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The Micklegate towered above her, seeming to touch the lowering sky, as she knelt in the mud and stared at the gruesome objects decorating the battlement. Rudely thrust on spikes, several human heads kept watch from the crenellations, wisps of hair stirring in the breeze. A paper crown sat askew on one of the bloodied skulls and drooped over a socket now empty of the owner's dark gray eye. The fl esh on the cheeks had been picked clean by birds, and there was no nose. Yet still Margaret recognized her father. She could not tear her eyes from him even as his lifeless lips began to stretch over his teeth into a hideous smile.
It was then Margaret screamed.
"Margaret! Wake up! 'Tis but a dream, my child." Cecily shook her daughter awake. She watched anxiously as Margaret's eyes flew open and looked around her with relief.
"Oh, Mother, dear Mother, I dreamed of Micklegate again! A terrible, ghastly dream. Why does it not go away? I cannot bear to imagine Father and Edmund like that!" Margaret sat up, threw her arms around her mother's neck and sobbed. "Oh, why did they have to die?"
Cecily held her daughter close and was silent for a moment. Why, indeed, she thought, fighting back her own tears. It was surely a mistake, a horrible mistake! If only she had stopped them venturing out that fateful New Year's eve. Christmas was supposed to be sacrosanct no matter how great the hatred between enemies -- all retiring to hearths and homes to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The great hall at Sandal Castle had been decorated with boughs of holly and pine, the rafters ringing with the noise of men feasting and drinking. The Christmas fortnight washalf spent, and thoughts of death had been put aside for the holy season. Cecily sat close to her beloved husband, Richard, duke of York, and their second son, Edmund, earl of Rutland, aware of the uneasy peace that lay around them, for the enemy army of Lancaster lay not ten miles hence at the royal castle of Pontefract. Then came the knocking at the great oak door and the unexpected entrance of more soldiers -- but these were armed, disheveled, bloody. Richard upset a goblet of wine as he rose in alarm.
"Ambush!" cried the leader of the stragglers. "Trollope ambushed us as we foraged!"
The duke and seventeen-year-old Edmund called for their arms, and the cry was taken up by the rest of the company: "Aux armes! A York, á York!" Pandemonium broke out as servants ran to fetch weapons and armor, men donned breastplates, helmets and shields and ran out to the castle courtyard.
"My lord, my dearest lord, this is Christmas!" Cecily cried, taking Richard's face between her hands. "Surely Somerset would not break a Christmas truce! These men must have come upon a band of brigands, not an army of the king!"
"Perhaps you are right. Trust me, mon amour, we shall be home again in a little while. Keep faith, Cecily. I must go and avenge my comrades." Richard bent, kissed her hard on the mouth and grinned. "Just a little while, have no fear!"
"I beg of you, wait for Edward, my love! We know he is coming with his own army. Wait, for the love of God!" But she spoke to an empty hall. Her husband was gone, impetuously -- and arrogantly -- believing he could defeat any Lancastrian force. She had broken down and cried.
The scene faded, and Cecily stifled a sob in her daughter's blond hair. That had been exactly a month ago, but it seemed to her a lifetime of loneliness. Richard and Edmund had been killed that day at Wakefield alongside the great Yorkist lord, Richard, earl of Salisbury, who was Cecily's beloved brother. Two thousand men fell in the York ranks, trapped as they were by a far superior Lancastrian force, which lost a mere two hundred, so the messengers said. In an unwonted act of spite, the Lancastrian victors had taken the heads of the defeated Yorkist leaders and stuck them "See," they laughed, "he wanted to be king, this duke of York, and now he's king of his namesake city!"
"Richard, my Richard, why were you always so hasty -- so rash?" Cecily muttered to herself unintelligibly. "If only you had been patient that day -- waited for Edward -- listened to me -- you might be with me still." Her voice rose, "Oh, my dearest love..."
Margaret heard her mother's soft moan and immediately wiped her eyes. The girl was astonished by this uncharacteristic display of emotion from her mother. Cecily came from strong northern stock. Her family were Nevilles -- after the royal princes, the most powerful nobles in England. Her father had been earl of Westmoreland, and she was a granddaughter of John of Gaunt on her mother's side. A noble line indeed -- and one used to the vagaries of political fortune and the terrifying consequences of battle.
"Mother! I am so sorry. How you must be grieving, too! All this time you have allowed me to think...made me wonder..." She hesitated, embarrassed by such an intimate conversation with her usually imperturbable parent. Aloof, proud and stoic were words Margaret had heard whispered behind Cecily's back, and for the most part she agreed with them. But she had also been witness to Cecily's deep devotion for her husband and the recipient of a motherly protection as fierce as any lioness's. Margaret had known, as had her seven siblings, a mother's love from the day she was born.
Cecily allowed her tears to fall. "Aye, sweeting. You thought I had a heart of stone. Is that what you would say?" She attempted a wan smile. "Nay! My loss is so great I feel my heart is shattered in so many shards that they pierce my skin here," she tapped her breast, "and make me want to scream in agony!" And she sobbed again.
This time, it was Margaret who put her arms around Cecily and soothed her with gentle sounds. How glad she was to see a softer side of her mother. At fifteen, she had already formed her own shell and learned to hide inside to protect herself from hurt, but there were times when she ran into the garden and found a solitary place where she could cry or stamp her foot in anger -- emotions that were frowned upon in Cecily's strict household.
"Hush, Mother. God has Father and Edmund in his care now. Let us pray together for their souls," Margaret cajoled, gentling the older woman away. She knew her mother would respond to a call for prayer; Cecily's piety was well known. The two women knelt by the bed, crossed themselves and intoned the ritual, "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost..." and then disappeared into silent memories of their lost dear ones.
Margaret shut her eyes tight, hoping the darkness behind them would erase the grisly dream. When that didn't work, she forced herself to think of her father as alive and well and dandling her on his knee when she was a child. She knew she was his favorite -- the boys told her so constantly. Richard of York had not been a big man, but his body was sinewy and carried not an ounce of fat. He used to allow Margaret to test the solid muscle in his upper arm and try to wrap her hands around it. He'd laugh at her wide eyes and loudly kiss her fair head. All his children except the eldest, Anne, and the youngest, Richard, had inherited their mother's fair hair. Margaret and Richard, however, had their father's slate gray eyes. He had worn his thick, dark hair in the old-fashioned short cut -- Margaret told him it looked as though his squire had stuck a bowl on his head and simply chopped off the hair that hung below. That would make him throw back his head and neigh with laughter. Margaret loved it when her father laughed. His whole body shook, and he would make little snorting sounds between the laughs. It would make everyone else laugh -- even Cecily, who never found life very amusing.
Remembering his laughter now, Margaret found herself smiling and thanked the Virgin Mary for giving her a happy memory of her father to replace the nightmare.
Dickon and George were fighting again. Margaret found the antics of her two brothers as tiresome as any elder sister would. She was too grown up now to jump into the fray -- something she would have relished a few years ago.
There were three years between each of them, and nine-year-old Richard -- nicknamed Dickon to distinguish him from his father -- was the runt of York's litter. Small for his age, he had been sickly as a little boy but had survived those first five precarious years when so many children died and now was not loath to tackle his bigger brother, George, when the occasion arose. The three siblings were, in fact, firm friends. During these most tumultuous years, they had endured being dragged around the countryside with their parents or left in the care of others while Cecily followed her beloved husband wherever she could on his quest for the crown -- very often into danger. The children frequently squabbled like dogs over a scrap, but woe betide anyone else who picked on one of them. The other two would rush to their sibling's aid and staunchly defend the victim, fists clenched. Cecily and duke Richard encouraged this behavior in their brood.
"Never forget your blood kin, children," their father would say. "The most important people in your world are right here in this house -- the house of York."
Now, whenever someone referred to the proud lineage of her family name, Margaret would hold her head high, puff out her chest and brim with confidence.
As she idly watched her brothers laughing and tumbling -- taller George with his fair hair and good looks and Richard, who was a miniature of their father -- she wondered what would become of them. Would they, like Edmund, end up on a pike on top of a city gate? She shuddered.
And what of Edward, her godlike eldest brother? Where was he this cold February day? She turned to look out of the window and onto the courtyard of Baynard's Castle, the York family residence in London on the banks of the Thames. Mercifully, Edward -- titled the earl of March -- had been in Wales gathering forces for his father and not at Wakefield that fateful Christmas season. Margaret knew her mother was worried. Edward should have been marching to London with an army to head off King Henry and Queen Margaret's force. Whoever owned London owned the kingdom, she said. Fear akin to panic had greeted Cecily in every village when she rode posthaste to London after the loss on New Year's eve. The people knew Queen Margaret was allowing her troops to loot and pillage the towns and villages as they marched south, intent on making London their own. London merchants shut up their shops in anticipation of her arrival; they had no love for the French woman.
Mother and daughter had taken a few minutes to rest one day following a rigorous session with the steward regarding the day's castle business. Margaret had begun to accompany the duchess on her errands around the castle -- meeting with the steward, visiting ailing attendants, dispensing justice in petty disputes among the staff -- and she sank gratefully into some cushions in a window embrasure overlooking the busy river. Cecily closed her eyes for a moment and fussed with the rosary at her belt.
"Pray tell me why our house," and Margaret involuntarily swelled with pride, "is fighting the king, Mother. Is that not treason?"
Cecily's eyes flew open. She frowned and glanced about her. "Enough talk of treason, Margaret. Come close and I will explain all. It all began more than three score years ago and involved my grandsire, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster."
Margaret's eyes widened and mouthed the hated "Lancaster" back to her mother. Cecily nodded and proceeded to regale Margaret with the beginnings of the civil strife between York and Lancaster. When she told how Gaunt's son had usurped the crown, Margaret could not but help blurt out, "Usurped? Mother, he was the grandsire of our present king. Oh, for sure that must be a treasonable thought. Have a care!"
"Do not dare to speak to me thus, daughter!" Cecily scolded her. "We are safe here, and besides I speak the truth. And the king knows it also, for he agreed to make Father his heir, denying his own son the crown. But 'tis Queen Margaret who holds King Henry's leading strings, for the poor man has bouts of madness and delusion, and she hates your father -- and indeed all of us -- for disinheriting her son. Understand this, Margaret, and understand it well. Your father had the right to the throne through his grandsire on his mother's side, the earl of March," she stated sternly. "He was descended from King Edward's second son."
Margaret had lowered her eyes at the reprimand and absorbed the information for a moment before her quick intelligence found a missing thread. "Then why was Father the duke of York and not the earl of March?"
Cecily was pleased. "You show much wit, my dear, which will help you greatly when you take your place as wife of some lord. 'Twas from his father's line, which descends from great Edward's fourth son, the duke of York, also named Edward. You see, Father had double the royal blood of any of Gaunt's descendants!" She finished triumphantly. "A pox on them!"
"But you just said you are one of his descendants, ma mère." Margaret could not resist and once again paid the price for a willful tongue.
"Enough of your cheek! Leave us now," Cecily ordered, and Margaret meekly obeyed until she closed the heavy door behind her, when she ran giggling to her apartments.
"York and Mortimer, Gaunt and March, Lancaster and Bolingbroke -- oh, a pox on them all," she cried, imitating Cecily beautifully and making her old nurse, Anne, chuckle indulgently.
Margaret smiled now as she remembered the scene that day, vaguely aware that the din behind her had quietened as George and Richard seemed to have come to a truce and were back at their Latin books. Her smile soon vanished as she saw a company of horsemen at the castle gate on Thames Street calling loudly for the portcullis to be raised.
"Boys, come and see what is happening below," Margaret called. "There are some soldiers riding into the courtyard with a herald."
The magic word "soldiers" had the boys scrambling to take a perch at the window. They opened it and leaned out dangerously far to hear what news the men brought. Margaret hauled Richard back by his jerkin, and he glared at her.
"You will not be any good to Edward dead, you idiot!" Margaret told him. "Have a care!"
"You're not my warden! You aren't even my nursemaid! Leave me be, you...you...whey-faced wench!" Richard sputtered at her and instantly regretted it. Cecily had entered the room at exactly the wrong moment, and she was shocked by his speech.
"Richard! Where have you learned such talk? Apologize to your sister at once and then you may go to bed without your supper. I am ashamed of you. To think your father has only been dead these five weeks! You children have lost all discipline." It was a common theme of Cecily's, and Margaret rolled her eyes at George behind Richard's back. Characteristically, George jumped to Richard's defense by attempting to distract her. "But, Mother, something is happening in the courtyard. Come, see for yourself."
"'Tis true, Mother, look!" Margaret chimed in. Cecily waited in silence until Richard had slipped out of the room to obey her, and then she peered from the casement.
"What did you hear, George?"
"I heard Ned's name, but then Meg pulled Dickon in and they quarreled, so I couldn't hear any more." He scowled at his sister.
How unattractive he is when he does that, Margaret thought fleetingly, although no one had ever heard Margaret say an unkind word about George. That she preferred this good-looking boy to Richard was no secret to those close to the children. He was nearer in age, as willful as she, loved to dance and recite poetry, and they both enjoyed the luxuries and limelight that went along with being a duke's child. Richard was more serious and secretive, rarely putting a foot wrong, so needful he was of his parents' approval. You never knew what he was thinking, Margaret told George one day. And he preferred the outdoors to indoor pursuits, unlike her and George. But Dickon was fiercely loyal, she'd give him that.
"George, stay here. Margaret, come with me."
The scowl persisted. "But Mother -- I am the man -- I am the head of the family in Ned's absence. I should be by your side."
"When you look at me like that, George, all you show me is that you are still naught but a babe. Now, do as you are told!" Cecily took Margaret's arm and swept out of the room, followed by her ladies, who had been tittering in a corner at the family scene. Margaret turned at the last moment and gave George a helpless look.
"Bah!" sputtered George at the closing door.
By the time the ladies entered the great hall, the messenger was being attended to by a squire and had rid himself of his dirty cloak and tabard. He knelt as Cecily swept in.
"What news, master herald? Come you from my son?" Cecily went straight to the point.
"Aye, my lady. And I have to report a victory for Lord Edward seven days since!" A cheer rose from the assembled company. "At a place near Ludlow called Mortimer's Cross."
"I know that place," Cecily said eagerly, gripping Margaret's arm. "A victory you say. There was a battle? Who was there? How many were slain?"
"My lady, I would tell you all but I am in sore need of some refreshment...if it please you."
Cecily clapped her hands for some wine and bade her steward arrange refreshment in the armory for the rest of the troop. Margaret noted how her mother took charge of the situation, giving commands with an authority that was tempered with benevolence. The young woman was beginning to understand how to earn loyalty from the retainers and staff. Cecily treated each servant fairly, her nursemaid had told her young charge once. "'Tis why they would die for her, Margaret. She knows the name of every man, woman and child who serves the house of York here at Baynard's. Watch and learn," Anne of Caux advised.
The herald followed the duchess to her chair on the dais, where she sat flanked by Margaret on one side and her ladies on the other. She bade him to sit on a stool at her feet. He was a handsome young man with a twinkle in his hazel eyes, and he cast a few admiring glances Margaret's way that made her blush. She stood beside her mother and waited for his tale. After a long draught from a goblet, he began.
"My lord Edward was marching to meet with the earl of Warwick to stop the king's army from reaching London from the north when he heard that a large force was moving from Wales under Jasper Tudor to join the king. Lord Edward turned his army and chose to face this force in battle."
"His first as head of our house," Cecily reminded the company proudly.
"Aye, your grace," the messenger agreed. He comported himself brilliantly! He knew the country well and chose Mortimer's Cross for its strategic benefits. There were those who doubted his choice of day, however. 'Twas the feast of Candlemas -- a most holy day -- and some were loath to fight upon it. But just before the battle began, a strange happening took place that convinced our troops Edward would be victorious."
Margaret was imagining her handsome giant of a brother in his armor rallying his men to battle. She leaned forward to hear more. The herald paused for effect and took another draught.
Cecily impatiently waved him on. "What strange happening? No riddles, sirrah, I pray you."
"'Twas close to ten of the clock, and we were chafing at the bit waiting for the enemy to approach when we noticed three suns in the sky -- "
"Three? Do not babble nonsense, man," Cecily snapped. "How can there be three suns?"
Others in the room crossed themselves in wonder and awe. It did seem a portent, an omen, and yet their lord was victorious. After the weeks of depression following the loss of their leader, York's supporters were in need of such good news.
"I know not how, lady. But I saw them with my own eyes. A hush came over the army, and then my lord Edward turned his horse to us and cried, ' 'Tis the symbol of the Trinity, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost! It means God is on our side! 'Tis a sign.' And we believed him then. He was so sure and so brave, and the light from the three suns shone bright on his gold-brown head, making him look like...like a young god," he flattered the duchess, and Cecily nodded proudly. "We routed the Welsh rabble 'tis true, but in all three thousand were slain that day. Their leaders were executed, including that Welshman Tudor."
"Good riddance!" Cecily sneered. "I hope they put his head on a pike, like my husband's."
Margaret cringed, her dream remembered. Men are barbarous creatures, she thought.
"Aye, my lady, they did. 'Tis said a mad woman combed his hair and washed his face as it sat high upon the market cross."
"And now, herald? Where is my son now?" Cecily demanded.
"He gathers men from every village, field and manor to meet with my lord Neville, earl of Warwick, and defend London from the royal army. I know not where he is, in truth, for he sent me from Gloucester to bring these tidings to your grace."
"Warwick is still in London -- at The Erber," Cecily frowned. "Does he know where to meet Edward?"
"Indeed, I was just now at that place afore I came here, your grace, and saw his lordship. My lord Edward has charged him to march his forces out of London, as the king's -- or I should say, the queen's -- army is still plundering what they will on the road south." He shook his head. " 'Twas folly for her not to have marched direct on London after Wakefield. But we are all the stronger for it."
"Aye, 'tis true, London would have fallen had she moved swiftly. And with the poor demented king housed safely at the Tower, she would have held all the power here. Herald, I thank you for your news. Gather your men and get you gone to The Erber, where you can help my lord of Warwick best. We are safe here for the time being."
The herald finished his wine and took his leave with a graceful bow, giving Margaret a brilliant smile.
Cecily turned to Margaret and frowned. "I hope you did not encourage that smile, daughter?"
"Certes, no!" Margaret said innocently, but secretly she knew she had. That night she went to bed and imagined herself being led out for a basse danse by the handsome herald. She reached out her hand under the covers and, pretending the other one was his, she squeezed her own fingers and murmured, "With pleasure, master herald." She frowned. She didn't even know his name. Before she could make one up, however, she drifted off to sleep.
Margaret was bored. Baynard's had been under a self-imposed curfew since the earl of Warwick had marched out of London from his residence on the twelfth day of February five days ago. Only those charged with provisioning the castle and its vast stables were permitted to venture into the streets. Cecily was taking no chances. The children were allowed to walk around the ramparts or in the extensive walled garden and exercise their horses by trotting round and round the courtyard. The boys, Margaret noted enviously, never tired of competing with each other at archery in the butts, tilting or with wooden weapons in swordplay, cheered on by idle squires and stable lads.
She had toiled over a tapestry for more than an hour that morning, attended Mass, and followed Cecily around dutifully as her mother oversaw the smooth running of the castle. She listened to the usual conversation with the steward, who told Cecily about everything from the birth of a child to a beating of an errant page. Then Cecily checked the account books with the comptroller and signed orders for provisions for the entire castle. Margaret did not have an aptitude for figures, but she knew that when she had her own household, she would be expected to oversee not only her own expenses but also those of her husband, should he be gone. But Cecily seemed to enjoy the responsibility, and Margaret marveled at how quickly it was all resolved every day.
Then she had played her lute until her fingertips were sore and practiced French with old Anne, the Norman nursemaid who had begun service with the York family at Edward's birth. Even her beloved books could not keep her mind occupied today. She longed to escape the confinement of her chamber and the castle walls. Cecily had even forbidden the daily outing along the river in the ducal barge -- too dangerous in these times of uncertainty, she told the children. We cannot afford to lose any more York family members, she said. Not while your brother is staking his claim to the throne. Margaret's attendants Ann and Jane had tried to persuade her to play a game of hide and go seek that would include several of the pimply pages they flirted with incessantly, but Margaret found those two girls' company less than stimulating. They had been assigned to her by Cecily, who recognized her daughter needed companionship of her own age, but their simpering and obsession with clothes and jewels bored her.
And so that afternoon she escaped her own chambers and wandered through the maze of rooms in the vast castle, avoiding her mother's apartment, where she knew she would be immediately put to work on an embroidery Cecily had designed to honor Edward's victory at Mortimer's Cross. She found her way to the bridge room, a tiny space directly over the castle gate that had a window onto the world outside the castle. She had come here to cry those first few days after the news of Wakefield reached Baynard's. Although she still found herself close to tears many times a day, she was learning to hide them -- like her mother. Cecily did not tolerate displays of emotion in public. "Those of our station must always be in control of our feelings, do you understand, Margaret? 'Tis a sign of weakness to be seen crying," she had told Margaret after another of Margaret's nightmares. "How will we deserve loyalty from our servants if we appear weak?"
Today, her visit to the bridge room was more to alleviate her boredom than to grieve. Perhaps she could watch ordinary townsfolk in their ordinary lives, something that intrigued the privileged young woman. The door was unlatched, so she pushed it open. Unaware of her presence, a young squire and a servant maid were enjoying a passionate embrace. Margaret stared fascinated at the sight. The young man's bare buttocks were thrusting back and forth at the young woman, who was standing spreadeagled against the wall, her skirt and shift lifted to her neck. "Harder, harder," moaned the girl, writhing in what seemed to Margaret to be pain. The squire obliged, and in a very few seconds, both lovers climaxed with a cry. As quietly as she had entered, Margaret left the room, her mind in a whirl.
At the onset of her courses not a year ago, Cecily had given Margaret a perfunctory explanation of the begetting of children, which had terrified her. But this scene did not seem so terrifying; in fact, it had made her pulse race, and she had experienced a strange physical yearning. She touched her breast and was surprised at the warm sensation she felt all the way to her thighs. At once she was ashamed and mumbled an Ave, feeling for the rosary she kept at her waist. Certes, I shall have to confess this when the priest hears me tomorrow, she thought, for if this feels so pleasurable, it cannot be good for the soul. Cecily's training had been well digested. She wished she had someone to talk to about the experience other than immature Ann and Jane, and she was sure old Anne would not ever have felt as she was now. Not for the first time, Margaret wished she had been born a boy. They have all the fun, she lamented.
The rattling noise of the portcullis being raised and the shouts of men interrupted her thoughts. She ran down the stairs, taking the narrow steps two at a time and stopping at the open balcony at the foot. Others were beginning to appear at windows and balconies all over the castle, watching as more and more bloodied men limped, hobbled or were borne by others into the courtyard. Cecily's steward, an imperious man with white hair and bright blue eyes, stood on the top step leading into the great hall, waiting for the herald to extricate himself from the melee and climb the steps. Margaret recognized the smiling man who had brought them news of Mortimer's Cross. He was not smiling now.
"I bring bad news to her grace, the duchess, sir," he addressed Sir Henry Heydon, the steward, loudly enough for all to hear. "My lord of Warwick has suffered a bitter defeat this day at the hands of the queen at St. Albans field. These few of us escaped to bring the news to London, so you can prepare for the advancing army."
Cecily appeared from the hall, and the messenger went down on one knee and doffed his bonnet.
"God keep you, sir herald. At St. Albans you say?" she asked, a tremor in her voice. "And what of my cousin of Warwick? God forbid he is not slain."
"Nay, your grace. The earl and the rest of our force who escaped the slaughter have fled west to find your son, Lord Edward."
"Praise be to the Virgin for that!" Cecily exclaimed.
"My lord of Warwick had taken the king with him to the battlefield, I know not why," the herald continued. "He is back with his queen now, as mad as ever. Some said they saw him at the edge of the battlefield sitting under a tree, laughing at his enemies."
"Sweet Jesu, he is indeed mad," whispered Cecily, crossing herself. Aloud to the company she cried, "Hear this, loyal friends of York. We are in danger here, and I would command all those who can walk and fight to join this herald and leave London as soon as they have had nourishment. Follow Warwick's trail and join with my son. Those too wounded to be moved will be looked after here. I do not believe the queen will harm me or those who cannot fight, so we must remain to defend Baynard's from her looting army. God help us! And may God bless the lord Edward!"
"God bless Lord Edward!" Margaret cheered along with the rest, and a thrill of pride went through her at the deafening sound of loyal voices echoing Cecily's prayer.
A few minutes later, Margaret joined her mother in the great hall. The duchess was in full command of the servants, who gathered around her, receiving orders. The deference they gave the proud, beautiful woman was not lost on Margaret. She longed to emulate her dignified mother -- but not until I am much older, she thought timidly.
"Ah, Margaret, my dear, come here and help me. I want you to go up to your apartments and tell Nurse Anne to ready George and Richard for a journey. Tell her to pack their warmest clothes and one good doublet and bonnet each. I will be there anon."
"Where will they go, Mother?" Margaret asked, unfortunately.
"'Tis not your place to question me, Margaret," Cecily retorted. "Pray do as I tell you at once!" A few sympathetic eyes turned to Margaret upon hearing Cecily's sharp chiding.
Margaret blushed, ashamed that she had been reprimanded in front of so many people. Cecily relented and said less severely, "You will know in a little while. I simply do not have time to explain now."
Margaret, still smarting, curtseyed and hurried upstairs to the boys' chambers. Her brothers were appalled that they were to leave for parts unknown without her, for her mother had not told Margaret to prepare herself for a journey with them. It would be one of the rare times in their young lives that the siblings would be parted. Margaret gave the boys the news, and Anne began packing.
Richard was still crying when Cecily joined them half an hour later.
"Where is your York backbone, Richard?" she admonished him. "You are near ten years old and here you are crying like a baby. 'Tis not the first time you have been without me."
"But...but...Meg has always been with us. Why can't she come, too?" Richard tried to stop his lip quivering and tears from flowing, but he did not succeed.
It was Margaret who gathered him into her arms and cajoled him out of his fear. " 'Twill be an adventure, Dickon! George will be with you, and Nurse Anne, I expect."
"Aye, Anne will go with you. Although I expect George will not care for that! And your favorite squire, John Skelton, will also keep you company." Cecily knelt in front of her youngest and took him from Margaret, holding him close. "Hush, child. It will not be for long, I promise, for Edward will come and take London and all will be well."
At Edward's name, Richard brightened. "You think he will really come, Mother. I would dearly love to see Ned again!" He blinked back his tears and attempted a smile.
"That's better, child." Cecily stood up and drew George to her as well. "Now, would you like to know where you are going?"
"Aye, Mother," chorused the boys. "And why," added George.
"'Tis for your own safety, George. If something should happen to Edward -- pray God it does not" -- they all crossed themselves -- "then you and Richard are York's heirs. And therefore heirs to the crown."
Both boys looked nonplussed, and Cecily decided not to explain but fussed with the clothes Anne had laid on the bed. "I am sending you to our friend the duke of Burgundy, so you must remember your manners. Aye," she said, nodding, as the boys' eyes widened, "you will have your first voyage on a ship!"
"A ship, Georgie!" Richard cried ecstatically, his tears forgotten. "We are going to sea, like the game we played yesterday!"
George was less enthusiastic, old enough to understand that he was to miss events at home that might carve out his future. But he put his arm about Richard's shoulders protectively, giving his mother's back a resentful stare. "Aye, Dickon. And I will protect you, never fear."
"I am not afraid, George!" Richard exclaimed. "I am a York. And us Yorks are never afraid!"
"There's a brave boy, Richard." Cecily turned, beaming. "Only it should be we Yorks, but no mind. Now, both of you say good-bye to Margaret and come with me."
Margaret watched, stunned, as the trio left the room, followed by Anne and a servant carrying the clothes chest. How could her life change so quickly? Only a few weeks ago, she had a father and another brother. Now they were gone. Then Edward had triumphed at Mortimer's Cross, giving Yorkists hope of winning the crown of England, and now the disastrous news of St. Albans had turned their world upside down again. She shook her head in disbelief. A mere hour ago, she had been relatively carefree and experiencing her first sensual thrill of womanhood. Now her world was falling apart, and as if the news weren't bad enough, her brothers were to be taken from her.
"George! Dickon!" she cried, "Wait for me!"
She picked up her skirts and ran down to the castle quay, where she was just in time to give both boys a last kiss. The boatmen dipped their heavy oars into the water and pulled away from the pier towards the scores of ships moored in the Pool on the other side of London Bridge. Cecily sat with her black fur-trimmed cloak wrapped around her frightened children as they huddled together for warmth against the damp February evening.
"I will be back with the tide, Margaret," Cecily called. "You must take care of everything until I return. You know what to do. You have learned well!"
Margaret nodded and waved, her eyes brimming with tears, as she watched the boat and the small figures of her brothers recede into the diminishing light. "God go with you, boys. Until we meet again!" she cried. Then she turned, held her head high and walked sedately up the stone steps and back into the castle. For the next few hours, she was in charge of the York household, giving orders -- a little timorously, but still with enough authority -- and presiding over the evening prayers. She prayed to St. Margaret to help her during Cecily's absence. She looked around at the expectant faces all waiting for her to dismiss them after the chaplain had intoned the blessing, and she realized in that moment that her childhood was over.
Copyright © 2008 by Anne Easter Smith