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Blackberries

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There are moments that hang at the height of the world, before the over-ripe fruit drop from their boughs, before leaves turn from gold to brown, before a kingdom sated on glory and chivalry rots from the inside.  

They ride out on Michaelmas Eve: Sir Harry Percy, called Hotspur, his wife the Lady Kate, and his most beloved friend the Douglas. They have not gone to hunt the hart, though they are plentiful and magnificent in the early autumn. There is plenty of smaller game, too: pheasants scurrying in the undergrowth and rabbits aplenty. All England is in its glory for the feast. The beech leaves are just beginning to sweep in copper drifts where small gullies open in the forest floor. Lady Kate jumps her palfrey over one such gold-glutted stream and Sir Harry and the Douglas follow, laughing. She is laughing as well, laughing with the pure exhilaration of riding fast in the cool air – and with her victory, for they are going not to hunt the hart but to pick blackberries for the Michaelmas pies.  

In the North they say you must not eat blackberries after Michaelmas because when Michael pitched Satan from Heaven, the Deceiver fell in a patch of them. He cursed of course, and spat on the ripe fruit.  

Harry has eaten blackberries after Michaelmas. He was ten; he was caught by Henry and knocked about. He was eleven; he got a terrible stomach ache, panicked because he thought he might die of devil's spit, was violently sick, and survived unshaken. He was twelve; he ate six and swore he wouldn't next year, because next year he wouldn’t be a boy.  

He still wonders if Kate has, but she acts so proper that it's maddeningly difficult to tell if she has and won't admit it or hasn’t but wishes she had for the daring of it, or hasn't but doesn't give a ruined blackberry for the convention.  

Douglas just smirks whenever Harry hints at possible past fruit-picking incidents. That smirk says, well, are you going out with me to eat late berries this year? If they weren't a-horse, Harry would wrestle him to the ground, remembering.  

At the bottom of the broad valley runs a river. It is the Thames; the court is at Oxford for Michaelmas this year. This far south, the old story about Satan and the blackberries is just a story, though the prohibition remains. In Northumberland, it's difficult to scoff at. Northumbria is a thoroughly strange place: the last place in England where the souls walk on All Hallows' Eve. But in Northumbria you can't see one church steeple from the next, so they have room to roam abroad.  

Sir Harry shakes his shoulders to shake these thoughts; his black palfrey shakes in sympathy. Factum est silentium in caelo dum commiteret bellum draco com Michaele Archangelo 

 

The sweetest berries grown on the riverbank in the full sun. Kate goes to work with sharp, intent movements like a sparrow. Harry watches fondly as she loses herself in the picking: a steady rhythm of stretch, twist, look, drop. Look for another berry. She has filled a basket before she can be bothered to harass her husband to do a bit.  

"You loafer," Kate says, voice mock-stern.  

Harry, more than half asleep in the bank's spongy moss, raises a sardonic eyebrow. The sun is shining squarely in his eyes. He grimaces; squints.  

"Douglas." 

"No." Douglas is asleep but he can be counted on to say that one word with no engagement from his brain whatsoever.  

"Yes," says Harry, hauling him up. Douglas lifts his feet off the ground and Harry staggers forward, shifting his weight fast in an effort not to fall over. He does fall, and Douglas in on him, sitting on his chest, grinning.  

"You then," says Kate, pulling Douglas up. "You pick blackberries for me." 

 

 

When they emerge from the gloaming, from under the hanging boughs at the edge of the Royal Forest, Lady is waiting for them. She darts around in delight, staying just far enough away from the horses for safety. She might be too young to take riding, but she already knows her way around a horse. Good dog from good stock: deerhound, a gift from the Douglas' father on the occasion of his son's princely visit to Richard's court. She knows the Douglas best, but after a moment's joyful licking at his hands, Lady goes to Kate; rolls onto her side for a belly rub.  

Harry holds the horses by their bridles and watches his wife's happiness. He has been lucky that the bride his father chose him is a woman he can love – more than can love, he thinks. She won't let me be lonely, even when I think I want to be alone. And here she is now, dark heavy hair bound around her head, taking her horse from him and rubbing it down. Kate loves dogs and hawks and horses even more than he does: Harry's devotion is to war and the laws of chivalry, but Kate is a quieter yet more expressive sort. She likes animals she can move far and fast with.  

"Go on, Harry," she says, with a kiss and a sly, quick slap to his arse. He glares, ties to pout and not grin, but he can't grab her because she's holding the horse. She knows this, he thinks with a little awe.  

Behind them, Douglas is laughing. Harry goes to him, leaving Kate in the hay-strewn stable yard that smells of hot wood and stone. She likes to be alone sometimes; needs it in the middle of all this gaiety.  

Harry does too, sometimes, but usually the desire to be alone means he'd really be better with company; the kind of company that prods around and won't let him get off with easy answers and platitudes about what he's thinking. When he knows, that is. The very best company will help him hammer out what he's feeling; not let it hide from him.  

Harry and Douglas go through the stone archway into Woodstock Palace. Where to, now?  

"The armory," says Douglas, and a little jolt of happiness hits Harry: to know a man so well is no small thing. That Douglas gave the response Harry was expecting, that he did so in honesty, shakes Harry with the wonder of it.  

This Scottish prince is incredibly dear to him already. Douglas came just three days past and now Harry has to remind himself that as much as he wants to, he is not free to follow Douglas to the death. This is the grief of such friendships, but also the glory: that men can find a space in the swirl of politics to love each other. That never really goes away, whatever else might happen. Harry sees it between King Richard and his cousin the Earl of Derby. He watches Douglas caress some of the finest blades in England and thinks, why can I make the people I love happy? How did that happen? Harry is blindingly, gloriously content.  

 

 

Harry wakes with Kate warm against his back. He's leaning against her but facing their window, and he tries to judge what the day will be like without moving. Today is when the seasons are supposed to turn, click, shift neatly one space around their great wheel and slot in. Technically. From the light and chill, it is one of those days in early autumn when you wonder if winter might have begun to dig its teeth in; if it might really be cold.  

Harry lies there contemplating the quality of the light until he hears muffled footsteps in the passageway. They're hard to place: this palace is full of stairs, turns, galleries, and rooms deeper in. It seems to be a man, maybe another man with him, not a woman. Talking low. Quiet laughter. Harry knows that tone and what comes after: the silence of a kiss heard at distance. There are many people this could be; there is no reason to go grasping after gossip like people whose power depends on reputations and names rather than honest strength of arms. Without Harry willing it, the name comes to him, clearly spoken from the room above: Henry. The King's cousin named in the King's voice. That fits, those two, Harry thinks. He cuts his mind back from any more prodding at the subject. He is a knight after all, a loyal one. As is Henry. It could be desire, or duty, or both. I don't want to know, thinks Harry, but then: it's probably desire. Though the King's desire must be tied up in a ritual of bodies and souls and power that he's thankful not to have to deal with.  

Kate is still asleep, a bulwark, breathing deep and even. They really shouldn't do that. It's Michaelmas.  

 

They go to Mass together at six, Harry and Kate and Douglas. Harry watches Kate's sleek bay head, bent in piety, and wonders how she thinks; how she prays.  

There was silence in heaven, says his mind, for a serpent was waging war, and the Archangel Michael fought with him and emerged victorious. Harry knows that silence well. It is in the held bowstring before the King's hand closes. It is in the last breath before impact at a joust. It is during the hunt, when a boar is hit and falls but the hunters hesitate to see how badly it is wounded before they loose the hounds. And hot war. Kate's kiss, that little thing that trails around the edges of wars and is usually pushed away by them, but sometimes lies at their origin.  

The voice of a thousand  thousand  was heard saying: salvation,  honour , and power be to Almighty God. A thousand  thousand  ministered to H im and ten  hundreds  of thousands stood before H im.   

King Richard is resplendent, solemn, glorious. You really can't tell he's been buggering Henry, Harry thinks. And he draws the light and incense to himself. It's like the antiphon means him.  

Focus, Harry. He lets it drop. There was silence in heaven. Kate on one side and Douglas on the other, red and blue light with incense billowing through it. The pie later, smelling in Harry's mind of sun on dry leaves. Richard's lover and Richard's power have no place in Harry's world of touchable things and immaterial ones, of dogs and horses and his wife and new brother, of honour and chivalry. Honour and chivalry are codes. Strength is a discipline. Doctrine and politics are outside of these. Men do not need them to live, Harry thinks, and frequently they give death. So do swords, yes, but more honestly and with less prevarication. Not when they are used rightly. Not unless there is need. For a serpent was waging war and the Archangel Michael fought him and emerged victorious.