Joan's father, Edmund, Earl of Kent, was beheaded when she was not yet four years old. Yet even after eight years, she had only to close her eyes to remember how it felt to rest her head against his chest as he walked her back and forth, singing of fair maidens and valiant knights, her young bones resonating with his clear tenor. No nightmare could steal up on her when in his arms, no shadow creature dare approach. His warmth melted all pain. Her most precious possession was his drawing of a white hart seated on a lawn, a crown for a collar attached to a chain that pooled in the grass beneath. He'd had it embroidered on his cloaks and jackets--white hart, deep green lawn, and gold crown and chain. All long gone.
Joan had found the drawing at the bottom of an old chest the previous spring. When she showed it to her cousin Ned, he confided that his grandam, the dowager queen Isabella, crossed herself whenever a white hart was mentioned in ballad or romance, a reminder of her part in Edmund's murder. She'd done nothing to stop the Earl of March, her lover and partner in rebellion, from beheading Joan's father for his loyalty to her husband, the king. Joan hated her for it.
Unfortunately, Joan and the dowager queen were bound to each other. To atone for his uncle's unwarranted execution, the present King Edward, Isabella's son, had taken responsibility for Edmund's widow, Margaret, and her children, making them part of Queen Philippa's household. A cruel charity for which Joan was no more grateful than was her mother.
So, through the summer and into the autumn Joan had bent to her work, embroidering the white hart emblem while keeping in her mind the charms of protection she'd learned from her nurse, Efa, and then, in secret, stitching the square onto a large banner, whispering a spell of power.
Now she and Ned watched from behind a screen as Isabella and her ladies spilled into the great hall, taking their seats in a circle at the south end, where there was morning light for their needlework.
Look up, Joan whispered, as if Lady Isabella might hear her. In the rafters just there. See how the morning sun lights up the white silk and the gold thread. Feel the power of my father's blood that flows in me and my brother.
But the dowager queen had her head down, fussing with her embroidery frame, fingering the threads in her basket, choosing a color. At last, as she waited for her servant to thread her embroidery needle, Isabella sat back to survey the hall.
Yes, Grandam, up! Ned whispered, crouched beside Joan. Though three years younger, he was taller than she, and considered himself her champion. Even against his grandmother. Look up! Aha!
Isabella's full lips parted, dark blue eyes widened, ivory skin blanched to a deathly pallor. "Who dares hang that abomination in this hall?" she hissed. The jet beads on her black velvet mourning flashed as she reared up, a thundercloud charged with lightning, stabbing at the air with a bejeweled finger, pointing to Joan's banner.
His daughter dares, Joan whispered, and shushed Ned as he started to laugh.
Oh, it was worth all her hard work to see that look of rage on Isabella's face. But why must her mother choose that moment to enter the hall?
Countess Margaret believed the invitation to celebrate Martinmas at Woodstock was meant as a peace offering, and though she could never forgive what Isabella had done, she thought it best for Joan and her brother that they accept with grace. King Edward, Queen Philippa, and the two princesses were in the Low Countries, the eight-year-old Prince Edward, Ned, left behind as titular Keeper of the Realm, but the boy answered to his grandam, the dowager queen. Best to keep in her good graces at the moment.
Now Joan cringed to see her mother's expression of dismay as she, too, stared at the banner, then looked around, searching for her daughter.
Time to run, Ned whispered. You first.
Joan backed away from the screen, then turned to dash out the garden door. Outside, her puppy greeted her with his terrier's high-pitched bark. She had forgotten him in the excitement. "Bruno, stay!" she ordered pointlessly as she hitched up her skirts and took off running through the garden and into the woods, dodging branches and jumping over exposed roots. Bruno was in hot pursuit, but with his short legs he fell behind, his barks growing fainter as Joan ran.
Halfway down Ned passed her, laughing, flying like the wind on his long legs. "Grandam knows it was you!"
"Who else would it be?"
Ned waited for her beneath the great oak, their special place, taking her hands as she arrived and spinning her round and round until he had no more breath and they both slumped to the ground, leaning back against the wide trunk.
It was here, three years ago, that he had found her, crumpled on the ground in pain, her ankle so swollen that her soft boots were cutting into her skin. She'd run out of the hall in a temper, disgusted by her mother's passive acceptance of the dowager queen's condescension, determined to run away from court and never return. An exposed root had caught her foot, twisting her ankle as she pitched forward. By the time she reached the oak, she could only hop on her good foot. Climbing back up the hill to the palace was impossible. Ned had stayed with her as night fell, covering her with his padded jacket, shooing away the night creatures, sharing some dried apples meant for his horse, telling her tales of how she would be his queen one day, the most beautiful and powerful woman in the realm. They had been good friends ever since, delighting in elaborate japes and escapades, fierce in defending each other.
Now he was grinning ear to ear as he caught his breath. "That was better than Will's sword belt falling off in the mock tournament! Or the bees in Roger's helmet!"
"This was no jape but a reminder," Joan said. "Your grandam must never be allowed to forget what she did to my father." Her head pounding from the run, she leaned back against him, smelling his boy scent--sweat, earth, animals.
He sat up abruptly, jarring her so that she bit her tongue. "Ouch!"
"Shh! Someone's coming."
She heard it now, leaves rustling and twigs snapping. Someone followed their path, quick but light. They both stood, ready to run. But it was just little Bruno who burst from the brush, barking triumphantly, his tail wagging wildly as he rushed up to claw at Joan's skirts, then at Ned's leggings.
"Cursed cur!" Ned scowled and kicked the puppy. "He peed on my shoe."
Joan scooped Bruno up and held him close, letting him lick her face. "He's excited. He loves a good run."
Ned sat back down, still frowning, pulling off his shoe and reaching for the hem of Joan's gown to clean it.
She plucked her skirt out of his hand. "No! And don't pout. You remind me of your grandam when you pout. Let me enjoy my victory for a while. Mother will sour things soon enough."
As if she'd conjured her, Joan heard Countess Margaret far away, calling her name. Let her worry. She was consorting with the enemy. Joan looked at the still grumbling Ned--at such moments she disliked him as well. He, too, was the enemy. The whole royal family. They'd not even tried to save her father.
Hugging Bruno close, she started down the slope in the direction of the village. Ned might do as he pleased. She had just stepped out of the woodland path onto the village track when he caught up with her.
"Look." He pointed. "On the church porch."
It was a young couple in their best clothes, turning to each other to clasp hands, an older couple holding flowers and murmuring encouragement.
"Bran and Tam are finally exchanging vows!" Joan was fond of the two villagers, who worked in the palace kitchen on state occasions, good-naturedly looking the other way when the children helped themselves. "He must have had a good harvest."
They crept to the side of the church and peeked round the corner. As the man began to speak, Ned turned to Joan, taking her hand and echoing Bran's vow in his high voice, changing only the names, "I, Edward of Woodstock, will take you, Joan of Kent, as my wife." As Tam began, he whispered, "Now say your part."
Joan shook her head. "Vows are not a jape, Ned, and our parents will never agree." Besides, she was almost as good as betrothed to Sir Edward Montagu, a handsome man she liked very well, the youngest brother of her mother's lover. Bruno had been Sir Edward's pre-betrothal gift to her.
"Say it." Ned squeezed her hand too hard, and she saw the temper in his eyes. In such moods, he could forget his affection for her.
Rather than risk his lashing out she bowed her head, crossed her fingers on both hands, and rushed through the words, "I, Joan of Kent, will take you, Edward of Woodstock, as my husband."
"Now kiss me."
Bruno wriggled out of her grasp. She pecked Ned's cheek.
"We are now betrothed, and you cannot accept another gift like Bruno."
"I have him. I don't need another dog."
Ned gloated. "Grandam will be furious when I tell her you're my betrothed. It's better than your banner. Joan of Kent, Queen of England. Hah!"
He would make a mess of it. "No! You must promise me you'll say nothing to Lady Isabella. Nothing. Or she'll punish Mother." Joan knew that vows taken on a church porch might bind commoners, but not the son and cousin of the king, not Plantagenets. Even so, Ned's taunt would give the dowager queen an excuse to do something unpleasant. Or to make certain her son the king refused Edward Montagu in favor of a husband who would take Joan far away from home. Isabella hated the Montagus even more than she did Joan's mother. "Promise."
Ned made a face, but muttered, "I promise."
Joan went off after the scampering terrier.
Late in the afternoon the cousins walked back hand in hand, Bruno leading the way. At the bottom of the garden, they came upon a group of young boys from Ned's household.
One of them stood with head bowed, hands tied behind his back, wearing the white hart banner as a tabard. Joan halted, transfixed in outrage.
"Here stands before you Edmund, Earl of Kent, traitor to the crown!" another boy called out.
"My father was no traitor! Isabella and Mortimer were the traitors!" Joan snapped, running forward to tear the banner off the boy. "How did you get this?"
"The dowager queen had it thrown out onto the midden, where a traitor's banner belongs," said the one who had spoken.
Ned reared back and punched him in the nose, then pushed the other three to the ground. "My uncle was no traitor. Apologize to Lady Joan!" His voice might be that of an eight-year-old boy, high-pitched, ill suited to such declarations, but as that of the future king it held power over the boys. They mumbled their apologies to Joan.
Ned handed her the banner. "Keep this as a reminder of our troth."
She recoiled. "It's a reminder of my father." Though it was now tattered and stained, a muddy footprint dulling the colors, she clutched it to her heart and turned away, stumbling on through the garden, blinking back tears as she slipped into the palace and prepared to face her mother.
Countess Margaret paced her bedchamber, so angry that her voice was like a growl. "Did I not teach you never to let her see your pain, daughter? Do you hear nothing I say? Where is your pride?"
"You'd let her forget him. I won't."
"As if reminding her might make her care? Teach her remorse? Pah! The prince put you up to this, didn't he? You are three years older than he is. Stand your ground! You're always the one punished, never him. And this time your own maidservant will suffer as well. Kit's confessed to bribing the servant to climb up there and switch the banners. I've sent her to the scullery. Mary will replace her as your maidservant."
"Mary the telltale tit?" Joan cried.
"Precisely. I will know what you do, to whom, and when." Margaret took Joan by the shoulders and shook her. "How could you do this to me? Your safety is within reach. We need only the king's blessing on the betrothal."
"I cannot bear how she orders you about as if you're still in her household. She had Father beheaded!"
"And would have had me follow him to the block but for the child I carried in my womb. Mark me, we will both pay for this." Margaret left the room in a silken fury.
Joan pressed the banner to her heart and flung herself on the bed, cursing the boys who had ruined it. Not for a moment did she regret angering Isabella with the banner. She regretted only her mother's distress. She understood why Margaret so wanted her wed to a Montagu--Joan would be safe from the dowager queen's meddling in the bosom of the family Isabella so detested.
By the time her mother returned, Joan was ready to beg her forgiveness for jeopardizing her hard work.
Margaret hugged her daughter. "I understand how you feel about Isabella, my love. This banner--it is beautiful work. I shall clean it and mend it, then hang it in our hall." She kissed Joan's forehead.
"And Kit? Can I have her back?"
"No, Kit needs to learn her place." Margaret mimicked Joan's pout, but smiled to soften it. "Mary cannot be all bad. Bruno likes her."
It was true. He went to the maidservant as readily as he did to Joan, happy to be held by her. "All she knows how to do is gossip and find ways to avoid her duties."
"Her parents have been good and loyal servants. It is up to you to train her to be likewise."
A few days after Martinmas, Joan woke shivering. the alcove in which she slept with her maidservant, Mary, was ice-cold. "Bruno!" She sat up. "Where are you, my little hand warmer?" He was always there with her when she woke. But not this morning. "Bruno?" She flinched as her bare feet touched the wood floor. "Bruno!" Pulling on her fur-lined cloak, she padded out to the landing. Down below, Mary huddled with Ned and two of the kitchen servants.
"Have you seen Bruno?"
She saw it in their faces even before Ned stepped forward with the puppy, lying limp and lifeless in his arms.