Margaret Skea

Chapter One

By Sword and Storm.

(forthcoming third book in Munro series.)


Chapter 1

At first it was no more than a whisper, carried on the breeze. The King is coming. A priest crossing the cathedral close heard it and, shaking his head, boxed the ear of the urchin who dared give it voice – a malicious rumour, surely, Mercoeur’s flag still fluttering above the chateau, but no less dangerous for all that. For a rumour once started could travel like flame through the city, trailing destruction in its wake. The boy, one hand clamped to the side of his head, retaliated with a well-aimed kick, before darting through the gate leading onto the Grand Rue to melt into the crowd that thronged there, his excitement undiminished. 
It was not rumour, not a flame; rather water, a trickle become a stream, slipping through the dense alleyways, lapping at the doors of the narrow half-timbered warren of houses jostling each other as they stretched upwards to find a sliver of sky. It gathered momentum, flowing southwards to the Rue des Jacobins and La Fosse, to the hôtels of the merchants who grew fat on the spoils of commerce. It reached the Maison de Tourelles, and the ears of André Ruiz, who, so the story went, had once entertained an emir with capons and truffles, frangipane and apricot tartlets, custards and cheeses and succulent curls of artichoke, washed down with the finest of wines from the Loire. Ruiz regarded the messenger with narrowed eyes, his fingers raised to his lips and pressed tight together in contemplation. After a pause in which the messenger studied the floor, awaiting dismissal or the flare of rage of which the merchant was on occasion capable, Ruiz nodded twice and thrusting back his chair called for his cloak. If the tale should prove to have substance he would take care to ensure he was among those who greeted this king, for what use wealth if gain could not be made of it. 
A second stream, become a river, rushed past the Chambres des Comptes, along the Rue des Carmes and through the Place de Changes, carrying with it the great and the good of Nantes until finally it disgorged them into the Place de Bouffay, where they clustered in groups, their conversation muted. The square was strangely lifeless: cleared of the market stalls, free of the claims and counterclaims of the traders as they cried their wares. Outside the ducal palace, which now served as the law courts, a bevy of servants from the chateau swept the square clean and soldiers dismantled the pillory and gallows. For who could tell what effect the sight of gallows might have on this king, who was coming to Nantes not as a guest, but as a general, to receive the surrender of Mercoeur and thus the submission of Brittany. 
In the white heart of the city, in the limestone basilica of Saint-Pierre, the priest, turning his back as if it made him invisible, hitched up his cassock and rubbed at his shin, his other hand fumbling for the beads hanging around his waist. ‘Hail Mary, mother of God, preserve us now and at the hour of our death. Hail Mary, mother of God…’ The familiar repetition slowed his heartbeat and steadied the tremor of his hand, but the unease remained. Nantes was the last stronghold of the Catholic League, and professor of the true faith or not, there was no knowing how Henri of Navarre, for that was how he was still thought of in this city, would respond to the capitulation. It would perhaps be best to spend whatever time was left to him in imploring God for protection, lest human mercy was not forthcoming. He was still on his knees when he felt the draught from the sacristy door behind him, rapid footsteps traversing the nave, a hand on his shoulder shaking him from his semi-slumber, the boy’s whisper crystallising into a summons, just as the bell of the collegiate church of Notre-Dame began to toll. 
	*	*	*
Henri IV of France reached Nantes’ Saint-Pierre gate as the final stroke died away. With him, a fraction to the rear, a contingent of Scots Gardes, foremost among them Adam Munro. Barely six months since he had been honoured with a position in Henri’s personal bodyguard, seven since the Scottish King, James, had made him knight, Munro was thinking of the events of the last year: of his wife Kate’s capture and trial, William Cunninghame’s deserved disgrace, his own ennoblement. Grateful as he was, he would give it all up in a heartbeat if it meant he could be back at Broomelaw with his family and living at peace with their neighbours. 
The King pulled to a halt. Munro, his attention brought sharply back to the present, signalled to the men behind him to do likewise. The response was instant, yet Munro, attuned to the slightest nuance, felt the tension rippling through them and understood there were some, not privy to Henri’s private feelings, who wondered, along no doubt with the townsfolk of Nantes, what sanctions might be imposed on this most troublesome of cities. Facing them, mounted likewise, was Mercoeur, Duke of Brittany, whose formal submission to Henri at Angers was now to be confirmed. Mercoeur slid from his horse and, presenting his sword to the King, knelt on the hard-packed earth, though Munro noted a hint of arrogance remaining in his eyes. Accepting the sword, Henri indicated for him to rise and beckoned him close, bending down a fraction to speak to him, the words quiet, as if for his ears alone. Nevertheless, Munro, at Henri’s shoulder, did hear, and understood the weariness they represented. 
‘And can I trust you now?’ 
Mercoeur raised his head to meet the King’s gaze, then dipped it again in acquiescence. ‘Sire.’ 
It was enough. Henri touched his shoulder with the reins and indicated the city gate and the press of people filling it. ‘I have a wish to greet my people.’ 
Remounted, Mercoeur led the way into the city. Just inside the gate, Henri halted again, catching the duke unawares. Munro hid a smile. The pause was brief, yet long enough for those who had flooded to Saint-Pierre to get first sight of their king to raise an uncertain cheer, which Henri acknowledged with an upheld hand. 
His words were simple, delivered in a manner that made all who listened feel he spoke directly to them. ‘Good citizens of Nantes, I thank the God whose faith we share, that the gates of your city are this day opened to me…’ 
A further cheer, more prolonged, more confident, and as it died away Henri enfolded the crowd in his smile and nodded to Mercoeur, who moved off, the King and his bodyguard following, the duke’s men bringing up the rear. The crowd parted to allow them through, then closed up behind them and surged with them through the city, past the cathedral chapter with its cluster of buildings housing the choir school and the bishop’s palace, downwards towards the newly swept square, where the dignitaries of the municipality, both secular and ecclesiastical, waited to make their submission. The speeches began, slow and ponderous, the words like weights anchoring Nantes to the new order, to a king who had waited nine years for this moment. Munro, sufficiently alert to note even the smallest movement among the crowd, nevertheless allowed his thoughts to drift again, to Kate and her impending confinement, and to their own peace that should surely now be within reach, as first the bishop, then the governor, then the leaders of the mercantile guilds and the chief officer of the coinage, stepped forward to pledge allegiance to their King. It was hard not to reveal his boredom at the speeches, ill-prepared as they were, for this was no royal progress, months in the planning, but a trap sprung suddenly, in a manner and at a time of Henri’s choosing. And that, Munro thought, was generally impeccable. They came to the final ceremony – the handing over of the key to the city. Even Munro was caught off guard by the silence that followed, the King allowing it to stretch well beyond expectation – he makes them pay, if not in blood, then in discomfort.


Katharina: Deliverance A novel of the wife of Martin Luther.  Available Now (Research funded by Creative Scotland) 

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