The messenger galloped up in a swirl of dust.
It was Good Friday, 1483, shortly before the hour of Nones, and the Gloucester household was picnicking beneath a stately weeping willow on the banks of the River Ure. Anne tensed and held her breath, then heaved a sigh of relief, for he did not wear the royal blue and wine livery of the King but a topaz tunic and the badge of the Black Bull. It was from Lord Hastings that he came. She took a bite of marchpane. But her happy munching slowed when he drew close enough for her to see his face.
Something had happened.
The man looked more than travel-worn. He looked deeply troubled and weary to exhaustion. He bowed to Richard. “My Lord Duke, I am the bearer of grievous tidings. . . ” He paused, seemed to brace himself. “Your Grace. . . I deeply regret to inform you, the King is dead.”
All laughter died; the minstrels ceased their song. Katherine, picking lilies at the water’s edge, straightened. Johnnie, Ned, and young George Neville, playing knights and crusaders on the ruins of a stone wall, halted in their steps, and others, in the motion of setting down a game of cards, stilled their hands. Francis turned, his fishing rod limp, and from where he sat on a blanket, Richard stared mutely up at the messenger with unnatural stillness.
It is a tableau I will always remember, Anne thought.
The ship rolled. Wine splashed the table. The small cabin filled with groans as men grabbed their cups. King Edward IV laughed, saying, “Fear not. Soon there’ll be plenty of free French wine!”
“Aye, Sire,” grinned a knight seated further down the table. “Maybe we can drown the Spider in it.” He leaned back and spat to emphasise the derogatory nickname of the French king, Louis XI. The knight peered down the table at a sallow-faced man sitting at the opposite end. “Or just slay him like a fish in a barrel, as we did the Bitch of Anjou’s son at Tewkesbury, eh, Exeter?”
Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter, flushed and averted his eyes.
“Welladay, no need for that,” said King Edward. “We’re all friends here. My fair sister’s husband may have been Lancastrian once, but he’s Yorkist now, like the rest of us. Isn’t that so, Harry?”
Exeter nodded nervously. “Aye, my Lord.”
“And he’ll fight as bravely for us in France as he did for Lancaster at Barnet, eh, Harry?” said the King, a smile on his lips that failed to reach his shrewd eyes.
“Aye, my Lord.”
“See, what did I tell you, St. Leger? We’re all friends here.” King Edward grinned as he downed a gulp of wine and stabbed at a slice of venison with his dagger.
The hum of manly conversation resumed as the royal retinue returned lustily to their eating and drinking. But, though the knight’s leer was gone, his face had hardened dangerously. While drinking his wine, he continued to glare at Exeter, who kept his own eyes fixed on his trencher. No one paid them any notice, except a dark-haired young man with deep grey eyes who sipped his wine thoughtfully.
The King’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, let his gaze move from the knight, St. Leger, to the duke, Exeter.
Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter, was Richard’s brother-by-marriage, wed to his eldest sister, Nan. Despite the marriage making Exeter a member of the Yorkist royal family, he had espoused the enemy cause during the civil war between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians and fled England when Yorkist Edward won the crown from the Lancastrian King Henry VI. After a decade abroad, he’d returned to fight against York. Captured at the Battle of Barnet, he’d languished in the Tower for five years, and had just been released by Edward’s pardon.
So the rumours are true, thought Richard, his gaze returning to St. Leger. The knight’s antagonism to Exeter was fuelled by a hatred more lethal than politics. St. Leger was enamoured of Exeter’s wife—Richard’s sister, Nan.
Welladay, it was bound to happen. No marriage could survive such a vast political divide—let alone a ten-year separation—unless there was love. Richard knew about such matters. His wife’s father had been the leader of the rebellion against Edward’s rule, and had fought, and died, for Lancaster. He also knew about jealousy. His wife had been wed to Henry VI’s son, Prince Edouard of Lancaster.
Emboldened by wine, Thomas St. Leger spoke again on the subject he could not drop. “Sire, with your permission, I propose a toast. Let us drink to slaughtering the French like pigs in a pen, as we did the Lancastrians at Barnet and Tewkesbury! What say you, Exeter?”
Men snickered and eyes returned to the Duke of Exeter. A silence fell. As everyone watched, Exeter picked up his wine and emptied his cup. One by one the others upended theirs, exchanging winks as they drank.
Richard averted his gaze. The look in St. Leger’s eyes as he had challenged Exeter was familiar. He’d caught it in his own too many times, for he, too, had once wished a man dead for the same reason. For an instant he wondered whether he would be taunting Prince Edouard of Lancaster if it were Edouard who sat in Exeter’s place.
Yet strangely enough, it was Exeter who elicited his sympathy. He had never cared much for arrogant, swaggering St. Leger. Though a duke, Exeter had no allies, and no power or influence. He remained an outsider in an alien camp, resented by everyone. Only under such circumstances could a peer of the realm be humiliated with impunity by a mere knight. Richard thought of his Yorkist cousin, John Neville, who had found himself in much the same circumstances, and had died fighting reluctantly for Lancaster at Barnet. Richard wondered if this was how it had been for John towards the end. Sudden anger swept him.
“St. Leger,” said Richard.
The laughter died. Men’s eyes turned to Richard.
“How is it that you, a former Lancastrian yourself—if memory serves me correctly—see fit to challenge a prince of the blood? Have you forgotten your own sympathies, as well as your station in life?”
St. Leger turned as red as the wine in his goblet.
“It seems to me that you owe my brother-by-marriage an apology.”
Richard caught surprise in Exeter’s gaze as he jerked up his head to look at him, and he also noted the bemused expression on Edward’s face as he settled back to watch them. Richard returned his attention to St. Leger.
Fighting for composure, the knight took a moment before issuing his apology. “My Lord of Exeter. I meant no offence.” St. Leger uttered the words through his teeth, a muscle twitching in his jaw.
“Louder, St. Leger. From where I sit, I can barely hear you.”
The knight swallowed visibly, and a vein on his forehead throbbed, but he repeated his apology to Richard’s satisfaction. Richard knew he’d made another enemy. But court was like that, and what was one more foe?
* * *
That night, in the royal cabin he shared with his royal brother and Edward’s bosom companion, Lord William Hastings, Richard had trouble falling asleep. The seas were rougher than usual, and the talk of impending war with France had stirred painful memories. He tossed fitfully, trying to escape the images that rose before him: his cousin John Neville, in the fog of the battle at Barnet, halting in mid-blow to gaze at his Yorkist foe with grief-stricken eyes. John’s brother, Warwick the Kingmaker, a lumbering, awkward figure as he fled the field in his armour, pursued by Yorkist soldiers who threw him into a river. Richard heard water splashing, then realized it wasn’t water, but blood. Warwick turned his head, and Richard caught the look of anguish before his face was split in half by an axe and a tide of blood washed out the ghastly sight.
Richard groaned, turning away in horror, but the ghosts wouldn’t let him rest. They scuffled in the dark and cried out for his help, their pleas muffled by the fog and the armour, by the din of battle and the screams of the dying. No, he moaned, don’t kill Warwick—don’t kill John—not John, I pray you, not John. . . ! He heard someone laugh, and someone else say, “So may all Lancastrians end!” Then more laughter, and John appeared again, a strange smile on his face as he sank to his knees beneath the pounding of Yorkist swords and pikes.
Richard bolted upright on his pallet.
He was met by the sound of snoring from the other two beds where Edward and his boon companion Hastings slept. I’ve been dreaming again. He rubbed his eyes and threw back the covers, now too awake to sleep. Slipping on his boots, he grabbed his mantle. He creaked open the door and made his way along the dim passageway leading up to the forecastle. The lantern that hung near the ladder swung steadily, throwing shadows around him and triggering a childhood memory of a storm at sea, a tossing ship, and the tight grip of Warwick’s hand on his own—a grip that had kept him from falling to certain death in the swirling black torrents below. He forced the memory away and grabbed the first rung of the ladder.
Drunken laughter drifted down from above. He looked up.
Flanked by two others, St. Leger was swaggering down, a broad grin on his swarthy face. “Somehow the very air smells cleaner now,” he was saying to his friends. “What a fight he. . . “
St. Leger caught sight of Richard and his laughter was checked abruptly. The three men scurried back up the ladder and stepped nervously aside to make way. Richard passed them with a curt nod of acknowledgement, and turned to watch them disappear down the hatch, wondering vaguely what they had been up to.
The night was chilly for May. A wind had risen and the seas were choppy again. Richard pulled up his collar and grabbed the rope railing to steady himself. The skeleton crew that manned the ship was busy at the stern of the vessel. He moved to a corner of the bow, away from intruding eyes.
All was quiet. Peaceful. Only the sound of wind and water punctuated the cold, clear night. He looked up at the sky; a few frosty stars glittered in the heavens, radiating a sense of permanence.
But he knew that nothing was permanent, that life offered no certainties. He thought of his beloved wife, Anne, Warwick the Kingmaker’s daughter, and his sweet babe, Ned, and wondered how they fared. Ned had been sickly since birth, and that worry had proved a greater burden than he and Anne would ever admit to one another. Never robust herself, Anne had suffered several miscarriages before Heaven had blessed them with Ned. The birth had been difficult, and the doctor had given him a choice: Anne’s life, or the life of the babe. He had chosen Anne. By God’s grace, they had both survived—but there would be no more children. So they doted on Ned, and fretted. His mind drifted back to their farewell in front of the castle walls.
“God keep you, my lady. . . and our fair babe,” he had said as his eyes sought Ned. The little one had celebrated his first birthday the day before, the sixth of May, and now he slept in his nurse’s arms, bundled tightly in the soft velvet blanket Anne had embroidered with his coat of arms of the Neville saltire and the Plantagenet Lilies and Leopards. His gaze moved to Anne’s mother, Anne Beauchamp, Countess of Warwick.
She stood a step behind her daughter, looking matronly in the grey gown that flowed from her shoulders, her eyes sad beneath her soft hat and pleated veil. How many times, Richard thought, had she stood as Anne does now, watching her own husband leave for battle, wondering if he will return? “And you, Madame,” he had said gently, “farewell. Guard them both for me till I return.” She had inclined her head and given a small curtsy. He turned back to Anne.
Slender as a willow and radiant as a yellow rose, she stood in her robes and he was reminded of the first time they’d met, when she was seven and he was nine, and he’d thought he was gazing into captured light. Tears rolled down her cheeks now. Aye, parting held bitter memories for them both—the lessons of the past could not be forgotten, and at times like these, seemed too near for comfort.
He reached down and tilted her chin up to him. “All will be well, my sweet,” he said. Anne’s lips, fragrant and warm, brushed his.
A violent roll of the ship jolted him into the present. He grabbed the rope railing to steady himself. Aye it’s time to go back and give sleep another chance, he thought. Fixing his gaze on the stars, he offered a prayer for their safekeeping, and that he would see them again.
* * *