Cicely's King Richard (Cicely Plantagenet Trilogy) (23 page)

Richard stirred, and then remembered. His arms went around her and he kissed her again. Her eyes opened slowly and she smiled at him, but then the smile faded. ‘You have to go?’

‘No, sweetheart, you do. Robert will take you safely back to the castle.’

‘No.’

‘You must go this time, Cicely. I have already risked too much to be here. I need to be at Nottingham when word arrives that Henry Tudor has set foot in my realm, not lying in paradise with you.’

‘This is paradise?’

‘Yes, because you are here.’ He kissed her again, adoring her with his lips in such a way that she knew it signified parting. She wanted to hold him back as he slipped from the bed, but he moved beyond her outstretched fingers.

She got up and stood behind him, her arms around his chest, her body pressed to his damaged spine. ‘You will not be able to come here again, will you?’

His hands enclosed hers. ‘Not until it is over.’

Please God, keep him safe for me.
‘Has anyone ever loved as we do?’ she whispered.

‘I would wish
everyone
to be able to love like this,’ he answered, leaning his head back so that his hair mixed with hers. Then he drew away and bent to hold her gown for her step into it. He paused after he had drawn it up around her. ‘We will be together again, I vow, but I do not know when.’

She had to close her eyes because the tears were near again and she did not want to make it even harder for him.

He laced the gown. ‘See how adept I am?’ He smiled.

‘I envy all the women who had ever lain with you.’

‘You do not need to,’ he answered. ‘Not one of them could put you in the shade. Now, let us see how nimble-fingered
you
are.’

‘I have not dressed many kings,’ she said.

‘I trust you will only dress one, my lady.’

‘There is no question of it, because there is only one king I would wish to assist with even his gloves.’ She helped him, but as he was about to fasten the front of his doublet, she halted. ‘One moment, my lord . . .’ She moved close and put her lips to his chest, moving them adoringly over his warmth. Then she opened her purse and took out a small kerchief she had placed there earlier. It was the first thing she had ever embroidered—in a design of sweet cicely flowers and leaves—and it meant a great deal to her. She pushed it gently inside the doublet, against his heart, and then completed the fastening herself. ‘Carry it with you, my love, for it will remind you of me.’

‘Jesu, Cicely, do you think I need reminding?’

Their lips joined again, and then she pulled back slightly. ‘I will go now, but parting from you is still so hard that—’

He put a finger to her lips. ‘No more words, Cicely, for we do not need them. We know what is in our hearts.’

‘Sometimes words say more than they seem to. The last time we parted, you said such beautiful things to me, and one keeps returning. Now
I
say it.
Take my love with you, and always keep it close, for it can never belong to another.

He pressed her palm to his lips, and then led her down the stairs again. He picked up the lantern and went to a table, upon which she saw the few things he had needed to write to Jack. There was another letter there, folded, sealed, and he gave it to her. ‘Put it in your purse. Do not read it now, but when you are private.’

‘Richard . . .’

‘In your purse,’ he said again.

She did as he bade, but her hands shook so much that he had to help her. His fingers were firm and steady. ‘I have not said how the colour of your gown pleases me. It is a colour to gladden the heart,’ he said.

‘That is why I wore it.’

‘I know.’ He smiled. ‘Now, Robert will see you safely back to Sheriff Hutton.’

She gazed at him, absorbing every detail, every small thing that made him what he was to her. ‘I love you so very much,’ she whispered.

‘And I you.’

She hesitated a moment more, finding this parting so much more difficult than the one before, and that had been anguish enough. There was something else now, something she could not identify but which touched her with a cold finger. He was alone and in peril, and he affected her so much. Where he went, she wanted to be as well, but she could not. Not now. She had to let him go away from her to a fate that might be his salvation and vindication, or might equally be his death.

‘Please, Cicely,’ he said softly. ‘Go.’

Choking back her tears, she turned and went from him. She felt as if her heart tried to leap out of her breast to return to him to whom it belonged. It was all she could do not to return to him. Not to even look back. The pre-dawn light was blessedly anonymous, hiding her distress as she went to where Robert waited with the horses.

He was kind. ‘You will see him again, Lady Cicely.’

‘Will I?’

‘Do not even think that you will not,’ he said quickly, almost superstitiously.

She struggled for composure. ‘I cannot bear to leave him, I simply cannot bear it.’ She turned on impulse to go back but he prevented her.

‘No, my lady. Let him be. Do you think he finds this moment any easier than you? I must take you back to Sheriff Hutton, and then he and I must make all haste back to Nottingham.’

‘Look after him for me, Sir Robert.’

He nodded. ‘You may rely upon it, Lady Cicely.’

The others had returned the previous evening, but at this early hour she saw no one. Except Jack, whom she encountered on the steps that led up to the private apartments.

He halted before her, the light of a wall torch in his eyes and through his amethyst. ‘How now, sweet Cicely? Creeping home at dawn?’

‘Yes.’

‘How is he?’

‘Who?’

He folded his arms. ‘The king.’

‘Well.’

‘And lusty, by the air about you.’ He smiled and stepped aside for her to pass. ‘He is a fortunate man, Cicely Plantagenet, and the only one whose place in your heart I could not take.’

‘Do you ever stop flirting, Jack?’

‘I cannot help it. I was put on earth to pleasure the fair sex.’ He grinned.

‘The dazzling gift God presented to womankind?’

‘Could I be anything less?’

‘No doubt your wife is in full agreement.’

‘I doubt it very much.’

She hid away to read the letter from Richard, and when she broke his seal, the words he wrote were so moving and tender that she was overwhelmed. Tears coursed down her cheeks as she read.

‘My dearest, most beloved lady, I send this because I have to put down in writing the feelings I have for you. You are all around me, every moment of every day, and there is not an hour when I do not think of you as many times as that hour has minutes. Being parted from you is to be likened to purgatory, and I am but half a man because you are not with me. I am a king, yet lack that one jewel that will make me complete. I know that I am in your heart, and for this I cannot measure the honour I feel. Your sweet, forthright nature, your voice, your touch, your constant support, all of these make a slave of me. If our love is crossed by fate, I no longer care. It is an eternal love that will carry me to whatever lies ahead. No spirit could ever be more true than mine is to you. Be safe, my beloved. My heart and soul are forever in your keeping. Richard.’

She could hardly bear it, and raised the letter to her lips. He had touched it, written it, folded it with his own hand, and it made her feel close to him again. She wept unashamedly, because Richard Plantagenet was as eloquent with the written word as he was with the spoken. When he wanted to convey his love, he did it so incomparably that it was as if he held her in his arms.

Chapter Twenty-Five

It was August,
and Cicely sat with Bess on the grassy slope beneath the castle walls. Mary sat nearby, stroking a tabby cat that had begun to follow her around. The maid’s eyes were fixed upon the gatehouse, from whence a wine cart would soon emerge.

Cicely could not help teasing the maid about her new sweetheart. ‘Has Will disappeared, Mistress Kymbe?’

Mary blushed. ‘Please, my lady.’

Bess looked around from the daisy chain she was making. ‘Who
is
this Will? Is there some secret to which I am not party?’

Cicely smiled. ‘Mary has a lover.’

‘Oh, my lady, he is not my lover!’ Mary exclaimed indignantly.

‘Then it is surely not for want of him trying.’

Bess was interested now. ‘Come, tell me all about him.’

Mary blushed even more. ‘He is the son of the innkeeper at the White Boar.’

Bess was surprised. ‘The one who brings the wine? Mary, he is built like York minster itself, has bright red hair and legs like tree trunks.’

Mary hid her flushed face.

Cicely smiled again. ‘He entered the castle an hour ago and is still there. Mary threatens to fall down the bank in her eagerness to see him again.’

‘Oh, my lady, it is not fair of you to mock me so.’

But at that moment they heard the
deep rumble that announced the wine cart’s passage beneath the gatehouse. The old grey horse moved more easily with only empty barrels to haul, and the muscular young man with the reins was whistling jauntily. His gaze moved to Mary, who met it without pretending to play the silly girl.

Cicely looked at her. ‘Mary, Bess and I will not mind if you wish to speak to him.’

Eyes bright, the maid pushed the annoyed cat aside and scrambled to her feet to run lightly across the grass towards the slowly moving cart. A pleased smile spread across Will’s cheerful face as he saw her, and he drew the horse to a halt.

Bess gazed at them wistfully. ‘Oh, how envious I am, Cicely.’

‘Surely
you
do not have a fancy for Will?’ Cicely kept a straight face, for the thought of cool, elegant Bess with such a fellow was almost too comical.

‘I will ignore that,’ Bess murmured, finishing the daisy chain by making it into a little crown which she placed on her head. ‘There, now I am at last a queen.’

A single horse galloped along the road from York, and Cicely shaded her eyes, a finger of alarm travelling up her spine as he moved towards them along the hollowed village street, casting a cloud of dust in his wake.

Bess stood. ‘He wears Richard’s colours. Oh, please, do not let it be bad news.’ She pressed her hands to her mouth.

Cicely got up as well, her heart beginning to pound with trepidation.

The horseman passed the wine cart without checking, and rode full pelt into the castle court. Then the sisters heard Jack being called.

Bess’s hand crept to take Cicely’s. ‘I will not believe it is bad news, I will
not
believe it.’

They stood there, undecided whether to go inside as well, but then they heard more hooves, and the rider emerged on a fresh horse, this time swinging away from the road, around the south-east tower and into the waiting arms of the forest.

Cicely’s hand tightened around Bess’s. ‘Why does he go in that direction?’

‘We are about to find out, for Jack and John are coming to us.’

Jack waved a letter as he approached, and the sisters saw the king’s seal. ‘Well, ladies,’ Jack said, ‘the moment of truth is almost upon us for Henry Tudor has landed.’

A pang of such force passed through Cicely that she thought she would be sick. It was upon them all at last, and Richard would soon face this latest challenge to his crown.

Jack read from the letter. ‘Tudor reached Shrewsbury two days ago, the seventeenth, having passed unhindered through Wales. Unhindered and in part aided! ‘

‘There are more potential enemies among English lords than the Welsh,’ John replied.’

‘Richard is mustering his men but still instructs us to remain here.’ Jack all but crumpled the letter. ‘If you and I were at his side, we would strengthen his arm and his resolve. Is that not so, John?’

‘Yes,’ was the simple answer.

‘However, we must continue to play at nursemaids, for which fact I am so filled with resentment that, with your exception, John, I could happily strangle everyone.’

Bess was icy. ‘If we do not strangle you first, Cousin, for you are as rude and disagreeable as it is possible to be.’

He grinned. ‘Ah, you are coming around to me at last, Bess. Soon you will be begging to be admitted to my bed.’

She looked away.

‘Oh, cruel heart,’ he declared, grinning. Then he looked at John and Cicely again. ‘There is some good news come out of this, for Richard has at last moved to secure the Stanleys’ allegiance in some manner. Lord Stanley, it seems, requested leave to depart for his estates, which means he was slipping away from the king’s side. Richard granted him permission, but only provided Stanley’s son and heir, Lord Strange, remained in royal custody! A hostage, by God! That will serve to make Stanley think twice before unfurling his banners for his wife’s puking son. Jesu, what I would not give for a chance to strike at the Tudor weasel.’ He kicked at a clump of harebells, destroying them beyond recovery, and then he turned to Bess again. ‘My lady, the king speaks also of you and your sister. He is most emphatic that you shall be prepared to leave the country with the utmost haste if need be. He does not wish you to fall victim to Henry Tudor.’

‘Victim? I thought I was marked to be his consort.’ Bess was bitter.

‘Levity sits ill upon your lips, especially when it is at the king’s expense. Or are you no longer in love with him?’

Bess flushed. ‘You go too far, my lord of Lincoln.’

John was angered. ‘For Jesu’s sake, Jack, you do not only speak of Bess’s uncle, you speak of
my
father!’

Cicely lowered her eyes to the daisy-strewn grass.
And you speak of my love. He is mine. Only mine.

Jack repented. ‘I crave your pardon, John, but Bess, you must be sensible on this. Because for you to be forced into Henry Tudor’s bed is, in Richard’s eyes, to make you a victim! Or you, Cicely.’ He met her gaze, and she heard his silent addendum.
‘Especially you.’

Bess sighed. ‘I cannot have the man I really love and so I wish I had agreed to the marriage with Desmond, for I would have been away in Ireland, out of reach.’

Cicely kept her eyes fixed upon the daisies around her feet.
She
had the man her sister loved, and now there were consequences. Her monthly bleeding was late. She was never late. Never. And she felt different. So different. She had become an observer, trapped in a hazy world that existed alongside this one. It was a wonderful secret, known only to her and to Mary, and she did not fear the day when she had to reveal her condition. She would never say whose child it was, though. Jack would know. Jack seemed to be aware of everything, but she would not
tell
anyone before Richard himself. May God care for him and bring him victory.

Bess’s fresh statement about the king made Jack’s handsome face grow cold. ‘The fact is that you are
not
married to Desmond, nor are you destined to warm your uncle’s nights. So, for you the alternative falls between flight or Henry Tudor’s ardent embrace! Richard has commanded that you flee, and I trust you intend to obey him. He remains the king, no matter how you may lust after his body.’ His glance flew to Cicely, and then away again.

Bess flushed. ‘Cicely and I will do whatever the king wishes.’

A silence fell upon them and Cicely remembered the messenger. ‘Jack, where does the king’s rider go now?’

‘He has Richard’s commands for the Earl of Northumberland who lies at present at his manor of Wressle. There not having been any sign of him as yet, the king has to jostle him to raise his forces immediately and ride south to join the royal army, together with the men of York who would fight for their duke. Richard should not have to make such a request. Damn Northumberland. I think he bears a grudge because he still resents my having been appointed to the Council of the North. Harry Percy considers himself to be the commander hereabouts. I believe he is one of those who will hold back when Richard needs him most.’

Cicely was concerned. ‘But Sir Robert Percy could not be stronger for Richard.’

‘Robert is but distantly related to the earl, and has known Richard since childhood. Northumberland, however, is for Northumberland, and is a spineless knight, not worthy of carrying Hotspur’s name, but Richard has need of his forces. More is the pity, because men of Percy’s calibre are worthless. Bah, he is no fitting topic of conversation, I am more concerned with Henry Tudor. The battle will be bloody when Richard meets with him. You must pray your Lancastrian suitor is defeated, Bess.’

With a start, Bess remembered the foolish crown of daisies she still wore, and hastily removed it.

A vigilant lookout called down to Jack. ‘My lord, many riders pass close to the castle from the south-east.’

Lincoln looked up quickly. ‘Do you make out their colours?’

‘Aye, my lord, they bear the crescent moon of Northumberland.’

With an oath, Lincoln turned towards John. ‘What makes Percy ride
north
at a time such as this? His way lies
south
! What manner of cousin and supporter is he? I detect a stench! Come, John, we will ride out to intercept him. Keep your eyes and ears alert for anything, no matter how small, that may indicate his ultimate intentions. A few prudent questions should prove illuminating.’

Leaving Cicely and Bess, the two young men hurried back into the castle, emerging only minutes later with two standard bearers and a small detachment of mounted men-at-arms. John would later describe to Cicely exactly what happened.

Jack had grinned at him as they rode towards Northumberland and his leisurely retinue. ‘It will be worth this effort just to see Percy’s face when he realizes who we are. He would not come this close to Sheriff Hutton if he was aware of our presence. Nor would be he trotting along at such a lazy pace.’

Harness jingling, the small cavalcade cantered out to where the earl had halted on seeing them. As they drew near, they saw the expression of uneasy suspicion on his fat face. He was thirty-six, but looked older, and there was a set to his mouth that told of a cruel nature.

At last the party from the castle halted as well, and Jack and John manoeuvred alongside the earl’s horse.

‘Greetings, my lord,’ Jack said, inclining his head.

‘Cousin Lincoln, I greet you. I had no idea you were here. My lord John.’ Percy’s jowls bulged over his collar as he inclined his head.

Lincoln looked levelly at the shifting eyes that would not fully meet his own. ‘My lord of Northumberland, I saw you passing and came to pay my . . . respects. It surprises me to see you riding north at this time. Did you not encounter the king’s messenger barely minutes ago?’

‘Ah yes, indeed, but I must first prepare. At the moment I have only half my promised strength. There is plague in York and I will need another route for fear of the contagion. I go now to my manor at Topcliffe with urgent matters to discharge.’ Percy did not entirely conceal his dislike for Jack.

Jack shared the hostility. He knew there was plague in York, but also that if Percy really wished to travel south to Richard, he could. He grinned without humour. ‘I will write to the king of your eagerness to attend him with your forces, but now, if your, er, business is of such great import, my lord, I will delay you no longer, and bid you farewell.’ With a salute of his hand he turned his mount, and he and John retraced their steps to the castle, their standard bearers and riders following.

On the grassy slope, Cicely and Bess saw the earl shade his eyes to scan the castle battlements. He could see nothing unusual, no great force, no encampments, nothing. But he also glanced around at the forest, and signalled two riders to comb the glades. If there was a force true to Richard in the vicinity of Sheriff Hutton, he would find it.

Bess turned and walked back into the castle just as Jack and John returned from their confrontation with Northumberland. Jack reined in and turned in the saddle to watch the earl’s company move on. ‘How many like him are there, John? How many who hate York, wish to restore Woodvilles or Lancastrians, or look to Henry Tudor because they hate it that Richard is proving to be a loved and just king. They all come together now, all against the one man whose claim to the throne by far outranks any other. The question must be, are there enough of them to succeed?’

John swallowed. ‘I pray not, Jack.’

‘I will act upon Richard’s wishes, and get everyone across the sea, now, without further delay. But when I have done this, I mean to join the king. Will you be at my side?’

‘But, my father’s wishes—’

‘I know what Richard
wishes,
John, but I feel I
must
be with him. I can impose upon the three boys to leave now, although whether the two ladies will obey, I really do not know.’

‘Bess said she will go, but I doubt she will leave England while my father is . . .’

‘Alive?’

John nodded. ‘Nor will I, for I do not think my father intended us to go unless the battle went against him. Jack, you are his heir and must be safe at all costs, so I think you are right to go now, and take the boys with you. But whether you are right to then go to my father instead of accompanying them to Burgundy is another matter. I am not in line to the throne, merely Richard’s by-blow. If Cicely or Bess will not leave, I will stay here too.’

‘Damn it all, John, it is Richard’s express order that Bess and Cicely do not fall prey to the Tudor. They
must
leave as well.’ Jack ran his hand agitatedly through his hair. ‘Jesu, we speak as if Richard is already defeated, and yet . . .’

‘Yet?’

‘I have a feeling of foreboding. There
will
be too many Percys, John.’

Other books

Bee by Anatole France
Butcher's Road by Lee Thomas
Now Is the Hour by Tom Spanbauer
Gone by Lisa McMann


readsbookonline.com Copyright 2016 - 2021