Joan raised a delicate hand, her fingers trembling a little, as she checked the ornate silver pin that held her wimple in place. As she glanced up, she noticed the rooks circling high over the tall trees beyond the courtyard walls, their wings standing out as black ticks against the muted sky. Disturbed from their peaceful roosts, the birds’ shrill cries echoed through the damp autumn air. But it was not the rooks’ raucous chorus that had made Joan leave the comforting warmth of the crackling fire in the hall. Riders had thundered up to her gate, hooves shattering the tranquillity of that dismal afternoon. Their harsh shouts and the horses’ hooves drumming out an urgent beat had disturbed the rooks, causing them to wheel high above their rookery in frantic disarray. The commotion had also brought Joan out from her comfortable fireside seat on a desperate mission.
Fists pounded relentlessly on the sturdy oak door, their urgent knocks reverberating off the granite walls. Determined to maintain her composure, Joan inhaled deeply, relishing the crispness of the cool air as it filled her lungs. She wrinkled her nose, detecting the lingering scent of wood-smoke that clung to the grey slate-roofed buildings like a sombre shroud. With nervous fingers, she checked the smoothness of the linen at her throat again. Satisfied that her headdress was flawlessly arranged, she smoothed the forest-green fabric of her elegant gown. Her legs felt weak and wobbly, yet still she managed to move with grace, her slippered feet barely making a whisper against the rough cobblestones as she crossed the courtyard.
Summoning all her courage, Joan painted a bright smile onto her lips, hoping it would hide the fear that threatened to consume her. With a nod, she signalled to her steward, who dutifully pulled back the pin, allowing the door to swing open with a creak. As the foremost rider dismounted from his horse, he tossed the reins to his companion. The man fumbled and missed the catch, and the reins fell to the ground. The metallic jingle of buckles hitting the stones set her teeth on edge.
Joan’s eyes widened as she took in the imposing figure of Sir Henry Trenowth of Bodrugan, a man of formidable size and strength, with wild unkempt hair and a bristling beard. Sir Henry’s face was flushed and mottled with exertion and his bushy brows were drawn into a fierce line. As he loomed over Joan like a menacing demon, each labouring breath he took sounded unnaturally loud, cutting through the tense atmosphere as though he had brought the blade of his sword down between them.
‘Where is he?' he ground the words out between clenched teeth as his arms flailed around.
‘Sir Henry,’ she answered, her voice soft, as she dipped her head lightly and bent a knee in a mocking display of courtly greeting. ‘It has been a long time since you last graced us with your presence. How fares your lady wife?’ Her words dripped with honey, though her smile faltered and faded a little. It was a bold remark, for everyone knew that Bodrugan had conducted an illicit affair with a neighbour’s wife for years, that they had produced a son together, and only married after the unfortunate neighbour died.
Bodrugan’s face contorted with rage, his features twisting as he spat an oath at her. The venom in his voice was so strong that it nearly knocked her back. He bellowed at her once more, demanding, “None of that! I will not be delayed any longer. Where is he?” With a final expletive, he called over his shoulder, “Search the house!”
‘Whoever could you be seeking at such a late hour?’ she asked, her voice trembling slightly, as Bodrugan’s men dismounted and scattered. Two of them pushed her aside, their rough hands grazing her arm, as they headed for the hall and disappeared into the darkness beyond the door. She let out a sigh, her breath catching in her throat, and reluctantly stepped aside. Others poured into the courtyard, while more made their way towards the stables.
Her delaying tactics might prove vital. There was nothing more she could do. Inwardly cursing the day her husband had ridden off to join Henry Stafford, she slowly retraced her steps. She had agreed with him, shared his belief that Richard of Gloucester had seized a throne that did not rightfully belong to him. The rumours of the murder of those two innocent boys haunted her thoughts, filling her with dread. But she had pleaded with her husband to stay, to heed her voice of caution, not to take up arms and follow the Duke of Buckingham. Alas, Richard was never a man to listen to a woman’s counsel. More than twenty years of marriage had taught her that.
Bitter thoughts swirled in Joan’s mind like a raging tempest. Barely ten years since their lands were restored by Edward of York the fragile peace was shattered. The entire country was plunged into chaos once more. She let out an angry hiss, briefly catching the attention of one of the searchers, before he yanked back her fine tapestry hangings with a vicious tug. Like so many noble women Joan was left to pick up the pieces, keep the household and estate going, while Richard joined the rebels.
Her mind ran on. She’d told him it was a fool’s errand. Perhaps Richard of Gloucester’s madness, his snatching the throne from those two innocent boys, might one day give Henry Tudor, the last hope of the Lancastrians, a chance. But not in this season with the rain so heavy all the roads were flooded, bridges washed away. Anyone could have foreseen that. Joan stamped her foot, startling her ten-year-old daughter, who stood white-faced and frozen by the window. It seemed that fool Henry Stafford had taken no account of October storms and foul weather. It should have been obvious to him that Henry Tudor’s ships would be delayed. No wonder the men had got disheartened and drifted away. Joan touched the jewelled cross again and gave up a silent prayer that her dearest husband, her Richard, would not pay the price.
Even as Bodrugan's men ransacked her home in their frenzied search, she made an effort to conceal her fear. "Think of something else, anything else," she told herself, as a bowl crashed to the floor, fragments scatting across the rush-strewn stones. A faint smile appeared on her lips as she recalled catching a glimpse of a youthful King Edward. In his prime he could make any woman's heart flutter. Her smile broadened. Perhaps it was the fleeting embrace and lingering kiss she had shared with Richard in the garden before he ran for cover that caused such foolish thoughts. She chuckled at her own silliness, then briskly shook her shoulders to dismiss such nonsense.
As Joan watched the men scurrying to and fro in the hall, she braced herself for the mess they would inevitably leave behind. Overturned benches and stools, her cherished possessions smashed — a complete violation of her home. But it would keep them occupied. She knew they would not find him there.
Her daughter’s eyes were round as she joined her mother at the hall door. Joan took the girl’s hand and gave it a squeeze. They were still hand in hand when Joan heard a shout that struck terror into her heart. It came from the gardens and signalled real danger for her dear Richard. The jewelled cross dangling from her girdle caught the light from the fire as she crossed the hall, where the acrid smell of smoke all but overpowered the scent of sweet rushes she’d had spread only the day before. With her hand on the cross, she walked past the kitchen to the other door and stood at the step peering out over the neatly kept herb gardens. In the failing light, she could just make out the man with arm raised as he yelled,
‘A sound? Down there. Do you hear it? By the dovecote!’ Shouting men converged on her garden, peered over her garden wall, and Bodrugan marched down the path, brandishing his sword. Joan’s heart lurched, and she gripped the door jamb for support as her knees nearly gave way beneath her.
Richard Edgecumbe could feel the rough and weathered surface of the stone wall pressing coldly against his back. An icy shiver ran down his spine as he glanced up at the flock of birds perched above. Their incessant cooing was grating on his already frazzled nerves and the overpowering stench of pigeon droppings made him scrunch his nose in disgust. Doubts about the wisdom of choosing the dovecote as a hiding place crept into his mind.
Moving with caution, Richard eased his cramped legs from their uncomfortable position, unaware of the loose stone beneath him. As he shifted, the stone slipped away, rolling out from under the ill-fitting door with a soft thud. It bounced and tumbled down the path, crashing into an upturned flower pot beside the nearby pond. A sharp thwack echoed through the stillness.
Time seemed to freeze as Richard’s heart raced in his chest. He could hear boots scrunching on the gravel paths up in the garden and voices raising the alarm. He knew he had no choice but to abandon his hiding spot and make a run for it. Adrenaline surged through his veins, fuelling his every move. Leaping up, he flung himself through the door, with a cloud pigeons squawking and fluttering round his head. The world became a blur as he hurtled down the path, his senses heightened. Every sinew focused on his desperate flight. The slippery mud beneath his feet had him slipping and sliding, but still he ran on.
“There! A red cap. We have him now!” he heard someone yell.
Richard quickly whipped off the telltale cap and, clutching it in his hand, he darted from the path, seeking the dark shelter beneath the twisted oak trees that clothed the steep slope down to the river. His relentless pursuers closed in, crashing through the dense undergrowth. Their staves slashed through the undergrowth, seeking any hiding place he might have found. He pressed on, each step becoming more treacherous. A sharp twig sliced into his cheek, a searing pain that he defiantly brushed aside, even as blood trickled down his chin. The gnarled roots of the ancient trees threatened to trip him up, but he refused to give up. At last he caught sight of the murky waters of the Tamar, a mere few feet below him, offering a fleeting glimmer of hope.
He picked up a stone, feeling its cold weight in his hand and, with a quick motion, he threw it into the bushes about twenty feet away. As the stone fell with a slight thud, the leaves on a small sapling trembled. He strained his ears, hardly daring to hope they were moving away from him, praying that his subterfuge had worked, successfully distracting attention from his hiding place. Suddenly, an idea sparked in Richard’s mind. He gathered more stones and bundled them into his cap. Then, with a flick of his wrist, he hurled the stones, cap and all, as far as he could. The satisfyingly loud splash echoed as the stones hit the water. Richard held his breath and shrank further under the bracken which, at this season, matched the rusty brown shade of his russet tunic perfectly.
“He’s in the water!” a man shouted, his voice urgent and sharp. ‘Look! His red cap is floating there.’ Heavy footfalls shook the ground. Bodrugan had joined the others.
‘We heard the splash, Sir, when he went in. He can’t hold his breath much longer.’
Bodrugan snarled. “I won’t let him escape so easily. I refuse to be denied my prize by the cursed Tamar River. How can we cross to the other bank and catch him?”
‘There’s no need, master,’ came the reply. ‘He’s been under for too long. Edgecumbe has surely drowned. Good riddance, I say.’
‘Wait a little longer,’ Bodrugan growled. ‘We must be certain.’
Those moments seemed an eternity as Richard waited, hanging on a thin thread of hope. Would they really give up? The only sound was the faint rustle of the reeds along the river bank swaying in the light breeze. He prayed they could not hear his breathing.
‘Sir,’ a sharp voice cried, ‘no man could stay under the water so long and still live. He’s a gonner for sure.’
‘So be it,’ Bodrugan announced in ringing tones. ‘Here has died a traitor to King Richard. May he rot in hell. Follow me back to the house. Let’s tell that hoity-toity woman she’s a widow.’
The thought of his valiant Joan weeping over his supposed death nearly unmanned him. It took a supreme effort to hold back the strangled sound that rose in his throat and threatened to give him away. If he reached France, he vowed he’d find a way to send word to her. He waited, crouched motionless in his hiding place until he was sure they had returned to the house. Only when he heard their horses thudding down the track did he dare move his aching limbs a little.