Thorns & Roses

Thorns & Roses

PROLOGUE

*Wynter*

Dunborough Manor

April 1485

‘… regret to inform you that Sir Winburn St Royans, Baron Dunborough, was fatally wounded in the battle at Trentbridge and he breathed his last on twelfth day of March. Our condolen-‘

The keening sound in my ears was drowned by the clanging of bells announcing the nooning hour. A loud wail rang through the solar echoing around the cavernous interior of the grand hall. Wading through the haze of grief, I realised, the wail had emerged from my core.

The news of Lord Winburn’s demise spread like a wildfire. A palpable wave of melancholia was thick in the air dousing the spirits of the knights and serfs alike. I could feel someone shake me, pulling my hands off my ears as I lay huddled in a ball on the floor. 

“Compose yourself, milady. You are the chatelaine, and now the Lady of the Manor. If you crumble, so will the manor.” The wizened old voice of Sir Gareth Coleby rumbled. He was the oldest and most trusted knight and had cared for me and Winburn after our parents’ premature demise.

He was right. The Lord’s death left the manor vulnerable to scavengers and hostile neighbors. I would have time to grieve my brother’s death but right now the manor and it’s inhabitants needed to stay strong.

They needed a leader. I stood up on shaky but firm feet and turned to look at the gathering of defeated faces in the solar.

“Change is coming. But when it arrives at our doorstep it won’t catch us cowering or running away. Whatever damnation Richard condemns us to, we will face it with our heads high.” My voice reverberated like a vibrating gong.

“For Dunborough!

For Sir Winburn! “

I thundered raising my sword to a resounding roar from the crowd. 

***

*Rhys*

Buckham Castle

April 1485

“It’s an order from the Crown. Richard wants his loyal vassals to comb every inch of Lancaster land and garrison it in the name of the crown. Huntingdon, take your trusted aides and four hundred men and secure the southern borders between Dunborough Manor and Wales. The lord of the manor has fallen in the battle of Trentbridge.” Sir William Stanley, a York loyalist and a trusted advisor of Richard III, ordered us.

“Huntingdon? Are you listening?” Came a rude bark, jolting me awake.

It had been a long time since I had a good sleep, or a decent bath. We had ridden day and night from the Welsh borders after taking care of minor skirmishes along the Welsh borders.

“Aye my lord. We will leave with the first light.” I raked my fingers through my rough, matted hair. Sleep or bath I had to decide fast. I dragged my tired feet up to the dormitory and flung myself on the bunk fully clothed.

It felt just a moment before a heavy hand roused me awake.

“Wake up, Princess.” I heard the deep chuckle. Peaking one eye open, I saw a head full of shaggy blonde hair. Amadeus Wellesbourne, the devil incarnate and my best friend hunched down near my bed.  Groaning loudly, I punched his shoulder sending him sprawling on his arse, laughing harder. 

“No time for a bath, I suppose. I swear the day these wars end I’ll dunk myself in a river for a month.” I pulled on the mail hauberk and gauntlets, affixed my scabbard and put on my riding boots.

“Let’s make haste then. A hot bath at Dunborough manor is calling my name.”

Sir William strolled about impatiently as we made our way to the inner gates.

“Here is the official order. Keep a look-out for rebels lurking in the vicinity. But do not engage in a fight. Await my orders.” He exclaimed solemnly.

I looked closely at the first hint of uncertainty in his voice. His eyes were skittish, and turmoil creased his forehead.

“My lord, why shouldn’t we stomp out all the rebels? Isn’t that what the Crown wants?” I asked, out of my place.

A long sigh later, he offered a response albeit a cryptic one.

“Huntingdon, when the tides change, I don’t want to be caught under the current. I can’t say anything more right now. Now off you go. Godspeed!”

***

*Wynter*

“Lady Wynter? A messenger has arrived carrying the banner of the House of York. He says he has orders from Sir William Stanley to be given to you.” A harried foot soldier announced as I was about to break my fast.

Unrolling the scroll, I read through the scribbled missive. Fury rose like a volcano in my veins and the scroll found its crumpled way into the fire pit.

“Yorkist march towards our manor.”

Several chairs scraped and toppled as knights and soldiers stood up in a flurry of motion.

“Halt! They march peacefully on orders of William Stanley to take over the reigns of Dunborough. Richard has reverted the barony to the Crown. We have the option to kneel or leave.” My mind was in turmoil. If it were upto me, I would have fought the marauders till my last breath. But I had to think about the manor and its people.

“We will accept their command… for now.

Sir Gareth, get the men assembled in the courtyard. I’ll be there in but a moment.”

I rushed up to my chambers. Closing the door behind me, I called for Bertha, my handmaiden.

“Bertha, quick. Help me into my armour.” I barked, ripping the muslin gown over my head.

“Milady, don’t ye want to be in yer best gown to greet the newcomers?” Bertha tripped and ran around the room in circles.

I stopped midway fastening breeches over my leggings to glare at her.

“There will be no welcome. There is no reason to be simpering roses when we can be a thorn in their side. Now stop dawdling and help me fix my hair under my helmet.”

***

*Rhys*

I rubbed my hands over my face for the hundredth time. We had been riding for over two weeks now. The grime and sweat was deep rooted in my pores. Men and beast alike were ready to collapse. I pulled up the last ounce of energy as the high turrets came in sight. Black flags fluttered somberly grieving the deaths of the last war.

The looming towers and iron gates stood sentinel to the incoming quarry. Men in armour stood at attention on the ramparts eyeing the approaching army. 

Our messenger rode back to us.

“Sir, they have been intimated of our arrival. As expected, they are unwelcoming but not outright hostile. We must tread carefully. We do not know their exact numbers but from what our spies said they’ve suffered heavy losses.” He supplied.

My sleep deprived yet alert mind took in the details. The manor was fortified well in structure having high defence walls and a deep, wide moat surrounding it.

Suddenly, I spied movement on the ramparts, hinges creaked as the iron door lowered across the wide moat.Through the unsettled storm of dust, the patrol soldiers waved the waiting army in. Both sides seemed on the edge and cautious. I ordered a hundred men to march ahead with us and the rest to camp outside the manor walls as a warning in case, the Dunborough army think of trapping us in.

My eyes searched for the commander in charge as we arrived in the inner bailey. The circle of soldiers parted to let a knight in. He was short in stature and a little leaner than most. His confident gait compensated for his diminutive height. Lithe and agile, he looked to be someone to watch out for. I raised my brows at Amadeus who was taking in the scene like a hawk surveying its prey.

I dismounted and announced, “Greetings from Sir William Stanley. We come here in peace to secure the manor in the name of His Majesty, King Richard III. Lay down your weapons and pledge your oaths. Any rebellion will be trounced.” The last words were aimed at the short knight with piercing blue eyes.

“Who is the commander in charge here?”

The short knight moved ahead and stood toe to toe with me.

“It is I, Lady Wynter St. Royans.” Saying thus, she pulled away her helmet.

“Lady? You-you are a lady?” I fumbled like a young lad wet behind his ears.

A braid of silken, gold strands fell around her shoulders and soft curls framed her oval face. Cerulean blue eyes sparked with humour and hostility. A pert nose twitched while her full, rosy lips thinned in irritation.

“Yes, I’m the commander in charge and the chatelaine of Dunborough Manor.” Her voice rose a few notches to assert her authority.

“Begging your pardon Lady Wynter, but pray tell, why are you dressed like a knight? Women do not don an armour?” I was baffled by her appearance, to say the least.

She smirked,” War doesn’t discriminate, does it?”

***

*Wynter*

My heart thudded, threatening to leap out at any moment. I held my head high, as high as it could against the towering knight. Our men engaged in a similar face off. Tension was high in the air. Begrudgingly, I took a step back.

A faint smile of satisfaction and relief reflected in his weary eyes.

“What may we address you, Sir Knight?”

“Forgive me, my lady. I am Sir Rhys Huntingdon, a knight in the service of Sir William Stanley and from today I’ll be the Garrison Commander for Dunborough. You shall of course continue to remain the chatelaine of the manor.”

Gnashing my teeth, I barely controlled the urge to spit at his feet.

“Breathe, breathe.” I whispered to myself to calm myself.

“We will make arrangements for your men in the bunkers. The North tower will be prepared for you-“

“The Solar not the north tower.” He cut me short.

“But it belonged to-“ I stopped myself abruptly. I would show no sign of weakness, not even grief for my deceased brother.

“Yes, Sir Knight.”

I turned around barking orders, while a set of amber eyes burned holes through my back.

“My soldiers will take over the arsenal. Release all your weapons to them. And get someone to send up a tub and hot water to the solar.” He whizzed past me, getting in the last word.

“Aye, milord.” I mock-curtsied him. A deep chuckle echoed inside the great hall as he made his way up to the solar.

***

*Rhys*

“Damn woman! She did this on purpose.” My body shivered uncontrollably as I lowered my tired self into the tub full of cold water. I had asked for hot water, specifically. If this was her idea of making us feel unwelcome, she was in for a rude awakening.

“Ha! I have faced worse than this.” I rinsed away the grime, sweat and dirt until my fingers turned blue with cold. Water splashed around as I grabbed a cloth to dry myself. Dressed in a long tunic over leggings and breeches, I made my way to the great hall for the supper.

My men huddled together on one end of the long table while the Dunborough men on other. The table creaked under the thick wariness and animosity exuding from both ends.

I took my place towards the head of the table leaving the chair empty, meant for the Lord of the manor. We might have encroached upon their home but not on their grief. I pulled a trencher towards me and picked at the pieces of rye bread. Soaking up the stew, I gulped it all down with mead. The supper was a dry and tasteless fare. I looked around the table only to find the cerulean blue eyes boring into mine.

Lady Wynter.

She lived up to her name with the cold gaze and pale skin. I had to talk to her soon about the state of affairs of the manor. It looked quite bleak without the added burden of a Yorkist army.

After the meal, I found her retreating to her chambers. 

“Lady Wynter, if I may have a word.” I guided her to a bench which was in sight of the guards and servants manning the floor.

“I would like to discuss the finances of the manor. My first impression says all is not well. The disrepair-“

I stopped as her fists curled in balls and her knuckles turned white. Her voice was as lethal and sharp as a newly forged blade.

“Aye, Sir Knight. We are far from our past glory. My apologies if your mead was too watery or your supper too bland. But at the least we have managed to extend our hospitality to an army of unwelcome guests.” Blue fire sparked in her eyes and she whirled around to leave. Her long, golden braid smacked me in the chest.

A sudden urge to sift my fingers through her golden tresses crossed my mind. A vision of striking blue eyes and a golden curtain covering us, flashed before my eyes.

“Hell and damnation!” I rubbed my eyes to ward away the bewitching image.

For the next several days, I avoided the hellion like the plague. But she was hard to miss, being the only woman dressed as a knight which I failed to understand why. 

That day as I surveyed the arsenal, a gruff voice interrupted my musings.

“Your fame precedes you Huntingdon. I must say, Dunborough lucked out to have you of all the Yorkists.”

“Sir Gareth Coleby!” I inclined my head at the ageing knight. “You’ve seen much of the Yorkist army I suppose having faced them in a number of wars, spanning past few decades.”

“Ah yes. Believe me I’ve seen it all. And so has Dunborough. The St. Royans family has commandeered these borders for the Lancasters since I was a young squire in training. An illustrious family now reduced to its last member, Lady Wynter.

At an age to be married with babes of her own, she is here defending her home and her people. Because war is all that she knows. You might ridicule her for her attire, but she has been fighting since an early age, never feeling a moment of peace.”

“Why do you tell me?” His revelation had surprised me.

A wary smile and a pat on my shoulder was all he gave.

***

*Wynter*

He seemed different. I found myself looking at the knights practising in the arena. He had tied his raven locks at the nape, allowing an unobstructed view of his rugged face. He parried and thrust, blocked his opponent’s moves agilely, despite his bulk. 

We were wary of the army but in the last few days both the sides had settled into a reluctant accord. Dunborough felt a brief moment of peace. I retreated into the keep and made my way down to the stables.

For the first time in ages, I wanted to ride into the wilds without looking over my shoulder. I saddled ‘Wind’, my destrier and rode through the postern gates. I whooped in delight as the steed picked up speed, dodging trees into the deep forest. The last time I rode so freely was when Winburn and our parents were alive. After an hour of riding hard I turned around.

As the manor came in sight, I dismounted for a brief reprieve. Reclining against a tree, I closed my eyes. The soothing sounds calmed my galloping heart. Breathing in the heather, wood and a heady musk, I heard his voice. 

“You should not ride away into the wilds unescorted, my lady.” He gazed down at me, leaning against a nearby tree.

“Winburn and I, rode our horses into the forest. A time when war had not tarnished our childhood, ripped our family apart. I wanted to be that Wynter, just for a little while.”

I felt his shadow over me, as he lowered himself to sit keeping a polite distance between us.

“I do not remember a time, without war. Generations of Huntingdon family have lived and perished in the war.”

“I have lost everything for this war. I hope to see some peace now. I pray not to lose any more people.”

A warm hand covered my shoulder, and I opened my eyes to look at him. We were in a strange bubble of our own. The surrounding sounds, armies, war had no place in it.

Our eyes sought each other as the world dissolved around us. With the first soft caress of his lips, all my bottled-up emotions broke loose as I closed the distance between us.

His fingers twined through my tresses, while mine curled against his tunic. Time halted for us to steal a moment. My head spun as he deepened our kiss. I tried to pour hope in the hopelessness of our situation. I fervently prayed for it not to be a dream. After what felt like an hour, we returned to our senses.

As a cold breeze blew between us, I tried to decipher the emotions swirling in his eyes. Confusion and shock made way for longing and hope. There was no love, but no regret either. And I could live with that.

***

*Rhys*

That afternoon, I changed irrevocably. For better or worse, I did not know. As I stood on the wall looking over the encampment, I felt a presence in the shadows.

“Get out of there, Amadeus.” I knew my best friend as well as my own shadow.

“Well, somebody needs to watch over you when you are so distracted that even a fledgling squire could throw you over.” He smirked as he made his way beside me.

“I’m not distracted.”

“Nay? Even a stampede would not have broken you apart.” He chuckled.

“You were there!” I glared at him accusingly.

“Aye, but I did turn my back…mostly.”

I punched his arm. But appreciated him having my back always.

“I hope you are not in love with the lass. There is no time for love when war is knocking at our doorsteps.” He looked away into the dark night.

“What do you mean? The house of Lancaster is defeated. The rebels are too scattered and outnumbered to start a war.”

“Aye, Henry Tudor, marches through the Welsh borders garnering support against Richard. The Yorkist are losing faith in their King after the mysterious disappearance of his nephews, Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury. Rumours are abound that Richard had the wee lads murdered to usurp the crown for himself. ”

I was too shocked to speak. But with this news, I found myself in a precarious position.

“Will we be called upon to support Richard, the King who has clearly lost his mind to the greed of power?”

Amadeus smiled and gave me a scroll.

“Read and destroy it.”

***

*Wynter*

August 1485

The manor slept peacefully. As I walked back to my chambers, a hand gripped my arm pulling me into a dark alcove.

“Rhys? What is the-“ My words drowned in the onslaught of kisses that left us both breathless. He held me close, burying his face in my hair. A chill ran up my spine as I felt his gaze upon me.

“What is it Rhys?” I held onto his arms.

“I’m in love with you, Lady Wynter. There is no other that holds my heart, but you. This isn’t goodbye, I hope not. But if I don’t return, remember that I always loved you.”

No words were spoken as he led me back to my chambers.

The next morning, I found myself alone in my bed. He had left. I cried into the cold sheets before getting up to get dressed in my armour.

They had left behind a skeletal army, but Dunborough was mine to defend.

***

*Rhys*

17 August 1485

Stafford

“Sir William!” I knelt before my liege. It had been months since I had last met him. The scroll I received had been cryptic at best.

“Huntingdon, Wellesbourne. I’m glad to have you both here. This is an important meeting. I forbid you to speak though. You can wait with the other knights.” Saying thus, he moved towards the tent erected for the meeting. I saw a few illustrious knights in Sir William’s service – Sir Robert Tunstall, Sir Hugh Persall and Sir Humphrey Stanley all huddled inside the tent.

Suddenly, each knight stood alert as men arrived on horsebacks. A young man, with slender but strong built, beady blue eyes and thinning hair marched towards the tent followed by about twenty knights and soldiers.

I bit back my gasp as Amadeus turned towards me in shock.

Henry Tudor!

We had only heard about him. But it was unmistakably him.

An hour later, Henry left the tent in a huff, while Sir William and the other knights left stoically.

Returning to our encampment, in a discreet meeting, Sir William divulged the details that had us on the edge.

“Do not make assumptions based on what you saw today. We do not make any move… yet. Richard has my nephew as a hostage. He is aware of my defection but knows I would not risk my nephew by openly supporting Henry. We wait on the periphery as Henry charges on the Richard’s army.” He turned around and left, nodding imperceptibly at Tunstall.

They knew something that the rest of us didn’t.

22nd August 1485

Albion Hills, near Bosworth

We stood on the neutral ground waiting for our orders. The battle was underway, but Sir William had not moved his troops yet, in support of Henry or Richard.

Swords clanged and arrows pierced the air. The ground shuddered under the feet of thousands of horses and men. We waited on a vantage point taking in the scene. Suddenly, the wind changed. As Henry’s vanguard battled Richards’, in the ensuing melee, for a brief moment, Henry remained unguarded but for his household troops.

Richard spied this opening and without much thought and with only with a small piece of his army, attacked a vulnerable Henry.

“Now!” Sir William barked an order. We charged our steeds to Henry’s aid who barely managed to stay alive. With the renewed onslaught, Richard’s skeletal guard beat a hasty retreat.

“He is not leaving. Is his mind addled?” I asked Amadeus as we sliced through men and beast. Richard remained, hoping to squash Henry. In his bloodlust, he did not realise that his men had deserted him.

We closed around him bringing the mad, bloodthirsty King to his knees. He spat towards Henry before being mortally stabbed by Sir William’s knights.

I pulled my sword away covered in blood and gore. The battle had come to an end as the Yorkist army disbanded following the fall of Richard.

“The Plantagenet has fallen. The War of the Roses has ended.” I whispered with hope.

That day, at the Battle of Bosworth, marked an end of an era. It ushered the dawn of the Tudor dynasty helmed by Henry Tudor. We all hoped for a semblance of peace.

***

EPILOGUE

*Wynter*

June 1486

The knights practiced in the arena more as an exercise than a training. The decades long war had ended with Richard. The English soil experienced peace for the first time in years.

I watched as my husband, Sir Rhys Huntingdon, wiped down his sweat with his tunic and sauntered towards me.

“What has you smiling this morning, Lady Wynter Huntingdon?” He kissed me soundly, holding me close.

Twining my fingers through his, I calmly placed our hands on my softly swollen abdomen.

His eyes went wide with surprise and joy as he scooped me up and whirled me around.

Our little bubble of love grew a little more to welcome a new life.
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Author’s Note: This is a fictional tale set during the last War of the Roses that ended with the Battle of Bosworth on 22nd August 1485. The battle that saw the fall of the Plantagenet and rise of the Tudor dynasty that ushered a new and peaceful period in the history of England. All the lead characters and places are fictional except the references made to Richard (Kind Richard III, Monarch of England between 1483-1485), Sir William Stanley, Sir John Tunstall, Sir Hugh Persall, Sir Humphrey Stanley, Henry Tudor (Henry VII, Monarch of England) and the Battle of Bosworth. 
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