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The Innocent : War of the Roses Series : Book 1 - Posie Graeme-Evans

The Innocent

War of the Roses Series : Book 1

Paperback

Published: 1st October 2010
Ships: 5 to 9 business days
5 to 9 business days
RRP $22.99
$21.50

The year is 1450, a dangerous time in medieval Britain. Civil unrest is at its peak and the legitimacy of the royal family is suspect. Meanwhile, deep in the forests of western England, a baby is born. Powerful forces plot to kill both mother and child, but somehow the newborn girl survives. Her name is Anne.

Fifteen years later, England emerges into a fragile but hopeful new age, with the charismatic young King Edward IV on the throne. Anne, now a young peasant girl, joins the household of a wealthy London merchant. Her unusual beauty provokes jealousy, lust, and intrigue, but Anne has a special quality that saves her: a vast knowledge of healing herbs. News of her extraordinary gift spreads, and she is called upon to save the ailing queen. Soon after, Anne is moved into the palace, where she finds her destiny with the man who will become the greatest love of her life -- the king himself.

About the Author

Posie Graeme-Evans is the author of five novels, most recently The Island House. She has worked in the Australian film and television industry for the last thirty years as an editor, director, and producer on hundreds of primetime television programs, including "McLeod's Daughters" and "Hi-5." She lives in Tasmania with her husband and creative partner, Andrew Blaxland.

Prologue

Prelude


That winter had bitten down hard and early, the ground almost ringing as the horses stumbled against frozen clods on the track leading to the forest.

It was late afternoon and great clouds, bellies heavy with snow, were building into the west, crowding out the last light of the day. The wind was rising, too, and the man on the big roan horse was anxious. His exhausted animal stumbled again, and as he jerked its head up with a curse his eyes scanned the face of the darkening forest. This was not a good place to stop, too exposed, but he had no choice; he would have to wait for the messenger.

Behind him the small party of mounted men came to a ragged halt around the curtained wagon; military discipline still held them, but each face, and the state of their animals, told the same story. This had been a long, cold journey.

As the wagon lurched to a stop, a woman's white face appeared cautiously between the worn leather curtains: a strongly defined nose, prominent cheekbones, not beautiful but handsome, somewhere in her thirties. Clambering down onto the frozen ground, she quickly covered nose and mouth with a red gauze veil -- one note of color in a white and black world. Dark was falling fast and the wind had turned to the east. Trying not to run, she hurried

toward the man scanning the forest in front of them, shivering convulsively as the cold cut to her skin even through her fur-lined cloak.

The horse and rider loomed above but the captain ignored

her. "Sir!" She spoke sharply, half panting from...what was it? Fear. Wearily the man looked down and the woman's words dried in her mouth as the hard eyes stared into hers. His insolence gave her courage. "Sir...the baby. My mistress needs a proper bed to give the child -- "

"What, madam? Give it life? Better it dies now -- her too."

As he spoke there was a shout from the soldiers around the wagon, and they both heard, rather than saw, the horse and rider coming at a gallop out of the forest. The captain called strongly, "Here, Peter, to me! Here! What did they say to you?"

Even angry as she was, Jehanne muttered, "Thanks be, Our Lady," as she hurried back through the gloom to the wagon. Now perhaps they might move on and make the hunting lodge while there was still time.

Her lips thinned as she clambered back into the wagon. That great oaf needn't think she was going to forget any of this. No, indeed -- she was going to remember everything, from the cushions that had long since lost their stuffing, to the bearskin rugs that were old, foul with dust, and nearly hairless. And not even a proper escort! Just let them get this child safely born and then she would see that look wiped off his sneering face!

"Where are you, sweeting? We'll be on our way again soon...don't you fear." Jehanne reached out in the darkness for her mistress, keeping up a steady stream of bright chatter as the heavy vehicle lurched on again. "There now, where's that head of yours, just let me feel it. Has the headache left you?"

Poor child. All her adult life Jehanne had helped birth babies, but this one had felt wrong from the first pains brought on by the dreadful journey. Of course, she knew that very young first-time mothers often suffered greatly, but given the circumstances, and the danger, panic began to clamp her throat. The girl's flesh felt cold but her pulse had a fluttering speed that scared Jehanne profoundly. Suddenly the swollen shape in the dark, Alyce's body, convulsed and she screamed sharply.

"Ah come, mistress, lean on me," Jehanne soothed. If only they would give her a lantern, if only the journey would end, but the wagon swayed and bucked on down the forest road, behind its four stoic bullocks.

The captain heard the girl scream again as he led his party deeper and deeper into the forest on their thankless errand. He hardened his heart. His business and that of his men was to bring the girl and her woman to their destination safely -- and to do that he had to find speed or they would all be caught in the forest this night; fine work for a man of his background and experience.

And that was his last thought as the arrow cut through his chest and into his heart, which exploded. Carried by the force, his body dropped off the stallion and the horse, spooked by the sudden smell of blood, plunged riderless into the darkness between the trees. The five soldiers in the party scattered, trying to find shelter from the arrows raining down from the men in the branches above.

There was no time for thought. Jehanne heard the screams of men and horses, felt the wagon pitch to a stop. Acting by instinct, she bundled the large fur rug around her barely conscious mistress and found the strength to pull Alyce out of the back of the wagon and push them both at a stumbling run into the forest.

Behind her, the soldiers had rallied, giving Jehanne precious seconds to drag the semidelirious girl away from the carnage and into the cold dark between the trees.

As she half carried Alyce deeper and deeper into the forest, away from the noise and terror, Jehanne forced herself to think, think hard. If they were to survive, never mind the child, they had to hide, very fast. The soldiers might be able to hold off the attackers for a while, and in the confusion, maybe they had made their escape undetected, but at the back of her mind Jehanne heard a voice saying, very clearly: It's the baby they want. They'll not care who dies.

Sudden shouting began again: the attackers had discovered the wagon was empty. She'd have to make Alyce run now, really run, and Lady Mary help them.

It was then she felt the hand of God, for at the moment she uttered her prayer, Jehanne heard the jingle of a bit, and turned to see the captain's horse nervously cropping forage two paces away. Sobbing with relief, she eased Alyce to the ground as gently as she could and, heart in throat, stretched her hand to the dangling reins of the destrier. The horse balked and threw his head up, but Jehanne had found the leather and hung on desperately, whispering all the while, "Gentle, gentle."

Frantic with terror, she heard men blundering closer through the trees, calling out to each other, as she dragged the horse to the girl and forced Alyce up into the saddle. She scrambled up behind and, with one foot in a stirrup and her kirtle up around her thighs, kicked the stallion on with a great jolting thump in the ribs. Startled, the horse leaped forward, nearly unseating them both as it ran blindly into the trees.

It was a wild ride -- branches ripped past their faces, nearly sweeping both women off the animal's back -- but somehow Jehanne held on to the horse and the girl as she tried to guide the animal. The stallion plunged on and then, under the animal's labored breathing, the thudding hooves, the men's voices disappeared. They were alone, careering through the darkness of the wild wood.

Jehanne let the horse run for a time to be sure they'd lost their pursuers, and then with all her strength, she hauled on the stallion's mouth to slow him. This was a destrier, however, a knight's horse, seventeen hands high with great solid legs, hooves like buckets, and a back built for carrying an armored man. He hardly felt the hands tugging so desperately at the bit as he settled into a lumbering gallop on an overgrown trail through the trees.

In front of Jehanne, Alyce groaned deeply as she felt the gush and splash of liquid flood out of her body -- her waters had broken. The horse smelled the blood and panicked: putting his head down, he flew faster and faster over the broken ground. Jehanne knew the only way she could stop the horse was to turn him in a tight circle -- a mad thing to try, racing between such massive trunks. With no time for conscious thought, she yanked down hard on the left rein with all her strength as the girl screamed and screamed again.

Unnerved by the noise, the horse broke his stride and stumbled. It was enough. Once more Jehanne wrenched the rein, savagely cutting the horse's mouth with the bit, and the stallion faltered around to the left, just missing a huge down-hanging branch. Now Jehanne dragged at both reins together and, arms screaming with the effort, forced the frightened animal to halt.

Before Jehanne could prevent it, Alyce slid to the ground and lay groaning, too close to the horse's dancing hooves. Jehanne forced the animal back and away by main force and, leaping down, quickly wound the reins around a branch and ran to the girl.

Alyce keened like a snared animal as every second breath became a scream. "I'm here, my precious, shush now, shush now, little Alyce," Jehanne murmured. But the birth was not going well. Strain as she might, the girl's frail body, caught up in the bloodied folds of her velvet kirtle, could not expel the child from her belly.

What light there was showed the staring, white face contorted in an agonized rictus, and Jehanne knew that if either mother or child were to be saved, she would have to help the baby out. Praying fervently to Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin and patron saint of women in labor, Jehanne wiped her hands on her surcoat and then, as gently as she could, slid her fingers into the girl, trying to feel for the head of the child, just as she had seen her father's chief shepherd do on cold nights when the ewes would not bear.

Alyce was fading further into delirium but Jehanne persisted, trying to will life into the girl: "Push now for me, Alyce. Come, one more hearty push -- help me, child." But Alyce did not respond. Fiercely wiping tears away, Jehanne slapped the girl, hard, her hand leaving a red mark on the white skin. "Alyce! Push for me, for your baby. Push!" And as the poor girl's body made a convulsive response, Jehanne felt the crown of the baby's head nudge her hands. "The babe's here -- push, push down now. God's blood -- push!"

With a wrenching wail, the girl half sat up and pushed the child into Jehanne's hands -- white and covered in wax, mucus, and blood, but alive, crying loudly. It was a girl of good size and weight, the principal reason for her mother's long labor. Pulling her surcoat over her head, oblivious to the cold, Jehanne wrapped the baby in the sleeveless fur-lined garment and placed her on Alyce's belly. The cord was still pulsing and the afterbirth had not yet come away: time enough later to sever the baby's last physical link to her mother. Jehanne turned her attention back to Alyce. In despair, she saw there was nothing to be done. The girl was hemorrhaging into the earth -- and the flood would only increase when the afterbirth came down. She would die.

The baby whimpered, and with great sadness, Jehanne unlaced the top of her mistress's dress, propped the girl against her in a sitting position, and placed the infant to Alyce's breast, smiling slightly as she saw the snuffling urgency with which the baby sucked.

Slowly, Alyce opened her eyes and Jehanne's heart turned over as she saw the girl fasten her gaze on the baby's nestled head: the look of passionate love transformed her face with a glimmer of some inner light. With infinite gentleness, Alyce arranged the folds of the surcoat around the child so that she was better covered, and tried to speak: "Jehanne, in my pocket...scissors..." It was barely a whisper.

Jehanne fumbled in the little drawstring bag that was slung from Alyce's slender, plaited belt and found a tiny pair of scissors, gold handled with chased silver blades designed for fine needlework, and very rare and valuable. Quickly undoing the belt, Jehanne used it to tie off the baby's cord, which in the uncertain light seemed to have stopped pulsing, and taking a deep breath, she snipped it through.

At that moment the girl gave a gentle sigh, and as if something had broken inside her, the afterbirth slid out in a great rush of blood. Jehanne knew then, even as she called out her name, that Alyce had died, the baby still tugging at her breast.

Sitting there in a daze of tears with the dead girl propped in her arms, Jehanne felt rather than saw someone standing in front of her; she flinched as the figure held up a lantern and flicked the horn light shield aside so that light poured onto her face.

"My name is Deborah; I am here to help. Do not be afraid."

Perhaps it was the unexpected light, perhaps the kidness in the stranger's eyes, but Jehanne did not hesitate. Gently she detached the baby from her mother's breast, closed Alyce's eyes and kissed her still-warm brow.

"Bless you and keep you," she whispered. "I'll pray for you, Alyce."

There was nothing else to be done. The cries of the child grew fainter and fainter as the two women stole away in the dark, night-hung forest, leaving the dead girl behind, alone among the trees.

Copyright © 2002 by Posie Graeme-Evans

ISBN: 9780731814732
ISBN-10: 0731814738
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 528
Published: 1st October 2010
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Australia
Dimensions (cm): 23.4 x 15.2
Weight (kg): 0.29