Wednesday, June 5, 2024

The Son in Shadow - Chapter One



     My life has been spent in the shadows of powerful men. Some people flourish in shadows, but I have not; shadows are cold, and those concealed in their depths are not clearly seen by those who live in the light.

     I wish to be seen.

Chapter One

There was once a time when there were two queens in England. Whether I was fortunate in working for them both depended entirely upon your point of view. My opinion varied from day to day, but I had little choice in my continued service of two mistresses, and therefore tried not to think about it too often.
     “The queen will be there ahead of us at the rate we’re moving,” my man shouted as our horses splashed through a wide, shallow river.
     “I doubt it.” I looked over my shoulder at the group riding behind me. “They have to take care and choose a place where she’ll be welcome.”
     We were lately come from Scotland and our journey was by necessity more leisurely than if a royal warrant had been available to grant us a change of horse at each stopping place. As we made our way south, a pathetic straggle of men ostensibly loyal to a vanquished queen, I took careful note of what was said at the inns and in the halls of the great houses where we lodged.
     The other men of the party complained at our slow pace, but I had experienced far worse, and unlike the queen whom I had served until recently, no one on either side of the border was baying for my blood.
     It was by this time mid-May, and the worst of the spring rains had passed. The ground was boggy in spots but having made this ride in the torrential rains of autumn years before, my mind registered nothing more than weariness and a mild concern for our horses. I was glad to see a village appear below, with an obvious tavern by the side of the road.
     Handing our mounts over to an eager young lad whose hand flashed out for the coin I threw him, we ventured into the room—dark even on a bright day, with the remains of a fire low on the hearth. Several tables were occupied, and we settled at an empty one near a rowdy knot of young men, hoping for gossip. Sometimes we asked outright about the Scottish queen and others only waited for news to be dripped into our waiting ears. And news there was this day, as we quickly learned.
     “Defeated at Langside,” said a young man in a dirty brown coat, his elbows resting on the scarred table. “Not even a fight.”
     He had been there when we arrived, along with several others, already well into their cups. By their rough garb, they were apprentices or land workers cleaned up for a ride into the village.
     “Were they so outnumbered?” I asked, hoping for more.
    “Melted away into the hills is what I heard.” He slammed his empty cup on the table. “Left her standing there with her teeth in her mouth.” 
     We were told that even though her Protestant lords had made it clear she would never be permitted to regain the throne, Mary had nevertheless mustered a force of some six thousand men and faced down her son’s army. When they were defeated, she fled south with a scant handful of supporters and was rumored to be making for England—which, of course, we already knew.
     “Good fellows, not wanting to be associated with an adulteress,” Robert Sturgis put in, his voice insinuating. “Or a murderess.”
     “Ha!” The man threw his head back, calling to the maid. “More ale here for my friends.”

     Not ten years past, I had been part of an English embassy sent to welcome Mary Stuart back to her own shores after the death of her French husband. But the beautiful young queen, whose reign had showed such promise, mis-stepped at every turn, impetuously marrying the abusive and lecherous Lord Darnley, and then standing back when he was murdered, as he had held her back when his men tore apart her Italian secretary, accusing him of being her lover and the father of the child in her belly.
     Now, having refused advice from all corners, Mary had been forced to abdicate in favor of her infant son. After nearly a year of imprisonment, separation from her third husband, Lord Bothwell, and a rumored miscarriage of their child, she grew desperate to escape from Lochleven Castle. 
     Despite her imprisonment, she had been allowed visitors. I was not the only man who had left Lochleven with letters and tokens for the English queen. When I received word of a successful escape, I gathered a handful of previously selected men, and we left Scotland to pave her way. Prior to that, my instructions were to test the temper of the people of the north, to ascertain whether their opinions were just that—opinions—or beliefs strong enough to become actions. 
     There were six in our party, plus assorted servants, all come from the Scottish court, though fully half of us worked for the English queen. Only I knew with any certainty each man’s allegiance, although Dennis, my manservant, likely knew as much or more than I did. 
     Robert and Peter Sturgis kept our spirits high with their continual sniping and sparring. The brothers had been raised Catholic, as I had, but their faith was flexible, and their belief in England’s right to rule itself without popish interference was infallible.
     Charles Mannion was a staunch papist who did not believe Mary Stuart to be Catholic enough but deplored her half-brother, the Earl of Moray, and hoped the queen could be led in the direction of Rome. 
     Hugh Talcott was a priest fallen so far from God’s grace that he was often seen creeping out of ladies’ chambers before dawn. He kept himself to himself and caused me little concern. 
     The third Catholic, young Jamie Welldon, was my special protégé, a fact that gave me no small worry on his behalf. He was half in love with Mary Stuart and wholly in love with God. It pained me to use him, but his ingenuous views were helpful when cynicism overwhelmed my thoughts.
     The instructions I had been given, so far as they knew, were to move slowly and sample the mood of northern households on our way to London. We stopped at houses both Catholic and Protestant, our welcome guaranteed by whichever of our band led the approach. When the men complained of the delay, I reminded them that we were under the queen’s orders, and they subsided into grumbling.
     It was not a complete falsehood. My underlying orders stemmed from Sir William Cecil, and thus from Queen Elizabeth herself. But when things began to go badly, I had also spoken to Queen Mary.          “You have faithful supporters in England,” I reminded her. “Allow me to depart for London, to visit them on your behalf, before attempting to plead your case with Queen Elizabeth.”
     “You will take letters,” she said in French. “Not only to the queen, my cousin, but also to the Duke of Norfolk.”
     That the duke was a strong supporter of both Mary and the Catholic faith was known in England, but I wasn’t clear on how much Mary knew; in any case, his intentions would do him little good until she was untangled from Bothwell. I shrugged off my concern and accepted the missive; the duke would be at Howard House in London and her letter, although locked and undoubtedly ciphered, would be opened, read, and reproduced, with edits, by a member of Cecil’s team before it was delivered, as Mary’s letters to the queen would also be read prior to the monarch’s receipt.
     “Master,” called Dennis, cantering up beside me. “The weather is turning.”
   “Nonsense.” The sky ahead of me was as blue as the Virgin’s robe, with streaks of pale cloud hovering above the horizon.
     He tugged at my cloak, and I turned to see that behind us, the sky had darkened, thick bands of gray stacking up in ominous fashion. 
     “We can outride it.” It was hours until full dark; the horses had at least two hours in them, as did we, and I wasn’t yet certain where we would lodge for the night. “What’s the worst that can happen?”
     “We get soaked for no reason.” Charles Mannion spoke up. He was a great hunter whose tanned face showed his familiarity with the outdoors, but he was also a practical man; with no beasts to chase, he would prefer to be dry and in a warm hall with a fire and a jug of ale and a pleasing wench within arm’s reach.
     “Fine.” I slowed Dart at the top of the hill, scanning the area for a likely stopping point. Other than one obvious location, there was little nearby that could offer us shelter. “If we keep on, there is a village about ten miles ahead.”
     Dennis’s mount came up on mine, dropping its head to crop grass. “Is there no nearer place?”
     “No.” I wheeled around, and his horse skittered backward, nearly tipping him off. 
     He righted himself, jamming his hat securely on his head. “But there’s—” 
    “I said no.” Touching my heels to Dart’s flanks, I started down the hill, away from the small, pleasant manor that lay a few miles to the east. 
    Dennis fell back, and I didn’t miss him until the first drops of rain spattered my face and Robert appeared at my shoulder. “Your man says there’s a house.”
     Damn him. “There’s not,” I said.
     “There is,” Dennis sang out cheerfully. “Not fifteen minutes away, just over there.”
    And damn his excellent memory. “I haven’t been there in years. The owner may not be in residence.”
    The rain grew harder. “And he may be,” Robert said roughly. “You may take the high road and drown if you like, Hawkins, but I will find this house and beg their hospitality.” He touched spurs to his horse and it bolted away, spraying clods of wet earth at those who remained behind.
     The others followed, shouting derisive comments. I stayed for a moment, letting the rain soak into the wool cloak over my shoulders and then, shaking myself like a dog, I rode down the hill toward a house I had not visited for over a decade.

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