One thousand candles lit the great hall of Middleham Castle for the King was in residence and shadows had no place in his court.
Servants stumbled over each other in their haste to bring heavy trays of food to the thick wood tables. Nobles from England, Wales, and even Scotland gathered ‘round those tables and they could not want for so much as a morsel of venison or a joint of goose. The wine flowed ceaselessly and the rich aroma of fresh-baked pies and thick stews competed with the smoke from the great fireplace and the sweat of men who had ridden hard hours to break bread with their sovereign.
At the head table, King Richard III's closest advisors and most powerful allies jested with each other and drank to his health.
Richard surveyed the assembly with pleasure. A well run court and a sumptuous feast would do much to assure those gathered that he held the throne securely; that no man, least of all some Welsh bastard who had been in exile for a decade, could challenge him. Still, would that he could be sure of support from the man sitting next to him. The smile on his face quickly faded and Richard turned to the man seated at his right, Edmund, Earl of Brackley.
"Know you not that I reward my supporters well?" the king asked, his voice tight. He sought the earl’s unqualified pledge of support should the Earl of Richmond, Henry Tudor, try to take his throne.
Brackley laid down the bone upon which he had been gnawing, but did not bother to wipe the grease from his florid face or thick hands. Stout as well as heavily muscled, the earl’s dark, hooded eyes peered from a harshly sculpted face. The earl was once handsome, but cruelty was stamped in his features, leaving them coarse and unappealing. That and the mutton grease glowing wetly on his chin contrived to squelch any comeliness the earl might have had. "What need have you to reward me?"
Richard's right hand fumbled with the hilt of his jeweled dagger, sliding it halfway out of its sheath before shoving it back in its golden casing. Deliberately, he grasped his right hand with his left under the table to still its nervous movements. "That hell-spawned Richmond will surely try to invade England again and I would have your pledge of troops to crush him. It is but what you owe me as my vassal."
Wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, Brackley leaned forward and grasped his goblet, taking a deep draught before turning back to Richard. "Of course it is. But my men wish to be home, working their fields. It will take much to pull them from their families. Should I manage to persuade them, how would I be compensated?"
Richard knew Brackley employed a force of mercenary troops who had never touched a plow, but he was not in a position to argue. He had received word just this day of another defection from one of his marsh lords to the west. He thought frantically for a title or property he could bequeath the earl, but his resources were heavily tapped, having given away many crown lands to ensure the cooperation of other powerful lords. He tugged on the high velvet collar of his fitted cotehardie and smoothed the fur lining of his cloak--for all outward appearances, a calm, powerful sovereign.
"Tis said you are seeking a young wealthy wife as your last was a sickly woman."
Brackley laughed heartily, holding his goblet out to be refilled by a passing serving maid. "Nay, she lasted barely two years and her fortune even less. But I've seen naught at this gathering to catch my eye. A wealthy wife is important, but that she be comely is just as important."
And strong, thought Richard, considering the rumors he'd heard of the earl's physical abuse of his two past wives, both of whom died a few short years after wedding the man.
Glancing back at the earl, Richard saw the man’s goblet pause halfway to his mouth as he stared across the great hall. Turning, Richard spotted Elena de Vignon, one of his ladies-in-waiting standing at the top of the staircase leading into the hall. She was a beautiful and amusing woman and Richard had decided to keep her with his retinue after his wife had died some months back. She had a sharp wit, which she cleverly hid behind her comely face and delightful figure. She now served his niece, the Princess Elizabeth, who was visiting Middleham.
"Now she might be enough to keep a man loyal to Satan himself," Brackley murmured.
Richard quickly calculated the benefits of offering Elena to Brackley. She was one of his favorite court ladies and he had been prepared this very night to betroth her to Lord Edgeford, a handsome young fop who would inherit a fortune as soon as his sickly father passed away. Richard knew that the girl had been eyeing the young nobleman for months, carefully enticing him. Richard was amused and slightly impressed with the determination and shrewdness with which she pursued the insipid lordling.