EXCERPT

The Usurper King

 

Hal was surprised that his father requested he come along

to Eltham Palace, but he kept his feelings to himself. They were accompanied by the usual small army of retainers. The king rarely went anywhere without his harbingers to requisition lodging, his purveyors who rode ahead and commandeered supplies, his knights, esquires, clerks, and household servants. Although one of Henry's complaints about Richard's court was the excessive personnel, in reality, he didn't reduce their numbers one bit.

Hal looked to his side where his brother Thomas rode stiff and straight in his saddle, conscious of his new status as Lord High Steward of England. Whether they were ready or not, Henry's sons were to be put into positions of responsibility. Thomas glanced back at Hal and raised his chin, expressing his resentment at his older brother's honors.

His envy gave Hal no satisfaction. Although he was beginning to accept the greatness thrust upon him, he still felt like he was in borrowed clothes. None of his titles felt earned; perhaps if he could prove himself worthy he would come to embrace his destiny. After all, the burden of blame was on his father—not him. Bolingbroke usurped the crown; he would inherit it.

Once they reached the palace, Henry brought Hal and Thomas into his library. This was his favorite place, for he loved his manuscripts and books. He rarely invited anyone into this private space, and the boys were duly impressed. Gesturing for his sons to sit, Henry walked over to a two-tiered desk that also served as a bookcase. He ran his finger down the embossed binding of his favorite volume. It was apparent he was gathering his thoughts, and the boys watched him curiously.

Finally, he turned. "There's something I must tell you, and this is very difficult for me. Word has reached me that Richard Plantagenet has passed away."

Thomas looked at Hal, for he knew how close his brother was to the former king. For his part, Hal was having trouble accepting the words.

"Passed away?" Hal said. "You mean died?"

Henry looked pained. He had agonized over telling Hal the truth. This was more than a state secret; if Hal knew Richard had escaped, there was no telling what he would do. It wouldn't be surprising if he decided to go out and search for the king, regardless of the scandal—especially if he found him. The boy's loyalty to Richard was as astonishing as it was inconvenient. That was the one thing Henry had never considered in all his plans. Hal had been a hostage; where did this affection come from? What did Richard do to deserve it?

His mouth suddenly dry, Henry wished he had some wine. "I'm told that after Richard learned about the rebellion and the death of his supporters, he stopped eating." He paused, waiting for Hal's reaction. So far there was none. "My constable sent in a priest to convince Richard that starving himself to death was a mortal sin. After that, he tried to eat, but he had gone so far his throat constricted and he couldn't swallow. He died shortly thereafter."

Hal looked down at his hands; he was clasping them too tightly. When he raised his head, his face was drawn.

"I'm supposed to believe this?" he said.

Henry held his breath. If his own son didn't accept this story, how was he going to convince his detractors?

"You know King Richard," Thomas said scornfully. "He was always one for immoderate behavior."

"How do you know?" Hal shot back. "You know nothing about him."

"I know he was vindictive, selfish, and spiteful."

"That's a lie!" Hal lunged, grabbing Thomas by the tunic. Alarmed, his brother tried to push him away, but Hal pulled him out of the chair and fell on top of him, pinning him to the floor.

Henry was appalled. "Stop it! Both of you!" Hal was about to punch his brother in the face when Henry grasped his arm and yanked him away. "How dare you fight in my presence!"

Breathing heavily, Hal broke loose from his grasp. He glared at his father. "You starved him to death!"

Shaking his head, Henry stretched out a hand. His son turned away. "No, Hal. I swear it was none of my doing."

Still on the floor, Thomas wiped his mouth. "You're a disgrace!"

"Stop it, Thomas," Henry growled. "Don't make things worse." He took a step toward Hal. "Sit down, son."

Hal was about to refuse, but his common sense reasserted itself. Sullenly, he walked over to a chair and dropped onto it. Thomas got off the floor and went to the other side of the room.

"Listen to me," Henry said. "Do you really think I would have ordered Richard killed so soon after the rebellion? I'm not a fool. We still have many enemies, and this is one disturbance I didn't need, on top of everything else."

Breathing heavily, Hal stared at the floor.

"I was as shocked as you to hear about this," Henry added. "You must believe me. There were many times I was urged by others to execute him, and I always refused. Why would I resort to such a terrible crime?"

The logic in this argument wasn't lost on Hal. He didn't want to believe his father was capable of such an act. It was too terrible to contemplate. Slowly he nodded and Henry let out his breath.

"I am sorry, father."

"It's all right. I'm afraid you won't be the only one to accuse me of his death."

"We must prepare a proper funeral, to reassure the people."

"I've already given the orders. He will be brought back to London in slow stages from...Pontefract."

Pontefract. Hal hadn't been told where King Richard was kept. It was just one more indignity he had been forced to swallow. "He died, all alone. Abandoned. Poor man," he mumbled.

Henry heard him but decided it was better to pretend not to. Besides, he needed a drink.

 

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