Cicely's King Richard (Cicely Plantagenet Trilogy) (21 page)

Chapter Twenty-Two

The beautiful old
city of York was crowded, its bustle and noise scarcely less than London itself. It was evening as they rode under the southern gate and into Richard’s beloved city of the north. Cicely looked up at the towering minster which hung above the narrow cobbled streets and was visible from every corner. To her delight their arrival in the city did not attract much attention, for they rode without banners or signs to reveal their identity. The clatter of their horses against the smooth stones was barely audible as they rode past the clutter of market stalls and pens of animals. Street traders of all sorts shouted their wares, jostling with each other for customers.

Soon the riders passed into the shadow of the minster itself. The hot, dusty sunshine was suddenly eclipsed by the mighty church, which cast a blessed coolness. Cicely looked up at the carved walls and arched doorways, and finally at the three towers reaching up to the very heavens above. Richard’s city was dear to his heart, and Cicely could understand it. He had prayed here, listened to the music, was its patron. She could almost feel him. York would always support Richard III, its beloved Duke of Gloucester.

Beside her, Bess rode without looking to left or right. She had said very little since leaving Nottingham, and Cicely no longer felt able to speak to her in confidence. It was impossible now that Richard stood between them, even though Bess did not know he was there. Cicely’s sister was enveloped in her own unhappiness, and it would not have occurred to her that she was not alone in the misery of having left him at Nottingham.

At last they rode out of the city, beneath the ancient north gateway, and Cicely was relieved because they were now embarking on the final stage of their long journey to Sheriff Hutton, some ten miles ahead. Soon the dusty road led downhill through the Forest of Galtres towards a small village on the bank of a wide, deep, fast-flowing stream that was spanned by a narrow stone bridge that had no parapet. Next to the bridge was a sprawling tavern with a creaking sign depicting Richard’s white boar badge. Some hundred yards or so beyond the bridge the dense forest continued.

It was as the little party descended towards the bridge that Cicely had a very disagreeable feeling of being watched. There had been nothing since the horseman at the priory, but now she was sure secret eyes were upon them again. She was about to mention it to Bess when Mary urged her pony alongside. ‘My lady, do you recall the horseman at the priory?’

‘Yes, of course. Why do you ask?’

‘I pray you, look just beyond the tavern, to the horse beneath the ash tree.’

Cicely put her hand up to shade her eyes from the dazzle of the sun, and saw the ash tree. Her brow creased, for at first there seemed nothing to see, but then came a flicker of movement as a horse lashed its tail at flies. There was a man standing with it, although he kept in the shade. He might have been anyone but instinct told her it was the same man. He had to be tracking them, and knew their only route north was across this bridge.

She shivered in the warm evening air, and moved her palfrey between John and Jack, who was steering his mount around a pair of mangy hounds that snapped and snarled at each other in the middle of the street. He cursed as his steed reared but then smiled at Cicely.

‘You find me in poor shape, I fear, Cousin,’ he said.

As his horse became quieter, Cicely looked from him to John. ‘We are no longer alone.’

‘Have you seen someone?’ John asked quickly, the concern in his grey eyes a reflection of his father.

‘Yes. Down there, beneath the ash tree.’

Jack scowled. ‘Damned maggot,’ he breathed.

John glanced around. ‘Do you think he is alone?’

‘How in God’s own holy carcass should
I
know?’ Jack snapped.

John pulled a face. ‘What a dear fellow you are today.’

Jack was a little contrite. ‘Forgive me. I awoke this morning filled with resentment that you and I are here on this dairymaid errand.’

Cicely flushed. ‘Thank you, Coz.’

He drew an irritable breath. ‘Very well, I apologize to you as well, but none of this will help our difficulty. The king has charged me to get us all safely to Sheriff Hutton without Henry Tudor knowing, but it seems the Welshman’s grubs are aware of us and seem to have been since we left Nottingham! That blood-sucking turd Stanley is behind this. Securing Richard’s heirs, especially Bess and Cicely, is the Tudor’s principal purpose, and so I imagine that by now there are many more than just one horseman. They will be waiting in the forest, where our capture is less likely to be witnessed.’

John was looking at the bridge as he answered Jack. ‘Jesu, why do you always see the dark side of things? Have some optimism. Look, we have to use the bridge, the stream is too hazardous. The bridge is dangerous as well, of course.’

‘And you say
I
am the pessimist?’ Jack growled.

‘I have a plan, Jack, so hear me out. The road forks some fifty yards beyond the bridge, to the right leading to Sheriff Hutton, to the left further to the north-west, but they
both
enter the forest, which gives excellent cover. If we could get across and take the road that leads
away
from Sheriff Hutton, we could follow it for a mile or so at a good speed and then cut across through the trees to rejoin the road we want. It has to be possible, if we simply complete the triangle.’

Jack remained irascible. ‘Oh yes, it will be so easy even a babe could accomplish it.’

‘My father has other castles and numerous manors here in Yorkshire, we could be travelling to any one of them. Whoever follows us will not know which. Sheriff Hutton is no more likely than any other. With God’s help, we will evade pursuit and soon be safely within its walls. There is a garrison there, and Stanley will need a large force if he is to have any hope of taking it. Yes, our whereabouts might be discovered, but capturing us will not be possible. If you have a better plan, Jack, by all means let us share it.’

‘You can be an impudent pup when you choose,’ Jack muttered. ‘I do not have another plan, if you must know, but I do see a flaw in your reckonings. What do you imagine the unwelcome tail will do while the dog makes a run for it? He will be immediately behind our flea-bitten arse all the time.’

‘If you will but look behind us, I see something that will delay any follower quite considerably.’

They turned and saw a woodcutter’s fully laden cart, drawn by two oxen, lumbering carefully down the slope behind them.

John continued, ‘When it is on the bridge there will be no room for anything else, and I believe the oxen will take some time to negotiate such a narrow way. I suggest we pause at the tavern, as if to rest, and that as soon as the cart is within yards of the bridge, we mount and make a dash. We could go over just in front of it, and our follower will have to wait. He would have to be a very brave rider and his horse particularly strong and fresh to try the water. It would mean we gain several minutes’ grace.’

Jack’s troubled eyes brightened. ‘You are right. Damn your boots, you have your father’s military guile after all! Come, we will ride on, but slowly, and on reaching the tavern we will halt, but the ladies will not dismount. Do you hear? Nor you, my lord Warwick,’ he said to the little boy, who said so little and obeyed the Earl of Lincoln without question. ‘John and I cannot be lifting you all on to your horses
and
hope to get to the bridge before the cur’s tail wakes up enough to wag.’

They continued downhill with the woodcutter’s cart rumbling behind them, the oxen straining to hold the weight back. John watched the man by the ash tree draw his horse back into the shadow of a hut as they approached. ‘Jack, he
has
to be in Stanley pay, yes?’

‘I hope so,’ Jack replied, ‘because if we can send him off on the wrong road, I think he would rather tell Stanley he followed us to some fictitious destination rather than admit he had lost us! I know I would. Stanley sets my bowels griping. Let him believe we have gone anywhere but Sheriff Hutton. God knows, Richard holds such great tracts of this land, Stanley’s men could comb back and forth and still not be sure if they had missed us. Let them go around in circles, because while they are here in the north, they cannot act against Richard.’

The man kept well out of sight as they reined in at the tavern. John and Jack dismounted, and they gathered as if at ease and simply resting; the ladies and little Warwick remained mounted, but relaxed. The cart rolled slowly onward, the yards between it and the bridge closing so slowly that Cicely held her breath. What if they did not all get to the bridge before it?

The moment came at last, John slapped Bess’s horse and that of Warwick, while John did the same for Cicely and Mary. Then the two men climbed swiftly into their saddles and urged their mounts in the wake of the others. Bess and Cicely crossed the bridge and continued riding, with Mary and the little earl right behind. Jack was hard upon their heels, but John only just made the gap before the ox was upon the bridge and the cart blocked all pursuit.

He glanced back. The watching rider had been caught off guard and had only just remounted. He had no chance of crossing the bridge. His hood fell back. It was Ralph Scrope!

The fleeing party reached the fork in the road and bore to the left. Soon the Forest of Galtres closed upon them, shutting out the dying day and cooling the air with ever lengthening shadows. There was a scent of evergreens as they galloped further and further from the bridge. Surely their pursuer would have crossed by now?

Jack called out. ‘To the right! Now!’

They turned, leaving the road and riding almost silently on a carpet of pine needles. Only the jingle of harness told of their presence, and shrill birdsong drowned even that. They reached a dip in the land, and Jack drew them all into the shelter of a thicket. They listened, and after a moment heard the faint clatter of hooves along the road they had left. On the hoof beats went, and soon disappeared into the distance to the north-west.

John grinned at Jack. ‘Not a bad plan after all, eh, Cousin?’

Jack sniffed. ‘I suppose so, but we are not there yet. Come on, because if I do not reach Sheriff Hutton soon, I vow I will lie down and die!’

‘Well, do not succumb just yet, for I know who our follower is. Ralph Scrope.’

Cicely’s lips parted. Ralph’s hatred for her, and for Richard, who had taken her side and prevented the match, had become so poisonous that he had turned upon the House of York.

John glanced at her. ‘For what it is worth, I have always suspected that deep within he was of a Lancastrian persuasion. It was so vague a suspicion that I did not really take notice. Now I wish I had.’

Jack breathed out heavily. ‘Scrope would be lying in an unmarked grave if I had anything to do with it.’

John glanced at Cicely. ‘And I am sure you would help to dig it, mm?’

‘Oh yes.’

They found the other road without trouble, and followed it out of the forest over open moorland that was shaded to purple in the twilight. The dark forest clustered all around in the valleys and clefts, and lapwings tumbled high overhead in the last of the light. Eventually the village and castle appeared ahead. Dust flew again as they rode through a street that was sunk between its cottages, worn away by the frequent traffic to and from the great fortress. At the castle gateway both Jack and John were recognized and the small party was allowed entry. So, at last, the weary travellers passed over the drawbridge and into the bailey. They were safe.

John dismounted swiftly and came to assist Cicely. She slipped down from her palfrey and he held her close. ‘Journey’s end, sweetheart,’ he said, kissing her forehead.

‘Hold me tighter, John,’ she begged ‘Hold me tighter.’

His arms enclosed her more, and when she raised her mouth, he kissed it. His lips were hot from the frantic ride, and she could feel his heart thundering. She now knew what she should not, the difference between the kiss of a boy and a man. John was young and ardent, as she herself had been, but he was not Richard. She made herself kiss him as she would once have done, eagerly and without hesitation, but he drew back to look deep into her eyes.

‘You do still wish to marry me?’

‘Of course. What makes you ask?’ She had to know if she had already given herself away.

‘You seem . . . changed. Maybe you have cooled towards me?’

‘No! No, of course not. I love you, John.’ She was so anxious to reassure him that she knew her reaction seemed all it should be.

‘You were going to return my ring,’ he reminded her.

‘I was so upset about everything — leaving Nottingham, the danger the king is in, the upset with Bess . . .’
Oh, how despicable you are, Cicely Plantagenet.

He smiled. ‘It has not been easy.’

‘No.’

‘But I will make it better now, I swear it.’

She held him again, defying herself to cry for the wrong reason.

Suddenly he caught her firmly and swung her up from her feet and twirled her around. ‘I love you, my lady, and I do not care who knows it!’

She laughed, for there was exhilaration in the moment, but then he stopped twirling her. ‘I have an ulterior motive, of course,’ he said, lowering her to the ground again.

‘Oh?’

‘Yes. I want to make love to you.’

‘Fie on you, sir.’

He grinned. ‘Is it not said that honesty is always the best course?’

She lowered her eyes. ‘It cannot
always
be the best course, John.’

Chapter Twenty-Three

Cicely and John
were alone together in a small anteroom at Sheriff Hutton. The life of the castle went on all around: the training of the men-at-arms, the sound of horses and hounds, shouted orders, everything that was always associated with a great fortress.

They had been at the castle for a week now, and the princes had yet to be brought from Friskney. There had been no word from Richard and Jack’s mood was still as angry as it had been on leaving Nottingham. He would
never
take kindly to inactivity, but especially now. There was no sign of any enemy. It seemed they had definitely fooled Ralph Scrope, who might, as Jack had said, have told his shifty Lord Stanley anything at all but the truth — that he had lost his quarry somewhere in the Forest of Galtres.

John was seated in a chair in their sun-filled room, and Cicely was on his lap, her black skirts tumbling to the floor, her arms around his neck. Their heads rested together. It was a quiet moment they both wanted and were content to share it in silence. But then, as had happened two years ago in Westminster Abbey, a conversation was overhead. It was one that kept them as still and quiet as it was possible to be, because Jack was pleading with Bess for her favours.

‘Sweet lady, will you not be a little kind to me?’

‘My lord of Lincoln, you have a wife who will be kind to you, that should suffice!’ Bess was stiff and cold, clearly resenting being lured into the adjoining room on whatever pretext he had invented.

Jack was impatient. ‘My wife is far away and cannot relieve my misery of mind and body.’

‘Then send for her.’

Cicely and John had to press their hands to their mouths as they pictured the scene.

‘Oh, come now, Bess, do you not find my hapless existence appealing?’ Jack was at his most pleasing and attractive, which was quite considerable. There was a pause, and then the sound of a sharp slap.

‘You presume, my lord of Lincoln!’

‘God’s blood, woman, are you made of granite? A kiss is not an assault upon your virtue! ‘

‘It is from my viewpoint. Do
not
trespass further! Your person is not of the slightest interest because I love the king — he is my only joy in this world, and will always be.’

‘Then you are doomed to a lonely life, my lady.
You
will never have Richard.’

Cicely could not look at John.

Jack laughed. ‘I
will
have you, Bess of York, on that you may count. Oh, I would take your sister first, but unfortunately her heart is already engaged.’

Steps were heard and then the outer door closed.

John leaned his head back and smiled. ‘Jack was ever the faithful, loving husband, eh? I doubt he was true to his wife on their wedding night. I did not know
you
would be his first choice.’

‘Nor did I. He will never win Bess over. No one will take her mind off your father. No one. He is impossible to forget or replace.’

‘Good God, Cicely, not even my father can be that much of a paragon. I no longer think I envy him, but have become downright jealous.’

She managed a laugh. ‘Well, you have no need to fear because I am just another of his nieces and therefore prohibited.’

That night Cicely’s sleep was disturbed by the dull, groaning sound of the drawbridge being lowered, and then a company of horses clattered over the drawbridge into the confines of the castle. She heard a voice she recognized.

‘Tell the Earl of Lincoln that Sir Francis Lovell is come from the king with my lords Edward and Richard of York!’

Cicely gasped and peered out. She saw Francis’s silver wolf banners floating in the moonlight.

The following morning, her brother Edward proved to still be disagreeable. He was rude, condescending and superior, even when addressing Jack. The first hint of his hauteur came when they all awaited him at breakfast in the great hall. The minutes dragged but still he did not attend, even though Jack had sent peremptory word that his presence was required without further ado.

Dickon was very different, and seemed set to grow up in the very image of his father, Edward IV. He was strongly built with the blue eyes and pale coppery hair of the Plantagenets, and his manners and disposition left little if anything to be desired. Like the young Earl of Warwick, he had swiftly formed a devotion to Jack, and imitated his every gesture and action. Jack of Lincoln was everything such boys would worship.

Francis, who sat beside Cicely, smiled at her. ‘Your beauty grows with each passing month, Lady Cicely. Who would have imagined that the little, dark-haired, freckled girl I once knew could become so lovely?’

‘Why, thank you, sir, but please do not mention the freckles. They only come in summer, and I hate them.’

‘They are charming.’

She changed the subject. ‘Have you seen the king? I would know how he is.’

He met her eyes. ‘As well as might be expected without you,’ he answered softly. ‘But I left Nottingham only two days after you.’

‘So you know my secret too?’

‘Robert Percy and I are in his confidence. He knew we had realized the truth at your leave-taking.’

She looked away. ‘I pray nightly for him. No, I pray more often than that.’

‘He would be glad to know it, I am sure.’

She smiled. ‘I wish a thousand plagues on Henry Tudor, and upon every deceitful Yorkist and treacherous Lancastrian. If the earth were to open up and swallow them all I would gladly brandish the shovel that buries them.’

Francis pretended to be startled. ‘And you look so gentle and amiable.’

‘I would strike down anyone who betrayed him, or who even
thought
of betraying him.’

‘Perhaps the white boar is not a fierce enough emblem for him. Mayhap your kerchief would serve better.’

‘I would give him a thousand kerchiefs if I thought that was so.’

At that moment there was a stir, and all eyes moved to the far end of the hall. There stood her brother Edward. He was tall and angular, his thin face hollow-eyed and almost chinless. His dull hair hung limply to his shoulders and he gazed down on them now, his complexion sallow in the morning light. He looked quite dreadful, and yet had clearly not been mistreated. He was simply very unwell.

Edward descended the steps, an insolent expression upon his face, and they all observed in awful silence. He walked serenely past the benches of onlookers, nodding his head briefly to his brother and sisters and halting at last next to Jack who, naturally, sat at the head of the table.

Cicely’s fascination was tempered with horror. His voice proved as shaky as his appearance. ‘You dare to break bread without me, my lord of Lincoln?’

Jack’s nostrils flared at such insolence. ‘Dare?’ he repeated in a dangerously controlled tone.

‘Aye, my lord, I had thought the King of England would sit at the head of a table and not one of his subjects.’

Jack folded his napkin and began to dip his fingers in the finger bowl proffered by a page. ‘Sir, in case you are not aware of it, the King of England is not present, only his heir.’

‘If you speak of my uncle, the usurping Duke of Gloucester, then of course he is not present. I speak of the true King of England, my father’s trueborn son. Myself.’

Jack surveyed him. ‘Oh, I am tempted to fling you over my knee and thrash you for the tyke you are.’ He dried his hands on a napkin and then rose until he towered over the boy. ‘I do not dispute that you are your father’s son, but your
uncle
is the rightful, anointed King of England. If this is to be a sample of your manners then I think your Woodville tutors were grossly at fault. In this hall there are seven members of the House of York, and of the seven
I
am the head! I am legitimate and have the blood and rank. Next follows my lord John of Gloucester, son of the present King of England,
then
you may take your true place in this hall! But you may be sure that if you continue in this vein, I will consider the Earl of Warwick to outrank you, attainder or not. Do I make myself understood?’

‘You lie, my lord, you are merely the son of my aunt and the Duke of Suffolk, no more, no less. My father’s marriage was true and
I
am the rightful monarch.’ Edward was clearly a little frightened of Jack but to his credit stood his ground like a lanky young cockerel, but then his fear made him cough. It was a hard, dry cough that brought echoes of the late queen.

Jack exchanged a glance with Francis, for it was clear that the one-time Edward V was very ill indeed. Jack lowered his head for a moment, and when he addressed Edward again it was in a kinder tone. ‘My lord Edward, I forgive you your breach of manners. If you will sit with us now I will say no more.’

Edward’s chin, such as it was, was raised pugnaciously. ‘I will not sit unless it is in my rightful place.’ And with that he turned and stalked away again.

A nerve twitched at Jack’s temple.

Francis looked at him. ‘I fear, Jack, that your patience is going to be sorely tried.’

Jack found a little humour. ‘And let us be honest, Francis, I do not possess an abundance of it in the first place.’

‘That, unfortunately, is true.’

‘Are you sure I cannot persuade you to stay? I know you like hawking, and I am determined to risk detection today by flying my favourite white hobby, which is kept in the mews here.’

‘You feel able to take such a chance?’ Francis was surprised. ‘That damned hobby is as conspicuous as your horse. If it is seen overhead it will be known from whose wrist it flies.’

‘I believe our presence here is unknown, and I intend to go to the north, an area where I doubt there will be anyone watching.’

John looked at him. ‘Then you go without me. I do not intend to invite an arrow because
you
wish to look splendid.’

Jack was not pleased. ‘Oh, very well. We will go hawking, but without my hobby. Will that do?’

‘Yes. A little disguise and caution, and it will be a welcome diversion.’

Francis folded his napkin and dipped his fingers into the little bowl of water provided. ‘I wish you well of your sport, but fear I cannot take you up on the invitation, tempting as it is. I must leave for the south coast, having been diverted to Friskney. Placing me there is not likely to make the slightest difference, because I do not believe Tudor will arrive there. He will land somewhere else. Wales, in my opinion. However, Richard has to take all precautions. I wish you all farewell. May our next meeting be under triumphant circumstances.’ He bowed to them all, and then hastened away.

Jack caught Dickon’s eyes. ‘Please reassure me that you are everything your brother is not.’

‘I am, my lord.’

‘Thank God for that small mercy.’ But Jack still held his eyes. ‘Are you for King Richard?’

‘Yes.’

‘Without hesitation?’

‘Yes, for I have known nothing but kindness from him. If I were older, I would ride with him against Henry Tudor.’

Jack smiled. ‘That is what I like to hear. You are a good fellow, Richard of York.’ He raised his cup of mead and drank it all in one.

The following day, when Francis was well on his way south again, and they were all closeted in the solar, a messenger arrived from Richard. It was Sir Robert Percy and, incredibly, he came alone, without even a few mounted men-at-arms for protection. It was strange that he should undertake the role of messenger when Richard had many trained riders and horses at his disposal.

Robert was closeted with Jack for a while, and then both men joined the others in the solar. They were all—Cicely excepted—to go hawking a little later, as Jack had planned, but Robert had declined to join them, stating he had other tasks to attend to before riding back to the king. Cicely was not going hawking for the simple reason that she did not like it. She preferred to stay behind and read, for she had discovered some of Richard’s books, and because he had read them, she wished to as well. She longed to question Robert, to learn of Richard, but as yet there had been no opportunity. At least, not one that was sufficiently private.

Jack, it seemed, had already enquired after the king, for it was not long before he mentioned Richard. ‘I find my uncle an enigma. He can be provoked into punishing those who warrant it, but the prodding has to be almost savage to bring him to that point.’

Robert nodded. ‘I do not think he will ever change. Mercy is generally part of him.’ He glanced at Cicely. It was a strange glance, seeming at once casual and yet deliberate.

She did not notice, for she was reading. A younger Richard had signed his name inside the book.
Ricardus Gloucestre.
Loyaulte me lie.
He had also written a poem, although whether it was his work or simply something he liked, she could not tell.

To be without you is to fade a little within

To not hear your voice is to lose the sweetness of music

To forfeit your smile is to be plunged into darkness

To never feel your touch is to lose all sense of being

To know you have gone forever is to steal away all joy.

She ran a finger over the long-dried ink. If he had composed it, which, knowing his skill with words, he well might have done, who might it have concerned? Someone he had lost some time ago. John’s mother? Possibly, for it was surely a love poem.

The words brought a lump to her throat and tears to her eyes. She put the book hastily aside and rose to go to the window, there to compose herself before facing her sister and cousins again. She longed to simply ride back to Nottingham to be with him again, to confront the odium, simply to be in his arms. She gazed towards the dark blue-green of the forest shimmering in the haze of summer. Larks fluttered and warbled against the sky, and the call of a curlew echoed across the wooded hillside to the south. The air was warm, and insects droned sleepily against the warm stone. It was all so peaceful and serene, and it was all Richard’s England.

Leaving the others, Robert came to her side and lowered his voice. ‘I have a message for you, my lady.’

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