Like everything important in life, it began with a journey—the road to London, to be exact, my first excursion to that most fascinating and sordid of cities.
We started out before daybreak, two men on horseback. I had never been farther than Worcestershire, which made Master Shelton’s arrival with my summons all the more unexpected. I scarcely had time to pack my few belongings and bid farewell to the servants (including sweet Annabel, who’d wept as if her heart might break) before I was riding from Dudley Castle, where I’d spent my entire life, unsure of when, or if, I would return again.
My excitement and apprehension should have been enough to keep me awake. Yet I soon found myself nodding off to sleep, lulled by the monotony of the passing countryside and my roan Cinnabar’s comfortable amble.
Master Shelton startled me awake. “Brendan, lad, wake up. We’re almost there.”
I sat up in my saddle. Blinking away my catnap, I reached up to straighten my cap and found only my unruly thatch of light auburn hair. When he first arrived to fetch me, Master Shelton had frowned at its length, grumbling that Englishmen shouldn’t go about unshorn like the French. He wouldn’t be pleased by the loss of my cap, either.
“Oh, no.” I looked at him.
He regarded me impassively. A puckered scar ran across his left cheek, marring his rugged features. Not that it mattered. Archie Shelton had never been a handsome man. Still, he had impressive stature and sat his steed with authority; his cloak, emblazoned with the ragged bear and staff, denoted his rank as the Dudley family steward. To anyone else, his granite stare would have inspired trepidation. But I had grown accustomed to his taciturn manner, as he had been overseeing my upkeep since his arrival in the Dudley household eight years ago.
“It fell off about a league back.” He extended my cap to me. “Since my days in the Scottish wars, I’ve never seen anyone sleep so soundly on horseback. You’d think you’d been to London a hundred times before.”
I heard rough mirth in his rebuke. It confirmed my suspicion that he was secretly pleased by this precipitous change in my fortune, though it wasn’t in his nature to discuss his personal sentiments regarding anything the duke or Lady Dudley commanded.
“You can’t go losing your cap about court,” he said as I clapped the red cloth hat back on my head and peered toward where the sun-dappled road climbed over a hill. “A squire must be attentive at all times to his appearance.” He eyed me. “My lord and lady expect much of their servants. I trust you can remember how to behave with your betters.”
“Of course.” I squared my shoulders, reciting in my most obsequious tone: “It’s best to remain silent whenever possible and to always keep your eyes lowered when spoken to. If uncertain as to how to address someone, a simple ‘my lord’ or ‘my lady’ will suffice.” I paused. “See? I haven’t forgotten.”
Master Shelton snorted. “See that you don’t. You’re to be a squire to his lordship’s son, Lord Robert, and I’ll not see you squander the opportunity. If you excel in this post, who knows? You could rise to chamberlain or even steward. The Dudleys are known to reward those who serve them well.”
As soon he uttered these words, I thought I should have known.
When Lady Dudley joined her family year-round at court, she had sent Master Shelton twice a year to the castle where I remained with a small staff. He came ostensibly to oversee our upkeep, but whereas before my duties had been confined to the stables, he assigned me other household chores and paid me, for the first time, a modest sum. He even took in a local monk to tutor me—one of thousands who begged and bartered their way through England since old King Henry had abolished the monasteries. The staff at Dudley Castle had deemed her ladyship’s steward unnatural, a cold and solitary man, unmarried and with no children of his own; but he had shown me unexpected kindness.
Now I knew why.
He wanted me to be his successor, once old age or infirmity demanded his retirement. It was hardly the role I aspired to, filled as it was with the tiresome domestic obligations that Lady Dudley had neither time nor inclination for. Though it was a far better future than someone in my shoes ought to expect, I thought that I’d rather remain a stable hand than become a privileged lackey dependent on Dudley sufferance. Horses, at least, I understood, whilst the duke and his wife were strangers to me, in every sense of the word.
Still, I mustn’t appear ungrateful. I bowed my head and murmured, “I would be honored if I were one day deemed worthy of such a post.”
A cragged smile, all the more startling because of its rarity, lightened Master Shelton’s face. “Would you now? I thought as much. Well, then, we shall have to see, shan’t we?”
I smiled in return. Serving as squire to Lord Robert would prove challenge enough without my worrying over a potential stewardship in the future. Though I’d not seen the duke’s third-eldest son in years, he and I were close in age and had lived together during our childhood.
In truth, Robert Dudley had been my bane. Even as a boy, he’d been the most handsome and talented of the Dudley brood, favored in everything he undertook, be it archery, music, or dance. He also nursed an inflated sense of pride in his own superiority—a bully who delighted in leading his brothers in rousing games of “thrash-the-foundling.”
No matter how hard I tried to hide or how fiercely I struggled when caught, Robert always managed to hunt me down. He directed his walloping gang of brothers to duck me into the scum-coated moat or dangle me over the courtyard well, until my shouts turned to sobs and my beloved Mistress Alice rushed out to rescue me. I spent the majority of my time scrambling up trees or hiding, terrified, in attics. Then Robert was sent to court to serve as a page to the young Prince Edward. Once his brothers were likewise dispatched to similar posts, I discovered a newfound and immensely welcome freedom from their tyranny.
I could hardly believe I was now on my way to serve Robert, at his mother’s command, no less. But of course, noble families did not foster unfortunates like me for charity’s sake. I had always known a day would come when I’d be called upon to pay my debt.
My thoughts must have shown on my face, for Master Shelton cleared his throat and said awkwardly, “No need to worry. You and Lord Robert are grown men now; you just mind your manner and do as he bids, and all will go well for you, you’ll see.” In another rare display of sensibility, he reached over to pat my shoulder. “Mistress Alice would be proud of you. She always thought you would amount to something.”
I felt my chest tighten. I saw her in my mind’s eye, wagging a finger at me as her pot of herbs bubbled on the hearth and I sat entranced, my mouth and hands sticky with fresh-made jam. “You must always be ready for great things, Brendan Prescott,” she would say. “We never know when we’ll be called upon to rise above our lot.”
I averted my eyes, pretending to adjust my reins. The silence lengthened, broken only by the steady clip-clop of hooves on the cobblestone-and-baked-mud road.
Then Master Shelton said, “I hope your livery fits. You could stand to put some meat on your bones, but you’ve good posture. Been practicing with the quarterstaff like I taught you?”
“Every day,” I replied. I forced myself to look up. Master Shelton had no idea of what else I’d been practicing these past few years.
It was Mistress Alice who had first taught me my letters. She had been a rarity, an educated daughter of merchants who’d fallen on hard times; and while she’d taken a post in the Dudley service in order to keep, as she liked to say, “my soul and flesh together,” she always told me the only limit on our minds is the one we impose. After her death, I had vowed to pursue my studies in her memory. I lavished the sour-breathed monk that Master Shelton had hired with such fawning enthusiasm that before he knew it, the monk was steering me through the intricacies of Plutarch. I often stayed up all night, reading books purloined from the Dudley library. The family had acquired shelves of tomes, mostly to show off their wealth, as the Dudley boys took more pride in their hunting prowess than any talent with the quill. But for me, learning became a passion. In those musty tomes I found a limitless world, where I could be whomever I wanted.
I repressed my smile. Master Shelton was literate, as well; he had to be in order to balance household accounts. But he made a point of saying he never presumed to more than his station in life and would not tolerate such presumption in others. In his opinion, no servant, no matter how assiduous, should aspire to be conversant on the humanist philosophies of Erasmus or essays of Thomas More, much less fluent in French and Latin. If he knew how much his tutor payments had bought for me in these past years, I doubt he’d be pleased.
We rode on in quiet, cresting the hill. As the road threaded through a treeless vale, the emptiness of the landscape caught my attention, used as I was to the unfettered Midlands. We weren’t too far away, and yet I felt as if I entered a foreign domain.
Smoke smeared the sky like a thumbprint. I caught sight of twin hills, then the rise of massive walls surrounding a sprawl of tenements, spires, riverside manors, and endless latticed streets—all divided by the wide swath of the Thames.
“There she is,” said Master Shelton. “The City of London. You’ll miss the peace of the countryside soon enough, if the cutthroats or pestilence don’t get to you first.”
I could only stare. London was as dense and foreboding as I’d imagined it would be, with kites circling overhead as if the air contained carrion. Yet as we drew closer, abutting those serpentine walls I spied pasturelands dotted with livestock, herb patches, orchards, and prosperous hamlets. It seemed London still had a good degree of the rural to commend it.
We reached one of the seven city gates. I took in everything at once, enthralled by a group of overdressed merchants perched on an ox-drawn cart, a singing tinker carrying a clanging yoke of knives and armor, and a multitude of beggars, apprentices, officious guildsmen, butchers, tanners, and pilgrims. Voices collided in argument with the gatekeepers, who had called a halt to everyone’s progress. As Master Shelton and I joined the queue, I lifted my gaze to the gate looming overhead, its massive turrets and fanged crenellations blackened by grime.
I froze. Mounted on poles, staring down through sightless sockets, was a collection of tar-boiled heads—a grisly feast for the ravens, which tore at the rancid flesh.
Beside me Master Shelton muttered, “Papists. His lordship ordered their heads displayed as a warning.”
Papists were Catholics. They believed the pope in Rome, not our sovereign, was head of the Church. Mistress Alice had been a Catholic. Though she’d raised me in the Reformed Faith, according to the law, I’d watched her pray every night with the rosary.
In that instant, I was struck by how far I had come from the only place I had ever known as home. There, everyone turned a blind eye to the practices of others. No one cared to summon the local justices or the trouble these entailed. Yet here it seemed a man could lose his head for it.
An unkempt guard lumbered to us, wiping greasy hands on his tunic. “No one’s allowed in,” he barked. “Gates are hereby closed by his lordship’s command!” He paused, catching sight of the badge on Master Shelton’s cloak. “Northumberland’s man, are you?”
“His lady wife’s chief steward.” Master Shelton withdrew a roll of papers from his saddlebag. “I have here safe conducts for me and the lad. We are due at court.”
“Is that so?” The guard leered. “Well, every last miserable soul here says they’re due somewhere. Rabble’s in a fine fettle, what with these rumors of His Majesty’s mortal illness and some nonsense of the Princess Elizabeth riding among us.” He hawked a gob of spit into the dirt. “Idiots. They’d believe the moon was made of silk if enough swore to it.” He didn’t bother to check the papers. “I’d keep away from crowds if I were you,” he said, waving us on.
We passed under the gatehouse. Behind us, I heard those who had been detained start to yell in protest. Master Shelton tucked the papers back into the saddlebag. The parting of his cloak revealed a broadsword strapped to his back. The glimpse of the weapon riveted me for a moment. I surreptitiously reached a hand to the sheathed knife at my belt, a gift from Master Shelton on my fourteenth year.
I ventured, “His Majesty King Edward … is he dying?”
“Of course not,” retorted Master Shelton. “The king has been ill, is all, and the people blame the duke for it, as they blame him for just about everything that’s wrong in England. Absolute power, lad, it comes with a price.” His jaw clenched. “Now, keep an eye out. You never know when you’ll run into some knave who’d just as soon cut your throat for the clothes on your back.”
I could believe it. London was not at all what I had envisioned. Instead of the orderly avenues lined with shops, which populated my imagination, we traversed a veritable tangle of crooked lanes piled with refuse, with side alleys snaking off into pockets of sinister darkness. Overhead, rows of dilapidated buildings leaned against each other like fallen trees, their ramshackle galleries colliding together, blocking out the sunlight. It was eerily quiet, as though everyone had disappeared, and the silence was all the more disconcerting after the clamor at the gate we had left behind.
Suddenly, Master Shelton pulled to a halt. “Listen.”
My every nerve went on alert. A muted sound reached me, seeming to come from everywhere at once. “Best hold on,” warned Master Shelton, and I tightened my grip on Cinnabar, edging him aside moments before an onslaught of people came pouring into the street. Their appearance was so unexpected that despite my grip, Cinnabar started to rear. Fearing he would trample someone, I slid from the saddle to take hold of his bridle.
The crowd pressed around us. Deafening loud, motley, and smelling of sweat and sewer, they made me feel as though I were prey. I started to angle for the dagger at my belt before I noticed that no one was paying me any mind. I looked at Master Shelton, still mounted on his massive bay. He barked an indecipherable order. I craned my head, straining to hear him above the noise of the crowd.
“Get back on that horse,” he shouted again, and I was almost knocked off my feet as the multitude surged forward. It was all I could do to scramble onto Cinnabar before we were propelled by the mob, careening among them down a narrow passage and spilling out onto a riverbank.
I yanked Cinnabar to a halt. Before me, algaed as liquid jasper, ran the Thames. In the distance downstream, rimmed in haze, a stone pile bullied the landscape.
I went still, unable to take my gaze from the infamous royal fortress. Master Shelton cantered up behind me. “Didn’t I tell you to keep an eye open? Come. This is no time for sightseeing. The mob in London can turn cruel as a bear in a pit.”
I forced myself to pull away and check my horse. Cinnabar’s flanks quivered with a fine lather, his nostrils aflare, but he seemed unharmed. The crowd had rushed ahead toward a wide road, bordered by a line of tenement houses and swinging tavern signs. As we moved forth, I belatedly reached up to my brow. By some miracle, my cap remained in place.
The crowd came to a stop, an impoverished group of common folk. I watched, bemused, as barefoot urchins tiptoed among them, dogs skulking at their heels. Thieves, and not one over nine years old by the looks of them. It was hard to see them and not see myself, the wretch I might have been had the Dudleys not taken me in.
Master Shelton scowled. “They’re blocking our passage. Go see if you can find out what this lot is gawking at. I’d rather we not force our way through if we can help it.”
I handed over my reins, dismounted again, and wedged into the crowd, thankful for once for my slight build. I was cursed at, shoved, and elbowed, but I managed to push to the front. Standing on tiptoes to look past the craning heads, I made out the dirt thoroughfare, upon which rode an unremarkable cavalcade of people on horses. I was about to turn away when a portly woman beside me shoved her way forth, brandishing a wilted nosegay.
“God bless you, sweet Bess,” she cried. “God bless Your Grace!”
She threw the flowers into the air. A hush fell. One of the men in the cavalcade heeled close to its center, as if to shield something—or someone—from view.
It was then I noticed the dappled charger hidden among the larger horses. I had a keen eye for horseflesh, and with its arched neck, lithe musculature, and prancing hooves I recognized it for a Spanish breed rarely seen in England, and more costly than the duke’s entire stable.
Then I looked at its rider.
I knew at once it was a woman, though a hooded cloak concealed her features and leather gauntlets covered her hands. Contrary to custom, she was mounted astride, legs sheathed in riding boots displayed against the embossed sides of her saddle—a sliver of a girl, without apparent distinction, save for her horse, riding as if intent on reaching her destination.
Yet she knew we were watching her and she heard the woman’s cry, for she turned her head. And to my astonishment, she pushed her hood back to reveal a long fine-boned face, framed by an aureole of coppery hair.
And she smiled.
Copyright © 2011 by C. W. Gortner