Hugh hung back near the wall as the tables were cleared for the dancing and entertainments. He watched his newly dubbed comrades laugh and joke with each other, their bellies full of food and their heads of wine. In contrast he hadn’t eaten much and had managed only a few sips of wine. It felt like he was seeing them from another room, maybe even another country. He knew most of them by sight, had even grown up with some of them in the Prince’s household, and yet, somehow at this moment, they all felt like strangers. Maybe it was the grandiosity of the occasion overwhelming him or else the fact that he was to be wed in a few days, but he felt uncomfortable. Pictures of the warm stables at his father’s manor of Soham suddenly came into his head and he found himself wishing fervently that he could be there, with only the company of the horses around him.
A hand upon his shoulder jerked him from his thoughts. He spun round to see the dark eyes and lopsided grin of Roger Mortimer. ‘Despenser! What are you doing back here? I thought you’d be cutting a pretty figure on the dance floor to prove to your bride to be what a good prospect you are.’
‘What do you want?’ Despenser asked coldly, shrugging the hand off his arm.
‘There’s no need to be like that, my friend; I only come to wish you well on your forthcoming nuptials. You’re a lucky man to have been given such a beautiful bride.’
Indeed, that was one thing Hugh could not argue with. He looked up to the dais where Eleanor sat close to her grandfather. At fourteen she still wore her dark hair loose; streaming over her shoulders, the light from the torches picking out the red in it. Pretty of face and slim of body, Hugh never stopped thanking his luck that the King had betrothed him to her instead of some plain flat-faced daughter of a lesser noble.
‘So what does she think of you?’ Mortimer asked.
‘I am sure she likes me well enough,’ Hugh answered, wishing the man would just go away.
‘That’s good. At least it will make up for her disappointment in other ways.’ At last, here it came: Hugh knew Mortimer would never have wasted his time just to come over and make pleasant conversation with him. He decided to ignore him and pointedly turned his back. Nevertheless Mortimer continued, his voice taking on a slyer tone. ‘After all, I’m sure she must have felt betrayed by her father when he agreed her marriage to a poor, landless squire, just to repay a debt owed by the king.’
His patience at an end, Hugh turned and grabbed Mortimer by the throat, pinning him to the wall behind. Around them, no-one seemed to notice, their wits dulled by the drink. ‘Think carefully on what you say, Mortimer. One day you will have cause to regret this.’
Roger made no attempt to fight back. He even grinned as if Hugh was no more threat than a fly. ‘Your threats do not scare me Despenser. Do not forget it was a Mortimer sword that put paid to your grandfather and I can guarantee that it will be a Mortimer sword that will finish you too if you dare to quarrel with me. You are nothing, and no-one. And you will die as nothing and no-one.’
Hugh stared into his eyes, seeing only mockery and disdain. He wanted nothing more at that moment than to smash the man’s head against the wall, to carve his heart out and throw it to the nearest dog. But he didn’t dare risk a confrontation here, in front of the king, and Mortimer knew it, was almost daring him to disgrace himself. Swallowing his anger, Hugh released him and took two paces back.
‘What, not man enough? I pity your wife on her wedding night.’
Hugh pointed a finger, the adrenalin coursing through his veins making his hand shake with rage. ‘I swear to God… to God, Mortimer, that I will destroy you and all your blood. I will not rest until it is so.’
Not giving his enemy a chance to reply, Hugh turned on his heel and strode off towards to door.