By Sword and Storm begins 6 months after the end of A House Divided with the Munro family now in France.
At first it was no more than a whisper, carried on the breeze. The King is coming. A priest crossing the cathedral close heard it and, shaking his head, boxed the ear of the urchin who dared give it voice – a malicious rumour, surely, Mercoeur’s flag still fluttering above the chateau, but no less dangerous for all that. For a rumour once started could travel like flame through the city, trailing destruction in its wake. The boy, one hand clamped to the side of his head, retaliated with a well-aimed kick, before darting through the gate leading onto the Grand Rue to melt into the crowd that thronged there, his excitement undiminished.
It was not rumour, not a flame; rather water, a trickle become a stream, slipping through the dense alleyways, lapping at the doors of the narrow half-timbered warren of houses jostling each other as they stretched upwards to find a sliver of sky. It gathered momentum, flowing southwards to the Rue des Jacobins and La Fosse, to the hôtels of the merchants who grew fat on the spoils of commerce. It reached the Maison de Tourelles, and the ears of André Ruiz, who, so the story went, had once entertained an emir with capons and truffles, frangipane and apricot tartlets, custards and cheeses and succulent curls of artichoke, washed down with the finest of wines from the Loire. Ruiz regarded the messenger with narrowed eyes, his fingers raised to his lips and pressed tight together in contemplation. After a pause in which the messenger studied the floor, awaiting dismissal or the flare of rage of which the merchant was on occasion capable, Ruiz nodded twice and thrusting back his chair called for his cloak. If the tale should prove to have substance he would take care to ensure he was among those who greeted this king, for what use wealth if gain could not be made of it.
A second stream, become a river, rushed past the Chambres des Comptes, along the Rue des Carmes and through the Place de Changes, carrying with it the great and the good of Nantes until finally it disgorged them into the Place de Bouffay, where they clustered in groups, their conversation muted. The square was strangely lifeless: cleared of the market stalls, free of the claims and counterclaims of the traders as they cried their wares. Outside the ducal palace, which now served as the law courts, a bevy of servants from the chateau swept the square clean and soldiers dismantled the pillory and gallows. For who could tell what effect the sight of gallows might have on this king, who was coming to Nantes not as a guest, but as a general, to receive the surrender of Mercoeur and thus the submission of Brittany.
In the white heart of the city, in the limestone basilica of Saint-Pierre, the priest, turning his back as if it made him invisible, hitched up his cassock and rubbed at his shin, his other hand fumbling for the beads hanging around his waist. ‘Hail Mary, mother of God, preserve us now and at the hour of our death. Hail Mary, mother of God…’ The familiar repetition slowed his heartbeat and steadied the tremor of his hand, but the unease remained. Nantes was the last stronghold of the Catholic League, and professor of the true faith or not, there was no knowing how Henri of Navarre, for that was how he was still thought of in this city, would respond to the capitulation. It would perhaps be best to spend whatever time was left to him in imploring God for protection, lest human mercy was not forthcoming.