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The First Princess of Wales

Karen Harper










































  Go, heart, hurt with adversity,

  And let my lover thy wounds see;

  And then say this, as I say thee:

  Farewell my joy, and welcome pain,

  ’Til I see my love again.


  On that rare and jeweled day, the great adventure of her life began. The lush blossoms and tender crops of fertile Kent gilded the May morning breeze with their mingled aromas, and nightingale songs floated from the nearby forest depths unutterably sweet. Her beloved home, the large, stone-walled house known in the English shire of Kent as Liddell Manor, reflected its gray stones and windows, beams, and brick chimneys in the encircling moat, but beyond the gardens and orchards, the great Kent Road to London beckoned eternally outward. At first in early dawn it seemed no one stirred, but soon enough the slender, blond girl knew, they would all be upon her: then she would go away to whatever lay out there and this gentle haven of peace and freedom would be hers no more.

  It was not that she was afraid, she told herself determinedly as she stood barefooted at the window in a favorite short linen chemise she had long ago outgrown but still stubbornly slept in no matter how her maid railed at her about it. Joan of Kent, as the shire folk called her, had never been afraid of anything—not yet, at least. Besides, since she was granddaughter to the past King Edward I of all England, she had always known deep inside she should never be meek or afraid of anything, even if she were a woman. There had not been one thing yet, in all of her life here at Liddell, she had wanted to possess or to do that she had not had or done. That is, not until a fortnight ago when her eldest brother Edmund, lord of Liddell Manor ever since their father had died so long ago, had come riding home from king’s service and told her she was leaving Liddell to be reared at court with the king’s family.

  Though the sun did not touch her recessed window yet, she pushed the casement open farther and leaned out on her elbows. Her flat stomach scraped a bit on the thick stone ledge and her bare feet swung free of the thin braided carpet on the floor of her little chamber, but this position gave her the full view of the fish pond and walled herb gardens below as she wanted.

  Aye, the servants had just finished gathering breakfast from the well-stocked fish pond, and speckled bream or spike-nosed pike would soon enough fill the bellies of the travelers before they all set out for London.

  “Poor silly fish,” Joan murmured aloud as she wriggled back inside and her feet touched the floor. “Saints, you do not have one bit more say in where you are headed than I do! It is out of a quiet pool and into a seething pot for all of us, I warrant.”

  The scolding voice behind her was crisp and shrill, but so familiar in its rich Scottish burr that Joan did not even flinch. “Lady Joan! My own dear lassie, skittering about barelegged and mutterin’ rebellions. Aye, I caught yer tone and know yer wayward heart about this honor that’s befallen ye!”

  Joan just rolled her eyes at the wiry, lively old woman, Marta, who had been so many things to her for as long as she could remember—nursemaid, companion, taleteller, playfriend, almost a mother even, since her own lady mother so seldom came out of her room. Joan gave her luxuriant, nearly hip-length hair a wild toss off her shoulder with one hand and shot Marta a sweet and tolerant smile as she sat down hard on the edge of her plump feather bed.

  “Now, do not scold, Marta, please. It is our last day here together—my last day—and I could not sleep.”

  “Stuff and nonsense, lambie. Ye ha’ slept like a soldier fresh out a battle sin’ ye were a wee lass. The lord be right, ye know. A young woman grown and ye such a beauty to still be here in this moated hermitage hidden out in the great Weald a green England—well. Lord willin’, there be blessings and love out there at th’ great royal court just yers fer th’ askin’. My lambie, she’ll have the whole royal court in whirls afore she be done there, this Marta knows for a truth!”

  The warm smile faded from Joan’s pouting lips as her eyes locked with Marta’s. The old woman’s taut-skinned face must have once been beautiful and she must have known firsthand about things like love and the ways of the high folk of the realm during the years she had been with Mother, of course, Joan reasoned. Marta had served Mother in Scotland at the time of her first marriage to the clan lord John Comyn and had stayed faithfully with her when he died, even during her lofty second marriage to Edmund, Earl of Kent, brother of King Edward II, the uncle of the present Plantagenet sovereign Edward III to whose court she was now banished.

  A pox on it all, Joan cursed silently, and her high, clear forehead furrowed over her lavender eyes. People usually said banished from court, but she considered it exile to be sent to that far-off place! What if Queen Philippa were not pleased with her? What if they thought it improper that she loved to play her lute and sing? What if they expected her to sit and embroider all day when she wanted to be out free in the woods or gardens somewhere!

  Marta’s slender fingers touched her shoulder and Joan saw all the scolding was gone from the sharp eyes. “Lassie, Marta be missin’ ye like her own wee bairn, but the time ha’ come for ye. Yer blood be rich with that a kings, th’ same blood and as good as that a the king’s own children, and yer life is ready for a good turn a Lady Fortune’s wheel. An’ some fine, young lad will be lost forever when he sees th’ bonny sort a maid an old Scot woman can rear in the green woods a Kent.”

  Joan’s bare arms darted around Marta’s thin body to give her a quick hug and then she pulled back. She had no intention of crying, not today, maybe not ever. Marta stroked the wayward blond locks where they tumbled in natural curls across the girl’s shoulders and then the tender moment was gone.

  “I have no intention of wedding for years and years yet, Marta. And fine lads bore me, though I would not mind some marvelous knight to be in love with me if I did not have to love him back—and if he would not be such a stern lord and master to me as Edmund is to his lady wife, Anne, now he is home.”

  Marta flipped a corner of coverlet over Joan’s bare knees before she perched on the edge of the bed and began to comb out the night’s snarls from her tresses. “I truly doan’ think ye’ll be seein’ too many knights who’d wed wi’ a lady to give her free rein like some willful palfrey, lassie. Mayhap afore ye wed, ye’ll get your way, but Scottish clan lords or king’s knights, they be all a the same cut a cloth, I warrant. Doan’ ye go believin’ all those fancy lover’s songs that Roger Wakeley taught ye—no, nor those clouds-
in-the-sky romances you like to read of King Charlemagne an’ such.”

  “But, some of it must be true as true, Marta, or there would not be so many to sing or read! Edmund says courtly love and chivalry are in high style at court.”

  Marta yanked at a tangle and Joan grimaced. “Style an’ love. By the rood, it be just a game they play and doan’ ye forget it. A wise marriage, a landed lord to gi’ ye sons, that be what ye need. Ye keep your mind straight on that, my lass, and I doan’ want to hear sometime that my Lady Joan I reared from a wee bairn been swept off her two solid feet by some Lancelot ye’re always prattlin’ about!”

  “Saints, Marta. It is not prattling. I just think all that heartache over love in those Camelot romances is immensely amusing, and besides, I love to set it to my lute and sing it. Do not fear I shall ever be all fond and silly like Guinevere to moan and pine for a knight I cannot have. I shall be well enough content to marry—in several years after I have had my fun—and if my lord agrees to my freedom.”

  Joan whirled her back to Marta so the woman could begin the task of plaiting her hair into two long braids to be coiled over each ear. Edmund said it was more in style to gather the hair in two huge netted cauls without braids, but her hair was so bountiful it would all bounce loose after one jog in the saddle and what would watchdog Edmund say then?

  Marta bit back her tart reply at Joan’s last flippant words. Aye, Edmund, Earl of Kent was right, much as it hurt Marta to admit it. The lass had been badly spoiled, allowed mayhap to run the grounds too freely since he was off to king’s service and Joan’s other older brother was being reared in the powerful Lord Salisbury’s household far to the north. Only in the last year had Edmund married the Lady Anne and settled her at Liddell Manor, but Joan paid scant heed to Anne’s meek pronouncement of proper demeanor for a lady.

  And, then there was the dark shadow of Joan’s mother, the long-widowed Lady Margaret. The tragic loss of two husbands had taken a grim toll on the once lovely, laughing, and strong-willed woman Marta remembered so vividly from her wedding day to the great Scottish Lord John Comyn whose family had always been full loyal to England in the terrible war between the last English king and the Scottish king, Robert the Bruce. The uniting of Margaret, English daughter of Lord Wake, to the Comyn clan was one political marriage that had been happy, and Marta fervently prayed at night on her bony knees that her Joan might have the same good fortune. Even when Lord Comyn died, the newly somber Margaret had found happiness a second time and it was only at her second husband’s disgraceful and tragic death that the Lady Margaret had broken.

  Marta surveyed her handiwork, the two huge coils of wheat-colored hair she had arranged at the sides of Joan’s head. The old woman smiled fondly and her eyes misted. Surely, despite the polish and sophistication the lass lacked, here was a Plantagenet beauty indeed, one to rival King Edward’s own fair daughters. It would be years before Joan’s rose-and-cream skin would need any touch of court cosmetics like pomades or lead paste, or the eye colors Marta had heard Edmund speak of to his wife Anne. Joan was fair of skin, with glowing cheeks and the full pouting lips men found desirable no matter what feminine look was supposed to be in style. Joan’s head was a lovely oval shape, her cheekbones high, her brows beautifully arched with no need for plucking; her nose was straight and elegant with a slightly pert turn at the end, her lashes darkly fringed for such a fair blonde; and her eyes, the most haunting color of spring violets or of highland heather, seemed to darken when she was angered, which was a bit too often this last month since her lord brother had made clear his plans for her.

  And the lass’s body showed every promise of lush temptation that would attract many a man, Marta thought, as Joan helped her carefully settle a clean linen chemise, wool kirtle, and squirrel-lined surcote over her newly coiffed head. The kirtle, dark blue for riding, was made of perse, a fine light wool suited to this early May day named for the Feasts of St. Philip and St. James in the year of 1344. The kirtle was long-sleeved to ward off road dust; it buttoned from elbow to wrist with tiny, metal studs forged in the shape of rosebuds. As was the current Plantagenet style, the gown draped itself closely to Joan’s slender form, accentuating the swell of her high, firm breasts. The oval collar was scalloped and embroidered with tendrils of entwined ivy leaves much like those which covered the outer walls of Liddell Manor and graced the family coat of arms, behind a white, antlered hart.

  Low on Joan’s waist, Marta helped her settle a narrow leather belt tooled in intricate designs and studded with metal ivy leaves. From the belt hung a lady’s dagger. The lass was tall for a maid, long-waisted and leggy, and she wore the four new kirtles and surcotes Edmund had ordered for her well, Marta thought proudly. The sorts of garments Joan had been pleased to romp around the grounds in these last fourteen years, like this sort of chemise she insisted on sleeping in—well, all of that was over now, too.

  “Marta, what are you doing with my sleeping chemise? Give it to me.”

  “Foolish lass. Sit ye carefully on the bench an’ we’ll get on yer new riding boots.”

  “I will put the boots on. I will not have you kneeling on this floor, but give me my chemise, Marta!”

  Joan made a grab for it, and the material ripped at the hem as she pulled it from the woman’s grasp. “I am taking it, Marta! Oh, now look at it, and I hate to mend. Saints, just go finish the packing, and I shall put this in last. Dear brother Edmund hates for me to be late at midmorning meal and just to think I used to skip it entirely when I had half a notion to!”

  Marta bent over the remaining open wood and leather coffer which would go by packhorse with the traveling party carrying Joan’s worldly goods to court. “’Tis said at great Edward’s court the fashion for bed be naught but bare skin, my lassie, an’ I believe Lord Edmund told ye that clearly enough the other eve.”

  “I care not. This is what I sleep in. It is comfortable and warmer. There will probably be dreadful drafts in Windsor Castle or Westminster or Sheen or wherever they all live. I know I shan’t have my own room and bed anymore—Edmund says three or four queen’s ladies to one room—but I do not care a whit. I shall set my own styles, you will see, Marta.”

  Marta kept her eyes on her packing and her mouth shut as she heard Joan flop down on the bench at the end of her bed and struggle with her stiff new boots of imported Spanish leather. Aye, Edmund has spent a pretty penny on the new wardrobe for the lass; yet all his preaching, his veiled threats even, had not put a halt to the maid’s willfulness. And if she ever caught wind of the scandal surrounding her father’s death and the part the king and queen and even the handsome Edward, their beloved Prince of Wales, had played in it, there would be Satan’s fee to pay then, and sure of it! If Joan of Kent, young though she be, were head of this family rather than her two elder brothers, the restful white hart on the family crest might well be a white, raging whirlwind.

  Marta finished the packing and followed Joan downstairs, careful to carry the child’s cloak which would cover her surcote if it were rainy or chill on the way to London. The trip today would be short, commencing at late morn, Marta reflected, since they would only go as far as the great abbey at Rochester, seat of the shire, before sunset. With the nervous, reclusive Lady Margaret carried in a special covered litter Edmund had had built by carpenters here at Liddell, traveling farther in one day would be foolhardy.

  Much to Marta’s chagrin, she did not see Joan in the great hall where the meal was nearly spread. Glenda, who was watchmaid and servant to the Lady Margaret, had arranged a small wooden tray to take upstairs to her seclusive ward, and Morcar, the family’s soothsayer, stood near a window apparently gazing out at nothing in particular. Marta’s quick eyes scanned the large, lofty room again. No Joan. At least, praise St. Andrew, the lord and his seven retainers, who would guide the party to London and beyond to Windsor, were not down yet to slap their riding gloves impatiently on their palms or click their spurs or frown when they saw neither of the two ladies they would
escort were ready.

  Joan’s brown traveling cape still over her arm, Marta hurried to the thin, old man who had been Joan’s dead father’s astrologer before Lord Edmund was caught in the dreadful mire of political upheaval that led to his bloody death. The practical Marta always thought that long white hair, pale skin, ice-blue eyes, and a slightly bowed back made Morcar appear to know much more than he could possibly foresee even with his charts and maps and stars.

  “Morcar, ha’ ye seen th’ Lady Joan? She came down but a moment ahead a me.”

  The old man did not turn his head, but only lifted one blue-veined hand to the high window ledge. “Down in the walled gardens. Walking, Marta, just holding her lute.”

  Marta made a cluck-cluck with her tongue and whirled to move away. But Morcar’s other hand darted out to stay her as his pale blue eyes held Marta’s troubled brown ones.

  “Losing your chick is hard, I know, but leave her be. She needs some calm before the storm.”

  “What she needs, sir stargazer, be a firm hand to get her in here at her place—without her lute—so that her brother an’ his comrades will not be out a sorts when he comes down all champin’ at th’ bit to be off and neither Joan nor her lady mother are about the hall.”

  “The Lady Margaret will be out only at the last minute, Glenda says, and we must hope there will be no pitiful scene. All those long years in that room—ah, she is a mere ghost of the lady we all remember. She is eaten by thoughts of revenge still, though she drifts in a fantasy world of her own making sometimes. This desire to take the vows of the Poor Clares of St. Francis and live cloistered in London for her last years—I pray it is for the best.”

  “But ye read th’ stars, Morcar,” Marta could not resist the gibe. “Can ye not truly read whether or not it be for th’ best?”

  He looked away, back out the window, and a wan smile lifted his thin lips and the white mustache that covered his mouth. “Ah, aye, of course. And that is my own special agony. It has been and will yet be.”