First Chapter and Characters

Characters

The individuals depicted in this novel exist in a world created without regard to historical or geographic accuracy.

Albany, the Duke of Albany

Anne, Garred and Mary’s older sister, Gloucester and Lady Gloucester’s daughter

Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter, Goneril and Regan’s sister

Cornwall, the Duke of Cornwall

Garred, Gloucester and Lady Gloucester’s son, Anne and Mary’s brother

Gloucester, the Earl of Gloucester, the father of Garred, Anne, Mary and Mundred

Goneril, Lear’s oldest daughter, Regan and Cordelia’s sister

John, a farmer, William’s cousin

Kent, the Earl of Kent

Lear, the King of Britain, the father of Goneril, Regan and Cordelia

Mary, Garred and Anne’s younger sister, Gloucester and Lady Gloucester’s daughter

Mundred, Gloucester’s bastard son

Regan, Lear’s middle daughter, Goneril and Cordelia’s sister

William, a farmer, John’s cousin

Chapter One

Cordelia raised her knee and drove it home.

“Damn you!” Mundred screamed.

Doubling over in pain, he released her from his grasp.

She hit him again in the same place, this time with her foot.

Then she ran.

*****

Cordelia’s sisters had shown her how to do it.

“You have to let the guy think he’s going to get away with it,” Goneril said.

“That’s right,” Regan said. “Then you let him know what he’s really going to get.”

Goneril laughed. “The sorest damned balls in the kingdom.”

Regan guffawed as well. “It’s like magic. It puts an end to their lust on the spot.”

Goneril wasn’t done. “More than a few men have rued the day they felt my knee.”

Nor was Regan finished. “I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve had to use mine.”

Anticipating the arrival of the Duke of Cornwall and his notorious swordsmen at their father’s palace, Goneril and Regan had decided their younger sister might need their advice on the subject. They provided their instructions in Goneril’s chamber.

Goneril was eighteen, Regan seventeen, Cordelia sixteen. They’d all inherited their auburn hair, olive eyes and dusky complexion from their mother, who’d died giving birth to Cordelia.

Goneril took Cordelia’s chin in her hand. “But you’ll need to be even more ready to defend yourself than we’ve been.”

“Why’s that?” Cordelia asked.

“Oh, my dear child,” Goneril said, “don’t even begin to tell me you don’t know why.”

Regan tittered. “You’re prettier than we are. You don’t have my crooked teeth.”

“Or my beak of a nose,” Goneril said.

Cordelia wondered if men cared about such things. They seemed to pay far more attention to matters lower on a woman’s body than her teeth or nose. She’d noticed how her sisters’ features of interest below their necks held the eyes of the men they chose to flirt with.

“Only this morning,” Goneril said, “I overheard Father tell Kent you’re the loveliest flower in his garden.”

The prince who’d become King Lear and the father of Goneril, Regan and Cordelia had two close friends in his boyhood. One was now the Earl of Kent.

The other became the Earl of Gloucester. In recent years, though, he’d drifted into the orbit of the Duke of Cornwall, who made no attempt to conceal his animosity toward Lear.

Kent, on the other hand, had long been Lear’s chief advisor and deputy. Kent’s knights often carried out the orders the king’s own swordsmen should’ve attended to if they weren’t so caught up in the drinking, gambling and whoring Lear chose to pretend he wasn’t aware of.

Cornwall, Gloucester and Kent were also Lear’s cousins, each of them with a place in the line of succession to the throne.

Cordelia had overheard Kent’s response to her father’s remark about the “loveliest flower” in his garden.

“All the flowers in your garden are pretty, my lord,” Kent had said. “But more than one of them might not prove so pretty for your purposes. They could wander off like willful weeds and end up where you might not wish them to be. Even opposed to you perhaps.”

Lear scoffed. “My flowers, my daughters, will become weeds opposed to me? I have no fear of such a thing. They love me and will always love me. I’ll hear no argument to the contrary on that subject. Not even from you, sir.”

He’d recently begun to insist he’d be known in history as Lear the Serene. After all, he argued, Britain had been at peace, even with France, throughout his long reign.

*****

Garred had followed Mundred, at a distance, into the royal woods. He observed his half brother’s unfortunate meeting with Cordelia. He found a fallen branch he intended to clobber Mundred with, but by then Cordelia had attacked him with her knee and foot.

As Cordelia ran away from Mundred, she caught sight of Garred, who’d dropped his weapon.

When she reached him, they threw their arms around each other.

Cordelia sighed.

Slender Garred with his light-brown hair and dark-blue eyes was stronger than he appeared to be. Goneril and Regan described him as too “scrawny” for their tastes. Cordelia, on the other hand, chose to refer to him as “sinewy.” Whatever he was, she liked what she saw—and, now, felt.

Garred, who shaved every day, and Mundred, who sported a beard he seldom trimmed, were the Earl of Gloucester’s sons. Garred was the same age as Cordelia, sixteen. Mundred was eighteen. Their birth names, Edgar and Edmund, were so similar their sisters had taken to calling them, early in their lives, Garred and Mundred. The new names stuck.

“What brought you to the woods?” Garred asked.

“I came to pick wildflowers. For your mother and your sisters and myself. I wanted to surprise them. Do you remember how we wore them in our hair the last time you were here?”

Garred smiled. “How could I forget? You looked like farmers.”

Garred’s older sister Anne was seventeen. His younger sister Mary was fifteen.

Cordelia hadn’t realized Mundred had followed her into the woods. As soon as he caught up with her, he called her a slut. He accused her of luring him into the woods. She thought he should’ve been well aware by then she couldn’t stand to be near him.

He told her he knew what she really wanted. With one hand, he grabbed her by the back of her neck. He pulled her so close to him she could smell the raw onions he’d eaten for lunch. With his other hand, he began unbuttoning his trousers. That’s when she used her knee and her foot on him.

“I saw what you did,” Garred said. “I’m damned glad you did it, too.”

Cordelia hugged him again.

Lady Gloucester was the mother of Garred and his sisters. A servant had given birth to Mundred. The earl, though, openly favored Mundred over Garred. He publicly called Mundred his son born of love and Garred his son born of duty. He and Lady Gloucester had raised Mundred with Anne, Garred and Mary.

Now Gloucester wished to make Mundred his heir. He’d come to the king’s palace with his family and his ally, the Duke of Cornwall, to gain the king’s approval.

Cordelia and Garred walked out of the royal woods and entered the royal garden.

“Mundred tried to do to me,” Garred said, “the same thing he tried to do to you.”

Cordelia turned to Garred. “But you’re a guy.”

“He wanted to use my butt.”

Cordelia scowled. “I hope you fought him off.”

“I did what you did with your knee and foot.”

“Good,” Cordelia said. “He must be sore down there.”

Garred laughed. “I’m sure he is right now.”

“Who told you what to do?”

“My mother. She’d heard what Mundred was trying to do to the farmers’ children.”

“The farmers’ children? I certainly hope he didn’t get his way with any of them.”

“With one boy, he did. But when the boy’s older sister heard about it, she tricked Mundred into thinking she wanted him for herself. She enticed him into a barn where her brother was hiding. The two of them gave Mundred an awful beating. He was a bloody mess. And black-and-blue for the next two weeks.”

“Farmer children dared beat up a lord’s son? Didn’t Mundred complain to your father?”

Garred scoffed. “Mundred didn’t want people to know a farmer girl and boy could cause him so much grief. He told everybody some highwaymen had accosted him. He said they beat him after he refused to hand over his money. Since then, he’s left the farmers’ children alone. They got together and warned him. They’d consider an attempt at any funny business with any of them an attack on all of them. And they’d promptly give him the punishment he deserved. When I told them what Mundred had tried to do to me, they let him know they considered me to be one of them.”

Cordelia took Garred in her arms one more time.

“That story has a happy ending,” she said.

“So far, at least,” he said.

After Cordelia let go of him, he turned away from her. He wasn’t as quick as she was, though. She’d already looked down at his trouser buttons and glimpsed, if only for a moment, how much he’d enjoyed her embrace.

*****

Cordelia and Garred paused to view the king’s flowers.

“Why such a gloomy face?” she asked. “Here it is the first day of summer, and we’re among roses in bloom. Look how busy they’ve made the bees.”

Garred sighed. “There’s something you and your father need to know.”

Cordelia looked at him with her brow knitted. He’d always been such a serious boy.

“If you know something my father and I should know,” she said, “you’d better tell me what it is right now.”

“My father didn’t come here to ask for your father’s consent to make Mundred his heir. An earl doesn’t need your father’s approval to do that. Or to disinherit me and my sisters.”

“That’s what Kent told me. So why did your father come here?”

“The Duke of Cornwall told him he should do it.”

Cornwall had arrived that morning with Gloucester and his family. Lear had greeted the duke with what unknowing observers might’ve thought was warmth, even affection.

Cornwall had far more knights under his command than any other lord in Britain. He’d brought many of them with him.

Garred took a deep breath. “Cornwall wanted an excuse to come here. He intends to assassinate your father and proclaim himself the King of Britain. He’ll order his knights to kill, on the spot, anybody who questions his right to the throne.”

Cordelia grimaced.

Cornwall was the king’s closest cousin. Their fathers, who both now lay in their graves, were brothers. As the first heir to the throne after Lear’s three daughters, Cornwall was the first male in the line of succession. And many lords questioned whether a woman had any right to ascend to the throne of Britain.

“How do you know,” Cordelia asked, “the duke intends to murder my father and claim to be the king?”

“I overheard him and Mundred discussing their plans.”

“Mundred? Their plans?”

“Yes. The duke and Mundred are plotting together.”

“And if their plot succeeds,” Cordelia asked, “what will Mundred get out of it?”

“Cornwall will accuse my father of committing the assassination of your father. After my father’s execution, Mundred will become the Earl of Gloucester.”

Cordelia took Garred’s hand.

“Let’s go see my father,” she said.

Garred hesitated. “Mundred accused me of eavesdropping on him and the duke. I denied it, of course. But he told me he’d kill me if I told anybody else what I’d heard them say.”

“Let’s go find my father,” Cordelia said, tightening her grip on Garred’s hand.