Richard did not become frightened until darkness began to settle over the woods. In the fading light, the trees began to take on unfamiliar and menacing shapes. There was movement in the shadows. Low-hanging branches barred his path; rain-sodden leaves trailed wetly across his cheek. He could hear sounds behind him and kept quickening his pace, until he tripped over the exposed roots of a massive oak and sprawled headlong into the dark. Unknown horrors reached for him, pinning him to the ground. He felt something burn across his neck; his face was pressed into the dampness of the earth. He lay very still but he heard only the unsteady echoes of his own breathing. Opening his eyes, he saw that he had fallen into a thicket, was held captive by nothing more sinister than brambles and branches broken off by the weight of his body.
He was no longer drowning in fear; the wave was receding. In its wake, he felt shame burn his face and was grateful that none had been there to witness his ﬂight. He thought himself to be too old to yield so easily to panic for, in just eight days’ time, he would be seven years old. He rolled clear of the bushes and sat up. After a moment’s deliberation, he retreated to the shelter of a lightning-scarred beech. Bracing himself against the trunk, he settled down to wait for Ned to ﬁnd him.
That Ned would come, he did not doubt. He only hoped that Ned would come soon and, while he waited, he tried to keep his mind on daylight thoughts, tried not to think at all about what might be lurking in the dark beyond the beech tree.
He found it hard to understand how so perfect a day would so suddenly sour. The morning had dawned with inﬁnite promise and, when Joan yielded to his coaxing and agreed to take him riding along the wooded trails around Whitcliffe, his spirits had soared skyward. His excitement proved contagious and his pony had responded with unaccustomed élan to his urgings, breaking into a gallop even before they’d passed through the gateway that led from the outer castle bailey.
With Joan trailing him like an indulgent, sedate shadow, he raced the little animal through the village at an exhilarating pace. Circling the market cross twice, he jumped the pony neatly over the ancient dog dozing in the street by Broad Gate and then drew rein just before the small chapel of St Catherine, which stood on Ludford Bridge. As Joan was not yet in sight, he leaned recklessly over the stone arch and tossed a groat down into the currents swirling below. One of the village youths had once assured him that he would gain great good fortune by so doing, and the superstition now became engraved in Richard’s faith as Scripture even before the coin sank from sight.
Riders were coming up the road that led south toward Leominster. The leading stallion was white, marked with a queer dark star; the favourite mount of Richard’s favourite brother. Richard sent his pony towards them at a breakneck run.
Ned wore no armour and the wind was whipping his sun-streaked tawny hair about like straw. He towered above his companions, as always; Richard had seen few men as tall as Ned, who stood three full ﬁngers above six feet. He was Earl of March, Lord of Wigmore and Clare, eldest of the four sons of the Duke of York. At seventeen, Ned was, in Richard’s eyes, a man grown. On this summerlike September morning there was no one he would rather have encountered. Had Ned permitted it, Richard would happily have trailed after him from dawn till dusk.
Richard thought Joan was pleased to see Ned, too. Her face was suddenly the colour of rose petals and she was looking at Ned sideways, ﬁltering laughter through her lashes in the way Richard had seen other girls do with Ned. Richard was glad; he wanted Joan to like his brother. What Joan thought mattered a great deal to him. The nurses he’d had in the past, before he’d come this spring to live at Ludlow Castle, had not been at all like Joan; they’d been dour, thin-lipped, without laps or humour. Joan smelled of sunﬂowers and had burnished bright hair, as soft and red as fox fur. She laughed at his riddles and had enthralling tales to tell of unicorns and knights and crusades into the Holy Land.
Seeing now how she was smiling at Ned, Richard felt ﬁrst a warm contentment and then incredulous delight, unable to believe Ned was truly going to come with them. But Ned was dismissing their escort, waving his own companions on, and with the prospect dawning of an entire day in the company of these two people he loved, Richard wondered why he had never thought to throw a coin over the bridge before.
The day seemed likely to surpass all his expectations. Ned was in high spirits; he laughed a great deal and told Richard stories of his own boyhood at Ludlow with their brother Edmund. He offered to show Richard how he had ﬁshed for eels in the swift-running waters of the Teme and he promised to take Richard to the faire to be held in Ludlow just four days hence. He coaxed Joan into putting aside the head-dress that covered her hair and, with nimble ﬁngers, he adroitly loosened the upswept braids that gleamed like red-gold rope.
Richard was caught up in wonder, captivated by this sudden cascade of bright hot colour; he knew, of course, that red hair was said to be unlucky but he found it difﬁcult to understand why. Joan had smiled and borrowed Ned’s dagger to cut a lock, wrapping it in her own handkerchief and tucking it inside Richard’s tunic. Ned claimed a lock, too, but Joan seemed strangely reluctant to give it to him. Richard rooted about in Joan’s basket while Ned and Joan debated his demand, a murmured exchange that soon gave way to whispers and laughter. When he turned back to them, Richard saw that Ned had a lock of her hair and Joan was the colour of rose petals again.
When the sun was directly overhead, they unpacked the food in Joan’s basket, using Ned’s dagger to slice the manchet loaf and cut thick pieces of cheese. Ned ate most of the food, and then shared an apple with Joan, passing the fruit back and forth between them and trading bites until only the core remained.
After that, they lay on Joan’s blanket and searched the grass about them for lucky clovers. Richard won and was awarded the last of the sugared comﬁts as his prize. The sun was warm, the air fragrant with the last ﬂowering of September. Richard rolled over onto his stomach to escape Ned who was bent upon tickling his nose with a strand of Joan’s hair. After a while, he fell asleep. When he awoke, the blanket had been tucked around him and he was alone. Sitting up abruptly, he saw his pony and Joan’s mare still hitched across the clearing. Ned’s white stallion, how ever, was gone.
Richard was more hurt than alarmed. He didn’t think it was quite fair for them to go off and leave him while he slept, but adults were often less than fair with children and there was little to be done about it. He settled down on the blanket to wait for them to come back for him; it never for a moment occurred to him that they wouldn’t. He rummaged in the basket, ﬁnished what was left of the manchet bread and, lying on his back, watched clouds forming over his head.
Soon, however, he grew bored and decided it was permissible to explore the clearing while he awaited their return. Much to his delight, he discovered a shallow stream, a narrow ribbon of water that wound its way through the grass and off into the surrounding trees. Lying ﬂat on his stomach by the bank, he thought he could detect silvery shadows darting about in the icy ripples but, try as he might, he was unable to capture even one of the ghostly little ﬁsh.
It was as he was lying there that he saw the fox; on the other side of the stream, watching him with unblinking golden eyes, so still it might have been a carven image of a fox rather than one of ﬂesh and blood. Richard froze, too. Less than a fortnight ago, he’d found a young fox cub abandoned in the meadows around the village. For more than a week, he’d tried to gentle the wild creature with limited success and, when he’d carelessly let his mother see the teeth marks in the palm of his hand, she’d given him the choice of freeing it or drowning it. Now he felt a throb of excitement, an absolute certainty that this was his former pet. With inﬁnite care he sat up, searched for stepping-stones to cross the stream. The fox faded back into the woods but without apparent alarm. Encouraged, Richard followed after it.
An hour later, he was forced to concede that he’d lost both fox and his way. He’d wandered far from the clearing where the horses were hitched. When he shouted for Ned, he heard only the startled rustling of woodland creatures responding to a human voice. As the afternoon ebbed away, the clouds continued to gather; at last all blue was smothered in grey and, soon after, a light warming rain began to fall. Richard had been attempting to chart his path by the sun, knowing that Ludlow lay to the east. Now he was completely at a loss and felt the ﬁrst stirrings of fear, until, with the coming of dark, he gave way to panic.
He wasn’t sure how long he huddled under the beech. Time seemed to have lost its familiar properties, minutes to have lengthened into unrecognizable proportions. He tried counting backwards from one hundred, but there were queer gaps in his memory, and he found himself fumbling for numbers he should have known without hesitation.
‘Dickon! Shout if you can hear me!’
Relief rose in Richard’s throat with the intensity of pain. ‘Here, Edmund, I’m here!’ he cried and, within moments, he was being lifted up onto his brother’s horse.
With one arm holding Richard securely in the saddle, Edmund skilfully turned his mount, gave the animal its head to ﬁnd its way through the thick tangle of underbrush. Once they emerged into a splash of moonlight, he subjected Richard to a critical appraisal.
‘Well, you’re bedraggled enough, in truth! But are you hurt, Dickon?’
‘No, just hungry.’ Richard smiled, somewhat shyly. Edmund, who was sixteen, was not as approachable as Ned, was much more apt to react with impatience or, when provoked, with a quick cuff around the ears.
‘You owe me for this, little brother. I assure you I’ve more pleasant ways to pass my nights than prowling the woods for you! The next time you take it into your head to run away, I rather think I’ll wait and let the wolves ﬁnd you ﬁrst.’
Richard could not always tell when Edmund was serious. This time, however, he caught a telltale glint, knew Edmund was teasing, and laughed.
‘There are no wolves . . .’ he began, and then the import of Edmund’s words struck him.
‘I didn’t run away, Edmund. I got lost following my fox. . . . You remember, the one I tamed. . . . Whilst I was waiting for Ned to come back . . .’ His words trailed off; he looked sharply at Edmund, chewing his lip.
‘I should have guessed,’ Edmund said softly, and then, ‘That damned fool. When he knows how our father feels about taking our pleasures with the women of the household!’ He broke off, looked down at Richard with a ﬂeeting smile.
‘You do not have any idea what I’m talking about, do you? Just as well, I daresay.’
He shook his head. Richard heard him repeating, ‘The damned fool,’ under his breath and, after a while, Edmund laughed aloud.
They rode in silence for a time. Richard had understood more than Edmund realized, knew that Ned had somehow done something that would much displease their father.
‘Where is he, Edmund?’ he asked, sounding so forlorn that Edmund rufﬂed his hair in a careless gesture of consolation.
‘Looking for you, where else? He sent your Joan back to the castle for help when dark came and they still could not ﬁnd you. We’ve had half the household scouring the woods for you since dusk.’
Silence fell between them again. When Richard was beginning to recognize landmarks, knew they would soon be in sight of Ludford Bridge, he heard Edmund say thoughtfully, ‘No one knows yet what happened this afternoon, Dickon. No one has talked to Ned yet, and the girl was so distraught it was hard to get anything sensible from her. We just assumed you took off on a lark of your own.’ He hesitated and then continued, still in the unfamiliar yet intriguing conﬁdential tones of one adult to another.
‘You know, Dickon, if our lord father were to think that Ned had left you alone in the meadows, he’d be none too happy about it. He’d be most wroth with Ned, of course. But he’d blame your Joan, too, I fear. He might even send her away.’
‘No!’ Richard twisted in the saddle to look up at his brother. ‘Ned did not leave me alone,’ he said breathlessly. ‘He did not, Edmund! I ran after the fox, that’s all!’
‘Well then, if that be true, you need not worry about Ned or Joan. After all, if the fault was yours, none could blame Ned, could they? But you do understand, Dickon, that if the fault was yours, you’ll be the one to be punished?’
Richard nodded. ‘I know,’ he whispered, and turned to gaze into the river currents ﬂowing beneath the bridge, where he’d sacriﬁced a coin so many eventful hours ago, for luck.
‘You know, Dickon, I’ve been meaning to ask you. . . . Would you like me to make you a wooden sword like the one George has? I cannot promise you when I’ll get around to it, mind you, but. . . .’
‘You do not have to do that, Edmund. I’d not tell on Ned!’ Richard interrupted, sounding somewhat offended, and hunched his shoulders forward involuntarily as the walls of the castle materialized from the darkness ahead.
Edmund was distinctly taken aback and then bit back a grin. ‘My mistake, sorry!’ he said, looking at his brother with the bemused expression of an adult suddenly discovering that children could be more than nuisances to be tolerated until they were old enough to behave as rational beings, could even be distinct individuals in their own right.
As they approached the drawbridge that spanned the moat of lethal pointed stakes, torches ﬂared to signal Richard’s safe return, and by the time Edmund passed through the gatehouse that gave entry into the inner bailey, their mother was awaiting them upon the ramp leading up into the great hall. Reining in before her, Edmund swung Richard down and into her upraised arms. As he did, he ﬂashed Richard a grin and Richard was able to derive a ﬂicker of comfort from that, the awareness that he, for once, had won Edmund’s unqualiﬁed approval.
Richard was sitting on a table in the solar, so close to the east-wall ﬁreplace that the heat from its ﬂames gave his face a sunburnt ﬂush. He winced as his mother swabbed with wine-saturated linen at the scratches upon his face and throat, but submitted without complaint to her ministrations. He was rather pleased, in fact, to command her attention so thoroughly; he could remember few occasions when she had treated his bruises with her own hand. Generally this would have been for Joan to do. But Joan was too shaken to be of assistance. Eyes reddened and swollen, she hovered in the background, from time to time reaching out to touch Richard’s hair, as tentatively as if she were daring a liberty that was of a sudden forbidden.
Richard smiled at her with his eyes, quite ﬂattered that she should have been crying so on his behalf, but she seemed little consoled by his sympathy and when he’d explained, rather haltingly, to his mother that he’d become separated from Ned and Joan in pursuit of his fox cub, Joan inexplicably began to cry again.
‘I heard you’re to be locked in the cellar under the great hall as your punishment . . . in the dark with the rats!’
His brother George had sidled nearer, awaiting the chance to speak as soon as their mother moved away from the table. He was watching Richard now with intent blue-green eyes, and Richard tried to conceal his involuntary shudder. He had no intention of letting George know he had a morbid horror of rats, aware that if he did, he was all too likely to ﬁnd one in his bed.
Edmund came to his rescue, leaning over George to offer Richard a sip from his own cup of mulled wine.
‘Mind your mouth, George,’ he said softly. ‘Or you might ﬁnd yourself taking a tour of the cellar some night.’
George glared at Edmund but did not venture a response, for he was not all that certain Edmund wouldn’t, if sufﬁciently provoked, follow through with his threat. Playing it safe, he held his tongue; although still a month shy of his tenth birthday, George had already developed a sophisticated sense of self-preservation.
Setting Edmund’s cup down so abruptly that wine sloshed over onto the table, Richard slid hastily to the ﬂoor. He had at last heard the one voice he’d been waiting for.
Edward was dismounting before the round Norman nave that housed the chapel named for St Mary Magdalene. He saw Richard as the boy bolted through the doorway of the solar and in three strides he covered the ground between them, catching Richard to him in a tight, bone-bruising embrace and then laughing and swinging the youngster up into the air, high over his head.
‘Jesú, but you did give me some bad moments, lad! Are you all right?’
‘He’s ﬁne.’ Edmund had come through the doorway behind Richard, and now stood looking down at them as Edward knelt beside Richard in the dust. His eyes raked Edward with ironic amusement and a message ﬂashed between them that passed, ﬁguratively and literally, over Richard’s head.
‘He’s ﬁne,’ Edmund repeated, ‘but I daresay he’ll be taken severely to task for running off as he did. It seems he became lost chasing after that damned pet fox of his. But then I need not tell you that, need I, Ned? After all, you were there.’
‘That’s right,’ Edward said coolly. ‘I was.’ His mouth twitched and then, as if on cue, he and Edmund were laughing. Coming lightly to his feet, Edward kept his arm warm around Richard’s shoulders as they moved across the bailey, murmuring, ‘Fox hunting, were you?’
His voice was noncommittal and Richard nodded shyly, keeping his eyes upon Edward’s face.
‘Well . . . you might not be too good at keeping put, Dickon, but you’re very good indeed at keeping faith!’ Edward said softly and, meeting Richard’s eyes, he winked and then grinned, and Richard discovered the joyful difference between being a sacriﬁcial lamb and a trusted conspirator.
Much to Richard’s surprise, Joan ﬂed the solar as soon as Edward came through the doorway. But he had no time to dwell on her peculiar behaviour, for Edward was lifting him up and depositing him back upon the table, saying, ‘Let me have a look at you.’ Shaking his head in mock disbelief, he said wryly, ‘You look like you’ve been jousting with a bramble-bush,’ and Richard laughed.
‘I was,’ he conﬁded, and then looked up as his mother laid a hand lightly on his shoulder.
She was studying her eldest son, her eyes speculative. He met her gaze levelly, with a faintly quizzical smile, and at length she said only, ‘You were lucky, Edward. Very lucky, indeed.’
‘Somehow, he always is, ma mère,’ Edmund observed laconically.
‘I am, aren’t I?’ Edward agreed complacently and, stepping back, brought his elbow up, as if by chance, to jostle Edmund’s arm and spill his drink. Edmund, just as quick, tilted the cup so that it splashed upon the sleeve of Edward’s doublet.
‘Edward! Edmund! This is no time to play the fool, tonight of all nights!’
There was such unaccustomed asperity in the rebuke that they stared at her.
‘But that is what we do best, ma mère,’ Edmund demurred, feeling it advisable to placate his irate parent with charm.
Edward, a shade more perceptive, was frowning. ‘Why do you say “tonight of all nights”, ma mère? It cannot be Dickon; he came to no harm. What has your nerves so on the raw?’
She didn’t respond at once, shifting her gaze between their faces. ‘You read people well, Edward,’ she said at last. ‘I hadn’t meant to tell you till the morrow. . . . While you both were out searching for Richard, word reached us from my brother.’
The two boys exchanged glances. Their uncle, the Earl of Salisbury, was expected to reach Ludlow that week, leading an armed force from the North to join with their father’s men and those soon to come from Calais under command of their cousin, Salisbury’s son, the Earl of Warwick.
‘He was ambushed at a place called Blore Heath, to the north of Shrewsbury, by the Queen’s army. Your cousins, Thomas and John, were taken captive but my brother and others were able to ﬁght their way free. He sent word ahead to warn us, should reach Ludlow by tomorrow night.’
There was silence, broken at last by Edward, who said matter-of-factly, ‘If the Queen is set upon war, she’ll not long keep the royal army at Coventry. She’ll march on Ludlow, ma mère, and soon.’
The Duchess of York nodded. ‘Yes, Edward, you are quite right,’ she said slowly. ‘She’ll move on Ludlow. I very much fear we can count on it.’
Death waited in the dark. Richard could feel its presence, knew it was there. Death was no stranger to him, for all that he was just ten days past his seventh birthday. Death had always been very much a part of his world, had claimed a baby sister in her cradle, had taken cousins and playmates, and more than once in his earliest years of life, had threatened to take him, too. Now it was back and, like him, awaiting the coming of day. He shivered and pulled the fox-fur coverlet up toward his chin, retreated still further into the refuge of the bed. Beside him, his brother stirred sleepily and jabbed him in the ribs with an elbow.
‘Stop squirming, Dickon,’ he mumbled and reached over to claim Richard’s pillow.
Richard made a halfhearted attempt to regain his stolen property, but once again George’s three-year advantage proved to be a telling one and the older boy was soon asleep, both pillows enfolded securely against his chest. Richard cushioned his head on his arm, watching with envy as his brother slept. In all of his seven years, he had never been awake at such an hour. But in all of his seven years, he had never been so afraid.
He thought of the dawning day with dread. On the morrow there was to be a battle. Men were to die for reasons he did not fully understand. But he did understand, with chilling clarity, that when the day was done, his father and Ned and Edmund might be numbered among the dead.
His brother’s pillow covering had slipped; he could see the tip of a protruding feather. He edged closer and ﬁshed it out, eyeing George with caution. But George was snoring softly and soon there was a downy pile between them on the bed. He began to separate them into two camps which he mentally identifed as ‘York’ and ‘Lancaster’. The feathery forces of York were led, of course, by his father, the Duke of York, and those of Lancaster by the King, Harry of Lancaster, and the Frenchwoman who was his Queen.
He continued methodically plucking feathers from George’s pillow and aligning them in opposing camps, but it didn’t help. He was unable to forget his fear. What if his father were to die? Or Ned? Ned and Edmund were men grown. Old enough to ride into battle tomorrow. Old enough to die.
He began to build up the army of York until it vastly outnumbered Lancaster. He knew his father did not want to ﬁght the King and he did not think the King truly wanted to ﬁght his father. Again and again he’d heard it said that the King shrank from shedding blood.
But the Queen had no such qualms. Richard knew she hated his father with all the passion the King lacked. She wanted his father dead; Richard had heard his cousin Warwick say so that very day. He wasn’t all that sure just why the Queen should hate his father so but he had heard men say that his father had a better claim to the English crown than the King and he suspected this might have something to do with the Queen’s unrelenting hostility. It was confusing to Richard, though, for his father repeatedly vowed that the King was his sovereign and liege lord. He didn’t understand why his father could not just assure the Queen of his loyalty to King Harry. If she understood that, perhaps she would not hate his father so much then. Perhaps there need be no battle. . . .
He stiffened suddenly and then jerked upright in the bed, jarring George into wakeful wrath. He emerged from the coverlets with an oath pirated from Edward, irritation giving way to outrage as he inhaled a mouthful of feathers.
‘Damn you, Dickon,’ he spluttered, grabbing for the younger boy. Richard was generally adroit at evading George’s vengeance but now he made no attempt to escape and George soon pinned him down against the mattress, somewhat surprised at the ease of his victory.
‘George, listen! Can you not hear? Listen!’
Buffeting him with the pillow, with more exuberance now than anger, George at last heeded Richard’s mufﬂed protests and cocked his head, listening.
‘Men are shouting,’ he said uneasily.
Dressing hastily in the dark, they crept from their bedchamber in the Pendower Tower. All of Ludlow was suddenly deep in unfriendly shadows, had become a sinister refuge for every malignant spirit that could be conjured up by the feverish imaginings of two fearful small boys. By the time they reached the east door of the great hall, they were stumbling over each other in their urgency to gain the security of torchlight and known voices.
The great hall was sixty feet in length, thirty feet in width, and crowded with men, men rudely roused from sleep, men who were fastening hastily donned garments, buckling scabbards at hip and thigh, kicking impatiently at the castle dogs that were circling about in frenzied excitement. At ﬁrst, Richard saw only the swords, what seemed to him to be a forest of naked blades, each nearly as long as a man’s height and capable of shearing a head from its body with one stroke. Gradually he began to pick out familiar faces. His mother’s brother, Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury. Salisbury’s grown son and namesake, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. William Hastings, a youthful friend of his father’s. And by the open stone hearth, Ned and Edmund.
It was some moments, however, before he was able to ﬁnd his parents. The Duke of York and his Duchess were standing apart from the others in the hall. As Richard watched, his mother reached up and touched her ﬁngers lightly to her husband’s lips. He enfolded her hand within his own. Richard caught his breath. He had never seen his mother other than immaculate, never less than perfect in her person and her poise. This white-faced woman with masses of unbound hair enveloping her in bright disarray was a stranger to him.
‘Take care, Dickon, lest we be seen,’ George was hissing in his ear, but Richard shook off his brother’s restraining hand and slipped around the dais into the hall. As desperate as he was for reassurance, he dared not approach his parents. He chose, instead, to wend his way cautiously through the press toward his brothers.
‘But why should you go with our uncle Salisbury and cousin Warwick rather than with our lord father and me, Ned?’
As Edward started to answer Edmund, a small shadow materialized unexpectedly at his elbow, so silently and suddenly that his taut nerves betrayed him and he snapped, ‘For Christ’s sake, Dickon, how came you to be here? Why are you not abed?’
But as he looked into the boy’s stricken dark eyes, he relented. Reaching down, he swung Richard up easily into his arms and, with Edmund trailing behind, shoved his way across the hall, toward the screen that extended across the south-west end of the chamber.
As he set Richard back on his feet, footsteps sounded behind them and George dived breathlessly behind the screen. For a long moment nothing was said, and then Richard whispered, ‘Tell us, Ned . . . please.’
Edward glanced at Edmund, who shrugged. His eyes ﬂicked back to Richard and George. ‘Aye, it’s best that you know. We’ve been betrayed. Look around the hall. There’s one face you’ll not see here, one we were foolish enough to trust. Andrew Trollope has gone over to Lancaster, and with him, the whole of his Calais garrison. Moreover, he has full knowledge of what our battle captains planned to do on the morrow.’
‘What will you do?’
Edward shrugged. ‘What can we do, George? We do not have the men to ﬁght, not with Trollope’s defection. And Ludlow could not withstand a siege. We can only order our army to disperse, to scatter. And then ride like the devil were on our tails.’
They were both staring at him, stunned. George, recovering ﬁrst, blurted out, ‘You mean . . . run away?’ And then shrank back before their rage.
‘What would you have us do?’ Edward ﬂared. ‘Keep our pride and lose our heads? Need I tell you what will befall us if we’re in Ludlow come the morrow? Every man in this hall would be dead by sunset.’
‘No!’ Richard gasped. ‘No, you must not stay!’
Edmund, no less angry than Edward, was glaring at George. ‘Send them back to bed, Ned,’ he said curtly.
Edward, though, was belatedly remembering that a ten-year-old boy could not, in justice, be held accountable for all that he said. He felt a pressure against his arm, saw that Richard had moved closer. Until this moment he’d not given much thought to Richard and George beyond assuring himself that none would harm a child, not even Lancaster’s vengeful Queen. Thinking now of what the little boy would face on the morrow, he realized, somewhat to his surprise, that he’d have given a great deal to be able to spare Richard what lay ahead when Ludlow fell to the forces of Lancaster.
As if sensitive to his thoughts, Richard asked uncertainly, ‘Do we go with you, Ned?’ And his heartbeat seemed to speed up, to ﬁll his ears with the sound as Edward shook his head.
‘That’s not possible, Dickon. Not the way we must ride.’
‘You’re leaving us to Lancaster?’ George demanded incredulously, sounding so horriﬁed that Edward was at once upon the defensive.
‘You need not make it sound as if you’re being given over to inﬁdels for ritual slaughter, George!’ he said, rather more sharply than he intended. He caught himself, marvelling how George had so unerring an instinct for irritating him, and then said, more gently, ‘You need not fear, George. Lancaster does not take vengeance upon children. You’ll be safe enough; far safer, I warrant, than if we tried to take you with us.’
Edmund had been shifting impatiently, too tense not to begrudge this time being squandered upon children when time was their only lifeline.
‘Ned, our cousin Warwick beckons to us.’ Edward nodded but continued to linger, reaching out to rufﬂe ﬁrst George’s fair head and then Richard’s dark one. Never had they looked so young to him, so utterly defenceless, as now when they were to be left to face an enemy army. Forcing a smile, he gave George a playful blow on the arm.
‘Do not look so woebegone,’ he said lightly. ‘In truth, there’s no need to fear. You’ll not be ill-treated by Lancaster.’
‘I’m not afraid,’ George said quickly and, when Edward said nothing in response, he fancied he could read scepticism in Edward’s silence and repeated insistently, ‘I’m not afraid, not at all!’
Edward straightened up, said dryly, ‘I’m gratiﬁed to hear it, George.’
He started to follow after Edmund and then, on impulse, turned back to Richard. Kneeling by the boy, he looked intently into his face, said softly, ‘What of you, Dickon? Are you afraid?’
Richard opened his mouth to deny it and then slowly nodded his head. ‘Yes,’ he confessed, almost inaudibly, ﬂushing as if he’d made the most shameful of admissions.
‘I’ll share a secret with you, Dickon. . . . So am I,’ Edward said, and then laughed outright at the astonished look on the boy’s face.
‘Truly?’ he said dubiously, and Edward nodded.
‘Truly. There’s not a man alive who does not know fear, Dickon. The brave man is the one who has learned to hide it, that’s all. You remember that tomorrow, lad.’
Edmund was back. ‘Name of God, Ned, are you going to tarry all night?’
Edward came to his feet. Looking down at Richard, he grinned.
‘And think of the tales you’ll have to tell me when next I do see you! After all, you’ll have been the one to witness the surrender of Ludlow, not I.’
And then he was gone, hastening to join Edmund, leaving the two boys alone behind the screen, trying to come to terms with the incredible reality that, with the coming of dawn, would come, too, the Lancastrian army into the village of Ludlow.
Edmund read his brother without difﬁculty, had been able to do so since they were small boys, and now he wasn’t surprised to ﬁnd that Edward was no longer following him. Retracing his steps, he located his brother by the dais, deep in discussion with their mother. He hastened toward them, arrived in time to hear the Duchess of York say, ‘Edward, I do believe you’re mad! To even consider so reckless a scheme. . . . It is out of the question.’
‘Wait, ma mère, hear me out. I admit it does sound risky at ﬁrst hearing, but it has merit. It would work, I know it would.’
Edmund didn’t much like the sound of that; it had been his experience that what Edward was apt to consider feasible others would consider the height of imprudence. ‘What would work, Ned?’
‘I want to take ma mère and the boys from here tonight.’
Edmund so forgot himself as to swear in front of his mother. ‘I hope to Christ you’re not serious.’
‘But I am. I know we did agree that it were best for them to remain in Ludlow, and I know ma mère is convinced no harm will come to them. But I’m not so sure, Edmund. I’m just not that sure.’
‘None of us are happy with it, Ned,’ Edmund said reasonably. ‘But we cannot take them with us. A woman and two small boys . . . The way we must ride? It’d be safer by far for them in Ludlow.
Women and children are not abused. It’s not done, even by Lancaster. They’ll be taken to the King and, most likely, a steep ﬁne will be levied upon Ludlow. There may be some looting, too, I grant you. But Jesú, Ned, this is no French village for the plundering. Ludlow is still English.’
‘Yes, but . . .’
‘Besides,’ Edmund demanded, ‘where could you hope to take them?’ He saw that he’d blundered for Edward grinned.
‘Wigmore,’ he said triumphantly. ‘The Augustine abbey close by the castle. I know I could get them safely there in a few hours. It would not be that difﬁcult. No, do not talk, just listen. We could leave now, take back roads. There’s not a path in Shropshire I do not know. You’d not deny that, surely?’ he challenged, and Edmund shook his head.
‘No, I’d not deny that. But once you get them to Wigmore . . . assuming you do . . . what then? Does that not leave you stranded alone out in the Shropshire countryside? In the midst of the Lancastrian army?’
Edward shrugged impatiently. ‘Have you forgotten I grew up here in Ludlow? I know this area. I’d not be taken. Once I got them safe to Wigmore, I’d catch up with you and our lord father without difﬁculty.’ He grinned again, said persuasively, ‘You do see it could work, do you not? Admit it, Edmund, the plan is a sound one.’
‘I think it is madness. On your own whilst the Lancastrians cast a net over the entire countryside? You’d not have a chance, Ned. Not a chance.’ Edmund paused, saw the stubborn set of Edward’s mouth, and concluded grimly, ‘But I see you are bound and determined to follow through with this madness. So we might as well get the horses saddled, fetch the boys. We have not much time.’
Edward laughed softly, showed no surprise. ‘I knew I could count on you,’ he said approvingly and then shook his head. ‘But this is one time when I’ll have to forego your company. I think it best I take them myself.’
‘Very noble,’ Edmund said caustically, ‘but not very bright. Do not be stupid, Ned. You know you need me to . . .’
The Duchess of York, who had been listening to her sons in disbelief, now said sharply, ‘I cannot credit what I’m hearing! Did you not hear me say I had no intention of leaving Ludlow? What, pray, had you in mind, Edward? Throwing me across your stallion as if I were a saddle blanket?’
They turned startled faces toward her, dismayed and ﬂustered by her fury when they’d have taken their father’s more familiar wrath in their stride. At that moment, suddenly looking so young to her, her anger ebbed and a surge of protective pride caught at her heart, threaded through with fear for them. She hesitated, searching for the right words, for that patience peculiar to the mothers of teenage sons, reminding herself that they were citizens now of two countries, passing back and forth across the unmarked borders between manhood and boyhood with such frequency that she never knew with certainty where they’d be found at any given time.
‘Your concern does you credit, Edward, does you both credit. Do you think I’m not proud that you’re willing to risk your lives for my sake, for your little brothers? But the risk would be taken for no good cause. To spare us discomfort, you might well bring about your own deaths. Do you think I could permit that?’
‘The risk would not be that great, ma mère,’ Edward began, and she shook her head, reaching up and touching him lightly on the cheek in what was, for her, a surprisingly public gesture of affection.
‘I do not agree. I think the risk would be of the greatest magnitude imaginable. And for nothing, Edward, for nothing! We’re in no danger here. Do you truly think I’d ever keep George and Richard in Ludlow if I thought any harm might come to them?’
She saw she’d scored a telling point, saw Edward concede it with a grimace.
‘No, ma mère, of course you would not. But. . . .’
‘And if I were truly to face danger from Lancaster, Edward, it would be no less at Wigmore. The castle there belongs to York. It would not be hard to guess our whereabouts. No, I do mean to stay in Ludlow. I have no fears for myself or your brothers, but I will confess to you that I do fear for the villagers. They are our people; I should be here to speak for them.’
‘As you will, ma mère,’ Edward said at last. ‘I daresay you are right.’ But he was still young enough to add in a troubled undertone, ‘I do hope to God that you are.’
Deserted streets, shops tightly shuttered, market stalls empty; even Ludlow’s dogs were strangely silent. Only the lowing of cattle penned in the market bullring broke the eerie unnatural stillness that enclosed the village as the advance guard of the Lancastrian army rode across Ludford Bridge and into Ludlow.
They’d encountered no resistance; the Yorkist earthworks that had blocked the road to Leominster were unmanned. Advancing up Broad Street, they passed through Broad Gate unchallenged. In unnerving silence they moved north toward High Street. There they drew rein abruptly for a woman and two small boys were awaiting them upon the steps of the high market cross.
The Lancastrian army was surging into Ludlow. The narrow streets were jammed with jubilant soldiers. The Swan and Rose banners of Lancaster caught the wind, ﬂuttered aloft over the heads of the Duchess of York and her two youngest sons.
When the mounted knight ﬁrst came into view, sunlight striking with blinding brilliance upon polished plate armour, Richard wondered if he might be King Harry. But the face half-shadowed by the upraised vizor was far too young; this man was not all that much older than his brother Ned. Richard risked a whispered query to George and was much impressed by the latter’s boldness when George whispered back, ‘You’re not likely to see Harry here, Dickon. They say he’s daft, not able to tell a goose from a gander in the dark.’
Richard had, from time to time, overheard puzzling and cryptic references to the King’s health said with such sardonic signiﬁcance that he comprehended, however imperfectly, that there was something ‘not quite right’ with the King. But the hints were so clearly not meant for his hearing, were given so guardedly and grudgingly, that he instinctively shrank back from the subject even with Edward. He had never heard the truth put so baldly as now, in the midst of the soldiers of that self-same King, and he looked at George with mingled apprehension and admiration.
George was staring at the young knight, by now approaching the steps of the market cross. Tugging at his mother’s sleeve, he murmured, ‘Ma mère? Who is he? The man who betrayed us . . . Trollope?’
‘No . . . my lord Somerset,’ she said quietly, and none could have guessed from the even, matter-of-fact tones that she had just named a man who had more reason than most to hate the House of York, a man whose father had died the loser on a battleﬁeld her husband had won. And, with that, she moved down the steps to meet him.
Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, was just twenty-three years of age, but to him had been entrusted the command of the King’s army. Marguerite d’Anjou, Lancaster’s French-born Queen, might defy convention by riding with her troops, but there were certain constraints even she was forced to recognize, not the least of which was that there was no Joan of Arc in English folklore.
Somerset had not dismounted. Curbing his restive stallion with a practised hand, he listened impatiently as the Duchess of York made an impassioned and persuasive appeal on behalf of the villagers of Ludlow.
Cecily Neville was, at forty-four, still a strikingly handsome woman, with the lithe slimness of early youth and direct dark grey eyes. Somerset was not altogether indifferent to the attract ive image she presented standing alone on the market cross, ﬂanked by her young sons. He suspected, however, that her posture was one carefully calculated to appeal to chivalric susceptibilities. He had no liking for this proud woman who was wife to his sworn enemy, and he noted, with gratiﬁed if rather grim amusement, that the role of supplicant did not come easily to her.
While he felt compelled to accord her the courtesy due her rank and sex, to let her speak for Ludlow, he had no intention of heeding her plea. Ludlow had long been a Yorkist stronghold; a day of reckoning would have a salutary effect upon other towns wavering in their loyalty to Lancaster.
He interrupted to demand what he already knew. York’s Duchess answered readily enough. Her husband? He was gone from Ludlow, as was her brother, the Earl of Salisbury and her nephew, the Earl of Warwick. Her sons, Edward, Earl of March and Edmund, Earl of Rutland? Gone, too, she said coolly.
Somerset rose in his stirrups, gazing down High Street toward the rising stone walls of the outer castle bailey. He knew she spoke the truth; her very presence here was all the proof he needed that the Yorkists had ﬂed. He was remembering, moreover, that there was a bridge behind the castle, spanning the River Teme and linking with the road leading west into Wales.
He gestured abruptly and soldiers moved onto the steps of the cross. The children shrank back and he had the satisfaction of seeing sudden fear upon Cecily Neville’s haughty handsome face. She gathered her sons to her and demanded to know if my lord Somerset meant to take vengeance upon innocent children.
‘My men are here to see to your safety, Madame.’ Her deﬁance had rankled; she was, after all, only a woman, and York’s woman at that. He saw no reason not to remind her of the realities of their respective positions, said bluntly that he’d wager she’d be thankful for the presence of an armed guard before the day was done.
She whitened, hearing in his words the death knell of Ludlow; knowing now that there was only one man who could avert the coming carnage, that strange gentle soul who yearned only for peace of spirit and was wed to the woman the Yorkists saw as Messalina.
‘I wish to see His Grace the King,’ she said steadily. ‘He has no subjects more loyal than the people of Ludlow.’
Her request was impossible, but it could not be acknowledged as such. He swallowed a bitter retort, said tersely, ‘It suited the King’s Grace to remain at Leominster.’
Cecily, however, was no longer watching Somerset. Richard, who was standing so close to her that he was treading upon the hem of her gown, now felt her body stiffen, in a small indecisive movement, quickly stilled. And then she was sinking down upon the steps in a curtsy, a very precise and controlled gesture that was totally lacking in her customary grace. Richard hastily followed her example, and it was kneeling upon the steps of the market cross that he had his ﬁrst glimpse of the Lancastrian Queen.
His ﬁrst impression, quite simply, was one of awe. Marguerite d’Anjou was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, as beautiful as the queens of Joan’s bedtime tales. All in gold and black, like the swallowtail butterﬂies he’d chased all summer in such futile fascination. Her eyes were huge and black, blacker even than the rosaries of Whitby jet so favoured by his mother. Her mouth was scarlet, her skin like snow, her dark hair covered by a head-dress of golden gauze, her face framed in ﬂoating folds of a glittery shimmering material that seemed to be made from sunlight; he’d never seen anything like it, couldn’t keep his eyes from it, or from her.
‘Where is your husband, Madame? Surely he’d not abandon you to pay the price for his treason?’
Richard loved the sound of his mother’s voice, clear and low-pitched, as musical to him as chapel chimes. The Queen’s voice was a disappointment, shrill and sharply edged with mockery, so strongly ﬂavoured with the accent of her native Anjou that he distinguished her words with some difﬁculty.
‘My husband swore an oath of allegiance to His Grace the King and has held true to that oath.’
The Queen laughed. Richard didn’t like the sound of it any more than he had her voice. He unobtrusively edged closer to his mother’s side, slipped his hand into the sleeve of her gown.
With a sudden shock, he realized those glittering black eyes had come to rest upon him. Frozen under her gaze, he stared up at the Lancastrian Queen, unable to free his eyes from hers. He was accustomed to having adults look at him without seeing, accepted that as a peculiarity of adult vision, that children were so little visible to them. He saw now that this was not true of the Queen, that she saw him very clearly. There was something very cold and queerly measuring in her look; he was frightened by it without exactly knowing why.
The Queen was now looking at his mother. ‘Since your husband and your sons, March and Rutland, have so courageously ﬂed the consequences of their treachery, it remains for you, Madame, to stand witness in their stead. Mark you well what price we exact from those disloyal to the Crown.’
Cecily’s response was both immediate and unexpected. She stepped in front of Marguerite’s glossy ebony mare.
‘These people are good people, God-fearing people, loyal to their King. They owe Your Grace no debt of disloyalty, I do assure you.’
‘Madame, you bar my path,’ Marguerite said softly.
Richard saw her leather riding crop cut the air above his head. The mare lunged forward and, for a moment of heartstopping horror, he thought his mother would fall beneath the animal’s hooves. She’d seen enough of Marguerite’s face to be forewarned, however, and sprang clear in time, kept on her feet by the most alert of Somerset’s soldiers.
Richard brushed past the soldier, pressed against his mother; George had already reached her. She was trembling and for a moment leaned against George as if he were a man grown.
‘Send my sons from the village,’ she said huskily. ‘I do implore Your Grace. . . . You, too, are a mother.’
Marguerite had turned in the saddle. Now she jerked at the reins, guiding the mare back toward the cross. ‘Yes, I am a mother. My son was born six years ago today . . . and almost from the day of his birth, there have been those who would deny his birthright, those who dared say that my Edouard is not the true son of my husband, the King. And you know as well as I, Madame, the man most responsible for such vile slanders . . . Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. Warwick . . . your nephew, Madame! Your nephew!’
This last came out in a hiss, in a surge of scalding fury, followed by a burst of French, too fast and furious to be decipherable. Pausing for breath, she looked down in silence at the ashen woman and fear-frozen children. Very slowly and deliberately, she removed one of her riding gloves, ﬁnely stitched Spanish leather furred with sable. She saw Cecily Neville raise her chin, saw Somerset grin, knew they both expected her to strike Cecily across the face with it. She ﬂung it, instead, in the dust at Cecily’s feet.
‘I want this town to learn what befalls those who give support to traitors. See to it, my lord Somerset,’ she said shortly, and not waiting for his response, brought her riding crop down again upon her mare’s ﬂanks, wheeling it about in an eye-catching dis play of showy horsemanship and then swinging back down Broad Street at a pace to send soldiers scattering from her path.
A girl was screaming. The sound washed over Richard in chilling waves, set him to trembling. There was so much terror in her cries that he felt a sick relief when the screams became mufﬂed, more indistinct and, at last, ceased altogether. He swallowed, kept his eyes averted from the direction of the churchyard where the girl’s screams came from.
The wind shifted suddenly, brought to him the acrid odour of burning ﬂesh. More and more houses were being put to the torch, and the ﬂames had spread to an adjoining pigsty, trapping several of the unfortunate animals within. Mercifully, the cries of the dying pigs could no longer be heard, for the agonized squealing of the doomed creatures had sickened him. He’d seen animals butchered for beef, had once even been taken by Edward and Edmund on a September stag hunt. But this was different; this was a world gone mad.
A world in which men were prodded up the streets like cattle, hemp ropes dangling about their necks. A world in which soldiers stripped looted shops for timber to erect a gallows before the guild hall. A world in which the younger son of the town clerk had been clubbed and left for dead in the middle of Broad Street. From the cross Richard could still see the body. He tried not to look at it; the clerk’s son had helped him to trap the fox cub he’d discovered that memorable summer morning in Dinham meadow.
Turning his eyes resolutely from the body of the boy he’d known and liked, Richard found himself staring at a queer reddish stain that was spreading into the dust at the base of the cross, rivulets of red seeping off into the gutters. He watched for several moments, and then realization struck him and he recoiled abruptly.
‘George, look!’ Pointing in fascinated horror. ‘Blood!’
George stared and then squatted down and stirred up ripples with an experimental ﬁnger.
‘No,’ he pronounced ﬁnally. ‘Wine . . . from over there, see?’ Gesturing toward the corner, where several huge hogsheads of wine had been dragged from a plundered tavern and spilled open into the centre gutter.
George and Richard turned to watch as a bull galloped past, cheered on by the bored soldiers Somerset had charged to guard them. Richard was ill at ease with his guards; while they had so far acted to keep the Duchess of York and her sons from being molested by the soldiers reeling about the cross, it was apparent that they were none too happy with this duty. They’d been watching glumly as their comrades shared the plunder of the looted town, and Richard felt sure most would have been quite willing to heed his mother’s insistent urgings that they be taken to the King’s camp. One man remained adamant, however, that they could not act without orders from His Grace the Duke of Somerset and, as the authority was his, none could leave the precarious sanctuary of the cross, neither captives nor their reluctant captors.
The Duchess of York suddenly cried out. A man was limping down High Street, moving slowly, without direction or purpose. Foundering like a ship without a rudder, he seemed oblivious of the soldiers who jostled against him, arms full of booty from the castle, by now stripped to the walls, and rising above the hapless village like the exposed skeletal remains of some past, predatory kill. Now, as he trod upon the heels of a plunderladen soldier, he was roundly cursed, elbowed aside. Other hands, however, reached out to break his fall, even acted to clear his way; men fresh from rape and the makeshift gallows who, nonetheless, scrupled to do violence to a priest.
His habit and cowl proclaimed him to be one of the Carmelite brothers of St Mary White Friars, but the once immaculate white was liberally streaked with soot, even a splattering of blood. As he drew nearer, they saw he wore but one sandal, yet plunged unheedingly into the mud churned up in the street, into the murky wine that now stood ankle-deep in the gutters around the cross. At the sound of his name, he paused, blinking about him blindly. The Duchess of York called out again to him and this time he saw her.
The guards made no attempt to stop him as he clambered up the steps of the cross, looking on indifferently as Cecily moved to grasp his outstretched hand between her own. Her eyes ﬂickered over the stained habit, back to the blanched, begrimed face.
‘Are you hurt?’
He shook his head dully. ‘No. . . . They slaughtered our livestock. The milk cows, the ewes. . . . The stables are befouled with blood. . . .’
His voice trailed off, his eyes seemed to cloud over, and only when she repeated his name did he rouse himself, focus once more upon her and the two children staring at him in wonderment. He looked like no friar they had ever seen, as bedraggled and unkempt as the poorest beggar, with the glazed eyes and slack mouth of one deep in his cups.
‘Madame. . . . They sacked the friary. They took all, Madame, all. Then they burned the buildings. The buttery, the brewhouse, even the inﬁrmary and the almshouse. They stripped the church. . . . Even the pyx and chalices, Madame, the chalices. . . .’
‘Listen to me,’ she demanded. ‘Listen, for God’s sake!’
At last her urgency communicated itself to him and he fell silent, staring at her.
‘You must go to the castle. Find the Duke of Somerset. Tell him he must give orders to take my sons to the King’s camp.’ She glanced down at the children, dropped her voice still lower, said ﬁercely, ‘Before it is too late. Do you understand? Go now, and go quickly! The soldiers will not harm a priest; they’ll let you pass. If Somerset is not at the castle, seek him at the guild hall. They are making use of it as a prison and he may be there. But ﬁnd him. . . .’ Her voice was no more now than a whisper. ‘For the love of Jesus, the Only-begotten Son, ﬁnd him.’
The friar nodded, seared by her intensity. ‘I will, Madame,’ he vowed. ‘I’ll not fail you.’
George had understood enough of this exchange to feel a thrill of fear, and now he moved closer to his mother as she watched the friar hasten back up High Street, the once white habit soon swallowed up amongst the looting soldiers.
‘Do you not trust our guards, ma mère?’ he whispered.
She turned toward him. He was the fairest of all her children, as blond as Richard was dark, and now she let her hand linger on the soft sunlit hair that fell across his forehead. After hesitating, she temporized with a half-truth.
‘Yes, George, I trust them. But there are evils happening here neither you nor Richard should see. That is why I want you taken to the King at Leominster. You must . . . Richard!’
With a cry, she grabbed for her youngest son, caught him just in time to prevent him from plunging down the steps of the cross. Kneeling, she pulled him to her, to berate him in a voice made rough by fright. He endured her rebuke in silence and, when she released him, slumped down on the steps and locked his arms around his drawn-up knees in a futile attempt to check the tremors that shook the thin little body. Cecily did not know what he had seen to give him such grief, nor did she wait to ﬁnd out. She spun about, turning upon her guards with such fury that the men recoiled.
‘I’ll not have my sons kept here to watch Ludlow’s death throes! You send a man to Somerset! Now, damn you, now!’
The men wilted under her wrath, shifted about in instinctive unease; she was still of the class they’d been indoctrinated since birth to obey. But George saw at once that she raged in vain; she’d not be heeded. He watched awhile and then lowered himself onto the steps beside Richard.
‘Dickon? What did you see?’
Richard raised his head. His eyes were blind, were queerly dark, all blue eclipsed by the shock-dilated pupils.
‘Well?’ George demanded. ‘Tell me what you did see! What could be as bad as all that?’
‘I saw the girl,’ Richard said at last. ‘The girl the soldiers dragged into the churchyard.’
Even now, George could not resist an opportunity to display his worldly understanding. ‘The one the soldiers had their way with?’ he said knowingly.
His words meant nothing to Richard. He scarcely heard them.
‘It was Joan! . . . She was over there. . . .’ He gestured off to his right. ‘In Butcher’s Row. She kept stumbling and then fell down in the street and lay there. Her gown was all torn and there was blood . . .’ He shuddered convulsively and continued only under George’s insistent prodding.
‘A soldier came from the church. He . . . he knotted his hand in her hair and pulled her to her feet. Then he took her back inside.’ And with that, he drew a strangled breath that threatened to become a sob, but somehow he fought it back, stared at George.
‘George . . . it was Joan!’ he repeated, almost as if he expected George to contradict him, to assure him he was wrong, that the girl he’d seen could not possibly have been Joan.
He held his breath, awaiting George’s response. He soon saw George was not going to reassure him, not going to make any consoling denials. He had never seen George at a loss for words before, nor had George ever looked at him as he did now. There was unmistakable pity in the older boy’s eyes and Richard knew suddenly that whatever had befallen Joan was far worse than the ugliness he’d just witnessed in Butcher’s Row.
A soldier ran by, yelling and brandishing a wine ﬂask. It was uncorked and wine was spraying out in his wake, dousing all who came within range. Richard had leaned forward, dropping his head back into his arms. He looked up abruptly, though, as the man passed, hearing enough for alarm.
‘George? Are men being hanged?’
George nodded. ‘Be thankful, Dickon, that our father is safe away from Ludlow,’ he said soberly. ‘Had he or our brothers fallen into the Queen’s hands, she’d have struck their heads above the town gates and, as likely as not, forced us to watch as it was done.’
Richard looked at him with horror and then jumped to his feet as a woman’s scream echoed across the market square. George was on his feet, too, catching Richard roughly by the shoulders.
‘It was not Joan, Dickon,’ he said hastily. ‘That scream did not come from the church. It was not Joan.’
Richard stopped struggling, stared at him. ‘Are you sure?’ he whispered, but as George nodded, the woman screamed again. That was too much for Richard. He jerked from George’s grasp with such violence that he lost his balance and fell forward down the steps of the market cross, into the path of a horse and rider just turning the corner of Broad Street.
Richard wasn’t hurt; the ground was too soft for that. But the impact of his fall had driven all the air from his lungs and, suddenly, the sky above his head was ﬁlled with ﬂying forelegs and down-plunging hooves. When he dared open his eyes again, his mother was kneeling in the mud by his side and the stallion had been reined in scant feet from where he lay.
Cecily’s hands were shaking so badly that she was forced to lace her ﬁngers together to steady herself. Leaning forward, she began to wipe the mud from her child’s face with the sleeve of her gown.
‘For the love of Jesus! Madame, why are you still here?’
She raised her head sharply, to look up into a face that was young and frowning and vaguely familiar. She fumbled for recognition and then it came. The knight who’d come so close to trampling her son beneath his stallion was Edmund Beaufort, younger brother of the Duke of Somerset.
‘In the name of God,’ she said desperately, ‘see my sons safe from here!’
He stared down at her and then swung from the saddle to stand beside her in the street.
‘Why were you not taken at once to the camp of the King at Leominster?’ He sounded angry and incredulous. ‘My brother will have someone ﬂayed alive for this. Lancaster does not make war on women and children.’
Cecily said nothing, merely looked at him and saw colour burn across his cheekbones. He turned away abruptly and began to give directives to the men who’d ridden into Ludlow under his command. With deep-felt relief, she saw that they all were sober.
‘My men will escort you to the royal encampment, Madame.’
She nodded and watched tensely while he dismissed her guards, found horses for them and, with a disgusted oath, swung with the ﬂat of his sword at the more drunken of the soldiers squabbling over spoils of victory. Even now, with deliverance seemingly at hand, she breathed no easier, would not until she saw her sons safely on the road that led from Ludlow. And then, as she led the boys forward to their waiting mounts, Richard suddenly balked. At that, she gave way at last to the strains of the past twenty-four hours and slapped him across the face. He gasped but accepted the punishment without outcry or protest. The objection came from George who moved swiftly to his brother’s side.
‘Do not blame Dickon, ma mère,’ he entreated. ‘He saw her, you see. He saw Joan.’ Seeing her lack of comprehension, he pointed toward the parish church. ‘The girl in the churchyard. It was Joan.’
Cecily looked down at her youngest son and then knelt and drew him gently to her. She saw the tears on his lashes and the imprint of her slap on his cheek.
‘Oh, Richard,’ she whispered, ‘why did you not say so?’
As they’d awaited the coming of the Lancastrian army that morning, she’d taken pains to impress both boys with the urgency of their need for control. Now, however, she no longer cared about pride or honour or any thing but the pain in her child’s eyes, pain that should have been forever alien to childhood.
It was then that Edmund Beaufort performed the act of kindness she would never forget, would not have dared expect. As she gazed up at him, framing an appeal she thought to be futile, he said before she could speak, ‘I’ll send some of my men into the churchyard to see to the girl. I’ll have her taken to you at Leominster. Unless she . . .’ He hesitated, looking down at the little boy she was cradling, and concluded neutrally, ‘Whatever must be done will be, Madame. Now, I would suggest that we not tarry here any longer.’
She nodded numbly. He was holding out his hand. She reached up, let him raise her to her feet. He was, she now saw, very young, no more than four or ﬁve years older than her own Edmund. Very young and none too happy about what he’d found in Ludlow, and perceptive enough to realize that she did not want Richard to be present when Joan was found.
‘I shall not forget your kindness, my lord,’ she said softly and with far more warmth than she would ever have expected to feel for a member of the Beaufort family.
‘In war, Madame, there are always . . . excesses,’ he said, very low, and then the strange ﬂicker of empathy that had passed between them was gone. He stepped back, issued a few terse commands. Men moved across the square toward the churchyard. Others waited to escort the Duchess of York and her sons to the royal camp at Leominster. Edmund Beaufort nodded, gave the order to move out. Cecily reined her mount in before him.
‘Thank you, my lord.’
His eyes were guarded, shadowed by the uneasy suspicions of a man who’d surprised himself by his own candour and now wondered if he’d compromised himself by that candour.
‘Do not mistake me, Madame. I have full faith in my brother’s judgement. He did what he had to do. It was necessary that a lesson be learned here this day, one not to be soon forgotten.’
Cecily stared down at him. ‘You need not fear, my lord,’ she said bitterly. ‘Ludlow will not be forgotten.’
Excerpted from The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman. Copyright © 1982, 2013 by Sharon K Penman.
First published in the USA 1982 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York. First published in Great Britain 1983 by Macmillan. This edition published in Great Britain 2013 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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