"A prophet?" said Sir John. "Come, Hal – where's the profit in that? Religion is all very well for old men, but I hope that neither you nor I is so near death that we need to start thinking about God."
"But I've heard he's very amusing," drawled Poins. "Not at all the usual kind. He thinks God is to be found in wine and dancing. Most of his followers are women, and they don't wear anything other than their shifts."
"You must do as you please," said Hal, "but Poins and I will be riding to Hainault to find out what it's all about."
They all went, of course: Hal and Poins, Sir John, his page and all the others, staying the night at Woodford and leaving again – to Sir John's annoyance – at dawn.
"How will we even find them?" grumbled Sir John, as they broke their fast at the outskirts of the forest.
But the page was frowning. "Don't you feel it?" he said. "Something strange. I'm not sure I like it."
They all laughed, Hal too, though he had to admit he knew what the boy meant. It was something like how he felt at the end of the Easter vigil, when after a long night of prayer and liturgy the sun rises and the new fire is lit. And it was something like that perfect stage of drunkenness when care has departed and sickness not arrived, when the heart is filled with love and fellowship with all.
He licked his lips and tasted honey.
"Follow me," he said, leapt onto his mare and spurred her on to a gallop along the main path. He found he was laughing, though he didn't quite know why.
When the trees became too dense to ride, he tied the mare to a tree, and ran on. He didn't think he could have walked even if he had wanted to – there was too much energy. He heard the others riding behind, but paid them no heed. They would follow, or they wouldn't. It didn't matter.
The first thing he saw was two young girls, perhaps fifteen or sixteen, their hair unbound and dressed – just as Poins had said – in nothing but shifts. They were curled up together asleep at the foot of a great oak tree.
Then he heard the music: a glorious muddle of voices and harps, flutes and drums. At first he thought it was several competing melodies, but as he got closer, he began to hear how it all fitted together. It was quite unlike anything he heard before. He strained to hear the words, but couldn't quite manage it.
A handsome youth ran across his path, chased by a laughing girl crowned with flowers. When she saw Hal, she stopped and held out her hands. "If you love God, come hither," she said.
He paused, knowing he was in the presence of something powerful, but not understanding whether it was good or evil. He stared at her for a moment. "Which god?" he said, finally.
She laughed. "There is only one God," she said. "The one in three, three in one, he who died and rose again, who gives us his blood for wine. He who fills the hungry with good things."
Hesitantly, Hal held out his hands towards hers, and finally touched them. A shiver of delight ran through his whole body. Still laughing, she pulled him close to her and into a madcap jig. He was laughing too, and soon there were others around them, dancing round in a circle in a forest clearing.
He could hear the music better now, and recognised the words as lines from Ecclesiastes:
Ergo et comede in laetitia panem tuum,
Et bibe cum gaudio vinum tuum,
Quia Deo placent opera tua.*
Faster and faster they whirled, until it was too much, and some of them began to fall away, collapsing into little groups of two or three, making way for those who remained. In the end it was just two of them: Hal and a taller man, whose closeness made his heart leap with ecstasy greater than he had ever felt with a woman.
Then the man suddenly stopped stock still, and Hal staggered to a halt.
He was dressed in white linen robe, Hal saw, embroidered with gold thread, and on his head he wore a garland of red and white roses. His face was pale, neither masculine nor feminine , and strikingly beautiful. Hal felt the urge to bow, but resisted.
"Prince," said the tall man. And there was something familiar about his voice, which Hal couldn't quite place. Something familiar about his face too, for that matter.
Hal only meant to nod his head in acknowledgement of his title, but he found himself bowing a little at the waist. "And who art thou?" he said.
The man smiled. He lifted off the garland of roses, and there was blood on his forehead from the thorns. "I am the king who gave up his heavenly crown."
Hal knelt down, certain now that this was a bodily vision of Christ, such as he had read about in the lives of saints.
"I am he who was betrayed by those he loved."
"Kyrie eleison," said Hal.
"I am he who died and rose again."
"And I am he who comes again in judgment."
"Kyrie eleison." He bowed his head, afraid.
"And I will," said the figure. "I will have mercy on all who seek my forgiveness. For no longer will they say: 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.’ Look up, Prince Hal."
He did, and saw that the figure was bleeding from wounds in the centre of both of his palms, which he held out in front of him, glistening scarlet blood that ran in rivulets between his fingers and dripped onto the ground.
"Will you be my disciple?" he said.
"Yes, my Lord." Hal stared at the bleeding wounds with awe.
"And you know your bible?"
"Yes, my Lord."
"If any man come to me and hate not his father ... he cannot be my disciple."
"Yes, my Lord. Father and Mother, wife and children, brethren and sisters. A true Christian puts his duty to God before all."
"And you do this of your own free will?"
"Of my own free will, my Lord."
"Then drink my blood and be forgiven." He held out his right hand.
Hal felt afraid, but he pressed it to his lips and sucked. It wasn't blood he tasted but wine, mixed with honey. He drank deeply, and felt a deep, blissful peace wash over him.
"Stand, Prince Hal, and look around you. See the new Jerusalem!"
Hal did so. Everything seemed more colourful than it had before: the leaves greener, the patches of sky above them bluer, cherry blossom that bloomed all around them brighter and more abundant.
He saw that his companions were there, along with several dozen strangers, all dressed in white shifts. Sir John was drinking from an enormous goblet. Poins was devouring a honeycomb. The page was lying on the lap of a girl, alongside a small white deer who was sucking at her bare breasts.
There were other animals too: a wolf, a hare and a fox, all drinking together from the same pool. Hal saw the wolf turn round and lick the hare's ears affectionately. And there was a huge brown bear, who was letting both her cub and two human children lick honey off her paw.
"The new Jerusalem," Hal whispered in wonder. "My England."
* "Go, eat your bread with gladness, and your drink wine with joy, for God is pleased with what you do."
Henry wondered – as he often did – why on earth anyone would desire to be a king. Clearly, no-one in their right mind would want to be a bad king, but being a good king was so much hard work, and most of it extremely dull.
He was going through another batch of petitions, and worrying about this new disturbance in Hainault, when there was a sharp knock on the door. "Come," he said.
Henry looked up to see his son John, who bowed neatly. "Ah, good," he said. "Any more news on this 'prophet' business?"
John looked serious. "Yes, my Lord. Apparently they've turned violent. They were stealing sheep from some of the local farms, and when the farmers came to recover what was theirs, there was ... well, a fight."
There was something strange about John's tone of voice. "What is it you're not telling me?" said Henry. "I thought you said it was mostly girls and women? Are there men too now?"
"A few men," said John, "but it was mostly the women who ... fought. The reports are very strange, my Lord."
"Go on," said Henry.
"One of the farmers who survived said he saw a young girl tearing apart a live sheep with her bare hands, and–"
"Survived?" interrupted Henry. "Are you telling me there were deaths?"
"Several," said John. "The farmers came armed with cudgels, even swords and bows, some of them, but the ... well the followers of this prophet – this living saint, as they are calling him – fought them off unarmed. I find it hard to credit ... well ... the men met the same fate as the sheep. I saw the bodies with my own eyes."
Henry stared at John. "This does not sound like anything natural," he said at last. "Have you spoken to the archbishop yet?"
If you'd asked him, Henry would always have said he believed in witchcraft, but for some reason he had never quite expected it to interfere with social order quite so explicitly. And yet the state was equipped for this too. Supernatural problems required supernatural solutions.
"I was going to speak to him," said John, "but ... well, I told you that there are some men with them now."
"What does that matter?" said Henry. This whole conversation made him uneasy. He wanted to stop talking about it, to send the priests to sort it out, and then pass judgment on the malefactors. To wrap it neatly up and forget.
John closed his eyes. "Hal's there," he said.
"By the holy rood," said Henry, putting his head into his hands. There would be no forgetting then.
"I saw him," said John. "I tried to speak to him, and he just giggled. Then I tried to catch him – to bring him back, by force if necessary, but he ran off into the forest."
"And this 'prophet'?" said Henry. "What sort of man is he?"
"Some say he's John the Baptist, some that he's Christ himself and others ..." John paused again.
"Go on," sighed Henry. "It can't get any worse."
"Some say he's Richard – King Richard, I mean – returned from the dead."
Henry's frown deepened. "So it's political then, this ... whatever it is ... as well as heretical."
"Perhaps," said John.
"Well," said Henry, putting his emotions aside, and trying to think practically. "We need to involve as few people as possible. Perhaps it won't get out that Hal is involved. Can you go back, John? Take your brothers. And capture this 'prophet', and Hal too if you can."
"I already have the prophet," said John. "He came willingly, even allowed himself to be chained. He said he wanted to speak to you."
"Good," said Henry. "Bring him to me, keep him chained and under guard."
"Of course," said John, bowed and left.
Henry looked the tall figure up and down. He did resemble Richard a little. He was tall, with a similar pale, feminine face, and graceful bearing. Strangely, Henry's first feeling was pity. It was like seeing a swan chained, or a white hart.
They had kissed once, as children on the cusp of manhood, he and Richard (but this was not Richard). "Let's practice for when we're married!" Richard had said. Henry moved closer – obeying his king, as well as playing with his cousin – but hesitated. Richard smelled of honey and roses, of delight too powerful to be licit.
Richard had kissed him then, gently, on the lips. Henry closed his eyes, and drew his cousin's slender body closer, stroking the soft hairs on the back of his neck, not understanding the feelings that flooded his body. He thought 'I could not pull away if I tried', and that thought upset him. Of course he could, and he did, dropping his arms to his sides and stepping backwards, his heart beating fast.
"Cousin!" said Richard, smiling.
"My liege," said Henry, bowing awkwardly. He remembered then the vague allusions his schoolmasters had made to a kind of immorality practiced between men and boys that was too impure even to describe, and wondered – blushing – whether he had committed it.
His confessor questioned him closely about what had transpired, and told him it was not a sin, but could be a temptation to sin, and that he was to avoid it in the future. "It was the balm of an anointed king you smelled," he said. "It was a foretaste of Christ, the church's heavenly bridegroom, and a reminder of your solemn duty to love, to worship and to obey."
Later, Henry had smelled it again, attending Richard in his bedchamber: one of the concoctions he kept on his dressing table in glass bottles, to scent his curls and help them shine.
This man, too, smelled of honey and roses. Perhaps he used the same recipe. But he was not Richard. There had always been something a little sickly about Richard's pallor, but this man shone with health. His face was rounder, and unlined. There were no purple shadows beneath his eyes, which were blue, not Richard's emerald green. And besides, Richard was dead.
"Who are you?" said Henry.
The man looked up, insolently meeting Henry's eyes with his own, which sparkled like sapphires. He did not reply.
"Speak," said Henry. "Your king commands you."
Still he was silent.
"Are you King Richard?" said Henry, sneering. He understood, abstractly, that he should like to kiss this man, to dance with him, to hold him in his arms. But the feeling – to the extent it even was a feeling – didn't bother him. There was no sin in temptation resisted, and Henry had grown so used to resisting temptations that he barely even noticed them.
The man smiled then, a remote, almost inhuman smile. "You say so."
Henry understood the reference immediately, and gave a short, derisive laugh. "Ah, then you think you're not just a king, but the king of kings?"
“You say that I am a king. I came here to testify to the truth, and to rain down justice upon the earth."
"You are a traitor and a heretic," said Henry. "And you will certainly die. But first you will tell me what you're doing and why." Henry disliked torture, but he understood that it was sometimes necessary, and that this was likely to be one of those times. It would not be enough to kill this man. He had to understand, and to make sure that this could never happen again.
"No," said the man. "But I will show you."
Henry frowned. It wasn't Richard. But he spoke like Richard would have spoken if he didn't stutter, if his voice had been a little deeper, a little more musical.
Henry fought to keep his own voice calm."What do you mean?" he said.
"You will come with me to Hainault," said the man. "At least, you will if you want to see your son alive again."
Henry remembered the first report about the group in the forest. Young girls in shifts adorned with flowers, dancing and embracing. Lambs and wolf-cubs playing together. Music, and wine and laughter. A vision of the new Jerusalem, almost. An unfamiliar feeling arose in Henry's breast – or rather, something he hadn't felt for decades. Longing. A dangerous longing that threatened to overpower duty.
He sat more upright in his throne, and made himself laugh again. "You are a nonsensical fellow, whoever you might be," he said. "I am your King. Even if I wished to sully my eyes with your debauchery ... well ... it's nonsensical." He was no longer thinking very clearly.
"Oh," said the man, "of course you'd have to go in disguise."
"Of course," said Henry. This, at least, was reasonable. It wouldn't do to have anyone recognise him.
"Perhaps in one of your wife's shifts," said the man.
Henry thought about Mary's wardrobe, untouched since her death. In the early days of his mourning, he had gone there, felt the softness of the silk and wisplike linen, marvelled at the intricate embroidery, most of it her own. Such beautiful things, and such a shame to leave them there, stinking of mothballs. In her life she had them scented, at his request. Honey and roses, all that was tender and sweet and feminine. To smell them like that again, to feel them against his skin!
Henry nodded. "Yes, that would be best," he said. It was what Mary would want. For him to go in person and save their son, to understand what this new evil was, to stop it spreading. To save England too.
"And I will curl your hair, and let it fall around your shoulders like a lion's mane," said the man. "And I will scent it with honey and roses."
"Yes!" said Henry. "And I will hunt them down as a lion too, the lion of England, protecting my people."
"Certainly," said the man. "Like Samson's lion – the strength that brings forth sweetness."
But there was still something troubling Henry. Would he not look laughable dressed in a woman's shift? "My skin ..." He touched his face, rough beyond a normal masculine roughness, with thick calloused patches, warts and moles. (Or something worse, he feared. But there had been no time to consult his physicians. Fear – like temptation – was something kings must put aside.)
"I will anoint you with my own hands," said the man.
He held them up – smooth, pale and soft – how terrible to see them in chains, Henry thought, and what bliss to feel their gentle strength on his body.
"I will heal you," he said. "You will be as a fitting sacrifice for God's altar, spotless and without blemish."
"Yes," said Henry, smiling for pure joy. "Oh, my friend, how kind you are."
"Well," said the man. "You deserve to be spoiled."
Hal laughed at himself for having spent so many years eating cooked meat. It was so much more delicious raw. He was gnawing on the remains of a lamb's leg which he had killed himself, sharing it with the beautiful white stag, who was now his dearest love and closest friend, though of course he loved all of his companions.
Around them there were flowers of all seasons and all colours, and pieces of meat and bone, more beautiful yet than the flowers. People lay together in small groups, sometimes exchanging gentle, sisterly kisses, but nothing unchaste. Hal himself kissed the stag, marvelling at the softness of his muzzle.
There were banners hung in the trees, made from discarded clothing. There was his own cloak, bearing the lions of England and the fleurs de lis of France. It made him think of his father. Henry would be overjoyed to hear that he had repented his life of debauchery and turned to religion instead.
He sat back, resting on the stag's flank, and sighed contentedly.
Then something caught his eye. A movement in the cloak. The wind? No, something else. He stared at it closely. One of the lions seemed to move, just a little bit. Yet another miracle! He pointed, and the others turned to see it shake its mane.
Then, of a sudden, it leapt from the banner into the clearing, growing rapidly in size and becoming flesh and blood. It threw back its head and roared.
Hal laughed. Now, that was better than hunting sheep. There would be a true trophy. He stood and faced it, roaring back.
Everyone laughed. Then the lion frisked its tail, turned and ran.
"Come on," shouted Hal, already starting to give chase. They all followed, even fat Sir John, running fast as a leopard.
And it was pure joy. The leaves and twigs beneath his bare feet felt delightful, the forest smelled of all good things, and for the first time in his life, he knew true companionship, true love. The hunters moved together like starlings in a flock, no distinction between man, woman or beast
They hunted the lion out of nothing but love and awe. He was magnificent, his pelt shining with gold, his mane long and soft, his rippling muscles revealing enormous strength. They hunted him that they might know him fully; might love every part of him, blood and sinew and bone; might mingle with him and anoint themselves in his essence.
They ran for hours, but never tired, each moment more exhilarating than the last. They ran deep into the forest, beyond the sunlight, to a place illuminated only by their own glory and that of their quarry.
He would not keep this joy to himself, but share it with all. He would kneel before his father and present him with the lion's head. The four paws would go to his brothers and himself, and the pelt would be for his sisters to line their gowns. The tail he would place on his mother's grave, and who knows but she might rise from death.
They reached another clearing. It was night now, and the full moon was high above them. The lion turned and stood his ground. Past, present and future were one. This was the consummation, the moment when the glory of the new Jerusalem burst over all England, all the world.
Laughing, Hal leapt and wrestled it to the ground, burying his face in the soft mane, which smelt of honey and roses, and that time before memory when a baby knows nothing but the perfect safety of his mother's arms, his father's love.
He took one of its mighty claws in both his hands, cherishing it for a moment before pulling it away from the foot. Then his companions leapt in, and together they tore it until the one lion was a hundred pieces, red, gold and white – the colours of royalty and divinity – glistening together on the ground.
And He was there again, crowned with thorns and roses, wounded hands uplifted, the great High Priest presiding over this communion of joy.
Hal blinked. John was there. John of Lancaster, his brother. The communion was done, and it was time to bring back his gift to his family, to England, to the world.
"One of the front paws for you," he said. "And I'll take the other. The back paws are for Thomas and Humphrey. There is enough for all."
"Dear holy mother of God." John was on his knees, weeping. For joy, Hal assumed.
"It's nothing to be ashamed of," said Hal happily. "It isn't womanly to cry any more. In the new Jerusalem, we're all the same: men and women, birds and beasts, princes and peasants. All are one in Christ Jesus."
"Hal?" said John, standing up. He was his father's son. Feelings are nothing, duty is all. "Hal – listen to me. Did you see who did this?"
"I did," smiled Hal. "But the others helped." He looked around, but his companions were all gone. "It's a pleasing sacrifice to the Lord," he said. "For all of England."
"For ..." John stared at him, taking a step backwards. "Hal, you're mad. Don't say you ... I know it wasn't you. Whatever you've seen, it's turned you ..." Then he cried out, and turned away to be sick.
The smell of vomit was the first unpleasant thing Hal had experienced since entering the forest. He'd forgotten what unpleasant feelings were like. He frowned, and looked down at the lion. Somehow it didn't look the same as before. He thought something might be a bit wrong.
John was staring at him. "Your fingernails ..." he said.
Hal looked down. They were dirty with blood and little gobbets of the lion's flesh. "I killed the lion," he said. "I killed it with my bare hands. Like Samson!"
"There was a lion?" said John. He sounded almost hopeful. "Did a lion do this?"
Hal laughed, a little uncertainly. "Are you blind?" he said. "Its body's there – right in front of us." But somehow the flesh and bones and fur, which had been so beautiful before, looked ugly. He stared at them, trying to make sense of what he saw.
John had gone white and was shaking violently. He swallowed, and met Hal's eyes again. "Hal, look up," he said. "What do you see?"
"The moon and stars!" said Hal. "They're very pretty tonight."
"Now look down," said John. "What do you see on the ground?"
Hal made himself look at the gory lumps of flesh. "A lion," he said quietly. "I see a dead lion."
"That head," said John. "Is that a lion's head?"
"It's a lion's head," said Hal. "I see its golden mane." He was shaking too now. He looked away – eyes darting round wildly, looking for anything to focus on other than what was in front of him. He saw the crown of roses, red and white, now trampled into the mud. It made him think of blood and bone. His father's blood, his father's bones. He did not, would not, turn back around.
King Edmund III – formerly Edmund de Mortimer – had all four sons of Henry IV executed on the advice of his father-in-law, now the Prince of Wales. He never quite felt he had got to the bottom of what had happened, but it seemed they had plotted together to kill their father so that Hal could take his throne and distribute his fortune among the others. John, Thomas and Humphrey had vigorously denied it, but Hal had confessed – sort of. At least, he raved in prison about splitting something between the four of them: 'the lion', he kept saying. The lions in the English flag, King Edmund assumed.
In addition to treason and parricide, they were convicted of witchcraft. That, Owain Glyndŵr had disagreed with, presumably because he claimed to be a wizard himself. But Edmund had been firm. That sort of thing might be acceptable in Wales, but he wouldn't have it in England.
He searched the length and breadth of Britain for the mysterious 'prophet' who may or may not have incited Lancaster's sons to their terrible crime, but he was never found.
Glyndŵr claimed it was the spirit of Richard II risen from purgatory to avenge his own deposition. He hinted darkly that he himself might even have played a part in summoning him. Edmund tactfully suggested that Glyndŵr might wish to return to Wales soon and get on with ruling it, which he did.
After the coronation, Queen Catrin quietly visited Richard II's tomb for a second time, removing the bunches of mullein and wormwood she had laid there and replacing them with a crown of red and white roses, wound together with yew. She knelt and prayed, then went away satisfied.
The Duke of York watched her, frowning. He had been to Wales and knew the local herblore – mullein and wormwood were the necromancer's flowers – why would someone have placed them on a tomb? Yew was to lay the dead to rest: that was holy enough, certainly. But something about the new queen made him very uneasy.
As did the trial and execution of the four princes, and the wild stories about a prophet, a saint who came in the likeness of King Richard, and led his devotees into madness, debauchery and murder.
He went over to the tomb. The crown of roses had a sickly sweet smell, something like honey. He touched it, and shivered. One of the roses – a white one – fell to the ground. He stooped to pick it up, and held it to his nose, thinking, and not liking what he thought.
He crossed himself. "Rest in peace, dear king," he murmured. Then he turned to Henry's tomb, on the other side of the chapel. "Rest in peace," he repeated. He shuddered again to think of the terrible death Henry had suffered. Could he rest in peace, under such circumstances? Had the deaths of his sons truly been the complete justice he deserved?
Frowning, he tucked the white rose into his buttonhole and walked out into the cold winter air.