Some Rise by Sin and Some by Virtue Fall
“Isabel, come quickly!” Anne whispered frantically. “A messenger comes!”
Her eyes were fixated on the scene behind the glass of the window. It was true, a messenger was advancing towards the home, carrying their father’s standard.
“It is news from father.” Isabel said simply, brushing away her sister’s anxiety.
“Father never sends letters to us by a messenger carrying his standard. It must be important.”
“Perhaps the queen is with child again.” Isabel said rather bitterly. She was the eldest daughter and remained unmarried. She blamed the war - not only was it dividing England and turning cousin against cousin, it was distracting her father. As Treasurer of the Royal Household, he held much sway at court and was deeply involved with the conflict that was tearing the country apart by its seams. He had little time to find matches for his daughters.
“Isabel, once King Edward defeats the Lancastrians for good Father can find you a husband. It’ll be a count at least, possibly a duke!” Anne said, hardly phased by her sister’s concerns. Isabel gave Anne a small smile before moving closer to the window.
“Why does he look so worried?” Anne asked. Isabel shook her head, sensing a bad omen.
“I shall go to see mother, perhaps she knows what the messenger brings.” She reasoned. “Stay with Jane and Margaret.”
Anne nodded, looking at the two younger children who sat quietly in the corner playing with their dolls.
Isabel shut the door quietly on her way out, and upon descending the stairs encountered her brother, Thomas.
“Isabel, go back upstairs. Take care of Anne and the little ones.” He ordered. He was usually in the service of the King; that he was there only served to heighten Isabel’s anxiety.
“Thomas, what is it? The messenger outside looks positively terrified!”
“He is right to be.” Thomas muttered. “King Edward has fled. He is in exile.”
“Exile? The King?” Isabel asked breathlessly. Thomas nodded
“Yes, but he is not the king anymore, Isabel. You must watch your tongue now, do you understand?” He waited until she nodded. “I must go. I do not have long.”
“Where are you going? You must stay here!” Isabel said, her voice rising hysterically.
“I am going to take sanctuary at Colchester. You must await Father’s return.”
Isabel nodded numbly and watched as her brother left with alarming speed. She returned to the nursery, where Anne still stood by the window.
“Isabel, was that Thomas?!” She asked before Isabel had barely the chance to step over the threshold.
“Yes. He’s going to Colchester.” She said, attempting to mask the shaking in her voice. Anne knew at once that all was not right, and pulled her sister out into the hallway so as not to alarm the younger girls.
“He said that the King is not the King and that he is in exile and we must wait here for father.” Isabel whispered frantically.
Anne, who always had been the more strong hearted of the two, simply crossed herself.
“Lord help us.” She said quietly, her hands moving to the rosary around her neck.
Isabel woke early. It was the day before Christmas eve, and though the sun had barely risen yet, already she could hear the handmaids heating water for baths, airing out skirts, lacing corsets, polishing the stones on the most expensive necklaces and earrings the girls had in their coffers.
Anne was already awake and had already bathed. She sat by the fire, her knees hugged to her chest.
“You’re awake awfully early.” Isabel observed.
“I couldn’t sleep, and mother was ordering baths so I thought I may as well take mine early.” She said quietly. Isabel knew her sister was not her usual self purely by looking at her. Her lips turned downwards at the corners, her eyes looked haunted - like she’d not had a decent night’s sleep in weeks. Everything about her told of her wish to curl up into a ball and hide.
“Are you nervous to see father?” Isabel asked softly. Anne nodded stiffly, avoiding the gaze of her elder sister.
“He just switched sides, Izzy. Not like Thomas, who remains loyal to the house of York to this day.” Anne said, small hints of panic and despair creeping into her voice. Anne, who was always so loyal, so pious and so honest, could not understand why her father had continued to serve the Lancaster king after all he had taught them as children. “The house of York is the rightful house, and one day God will smile upon them and smite down the house of Lancaster. That’s what he used to say to us, Isabel.”
Isabel nodded gravely. “Yes, he used to say that Anne. But you cannot ever repeat that, do you hear? King Henry is the king now. We must give them no reason to suspect our loyalty to the house of Lancaster, or it shall be all of our heads on spikes - not just that of Duke Richard and his son.”
They arrived in London later that evening. The carriage passed through the gates to the palace and Isabel had the distinct feeling that she was walking into a nest of vipers. So many of the courtiers had declared their loyalty for King Edward only three months earlier.
“How can I respect turncoats, mother?” Isabel whispered quietly, careful that only her mother could hear. Her mother shrugged.
“They all had motives for doing so, Isabel. Your father did what he had to in order to keep us safe. If he had gone into hiding like your brother we should have starved.”
Isabel looked at her feet. She supposed her father did have to think of more than which king he pledged his loyalty to; he had four daughters and one son, and all of them were as yet unmarried.
“Do not judge your father too harshly.” Her mother said before walking ahead of her in the courtyard.
Already the feasting was underway in the great hall. Hundreds of courtiers sat around long wooden tables whilst a fire roared in the centre of the room. The noise coming from the hall was almost unbelievable. Her father, John, was there to meet them inside. He took the hand of his wife and kissed it gently.
“Wife, it is good to see you.” He said softly. Katherine smiled, bowing her head to him.
“And my daughters! It has been too long since we last met.” He said cheerfully. His eyes rested on Anne. “My, Anne how you have grown!”
Anne smiled politely, and when his attention had turned to the youngest, Margaret, her eyes met with Isabel’s and they shared a look of uncertainty. So much about their father’s actions seemed like a performance. Here they stood, the perfect Lancastrian family, when almost all of them still harboured Yorkist loyalties.
“I do not need to tell my daughters how to behave at court, I hope?” John said, his eyes burning, willing his daughters to understand his meaning.
“Of course, sire. We all know well how to behave at the court of our good Lancastrian king.” Isabel said, emphasising only slightly the word ‘Lancastrian’. Her father breathed an inaudible sigh of relief.
“I imagine you would like to change into something more suitable for dinner. I will arrange for dinner to be served in my rooms - no doubt you would like a quiet evening after such a long journey.” He said, waiting for all of his family members before him to smile in acknowledgement before disappearing off to the kitchens.
“I feel like I am being watched from the shadows.” Anne murmured to Isabel as they passed through tapestried hallways.
“That’s because you are.” Isabel said simply. “The Queen will have our every breath monitored.”
“She scares me. The Queen.” Anne whispered to Isabel, shrinking away from the walls as though it were the walls themselves that heard their whispers.
“So she should, Anne. So she should.” Isabel said shortly, putting a finger to her lips as they arrived at their fathers quarters.
“Are we to stay in father’s quarters all the time we are here, Mother?” Anne asked.
“No, you and Isabel shall share a room just down the hall.”
Isabel felt wary. She longed to be young enough to have a room attached to that of her mother, like Margaret and Jane. They could sleep soundly a night in the knowledge that only a wooden door separated them from their mother. Isabel and Anne had no such comfort. Their room would be closer to the quarters reserved for the Queen’s ladies. It was a clever idea, Isabel thought. Her father was placing them nearer to the queen in the hopes they would be asked to join her household as ladies in waiting. There could be no higher honour for a young girl, and yet Isabel felt her stomach tightening into knots and her throat constricting. Thomas had told them stories of the Queen when they were children - she was ruthless and cruel, he said and Isabel could think of a thousand places she would rather be than just down the hall from such a woman.
The first night was cold. It was the night before Christmas eve and yet Isabel felt no excitement stirring in her heart. She did not wish to be at court, sleeping in an alien room with only her sister for company. She wished to be back at home, with all of her sisters around her and Thomas home and safe. She thought of him in Colchester, probably in the basement of some church holding onto his promise of sanctuary. He was probably cold and rather hungry. Isabel found the small room suddenly too hot and suffocating.
She rose quietly, pulling a shawl around her shoulders.
“Where are you going?” Anne mumbled, still mostly in the throes of sleep.
“I need some air.” Isabel said quietly. Anne nodded and was asleep again in an instant.
Isabel did not know what the time was, but the horizon was beginning to lighten in the west. In the distance she could hear birds beginning to sing. She stood on the terrace that wrapped around the entire building, forming a perfect walkway for looking over the courtyard below. Although it was early, she could see kitchen staff already carrying baskets full of eggs and pitchers full of milk through the wooden doors. She leaned her elbows on the edge of the wooden railing, content to watch the people below her go about their business.
Isabel turned around quickly, not anticipating that anyone should see her at this time- she had neglected to put on a proper dress and had merely wrapped a shawl around herself. She raised her eyebrows at the young man standing before her.
“It’s still early, m’lady. Is everything a’right?” He said. He had a strong London accent and Isabel could tell just by the way he pronounced his L’s that he was a commoner.
“Yes. Yes, I just needed some air.” She said with a courteous smile.
“Would you like me to stoke the fire in your rooms? I have time a’fore I’ll be missed in the kitchens.”
“No no, that’s quite alright. Perhaps some breakfast wouldn’t go amiss, though?”
“S’abit early for breakfast to be ready. I might be able to steal you some bread.” He said with a mischievous grin.
“Oh. Yes, I had quite forgotten how early it is. I wouldn’t have you getting in trouble for me. I think I shall just go back to bed.”
“It’s no trouble, ma’am. I’d do it for you.” A cheeky sort of smile spread across his face, and Isabel suppressed a small laugh.
“You should get back to work.”
“Aye, I probably should.” He said. “I guess I’ll see you later Mistress Howard.”
“I didn’t tell you my name!” Isabel said, both confused and surprised.
“No, but everyone round ‘ere can tell a Howard. I reckon it’s the eyes - all you Howard’s have the same eyes.”
“It is hardly fair that you should know my name, and I not yours.” She said before she turned to leave.
“Nicholas.” He said simply.
“Good night, Nicholas.”
“Morning, ma’am. It’s morning.” He said with a wink. Isabel laughed despite herself.
“Yes, I suppose it is! Good morning then, Nicholas.”
He bowed his head and started off down the walkway. Isabel made her way back inside and crawled back into bed with only Anne ever knowing she had been elsewhere.
Christmas came and went, and Isabel, along with her sisters and her mother, remained at court. Her father said it was important for them to be there in order to show their support and their loyalty. He was right, of course, but both Isabel and Anne wished there were another way to show their loyalty than to be constantly under the watchful eye of the Queen. She had the eyes of a hawk; always watching, looking for something - anything - that was out of place. Her husband sat at her side like an overgrown child. His eyes were glassy; he rarely understood what was being said to him and always his wife made his decisions for him. Whilst he sank further into his madness, she rose higher into paranoia. Around every corner she sensed discontent, behind every door she imagined the plotting of a rebellion, and none she suspected more than those who had previously been loyal to the Yorkist King Edward.
It was not until mid January that Isabel saw Nicholas again. It was the first snow fall of the new year, and both Isabel and her sister desired to ride the horses once the snow had stopped. Isabel wore her new white gown especially - it was a present from her father, interlaced with gold thread and trimmed with white fur. It must have cost a small fortune, and her father had bought all of the girls one in different colours. Anne’s was a deep red colour - “For the Red Rose of Lancaster!” her father had said loud enough for others to overhear when she had debuted the gown at the Christmas feast - and it seemed that both gowns were made to be worn together for they complimented each other so well. They had come to be known as ‘the two Howard sisters’ around court - wherever one went, the other was guaranteed to follow.
Upon reaching the stables, Isabel was more than surprised to see Nicholas saddling Anne’s horse.
“I thought you were a kitchen boy.” She said with a small hint of sarcasm.
“I am. But I do the odd few other tasks too. Cut the hedges in the summer too, I do.” He said with a shrug. His hair, that had been growing long already when Isabel had first met him, had grown positively unruly. Although he had some of it tied back with a small piece of string, some of it strayed and hung over his face. Although Isabel had not noticed before, he had the most striking, piercing blue eyes that she had ever seen.
He continued saddling her horse. She reached over and placed her hand above his.
“You don’t need to do this. I can do it from here.” She said. It was true, she had often saddled her own horse - there was only one stable boy at home, and often Thomas, Anne and herself went out riding together. They had all learned quickly that they could do just fine by themselves.
Anne had already taken her horse outside, leaving Isabel and Nicholas quite alone.
“It is probably improper for us to be alone.” He said, that cheeky smile once again gracing his lips.
“Only people with improper thoughts would think so.” She said with a smile.
“Perhaps I have improper thoughts.” He said as she mounted the horse. She merely shook her head at him, smiling as she left the stable. She carried the image of his smile with her in her mind throughout the entire day.
She saw him three times that week. The first time was at breakfast, when she came down early and saw him putting out fresh bread onto the tables. He smiled at her and winked discreetly. The second time was in the courtyard. She had been out walking and had passed him. He had stopped what he was doing to wave at her. She blushed and hurried inside. The third and final time that week she saw him was in the gardens. He was trimming the hedge. As she walked by, his hand grabbed her wrist and pulled her closer to him. As she left he placed a kiss on her cheek. When she returned to her rooms after that third encounter, she found a scrap of paper on the floor. It appeared that it had been pushed under the door. It wasn’t sealed, simply folded, and although it bore her name she was sure it was not from her father, or anyone of similar rank. She opened it cautiously, looking over her shoulder out of fear that her mother - or worse, her father - should appear behind her.
The note was short. It said simply this:
Tonight. Under the Sycamore tree, ten before midnight.
It was signed with an ’N’. Isabel smiled to herself, clutching the note to her chest.
Isabel hastily put on her riding cloak. She pulled the hood up and made for the door.
“Isabel, where are you going?!” Anne said sleepily. She had heard her sister roaming about the room and had woken. She reached for a match and lit the candle on her bedside.
“I… Out.” Isabel said, her mouth falling short of words to say. Anne raised her eyebrows.
“Don’t lie to me, Izzy. Are you meeting somebody?”
Isabel nodded, playing with the edges of her cloak to avoid her sister’s eyes.
Anne gasped audibly, a smile on her face.
“Is it Harry Percy?! I saw him looking at you across the dining hall and I thought-“ She said excitedly.
“No! It’s not Harry Percy.” Isabel said. “I have to go, Anne. I’ll be late.”
“I shall have details when you return, Isabel Howard!”
Isabel nodded, a smile on her face. She closed the door quietly behind her and headed for the gardens.
She made her way swiftly through the twisting passageways and hallways. It was dark and silent, but as she made her way to the gardens she noticed, hidden in the shadows, at least three other couples meeting in secrecy. She smiled to herself, making her way to the sycamore tree that was at the far end of the gardens. She could hardly see, but she believed that her eyes could make out the shape of a person sitting casually at the base of the tree.
“Isabel?” The shape whispered. She sighed in relief.
“Nicholas?” She replied. She heard him laugh. The clouds separated and the moonlight illuminated the man before her.
“I didn’t think you’d got my note. And if you had, I didn’t think you’d show up.”
“Why would I not show up?” She asked. No joke or sarcasm lay in her comment. She genuinely wondered.
“Well, you’re you and I’m me and I have a feeling if your father knew we were ‘ere he’d have me hung.” He said. Isabel laughed.
“Oh, you do him too much credit.” She paused. “He’d do a lot more than have you hanged.”
He laughed and sat beneath the tree. He patted at the ground beneath him, and Isabel was instantly glad she had chosen to wear her dark riding cloak instead of her white one.
They sat together beneath the tree for hours. They talked of everything and anything. Isabel told him she did not feel safe at the Lancastrian court and Nicholas vowed that if ever by his will he could protect her, he would. It was a small promise, and one that he would never be able to fulfil, but Isabel instantly felt secure. She leaned into his arms and he rested his chin on her head. They sat like that until the sun began to rise. She stood up suddenly.
“I need to get back. Anne will be worried!”
“I’ll walk you back to your rooms.”He said. “But first, I wanted to give you somethin’.”
He pulled a small piece of cloth out from his pocket. Isabel looked in disbelief at it, but unwrapped it nonetheless. Beneath the folds of cloth lay a small, delicate silver pendant.
“It was my mothers. She gave it to me a’fore she died. I… I want you to have it.” He said gently. Isabel held the pendant to her heart.
“I must give you something in return.”
“I don't want nothin’!” He said, stopping her hand. “I don’t need anything in return.”
Isabel did not listen. She reached down into her bodice, in the space between the cloth of her underdress and her corset. She felt for the tiny metal pin. Upon finding it, she pulled it out and held it in her open palm towards Nicholas.
“It was my father’s pin. The needle end was broken off so many years ago, but I kept this end. It has always brought me good luck.”
It was a small white rose. He took it from her and admired it. He raised his eyebrows when he noted the colour.
“Perhaps you should have painted this red.” He whispered. “They would have hauled you in for questioning if they had found you with this!”
“I know. That’s why I kept it where I did. I could not bear to part with it - until now, at least.”
“Thank you. I shall treasure it forever.”
Isabel smiled softly, and took his hand in hers as they started back through the gardens.
When she reached her rooms, she found Anne still awake.
“Tell me everything!” She demanded.
“Tomorrow.” Isabel said dazily, crawling into bed and falling asleep before her head could hit the pillow.
Isabel was awoken the next morning by shaking. Anne was shaking her shoulders vigourously.
“Get up, get up! Something’s going on outside.”
Isabel groaned, putting hands over her eyes.
“What is it?” She mumbled.
“A kitchen boy’s been arrested! It sounds like he’s being dragged through the courtyard!”
Isabel was awake instantly.
“A kitchen boy?”
“Yes! I think it’s the one that saddled our horses the other day, do you remember?”
Isabel sat up. Her head began to swim.
“Yes. Yes I remember.” She muttered, throwing her shoes on and leaving the room quickly.
Already a crowd had formed on the terrace overlooking the courtyard. Isabel saw the Queen stood in the courtyard with the guards and Nicholas.
“What happened?” Isabel asked the nearest person to her.
“He works in the kitchens. The cook said the boy bent down to pick up a basket and a badge fell out of his pocket as he did so. It was a white rose - the boy is obviously a Yorkist sympathiser.” The woman next to her said. Isabel’s heart almost stopped in her chest. It was all her fault.
“What if he only found the pin? Is there any evidence?” Isabel asked frantically. The woman scoffed.
“He’s a kitchen boy. No one cares either way what happens to him. The Queen is determined to make an example of him though, evidence or not. I suspect they’ll have him executed.”
Isabel’s legs went weak. She leaned on the wooden barrier for support.
She watched as Nicholas was heaved to his feet by the two guards at his side. She saw his eyes searching the upper levels, looking for her. Their eyes met, and all he did was smile. He was dragged from the courtyard, Queen Margaret preceding over the scene with a look of ruthless success in her eyes. She had rooted out an area of Yorkist loyalty - or so she thought.
Isabel almost ran back to her room. She sat on the bed, staring at her shoes.
This was all her fault. A man was about to lose his life because of her and her foolish thoughts that one day, one day King Edward would return, her brother could come out of hiding and the world would be as it was.
Anne soon joined her. It didn’t take her long to figure it out.
“It was him, wasn’t it? That you went to meet last night?” She asked softly.
“I think I could have loved him, Annie.” She said tearfully. Anne sat next to her sister on the bed and wrapped her arms around her.
“No one can know about this Izzy. Not a soul can know where he got that badge.”
Isabel nodded, wiping her eyes. Anne looked at her cautiously.
“No one, Isabel.” She said gravely.
Isabel was at home when it happened. A messenger had raced to their door and announced that King Edward was back and was to face King Henry in battle at Tewkesbury. Isabel’s heart was in her throat.
“Isabel! Anne!” Their mother called. A exultant expression was on her face. It was good news.
“Your father proclaimed Edward the King at Suffolk! He is fighting once again with the house of York!”
“In battle? Are you not worried?” Isabel asked. Her mother shook her head.
“Your father always comes home to us.” She said.
“And Thomas can come home now, too!” Anne said suddenly, as if only now remembering her brother’s existence.
“Yes, Anne. Thomas can come home now too.” Katherine said softly. She raised her eyes to the sky and thanked God aloud.
“Thank you, lord. Thank you.” She whispered.
Their father was made a member of the Order of the Garter and Thomas (who was badly injured during the battle) was made not only a knight, but was given the position of Esquire of the King’s Body. He was the king’s personal attendant and courtier and this time, the girls were only too happy to spend time at court. With the warmer weather seemed to end their winter of discontent. Isabel and Anne walked happily with Jane and Margaret through the gardens, each holding onto one of their small, childish hands - and it was in the gardens Isabel first saw him.
Jane’s bonnet had been caught in a gust of wind. The child was constantly untying the strings beneath her chin, and the bonnet almost had a life of its own as it ran with the wind across the lawns. Anne had laughed heartily and began to ran after it. She did not have to run long, for it was stopped by the leather-clad foot of Prince Richard, the king’s youngest brother. He was as loyal as a puppy, with the darkest, most sincere eyes one could possibly imagine.
“I see someone does not like the burden of clothes!” He said lightly, handing the bonnet back to Jane. She giggled, as four year olds do, and gave him a small thank you.
“You must be a handful for your sisters!” The statement was directed more at Anne and Isabel than the child. Anne laughed.
“Not on her own, your grace. When there is one we can manage. But when we are tasked with taking the pair of them for a walk in the grounds, it is quite a different story!” She said lightly. Anne had just turned eighteen, and with her quick wit and bold tongue she had no qualms with speaking to the prince. Isabel however, who had hardly spoken to a man in her life, stayed silent.
“You must be Isabel.” Richard said, bowing his head in her direction.
“Your grace.” She said courteously.
“Your sister and yourself are becoming quite infamous around court.” He said breezily.
“Only in a good way, I pray.”
“Of course, of course! I merely mean that it has been noted that you two rarely travel without one another.”
“She is my sister.” Anne said simply, as if that explained it all.
“I understand the bonds siblings share. My brothers and I would die for each other.” He said. He paused momentarily. “Or I would for them, anyway.” He said with a sad sort of smile.
“Your loyalty is admirable.” Isabel said softly.
“Loyalty is a trait that I find should be present in everybody. Sadly I find that is not the case.” He said with a shrug.
Isabel nodded, finding herself smiling at his nobility. Anne, the good judge of character that she is, found that moment to chase after Jane, who was advancing towards the edge of the stream that ran along the length of the gardens.
“Jane! Don’t go too near the edge!”
Isabel kept a tight hold of Margaret’s small hand. The child looked up at Richard with a look of admiration.
“Isabel, are you not married yet?” Richard asked suddenly. For half of a heartbeat, Isabel wondered if he was going to ask her. After all, he was not married yet either.
“No, sire. My father must have been so preoccupied that he had forgotten all about me.”
“I am sure he has not. I do believe he will have a duke in mind for you.”
Isabel allowed her imagination to run away with her. Richard was the duke of Gloucester, and was she mistaken or was he smiling at her just a little too intensely?
“I am sure he will make a good choice nonetheless.” She said nonchalantly, as though the decision mattered little to her. Richard smiled.
“I regret I must leave you, Mistress Howard. Important business to attend to and all that.” He said with a wink.
“Ah yes. I imagine you must dash off to help your brother save England.”
“Exactly.” He said with a short laugh. “Good day, Isabel.”
As she watched him leave, Isabel imagined him as her husband. They would live at Middleham Castle, and she would wear only the finest gowns money could buy. She would be sister-in-law to the King and she would give Richard all the children he wanted. Sons that would have pretend sword fights on the lawns and daughters that would sew elegant tapestries depicting their noble family history - The Howards and the Plantagenets. But most of all, she imagined that Richard would love her. The Duke of Gloucester and his Duchess - that is what they would call them together. They would share a bedchamber, unlike the King and Queen who slept apart even though the love they harboured for each other was great enough to warrant different circumstances. They would not be burdened by tradition, unlike Edward and Queen Elizabeth. Now that Elizabeth had borne Edward a son, Richard was fourth in line for the throne. He would never have to be too worried with issues of state or succession. All Isabel would need to worry herself with was the happiness of her husband and of her children. They would visit the court regularly - Isabel would see Anne there, for of course Anne would have to marry a wealthy Duke. Margaret and Jane would become ladies in waiting to the Queen, and Isabel could visit court and be surrounded by her family in happiness.
Anne had to shake her sister to break her out of her daydream. Isabel blinked rapidly, trying to clear it from her mind, but it would not leave. The daydream refused to break. It lingered for days, and never once lost an ounce of its potency. Her eyes managed to find Richard wherever he was in the great hall, and above all the noise she seemed able to tune into him. He made her heart beat that little bit faster and she found herself dressing in her best gowns and asking Anne to pull her corset that little bit tighter. She pinched her cheeks that little bit harder to bring the colour to them, and she found herself walking intentionally with that little bit of extra grace.
“Who is he?” Anne said one evening. It was late - Edward’s court was the opposite of that of King Henry and Queen Margaret. The feasting lasted hours; the wine hardly ever stopped flowing.
“Who?” Isabel asked absentmindedly.
“The man you’re trying to desperately to impress.”
Isabel tried to tell her sister she was imagining it all, but all Anne had to do was raise her eyebrows and Isabel unravelled like a poorly tied bow.
“Richard, Duke of Gloucester? Richard, the king’s brother, Richard?” Anne asked incredulously. Isabel bit her lip nervously.
“Have I gone insane?” She asked lightly. Anne laughed.
“Quite possibly, Isabel! I know I said father would have a duke lined up for you but…”
“I had a daydream about our life together and how perfect it would be and ever since I cannot seem to stop thinking about him!” Isabel exclaimed.
“Are you in love with him, or the idea of him?” Anne asked.
“I do not follow you, sister.”
“Do you love the man himself, or the life he could offer you?”
“I’m not sure.” Isabel said miserably. “I’m really not sure.”
Any fool could see the cracks appearing in the delicate facade that held the three York brothers together. The King held the opinion of his wife in a much higher regard than that of his brothers, and always he was further rewarding the Queen’s family - and brother George seemed to go without. He lurked in the corners, aways watching as another was granted an earldom or a dukedom and George had barely any land to himself. Richard, on the other hand, controlled most of the North single handedly. He had countless duchies and counties and earldoms under his control, and he was the youngest brother. Surely, George said to himself, what is Richard’s should be mine and what is mine should be Richard’s!
Richard was forever watching his brother through fear that he would rebel against Edward as he had already done once before. His eyes were always searching for George’s reaction to the latest Woodville marriage, or the latest gift from the King to the Queen’s brother. What Richard found when he searched his brother’s eyes set alarm bells ringing within his mind.
“George has gone mad.” Richard said to Isabel one morning in late August. “He has taken the Lady Anne Neville as his ward.” He said bitterly. Months had passed since their first meeting, and Richard had taken a shine to the eldest Howard daughter. He enjoyed her company, and often he found himself seeking her out for a stroll in the grounds.
“Shouldn’t he have done? She is his sister-in-law, after all.” Isabel said with a shrug. Richard shook his head.
“His intentions are not genuine! He is afraid she should marry again and take her half of her mother’s inheritance. If she remains unmarried, her sister shall get the whole lot - which means, as he is her husband, George will get the whole lot. The entire Warwick fortune.” He said with a sigh.
Isabel was at a loss for words. The entire court was only too aware of George and his ambitions. Isabel wondered if there was a thing he wouldn’t do in order to secure a fortune.
“He feels slighted because you have more land than he does.”
“Then I shall give him half!” He said passionately. “He deserves nothing for what he did to Edward. For the betrayal, the rebellion - he cannot expect to have the birthright of a prince! I spent a year in exile with my brother. George should have been by our side - yet he was here! He was here with King Henry! Oh, how my father would weep to see what we have become. The three noble sons of York, now barely able to stand the sight of one another.”
Isabel was surprised by his outburst. Richard was usually the quiet one. Quietly but fiercely loyal. His hand rested on the sword at his hip. Even now he was armed. His fingers glittered with the rings that lay upon them - the purest gold, the darkest ruby. He noticed her gaze lingering on his sword. He lifted her chin with one of those finely bejewelled hands.
“You have nothing to fear.” He said softly.
“I fear a resurgence in the fighting.” She whispered. It was true - throughout all of her childhood and the years thereafter, she had always been worried. Worried for her father, worried for Thomas, worried for her mother, worried for the country… it seemed it would never end.
“George is our brother. Neither Edward or myself would see anything truly awful happen to him.”
“King Henry was your cousin, and the rumours say that the three of you went silently into the Tower and smothered him with a pillow whilst he slept.”
Richard sighed heavily and shook his head slowly.
“That was different. Henry was mad, and a usurper and Edward could not sit on his throne securely if Henry were still in the tower. George… No one will rally to George’s aid. He cannot be a real threat.” Richard said, although something in his tone said that he was trying to convince himself as much as he was trying to convince Isabel. “Alas, I must go. Edward has summoned us to a court meeting at noon. Perhaps I shall see you in the great hall later this evening?” He asked, pressing a kiss to the back of her hand. Isabel nodded rather stiffly.
“Yes, your grace.” She said formally. He gave her a smile, the kind that managed to touch his eyes, and left her in the gardens.
Isabel never failed to be struck by the wonders of court life under King Edward. When Henry sat at the throne, with Margaret by his side, one could almost feel the tides of political intrigue pulling this way and that. With Edward sat on the throne, the waves were subdued. One could still feel the slight tug every now and then, but mostly the court was sailing on calm waters. Mostly.
She always marvelled at the difference between Edward’s court and Henry’s. Her time spent in Henry’s court was one of uneasiness and grief. The shadow of Nicholas had never truly left her heart - she doubted she would ever shake off the chains of her guilt - and each day she was forced to see Queen Margaret sitting at the high table, observing all below her with those sharp, perceptive eyes. Now she could sit easily at the table, with her father across from her and her sister by her side, laughing jovially.
After the feasting there was usually dancing. The minstrels would play upbeat, happy songs that made Isabel’s heart race. The women were nothing more than a flurry of skirts as they danced in circles; different coloured kirtles with elaborately embroidered bodices and gowns edged with fur.
Isabel found herself always looking towards the Queen. She was never anything but immaculate. Her dresses were usually made of cloth of gold, and sometimes she would wear them with an ermine trim, just to make sure they all knew that it was her who was the queen, and not one of Edward’s latest mistresses. Isabel knew not why the Queen worried. It was clear as day that Edward had eyes for no other but her; everywhere she went, his eyes followed. The other girls were simply lust. Elizabeth… Elizabeth was love.
Isabel watched her in awe. She felt a pressure on her shoulder, and turned to see a familiar hand adorned with rubies resting there.
“Mistress Howard,” Richard said. Already his eyes were glowing from a touch too much wine. “Will you grant me the honour of dancing with me this evening?”
“Of course, your grace.” She said, bowing her head.
The dancing was heavily choreographed and structured - the men stood in a line across from the women. They would all dance around each other in circles, and would hardly ever touch hands. The dancing was innocent enough that a man could ask a woman to dance and nothing would be thought of it, but it also provided enough privacy and intimacy that those who saw each other in secrecy often made the most of it.
Richard perhaps had already had enough wine, but he handled it well. He never stumbled, nor slurred a single word. The wine only increased, if possible, his regal stature. He carried himself confidently. He was the youngest Prince, he had all the power, all the money, all the privilege he could want without the burden of running the country. It suited him all too well.
“You look exquisite tonight.” He remarked. His lips were next to Isabel’s ear and she had to fight away the blush that threatened to creep up her cheeks. She had chosen this dress purely because of its colour. It was a deep burgundy with gold lace at the edges. She had worn her ruby necklace and with her dark hair, it made her look like a Greek goddess, a seductress she had only heard about in tales. She smiled courteously.
“Thank you, your grace. I must admit that you do not look altogether terrible yourself.”
He grinned, and glanced towards his brother sitting up on the platform. The king was about to retire for the evening, and his absence would give leave to all the other courtiers over the age of twenty-five. Isabel looked towards her mother and father. Her mother was already saying goodnight to Anne, and her father was saying his goodbyes to the Spanish ambassador.
“I must say goodnight to my mother.” She said simply. Richard nodded.
“I trust you will find me once you have done so?” He asked. She smiled in response.
“It is never hard to find you, your grace.”
“And what, pray tell, is that supposed to mean?” He asked, holding her wrist.
“Nothing.” Isabel said mischievously, pulling her hand away and walking towards her family. She shot the prince one last look over her shoulder, smiling when she saw him laugh.
Her father retired to bed, and her mother followed him leaving Anne and Isabel in the hall. Thomas, who had left with the king, had returned now that the king was in his bedchamber and Thomas’ duties over with for the day.
“Sister!” He said as a way of greeting when he spotted both Anne and Isabel sitting by the window.
“Thomas,” Anne said with a smile and a nod of her head. Isabel hardly noticed her brother’s arrival; her eyes were still fixed on Richard. He stood across the room, deep in conversation with one of his close friends, Robert Brackenbury. Every so often though, his eyes would rise and land on the girl across the hall. He would look at her from underneath hooded eyelids until she blushed and looked away.
“Isabel, rather distracted are we?” Anne said, digging her elbow into her sisters ribs.
“Sorry, I was… too hot.” She said absently. She managed to shake herself out of it and smiled up at her brother. “Thomas, I feel like I hardly see you these days!”
“I am with the king.” He said with a shrug. “And you are always with Anne.”
“How is the king?” Anne asked. “I hear he is troubled.”
“Troubled? In what sense?” Thomas asked curiously.
“I have heard it said that his brother worries him.” She said and Thomas shook his head.
“Richard? I have heard noth-"
“Not Richard! George!” Anne hissed. Thomas’ face fell.
“Oh. Yes. George has been making some... demands of late.”
“Demands?” Isabel asked. Her interest was piqued. Richard always spoke of George and the lands he wanted, but he never gave her any specifics besides those regarding Anne Neville.
“He wants the Warwick fortune.”
“He’s taken Anne Neville as his ward, but I have heard she is kept as little more than a hostage.” Isabel whispered. Thomas’ eyes widened in surprise. A smile formed on his face.
“And how did you hear that, little sister? Been eavesdropping, have we?”
“No! I… Richard told me.” She said indignantly.
“Richard?” Thomas said, his eyebrows raising even further.
“The duke of Gloucester.” Isabel said stubbornly. Thomas laughed and drank deeply from his glass of wine.
“Izzy, I advise you abandon this venture as soon as possible. Richard is the king’s brother.”
“And? Am I not allowed to speak to him?” Isabel replied. She did not much appreciate Thomas’ tone. He was patronising her, treating her like a child. She was nineteen, she no longer needed the supervision of her older brother.
Richard chose that moment to cross the hall.
“Your grace.” Thomas said, bowing his head to the Duke. Richard smiled.
“Thomas! I trust you have put my brother to bed like the great old man that he is?” He joked. Thomas laughed. This was clearly an inside joke that only those in the king’s household were in on.
“Yes sire, although if I am as active as he when I am truly old I shall be a happy man.”
Richard laughed. His eyes rested on Isabel, and the jewels at her neck.
He didn’t stay long. Soon he was bidding farewell to Thomas. Thomas, with his sharp eyes and quick wit already sensed what Isabel was keeping from him. Richard winked at her the second Thomas had turned his back. She bit back a smile.
The hall began to empty a few hours after midnight. Despite the late hour, Thomas had to be awake early to tend to the King when he awoke. He refused to go to bed, insisting that this was the only time he had to himself. Isabel could not argue with that and left him speaking to some other noblemen. They did decide to call it a night soon after however, and the candles in the hall were quickly put out. Isabel saw Richard waiting at the bottom of the large staircase, and she told Anne to go on ahead. Anne gave her a cautionary look but went ahead to their room anyway.
Isabel waited until the rest of the late-night revellers had passed between them and gone up the stairs before she stepped closer to him.
“Well then, Mistress Howard.” He said quietly. “What would a young lady such as yourself be doing out of bed at this hour?”
She smiled. It was a small, seductive smile that made the duke before her grin.
“My bed just seems so unappealing.” She whispered. Her mind wandered upstairs, to where Anne would be getting into bed and putting out the candle. I would much rather be here, she thought.
“And what about somebody else’s bed?” He said with a raised eyebrow. Isabel fought back the urge to laugh. A blush spread up her cheeks.
“I don’t think that would be proper, your grace.” She said softly. He pulled her towards him, his hand resting on her hip.
“I’m the brother of the king. I don’t give a damn what’s proper.” He kissed her then. The both of them had perhaps drunk too much wine, but Isabel found herself hardly caring. Eventually, she pulled herself away, resting a hand on his chest.
“I must go to bed.” She whispered. He nodded, his eyes following her as she walked up the stairs.
Richard was absent from court in the weeks afterwards. Isabel searched for him, but never found him. Eventually, she resorted to her brother - although it turned out that he was just as difficult to get a hold of as Richard. She saw him eventually in the corridor, a few steps ahead. He was heading towards the King’s quarters, holding several scrolls under his arm. Isabel weaved through ministers and ambassadors, ladies and wives, all the while holding her skirts above the floor.
“Thomas!” She called. Her breath was short, and she feared he had not heard her, but he turned round. His eyes widened.
“Izzy, what is it? Is everything alright?” He asked. Clearly, her actions had alarmed him and he was expecting to hear some terrible news.
“I need to speak with you.” She said bluntly.
“Can it not wait? I have to deliver these to the king.”
“No! Thomas, have you seen Richard?” She asked breathlessly.
“Richard? Is that what this is about?!”
“I noticed his absence these past few weeks.”
Thomas had to fight back a laugh.
“Isabel, I told you to leave him well alone.”
“Well, I didn’t. Where is he?”
Thomas cursed under his breath. He pulled her to one side and spoke in a whisper.
“He went to visit George two weeks ago. He asked him to release Anne Neville, but George refused. Richard went through the kitchens and found her dressed as a maid. He took her away from George and hid her in St Martin le Grand church, in York. He gave George most of his lands - including the Warwick earldoms - and surrendered his office of Chamberlain in exchange for her.”
“Oh.” Said Isabel. She knew Richard was noble, and all his life he had been obsessed with chivalry. Of course he would jump at the chance to save Anne Neville. “When is he coming back?”
Thomas shook his head.
“Izzy, he’s going to marry her.” He said softly.
“No. He can’t, they’re too closely related.” She said quickly.
“Anne Neville’s sister married George. They’re not closely related enough to prevent the pope from giving them a dispensation.”
Isabel shook her head. Surely Thomas had heard wrong. Richard wanted her, not Anne Neville.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Iz.” Thomas said. He looked apologetically at her. “I really need to get these to the king. Please, go and busy yourself. Don’t think too much on this.” He said. He left her standing against the wall, leaning on it for support.
Richard returned two months later. His new wife came with him, delighted to be back at court and out of the clutches of her brother-in-law. Richard himself had not changed. Despite the loss of over half his lands, he carried himself as though he had gained much, much more.
“It’s quite a sweet story, don’t you think Isabel?” Her mother had asked. It was raining outside, and to combat boredom the girls had decided to join their mother and do their embroidery. Isabel imagined Anne Neville sitting inside, making Richard’s shirts.
“Yes, mama. It’s lovely.” Her voice was utterly void of emotion. Anne nudged her leg with her foot.
“I think I shall go for a walk.” Isabel announced suddenly. She laid down her fabric carefully, and left the room, revelling in the fresh air that met her in the hallway. She began to wander aimlessly through the various hallways, with no destination in mind. She reached a corner and was about to turn when she heard voices around the other side.
“Anne, it’s raining!”
Isabel recognised the voice of Richard. Her heart dropped to her shoes. She wanted to turn round and go back the way she came, but was rooted to the spot. No matter how much she wanted to leave, she found she could not.
“Then we shall stay inside.” Anne said. Her voice was lighter than Isabel had imagined. Anne seemed to be nicer than Isabel had imagined. Everything about the girl in Isabel’s imagination was cruel and manipulative. Isabel felt a little guilty when she realised she had done the girl a disservice in her mind.
“Have I told you how glad I am I found you in that kitchen?” Richard asked. Anne laughed.
“You may have mentioned it once or twice.” Isabel heard the shake of her head. “George is too greedy for his own good.”
Richard sighed heavily.
“George has always wanted everything Edward has. He’d take his throne if he could.”
“Would you?” Anne asked inquisitively.
“Hm?” Richard asked absently.
“Would you take Edward’s throne if you had the chance?”
Isabel could almost imagine Richard’s face. She could imagine it finding humour in the comment. So many brother’s would do, so many - like George - would kill for the chance. But not Richard. Never Richard.
“Why would I possibly want to be king, when I already have my Queen right here in front of me?”
Isabel noted the softness of his tone. Richard was always sincere. She didn’t think he’d ever told a single lie in all of his life. She felt the ice that gripped her heart thaw a little. Perhaps she had judged Anne too quickly and too harshly. She decided to make her way around the corner. To pretend that she had just arrived. If he just sees me, she thought to herself, perhaps we can be friends.
She stepped quietly around the corner, feigning surprise to see the couple pressed up against the wall. Anne had her back against the tapestry; Richard was playing idly with a strand of her hair.
“Isabel.” He said quietly. He was surprised to see her there, that much was plain. Isabel smiled.
“I hear I am to offer you my congratulations.” She said, motioning towards Anne with her head. Richard smiled.
“Thank you.” He said. His eyes were apologetic.
“I am happy for you Richard. Truly.” She said. Although her heart was still a little sore, she knew it would heal. And she would much rather Richard be happy. He breathed a small sigh of relief.
“Thank you.” He repeated, but this time it was softer and his eyes looked on her kindly. Anne smiled at Isabel, oblivious of what was passing before her. She looked up at her husband and informed him that he had a meeting with he king to get to, and he had better leave quickly or he would be late. Richard nodded, smiling lovingly down at his new bride.
“It shall be a pleasure to see you around court, Mistress Howard.” He said formally, bowing his head to her before taking his leave. Anne gave Isabel one last, lingering glance before following suit.
Isabel turned back the way she came, heading back to her rooms. She did not mind that Richard had married another. It all seemed so childish now, anyhow - that she could marry a prince! She shook her head at her own silliness.
“Izzy!” Anne said, bursting through the door of the room. “Father wants to see you!” She said excitedly.
“What is it?” Isabel asked, curious at what had gotten her sister so agitated.
“He’s found you a husband.” She said with a grin. “An Earl!”
Isabel got to her feet immediately. Taking her sister’s hand, she left at a swift pace through the door, leaving both Richard and Nicholas behind her.
(A/N - Facts: I have altered some of the facts here to fit with the story. Isabel Howard’s mother actually died in 1465 and Thomas was actually knighted in 1478 and made esquire of the body in 1473. There is also very, very little information on any of the female Howards, so most of this is my imagination. Even the ages of the girls are imagined - there are no birth dates, only death dates. Isabel did marry, although there is no date for this. She married Robert Mortimer of Landmere. He too is an enigma it seems, as there is nothing to find on him either. All I could find was that he died at the battle of Bosworth in 1485, fighting alongside Richard. I am not therefore 100% sure that he was an earl, given the utter lack of evidence. As a title is attached to his name, I suspect he did have some land holdings and may have been fairly wealthy. I think it is not too far a stretch to imagine that he was an earl. Also, although I genuinely do believe that Richard loved his wife Anne Neville, he did have two children by a mistress - although again, nothing is known of this mistress. However, it is probably unlikely that Isabel had met Richard, and even more unlikely that the two were involved romantically. This is purely a product of my imagination. P.s - points to anyone who managed to spot the Shakespeare references!!!)
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