The third book of The Crucible, an exciting new historical fantasy from the author of the popular Axis Trilogy. The crises enveloping Europe begin to alter the mentality of the world. People are no longer content with their lot in life; they have grown ambitious and disruptive. The Church is losing its grip, not only are the heresies raging out of control, but more and more priests are speaking out against the Roman Church...the order of the world is dissolving into chaos. Neville faces his own crisis as he begins to question his faith. Inflitrating many social circles, gathering information for the Church, he meets the heretic priest John Wycliffe and the peasant rebel Wat Tyler. He suspects strongly that they are shapeshifting demons...yet he cannot help but agree with their criticisms of the traditional structures of society and of the Church itself. Neville does not know it, but his soul has become the ultimate battleground. The choices he makes will dictate the final outcome of the battle between the forces of good, and those of evil.
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Sara Douglass was born in Penola, South Australia, and spent her early working life as a nurse. Rapidly growing tired of starched veils, mitred corners and irascible anaesthetists, she worked her way through three degrees at the University of Adelaide, culminating in a PhD in early modern English history. Sara Douglass currently teaches medieval history of La Trobe University, Bendigo and escapes academia through her writing.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Tuesday 30th April 1381 LORD THOMAS NEVILLE walked slowly through the gardens of Windsor Castle, heading for the entrance to the King’s Cloister. He narrowed his eyes slightly against the mid-morning brightness of the sun, enjoying its welcome warmth even though its glare made his eyes ache.
Windsor Castle had long been favoured by the English kings, but since his coronation seven months ago, Bolingbroke had made it his main residence. He’d not wanted to reside in Westminster, which he thought cold and uncomfortable; the Savoy was still in ruins; Lambeth Palace was unavailable now that the new Archbishop of Canterbury had moved in; and the only other truly regal palace in London was the Tower, which needed another few months’ worth of renovations before it could be suitable to use as Bolingbroke’s royal residence. So Bolingbroke had moved his court to Windsor, a solid day’s ride west from London.
Neville raised his face slightly, staring towards the silvery stone walls of the castle, looking for the tall, graceful, second-level windows of the Great Chamber. Ah . . . there they were, so afire with the glare of the sun that no outsider would be able to peer through and intrude upon the privacy of the chamber’s occupants. Neville had no doubt that by this time of the day Bolingbroke would be settled with his advisers and secretaries and counsellors.
And here Neville was in the gardens.
“My Lord Neville! Morning’s greetings to you!”
Neville jumped, silently cursing the sudden thudding of his heart. He squinted against the sun, then relaxed, nodding to the man striding down the garden path towards him.
“My Lord Mayor,” he said, extending a hand. “My congratulations on your recent election.”
Dick Whittington took Neville’s hand in a firm grasp, then indicated a nearby bench. “If you’re in no hurry, my lord?”
Neville sat with Whittington on the bench, wondering what the Lord Mayor could want to say to him.
“I am pleased to have this chance to speak with you, my lord, that I might ask after your lovely wife and children.”
“Margaret? Why, she is well, as are Rosalind and Bohun,” Neville responded, surprised at the enquiry. Whittington hardly knew Margaret . . .
“I have just come from the Great Chamber,” Whittington said, after a slight hesitation, “and an audience with our king—you know of his edicts regarding education, and clocks?”
Neville nodded. Over the past months Hal had instructed that science and the new humanities were to receive a greater weight in schools at the expense of religion, while clock hours were to replace church hours of prayer in people’s daily lives.
It was all, Neville knew, part of Hal’s not-so-subtle turning of his subjects’ hearts and minds away from the religious to the secular.
“Aye, well,” Whittington continued, “I needed to consult with His Grace over some of the details of the new school curricula, and the appropriate fees the clock-maker’s guild can charge for the installation of clocks in all London’s gates and major steeples.”
Neville shifted impatiently, wondering why Whittington was subjecting him to this pointless conversation.
“My lord,” Whittington said, his eyes narrowing in what might have been amusement, “I am keeping you from your duties, and for that I apologise, but—”
Ah, Neville thought, now we reach the heart of the matter.
“—I admit to some curiosity, even some concern, over the fact that His Grace now conducts his morning’s counsel . . . and you are not there to advise him. I remember the dark days of Richard’s reign, and his cruel edicts and taxes which set England’s peasants into rebellion, and to their destructive march on London. I remember you and Hal as confidants, brothers almost, in the desperate quest to discover a means to end Richard’s cruel reign. I remember how you fought together, in England’s name, to put Hal on the throne and Richard in close prison.”
Then I did not know that Hal was the Demon-King, Neville thought, keeping the expression on his face a mixture of the vaguely pleasant and the vaguely impatient. Then I did not know the extent of his manipulations and his lies. We were close then, but now I know what truly he is, and how he used me, our “brotherhood” is at an end. Neville simply did not know anymore whether Hal had seized the throne for the good of England . . . or if Hal wished to use the English throne as a base from which to launch a campaign of European (if not world) conquest. Should Neville believe Hal’s protestations of wanting to work for the good of all men and women, or should he listen to his doubts, which whispered that Hal was interested in only one thing—using demonic power to enslave mankind?
As a result of his doubts, and because he simply no longer trusted Hal, Neville had distanced himself from his once close friend.
“Hal is now king,” Neville said. “He has great lords and Privy Councillors, and even,” he allowed himself a small smile, “Lord Mayors to advise him. He does not need me so much.”
“And the friendship has died along with Hal’s elevation to the throne? I ask,” Whittington hurried on, noting the surprise in Neville’s face, “because I care deeply for Hal, and I cannot think that he is the better man for the loss of your friendship.”
“He has not lost my friendship,” Neville said, noting Whittington’s easy use of Bolingbroke’s Christian name. “We have merely grown distant with circumstances.” He did not say that what Bolingbroke had lost was Neville’s complete trust once he’d realised the depth of Bolingbroke’s lies and manipulations.
“Hal did what he needed to gain the throne,” Whittington said very quietly. “England is the better land for his actions.”
Now Neville stared outright at Whittington. What did he allude to? Bolingbroke’s rebellion against Richard, or the series of well-planned murders that ensured Bolingbroke was the only Plantagenet left to succeed to the throne?
And if Whittington alluded to the murders . . . then what did that make the Lord Mayor? Man, or demon?
“Who are you?” Whittington said, his voice still quiet. “Hal’s man, or the angels’?”
With that question Whittington displayed an understanding that only a demon could have known: that Neville was the angels’ chosen champion against the demons. Since discovering Hal’s true nature, as well that “demons” were in fact the result of angels’ liaisons with human women, Neville had retreated from his original fanatical support of the Church, but he had yet to choose whether he would fight for the angels or for the demons. Both sides curried his favour, but as yet Neville was highly reluctant to make his decision. There was so much as stake.
Neville abruptly stood, knowing now on which side the Lord Mayor fought. “I am my own man, my Lord Mayor,” he said, knowing that would be the answer Bolingbroke most feared, and knowing Whittington would certainly report it back to the king. “And now, I will detain you no longer. I am sure London needs its Lord Mayor more than I do.”
And with that he turned and strode away.
As Neville disappeared into the building, Whittington looked to the windows of the Great Chamber, and shook his head slightly.
BOLINGBROKE LOOKED down from the window of the Great Chamber, catching the shake of Whittington’s head.
His face hardened, his suspicions confirmed.
Behind him droned on the voices of his advisers, debating the merits of raising the passport application fee yet again, but Bolingbroke heard none of it.
Instead, his thoughts were full of Neville.
Why was Archangel Michael so confident of Neville? How could he be so sure of him?
“What is your secret, Tom?” Bolingbroke murmured. “What is your secret?”
NEVILLE BLINKED as he walked under the stone arch into the shaded walks of the King’s Cloister. There were a few people about enjoying the early spring air, but it was still relatively quiet.
Neville nodded to two young lords whom he knew, then ducked into the stairwell that led to the royal apartments on the second level.
He emerged in the upper gallery, but turned away from the door leading to the Great Chamber and to Bolingbroke. Neither did Neville so much as glance at the open door of the beautiful chapel that ran along the upper gallery at right angles to the Great Chamber.
Instead, Neville walked purposefully towards the Queen’s apartments and the loveliest chamber in the entire castle complex—the Rose Tower.
He paused at the door, nodding to the two guards standing outside, then walked through without any announcement . . . apart from Bolingbroke, Neville was the only person in the royal court (in the entire kingdom) permitted so to do by the lady within.
Neville paused just inside the door, hearing it close softly behind him, and looked about.
There were several ladies in the chamber, all grouped about the hearth, spinning and gossiping softly.
Margaret was not among them, and Neville supposed his wife was still in their apartment with their two children.
Mary lay on a couch set by the windows so that the morning light could fall upon her, and so that her gaze could in turn fall upon the awakening springtime outside.
Neville smiled, knowing Mary regarded him from under her downcast eyelashes, and walked towards her. As he did so, he once more admired the beauty of this chamber, as he did every time he entered it.
Bolingbroke’s grandfather, Edward III, had redeveloped and redecorated much of Windsor Castle, and the pride of his refurbishing was the Rose Tower chamber, which Edward had made his inner sanctum. The walls and domed ceiling were painted deep crimson, and covered with scattered stars. At regular intervals across this bloodied, starry night were brilliant green enamelled cartouches, each holding within its gilded border a single delicate rose. Now Edward was dead, as was his successor Richard, and Bolingbroke was king, but it was Bolingbroke’s wife, Mary, who had taken this most beautiful of chambers as her inner sanctum, and that, Neville thought as he knelt on one knee beside her couch, was only as it should be.
“My lady queen,” he murmured, kissing her hand. “How do you this fine morning?”
“The better for your presence, Lord Neville,” Mary replied, and smiled.
Neville’s eyes sparkled with merriment. “My lady queen,” he said, continuing their playful formality, “may I beg your indulgence to rise from my poor knee, and perchance—”
“Sit at the end of my couch,” Mary said, laughing now, “where, Jesu willing, you might cease your groaning.”
Neville did as she bade, careful not to disturb the silken wrap about her, or to place any pressure near the delicate bones of her ankles and feet. For a minute he did not speak, studying her face.
Mary watched him unquestioningly, for this moment of silent regard was a normal part of their morning greeting ritual.
“You have slept well,” Neville said finally.
“Aye. My physician, Culpeper, has formulated a new liquor which allows me to forget my aches and moans for an hour more each night.”
Neville’s merriment faded at Mary’s mention of her illness. Ever since her marriage to Bolingbroke, Mary had been wasting away from a growth in her womb. Sometimes she had a period of wellness that lasted as long as three or four weeks; more often she lay as she did this day, pale-skinned with dark pouches under eyes shadowed with pain.
And yet never did she complain, or moan about the injustice of life.
Silently, Neville reached out a hand and took hers. If his relationship with Bolingbroke had slid from deep friendship into wary politeness, then his relationship with Mary had taken the opposite path. Neville spent several hours each day with Mary—no doubt occasioning much gossip in court—talking, playing chess or, as now, merely sitting with her as he held her hand.
Her condition had stabilised somewhat over the past five or six months. From what both Mary and Margaret had told him, Neville knew that the mass in her womb had stopped actively growing and had instead shrunk to a small, hard lump; Mary no longer exhibited signs of pregnancy, nor expelled blackened spongy portions of the growth. Nevertheless, it continued to suck at Mary’s vitality, and often to cause her great pain and discomfort.
But not to any mortal extent.
Neville wondered what Bolingbroke thought about this.
Bolingbroke and Mary no longer shared the same bed, both claiming that her illness made it impossible for Bolingbroke to sleep well. Bolingbroke had moved to chambers in a distant corner of the royal apartments, where he made no secret of occasionally sharing his nights with an accommodating lady of the court. Mary shrugged away her husband’s unfaithfulness, and from the few words she’d said to him about it, Neville knew that she was secretly glad to escape the burden of her husband’s sexual demands. She was not bitter, nor angry, and spoke of and to her husband with the greatest respect and good humour.
Neville thought her a saint, but he was unsure about how Bolingbroke regarded Mary’s continuing grip on life. As a man (as a man-demon), Bolingbroke loved and lusted for another woman, Catherine of France. As a king, he lusted for the day he could hold a male heir in his arms.
Mary stood in the way of both lusts, and showed no sign of moving into the waiting pit of her grave any time in the near future.
Mary’s hand tightened very slightly around his, and Neville wondered if she somehow not only could read his thoughts, but thought also to offer him comfort instead of asking it for herself.
Then the door to the chamber opened, breaking the spell between them.
A guard entered. “The Lady Margaret Neville,” he said, bowing in Mary’s direction, “with her children.”
Mary let Neville’s hand go, then smiled. “Let her enter,” she said, and the guard bowed once again and opened the door wide. MARGARET WALKED through the door, her seven-month-old son, Bohun, nestled in her arms. Directly behind Margaret was her maid, Agnes, with Margaret’s two-year-old daughter, Rosalind, tugging at one of Agnes’ hands as she looked curiously about her.
Both Margaret and Agnes sank into deep curtsies. Then Margaret took Rosalind and walked to where Mary and Neville-sat. Agnes retired to a stool in a corner by the hearth to await her mistress’ pleasure.
Margaret glanced at her husband as she approached, then smiled warmly at Mary. “How do you this day, madam?”
“Well, thank you, Margaret. I think that perhaps you and I can walk a little about the gardens this afternoon. It shall be a beautiful day.”
“Gladly, madam.” She started to say more, but then Rosalind broke free from her grip and scampered over to Mary, clambering up on the couch and cuddling in close to the woman. Margaret half reached out to grab her away, then saw the expression on Mary’s face and dropped her hand.
“Do not let her hurt you, madam,” Margaret said.
Mary’s face had lit up as Rosalind snuggled into her body, and now she lifted her eyes to Margaret, and laughed a little. “What? This child? Hurt me? Nay, how can love hurt?”
Again Margaret felt her eyes sliding towards Neville, who she knew was regarding her steadily.
“You are so blessed in your children,” Mary said in a half-whisper. One of her hands slowly stroked Rosalind’s shining dark curls. Then she looked at Margaret again. “And in your husband.”
Now Margaret could not help but look at Neville. He smiled slightly, but she could not entirely read the expression in his eyes, and so she looked away again. WHEN THEY left the Rose Tower Margaret handed the two children into Agnes’ care and asked Neville if he would walk...
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