Lord Henry James Townsend, the Viscount of Headley was perfectly content to never amount to anything much at all.
As the second son of a very wealthy ruler, his entire life was planned for him. That is, his role was to carouse, whore, and drink himself across the kingdom so openly, that every interested party would thank their lucky stars his elder brother George was the heir to their kingdom of Elereld. At the infant age of two and thirty, he intended never to marry. After all, there was no need. He had money and lands of his own, and the incessant need of those his age to produce legitimate children in their likeness bemused him. He knew his misadventures had produced at least two bastards supported by the royal coffers, but he had no interest in children or providing anything but a generous living stipend. Upon his death, all he had would return to his brother where it rightfully belonged. Until then, he needed only to have a pleasant time.
Rolling over to face the ceiling and the day, Henry winced. A sharp pain behind his right eye signalled an impending headache. He noted that he could not shake the effects of wine as easily as he once had. Perhaps he was getting old. With a wry smile, he flung off the sheets and rose naked to the basin of water on his dresser, splashing it across his face and neck with a sigh of relief. Looking out of the narrow window into the bustling street he chuckled, reminded of the stern speech he had received from his father on the topic of marriage. His Royal Highness, John the King of Redmond had made it perfectly plain that he had tolerated his son’s misadventures long enough, and it was more than time for him to settle down. Henry almost felt sorry for whichever woman his father had in mind, for he would never go willingly into such a trap. He could not have known that at the same moment at his family’s castle, his comfortable life had begun to unravel.
A sudden gloom had seeped into the stones of Townsend keep, accompanying the six men stumbling through the hefty gates of the medieval structure. Thunder sounded over their heads and threatened rain as they laboured up the craggy hill. Wide-eyed, the guards made no move to stop them traversing the muddy courtyard, and no questions were asked by the servants who had gathered in the entranceway. Without announcement, they burst into the great hall.
“Oh, George!” The Queen’s wail pierced the clammy silence that had descended over the cavernous space, as the soldiers proffered the broken body of her eldest son. None of them could meet her gaze, their faces smeared with dirt and blood. Reverently, the men placed the dead Lord George Townsend Earl of Ripley and heir to the kingdom, at the feet of his devastated parents. The King gripped tightly to the arms of his chair, feeling as though the world tilted cruelly on its axis. His wife made to reach for her son, to throw herself down onto him and weep out her grief, yet he snatched her hand tightly and held her to her seat. This day was the most devastating, yet also the most dangerous of their lives; no weakness of any kind could be shown. Taking a moment to ensure his voice remained steady, the King of Elereld spoke quietly from pale lips.
“What happened?” He demanded. Sir Phillip, one of George’s most trusted knights, stepped forward hanging his head.
“Your Grace, it was a raiding party across the Eastern border they came out of nowhere as we patrolled the valley–”
“Get him out of here.” The King did not look at his son.
“John” his wife Ellen made a plea for some humanity he could ill afford. Phillip was careful to keep his expression neutral.
“Out! All of you!” The King roared suddenly standing. Courtiers rushed from the hall as the knights dutifully came forward and gathered George’s body solemnly carrying him out. As soon as the vast room had emptied, Ellen reached for her husband and buried her face into his chest. She cried as she never had before, feeling as though her heart splintered with every sob. Abruptly she pushed away and fixed him with a glare.
“You must find out who did this John. Speak with Phillip, Matthew, and find out everything they saw. I will have these men hanging from my battlements, I will have blood for this!”
“It does not matter Ellen” the King’s eyes were dry. “The most important thing is finding Henry as soon as possible and safeguarding him. He is our future.” Disgust curled in Ellen’s stomach as she processed his emotionless declaration. George had always been the heir to Elereld, a prince and a viscount but he had also been their son. A child that had loved animals and fallen asleep in her arms. Yet her husband’s expression was vacant, neither matching her anger nor offering comfort. At this moment she hated him.
“Is that all that will be done?” She demanded.
“Ellen, think!” John shouted, his anger suddenly flaring. “We have never been more vulnerable to our enemies, our line is not secure. As soon as the world hears the news they will be climbing over themselves to attack us. We need allies immediately, I have sent to Cambrin asking them to come at once.”
“Please John, do not do this it’s too soon for him”
“I have no choice” the King sighed.
“Oh, Henry!” Lady Helene of Darting gasped clawing painfully at his shoulders. Yet Henry could not bring himself to care, muttering a slew of romantic endearments into her neck as he found his release deep inside her. Lady Darting was the pious daughter of an Earl and seducing her had been an arduous task. Helene had brought him both pleasure and the delight of winning. He grinned rolling to his back and looking up at the inn’s ceiling where she had just screamed his name. He liked when they said his name. As a man who relinquished everything to his perfect older brother, it was as though at that moment someone belonged to him alone. Thankfully, Lady Darting was betrothed so Henry did not need to fear any further romantic expectations. He reached across her waist and pulled her into his arms enjoying the floral scent she wore. Smirking, he thought of the story he would tell his men.
“I must be back soon” Helene whispered placing a light kiss upon his chest.
“Stay a while” he murmured with a lazy smile, clutching her to him tighter as she giggled and squirmed. He would ask for a token or something to prove the truth of his seduction. His men revelled in the tales of his romantic adventures. In this instance, Sir Oric had wagered he would never get his hands on the sweet Lady Helene. It looked as though someone would be swimming naked in the moat this evening! Lazily, he stretched over and pulled the servant’s bell.
“How may I be of service my lord?” the serving girl was out of breath from having bolted up the inn’s staircase. She blushed profusely, now noticing Henry’s state of undress and the reputable young lady wrapped around him. The girl spun around to face the wall with a cough. Henry laughed good-naturedly at her embarrassment, untangling himself from Helene and pulling on some breeches.
“Wine my girl, or some ale if it’s any good” he answered. “I hate being sober during the day.” The girl hazarded a glance over her shoulder and seemed relieved he was semi-decent. He winked at her. She was quite pretty.
“Right away my lord” she answered still blushing furiously and darted from the room. Henry sat happily at his wobbly table by the window, looking over to see Lady Helene had dozed off to sleep. He would wait for more wine and bed her again before he was forced to give her up. The afternoon sun warmed his bare chest and he wondered how life could get any better. Phillip had said renting the inn rooms above the tavern was a waste of coin, but in Henry’s mind it paid itself off every day. He had somewhere hidden to bring his conquests and avoid the schemes and demands of the court. Hearing footsteps on the stairs outside his rooms, Henry smiled readying himself to make the serving girl blush as much as possible.
“Good afternoon sire.” Instead of the brown-eyed beauty, he was met with his father’s head chancellor Dowley; a wrinkled and bad-tempered old man. The chancellor was always the sign that his day was about to get worse. The King rarely stooped to disciplining his second son, instead, he would usually send Dowley with a withering reproach.
“Get out of here old man” Henry yawned leaning back in his chair. “I was having such a nice day”
“I can see that?” Dowley seethed regarding the sleeping form of Lady Helene. “Shall we talk in the corridor, your highness?”
“No need. She’s a deep sleeper, my new wife.” Henry grinned watching all the colour drain from Dowley’s face.
“You cannot be serious!”
“No.” Henry laughed enjoying his game of toying with his father’s chancellor. As a boy, he and George had competed to see how red Dowley’s face could become before he would explode.
“Sire, I have come here contrary to your belief not to ruin your day, but to deliver some news of the utmost importance!” his pale face was beginning to redden already with frustration. Henry decided to spare him. Besides, he was impatient to return to more pleasurable activities.
“Fine, have at it, Dowley.”
“My lord it pains me more than I can express to tell you this, but the King has summoned you to the palace at once.” He took a breath. “Your brother the Earl of Ripley is dead”
Henry could do nothing but stare at the man, a feeling of confusion and emptiness coming over him. He felt sick, the edges of his vision blurred. His brother had been his protector, confidante, and greatest friend. Now Dowley suggested that he had left him alone, thrusting him into a position he could never hope to fulfil.
In an uncharacteristic move, King John reached for his wife’s hand. Dowley had sent a messenger to inform him that he had located his second son and was accompanying him back to the castle. The Queen threaded her trembling fingers through his and gripped his hand tightly. Henry would arrive at any moment and there was no telling how he would react. He prayed that his son did not lash out and do something to tarnish his reputation as heir before it had even begun. John had always tolerated Henry’s wild behaviour to a degree, understanding that as the second son he had very little official responsibility. He had hoped Henry would grow out of it and settle down on some far-flung estate with a family where he could do no harm to anyone. Alas, fate had dealt different cards, and the King felt overwhelmed by the task of moulding him into a respectable future leader. A wife would surely settle him.
“Are are you sure this is the correct time? He has just learned of the death of his brother! He may not be King for a very long time.” the Queen whispered to him wringing her hands. The world seemed to be moving so fast all of a sudden, with everything changing before she could think. Her eyes, wet with tears darted mournfully around the room awaiting Henry’s arrival.
“If the path to succession is not made clear out kingdom is weak” John replied. “If Henry marries the Cambrin girl he will have heirs of his own and secure our rule for generations. The Duke’s army is the largest in Elereld I must have his support as news of–” the thought of George made him feel as though his throat had closed. Ellen tightened her hand around his.
The doors of the great hall burst open, the sound of the wood smashing against the stone rang loud in the ears of the King and Queen. Henry charged in, his dark hair falling over wild eyes as he dragged the panicked Dowley beside him. He threw the head chancellor down at his parents’ feet, drawing his sword and furiously swiping at the tears on his cheeks.
“Father bring George down here at once. Tell me this man is lying! Tell me this withered old fool is lying to me” Henry shouted, pressing the cold steel of his blade against the neck of the old man. Dowley gasped in terror.
“Henry stop!” His mother shrieked before his father held up a silencing hand.
“Henry let him go at once. Dowley speaks the truth and George–” the King placed his fingers to his throat. “George is dead.”
The sword in Henry’s hand clattered to the floor and the chancellor scurried away to safety. John was relieved that all the fight and fury seemed to have left his son but was not sure the man who now stared at him blankly was an improvement.
“Listen to me Henry” the King continued quietly. “You are now the heir to the throne and must think of the future of this family. We are endangered by the death of your brother and must quickly partner with our allies to withstand attack. Do you understand?”
“What are you saying?”
“I am saying my son that I have sent messengers arranging a marriage treaty with the Duke of Cambrin.” You are now betrothed to his youngest daughter Lady Amelia who will arrive with her family any day now. I know this is a day of difficult news, but it is now time to become a man and safeguard this kingdom. I can only hope that a wife will bring you the peace we have prayed you would find.”
At this moment Henry could not think of a single thing to say. Rage, fear, and anguish battled within him in equal measures. Bile rose in his throat and he felt as though he were burning from the inside out. Every fibre of his being screamed to run as fast as he could from the crushing responsibility about to be heaped onto his shoulders. His brother was dead and he felt for the first time utterly alone.