Andrew Danbray-20 November 1370
Andrew Danbray, recently appointed Master of the King’s Horse, squeezed his way back into the room through the barely opened doorway. He shut the door forcibly behind him but was not quick enough to prevent a draught of air swirling through the room.
The fire flared and a small tornado of smoke escaped from the fireplace adding to the dark stain which covered the central third of the mantelpiece. Two lithe hunting dogs hurriedly left the fireplace and sprinted twice round the central table, squabbling half-heartedly, before settling in the far corner of the room.
Andrew shuddered, then he too crossed the room and obsessively tightened the closure of the shutters of each window. He pulled the heavy curtains together and carefully adjusted them so that the edges of each pair of curtains were coiled together making a seal. Finally, he adjusted the embroidered bags of sand which pinned the bottom of the curtains to the floor. As he did so there was a flash of lightning… which despite his efforts could be clearly seen around the periphery of the curtains.
‘One, two, three, four.’
The clap of thunder was deafening.
He turned to face the table.
‘Four miles away at the moment, but getting closer by the minute. It’s going to be a foul night.’ He smiled, ‘however we don’t have to go out into it… now, have you all got a drink?’
Most of them nodded assent, but some looked askance. Andrew sensed that the younger members of the group needed encouragement.
‘Just help yourself, there is plenty in the jugs and there is far more where that came from.’
The table was littered with the remains of a meal.
Andrew cleared a space in front of one of the empty chairs and poured himself a mug of beer, before collapsing into the chair with a resounding thud.
‘I thought it better to take the ladies through to the retreat before continuing the conversation.’ Again most of his listeners nodded assent. ‘Henry, you were speaking, I think?’
‘Yes, I was.’ Henry d’Arcy groaned gently and combed his fingers through a shock of curly hair. ‘Look, if I must, I will apologise. I really didn’t think I was saying anything controversial. I merely asked if any of us had actually met the Countess and if so, what did they think of her.’
Andrew picked up his mug and took several gulps before putting the mug down again and wiping his lips. ‘I was protecting you Henry, and perhaps the rest of us. Your wife Persephone is often seen in the company of the Countess,’ he paused, ‘and we must be careful not to upset… the Countess.’
Henry’s eyes narrowed. ‘The Countess of Shaftesbury? You are scared of her?’
‘No not scared, but certainly cautious.’
‘You think the Countess could, would damage me, us? Because of a chance comment at a dinner? In any case, someone would have to tell her.’ His eyes narrowed even further. ‘That’s ridiculous; you think my own wife might betray my inner thoughts?’
Andrew pursed his lips. ‘The Countess has the most unbelievable power, unbelievable influence, unbelievable persuasiveness.’ he said quietly.
‘And has she more power, and influence than Alice Perrers, the Kings mistress?’
‘Yes I believe she has.’
There was a babble of conversation.
‘Well, who is she then?’
‘Where did she come from?’
‘What is the source of her wealth?’
‘How does she exert her power.’
‘What is she trying to achieve?’
Andrew took a deep breath and waited for the hubbub to subside. He spoke slowly and carefully. ‘It might help if we understand the Countess’s story. That in turn might indicate what her mission might be…and how it might affect us.
The table was suddenly silent.
Finally, it was Henry who completed the cycle by breaking the silence. ‘And you know?’
Andrew held both his hands in the air. ‘I can only tell you what Geoffrey Chaucer has told me. As you know, he tells a good story and, he is now married to Philippa de Roet. He says Philippa makes it her business to know everything.
He thought for a moment. ‘In addition, Philippa is very close to the Countess, so the story probably has some validity.’
He paused again, carefully refilling his mug. ‘Geoffrey was going to publish the story himself but someone got to him, almost certainly the King. We mustn’t forget that the King has granted Geoffrey a barrel of claret a day for life! For services rendered! A rather generous reward! What services?’
Andrew glanced around the room. Every eye was riveted on him.
‘Well, anyway, I can tell the story as it was told to me, at least if we keep it within these four walls. There are surprises! But I can’t finish it tonight. If we meet once every month, it might take four or five months to tell the whole story. It will be our Winters Tale.
There was a mutter of agreement.
‘Good then let’s start. Imagine you are in the Northern Pyrenees, nearly sixteen years ago, in 1355’. He chortled with laughter. ‘No, No! I will change that. I told you there would be surprises! Let us start fourteen years earlier, in Avignon at… The palace of Pope Benedict XI.