The Maiden and the UnicornBy: Isolde Martyn
If she had organised this rebellion, decided Margery, as she pulled back the canvas flap of the Countess of Warwick's chariot, it certainly would not have been in cold, miserable Lent.
"Go on, girl! Find out why we have stopped," snapped the Countess.
Margery sighed at the puddled, miry road awaiting her, but she gathered up her skirts and climbed down. It always seemed to be her misfortune to deal with mud, whether it was verbal or squelching round her wooden pattens as it was now. That was the trouble with having no lawful parents, no dowry and very little future. And here she was, hungry enough to eat two breakfasts, in a town she did not recognise, surrounded by weary footsoldiers, who had been trudging the churned road south for over a week—the tired, drooping tail of her guardian, Warwick the Kingmaker's defeated army. She could see the halted column of men and wagons stretching down into the narrow main street of the town. Somewhere, at the head of it, the Earl of Warwick and the Duke of Clarence, his son-in-law and brother of the King, were probably persuading the local mayor that their soldiers were in too much haste to molest any townsmen's wives or daughters.
Margery set back her hood. The rain had blown away and a watery sun deigned to briefly bestow its blessing. It was a joy to feel the fresh wind on her face after the cloying, perfumed steaminess of the women's enclosed chariot, and there was a tantalising, yeasty smell of fresh bread coming from somewhere.
She turned her head, meeting in surprise the full clear stare of a man who had halted beneath the archway of an inn courtyard on her left. It was his expression of intense astonishment directed at her that made Margery reflect his stare as if bewitched. She had a strange sense of having experienced that gaze before.
An impression of underlying pride, authority and self-control reached her. Perhaps it was merely his pleasing height or the way he stood, his broad shoulders thrust back, the long riding cloak carefully thrown across his breast and over his shoulder. Did the sombre black folds hide some indication that he was no friend to the King's enemies?
His alert, intelligent face drew her glance up again. Those eyes had watched her before; she knew they had.
"Mistress, mistress!" One of Warwick's servants plucked at the tippet of her sleeve and she turned distractedly, dragging her thoughts very slowly back to her errand. "My lord Earl says the ladies may rest. Please you to bid them to enter here." The lad indicated the half-timbered thatched hostelry on her right.
Margery nodded and glanced swiftly to the other side of the street but the stranger had gone back into the rival inn. With an unconscious shake of her head as if to push her memory of him to the back of her mind, Margery forced herself to deal with the present. She pulled aside the heavy canvas that had kept the fresh air from the chariot. Her mistress, Isabella, Duchess of Clarence, would be relieved at her tidings.
"Good news, your grace. My lord has sent word that we may stop at the inn here."
"Jesu be thanked," murmured Isabella. "I shall die of suffocation if I have to stay in this wretched monster a moment longer," and she began an ungainly descent down the back steps of the chariot.
"Margery, take her arm!" Isabella's mother, the Countess, had been fussing ever since they had left Warwick castle. Isabella, eighteen years old and heavy with child, wrinkled her nose at the mud as Margery helped her down, and waited beside her, stretching her aching back, while the cart issued the rest of the women onto the street like a chrysalis yielding a myriad-coloured insect. In a confusion of velvet and brocade, the Countess, her younger daughter, Anne, and their ladies clustered noisily about Isabella before they escorted her into the hostelry.
Margery tarried and darted a swift glance at the other inn across the way. The stranger was no longer visible. She searched the shadows, still sensing his presence.
"What are you staring at? Have you no appetite?" Her friend, Ankarette, the Duchess's other attendant, tugged at her arm.
"There was a man."
"There is always a man, Margery, but there is little chance to break our fast. Make haste. Who knows how much time we may be allowed here." With a sigh, Margery followed her into the chaos of the inn.
Inside, it was as if a giant had kicked open a nest of human ants. Hungry soldiers were crowding in behind the ladies and jostling for the benches. The air was heavy with wood smoke, brewed ale, sweat and the vinegar in which the men had soaked their brigandines to keep them free of lice.
Margery had every sympathy for the inn servants struggling through the ravenous throng, their faces strained. The needs of the noble ladies must be met first. The Duchess was already being conducted to the best bedchamber and a procession of ewers, platters and privypots were on their way up to her.