now.”

“What will happen to us?” she sobbed. “The Duke of Gloucester has come to rob us of our inheritance.”

“Hush, hush,” comforted Anne with her arms around her sister. She wished that their mother was there to help and advise them. They rarely saw her since her new husband, Sir Edmund Sutton, had taken her away to his family home at Dudley. And although their mother had pleaded with Uncle James to allow her daughters to go with her, he was adamant that Anne and Elizabeth could never be safe except at Hornby.

“The Duke of Gloucester had a stand-off with some of Stanley’s men yesterday,” Izzie said, wiping her cheeks on a scrap of linen as she became calmer. “There was some fighting at a crossing point on the Ribble. The Stanleys are planning a siege,” she said. “They are bringing up a siege machine and a huge battering ram and there is rumour of a cannon too.”

Anne went to the window and stared down the valley to the south. For the moment it looked peaceful enough under the clear skies.

“Who has told you all this?” she asked as she noticed a procession of women and children making their way across the castle bailey towards the keep, their arms filled with bundles.

“It is the talk of the village. People have been told to take shelter.”

Anne crossed the room quickly. “I must speak to Uncle James,” she said, “and discover what is happening.”

Outside the door she almost bumped into two guards who were climbing up the twisting steps to the battlements, carrying a crate of arrows between them.

“Sorry, m’lady,” they muttered as she stepped back to allow them to pass.

She hurried down to where her Aunt Joan, with baby William on her hip, was ushering the crowd of women and children towards the kitchens and the cellars beneath the hall.

“Is it true?” she asked. “Are the Stanleys coming?”

“So we’ve been told,” she said. “Go back to your chamber ‒ and stay away from the windows.”

“Let me help. Tell me what to do,” she asked.

“Anne!” The sound of her uncle’s voice rang across the courtyard. “Go back to your chamber!”

“Let me help. Let me do something,” she pleaded.

“Go back to your chamber. I need to know that you’re safe,” he said. “Where is your sister?”

“She’s in the tower, but ‒”

“Then join her,” he interrupted.

“But ‒”

“I think you should do as your uncle tells you.” Anne turned at the authoritative voice. The Duke of Gloucester’s face was serious and stern. “Come,” he said, taking her elbow in his hand, “I will escort you.”

If it had been anyone else Anne would have shaken them off, but she allowed herself to be led across to the stairs. The duke followed her up and, as she paused at the top and glanced into the hall where women and children were milling in what looked like complete chaos, she felt his hand enclose her upper arm. “I believe your chamber is in the tower,” he said.

She was about to protest that she could go wherever she liked inside the castle, but his eyes quelled her outburst without a word being spoken.

“Is it true that the Stanleys have a cannon?” she asked him as they reached her door.

“Yes,” he replied. “I have seen it.”

“They won’t succeed, will they?” She turned to him for reassurance and was suddenly aware that he was standing very close to her. She watched a moment of hesitation cloud his face.

“I promise I will do everything I can to keep you safe. Come,” he said, his upper arm brushing against hers as he reached to open the door for her, “go into your chamber.”

Anne went inside and was surprised when he followed her and stood quietly before the hearth.

“What have you been burning?” he asked after a moment, peering at the ashes that still held the aroma of the blackened fabric.

“My sister, Elizabeth, was discontent with her sewing and threw it on the fire,” said Anne.

“It was poor sewing anyway,” said Izzie from where she was peering out at the scene below.

“Come away from the window,” the duke told her and Anne was surprised to see her sister obey him. “The slit may look too narrow for an archer’s aim, but a stone from a siege engine can cause much damage and you must stay back from the outer wall if a bombardment begins. In fact I will speak to your uncle about moving you from here. You would be safer in the hall.”

Anne was sorry when the door thudded shut behind him and his footfalls faded down the stairs.

“What a very unpleasant person he is,” remarked Izzie.

Anne looked at her sister in surprise. “Do you think so?” she said.

“Oh don’t tell me you like him,” groaned Izzie. “He’s insufferable. Who does he think he is, coming here and taking charge of everything? Perhaps he will change his mind about the inheritance now that he has seen you making eyes at him. Perhaps he will ask the king to award him your guardianship instead of Lord Stanley so that he can take you to wife and gain himself another castle into the bargain.”

“I very much doubt it. I think the Duke of Gloucester will be seeking a richer heiress than me.”

“You wouldn’t turn him down though, would you?” persisted Izzie.

“It will not happen, so it is of no matter,” replied Anne, annoyed that her sister could read her emotions so well. “We have more immediate concerns. I fear our uncles cannot hold out for ever, even with the support of the Duke of Gloucester.”

“I don’t want to be taken from here,” said Izzie, her mood suddenly changing and her chin trembling as she struggled to control her tears. “I don’t want to be married,” she said and Anne’s heart was wrenched as she saw the frightened little girl inside the hard shell that her sister presented to the world. “ I… I feel afraid,” she confessed.

Anne put her arms around her sister and rubbed her back as their warm faces pressed together. The familiar scent of the herbs that Izzie used to rinse her hair filled Anne’s nostrils as she searched for some words of comfort, but her own fear was too great.

“It will be all right,” she said at last, trying to convince herself. But as Izzie pulled away from her there was an unspoken understanding between them that they were vulnerable and there was nothing that they could do. Their fate was to watch and wait and be taken with no more compunction than a chest of silver as the victor’s prize.

*

James Harrington glanced up as the young duke came into the hall. He had been upstairs with Anne and Elizabeth for quite some time and despite being in the throes of locking down Hornby, James had had time to consider the way his niece had looked at the duke as he’d led her away ‒ and the way that the king’s young brother had looked at Anne. He saw the obvious attraction that each had for the other and he wondered if it was something to be encouraged.

It had always been assumed that the duke would marry Warwick’s younger daughter. But now that Warwick had rebelled there would be no such match and the Duke of Gloucester would be forced to look elsewhere for a bride. A week ago James would not have dared to think that the king’s brother would want any form of alliance with the Harrington family, but his unexpected arrival at their gate and his determination to help them defend the castle against Lord Stanley had changed that. Could it be possible, wondered James, for his niece to become a member of the royal family and so link the Harringtons to the Plantagenet dynasty? The problem with that idea, he acknowledged to himself as he nodded in response to a question from one of his men-at-arms, was that Anne was no prize without Hornby.

*

In the tower chamber, Anne ignored the duke’s advice and crossed to the window. The great wooden doors that secured the curtain wall were shut tight, the portcullis lowered and the drawbridge raised. Everyone was watching for an army from the south who would set up camp outside the castle and wait; wait until those inside were left to choose between starvation and surrender. Would her Uncle James concede? Would he allow the castle and his nieces and the inheritance he believed should be his fall into the hands of his enemy? Anne shivered as she realised that he might have no choice. And for herself? Which would she prefer, she asked herself. A slow death from lack of food or the prospect of marriage to an unknown son of the Stanleys?

A flash of sunlight reflecting on metal caught her attention.  She thought she saw a movement near the riverbank.

“Men,” said Izzie, standing beside her. “They are hidden in the long grass and behind the trees.”

“So it will soon begin.”

“God damn them!” burst out her sister, then crossed herself in penitence for the oath. But as she turned away Anne saw that Izzie’s fear had been replaced once more by a gleam of excitement in her eyes, and she worried that the time would come when she would be unable to protect her.

*

Balderstone Hall, where Isabella de Balderstone lived with her widowed mother, stood in the fertile valley of the River Ribble. Its dark stone walls were surrounded by trees and in another month it would be almost hidden to the casual observer. As Robert Harrington approached he heard the dogs begin to bark; first one hesitant voice and then a gradual cacophony of sound that brought servants out from the barn and stable block to see who was coming. But Robert sought only one figure and he smiled when he saw Isabella come out of the dairy with a brown cloak pulled around her shoulders as protection against the flakes of snow that were falling from an overcast sky. He forgot his own weariness as she came forward to greet him. Her fair, curly hair was escaping in damp tendrils from beneath her plain linen cap and her smoky grey eyes were filled with both welcome and concern. He took her in his arms and pressed his icy lips to the warmth of her cheek. Each time he saw her he thanked God for his fortune in gaining the permission of her mother to take her as his bride. Her wealth was not spectacular and the estates were shared between her and an older sister, but they would be a welcome addition to his own and for a third son of a family such as the Harringtons she was a good match.

“I did not expect to see you so soon,” she told him as they walked towards the manor house.

“But I sent word that you should expect me. Don’t tell me that the idle lad never arrived. I paid him well.”

“The message came,” she reassured him as she helped him take off his coat and gestured for the servant to bring more logs to the hearth. “But I thought that you would have ridden straight to Hornby.”

“Why so?” he asked as she spread his coat to dry.

“Then you don’t know?”

“I had a missive from the king asking me to rally my men yet again and meet him at York.” He stopped to listen as he saw that she had urgent news.

“Lord Stanley has taken an army and weapons to lay siege to Hornby Castle.”

“Are you sure? Yes, of course,” he added as she began to nod. “You would not have told me otherwise.” He winced at a pain in his leg. The sharp edge of a sword had ripped open his flesh at Lose-Cote Field when he had been a moment too slow to turn his horse. And worse, the wound had been inflicted by a man he had thought of as a friend ‒ a man he had known well during his years at Middleham Castle when they had both served the Earl of Warwick, before he turned traitor.  “It seems that Stanley grasps the opportunity to take Hornby whilst he believes we are pre-occupied elsewhere.” Robert paused and looked towards the part-shuttered window where he could see the snow beginning to settle on the higher ground. “I hope that my brother has remained at Hornby and not gone to York,” he said. “If the castle is left with only a meagre garrison then it may not hold out.” He turned back to her with a worried face. “I need to go,” he said reaching for the cloak she had set to dry.

“You cannot go in this,” she protested. “You need to eat and rest – and so does your horse. It would be madness to leave in this weather.”

Robert saw that she was right. The snowstorm was thickening and flakes like goose down were already blotting out the trees that skirted the moat. His journey would have to wait until at least the morrow.

*

Anne wakened in the night and thought that she could hear thunder rumbling around the castle walls,  but as she sat up and struck a flint to re-light her candle she realised that the sound was of   heavy footsteps on the stairs and urgent voices.

“It’s the Stanleys,” said Izzie with a mixture of fear and anticipation quivering in her voice.

A moment later there was a perfunctory knock on the door and it was pushed open. Uncle James came in carrying a horn lantern.

“Get dressed quickly,” he said. “You must go downstairs.”

Moments later they were in the hall where Aunt Joan was sitting wide-eyed by a lit brazier with baby William on her lap, and the nurse was soothing their little cousin Peggy who was crying in fear at the huge shadows that flickered across the tapestries on the walls.

“Whatever happens, stay here!” instructed Uncle James as the Duke of Gloucester came in, dressed and armoured. “They mean to take the castle for their own use so they have no reason to either destroy it or burn it to the ground. You are quite safe so long as you stay in the hall,” he told them.

The servants brought blankets and mattresses stuffed with flock and, once the children had been lulled to sleep, Anne lay down near the remnants of the log fire in the hearth. In spite of the earlier pandemonium the castle had now fallen eerily silent, as if it and everyone in it were holding their collective breaths, waiting for the first Stanley strike. But the silence remained unbroken and as the night went on Anne drifted into a restless sleep and did not rouse fully until the whispering of the servants bringing breakfast awoke her. She felt a heavy arm lying across her body and saw that her sleeping sister had rolled closer to her for comfort. Izzie looked fragile and pale in the morning light and Anne could see the streaks of tears on her cheeks and heard her mumbling troubled thoughts as she gently moved her arm. Aunt Joan was still sitting in the chair with baby William in her arms and looked as if she had been awake all night; beside her the nurse and Peggy slept on the same mattress.

The servants had brought bread and small beer and were setting it out on a trestle table at the side of the hall. Anne bent to lift the sleeping baby from her aunt’s arms so that his mother could go and eat. The breakfast was meagre, she noticed. An order had been given for the strict rationing of food and she wondered how long the supplies they had would last. She knew that during the winter many of the barrels of salted meat and fish and sacks of grain had been used up and that the absence of her uncles and their men to fight with the king against Warwick’s rebellion meant there had been little chance for the cellars to be properly re-stocked. The Stanleys could bring continuous supplies from their land to the south. Once Hornby’s food had gone they would be beaten.

Anne rocked the restless baby against her shoulder and wondered if it would be better to give up now. The end seemed inevitable and this siege could only extend the agony, not only for them but for the children. She kissed the soft head of her small nephew as she cradled him. All this might be his one day if her uncle could reclaim it, and as the baby hiccupped and sighed in her arms she resolved that she would do all she could to keep this land for its rightful owners. Her own possession of it was not as important to her as the Harrington name.

Anne heard someone running up the outer steps from the bailey and the Duke of Gloucester strode into the hall. He must have been awake all night yet his eyes and face were as bright and alert as a man who had just wakened from a long rest. His thin, stern face turned to a smile at the sight of her rocking the baby in her arms.

“Did you manage to sleep?” he asked.

“A little, though I think my aunt has been awake all night. It seems quiet,” she added.

“They are biding their time. They think themselves in the stronger position.” He frowned as he glanced around the hall, his eyes shrewdly estimating the number of loaves on the platters. “Your uncle seems unsure about the level of supplies. I would not have eaten so heartily if I had known your stocks were low. I am on my way to discover the amount of grain and flour that is stored to see how long we can hold out.”

“So they are in a stronger position?” she asked.

“No,” he reassured her. “We are well protected and have ample ammunition. We can make their life uncomfortable, especially if there is more bad weather. Pray for more snow, Lady Anne,” he advised as went to the door that led down to the cellars.

The baby in her arms shifted and began to cry and the nurse took him to be fed and have his swaddling changed. Anne took a cup of ale and her apportioned piece of bread and went to sit on a bench by the fire that had been re-kindled with an extra log. She wondered how many logs were left. There was plentiful woodland but it was all outside the castle walls, good only to supply the Stanleys with wood for the fires they would burn to try to undermine the foundations.

“Oh…” moaned Izzie as she woke and sat up on her narrow mattress. “I thought it was all a bad dream,” she said, rubbing at her reddened eyes.

“Here, have something to eat,” said Anne, passing what remained of her own meal to her sister. “It’s not that bad. The duke thinks that they will withdraw before long, especially if the weather worsens.”

“I presume you’re talking about Gloucester,” said Izzie as she broke off a piece of the bread. “Your confidence in his ability to predict the future amazes me. Anyone would think that you were in love with him.”

Annoyed by her sister’s taunting, Anne snatched up her cloak and, leaving Izzie eating the food, followed the Duke of Gloucester down to the stores. Izzie’s words had stung her. She wasn’t in love with him, but there was something about the duke that excited her, and it wasn’t just because he was the king’s brother and had shown them such favour.

Outside the sky was grey, like metal, and the dull cold make her body ache. As she passed the open door of the kitchen she could see that it was filled with women and children cowering in every corner. She was approaching the low doorway to the grain store when she saw the duke come out.

“What are you doing out here?” There was a mixture of concern and anger in his voice. “Go inside!”

Anne faced him, ready to challenge his belief that she should do everything he told her, but before she could answer him his strong hand closed around her arm and he pushed her back towards the keep. Without giving her a moment to protest he urged her past the kitchen, up the steps and into the small solar at the back of the hall.

“I did not want to embarrass you by reprimanding you in front of the servants, Lady Anne, but you must understand that you are not to go out of the castle… for any reason!” His steely eyes glinted with suppressed anger and the retort she was about to make failed on her tongue. “Do you understand?” She watched him silently, aware that it was not fear he provoked in her with his manner but a desire she had never known the like of; a desire that he would close the short space between them, take hold of her again and use his body to subdue the cravings that she was at a loss to comprehend. “Do you understand?” he repeated.

“Yes, Your Grace,” she managed to reply, her lips fumbling as she spoke.

“I have enough to do without rescuing you from your own stupidity,” he told her and, hurt at his words, Anne swallowed back her unbidden tears. He obviously thought that she was just a silly and wilful little girl. Izzie was probably right about him after all, she told herself. But as he brushed past her, he momentarily laid a hand on her shoulder and his touch burned into her body long after he was gone.

*

James Harrington glanced up as he felt something soft and wet fall onto his ungloved hand. Snow. The Duke of Gloucester had seen it too, he thought, as he saw the young man glance upwards as he came along the wall-walk.

“If we implement rationing we can last two, even three weeks,” said the duke as he reached him and turned to stare down. Below the castle walls James could see more tents than he cared to count pitched just beyond the range of his archers, though if Stanley had hoped for some spring sunshine to launch his attack then it seemed he was going to be thwarted and that God was on the side of the Harringtons after all.

“It will be cold and wet for them if this snow moves in,” said the duke as he looked up at the heavy skies to the west. “But Stanley is a determined man and will not easily give up.”

“Now that Anne is of an age to be married his attempts to take the castle can only increase,” replied James. “If he takes possession of her and Elizabeth and marries them into his family then my lands will be lost.”

“It is unjust,” said the duke, “but my brother sees it from a different perspective. He believes that rewarding Stanley will keep him loyal.”

“And he gives no reward to those who are already loyal,” said James, bitterly.

“If I did not agree with you I would not be here,” replied the duke, “but do not expect me to express disloyalty to my brother. I believe he has misjudged this matter and that if you can keep possession of Hornby for now he will change his mind.”

“I am more grateful for your support than I can say, Your Grace. You do the Harringtons a great honour by your presence here.”

“Your father and brother gave their lives for my father. I would like to see that debt of honour repaid.”

James met the duke’s eyes and saw his sincerity. He was so much like his father that it was almost like seeing the same person, he thought, unlike the king whose height and fair features betrayed his ancestry to the Nevilles of Raby. He took a breath, determined to bring the conversation back to his niece Anne and wondering if he dared to suggest that the duke’s family debt to the Harringtons might stretch as far as his considering a marriage. But the opportunity was lost as a resounding thud made them both look to where a scaling ladder was now positioned against the outer wall. The archers were firing at the men attempting to climb and James smiled in satisfaction as he heard one fall to the ground with an agonised cry, an arrow protruding from his right shoulder.

“It seems that Stanley is not frightened by the snow after all,” said the duke, “though it can only make the rungs more slippery. The man is a fool.”

But a dangerous fool, thought James, and a persistent one too.

*

Inside Hornby Castle the days fell into a routine. At daylight the women would wake to the sounds of men on the battlements hurling abuse and arrows at the Stanley army below as they emerged from their tents. The insults were most likely returned and, although she couldn’t make out the words, Anne was in no doubt that they were as equally coarse and demeaning and called into question the manhood of the Harrington retainers.

Breakfast in the hall consisted of what was left of the previous day’s bread and a small cup of ale, leaving Anne with a constant thirst that she found harder to bear than the hunger. The brewing of ale had also been rationed to preserve the grain stores. At dinner time they were allowed a little salted fish or bacon with a small portion of potage; on other days it was sops and potage and this grew weaker and more watery as time passed. Suppers were frugal affairs too and Anne found she often lay down to sleep feeling hungry.

The days became long and monotonous trapped in the fetid atmosphere of the unaired hall, and apart from playing with baby William to allow her aunt to get some sleep, singing to little Peggy and arguing with her sister, there was little to do; although Anne spent much of her time thinking about the duke and yearning to catch a glimpse of him.

Occasionally a thud would reverberate through the castle as a rock or boulder was hurled from the trebuchet that had been built and often her head would pound along with the rhythmic battering of the ram on the outer gate. Throughout the day there would be shouting as arrows were rained down on men who emerged from the tunnel they were mining under the curtain wall, though Uncle James reassured her that little progress was being made and that the walls were thick and strong.

Then, one morning, Anne was woken at first light by the sound of laughing from nearby. She sat up in alarm, clutching her cloak to her chest and trying to steady the rate of her pounding heart. She strained to try to make sense of what she could hear. Were Stanley’s men inside the castle, she wondered. She stared at the door and expected them to storm through it at any moment to take her and Izzie captive.

She clambered to her feet as the latch clicked and the door was pushed open. She stood straight and proud, braiding her hair, which had become loosened as she slept, resolved to face the consequences of defeat with dignity. But it was Uncle James who came in with a delighted grin sweeping the exhaustion from his face, and her fear turned to hope.

“They’ve gone!” he announced in wonderment. “They must have begun to withdraw during the night. There are just a few stragglers left striking camp.” He took his wife in his arms as she ran to meet him and lifted her up and spun her round. “We won!” he laughed and kissed her on the lips in full view of everyone. “You’re safe,” he said to Anne.

“What’s happened?” asked Izzie, from where she sat on her flock mattress, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

“The Stanley’s have gone. We saw them off!”

*

Robert Harrington woke with a jolt to the familiar sound of an army on the move. For a moment he thought he was on campaign. Then he recalled that, as he had approached Hornby the previous night, and was relishing the thought of a tub of hot water and a hearty meal, he had seen that the castle was surrounded by Stanley’s army and he had been forced to take cover in the forest.

He rubbed his painfully cold limbs to life. He had ridden ill-equipped for a camping trip and had slept, wrapped in a horse blanket, on the damp forest floor. He eased himself up to a crouching position and grasped clumsily for the sword that was sheathed beside him. The steady tramp of booted feet and the occasional snicker of an excited horse came closer and he realised that the army was moving south. Why he was not sure. It could mean that Stanley had got hold of his young nieces, Anne and Elizabeth, but it seemed unlikely given the way that his brother kept them closely guarded, and would have guarded them closer still with the enemy outside the walls.

Shivering, he rose to his feet and picked up his make-shift bed. His horse was tugging at the reins that tied it to a nearby tree. It too had heard the other horses and was keen to join them.

“Shush,” soothed Robert, running his hand down the animal’s bony nose and over its soft muzzle, hoping that it would not give him away. He hoped that if he kept his hand pressed down, preventing the horse tossing back its head, it was less likely to give off a revealing whinny. And, with luck, the Stanley army would have no interest in pursuing some felon even if they did catch sight of him lurking in the trees as they passed.

When Robert was sure that the last of the foot soldiers had gone he led his horse towards the road. It was churned to mud with the melting snow and the multitude of feet and, together with the distant sounds of the men, a steaming pile of horse dung gave testament to how recently they had passed. Robert turned his own mount north, gathered the reins and having pushed his foot to the stirrup pulled his aching body into the saddle. He would be home soon and with luck there would be breakfast waiting.

*

James Harrington stood alone in the hall with the Duke of Gloucester. His earlier euphoria at the sight of the Stanley army disappearing southwards had been replaced by unease and the duke had echoed his own thoughts. Something more than their resistance had caused the withdrawal and another uprising was not beyond possibility.

“I’ll ride to York,” said the duke. “If I need you I will send word.”

“You know my loyalty to you is without question,” James told him. “Your support here has been more than I am worthy of. If you need me to fight alongside you then I will come.”

The duke’s sharp blue eyes met his for a moment. James knew that he acknowledged the unspoken meaning that it was to him, rather than the king, that the Harringtons were loyal now that Warwick was no longer their lord.

“I’ve sent Ratcliffe to the stables to see our horses are prepared. We’ll leave as soon as they are ready.”

“But you will take breakfast first,” said James as a servant carried in some bread and set it on the trestle.

“A quick meal only,” said the duke. “I would like to reach York by nightfall. And that means we will have to ride at speed.”

*

Anne was in her bedchamber. She hadn’t been back there since the night the siege had begun. The bed was still unmade and her chamber robe lay on the floor where she had left it in her haste to dress. She picked it up and folded it before pulling the sheets and covers straight. Then she crossed to the window and opened the shutters a little to let in some slanted sunshine. In a moment, she thought, she would call for a servant to bring her some warm water so that she could wash and change her underlinen, but in the meantime she felt compelled to look out, to be sure that the siege really was over.

She could see men leading donkey-carts laden with fresh supplies up to the castle. For the moment the outer gate stood wide open to the market place and as far as she could see there was no sign of the Stanley army.

“They’ve left a mess,” commented Izzie, coming up behind her.

“Have they?” asked Anne, wishing that she had her sister’s acute eyesight. But then, she reflected, she didn’t really want to see rubbish on the banks of the Wenning.

“There’ll be hot water soon,” said Izzie. “I can’t wait to get out of this gown. I feel like I’ve spent a lifetime in it.” As she spoke Anne heard the sound of wood being chopped for fires. It was reassuring and calmingly familiar, and she looked forward to mutton for supper and fresh baked bread. Life would return to normal, for a while at least. But deep down, she knew that sooner or later the Stanleys would return.

*

James beckoned his brother forward and Robert came towards them with a frown, as if he was seeking an explanation for why the Duke of Gloucester was eating breakfast in Hornby Castle whilst wearing his armour. Robert made a distracted bow to the duke and glanced from him to his brother with wary brown eyes. He looked cold and wet and very tired, thought James, wondering where his brother had been sheltering during the Stanley siege.

“Your Grace,” said Robert.

“Do you bring news?” asked the duke eagerly.

James watched as his brother reached into his pouch for a damp letter. “The king is gathering an army again. There is talk of Warwick returning with the backing of the French queen.”

The Duke of Gloucester slammed his fist down on the table, making the board leap from its supports. The cups and platters quivered. “I knew there was more to the Stanley withdrawal than a distaste for inclement weather. When did you receive word from the king?”

“A few days past,” admitted Robert.

“My brother could not have brought news any sooner,” pointed out James. The duke nodded, though it was obvious that his thoughts had already moved on.

“I must leave,” he said.

*

Stripped of the wet clothing that had clung coldly to his body, Robert stepped into the tub of water. It was hot. Too hot, and he stood for a moment as feeling flooded back into his lower legs turning them from white to a vivid red. Then he eased himself down, cursing as the hot water touched his nether regions. The servant stepped forward with a bucket of cold, but Robert waved him away. It would cool quickly enough and for now the pain was almost pleasurable as he allowed the fragrant liquid to wash over him and the steam to unclog his blocked nose. He leaned his head back on the hard edge of the tub and stared at the thick oak beams that straddled the roof of his bedchamber. It would have been pleasant to sleep, but his mind was still too busy pondering on the events of the morning.

When he’d climbed the outer steps in search of his brother he had never expected to find him with the Duke of Gloucester. He’d known the young duke since his days at Middleham when he was being educated under the tutelage of the Warwicks. As a squire there, Robert had been given responsibility for overseeing young Diccon’s training in the tiltyard and he’d found the boy a talented horseman though more interested in hunting with hawks than refining his skills in the joust. He also remembered how the boy was often to be found in a quiet corner reading a book or playing chess with anyone who would indulge him. The earl had been apt to mutter worried comments about such sedentary pastimes, but what Diccon had learned from them had not been wasted. He was a tactician and his assurances that he would intercede on their behalf about the inheritance gave Robert hope. He knew the king was fond of his youngest brother and if anyone could persuade him to change his mind then Diccon could.

He shifted in the tub and began to ease the bandage from his leg to inspect his wound. He winced as the cloth stuck to the dried blood, but underneath the cut looked clean and there was no sign of any yellowish seepage. He was gently splashing some water over it when a cold draught at his back alerted him to the opening of the door and a moment later his brother came round the screen. He had changed his clothes and his face was freshly shaven. He carried a flagon and two cups, which he placed on the floor before fetching a stool, sitting down and pouring wine.

“Here,” he said as he handed him a cup. “I managed to keep this back.”

“I would have preferred my betrothed to perform such duties,” remarked Robert as he took it and drank the rich red burgundy that sent heat radiating from his chest outwards to his limbs.

“I will not offer to wash your back then,” replied James, “but I would like to hear your opinion on a matter concerning Anne whilst the women are not around.”

“Indeed? I thought it would have been sieges and rebellions that troubled your thoughts, not our niece.”

“It is all intertwined,” said James as he twisted the cup in his hand. “I have been set to thinking these past few days.”

“On what?” asked Robert, intrigued by his brother’s serious expression and at a loss to guess what he was about to say.

“Gloucester seems interested in Anne,” his brother told him. “After all, they are of much the same age and she is not unattractive.”

“And what of her?”

“She sought out his company at every opportunity. I believe she likes him.”

“But a marriage is out of the question. He is as much as promised…” Robert fell silent as he realised the implication. There would be no match now between Diccon and Warwick’s daughter. “But whilst Stanley is her guardian we have no say in the matter of a husband for her. Or are you guilty of letting your thoughts run ahead of you and thinking that we need to make a match for her when the castle is returned to us?”

“I hope that the young duke can persuade the king to return the castle. But he may argue more forcefully if he has some reward. I will not discourage a friendship between him and Anne.”

Robert looked up from where a swirl of fresh blood from his leg was clouding the water and stared at his brother.

“How far are you prepared to encourage it?” he asked.

His brother stood up and drained his cup in a hasty gulp. “Would it worry you if Stanley were to receive spoiled goods?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.

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