Ralph moved into the road and motioned them to follow. As the group neared the castle wall, they encountered a knight and men in the colors of the Crown.
Edward hailed him. "What causes such throngs, Sir? A fair perhaps?"
"No. A treasonous raid occurred in London and some perpetrators escaped to this region. The Queen's enemies have been arrested, tried, and punishment is forthcoming." The knight nodded toward Joan and Mattie. "I note you have ladies present."
"My wife and her woman. We are traveling to...York." Edward sensed a need for caution and did not refer to their Kenilworth destination.
"Unless you have a purpose in Warwick, I suggest you detour the square." Casting an admiring glance at Joan, he dipped his staff so low the Queen's colors touched the trampled grass, and turned his horse to leave.
One of his men pointed to Edward and the falcon crest. "Of the prelate's family, sir."
Edward felt a chill. He whispered to Ralph, "I am inclined to heed the warning of the Queen's men,"
Joan touched his sleeve. "But your uncle expects us and will fear that we met harm. Is not his estate nearby?"
"You are right, but we must not tarry." Despite the warning, to reach Oaklands they must cross Castle Warwick's square. He turned to Ralph. "A narrow lane connecting to the Kenilworth road lies just across the north edge of the square." Edward frowned at the idea of struggling through the narrow space with Mattie and the cart, but saw no alternative.
"Aye, past the smithy's and a problem with angles, but the only choice save going back the way we came." Ralph twisted Raven around to lead them.
A twinge of excitement lurked behind the low murmur of voices filling the air. An occasional shout from the castle courtyard sobered Edward's expression. The throng parted slightly, and they moved, only to halt a few yards further, reining sharply to prevent their horses from trampling onlookers.
Ralph cast a nod toward Edward, who raised a brow, understanding his warning. He remembered crowds like this in London, and felt certain it had gathered for a hanging because of the mixed reactions of the throng. He sniffed. Smoke! Burning flesh! The sickening odor filled his nostrils. He paled, shuddering at the scene that would soon confront Joan.
"Make way! Let us pass!" Ralph's shout, caused a slight parting of the masses.
"Mother of God!" Joan choked out an anguished cry at the scene of horror.
On raised platforms were two men lashed to poles and surrounded by piles of faggots flaming above their waists. One of them, screaming in agony, quieted the throng as he begged for God's deliverance. The other man's snowy head was bowed in prayer or unconsciousness as flames danced toward a small bag tied about his neck. With a hissing flash, it ignited and searing flame covered the man's head. Someone cared enough to chance placing gunpowder to shorten the ordeal of his burning.
Joan covered her nostrils to shut out the odor.
Mattie vomited into her cloth.
A wave of weeping and moaning echoed from the assembled masses, but a speaker on the platform drew some favorable response as he shouted a list of crimes in a shrieking bellow. Joan shivered so violently, her teeth chattered. She recalled a discussion between her father and Richard after his last session at the Assizes. They had decided burning was superior to the practice of hanging until nearly dead, then cutting down, disemboweling, and throwing the remains onto dung heaps. She had thought they jested at her expense. Bile surged to her mouth.
She saw Edward stiffen and waver.
He uttered an agonized cry, "God have mercy! Let us pass." Leaping from his horse, he seized the reins of her mare and forced them through the throng while Ralph and the other men walked their mounts close to Mattie's cart to hide the identifying three falcons.
After slow progress through the square, Ralph led them into the lane behind a smithy's busy forge, careening through the narrow passages with Mattie clinging to her seat until they turned onto the road to Kenilworth. Half an hour later, the riders and the lathered horses pulling Mattie's cart and the wagons inched down an incline to the river.
Paths of perspiration streaked their dusty faces. The wagons pulled into a small clearing behind a tangle of willows hiding them from the road. Joan turned a tear-stained face to Edward.
"I know it was your uncle." The sob in her throat stemmed further words.
Edward gathered her into his arms and soothed the skin on the back of her neck some minutes before he could find his own voice. "I would have preferred death for myself to having you see such barbarism, which I fear has become commonplace of late."
"What could your uncle have done to deserve such a fate? From all accounts he was a fine and honorable man."
"I know not, but power and fear make a deadly pair. Uncle Nat and the Archbishop of Canterbury were aligned by faith, and for that alone, fell from the Queen's favor. In times like these, ones' associates can become saviors or executioners."
Ralph and the men hurriedly removed the family crest from the horses and cart. "The remainder of the day needs careful planning."
"Aye, and I must learn whether my cousin and her son are safe." Edward sat under a willow, his face in his hands, his head bowed in prayer. "I trust you to be my emissary, though I fear you may also be known at Oaklands. Most of the servants have probably fled, but the remainder will be loyal"
"I will be in haste, Ralph said. "Before nightfall, shelter must be found for the ladies."
Edward pulled paper from his baggage, wrote a note, and sealed it. He handed it to Ralph "I pray this gets you past the guards. Take care, my friend. It pains me to send you into danger alone, but I trust you better than myself on this mission."