Chapter Two: Nowhere Left to Run.
First it was on, then it was off again. Parliament dragged its heels; unable to decide whether war with the French would be a good idea after all. But the people couldn't get enough. They swung it, and Parliament finally agreed to raise the money to fund King Henry's campaign. They came, and they conquered. France fell at their feet like a house of cards built on a foundation of sand. But the battles were only half of the story. What happened in between the battles was worse. Villages laid to waste, innocent by-standers cut down where they stood, and fields of burning crops stretched as far as the eye could see. The people of France heard the English approach long before they saw them.
At the centre of it all stood King Henry V. Aloof, introverted, and strangely disconnected from all that was happening around him. Owen watched his King carefully. He never seemed to celebrate. All he ever seemed to do was focus on the next battle; the next town to take and claim as his own. He crushed the opposition as easily, and as indifferently, as one would normally crush a spider. Ruthlessly, and pitilessly. Henry did not take part in the looting and pillaging, but nor did he try to stop it, either. Only when he saw a pregnant woman cut down in front of him did he rein in his troops and start to hang the more excessive troublemakers.
Owen was just a Squire. There was nothing he could have done to stop it, and as he watched from the top of his destier, he couldn't help but remember the day the English army arrived in his childhood home. He had been where the French children were now, and he recognised, even after so many years, the bewilderment and terror in their eyes. But Owen was only human, too. He had helped himself to the stolen wine, bread, and victuals. It was either that, or starve, because the looting was their pay.
Town after town, from one city to the next, they plundered, rioted and pillaged their way across the whole country; a trail of utter devastation left in their wake. Then came Agincourt. They had fought many battles before Agincourt. But this was to be their first real test. They were outnumbered, but their reputation went before them and terrified the French before they even reached the field. They had been doing this for two years, after all. But for Owen, it was a different kind of test. He was fifteen, now. A man. His job was to hold his own on the battlefield, instead of following a superior around like a lost dog. He would be fighting for the first time, on his own.
The morning of the battle, late in October, was bitterly cold. But Owen shivered with nerves as much as the biting frost. All around him was a sea of fluttering standards, restive horses stamping their hoofs in the frost bitten ground, and men quivering for the battle cry. A few hundred yards in front, and the French lines had already formed up. A cry rent the air, and Owen was suddenly catapulted into the mêlée. His sword was drawn, and all those years spent practising in the yards of the Palace paid off.
It was all over in what felt like moments. Between the battle cry, and the last clash of the swords; over in the blink of an eye. Somewhere, Owen had lost his horse, and had charged into the fray on foot. His armour was pierced, and he had an arrow graze to the neck. Just an inch closer and he would have been dead, but in the heat of the battle he hadn't even noticed. Dazed; he looked out across the field of Agincourt, now red with the blood of the French army. The dead were in the thousands, and the air filled with the cries of the mortally wounded. Numbers seemed to mean nothing to Henry. It seemed to Owen that for every dead Englishman, there were a hundred dead French; despite them vastly out-numbering the English.
As ever, at the centre of the field stood King Henry. That same expression on his face. Impervious, indifferent. Just another victory on the road to complete subordination and ultimate domination of someone else's country. He thought that Henry was about kneel down in prayer; to offer thanks to God. But he turned his steely gaze on Owen, instead.
"You excelled yourself on the field," he said.
Owen glanced over his shoulder, wondering if he was in fact talking to someone else.
"Yes, I'm talking to you, Valley Boy."
Owen ignored the derogatory name. "I did?" he dumbly asked. He honestly couldn't remember a thing.
Henry smiled. The second time in two years. Owen was honoured. "Thank you, Your Grace," he replied, trying to stay humble. "But, I seem to have been negligent enough to lose my horse."
Henry's gaze darted about the battlefield, as though looking for something. A few moments later, and he once again came to rest on Owen. "Pity," he said. "But the walk the rest of the way to Paris will do you good."
Owen had to stop himself from cursing out loud. Henry hated foul language. Rape, pillage, and murder he could cope with. But bad language was a flogging offence. He cast his gaze downwards to hide his dinted pride. "Thank you, Your Grace."
"I'm sure the Knighthood will make the march a little easier for you, though."
No, it wouldn't. A new horse would make it easier. But Owen still flushed with the honour of it, and dropped to one knee in the churned up mud. "Your Grace, thank you."
Understanding himself to be dismissed, Owen turned and trudged away to look for something to do that didn't involve hordes of victorious Englishmen rampaging through the nearest towns and cities. He was out of luck once again. They stretched out as far as the eye could see. Not for the first time since leaving England, he thought of home, and to distract himself he went to find a loose French horse to claim as his own.
When opportunity knocked, Catherine d'Valois made sure that she was the first to answer the door. It was the last thing she had expected, because as the neglected tenth child of a King who suffered periodic bouts of insanity, her prospects had always been in doubt. When the English, led by King Henry V, landed on the shores of her homeland, things looked even more bleak. She, as well as the rest of her family, were being run out of their own country. Normandy fell first. Rouen, Aquitaine, and Harfleur all swiftly followed. Then Agincourt happened. Five years ago, her father's army had been annihilated in a matter of hours, and the now the English army were closing in on Paris.
Boxed into a corner, and finally back in his right senses, Catherine's father, King Charles VI, had finally realised he had nowhere left to run. A Treaty had been signed. Charles named the English King as his heir, and had promised one of his daughters hand in marriage to the same King Henry. That was when Catherine stepped in. She loved her father; God knew how much she loved him. But his attacks of lunacy were becoming more frequent. They were impoverished to the point where a wealthy uncle had had to buy her a new gown and some new jewels in which to be presented to her future husband, and everything was in ruins. Marriage to King Henry would bring her stability, income, and independence. The benefits to France were an added bonus.
Eventually, she emerged from the Convent which had been her home, and took the arm of an English Gentleman by the name of John Somerset, and let him lead her to the Cathedral where she was be wed. As they sat in the carriage, Catherine in her second hand gown and jewels bought by someone not her father, seized the chance to speak with someone sane.
"What is your King really like, Master Somerset?" she asked, not realising that his name was actually John Beaufort, and that Somerset was only his Dukedom. He was too polite to correct her. "If I do not please him, will he run me through like he does everyone else?"
The Duke turned to her, just a flicker of concern chasing across his face. "Your Grace," he said, "I don't know what you have heard, but I assure you my King will treat you with every courtesy."
"I have heard about his little slaughters across France," she answered. "His reputation is ..." her words trailed off. She feared this marriage as much as she needed it.
John placed a hand on her arm, squeezing gently to offer what reassurance he could. "Your Grace, please," he softly said. "Do not judge him until you have met him. He is a warrior, as all Kings should be. But as a husband, he will be a different person."
Catherine raised a wan smile, and turned to face the front; watching as Troyes Cathedral appeared in the distance. The English royal standard was hung on the walls outside, and four large, snow white, palfrey horses draped in cloth of gold and silver were stationed outside. They were most beautiful creatures she had ever seen. The cloth they were draped in was worth more than her entire wardrobe put together.
"Are they his?" she asked hopefully. If he was her husband, he would be duty bound to let her have a go at riding them; something she longed for after years spent cloistered in a Convent.
Beaufort laughed. "His?" he guffawed. "He's not a girl! They are yours, Your Grace. Part of your wedding gift."
For a moment, Catherine forgot herself and let her jaw drop. "For me," she repeated. No one had bothered to buy her gifts since the day she was born. Even her jewels had to be returned once she was married. Perhaps, she thought, the English King wasn't such a monster after all.
Despite the warmth of summer, it was cold as the grave inside Troyes Cathedral. Owen found himself shivering inside his new doublet, bought especially for King Henry's wedding. In the five years since Agincourt, he had been promoted further to an esquire of the King's body. His elder brother, Gwyllim, had written to him soon after his promotion: "does that mean you wipe the King's arse, now?" he had asked, sounding scandalised. Owen wasn't quite that close to the King, but he was the one responsible for fixing his outfit for the wedding.
It was a job he had thrown himself into with gusto, because if the wedding came off, then they would finally have peace. No more fighting, no more battles, and no more wholesale massacres. He could return to England and live out his days in the service of the King; building up a portfolio of property, earn some money and find a wife. He was twenty years old; a man in his own rights. But for most of his life, he had been fighting in France. With the grace of God Almighty, his fighting days were finally over.
Seeing as he wasn't spending his own money, he ensured that everyone had the best, or most expensive, of everything. Every silk sash, doublet, and hose was colour co-ordinated, according to the décor and wild summer flowers that the new Queen's people had selected. No small detail had escaped his eye, and the English were resplendent, even if he said so himself. It was quite an achievement, especially for a man more used to dragging any old sackcloth over his head to use as a jerkin.
"Owen, you have surpassed yourself," the King said as he appraised his people. "I never knew you had such an eye for fashion."
Owen flushed. "I don't, Your Grace," he replied modestly. "Just keen to make a good impression upon Queen Catherine." And spend a lot of someone else's money, he silently added.
He said no more about it as he bowed out of the King's presence to take his place in the Cathedral. The guests were filing in already, from both the English and French sides. The Bishop was in place, and all they needed was the bride. At midday, she arrived on the arm of the Duke of Somerset.
Owen turned in his seat to get his first look at his new Queen. She was tall, for a woman, and about the same age as himself. Her hair was honey blonde, and her skin alabaster. Her eyes glittered blue in the light that spilled in through the stained glass windows. She was beautiful, and he thought King Henry the luckiest man alive.
King Henry also thought himself the luckiest man alive. He had even told his new bride that. But Catherine's nerves persisted. There was so much she wanted to ask him; so much she wanted to know. Are you really a monster? Do you really eat babies for breakfast? But he didn't look the type. All through the wedding feast he had fed her from his own fork, delicate little bites of everything, like an amorous lover in a romantic novel. Even with people looking, he had trailed kisses down her throat. He made her feel like the only woman in the world. Fully prepared for a diplomatic wedding that would bring peace to France and freedom to her, Catherine felt herself warming to her country's conqueror.
The day wound to a close, and a local gentlemen had given up his home to the newly weds while they waited for the ship back to England. Catherine hadn't even thought of her new home. She hadn't been able to think past her first meeting with her new husband. But, as the bedroom door was closed behind them, it occurred to her that she was now a Queen. Her heart beat skipped with a different kind of nervousness she never knew existed.
Henry was followed in by a soft-footed Groom who helped him to undress. He spoke with an accent that she couldn't understand, but found endearing.
"You may leave us now, Owen," said Henry, once his doublet was off.
The man withdrew from the chamber, and they were alone. He pulled off his shirt while she stood by the far wall, unsure of what she should do. No one had ever spoken to her about her wedding night; certainly not the Nuns at the Convent where she had been sent to protect her from the intrigues of her own mother. She found herself watching him strip as though it were some new animal behaviour she was observing.
He paused, topless and with his breeches unlaced and tantalisingly low over his hips, and looked across the room at her and raised an amused, crooked smile.
"Catherine," he said, narrowing his eyes to squint through the poor light. "Cate, are you all right?"
She had heard that he had been rather wild in his youth, and had suddenly sobered only when he became King. He had found God, and started burning Lollard heretics with aplomb. Looking at him now, she could not tell if there was any truth to any of the horror stories she had heard.
She gave herself a mental shake down. "Yes, Your Grace," she replied, and dipped a clumsy curtsey.
Henry moved closer to her. "You really don't have to do that here, you know," he gently informed her. "Look, why don't you let me help you?"
Catherine, like the rest of France, offered him no resistance as he unlaced her gown and kissed her deeply. Her skirts slid down her legs, leaving her naked. He gave a small tug at the pin holding her hair in place, and the whole lot tumbled down, falling to her waist, and they parted so he could look at her.
"You can stop me if I hurt you," he said as he lifted her up; carrying her to the bed.
She shivered in response.
"I'll be gentle," he promised.
Even as she lay back against the mattress, all she could think was of how slender he was. His body was as taught as a bow string, and she yearned to touch him, to feel the sensation of his skin on hers. But she didn't dare give voice to the thoughts in her head. He closed his eyes as he lay on top of her, and kissed her lips, and her chin; trailing all the way down her throat to her belly. She had never imagined this moment; her life did not permit such frivolity. But now that it was here, she found herself resisting the urge to claw at him, and to force him into her like a common whore. With great maidenly restraint, she turned her face away, and shut her eyes. That was what Ladies did.
She relished the sensation of his hands wandering further up her thighs, but when he entered her, the sharp pain made her gasp. He stopped immediately.
"Are you all right, Cate?" he asked, genuinely concerned.
She looked back at him, relieved and surprised in equal measure at the tenderness in his eyes.
"Beautiful," she breathed, clasping him close. "Everything is beautiful."