Right of Conquest – Ashe Barker

“So, how are we faring?” Edmund de Whytte, Duke of Whitleigh and the eighth to bear that title, though his claim to it now teetered in the balance, eyed his sister narrowly. “How much longer can we hold out?” “As long as we must,” came the brusque response. Frances drew in a sharp breath and fought to moderate her snappish tone. It was hardly Edmund’s fault that the House of York had fallen at Bosworth two months previously, and now all of England bent under the vile yoke of Tudor rule. Neither was it her brother’s fault that the wounds he had sustained on the battlefield in support of the rightful king had been superficial at best, certainly not severe enough to prevent him fleeing back here in the wake of the Yorkist defeat, to seek sanctuary in his family home. Not his fault, even, that he had been pursued halfway across England by none other than their old enemy Richard Parnell, the Earl of Romsey. One of Henry Tudor’s most loyal, not to mention most battle-hardened generals, Richard Parnell, only the second earl to bear his family’s crest, had been richly rewarded for his service on the battlefield. He now claimed the title of Duke of Whitleigh by right of conquest and royal decree, along with all that went with it. The title had been handed down through eight unbroken generations of the De Whytte family and should, by rights, pass to at least as many more. Even now, weeks after having read the royal declaration that the de Whyttes were disinherited and stripped of their titles and ancestral home, Frances refused to accept it. That upstart Henry Tudor possessed no such authority, or at least, no authority that Lady Frances de Whytte was prepared to recognise. Castle Whitleigh was hers. Theirs, she corrected herself. That whoreson of an earl could huff and puff at their gates for as long as he chose to waste his time there. He would never take her home from her.

She would die before she let that happen. Edmund rose from the chair beside the cold, fireless hearth in the solar reserved for use by the family. It had been days since the last of their firewood was burned, and short of chopping up the furniture, they would have to manage without warmth. Frances chose to ignore the fact that it was only October. The season would become much chillier before long. She stiffened when her brother, older than she was by five years, laid his hand on her shoulder. “Frankie,” he murmured. “How long? Truly?” She knew well enough that he referred to their reserves of food. Frances was just back from inspecting the pantry with Mrs Lark, their cook. It had not been a pleasant or encouraging experience.

Apart from a handful of carrots and perhaps a sack and a half of flour, their larders were empty. They had slaughtered their chickens for meat, and the previous week they had eaten the last of their goats, so as well as having no eggs, no fresh milk was to be had either. And of course, due to the army camped on their doorstep, there was not the slightest prospect of bringing in what might remain of their harvest. Indeed, as far as she could tell, the earl had helped himself to that. Frances had watched in mounting fury as enemy troops lifted potatoes, turnips, and onions from the fields she had personally supervised the planting of and helped themselves to the fruit from her orchard. She ground her teeth at the sight of lines cast into the bountiful waters of the River Tavy, knowing that they would emerge with fat, wriggling trout and succulent chub dangling from them. All of this, while the inhabitants of the castle made do with what scraps remained to them. Soon enough, those, too, would be gone. He means to starve us into submission, the bastard. But that was not the response she offered to her brother.

“We have some vegetables, and grain for bread. And plenty of fresh water…” Provided the earl did not realise that their source was an underground spring which he could easily enough foul if he chose to. Edmund pressed her. “Apart from you and I, there are thirty souls here. Do we have enough food for everyone?” Frances shrugged. “We shall make do. We have no choice.” “But we do.” Edmund moved around to stand right in front of her. “You know what we must do.

What I must do.” “No!” Frances shot to her feet. “You will not give yourself up, not to him.” “Frankie, I—” “No,” she repeated. “He will have you killed. Executed as a traitor.” “We must face the truth, Frankie. We must accept what has happened.” She glared at her brother through a mist of unshed tears. “I will not accept any such thing.

You are no traitor. You fought for your king, as any loyal subject would.” “Unfortunately, I fought on the losing side,” Edmund reminded her. “Our family, along with the entire House of York, fell to the Lancastrians. King Richard is dead, and the Tudor sits on the throne now. The world we knew is no more, and we must face this new reality.” “New reality,” she scoffed. “What are you talking about? There is but one reality, and that is that Castle Whitleigh is ours. Our birthright. You are the Duke of Whitleigh, not that robbing bastard who struts about out there as though he owns the place.

I will never surrender, not to him.” “Frankie, you are as fierce as a lion with the courage to match, and I love you for that, but we have to face what we cannot avoid. We cannot…” He took a deep breath, “I cannot cower in here while our people starve.” “But—” He laid a finger on her lips. “Hush. And listen. I will hand myself and Whitleigh over to the earl, and in return I will insist that you and the rest of the household be left unharmed, free to leave if you wish.” “Leave?” Frances was horrified. She could not believe what she was hearing. “This is my home.

I will not leave.” “Very well, I will negotiate your safety if you choose to remain. You, and our grandmother, since she is too old to move anywhere else now, and surely cannot be considered a danger to anyone, even the Tudor.” “This is madness. We should withstand this… this…” “Siege?” he offered, not especially helpfully. “This siege that will surely end in disaster for all of us if I do nothing to end it.” “But… they will kill you.” Frances bit back a sob. For all that they had quarrelled and fought their entire lives, she adored her brother and knew he felt the same way about her. And, that sentiment lay at the root of the sacrifice he was prepared to make.

He was ready to die, if that was what was needed to secure the safety of those he loved. “I will send word to Richard Parnell,” Edmund continued. “I will tell him I wish to seek terms with him.” “No…” she whispered. “Please…” “Frankie, I have made my decision. This is my responsibility. I will need you to help me do it, help me to explain to everyone, especially our grandmother. And, after I am gone, I will need you to help keep them safe.” “She shook her head. “No, no…” “It is the only way, Frankie.

We cannot hold out much longer, and I would not see this tragedy played out to the bitter end.” He kissed her forehead, then turned and strode towards the door. “Wait. I… I have an idea. There is another way.” Edmund halted and swung around to face her again. “I do not see any other way.” “There is the tunnel.” Frances tipped up her chin. “It is still there.

An escape route.” “The tunnel?” He shook his head. “Aye, it still exists, though I cannot say what state it might be in.” Unlike her brother, Frances could be perfectly certain what condition the tunnel was in. The secret passage was in a lamentable state of repair, but it would have to do. The ancient escape route had been hewn a hundred years earlier, carved from the rock upon which Castle Whitleigh stood so proudly. It was built in the reign of The Lionheart. The then duke, freshly returned from the Crusades, had seen such secret escape tunnels whilst campaigning in the Levant and had been sincerely impressed. He was convinced that such a facility was required to ensure the safety of his ancestral home and set about constructing it. To the best of Frances’ knowledge, the tunnel had served no loftier purpose than enabling her great-grandfather to bring his many women in and out of the castle without his wife’s knowledge.

“No one has passed through it for half a century, at least,” Edmund reminded her. “If you are thinking to escape that way, I doubt we could get all our people through it before Sir Richard realised something was going on and ordered his men to storm our walls.” “No, not all of us. I have said, have I not, that this is my home. I will not be driven from it like a scared rabbit. But… you could escape.” “So, I am to be the scared rabbit, then?” He flashed her a smile. “Do you think so little of me, Frankie?” “Do not be ridiculous. I am talking about escaping a senseless death. If… if your family must face the future without you, let us at least do so knowing that you are alive.

And free. Spare us the necessity to see you brutally murdered, branded a traitor, and condemned to a traitor’s death.” He returned and hugged her to him. “I am sorry, Frankie. I wish it had not come to this…” “It has not. Not yet, at least.” She wriggled from his embrace. “Think about it. You could pass through the tunnel and be miles away before that bastard at our gate even realises you are gone. It will be too late by then.

” “Even if the tunnel is passable, where would I go? All of England is under Tudor rule.” “You could make your way to Plymouth and find a ship. Go to France, or… or…” “Frances, this is madness. It would never work. And, what of you, of the rest left behind. There would be retribution.” “We would deny any knowledge. The earl would never be able to prove anything. For all he would know, you might have slipped away through his own ranks.” She paused, considering how, exactly, this might play out.

“I will wait until I know you are well away, then I will surrender the castle. The earl can search all he likes, but he will find no sign of you.” “It will not go well for you, Frankie. You cannot know how he might react when he discovers his true quarry is gone.” “He will not harm me. Why would he? I am no threat.” Edmund let out a snort of disbelief. “I am not,” Frances protested. “I am merely a woman, the daughter of a defeated enemy. The most he might do is banish me.

” “That would be bad enough.” She shook her head. “No, it would be nowhere near as awful as what will surely happen to you if you fall into his hands. I can plead for my life, and for the lives of our household. He is a soldier, a man of honour. He will not murder women and elderly people in cold blood, I am sure of that.” She offered up a silent prayer that her brave words might not be too far off the mark. Her change of tune did not go unnoticed. “A moment ago, he was the bastard at our gate. Make up your mind, Frankie.

” Her brother was right. In truth, there was no knowing what their fate would be once Caste Whitleigh fell to the earl. But Frances was beyond desperate, ready to risk anything. “You must escape. Please. For me, for our grandmother.” “Frankie, I—” She sensed her victory, seized on it. “We will tell no one. You must go. Tonight, as soon as it is dark.

You will take only what you can carry through the tunnel, and enough coin to get you to Plymouth and pay for a passage to France. Send word, if you can, but only if it does not place you in danger.” “We do not even know if the tunnel remains passable,” he muttered. “It does. I… I have checked.” Edmund lifted one blond eyebrow. “You have checked? When, may I ask?” “Two days ago.” She met his amused gaze. “I thought it might come to this, and that you might insist upon throwing yourself upon your sword.” “Well, not my sword, exactly…” “Please, do not make light of our predicament,” she snapped.

“I foresaw this crisis and… I sought an alternative. I went down into the cellars to investigate if the doorway to the tunnel could still be opened. It… it took some effort, but I managed it. There has been damage. Water, I expect. The tunnel is very wet and has probably been flooded at some stage, but it is passable with care. There is a section where a wall has collapsed, but there is a space big enough to wriggle through.” Edmund let out a low oath, shaking his head in disbelief. Frances continued, ignoring her brother’s incredulous expression. “It comes out in the forest, just beyond the moat.

The opening at the other end is obscured by undergrowth so is quite invisible. Even so, once out there you would have to travel quickly, under cover of darkness, get as far from here as you can before the dawn.” Edmund glanced over at the window. “It is dusk already. If I am to go along with this mad scheme of yours, I shall need to work quickly. I will require food, spare clothing, weapons…” “I… I left supplies at the far end of the tunnel, concealed in the undergrowth. There is food, as you mentioned, though not much, obviously, just what we could spare. You will have to forage, or hunt. There is a drop of ale, a warm cloak. And boots.

I left the contents of our treasury, too, or as much as might be readily portable. I could not imagine you thanking me for candlesticks and gold plate, but a pouch of silver and gold coins will not go amiss. There are our mother’s jewels, also. You should sell them, and—” “Frankie, when did you manage all of this?” “I have been working on the plan for two days, as I told you.” “Alone?” “Of course. I have already said no one else must know.” She looked to the gathering gloom visible through the window. “It is time.” The cellars beneath Castle Whitleigh were dank and cold, the only sound that of water dripping somewhere close by. Frances crouched in the clammy chill, her chin resting on her knees.

The sound of her brother’s footsteps had long since died away. No sound came from the inky blackness of the tunnel now, not even the scurrying of rodents. It was time to close the door again and pile some barrels against it for good measure. They would help to conceal the secret route if the cellars were searched. And they would be. Naturally. The earl would leave not an inch of Whitleigh untouched in his determination to seek out the fugitive duke. Frances balanced the lamp she had brought with her on an upturned barrel and put her shoulder to the stout oak door. She closed it with a soft thud. Hopefully, by the time it was discovered, if ever, it would be again obscured by cobwebs and dust, further evidence of disuse.

Meanwhile, she must do what she could to hide it. Frances spent the next hour rolling barrels across the earthen floor and stacking them in front of the door. Only when the entrance was completely hidden did she pause to pick up her lamp, dust off her grubby clothing, and make her way back up the narrow stairs leading to the scullery. In the absence of food to cook, or a fire upon which to hang a pot, the scullery and kitchens were deserted. Frances was able to dart through unseen and made her way up the back staircase onto the first floor of the castle where the family’s apartments were to be found. Her own chamber was on this floor, as was that of her grandmother and, of course, her brother when he had been in residence here. Frances stifled a sob as the reality of their situation set in. Edmund was gone. It was unlikely she would see him again, at least not in this life. Tomorrow, or the day after at the latest, she must throw open the gates of the castle and admit the enemy.

Her home would be hers no longer. She would be forced to live upon the charity of others, compelled to beg the hated Earl of Romsey for permission to even remain here. She allowed herself a grim smile. How her perspective had shifted in the few short hours since she spoke with her brother in the solar. She paused at the door to her grandmother’s room. It was late. The old lady would be sleeping, but despite this, Frances could not help placing her hand on the doorknob and turning it. The door creaked open a few inches, and she stared into the darkness beyond. She could just about discern the small form in the bed. Her grandmother’s gentle snores filtered through the inky blackness.

Frances hesitated for a few moments, then took a step back. “Is that you, sweetheart?” Frances halted in her tracks. “I am sorry. I did not mean to wake you.” “I was not asleep,” the old lady lied. “Is something amiss?” “No. Nothing. I… I just…” “Come in, child. Sit here and talk to me a while.” In the shadowed room, her grandmother struggled to sit up in the large bed.

Out of habit, Francis rushed forward to assist. “Ah, thank you, my dear.” The old lady peered about her. “I do not suppose there might be a glass of water to hand?” “Of course.” Water at least was in plentiful supply. Frances poured a small cupful and held it to her grandmother’s lips. “How are you this evening, Grandmêre?” “Ah, not too bad. Sadly, there is no cure for old age, is there?” “You are not old. Not really.” “It is only the young who would say such a thing.

But, you are a sweet child, and I am glad of your good cheer. Especially in these dark times.” “Grandmêre,” Frances began. Lady Margaret de Whytte, dowager duchess of Whitleigh and the widow of Frances’ grandfather who had died before she was even born, patted her hand. “I know, my dear.” “What? What do you know?” They had taken such care. Surely no one could possibly suspect… “I know that we cannot continue. The siege… our food stores are depleted, and with the winter just around the corner…” Frances nodded. This, at least, was no secret. “I have spoken with Edmund and… we have agreed that we will surrender.

” The dowager nodded her acceptance of this news. “I see. When?” “Tomorrow, probably. Perhaps the day after.” “I will come down. You will not face them alone.” “There is no need.” Lady Margaret could not manage the stairs anymore and rarely ventured much beyond her own chamber. It had been months since she had eaten with her grandchildren in the main hall. “Nonsense.

You will have my support, girl, however this might end.” Frances knew better than to argue. “Thank you, Grandmêre. I will be glad to have you beside me.” “Where else would I be? He is gone, then?” “Gone?” Frances started. “Edmund. I assume he is gone.” “He… I….” Frances was not in the habit of lying to her grandmother and did not know quite where to start. “I was going to suggest you check whether the old tunnel could still be used.

I must assume that it proved to be so.” “How did you know?” Frances whispered. “I know you, lass. And your brother. I will wager he took some convincing.” Frances nodded, though her grandmother could not see her in the dark. “He did, yes.” “He is safely gone?” “I… I think so. I hope so. I thought, if I could wait an extra day before handing over the castle, Edmund would be certain to escape.

He will be miles away, perhaps even at Plymouth, before anyone starts searching for him. And they would have no idea which direction to look in as there is not much likelihood that anyone will discover the other end of the tunnel and be able to follow his tracks.” “You have done well, Frankie. I am proud of you. You face the inevitable with your usual courage. But, I suggest that you might take a bath before facing the earl. Perhaps wash your hair…” “A bath?” Frances snorted. “I do not care what he might think of my appearance or my hair. Why would I seek to impress him?” “Not so much impress. Whatever else the man might be, the Earl of Romsey is no fool.

I was thinking that you might prefer not to alert him to the fact that you have spent the last two days crawling about in the tunnel like a mole.” The dowager sniffed loudly. “I hate to have to make such an observation, my dear, but you have smelled sweeter.” Frances managed a wry laugh. “I daresay. There is no fire to heat water, though.” “A cold bath never harmed anyone, lass. I suggest you get it done now, then you can crawl into bed to get warm again.” Frances kissed her grandmother. “I shall heed your advice, Grandmêre.

” She shivered. “A cold bath. Ugh.”

.

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