Starting every Monday, since it's the day I generally have the hardest time feeling energetic, I'm going to share an excerpt from one of my stories! This week, since I'm still feeling Elizabethan, a snippet of Murder at Hatfield House...
Chapter One—Autumn 1558
The horses’ hooves pounded like thunder on the rutted road as the two riders dashed under the low-hanging trees, still heavy from that morning’s rain. The storm was long past, leaving the lane muddy and pitted, and it was late for travelers. The night was gathering in fast, and all sensible country folk were safe by their own hearths. The wind whipped cold and quick through the branches—winter was not so far off now.
But the riders took no heed of the chill. They had important tasks to perform, for very important people indeed, and they were already delayed. They had to reach Hatfield House by that night, which was why he traveled with only one servant and ordered the rest to follow the next day.
“God’s wounds, but this is a foul place!” Lord Braceton cursed as his horse slid on the wet ground. No one should have to live in such a forsaken spot as the damned countryside. It smelled of fresh, cold air and wet leaves, of cows and pigs and peasants, and the night sounds of hooting owls seemed ominous to a man used to the constant shouts and curses of London, the pungent, heavy air of the city.
The forest to either side of the narrow road was thick, full of shifting shadows and sudden sounds. It obscured the pale, chalky moonlight overhead and hid the few houses and cottages from view. A man could be lost in such a rural thicket and never be seen again.
Aye, Braceton thought grimly as he pulled hard at his horse’s reins, making the beast whinny in shrill protest. The countryside was a God-forsaken place, fit only for animals and traitors. It was no wonder so many of them gathered here, like a filthy, buzzing hive around their whorish queen.
The only solution to such a dirty, dangerous place was to destroy it and clean it out. That was why he was here. To crush out the treason—and get back to the civilization of London as fast as he could.
He glanced over his shoulder at his manservant. Wat slumped in his saddle, his hood drawn close over his head. The man had been more of nuisance than an aid on this journey, whining and miserable every step of the way. But he was from a good, loyal Catholic family, servants to Queen Mary for a long time, and that was essential to Braceton’s task. Plus Wat was young and strong, able to carry all the baggage.
“Sit up straight, man!” Braceton shouted. “The faster we ride the sooner we’ll be safe by a fire with a pitcher of ale.”
“If you can call it safe, your lordship,” Wat shouted back. “There’s been no safe place this whole journey. One cesspit after the other.”
And Wat had failed at his task in almost every “cesspit”—he was told to make friends with the servants and listen to their gossip. Braceton himself had gotten nowhere with the stony-eyed landowners; no threats or promises could move them to do their duty to the queen. But servants were chattier, freer with their words, and they saw everything that happened in their houses. They could have been an excellent source of information, if Wat hadn’t behaved like such a pouting fool.
But Braceton couldn’t argue with Wat’s assessment of those houses. Dark cesspits of stinking treason, all of them.
And now he was on his way to the greatest pit of all. Hatfield House, the lair of the heretic serpent Princess Elizabeth.
“You’d better be of more use to me there,” Braceton shouted above the wind. “Or the queen herself will hear of your piss-poor behavior.”
The horses swung around a sharp curve in the road, and in the distance Braceton could see the faint flicker of golden lamplight, the dark outline of a roof and chimneys beyond. The gates of Hatfield at last.
But suddenly a sharp, high buzzing sound cut the silence of the night. Braceton twisted around in his saddle just in time to see an arrow arc out of the forest. It glinted silvery in the darkness, like a shooting star.
With a cry, Braceton yanked his horse to the side and the creature reared up in the air with a terrified scream. It stumbled in one of the deep ruts and sent Braceton flying off into the mud.
There was a thud on the ground, not far from where he lay in a stunned state, and he pushed himself up. His head was spinning from the fall, and bright spots danced in front of his eyes, but he could see clearly enough to make out the body of Wat sprawled in the road. The servant’s horse was galloping back the way they had just come.
The arrow had landed squarely in Wat’s chest. His eyes were wide and shocked, glowing glassily in the moonlight, and his mouth was wide open in a silent scream. He died before he could make any sound at all.
Braceton’s horse followed Wat’s down the lane, leaving him alone with the dead body—and with whoever lurked in the woods. Two more arrows flew out from the cover of the trees, landing in a tree trunk over Braceton’s head and vibrating with the force of the impact.
They could very well have landed in his chest, Braceton realized with horror. And then fury swept over his fear. He was an agent of the queen, curse it! He was here to root out the evils of treason and heresy, and those filthy beasts dared attack him for it!
He lurched to his feet and barreled into the woods as he drew his short sword. He could only see by the moonlight filtering through the branches, and it seemed as if laughing creatures lurked behind every tree and boulder. He slashed out at them, catching only leaves with his blade. Birds took flight from the treetops with terrified shrieks.
At last he saw a flash in the darkness, a whirl of a cloak as someone ran silently away. Braceton ran after that flicker of movement, crashing through the underbrush.
By the time he reached the jagged line where the trees gave way to the park of Hatfield, silent and serene beyond the low rock wall, the person had vanished. If it was a person, and not a demon or a ghost. Braceton’s bearded face stung with sweat and the blood dripping from the tiny cuts from the branches, and his lungs felt like they would burst with the labor of his breath. Golden light shimmered in the mullioned windows of the distant house, as if to mock him.
But he caught a glimpse of something shining caught on the rough edge of the wall. He snatched at it and found it was the torn, feathered bits of an arrow’s fletching. Whoever had shot at him had fled to Hatfield.
Braceton crushed the feather in his gauntleted fist. That witch Princess Elizabeth would pay for this—and pay very dearly.
“Curses on it all, Kate! This leg is going to be the death of me.”
Kate Haywood smiled at her father as she helped him lower himself into his favorite chair by the fire. The red-gold flames crackled and snapped merrily, valiantly trying to drive the chill away from the small rooms at the back of Hatfield House. The wind moaned outside the window and stirred at the faded tapestries on the wall, and the ghost-like sound of it made her shiver.
“Poor Father,” she said as she tucked a blanket around his legs. “Is your gout horrible tonight? I shouldn’t wonder, with this damp, cold weather.”
“It’s bothersome all the time now, rain or shine,” Matthew Haywood answered. “Ah, Kate, it is a terrible thing to be old. Enjoy being eighteen, my dear, before your youth is done and aches and pains beset you. I am falling to pieces.”
Kate laughed and kissed her father’s gray-bearded cheek. “You are not very old, I vow. You just claim you are so you can sit here by the fire and work on your musical compositions with no one to interrupt you.”
“Would that were so.”
“It is so. You cannot fool me.” Kate turned to the sideboard where their meager plate was stored and poured out a goblet of rich, red wine. “Here, Father, this will soon warm you. The princess sent it to you herself, she says the physicians claim it will strengthen the blood.”
“Mustn’t refuse the princess, then,” Matthew said. He took the wine from her hand and swallowed a long sip. “It’s quite good. You should have some, too. We all need strong blood to survive the winter.”
“We need more than that, I fear,” Katherine murmured. She thought of the year before, when Princess Elizabeth and several members of her household were dragged away from Hatfield and tossed in the Tower on suspicion of treason in the Wyatt Rebellion against the queen. Matthew and Kate fled and took refuge at a friend’s house, waiting in daily fear for word of Elizabeth’s fate. Matthew was only the princess’s chief musician, but everyone associated with her was always in danger. The queen hated her young half-sister, the Protestant daughter of Anne Boleyn, and would do anything to see her downfall.
But at last there could be no evidence found and so Elizabeth was released to come home, under the strict watch of Queen Mary’s jailer Sir Thomas Pope and his lemon-faced wife. Matthew and Kate came back to serve her, to bring what merriment they could to the silent house. But every day felt fraught with peril, as if they all waited with their breath held to see what would happen next.
“What did you say, my dear?” Matthew asked.
Kate gave him her brightest smile, which felt tight and false on her face, and went to kneel beside his chair. Her father had enough to trouble him without knowing she worried too.
“I said I will have some wine before I go to bed,” she said. “It makes me sleepy, and I want to work on the new madrigal before I retire.”
Matthew gently patted her cheek. “You work much too hard, Kate.”
“On the contrary, Father.” Kate carefully lifted his leg onto a cushioned stool and slid the slipper from his swollen foot. She reached for the basket that held clean bandages and the jar of herbal salve. It sometimes helped the ache. “I have to find things to do to distract me, otherwise I am too idle.”
“It is very quiet here, I know,” Matthew said sadly. He groaned as Kate unwound the old bandages, but he let her do her nursing task. “Most unlike when you were a child and we were with Queen Katherine Parr. But we must not draw attention to ourselves. God willing, very soon…”
Very soon they would once again be part of a queen’s household, that of Queen Elizabeth, and life would be very busy indeed. But those dangerous words could not be spoken aloud, despite the rumors that sometimes flew to them from London. Queen Mary was ill—her pregnancy had proved to be a phantom one with no child and a tumor swelling her belly, and her Spanish husband, the hated King Philip, had left her again to war with France. Her people were angry with all the persecutions and burnings, the bad harvests and lack of work and food.
But Mary was still the monarch, and she would love nothing more than to see the end of her troublesome half-sister. Kate’s father was right—they had to be quiet and stay out of sight. For now.
“The princess will surely want some sort of revel for Christmas,” Kate said. “We could all use some holiday cheer, even if it must be of a small nature.” Elizabeth’s allowance had been curtailed so much she could barely feed and clothe her small household, let alone order elaborate masques. “I want to have the new madrigals done before then, and you must finish the church music you are working on.”
“I’m sure her grace will appreciate the music very much,” Matthew said. “But you still need your sleep.”
“I will sleep, Father, I promise.”
“Good. Now, are you quite done torturing me?”
Kate laughed and tied off the ends of the fresh bandage. “I am. You can drink your wine in peace.”
She kissed his cheek and saw the gray that flecked his beard and his dark brown hair, the same color as her own thick, heavy tresses. He had lost weight of late, and his face was pale and creased, his green eyes, also like hers in color, were rimmed with dark circles.
He did grow older in their exile, and it pained her to see that. Her mother, Eleanor Haywood, had died when she was born, and for all Kate's life it had been only her father and herself, a cozy little family. He had worked as a Court musician ever since he was a boy, and when Kate was young he was appointed to the household of King Henry’s last wife, Katherine Parr, a high and prestigious position where he also came to know Princess Elizabeth.
Matthew taught Kate his art and trade, and she loved music with all her heart. When she sat down to create a new song, the sounds in her head drove away the fears and dangers of the real world and lifted her up into her own, secret place. One where she was free.
But there were some things even music could not banish.
The wind suddenly rattled violently at the window, making Kate jump. She hurried over to secure the latch on the old glass, and a cold gust swept between the cracks and tugged at her loose hair. For an instant, she saw her own reflection there, her round face and wide green eyes fractured and wavering, as though it was a ghost.
Kate laughed at her silly fancy and reached for the old velvet drapery to drag it closed. But then she saw something else, a flash in the kitchen gardens outside. It was very late—surely no one had any errand out there now? The cook and her maids would be asleep now. Kate peered closer but could see nothing.
There was a knock at the door, and Kate yanked the draperies shut to close out the night and all its dangers. She had enough to concern her inside the house without imagining garden ghosts.
“What can it be at this hour?” her father grumbled. He reached for his walking stick, but Kate hurried over to press him back down into his chair.
“I will go see what it is, Father,” she said. “You finish your wine.”
It was Peg, one of Princess Elizabeth’s serving maids, who stood outside the door. Like Kate, Peg was still fully dressed, a shawl wrapped warmly over her gray wool dress and her silvery hair straggling from its cap.
“Begging your pardon, Mistress Haywood, but Her Grace cannot sleep.”
Kate nodded with a sigh. This had been happening more and more of late, ever since the princess returned from the Tower. Sleepless nights and bad dreams. Only music seemed to help soothe her.
“I will go,” Matthew said. Kate looked back to find him struggling to rise from his chair.
“No, Father,” she cried, and hurried over to press him back down again. “I can go tonight. You need to stay off your feet and rest.”
Matthew looked as if he was going to protest, but Kate grabbed up her faded and mended cloak and her precious lute, which had once belonged to her mother, and followed Peg into the corridor before he could say a word. She needed the cloak whenever she wandered away from the fire at Hatfield, the old halls were narrow and chilly. Wind whistled through the windows and along the wooden floors.
At least it was better than Woodstock, Kate thought as she and Peg dashed up the stairs. That house, the first prison Queen Mary sent Elizabeth to after the Tower, had literally been falling down around their ears. Chunks of the roof would land at their feet as they walked in the garden and rain would leak through into the rooms. Hatfield was a smaller, more comfortable manor house of pretty red brick and many chimneys, but it was still cold and lonely.
And the shadows that seemed to lurk in the corners were just as fearsome. Torches and candles were expensive and to be used sparingly. Nights were dark and quiet.
But the princess’s bedchamber glowed with light. Candles were set on every table and atop every clothes chest, and lined up on the fireplace mantel. A fire roared in the grate, and the draperies were drawn back to let in the night’s meager moonlight. No shadows were allowed to lurk there.
The bed, set up on a dais and draped in faded red hangings, was turned back to reveal the pale sheets and bolsters, but it was not occupied. Princess Elizabeth paced back and forth in front of the fireplace, the furred hem of her robe stirring the rushes scattered on the floor with every turn. Her red-gold hair spilled down her back, and she held a book in her long, elegant white hands even though it wasn’t open. Even study couldn’t distract her tonight.
Two of her ladies sat in the recessed window seat, also wearing bed robes over their chemises, with their heads bent over sewing. One was Lady Pope, the jailer’s wife and the new Mistress of the Robes since Elizabeth’s faithful Kat Ashley, companion from her childhood, had been banished. The Popes were the queen’s lackeys through and through, always watching, watching, waiting for any small, fatal misstep. Lady Pope looked most harried to be kept awake so late again.
The other was Kate’s best friend at Hatfield, the young widow Penelope Bassett. She glanced up from her sewing and gave Kate a quick, conspiratorial smile. Her pretty, fashionably slanted, distinctive violet-blue eyes seemed to laugh at some secret, as they always did, but she sat quietly and decorously. She tucked a stray lock of blonde hair back in her cap and went on with her embroidery.
Princess Elizabeth swung toward Kate and Peg as the door clicked shut behind them. Her dark eyes glittered in her pale, pointed face, as if from some fever, and Kate knew it would be a long night. The princess’s vast energy always burned bright, even pent up here in her rooms, and she could outlast everyone.
“Kate, by God’s wounds but I am glad you are here,” Elizabeth said. “This wind is driving me mad. I need your music to drown out its moans and sooth me to sleep.”
“Of course, Your Grace,” Kate said. Her music was all she had to offer Elizabeth for all the princess had done for the Haywoods. It was certainly little enough, but Kate was glad if she could help at all.
Even if it meant she got little sleep!
Elizabeth sat down in the carved x-back chair close to the fire and drew the heavy folds of her robe around her slender body. She gestured Kate to a stool across from her, and Peg came to take the book from her hands. Elizabeth tapped her long fingers on the wooden chair arms, a light, constant pattering rhythm like rain. Her ring, a ruby surrounded by pearls said to have once been her mother’s, flashed in the firelight.
Kate tuned her lute, her head bent low over the strings. “What would you like to hear tonight, Your Highness? A lively volta or pavane to lift the spirits?”
“Nay,” Elizabeth answered. “I am in no dancing mood tonight. An old ballad, I think. Something sweet and sad. Aye, that would suit the mood.”
Kate feared “sweet and sad” was the last thing they all needed on such a night. The cold darkness seemed full of memories and longings, and old fears just lurking around every corner.
But her music was the princess’s to command. Kate lightly strummed a chord and launched into one of the old songs of King Henry’s day, a tune her father said had once been a favorite of Kate’s mother.
“Was I never yet of your love grieved, nor never shall while that my life doth last; but of hating myself, that day is past, and tears continual sore have me wearied,” she sang.
And as she sang, Kate fell down into the music and it was like diving deep into a summer pool. All other sound was completely closed away. She didn’t hear the wind or the whispers of the other ladies. Even her own worries were gone. She knew only the song.
“I will not yet in my grave be buried; nor on my tomb your name fixed fast, as cruel cause that did the spirit soon haste from the unhappy bones, by great sighs stirred…”
Kate glanced up to see Princess Elizabeth had ceased tapping on the chair. She sat perfectly still, her head turned to stare into the fire. Her white profile was sharply etched against the bright flames. The corner of her thin, pink lips quirked in a slight smile. The music worked its magic again, and peace slowly descended on Hatfield House like a soft, gray cloud obscuring the ugly world outside.
Until a crashing sound in the corridor outside tore that fragile peace asunder.
Kate’s fingers faltered on the lute strings and the princess sat up straight in her chair. Her hands tightened on the chair arms, and she looked to the door like a tense bird ready to take flight. A woman screamed, and Penelope dropped her sewing to the floor.
A thunderbeat of footsteps rang on the wooden floor outside and someone pounded on the door. Even Lady Pope turned pale.
“Lady Elizabeth!” a man shouted hoarsely. “Open this door at once.”
“Her Grace has retired for the night,” a maidservant’s nervous voice said.
“I care naught for that,” the man answered, still shouting despite the quiet of the house. “I come from the queen, and I will see the Lady Elizabeth at once, even if she’s naked in her bed.”
The queen! Kate clutched at her lute, feeling her hands shake and turn suddenly icy cold. This could mean only ill.
Elizabeth slowly rose to her feet. Her face had gone even whiter, but she was as still and calm as a statue.
“Peg, would you open the door, please?” she said softly.
“Are you sure, Your Grace?” Peg asked. “It is very late…”
“You heard the man. We must not keep my sister’s emissary waiting,” Elizabeth said, as the barrage of knocks went on pounding at the door. “No matter how unexpected he might be.”
Peg swallowed hard and nodded. Kate saw that she shook as if in a hard wind as she made her way slowly to the door. Peg drew it open and a giant of a man in a swirling black travel cloak pushed past her. He glared at them above his tangled black beard, taking in the warm, domestic scene with one contemptuous glance. Mud and wet leaves trailed onto the floor in his wake, making Lady Pope, always a careful housekeeper, wince.
But Elizabeth refused to back away. She glared in return, equally contemptuous of such rude behavior. “I trust my sister is well?” she said. “Surely there is not some crisis in London that requires my attention at such an ungodly late hour, sir. I fear we are little accustomed to receiving guests and are ill-prepared.”
The man gave a snort. He tugged off his dirty black leather gauntlets and slapped them against his palm. The loud sound made Kate flinch, but Elizabeth moved not at all.
“I am Lord Braceton, sent by Her Majesty to examine this household,” he said. “And I was greeted in your lane by a murderous villain, whose cowardly attack has left my manservant dead…”