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THE VIRGIN WIDOW
by Anne O'Brien

Genre: England, Historical Fiction, Historical Romance

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To my surprise, considering that my bed was a pallet on the floor in an unused and dusty chamber, I tumbled headfirst into a dream that was no dream.

I stood in Tewkesbury Abbey, beside one of the heavy pillars of the nave, a cloak falling straight from shoulder to floor, a deep hood hiding my face. At the center of the nave stood a small group of men. If I had stretched out my hand I could have touched any one of them, but they paid me no heed. All showed signs of the recent battle, still wearing some remnants of armor, still smeared with dust and sweat and blood. There was the reek of death about them. Of danger. They had come straight here from the battlefield.

There was Edward of York, King Edward. He had removed his helm with its gold circlet and dropped it against the rood screen. His tabard blazed with the sun in splendor despite the gloom that hemmed us in. With him was Clarence, sword still in hand. And Gloucester. My Richard. Feet firmly planted, legs braced, he made up the trio of royal brothers, no less impressive for the coating of muck and gore from a hard fight. His eyes were hard, gleaming like obsidian, his face lined and weary. His hands where rings glinted were clasped on his sword belt.

He still wore my ring.

My eyes moved on. Surrounded by guards, there stood the Prince, my husband. He had suffered rough handling. Apparently unhurt but disheveled, hair awry, one sleeve all but rent from the body of his tunic, he looked less than princely. Mud was smeared from forehead to chin and the ostrich feathers barely showed through the filth on his breast. Face pale, he stood with guards restraining him, gripping his arms. I knew how he must have hated that.

“So you would fight against me.” King Edward broke the silence.

“I would,” the Prince snapped. “And I will, until there is no more breath in my body.”

“See!” The King gestured. “A traitor by your own words. You have no right to the crown.”

“More right than you! My birth is beyond question. You’ll not deny me my birthright.” Petulance blossomed. His fair skin flushed with anger, his sneer ugly. “Challenge me to single combat—if you dare! You know I would be the victor. I am the true King.”

The King tilted his head, considering, lips pressed firm.

“A traitor condemned out of your own mouth. The penalty for such is death. After victory on the battlefield it is my right to deal out summary justice.”

The threat lay heavy, thick in the air to fill my lungs so that breathing was well-nigh impossible, white-hot as a lightning strike. Red as blood. I was held in its grip. So I stood as witness to the final event.

“The penalty is death!” the King repeated.

“You cannot kill me. I claim the right of sanctuary.”

“There is no sanctuary.”

The Prince stared wildly around. “Usurper!” he spat with no lessening of aggression. “I will have my father’s heritage. . . .”

The Prince leaped at the King. With what intent? Impossible to know, but I saw Richard slide a long-bladed dagger from his belt. My attention was gripped and held by that bright metal. I could not look away.

And Richard struck. He buried the long blade in the Prince’s gut, a final vicious upward thrust to pierce his heart. There was a cry. The Prince gasped with shock, eyes wide and staring in pain, in astonishment, his hands clasped tight to the hilt as if he could undo the deed. He slid to the floor in a graceless heap as his blood and his life drained away.

Aghast, I looked at the body. Murder? Was this murder? Blood seeped through the fine linen of his tunic to stain the already mired feathers. It spread on the floor to creep toward me. When I looked down it lapped my shoes; my skirts were spattered by it. Beside the Prince the knife had fallen on the slabs of paving. I was transfixed by it, by the glint of metal through the blood.

I cried out in denial. But whose name I could not hear. Was it the Prince’s or Richard’s? No one heard.

They turned away, the deed done. In my dream, I was alone with the body of my husband.

I crouched beside him.

Then I was alone no longer. There was Queen Margaret in a sweep of black mourning, touching my shoulder, gripping it in frenzied fingers. “So you have seen my son done to death. Gloucester murdered my son. Does this please you? Your lover murdering your husband?”

“No. It does not please me.”

“Now you are free. Free to go to him.”

I woke abruptly with dry throat and staring eyes as the horrors of the dream stayed with me. This was not a battlefield killing in hot blood. It was revenge, deliberate blood-soaked murder by Richard’s hand, just as the messenger had told the Queen. I lay still. If I could, I would have pulled the covers over my head and hidden from the world.