Wednesday, October 9, 2013

King Henry V Gives an Ultimatum

A chapter much further along in the same Work in Progress:

All the gaolers had been whispering that Henry would soon leave England for Calais to plot with Emperor Sigismund and John of Burgundy to finish the defeat of the French. Charles could not hear the duke’s name without cursing him for his treachery. The talk of it only frustrated James, locked as they were in the Tower although James had come to prefer it to Windsor. The men-at-arms were always glad to give him a round with the sword. Wrestling was now his favorite though. And when Charles wasn’t cursing the treachery of the Burgundians, he was good company. James had promised him a new verse since it occupied the time to go over each other’s work. He frowned over what he had written:

Bewailing in my chamber, thus alone,         
Despaired of all joy and remedy,       
For-tired of my thought, and woe-begone…           

James tossed down his quill and ink splattered across the page. Where could he go with the verse except more of bewailing his estate? He had had enough of it. Perhaps in the bailey yard he could find someone who would work him until he was too tired to think, too tired to moan that he was a prisoner still—after ten years that had stretched out like a long black tunnel—dark days without end.

He jumped to his feet, took a deep breath and released it. Very well. To the bailey yard. The man-at-arms flinched when James banged open the door. James gave him a curt nod, knowing he would follow. Taking the steps two at a time, James plunged down the winding stairs and out into the smoky sunshine, through the bailey and into the practice yard. He slapped his hands on his hips. “I can beat any man here in a wrestling match” he shouted “Will any of you try to prove me wrong?”

“I can prove you wrong any day, Lord James.” The sergeant, one James had seen wrestling Berolt some time back, sneered. He worked his heavy shoulders as he strode toward James. James unfastened his doublet and tossed it aside. A murmur of anticipation was spreading through the grounds. He swung his arms to get the blood flowing.

The man stopped in the center of the practice yard in a half-crouch, arms cocked, a grin lifting a corner of his mouth. Moving around him in a slow circle, careful to stay beyond his reach, James said, “You ken my name. Wha’ is yours?”

“Adam,” he said, wheeling to keep James in sight. “Not that it matters when I have you pinned. I plan on making you eat dirt, Scot.”

Darting forward, James grabbed for an arm lock. Adam slapped his hands away and went for James’s shoulders. James let him close and Adam had him by the arm, using his hip to throw him to the ground. James grabbed him around the chest and took Adam down with him. They rolled as James used his powerful shoulders to throw Adam off. They jumped to their feet and backed away. “Make me eat dirt?” James jeered. “I’ll feed you horse shite first.”

Adam rushed in and seized James in a bear hug, lifting him off his feet. He squeezed and James thought his ribs would shatter. The man had more strength than any James had ever fought before. Desperately, he put both his hands to the man’s chin and pushed, forcing his head back. Adam grunted, squeezing harder but James straightened his arms, locked his elbows, and broke the hold.

James took a step back and Adam kept coming. He was burly and fiercely strong, but he wasn’t fast. They circled and James considered how to take advantage of the man’s slowness.

James feinted and Adam answered with a dodge. That gave James an instant of opportunity. He stepped in close, grabbed him around the waist, wheeled to behind him, and threw him over his own shoulder to the ground. He spun and jumped down on him to pin him. Then James grinned. “Shall I make you eat shite, Sassenach?” The man was growling and heaving his body but James had him pinned. The ring of guards who had gathered to watch were whistling and calling out for Adam to get up. “Throw him off, Adam. Have at him,” one shouted.

James had to force Adam’s shoulders down to win. Sweat dripped off his head and shoulders. James had his knees on the heavier man’s hips, a hand on each shoulder. Grunting, he put his full weight on his opponent’s pitching shoulders.  Adam slapped a hand on the ground in surrender.

“What is to do here?” a voice bellowed.

James looked up to find King Henry glaring at them, his mouth in a hard line. “Up from there both of you. Now!”

The watching guards had scattered like a flock of geese. James cuffed Adam’s shoulder and rose to his feet. He looked around and found his doublet. As he donned it, the king barked, “You. If you have nothing better to do than fighting our prisoners, I’ll see that your commander mends matters.” At his elbow, Beaufort looked on silently, dressed in flowing red robes of silk and reeking of some flowery perfume while the king’s guard’s looked on open-mouthed.

Adam was backing away, stuttering apologies and excuses as he went. Henry’s scowl at James would have flayed the hide from a boar, had one been there. As it was James laced his doublet and then bowed with a half-smile. “Were you seeking me, Your Grace?”

“God damn you, James. Playing at fighting with guards? You have more important things to think on.” He looked around the practice yard as though expecting some help to appear. “After all these years, have you gained no sense? You forced to hold you under harsh durance from your obstinacy and learn nothing.” 

Beaufort gave the king an unctuous smile and laid a pudgy hand on his sleeve. “I understand your disappointment in Lord James. It gives me no joy to see a nobleman play the ruffian. Yet you must remember your own dignity and the matter you came to discuss with him is serious. It is best discussed privily, do you not think, Your Grace?”

King Henry’s face flooded with color and he shook off his uncle’s hand. He turned on a heel and stormed into the White Tower, down the narrow corridor, and into the chapel, never once bothering to glance if the others followed. He stood for a few minutes seeming to stare at the watery light which filtered through the stained glass windows. When he turned, his expression was mild. “When my father allowed you at his court, I always said you were a fine hand with a harp.”

“His Grace does me too much honor. I dally with both harp and with sword.” James crossed his arms and grinned. “I am trying to convince your Constable of the Tower that we need a tennis court. I believe I would enjoy that as well as I do wrestling.”

“So you are happy enough to remain my prisoner. You will not seek your freedom? Are you truly so craven?”

“No, Your Grace.” James fought to keep the anger out of his voice and failed. “It is you who denies me freedom whether I would seek it or not. Have you forgotten?”

“Denied it?” Henry had the gall to look incensed. He pointed at James. “I deny you nothing. You deny it to yourself. Swear your fealty to me, and you have your freedom. I require nothing more. And count yourself blessed, because I am defeating the French even with Douglas and his followers from Scotland taking their side. Albany is too craven to do so himself, but thousands of the Douglas followers are in France.” Henry stepped closer to glower into James’s face. “I shall defeat them with or without your fealty.”

“The king is all kindness,” Beaufort said. “I have advised his grace against freeing you, but his conscience pricks him that he promised the late king.”

James slowly shook his head. “I cannot. You know I cannot.”

“I do not know that.” King Henry stepped even closer to him and spoke slowly, softly as though to a child. “Think, James. Soon I shall have France in my hands; after I shall not long leave an enemy at my northern border. But I would not lead my armies against a sworn liegeman. It is the only way you can save Scotland. The only way you will free yourself. I weary of waiting for you to see sense.”

To his amazement, James was sure Henry believed what he was saying. “You truly believe that my people would accept an English overlord? That they would nae throw me off if I did such a thing? Because I assure, you they would.”

“The French are coming to accept me, however much they have fought the idea of being ruled by an English king.”

“Have you terrorized them enough that they will in truth? Burning all the way to Agincourt… The slaughter of prisoners…”

A deep red climbed up from Henry’s velvet color until the deep scar on his cheek stood out bone white against his flaming face. “There was no slaughter!” When James just raised an eyebrow, Henry visibly took a deep breath. “You know naught of battle. I could not risk the prisoners rising in the midst of my men.”

James opened his mouth to ask if Henry had forgotten to have his prisoners disarmed that they would be such a danger, for James knew they had been disarmed, but from the look on the king’s face, decided that there was wisdom in silence. He snapped his mouth closed. After a pungent pause, James motioned around them. “Aye, it is true I know more of imprisonment than of battle. But I will not give away my kingdom. Not to any man on this earth.”

“God damn you!” King Henry shouted, the words roaring out of him as though he could no longer contain his ire.  “I am out of patience. Enjoy your imprisonment if you can.”

“So be it, if I must, but I will not kneel to you to give you my fealty.”

Henry’s eyes narrowed and he jabbed a finger at James. “Get out of my sight. Out! Run back to your cell like a craven.”

James turned on his heel. As he marched from the chapel, he could feel Henry’s stare stab his back. As he reached the doors he heard Beaufort say in his sleekit tone, “The Scots will be nothing for you to defeat, Your Grace. Now we must prepare for your departure to Calais.”

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