Royal Redemption: Chapter 4

“Edward, Edward.”

The sound of his name caught Edward’s attention and he turned warily to see who was calling him. A tall, dark haired man was striding along the stone passageway. The stranger moved easily despite the heavy chain mail he was wearing and, as he got closer, Edward could see he was smiling. There was something about his appearance which Edward found vaguely familiar and his next words confirmed his identity. “Welcome, Edward. My father told me last night that he’d brought a special guest back to Alnwick and I’ve been waiting for you to wake up and come and join us.”

“Harry?” Edward enquired wonderingly and then hastily corrected himself. “Sir Henry? Sir Henry Percy?”

“Yes, I’m your childhood playmate. I’m Harry Percy and I’m so pleased to see you again. My, how you’ve grown,” he exclaimed as he threw a powerful arm around Edward’s shoulders, “but I see you still have the blonde curls and blue eyes which I remember.”

Edward passed his fingers through his hair in a gesture of irritation. He didn’t care to hear mention of his wayward curls which he always felt were less than manly, and he resolved to get his hair cropped short at the first opportunity. Harry Percy sensed Edward’s withdrawal but he kept a firm hold of the young man’s shoulders and steered him into the steward’s chamber where they could speak in private. But before Harry could utter further words of welcome, Edward enquired abruptly, “Did your father tell you why I’m here?”

“He said the King asked him to bring you back here to Northumberland,” Harry replied calmly.

“Did he tell you what I’d done to deserve being banished to the north?” Edward asked in a challenging tone.

Harry decided to ignore the mention of banishment and the barely repressed anger, recognising that Edward was agitated and ill at ease. “I don’t think my father is aware of the precise reasons why his majesty made the request,” he replied honestly. “He’s just happy to have you here as a guest, and I’m looking forward to renewing our friendship.”

It was so patently obvious that Sir Henry Percy was telling the truth that Edward’s aggression evaporated at once to be replaced by an embarrassed awareness that he hadn’t made a good start with the man he most wanted to impress. He swallowed his pride and tried to make amends. “I didn’t mean to speak impolitely,” he admitted as a faint blush coloured his fair cheeks. “It’s just that I don’t know what’s been said about me. I don’t know what people are thinking.”

“People are thinking that Edward Percy has joined our household. Only my parents and I know your true identity. As for what brought you to Northumberland, that’s all in the past. Perhaps, when you’re settled here, and you feel ready, you’ll want to tell us a bit about what went wrong at court. But for the moment, I just want you to concentrate on your new responsibilities. You’ll be expected to play a full part in the defence of this castle and its lands.”

There was no accusation there, no apportioning of blame for past offences. Harry’s calm and conciliatory response settled Edward’s nerves and he responded gratefully to the assurance of anonymity and the promise of a fresh start. “What do you want of me?” he asked with new hope.

“If you’re ready, I’d like you to join us in the bailey where I’m putting the young knights and squires through their paces. I can get the constable to provide you with mail, sword and shield.”

Edward jumped eagerly to his feet. He enjoyed swordplay and he welcomed the opportunity to demonstrate his competence to Sir Henry Percy. He was still nursing a grievance that his own status as a knight was not being recognised and he hoped to prove that he was worthy to be addressed as Sir Edward. “I’m ready,” he assured Sir Henry. “The sword is my favourite weapon.”

The constable proved maddeningly slow at fitting Edward into a hauberk which protected his body in heavy chain mail from his neck to his knees. A simple bascinet with a hinged visor was placed on his head and he was handed a shield bearing the Percy coat of arms. The constable offered a choice of swords and Edward selected a weapon which felt comfortable in his hand and which he could swing easily with one arm. When he finally emerged from the armoury into the bailey, Sir Henry matched him with one of the squires who was an inch or so shorter but more heavily built than him.

Edward had no doubts about his superior skill and set out to overwhelm his opponent. He was a fearless if unorthodox fighter but he found it difficult to make headway against a man who doggedly employed the standard defensive techniques and refused to yield to Edward’s aggression. Eventually Edward felt his strength begin to wane and he flipped up his visor to improve his vision as the sweat ran into his eyes. He was angered by the dawning realisation that opponents whom he had easily vanquished in the royal tiltyard had probably deferred to his princely status, and he allowed his anger to cloud his judgement.

When his opponent stumbled, Edward seized his chance. He used his shield to push the unbalanced man to the ground and then he released his pent up frustration by kicking him a couple of times in the back. Sir Henry, who had been overseeing the younger squires as they performed their sword drill, had a clear view of all that took place.

As Edward raised his head he saw Sir Henry start to run across the open ground of the bailey and he hastily stepped away from his victim. He did not need to be told that he had just committed a grave breach of the chivalric code. He knew that a courteous knight would have allowed his opponent time to recover before helping him to his feet so they could resume the contest. Only a petulant boy would react by kicking a man he could not best in a fair fight. As Sir Henry drew close to the pair, the anguished expression in Edward’s eyes showed that he fully grasped the gravity of his misconduct.

Sir Henry bent over the squire who was groaning and gasping for breath. He waited until the young man had recovered somewhat and then he helped him to his feet and supported him to the edge of the ground where the constable assisted him out of his heavy hauberk and examined the injury. There was an angry red mark on the squire’s back, just above his kidneys, where Edward’s heavy boot had made contact but there were no broken bones and he was unlikely to be left with anything worse than a large bruise.

Throughout this procedure Edward remained rooted to the spot in the middle of the bailey, knowing that he was facing retribution but uncertain whether he should go and offer an apology or assistance to his opponent. Eventually Sir Henry turned his attention to the miscreant and strode back to speak to him, stopping only to pick up a heavy mace from the pile of weapons which had been in use during the practice session.

“I don’t think you need me to tell you that that was a cowardly and dishonourable attack,” Sir Henry said quietly but in a steely tone which froze Edward to the core. “It’s something that my father will wish to discuss with you personally but while we’re out here you’re under my command and I will not let such disgraceful conduct escape public reckoning. Lay down your arms and take this.” He held out the mace to Edward who placed his sword, shield and helmet on the beaten earth before taking the heavy weapon in his grasp. “Hold it out at arm’s length,” Sir Henry ordered. Edward complied, wondering what was coming next but Henry turned and walked back to rejoin the group of young squires. His casual enquiry as to why they had ceased their drill resulted in a frenzied flurry of activity.

Minutes passed and the weight of the mace seemed to be increasing. Edward lifted his arm higher and locked his shoulder into position but the pain grew in intensity. Sweat ran down his back and soaked the shirt beneath his mail, chilling his body. But it wasn’t the cold that caused the trembling which afflicted his arm; the strain on his muscles was causing them to go into spasm. He gritted his teeth and tried to hold out against the pull of gravity and his increasing exhaustion. Finally, although he feared it was an act of disobedience, he used his free arm to support his elbow and managed to keep the mace held out in front of him although it began to dip closer and closer to the ground.

Sir Henry watched Edward’s struggles out of the corner of his eye, as did most of the men in the bailey. Privately, Henry was impressed with the length of time the young man fought off collapse and finally he decided to call a halt and put an end to his agony. He walked back to Edward, took the mace from his hand and ordered him to return his weapons and mail to the armoury, clean himself up and then report to the earl’s private quarters.

Edward walked back through the throng of knights and squires with his eyes firmly fixed on the ground. He didn’t see his opponent sitting on a bench at the edge of the training ground until he was almost upon him.

“Hey, Edward,” the squire shouted, “Edward Percy.” Edward looked up, uncertain how to respond. “There’s no need to try so hard when you’re punished like that,” the squire advised with a grin. “No one will think the less of you for not holding out. I always make a point of collapsing as soon as I dare!”

Far from showing any ill feeling, the squire was cheerfully offering advice and Edward felt grateful for the kindness. “Thank you… thanks,” he mumbled. “And I’m sorry for…”

“No apology required. You’ve paid the price for your mistake, or I reckon you will have done by the time the day is out. There’s no damage done and I hope we can be friends. I’m Richard Fitzurse.”

“Thank you, Richard. And if we’re going to be friends, please let me offer my apologies for losing my temper and treating you so badly.” Admitting himself at fault did not come easily to Edward and he faltered for a moment before managing to say, “You fought better than me and I should never have stooped to such dishonourable methods in order to get the upper hand.”

“Don’t worry about it. We all make mistakes and you’ve learnt not make them in front of Sir Henry Percy!” Richard added the final comment very softly as he saw Sir Henry approaching them.

Edward hastily moved indoors, knowing he had to return his arms and armour and then find his way back to the small room he’d been allocated in the private, family quarters of the castle. When he finally reached the privacy of his own chamber he stripped off all his clothes and briefly flung himself face down on the bed, letting misery wash over him. However, he didn’t allow himself long to indulge in the rush of emotions which ranged from anger to despair, remembering that Sir Henry would be speaking to the Earl of Northumberland and they would be waiting for him to report as ordered. He got up and washed himself as best he could in the small bowl of cold water which had been delivered to his chamber that morning. Then he dressed in a clean shirt, hose and doublet and made his way along the corridor in search of the earl’s private apartments.

It was clear he’d reached his destination when he found a double door, guarded by two men at arms. Servants were hovering in the passageway, one of whom knocked on the door to announce Edward’s arrival. But the earl and his son weren’t ready for him and he was ordered to remain outside where he could hear the rise and fall of voices but none the conversation which he rightly concluded was about him.

“I really didn’t think anything could go wrong when I matched him against Richard Fitzurse,” Harry was saying regretfully. “Richard is such a solid, dependable swordsman. It was the perfect opportunity for Edward to demonstrate his skills.”

“Did he perform poorly?” the earl asked.

“Far from it! He’s a brave and resourceful fighter but he takes dangerous risks, risks I would never expect from a man trained for knighthood.”

“So what went wrong?”

“He lost his temper when he couldn’t break through Richard’s defence. When Richard stumbled, he pushed him over and kicked him.” The earl sighed deeply at this disclosure but Harry was quick to reassure his father that the offence was not as bad as it sounded. “It was the impulse of the moment, quickly regretted. He looked so woebegone afterwards, standing alone in the centre of the bailey, I could hardly bring myself to punish him.”

“What penalty did you impose?”

“I made him hold the mace at arm’s length.”

“And we all know how seriously the young men take that,” responded the earl knowingly.

“You misjudge him,” objected Harry, “he was on the verge of collapse when I released him. I’ve never known anyone hold out for so long.”

“I suppose that shows some sign of contrition. How’s Richard Fitzurse? Is he seriously hurt?”

“Richard Fitzurse is built like an ox. He’ll take no permanent harm from a couple of kicks and Edward apologised to him afterwards of his own volition.”

“Well, that’s one small thing in his favour but what are we going to do about his temper? I saw on the journey home how quick he is to rise to provocation. He’s going to have to learn to control his emotions in preparation for his future role and we can’t have him risking his life every time he picks up a sword.”

“Give him to me,” said Harry with conviction. “Let me take him as my squire and I’ll school him in self discipline and train him in the art of war.”

“Harry, he’s a belted knight and heir to the throne; he’s not going to accept such a lowly rank. Anyway, he’s too old to be your squire.”

“There are men older than him waiting to be knighted… but I know we’re very close in age and, of course, we have a history which goes back to childhood. I can see that there are many arguments against it,” Sir Henry conceded. However, his father was, by then, giving the plan further consideration.

“Edward agreed to set aside his rank and title when he accepted that he was coming with me to Northumberland,” the earl said reflectively. “It surprised me how ready he was to abandon his life at court but I’ve since thought that I provided him with an escape route. I’m not quite sure what he was escaping from but I think he may be willing to embrace whatever we propose.”

“So do you think I should take him on as my squire?”

“I’m not sure whether he would agree or even whether it’s the best option but if we’re going to try it we must do it now. It would give rise to too many questions if he were to become your squire later on, whereas no one is aware of his exact status at the moment. It would make perfect sense if we’d invited a distant relative here for training. We don’t need to explain why he’s older than the other squires. In fact, his age would confer a sort of seniority which might bring out the best in him. What do you think?”

“I think we should give it a try. I also think we should get him in here before he dies of apprehension outside. He must be expecting that the worst of his punishment is yet to come.”

“You’re right. Bring him in.”

On entering the chamber, Edward bowed to the earl and stood silently waiting to hear his fate but Northumberland surprised him with a question. “What did you do, Edward, to finish up before me on your first day at Alnwick Castle?”

Edward looked questioningly at Sir Henry. He couldn’t believe that Harry hadn’t reported fully to his father but Harry showed no sign of rescuing him from the shame of having to accuse himself. He rapidly decided to make his recital as short as possible, unwittingly gaining credit for making an honest admission without prevarication or any attempt at self justification. “I pushed over Richard Fitzurse, my lord, and I kicked him. I lost my temper when I couldn’t beat him in a fair fight. When he stumbled I barged him with my shield and I kicked him in the back when he fell to the ground.” Edward paused for breath, having made his confession in one unbroken rush of words. His shoulders slumped as all lingering resistance crumbled and he added quietly, “I’m sorry; I’m so sorry. I did apologise but I know it was a despicable thing to have done. I… I didn’t mean to bring dishonour on the Percy name on my very first day here.”

Northumberland knew what his son meant about finding it hard to punish Edward. There was a vulnerability about him as he stood with downcast eyes and remorseful countenance which roused all the earl’s sympathies but he hardened his heart and spoke severely to his charge. “What sort of example have you set to the younger boys? You deserve a sound whipping for such unchivalrous conduct.” Edward said nothing; he’d expected no less. “The only reason I can find to spare you is that you’ve hardly been here a day. I hope and pray that when you have a better understanding of the standards we expect you’ll be more circumspect in your behaviour.”

Edward raised his head wonderingly. He could hardly believe that the earl was about to show him mercy.

“We have an alternative plan in mind,” said Sir Henry. “This is not intended as punishment. I want you to be very clear about that before I explain.”

“We want to teach you to control your temper and also to be a more effective fighter,” the earl elaborated.

“I find it difficult to believe that your training for knighthood didn’t include more disciplined work in the tiltyard,” Sir Henry observed. “You don’t seem to have mastered the most basic thrust and parry techniques with the sword.”

“I didn’t always attend the sessions when I was in training for knighthood,” Edward admitted, “and… and I haven’t done much practice recently.”

“Then what I’m about to propose will give you a chance to remedy those omissions. I would like you to serve as my squire. The role will give you specific duties and responsibilities in this household and it will give me the opportunity to teach you the self discipline and the military skills you will require in later life.”

“I can’t be your squire,” Edward objected automatically.

“No, you can’t,” Sir Henry agreed calmly. “A knight of the realm and the heir to the throne can never be my squire. But you’re not here in that capacity, Edward. You’re here as a distant relative of the Percy family. You agreed to that subterfuge. Can you bring yourself to accept a further curtailment of your status and privileges?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Yes,” said the earl and his son in unison. Sir Henry deferred at once to his father who said, “I’m not going to punish you any further for today’s misconduct, Edward. I’ve explained my reasoning and I would only ask you not to speak of your free pardon to anyone else. I would like you to give very serious consideration to Harry’s invitation, though. You will not find him a hard task master if you follow his instructions and accept his guidance.”

“But if there are any further incidents like today’s, Edward,” said Sir Henry in a tone which emphasised the seriousness of the caution, “you will not get off so lightly. I give you fair warning that I’ll thrash you with my own hands.”

For some reason which Edward only dimly understood, Sir Henry’s words sent a shiver down his spine. On the one hand the prospect of being whipped by Harry seemed less fearsome than receiving the same punishment from his father but, on the other hand, there was something disturbing about the prospect of being thrashed by his childhood friend who had grown into such an impressive and powerful man.

“I won’t do anything like that again,” Edward hastened to assure the earl and his son. “But please don’t humiliate me in front of the men.”

“It’s no humiliation to serve as my squire,” Harry stated firmly. “In fact, you’ll be the senior in terms of age and I’ll expect you to lead by example. If you do anything deserving of a beating then I give you my word it will always be administered in private, unless you agree otherwise. I can’t promise you privacy for every punishment though. It will undermine discipline if it appears that a member of the Percy family can escape the just consequences of his misconduct.”

“I do understand that,” said Edward.

“I know you do. You accepted without question the penalty I imposed in the bailey and you made no attempt to lessen its effect. That went a long way to atone for your fault. Well done.”

The simple words of praise from Sir Henry made Edward glow with pleasure even as he recognised the incongruity of being applauded for accepting punishment. He realised that, above all, he wanted to please this man who exercised such commanding authority yet carried his inborn authority so lightly.

“I’ll serve as your squire,” Edward said, suddenly making up his mind. “And I’ll try to set a good example to the pages and the other squires.”

“Just do your best and follow my instructions. There’s a lot I can teach you and I want you to enjoy the experience.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Edward, unconsciously setting the seal on his new relationship with Sir Henry. “And thank you, my lord, for sparing me today. I’ll try to prove worthy of your trust.”