Cicely's King Richard (Cicely Plantagenet Trilogy) (16 page)

Chapter Eighteen

On an eerie
day in March, the gentle soul of Anne Neville slipped quietly away into blessed oblivion. Even the sun had been eclipsed in the sight of Richard’s grief. The whole land stared in wonder at the half-sun that threw such a haunting light upon the realm, a strange semi-darkness without even birdsong to pierce the silence before the bells boomed out yet again for the death of royalty.

Richard did not attend the funeral, for it was not done, but his grief was plain enough. If anyone had ever believed he did not love his queen, they surely could not now. On that sorrowful day, Cicely had needed to be alone, and with the coming of evening sought the solace of her favourite place in the walled gardens. The daffodils were there again, not quite in full bloom but close. They saddened her, because it began to seem that their coming signalled the loss of a member of her family—her father, Richard’s son, and now his queen. It was too much and suddenly she could no longer bear the garden. Catching up her heavy black skirts—for this time Richard did order the court into mourning—she made her way back into the palace.

He withdrew as much as he could. He rarely smiled, and his face was now so weary that he tore at Cicely’s heart. She thought of him constantly, and yearned to spend at least a little time with him, to try to lift his spirits, for she knew how he thought and felt. But he did not send for her at all, and she did not dare to go unannounced. Perhaps he now shunned his second niece as well. He immersed himself in his duties, attending very few court functions, and leaning more and more on his only remaining son. As a result, Cicely again saw little of John.

As spring moved into the rich green of summer, Richard travelled through his dormant realm, making preliminary preparations for the now inevitable invasion by Henry Tudor. He came once more to that rocky fortress of sad memories, Nottingham, his Castle of Care. There he waited. It was the promise of battle, of the hand-to-hand fight, that invigorated him, and lifted him from the morass of his sorrows.

On a warm June evening, barely two weeks after the arrival of the court at Nottingham, he sent word to his two eldest nieces that he wished to see them. Their mother and younger sisters had stayed behind at the palace of Sheen, on the banks of the Thames upstream of Westminster. Dame Grey no longer desired to travel, nor did she have a taste for court life. Life was easier at Sheen.

Richard awaited them in his apartment, alone and surrounded as always by letters, papers and communications of all sorts; the acrid smell of melted wax hung in the still air. His ruby ring lay upon the table before him and he looked up quickly at their entry. He was slender in a tight black doublet and hose, and seemed more delicate by the depth of mourning. ‘Ladies?’

They sank into deep curtseys and when Cicely rose, she found his eyes upon her. ‘It seems a long time since last we spoke, Cicely.’

‘It is, Uncle.’

‘The circumstances have not permitted it.’ He looked at Bess, acknowledging her with a nod, but no more. He had maintained an air of aloofness towards her. He did not cut her, or refuse to speak, but he could no longer be comfortable with her.

‘Ladies, I have decided to send you to more congenial surroundings that are also safer. I speak of the castle of Sheriff Hutton in the county of Yorkshire.’

Bess’s face changed. ‘But . . . when are we to go, Uncle?’

He took a deep breath, his mouth twisting thoughtfully. ‘The sooner the better, I would have you in safety before Tudor invades. Your wardrobes and whatever else you will require are to be sent ahead within the hour. Simply keep behind what you will need in the meantime. I wish you to leave two days hence . . .’ He picked up a quill from the table, and stroked the shaft nervously.

‘Two days?’ Bess stared at him as if he had announced she was to go to the moon itself.

‘Yes. Your destination is to be kept secret, for there are those who would wish to intercept you, and perhaps do you harm. Or worse.’ He glanced at her again, in a reminder of Henry Tudor’s sworn intention to make her his wife. ‘You will not be alone, for your cousins the Earls of Lincoln and Warwick are to go with you, as well as my son John. Your brothers will join you at Sheriff Hutton. Oh, yes, they are still very much alive, even though my enemies would have it believed that I have had them murdered. You will be in Jack of Lincoln’s charge. I regard him as my heir, and should anything happen to me, I intend him to assume the throne. Nothing is formal, but that is my wish. Jack is also at the head of the Council of the North, and therefore well placed to have care of you.’

Cicely lowered her eyes. She had learned that Jack’s roving eye had settled upon Bess. Perhaps he would be a welcome distraction from Richard. She looked at her uncle again. Could any man distract from him? She doubted it. Very much.

Richard’s tiredness was evident as he continued, ‘You cannot take your ladies with you, for this is to be a swift journey, unhampered by frills and fancies. A maid has been found who will attend to you both. Her name is . . .’ He shuffled the papers before him, searching for the maid’s identity. ‘Her name is Mary Kymbe and she is the daughter of a Lincolnshire gentleman loyal to me, Thomas Kymbe of Friskney, which manor is actually of Jack’s holding. So she is not lowborn and must not be regarded as such. Is that understood?’

They both nodded.

‘Good. Now, you are to obey Lincoln in everything. I have placed you under his protection and he is responsible for you. Disobey him and I will learn of it. Your route north will be feigned. You will leave Nottingham accompanied by a detachment of mounted men-at-arms, bearing the banners and colours of the three lords in the cavalcade. Your route will take you south, into a particularly dense part of Sherwood, and once there you will part company from your escort. The men-at-arms will continue south, with as much noise and display as can be achieved, and they will be accompanying a party that only pretends to be you. In the meantime you will ride north along the bed of a stream in order to leave no tracks. You will not pass through any hamlets, nor make your presence known to anyone. You will have to take shelter, of course, but there are certain priories that I know beyond doubt will keep faith with me. God willing, you will reach Sheriff Hutton without detection. You will be safe, and Henry Tudor none the wiser. I mean at all costs to protect those who are close to me in blood. From there, if the need should arise, you will be able to flee to the coast and the safety of my sister Margaret, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy. The countryside around Sheriff Hutton is strong for me and there is little chance of treachery from the inhabitants. Should the day go against me, there will be at least seven scions of the House of York alive and safe across the sea.’ He paused and glanced at them. ‘Have you questions?’

Something gave way in Bess, and she so far forgot herself as to run to kneel at his feet and seize his hand so fiercely that the quill bent. ‘Do not send me away. My place is with you. Please!’

Cicely was dismayed to realize that her sister was finally going to put the nature of her love into words. And to his face. It was not the time. There would
never
be a right time, because he had already made his feelings plain.

‘My mind is made up, Bess,’ he began, clearly embarrassed. ‘You will go to Sheriff Hutton and that is the end of it. I
must
protect you. All of you.’ His tired eyes encompassed Cicely.

But Bess was distraught and remembered only that she loved him. ‘Make me safe from the Tudor by marrying me yourself! He can never have me then! I love you more than life itself, and willingly offer myself as your wife.
Your
wife, not Henry Tudor’s Yorkist token!’

A silence fell upon the room, broken only by the sounds from the courtyard. Richard disengaged his hand. ‘Bess, I cannot be to you that which you wish and deserve. I am not worthy of your love.’

‘You are! No man deserves it more!’

He looked to Cicely, who hurried to draw Bess away. ‘Come, sweeting,’ she said gently. ‘This does you no good.’

He remained calm, and tried to be gentle. ‘You
must
accept it, Bess. I am your uncle, and it is only as an uncle that I see you. I cannot and will not contemplate anything else. Please do not persist, for it distresses me as much as it distresses you.’

His eyes were upon Cicely again. What expression could she read there? Something, she knew not what, but he again seemed to almost say her name. Just with his glance.

Bess was still distressed. ‘No, please . . .’

‘I am sending you to Sheriff Hutton, Bess. The discussion is at an end.’ Any further argument was terminated.

Bess nodded through her tears. Her red-gold Plantagenet hair spilled down over the shoulders of her mourning gown, and as she left, her blue eyes were bright with the incredible force of her love.

Cicely began to follow, but he spoke. ‘No, Cicely, for I would speak with you a while.’

She should have been torn, because she knew Bess needed her, but she had no heart to go from him. And so she closed the door and returned. To him. Close enough to touch him if she wished.

He smiled sadly. ‘I prayed she would never say it. The whole court may know but while she kept it unsaid . . .’

‘She cannot help herself, and today the thought of being sent away from you was simply too much.’

He met her eyes. ‘And what of you, Cicely? Are
you
content to be sent away from me?’

‘No. I would stay with you as well. You have no idea how much I wish it.’ She gazed at him. Going away from him at such a time as this was . . . heartbreaking. She did not want to go, because even though she would be with John, she would
not
be with Richard.

‘I appear to have two very loyal nieces, one for the wrong reason, the other for the right.’

‘You seem surprised.’ She continued to gaze at him, trapped by the force of her feelings. ‘You must have some inkling of how you affect others. It is not only because you have power and are king, it is something within you.’

‘I have my share of detractors as well,’ he reminded her, smiling.

She knew he was not unaware of anything. Perhaps it was as Jane Shore had said, he simply did not use his fascination as her father would have done. His character was too different, but even knowing him as she did—as she thought she did—in this the pages were firmly closed. She supposed she had been green to think a man of his intelligence could be deceived about himself, but it made no difference to how she felt towards him.

She tried to smile. ‘You are not so innocent, I think.’

Amusement curved his lips. ‘Do you suspect me of feigning ignorance, Cicely?’

‘Possibly.’

‘I should not let you in so much.’

‘You cannot entirely keep me out.’

He looked into her eyes. ‘I know that too.’

‘It makes no difference to me whether you know your power over others or not, only that you do not misuse it. Now you stand higher in my estimation.’

‘Cicely—’

But she continued. ‘I find you exhilarating to be with, and I am always so glad when you send for me. Or make me stay. You . . . are very dear to me. So dear.’ Why had she said it twice? Why did she want him to know how profound she suddenly knew her feelings to be? Yes, her feelings ran far too deep.

There was a silence, during which she became ever more aware of him. It was as if the air crackled. Then he tracked a finger briefly down her cheek. ‘You know so well how to warm my heart.’

Suddenly his touch influenced her in a very different way from any before. Everything about him bound her with fleshly desires. She loved him more each time they spoke. He was so much more than an uncle, so much more than . . . Her thoughts halted, for she was shocked by their unexpected path. A curtain was drawing back, allowing her to see within herself. Now, the glimmer of realization dawned so brightly through her that she could hardly breathe. Her love for him was no longer what it should be. Perhaps it never had been.

‘Cicely?’

As he searched her eyes she wondered if he would see what had hitherto been unacknowledged.

When she did not answer, he severed the moment by going to the window. ‘If it is the time for honesty, you should know how much of a pleasure and comfort you have been to me since you came to court. I have always felt able to converse with you, to seek your comment, and know that it will be worth seeking.’ He paused and looked at her again. ‘When we met again that first time I was taken with how earnest and direct you were . . . still are. It was so refreshing. Once you forgot to be frightened of me, that is.’

‘I was childish.’ Her newly opening eyes could not move from him.

‘No, you were not childish. I have never found you
that.
You were simply afraid because your head had been filled with untruths about me. Cicely, if the world were to abound with such as you, it would be a very much better place, I think. I trust my son understands full well what a very fortunate fellow he is,’ he continued. ‘Have I already said that to you?’

She still could not look away from him, his thoughtful eyes, the lean curves of his mouth, his hair, his smile, his voice, his very weariness. . . . Everything.
Everything.
Now the comprehension
almost blinded her.
Sweet God, she loved him as Bess did!
She
loved him, and had done so from that same moment at the abbey. He had
always
meant everything, always drawn her in a way not even John had done. The knowledge was so dazzling that it seemed to blaze throughout her consciousness.

She had to say something. Anything. ‘I—I am equally fortunate to have John . . . Your Grace.’ Suddenly she could not address him as her uncle. Not now.

‘Are we to be formal? Why?’ He returned to her.

She trembled as she sought words. ‘I cannot think of you as my uncle,’ she answered unguardedly.

‘Well, I
am
your uncle, I fear.’ He paused, bowing his head for a moment. ‘But if you cannot address me as that,
please
do not make me your king. I would rather be your friend.’

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