A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir

  “He became ill when he went fishing in the damp cold,” Richard said. “He is buried already.” His voice was bitter with anger as well as grief. “They did not wait. He was my brother and I loved him. I should have been there!”

  Anne looked at him, understanding how deeply that had hurt him. “It was the Queen’s doing, no doubt, and her Wydeville kin,” she commented, tart.

  Kate watched through her tears as her father’s brows furrowed.

  “They hate me,” he muttered. “Nay, they fear me too—and they will have cause! What’s worse, they have allowed me no time to grieve. Lord Hastings writes that I must act now, or the Wydevilles will seize power. You see now why they sent no messenger to tell me of Edward’s death. They were playing for time, damn them. My brother’s son is a child, and they are bent on ruling in his name. But according to this letter, Edward, on his deathbed, named me Lord Protector of England. Me, not the Queen and her party.”

  The duchess had turned pale. Her thin hands were unconsciously pleating the ribbed fabric of her skirts. She was a slender slip of a woman, twenty-seven years old, with fair hair pulled back severely beneath her embroidered cap, light blue eyes, and a finely boned face. She was delicate, like her son, and the rich blues and scarlet hues of her gorgeous high-waisted gown served only to enhance her pallor.

  “What will you do?” she asked.

  The duke began pacing agitatedly. “I will see that my brother’s wishes are respected. Hastings advises me to gather a strong force and hasten to London, to avenge the insult done me by my enemies. He says I may easily obtain my revenge if, on the way, I take the young King under my protection and authority.”

  “But he is in Ludlow.”

  “Not now. He is being brought to London by his uncle, Lord Rivers, and his half brother, Sir Richard Grey—Wydevilles both!—with a small escort. My lord writes that the Queen wanted to send an army, but he warned her that it might court bloodshed, and threatened to abandon her cause if she persisted. She backed down, but I doubt it has made relations any the sweeter between them. After all, he and my brother shared—well, we have all heard of Mistress Shore and the others.”

  A look passed between the duke and duchess. Kate was aware that there were things about King Edward that her father did not want to discuss in front of his children. But for all his care, even she knew that Mistress Shore had been her uncle’s whore. You could not stop servants gossiping.

  “I will not speak ill of the dead,” Richard was saying, “or this good lord who has warned me of the danger in which I stand. For, as he writes, he has put himself in peril by sending this letter: he says that the hatred of his old enemies has been aggravated by his showing friendship for me.”

  Anne rose, walked over to her husband, and encircled him in her embrace. “My poor Dickon,” she murmured. “I am so sorry.”

  His eyes met hers. “How can I mourn Edward decently?” he asked, bitter. “My very life may be in danger. Remember my brother Clarence—dead through the malice of the Wydevilles! My lady, I must make ready.” And he put her from him, bent to kiss his son’s head, and briefly hugged Kate. “May God be with us all,” he said, and strode to the doorway that led to the stairs.

  There he stopped. He had his back to them, his slightly bowed back, for although he was strong enough to wield a sword with dexterity, he was a small man, so subtly misshapen that few were aware of it. It was a moment before they realized he was weeping, that great tearing sobs were racking his frame.

  “Oh, God, oh, God,” he cried. “I loved him. God, how I loved him!”

  “I must go to him,” the duchess said, rising, recovering herself after Richard had staggered out. At that moment John ran into the hall.

  “What’s going on?” he asked, seeing the downcast faces of his sister and stepmother.

  “Will you tell him?” Anne asked Kate.

  “Of course, my lady,” Kate said. “You go to my father.”

  Anne hugged her and went. She had great affection for her husband’s bastards. One had been conceived and born before her marriage to Richard of Gloucester, and one after, yet she had welcomed them into her household at Middleham Castle, her kindly heart aware that they were not to blame for their birth. The younger, John of Gloucester, was a strapping lad of nine with dark, unruly hair and refined features. Promising to be tall and broad, where his father was short and slight, he had inherited Richard’s dogged determination and tenacity, not to mention his ambition.

  His half sister, Kate, was four years older, and very beautiful. Her sweet round face and big, wide-set blue eyes were framed by a wealth of dark wavy hair that fell like a cape around her shoulders. She was small in build and slender, with tiny, childlike hands and feet. She had a winning smile, a spirited nature, and a ready wit. To all who knew her, and to her father especially, she was enchanting. There must be nothing but the best for his Kate, the duke had vowed. Bastard she might be, but he would marry her well when the time came, and make sure that the disadvantage of her birth was turned to advantage, for both of them.

  There was no one like her father. He was her hero, the person she loved best.

  Kate watched the duke ride away southward, somber in deepest black and attended by three hundred gentlemen of the North, all similarly attired. She felt cold with fear. He was riding into danger, into the teeth of his enemies, and she could only pray with all her might that he would stay safe and come back to them unscathed, his rights vindicated.

  The long, anxious days stretched ahead, with no hope of news for some time. It took a fast messenger four days to reach Middleham from London, and it would surely be a week or more before they heard anything of real moment. In the meantime they could only fret about what the Queen and her kinsmen might do before the duke reached the capital. He had been planning to rendezvous on the way with his friend the Duke of Buckingham—himself no lover of the Wydevilles—so that might cause some delay. As it happened, they heard from him within a couple of days. He had not forgotten his duty to his brother: he had gone first to York, where he summoned all the nobility in those parts to attend a solemn funeral Mass in the Minster. He had wept all through it, he confessed, but had recovered himself sufficiently to bind the local lords by oaths of fealty to his nephew, the new King, Edward V.

  Kate had never met the younger Edward, for he had spent most of his twelve years either at court or at Ludlow. But she grieved for this cousin who had lost his father so early in life, and prayed earnestly for him. It could not be easy to be a king, even when you were grown up.

  “Another minority,” the duchess said as they sat at dinner in the hall. “I fear very much for the future.”

  “But if my father is there to guide the King, all will be well, surely?” Kate asked, laying down her knife and wiping her fingers on her napkin.

  The castle chaplain leaned forward. “There is an old prophecy, Dame Katherine: ‘Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child.’ This kingdom has not had a happy experience of royal minorities. They breed dissension and rivalry among the nobles of the realm. The late King Henry VI succeeded when he was a babe in arms, and factions ruled, and for want of firm government all law and order was undermined. Now the threat is from the Queen and her blood.”

  “My father will deal with it!” Kate insisted. “He is in the right.”

  “Alas, my child, we have seen too many instances of might prevailing over right in this unhappy land in recent years. But we must take heart: your father is powerful and respected. He is of the old royal stock; these Wydevilles are mere upstarts.”

  “Aye, but they have the King in their clutches, and you may make no doubt they have poisoned his young mind against my lord,” the duchess countered. She had eaten very little.

  “With my lords Hastings and Buckingham on his side, my father must prevail!” Kate persisted. She would not—could not—entertain the possibility of any alternative outcome. In her mind, the duke was invincible. Had he not taken Berwick from the Scots?
  “Your admiration and zeal for your father is touching,” smiled the chaplain. “We must pray for good news soon.”

  Kate prayed. She spent many an hour in the chapel, kneeling beside the duchess and beseeching God to preserve and keep the duke. Without his reassuring presence she felt bereft, and it was clear that the Duchess Anne did too. Both loved him truly: Kate with the innocent devotion of a daughter for a loving father, and Anne with a grateful passion for the knight who had rescued her. Anne was fond of telling the children the story, and on the third night of Richard’s absence, when young Edward of Middleham demanded that she recount it again, she smiled at her fair, delicate son, felt the usual pang of fear for his health, and agreed. She could never gainsay him.

  “He wanted to marry me,” she said as they clustered around her by the fire. “We had known each other as children, for my lord was brought up in my father’s household. We played together: I called him Dickon, and he was pleased, in time, to call me his sweetheart. He was the youngest of a large family, and not very big or strong, but he worked exceptionally hard to prove himself in his military exercises and his swordsmanship. I admired that in him. Then he went away to court, and we did not see each other for some years.”

  “Tell us about being rescued!” piped up Edward. Kate smiled and ruffled his wispy curls, as his mother went on with her story.

  “When my father was killed in battle at Barnet, he left my sister Isabel and me a rich inheritance that was to be divided between us. Isabel was married to your father’s older brother, the Duke of Clarence. He wasn’t a nice man; he was overambitious and very greedy. Isabel’s share of our fortune went to him, because she was his wife, but he was determined to have mine too. I was then living in his household, under his protection, but when he heard that Dickon wanted to marry me, he carried me off and hid me in this big house in London, and there I was forced to work as a kitchen maid. My lord of Clarence warned me that things would go very ill for me if I complained or revealed who I was, and as he had already threatened to send me to a nunnery for the rest of my days, I kept my mouth shut and endured.”

  “It must have been awful for you,” Kate said.

  “It was. I had no idea how to scrub pans or chop vegetables. I had had a gentle upbringing in a castle. The cook was constantly scolding me. He didn’t know who I was, of course. But then”—and now her fair complexion glowed—“Dickon found me. Someone in Clarence’s household talked; I think he bribed them. And he stormed into that house with a vengeance, and demanded that I be delivered into his care. Well, he was the King’s brother, and he was dreadfully angry; they dared not oppose him. I cannot tell you how relieved I was to see him.”

  “Did he whisk you away and marry you?” asked John.

  “Not immediately. He had to obtain the King’s permission for the marriage. So, like a perfect, gentle knight, he escorted me to the sanctuary at St. Martin’s and placed me in the care of the Archbishop of York while everything was sorted out. And then we did get married. It was a quiet ceremony at Westminster.” A wistful look crept into Anne’s eyes.

  “And then did the King chop Clarence’s head off?” asked Edward. At seven, he enjoyed gory details.

  “No, my son, that was later, when he was discovered plotting against King Edward.”

  “Or is it true that he was drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine?”

  Watching Anne blanch, Kate suspected that it was true. “Where did you hear that?” the duchess asked sharply.

  Edward looked at her in surprise. “John told me.” John had the grace to look guilty. Anne frowned at him.

  “You shouldn’t go telling him things like that,” she reproved.

  “But it’s true, isn’t it?” he asked, his black eyes holding hers.

  “True or not, he’s too young to hear such stories.”

  “I am not!” protested Edward. But his mother merely sent them both to bed, silencing their protests with a raised hand.

  “Bad boys!” Kate murmured.

  “Exhausting,” the duchess sighed, gazing fondly at her beautiful dark-haired stepdaughter, for there was much affection between them. “But you are a good girl. I am blessed in having you for company. It often seems to me that you could be my own daughter.”

  “You have been more than kind to me, madam,” Kate replied, touched. “I am deeply grateful for all that you do for me. I owe you so much.” And it was true: as a bastard, she could not have wanted for more. She had been brought up as befit a legitimate daughter of a duke and duchess, learning manners, embroidery, and everything else needful for a nobly born girl who was expected to make a good marriage. And she’d had the great good fortune not to be sent to another lordly household or a convent, as many girls were, but to live with her father, the most tender and admirable of fathers, way beyond the common sort, some of whom hardly even noticed their daughters until the time came for them to make a profit by marrying them off advantageously. And in place of a mother, she had the Duchess Anne, who loved her well.

  Yes, she was lucky, Kate often told herself.

  Her mother, after whom she had been named, was alive and well. She was the wife of the Queen’s cousin, James Haute. But Kate had no memories of the woman who had borne her because she had been fostered by a wet nurse immediately after her birth, and brought to Middleham when she was two. Her earliest memories were of Middleham, with its strong walls, its mighty towers, and its sumptuous private apartments where her father and his family lived in great splendor. She had grown up to love the very air of Wensleydale, its high fells sprinkled with purple heather, its riverside meadows, green valleys, rushing streams, and ancient woodlands.

  Kate was aware that her father sometimes dealt in business with James Haute’s brother Richard; and she assumed he had met Katherine Haute and her husband socially through Richard Haute. Kate had never liked to ask her father about her mother because it was too delicate a matter, and it was obvious that he was uncomfortable talking about it.

  She had not known until she was six that the Duchess Anne was not her mother. When the duchess bore her son that year, she suffered a terrible confinement, and as her screams echoed throughout the castle, Kate had been terrified that Anne would die.

  After the screaming stopped, one of the exhausted damsels found her huddled, weeping uncontrollably, at the top of the spiral stairs.

  “I don’t want my mother to die!” she was wailing, over and over again.

  “She’s not going to die,” said the damsel briskly. She had reasons of her own for resenting the bastards that had been forced upon her mistress; she felt that the duchess had been slighted, and that it showed scant respect on the duke’s part. She knew of the grief that Anne had suffered over John of Gloucester and that strumpet Alice Burgh. Even now … Well, it stood to reason that it was still going on, didn’t it, with that woman’s sister appointed wet nurse to the duchess’s baby? And yet the duchess still loved her lord, in spite of it all. But what would happen now, when the physicians had said that another child could kill her? Men were men, and they had needs, and solace was near at hand. It was her awareness of this bitter truth that loosened Cecily Clopton’s normally guarded tongue.

  “Listen, she’s not going to die!” the damsel repeated. “And she’s not your mother!”

  The world had rocked. Kate stared up at her tormentor in horror, then fled past her to the safety of the nursery, where Agnes, her nurse, sprang up, surprised, and dropped the small bodice she was stitching. On the floor beside her, John of Gloucester, a sturdy two-year-old, had ceased playing with his puppy and turned up a troubled face.

  “It’s not true! It’s not true!” Kate had cried, burying her face in the capacious apron covering Agnes’s soft bosom. “It can’t be true!”

  “What’s not true?” the nurse asked, kneeling down and holding the quivering child firmly by the shoulders. She was shocked at this display of uncontrolled emotion, which was so out of character, for Kate was normally a happy, plucky, biddab
le child. Agnes was also alarmed, but for a different reason. “Look at me. Tell me! Is the child born? Is Her Grace happily delivered?”

  “I think so, but Cecily said the duchess isn’t my mother,” Kate wept. “I hate her! It’s not true!”

  There was a pause—a fatal pause—and then Agnes cleared her throat and hugged Kate tighter.

  “Calm yourself, child. It’s time you knew the truth. No, the duchess isn’t your real mother, but she has been a mother to you in every other way, which is as good as being your mother in very truth.”

  Kate, still sniffing, took a moment to think about this. “Then who is my mother?” she asked tremulously.

  “Sweeting, I do not know,” the nurse replied, pulling her charge onto her ample lap. “But there is something else I should probably tell you, now that you know this. When a man and a woman marry, their children are trueborn and their lawful heirs. But your father was never married to your mother, and thus you are baseborn and can never inherit anything from him.”

  Baseborn. Kate didn’t like the sound of that. It made her feel second best.

  “But,” Agnes was saying soothingly, “the duchess loves you as much as the duke does, everyone can see that, and I have no doubt that they will see you well provided for.”

  A thought occurred to Kate.

  “What about John?” She nodded at the toddler, who had lost interest in their talk and was now rolling on the rushes with the puppy. “Is he baseborn too?”

  “Aye,” Agnes answered, although her mouth had that buttoned-up look that Kate knew so well, which usually meant that she disapproved of something and would not discuss it. “But the duchess loves him too. She is a great lady in more ways than one. You are both fortunate children.”

  “This new baby …” Kate began slowly.

  “Heavens, child, what are we doing chattering here when we don’t even know how the duchess is—or if the babe is healthy? We must hasten and find out.” Putting Kate from her, Agnes pulled herself to her feet, scooped up John in her arms, and ushered her charges through the deserted rooms that led to the ducal bedchamber. Here, all was subdued bustle, with damsels and maids moving quietly hither and thither with stained towels, smelly basins covered with cloths, soiled bed linen, and empty goblets. The midwife was packing her bag in the antechamber.

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