1 May 1497
Claiborn Winslow leaned forward and patted his horse’s sweaty neck. “Well done, Ned.” He had pushed the stallion harder than he liked, but after so many months away he was hungry for home. He straightened in the saddle and gazed with pleasure at Stoneybrook, the Winslows’ ancestral castle. It had withstood siege and battle, and it bore all the marks that time makes upon structures as well as upon men. There was nothing particularly beautiful about Stoneybrook. There were many castles in England that had more pleasing aspects. But Claiborn loved it more than any other.
The spring had brought a rich emerald-green growth to all the countryside, and verdant fields nuzzled against the very walls of Stoneybrook. If they were any indication, the summer’s harvest would be good, indeed. The castle itself crowned a hill and was dominated by a formidable wall, outside of which a small village thrived. Even now, late in the day, people and carts and horses moved in and out of the central gate, and on the battlements Claiborn saw the banner of Winslow fluttering in the late-afternoon breeze, as if beckoning to him.
“My heaven, it’s good to be home!”
He laughed at himself, adding, “I’m talking to myself. I must be worse off than I thought.” His mind cascaded back to the battles he had seen, rare but fierce, and the men he had encountered. Some dreaded battle, feared it and could not force themselves forward. Others found joy in the clash of weapons and the shouts of victory when the battle was over. Claiborn was one of these, finding a natural rhythm to battle, a path from start to finish that seemed to be preordained for him. When the trumpets sounded and the drums rolled, his heart burned with excitement. God help him, he loved it. Loved being a soldier. But this, returning to Stoneybrook, had its own charm.
“Come on, Ned.” Kicking his horse’s sides Claiborn guided the animal to the village gate, and as he passed through, he ran across an old acquaintance, Ryland Tolliver, one of the blacksmiths who served Lord Edmund Winslow and the others of the family as well.
“Well, bless my soul!” Ryland boomed. “If it’s not the soldier home from the wars!” He was a bulky man, his shoulders broad, his hands like steel hooks from his years at the forge. He laughed as Claiborn dismounted. “Good to see you, man. You’re just getting home. All in one piece, I see.”
“All in one piece.” The two men shook hands, and Claiborn had to squeeze hard to keep his hand from being crushed by the burly blacksmith. “How are things here? My mother and my brother?”
“The same as they were when you left. What did you expect? We’d fall to pieces without you to keep us straight?”
“No, I’m not as vain as that. I’m sure the world would jog on pretty well without me.”
“Tell me about the wars, man.”
“Not now. I need to go see my family. But I’ll come back later. We’ll have enough ale to float a ship. I’ll tell you lies about how I won the battles. You can tell lies about how you’ve won over the virtue of poor Sally McFarland.”
“Sally McFarland? Why, she left here half a year ago.”
“I thought you were going to marry that girl.”
“She had other ideas. A blacksmith wasn’t good enough for her.” He looked at Ned and said, “Not much of a horse.”
“He’s a stayer. That’s what I like. He needs shoeing, though. I’ll leave him with you. Feed him something good. He’s had a hard journey.”
“That I’ll do.” He took the reins from Claiborn. “What about you, master? What brings you home at long last?”
Claiborn glanced back at him, and a smile touched his broad lips. “Well, I’m thinking about taking a wife.”
“A wife? You? Why, you were made to be a bachelor man! Half the women in this village stare at you when you walk down the street.”
“You boast on my behalf, but even if it was God’s own truth, I’d not have just any woman.”
“Ah, I see. So have you got one picked out?”
“Of course! Grace Barclay had my heart when we courted and she has never let it go.”
“Oh, yes, Grace Barclay.” There was a slight hesitation in the blacksmith’s speech. He opened his lips again to speak, but then something came over him, and he clamped them together for a moment.
“Ryland, what is it? Grace is well?” Claiborn said, his heart seizing at the look on the blacksmith’s face.
“She is well. Still pretty as ever.” Ryland had ceased smiling, and he lifted the reins in his hand. “I best go and take care of the horse. He must have a thirst.”
“As do I. I’ll return on the morrow. Give him a good feed too. He’s earned it.”
The servants were busy putting the evening meal together, and as he passed into the great hall, Claiborn spoke to many of them. He was smiling and remembering their names, and they responded to him well. He had always been a favorite with the servants, far more than his brother Edmund, the master of Stoneybrook, and enjoyed his special status. He paused beside one large woman who was pushing out of her clothing and said, “Martha, your shape is more … womanly than when I departed.”
The cook giggled and said, “Away with you now, sir. None of your soldier’s ways around here.”
He grinned. “You are expecting a little one. It is nothing shameful, I assume.”
“Shush! Mind that we’re in public, sir. Such conversation is unseemly!” Her face softened and she leaned closer. “I married George, you know. A summer past.”
“Well, good for George. With a good woman and a babe on the way, he must be content, indeed. What’s for supper?”
“Nothing special, but likely better than some of the meals you’ve had.”
“You’re right about that. Soldier’s fare is pretty rough stuff.”
Passing on, Claiborn felt a lightness in his spirit. There was something about coming home that did something inside a man. He thought of the many campfires he had huddled next to in the fields, sometimes in drizzling rain and sometimes bitter-cold weather, dreaming of the smells and the sounds of Stoney-brook, wishing he were back. And now, at last, he was.
He turned to see his brother, emerging from the central door. “Edmund!”
He hurried forward to meet Edmund and said, “It’s good to see you, Brother.”
“And you,” Edmund said, holding him at arm’s length to get a good look. “No wounds this round?”
“Nothing that hasn’t healed,” Claiborn returned.
“Good, good. Mother will be so relieved.”
The two turned to walk together down a passageway that would lead to their mother’s apartments. Claiborn restrained his pace, accommodating his smaller, older brother’s shorter stride. “All is well here, Brother? You are well?”
“Never better. There is much to tell you. But it can wait until we sup.”
A servant had just departed, after breathlessly telling Leah that her son had returned. Lady Winslow wished she had a moment to run a brush through her gray hair, but she could already hear her sons making their way down the corridor. She rose, straightening her skirts. How many nights had she prayed for Claiborn’s return, feared for his very life! And here he was at last.
The two paused at her door. Leah’s hand went to her breast as she surveyed her sons. Claiborn’s rich auburn hair with just a trace of gold; Edmund’s dull brown. Claiborn’s broad forehead, sparkling blue eyes, high cheekbones, determined chin, generous lips that so easily curved into a smile. Here, here was the true Lord Winslow, a far more striking figure than his sallow, flabby brother. Her eyes flitted guiltily toward her eldest, wondering if he read her traitorous thoughts.
But Claiborn was already moving forward, arms out, and she rushed to him. He lifted her and twirled around, making her giggle and then flush with embarrassment. “Claiborn, Claiborn!”
He laughed, the sound warm and affectionate, and then gently set her on her feet. “You are still lovely, Mother.”
“You are kind to an old woman,” she said. She reached up and cradled his cheek. “The wars … You return to us unhurt?”
“Only aching for home,” he returned.
He took the horsehide-covered seat she offered and Edmund took another. A servant arrived with refreshments and quickly poured.
“Are you hungry, Son?”
“Starved, but this will tide me over until we sup.”
“Well, tell us about the wars,” Edmund said.
“Like all wars—bloody and uncomfortable. I lost some good friends. God be praised, I came through all right.”
Edmund let out a scoffing sound. “Don’t tell me you’ve turned religious!”
“Religious enough to seek my Maker when facing death.”
Edmund laughed. Leah frowned. He had a high-pitched laugh that sounded like the whinnying of a horse.
“Not very religious when you were growing up. I had to thrash you for chasing the maids.”
Claiborn reddened and guiltily glanced at Leah. “I suppose I troubled you greatly.”
“You were young,” Leah put in. “Now you are a man....