Cicely's King Richard (Cicely Plantagenet Trilogy) (20 page)

Jack lifted her down from his horse. ‘Can you ride on your own now, sweetheart?’ he asked kindly, adjusting her hood as the wind threatened to blow it back from her face.

‘Yes, I think so.’

‘Be sure, sweetheart, for we need to be swift, not held up.’

‘I can manage.’

He kissed her cheek and then lifted her lightly on to her palfrey. They watched as their replacements continued south with the men-at-arms, Jack’s white horse giving the party the appearance of complete authenticity, then the party for Sheriff Hutton rode down the side of the bridge into the stream, the bed of which they followed as it swept around to the west and then, out of sight from the road, to the north. Anyone who now rode along the road from Nottingham could not know the party from the castle had even checked its speed.

After riding about two hundred yards, to a point where the stream wound behind a screen of young sycamores, Jack reined in and nodded at John. ‘Be careful, for one slip will be our undoing, but I
must
know.’

John dismounted and waded back the way they had come.

Jack manoeuvred his horse close to Cicely and then leaned to speak only to her. ‘We are all distressed, Cicely, but I think your distress cuts into your soul.’

Her lips parted and she could not meet his eyes.

For a moment his arm was around her shoulder. A gesture of comfort, a sympathy she had neither expected nor sought and she knew he had realized the truth as she parted from Richard.

John reached a clump of willows within sight of the bridge, and hid behind it to see if anyone had followed. Almost immediately he heard a single horse coming from the direction of Nottingham. When it came into view, the rider was hooded and impossible to identify. The horse did not pause but rode on over the bridge in the wake of the cavalcade, and by the way the rider leaned over in the saddle now and then to look at the ground, he was making sure he followed a trail.

John waded back to the others, and nodded at Jack. ‘Whoever he was, he took the bait and went on south.’

Jack grinned. ‘Stanley’s arse-creeper, no doubt. Let us be on our way, and mind now, no one is to leave the stream, is that understood? We follow it for some time now.’

They continued, but three hours later the racing clouds at last gave up the rest of their rain. It poured down, slanting in the wind and banishing even the vestiges of the English summer. The dripping trees of Sherwood Forest crowded above their heads, rustling in the sodden wind, blotting out the failing daylight. The rain fell ever heavier, coming down in such torrents that it was not long before the stream’s flow increased. They came to a swirling bend, where the water span around and the bed deepened without warning.

Cicely’s palfrey blundered into it first, and plunged down, head tossing, eyes rolling as it floundered for some footing. Cicely clung to the saddle. She was such an indifferent horsewoman that doing anything to help her mount was beyond her. John urged his horse in beside her, and spray flew as he struggled to seize the palfrey’s bridle.

‘Be still, now, Cicely!’ he cried. ‘For the love of God stop swaying around!’

‘I cannot help it!’

‘Yes, you can. Look at me. At
me,
not the water!’

She did as she was told but was frightened as the palfrey continued to toss its head, trying to find purchase on the stream bed.

John held her gaze. ‘Now, just sit there like that and let me take over. At me, Cicely. That is better.’ He smiled, and then turned his own horse, and managed to coax the frightened palfrey to shallower water. Only then did he reach for Cicely’s hand. ‘You are safe now, sweeting.’

The endearment was like a warm cloak that wrapped comfortingly around her in a way she did not merit, and she clung to his hand.

He smiled again. ‘I will look after you, Cicely.’

She gazed at him as the rain sluiced down his concerned face. His fair hair clung to his cheeks and dripped down his back, and he was so anxious about her. It was a moment that forced her to face herself. She loved his father as much as it was possible to love any man, but she loved John as well. He was Richard’s flesh and blood. She prevented the thought from continuing, because maybe that was the truth of it. Did she love John for himself, or because of his father? Was she so selfish and without true kindness that she was capable of such deceit? She did not know, except that for whatever reason, John of Gloucester was precious to her and she hoped he would never know how she had failed him. But she would always belong to Richard Plantagenet. Always. ‘Forgive me, John, I have not treated you well.’

He smiled. ‘You are upset, I know that. I can wait until you are yourself again.’

She
had
to do right by him, and be as she had before. She smiled and squeezed his hand.

He turned to Jack. ‘We have to find shelter. It is impossible to continue in this deluge.’

‘We are not far from Newstead. St Mary’s Priory is among those on the list of places true to the king. This stream passes the walls.’

‘Then we must go there.’

As Jack hesitated about a final decision, Bess looked at him angrily. ‘Cousin, I care not
where
we go, merely that we find shelter before we all die of the ague.’

His knowing eyes surveyed her. ‘My lady, such an ague would be worth the catching if you would be my nurse.’

Her face flushed red and she raised her chin haughtily. ‘My lord of Lincoln, your wife would no doubt be glad to perform that service. Or maybe it is so long since you were in
her
bed that she no longer even recalls what you look like!’ She flicked her reins and rode slowly on down the stream towards the haven at Newstead.

Jack grinned broadly at John. ‘Oh, such spirit. I would gladly be the first to tame her.’

Cicely was cross. ‘How like a man, Jack de la Pole. Why do you
all
have to speak of taming a woman as if she were a horse? Can you not coax her into your questionable bed by other means? Maybe force is your only talent in that respect?’

John winced, but Jack only laughed. ‘Good God, John, your lady is even more spirited than her sister! Lady Cicely, if you ever tire of this paltry fellow, I will gladly coax you. You have no idea how sweet and persuasive I can be when I try.’

‘I think I probably do.’

He smiled at her, and again there was a nuance, a suggestion that he understood—or guessed—at least something. She remembered he had been close by during those final moments of parting from Richard. It had all had been too expressive. And that had been her fault, not Richard’s.

The prior of St Mary’s took them in willingly. His name was Thomas Gunthorp, and he was anxious to show all possible hospitality to his illustrious guests. Cicely and Bess were led to two small cell-like rooms, all too reminiscent of their sanctuary at Westminster, but Cicely could not have cared less as Mary Kymbe, having already waited upon Bess, came to attend her as well. She was of an age with Cicely, and had a heart-shaped face, brown eyes and rich brown hair. She and Cicely already liked each other, but Bess was not able to unbend sufficiently to chatter with a maid.

Cicely was glad to be out of her wet clothes and warmly wrapped in a large blanket, but hardly had Mary commenced brushing her hair than Jack appeared in the doorway.

Mary tried to shoo him away but Cicely prevented her. ‘Mary Kymbe, I think I am sufficiently covered by this blanket for my lord of Lincoln to only see my toes.’

The maid disapproved, but as she hurried past Jack, he suddenly caught her arm. ‘Your name is Kymbe?’

‘Yes, my lord.’

‘Of Lincolnshire?’

Mary nodded. ‘Friskney, my lord. My father is Thomas Kymbe.’

‘He entertained me at dinner a year or so ago. You were not there. I would have remembered.’

‘I have not been back to Friskney in three years, my lord. Is something wrong?’

‘No, of course not.’ Jack smiled, and then let her go.

When Mary had gone, Cicely looked at him. ‘You leave my maid alone, Jack de la Pole.’

‘I will be a saint, I swear.’

She searched his face. ‘What was that about?’

‘Mere pleasantry.’

‘Oh no, there is more to it. Tell me.’

He closed the door. ‘Until just now I had not realized her name was Kymbe. Cicely, your brothers may be at Sheriff Hutton now, but they
were
at Friskney.’

She stared at him.

‘It is my manor,’ Jack reminded her, ‘and it is close to the sea. Your maid clearly does not know. I merely wished to be certain.’

‘How long have they been there?’

‘Since John Welles, who has neighbouring Lincolnshire manors, was fool enough to try to abduct them from the Tower. Welles fled to Brittany to Tudor, but could be anywhere now. Wherever, he is not likely to visit Friskney if Thomas Kymbe is Richard’s man. Your brothers have been perfectly safe there. Dickon has been in good spirits, but Edward is sickly. Not too sickly to make the journey to Sheriff Hutton. Now you know as much as me.’

‘And you really can trust Mary’s father?’

‘He served with Richard at Tewkesbury and has not swerved from him since. I gather that his son, your maid’s brother, Tom Kymbe the younger, is not so steady to York, but he has been estranged from his father for some time and has been with relatives on the Isle of Wight — do not ask me why. I am not a fount of all wisdom concerning the Kymbes of Friskney. Remember now, your maid clearly knows nothing. She has not been back to Friskney and her father keeps his secret close, so do not enlighten her unwittingly. It may be that she is close to her brother, who appears to have close connections with John Welles and is therefore most likely a Lancastrian.’ Jack smiled. ‘Enough of that. We should speak of Richard, I think.’

‘There is nothing to say,’ she said quickly.

‘But there is.’

‘No.’

He came closer. ‘Jesu, Cicely, do you really imagine I could have been standing where I was in that courtyard and
not
see how you and the king love each other? I felt your pain so keenly that I shared your tears.’

‘It was merely a fond leave-taking.’

‘Do I look like a gull, Cicely? I make no judgement upon you, nor do I feel compelled to rush to the nearest confessor with my horror. And God knows, I could find enough of them here.’

‘But do you feel compelled to tell John?’ She met his eyes.

‘No.’

‘Do you promise?’

He smiled. ‘Do I need to? Then you have my promise. The secret belongs to you and the king, and I would no more betray it than I would desert him on the battlefield. I know what I saw today, Cicely, and it moved me more than you can imagine. He has long needed someone like you. Needed you in particular, I imagine. I am glad for you both, even if it must be a secret.’ He came closer. ‘I only wanted you to know that I saw no sin, and that if you ever need to talk, I will be close by.’

She managed a smile. ‘Thank you, Jack.’

He hugged her tightly, kissed her cheek and left her alone.

Moments later Mary returned to resume the brushing of her mistress’s hair. Cicely closed her eyes and saw Richard again, wearing the black brocade robe, his body pale and slender.
One step more, Cicely, and our sin is as good as committed. . . .
His voice filled her head, his lips kissed her still, and it was too much. Fresh tears began to fall.

Mary saw. ‘My lady?’

‘It’s nothing, Mary. Just my foolishness.’

‘I see no foolishness, my lady. I see only great sadness.’ The maid put a soft hand on her shoulder. It was brief, a daring to touch, but it was heartfelt.

Later, when Mary had gone, Cicely lay down on the hard board that was the bed. She listened to the steady patter of the rain outside the narrow window, and the drips that struck the ivy leaves against the wall. The priory was in a clearing, with the forest banished some fifty yards in all directions, but the wind so soughed through the trees that it sounded like the sea. The sharp smell of wet moss soothed her, and she closed her eyes, to drift away into Richard’s waiting embrace. She knew that whatever he was doing now, he would be thinking of her.
Take my love with you, and always keep it close, for it can never belong to another. . . .
His love was with her now, and the knowledge was so good.

How long she slept she did not know but it was dark when she awoke suddenly. It had almost stopped raining but the clouds still rushed across the sky, breaking now and then to allow swift shafts of moonlight to slip across the room. Someone was in the room! But it was only Mary, standing by the narrow window, looking out intently.

‘What is it, Mary, can you not take your rest?’

Mary turned, startled, and bobbed a curtsey. ‘My lady! I thought you slept.’

‘A miracle on this horrid plank.’ Cicely smiled. ‘What is so interesting outside?’

‘I am not really sure. The window looks to the edge of the forest to the south, and a moment ago there was moonlight. I thought I saw something move, but the bushes were heaving in the wind so it seemed but a trick of the eye. And yet . . .’ The maid looked out again.

‘What do you think it was?’ Cicely asked, slipped from the bed to join her.

‘A horseman, but if so he is well hidden in the bushes and wears a hooded cloak that hides his face.’

Could it be the man who had followed them out of Nottingham? Cicely searched the edge of the trees. Were they discovered? The moon emerged again, and sure enough, there was a rider among the bushes, his cloak billowing in the wind, his muffled face turned towards the buildings. As they watched he turned his horse away and rode slowly into the forest, leaving behind only the empty bushes, where torn leaves scattered like emerald rain. Then clouds covered the moon again.

Cicely was disturbed. Who was he? Not a friend, for a friend would have come to the abbey. Who then? She caught up her skirts and ran to find the others.

They left the priory before dawn, slipping out quietly and riding once more along the bed of the stream. Behind them no hint was given of their departure, of them ever having been there. Whether the lone horseman had been friend or enemy, he would have to find them again.

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