“Turn, Fortune, turn thy wheel…”
The messenger tore through the night. The desolate, snowy streets of London posed little danger in the comforting dark, but at London Bridge he reined in his nervous mount. Torches flared along the bridge, casting lurid shadows on the traitors’ heads lining the poles. They leered at him with mocking grins as snowflakes melted into their empty eye-sockets and rotting flesh, pervading the eerie night with menace. He calmed his horse and braced himself. Cautiously, he trotted past the chilling sight, averting his face from the light. The sound of lapping water drew his attention to the inky river below where a boat was bearing a prisoner to the Tower. The man’s chains glittered a warning as he passed beneath the bridge. The messenger wondered if it was someone he knew, and shuddered.
Once over the bridge and safe again in the shadows of the night, he spurred his mount. Minutes later, at a stately stone mansion on the Thames, he gave the password and gained hasty entry. Racing up the steps, he was surprised to find himself face to face, not with the captain he’d come to seek, but with the Commander of the Yorkist army who was said to be fighting in the Midlands, the mighty lord known to all England as Kingmaker. He fell to his knees and delivered his fearful tidings.
The Kingmaker paled. Barking orders, he grabbed his cloak and made for his horse, his retinue in hot pursuit. Together they galloped along the deserted streets and drew up before a gabled home set behind a wall.
“Who goes there?” demanded a guard.
“The Kingmaker, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick.”
“White Rose Vanquishes Red.”
“Enter!” The gate was thrust open.
The small courtyard filled with the shouts of men and the neighing of horses. Two young faces, one blond, one dark, appeared at the window above the entry, noses pressed against the glass. The boys’ eyes widened when they saw the Kingmaker. He entered the house, and the faces disappeared from the window.
“It’s Cousin Warwick, Dickon!” exclaimed the older boy.
Richard choked back a cry. Their cousin, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, had fled London months ago. If the Lancastrians caught him, he’d lose his head. No doubt he’d be chopped into pieces first, as traitors always were unless their sentences were commuted. She would never commute Warwick’s sentence. She was England’s Queen, the savage Marguerite d’Anjou, and she was very angry with their cousin Warwick, maybe because he had called her the Bitch of Anjou. He wasn’t sure what a bitch was, but Nurse had scolded him when he’d asked and told him he must never use the word himself.
“Isn’t London dangerous for him?” he asked breathlessly. “Father said that London’s for Queen Marguerite—even if she is away in the North. Do you think Cousin Warwick lost the battle, George?”
“Worse than that, Dickon, or he wouldn’t have come himself,” his brother replied.
Richard took tight hold of George’s hand as they cracked the door open. With his ten-year-old brother leading the way, he stole along the corridor that was decorated with greenery for Yuletide, tip-toeing carefully on the creaky floor. Voices drifted up from the hall downstairs: a man’s nasal tone, sounding alarmed, insistent; and a woman’s softer cadence, anxious and pleading. His mother? But that wasn’t possible! His mother was a Neville, proud and fearless—she never raised her voice, never implored anyone for anything. She gave commands calmly, like the queen she would be when his father won the throne from Marguerite’s husband, mad Henry of Lancaster.
They halted at the staircase. The man’s voice had risen in volume and grown heated.
“No one would do such a thing, I assure you—’tis preposterous. My gracious aunt Cecily, even this wretched queen wouldn’t harm young children!” A pause. “In any case, I came only to bring you the news, sore tidings though they be. Now time grows short and I myself must leave with all haste.”
“You cannot go without them!”
“I must. They’ll slow us down.”
“You didn’t see Marguerite at Ludlow—she’s capable of anything! In God’s name, has she not proven it to you with this dreadful deed? Oh, my beloved lord husband… my sweet Edmund…” Her voice broke.
Richard and George exchanged glances. What could have happened? They descended the steps. Richard gasped and grabbed the pillar for support. He had never seen his mother this way. Not even at Ludlow when they’d been captured by Queen Marguerite’s troops. She stood in the centre of the torch-lit room, surrounded by Warwick’s men, clinging to his velvet doublet. Her blue eyes held a wild expression and her golden hair hung dishevelled around her shoulders.
“You must take them, fair nephew. You must. They may be babes, but they’re brave—they’ll ride hard. They won’t slow you down, I swear it! They’ll die unless you take them with you. She’ll murder them as she did their father and Edmund at York.”
Now Richard and George understood the awful truth. Richard let out a wail. George ran down the stairs. “Let me at her!” he yelled. “I’ll burn her at the stake, the stinking witch. I’ll rip her entrails out. Let me at her. I’ll send her to Hell!”
For a moment, everyone stared at them. Then George, kicking furiously, was restrained by Warwick’s henchmen. Eyes turned to little Richard on the staircase, gripping the pillar mutely with both hands, ashen pale and vibrating like a plucked harp string.
“Richard,” said his mother softly.
From somewhere in the shadows, his nurse materialised. She sank down on the step beside him and gathered him to her. “Come, my sweet little lord… Come, my dear one…”
Richard didn’t hear. He didn’t feel her arms around him. He felt only the cold, and the fear, and the only thought he had was that he mustn’t cry. Nurse had said that men didn’t cry, and he knew his father had expected him to be a man.
“Ludlow,” Cecily breathed. “That’s how he was at Ludlow.” She turned desperate eyes on her nephew. “You weren’t at Ludlow, nephew. What Marguerite did there was Devil’s work. And what she has done at York has changed the world forever.” She lowered herself to her knees, clasped her hands together and looked up at him beseechingly. “I humble myself to you, my Lord of Warwick.”
A shocked gasp went around the room to see England’s true queen kneel at Warwick’s feet. Even Warwick seemed stunned. He stared at her a long moment. Then he gave a tense nod.
“Make haste, then. We’ve no time to lose. She’s closing in on London even as we speak.”
Richard stood in the courtyard, unable to stop his teeth from chattering. He didn’t know what was happening. Men were shouting, running to and fro, bringing horses from the stables and swords from the armoury. Torches flared in the blackness, and the courtyard smelled of smoke and manure. Some of the horses were frightened, too, for they neighed wildly and reared up on their haunches.
Richard shivered. He was so cold. He felt Galahad’s soft head nuzzle him from behind, as if to tell him it would be all right. All at once strong arms lifted him up high in the air and dropped him roughly into the saddle. He wanted to cry.
“What’s the matter with you?” Warwick’s harsh voice pierced his consciousness. “Be a man, you snivelling coward!” Galahad’s reins were forced into his hands.
Richard didn’t want to be a coward. He wanted to be like his brothers, brave and bold and strong. Especially his oldest brother, Edward, to whom Galahad belonged. He bit back his tears.
“Can you ride like a man, or must we carry you like a babe?” demanded his cousin.
“I can ride,” Richard managed, hugging Galahad’s belly closer with his trembling knees and forcing himself to meet his cousin’s eyes. Galahad was his friend. Galahad would help him ride. A groom hastily adjusted the stirrups and placed his feet into them.
“But I need my lute,” Richard said, trying not to whimper. “I can’t ride without my lute.” He chewed his lip to make it stop quivering.
“God’s Blood, someone get him his damned lute!” Warwick yelled.
His nurse disappeared into the amber light flowing through the open doorway and ran out with his instrument. One of Warwick’s men strapped it tightly to his saddle.
“There!” said Warwick, and gave Galahad a smack on the rump.
Galahad leapt forward.
My father is dead.
Panic gripped Richard anew, sending his heart pounding with terror. He bent low in the saddle and spurred Galahad with desperate urgency. The black night reverberated with the thunder of fleeing horse hoofs, all pounding the same message: His father was dead. His brother, Edmund, too. Now they were coming for him.
It isn’t fair, he thought, choking back a sob. They were the ones who had stolen the throne. They were the ones killing people and burning the land. His father was the rightful heir to the crown, not Henry of Lancaster! His father would have set things right. But his father was dead, and his brother Edmund slain as he made for Sanctuary. The Lancastrians had won.
It isn’t fair!
The frigid December wind whistled past, drying his tears, stinging his cheeks, whipping his hair. He could feel Galahad’s lathered belly burning and heaving for breath. Richard bent low in the saddle to make it easier on him and caught a wave of spume in his eyes. Poor Galahad. He released the pressure of his spurs on his flank and pulled on the bit to ease their pace. The road glistened in the light snow. They twisted around a corner and galloped between two dark hedgerows. He thought of his mother and gave a shiver. He wore no hat or gloves and his ear lobes were numb, his knuckles raw, near frozen. But it wasn’t the cold that chilled him. It was his mother’s loss of composure. He didn’t really understand the struggles between York and Lancaster for the throne of England, but he knew that the way his father had died had changed the rules.
“Make haste, Dickon,” Warwick shouted, his voice ringing out of the darkness ahead. “She’s not far behind, I warrant.”
Richard didn’t want to hurt Galahad by digging in his spurs, but it wouldn’t be good for Galahad, either, if the Queen caught him. Nurse had said that the queen would chop him up and feed him to her hounds because he was a Yorkist horse.
Galahad plunged ahead. Richard whipped his head around to steal a terrified glance behind him. There was no sign of the queen, only a sea of bobbing torches and his cousin’s bodyguard of eighty strong in their jackets of Neville scarlet bearing Warwick’s badge of the Bear and Ragged Staff, their taut faces illuminated in the flames, their breath frosting the night.
Only when he was neck-to-neck with George did Richard dare slow Galahad again. He always felt better with George. George had all the answers and knew no fear.
“Will we make it, George?” Richard rasped, nearly choking on splatters of frozen mud kicked up by the horse’s galloping hoofs.
“To Sandwich, aye…”
“Depends,” George panted, “on our cousin Warwick.”
~ * * * ~
See more: The Rose of York: Love & War