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Authors: Karen Harper

Tags: #Suspense, #Fiction - Historical, #England/Geat Britain, #16th Century

The Thorne Maze

BOOK: The Thorne Maze
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Table of Contents

Title Page
Acknowledgements
The Prologue
Chapter the First
Chapter the Second
Chapter the Third
Chapter the Fourth
Chapter the Fifth
Chapter the Sixth
Chapter the Seventh
Chapter the Eighth
Chapter the Ninth
Chapter the Tenth
Chapter the Eleventh
Chapter the Twelfth
Chapter the Thirteenth
Chapter the Fourteenth
Chapter the Fifteenth
Chapter the Sixteenth
Chapter the Seventeenth
Chapter the Eighteenth
Earlier Events in Elizabeth’s Life
AUTHOR’S NOTE
Copyright Page

Our special thanks and much love
to Jayne Harper Black
for her gracious Sunshine State hospitality

 

And, as ever,
to Don.

The Prologue

In such a manner of labyrinth am I placed …
—QUEEN ELIZABETH TO WILLIAM CECIL IN A LETTER, 1564

 

 

 

JULY 7,1564
CONVENT GARDENS, LONDON

 

“EVEN ON THIS DAY, DAMNED DEATH SO NEAR …” William Cecil whispered to himself, but the queen overheard him as she walked just ahead.

Squinting into the late morning sun, Elizabeth of England looked back at her closest advisor. He said naught else, shaking his head as if to scold himself before he noticed her sharp stare.

“Your meaning for such mutterings, my lord?” she inquired.

“Forgive me, Your Grace. I warrant we should not have walked back from the church this way, but since it was only a half-furlong to my house …” His voice faded, and he shrugged.

“The walk is fine,” she assured him. “You know I favor constitutionals in good country air.” Despite the joyous occasion, she had sensed her principal secretary had been of melancholy mind today. His usually careworn countenance had become solemn, and he seemed older than his forty-four years. It was not like him to leave thoughts half-spoken, especially morbid ones. Elizabeth’s unease increased as their small, guarded party wended their way from the church along the fringe of the Convent Garden orchards toward the brick-and-timber facade of Cecil House.

It was hardly the rural view which had riled Cecil, the queen surmised, so perchance it was the old cemetery clinging to the stony skirts of the church. She surveyed the warren of tilted gravestones guarded by the low wall of St. Clements Dane where she had just attended the christening ceremony of Cecil’s week-old daughter, Elizabeth, named in honor of the Tudor monarch.

Her Majesty had stood as one of the three godparents for the child. The customary second sponsor of the same sex as the child was Elizabeth’s half-Scottish cousin, Margaret Stewart, Countess of Lennox, the person of second royal rank in the realm. Templar Sutton, the brilliant law lecturer and Cecil’s mentor and friend from his law school days, was the traditional single sponsor of the opposite sex of the newborn. The father and godparents always attended the service while the mother remained at home until she had her own churching ceremony at a later date.

Elizabeth’s scrutiny of the graveyard finally yielded what could have caused Cecil’s outburst. “Within lies your son’s grave, the child who died two years ago,” she said and motioned he should walk with her apace. She rested a hand on his arm. “Yet you have another daughter and last year Mildred bore you little Robert, so surely all will be well with this new babe, too. But that grave is of the boy who was your namesake and Mildred’s first hope for a son after nine years of marriage.”

“Your wits are sharp as ever, Your Grace, and I meant not to be morose,” Cecil said, his usually clear voice rough with emotion. “Yes, William’s loss as well as my care for my lady wife has laid me low of late. Truth be told, Mildred’s been distressed since Robert’s birth, though you’ve seen the best of her when she’s come to court. She’ll be fine for a while, then lose herself in the depths of despair. She can become someone I hardly know. I fear baby William’s death and little Robert’s slightly crooked back and frailty are only part of it …”

His voice broke and faded to nothing again. Cecil silent—now that was momentous and ominous.

“You are also worried because your first wife died in childbed? Mildred cannot have childbed fever. It’s been a week since the birth.”

“Your Grace, I meant not to burden you with this, nor to be ungrateful for God’s bounty.” He glanced back at the wet nurse who carried the sleeping, swaddled infant in her arms. As if he would address the commons or the queen’s privy council, he cleared his throat. “I fear Mildred compares my hearty, handsome nineteen-year-old Tom by my first wife—hell-raiser that he is,” he added, “to the lack of robustness of baby Robert, the firstborn surviving son she bore.”

“I charge you to tell Mildred she must count her blessings she has an heir. I would tell her so myself today, if it weren’t deemed bad luck for the mother to attend any of these festivities.”

“Mildred greatly admires your womanly wisdom. I’ll tell her, Your Grace. And all this was for your ears only because the last thing I need is for your cousin Margaret to be privy to my affairs, though I make it my business to know hers.”

“I also, or I would not even have the smug harpy about the court. I trust her and her scheming Papist Scottish husband and her eldest son Lord Darnley as much as I do my ‘dear, devoted cousin Mary of Scots,’ who is the most rapacious schemer out to get my throne I’ve ever known. But I have held it firm through twists and turns these six years, and I shall hold it for my people’s charge and care yet many more. I am but thirty and shall rule even longer than my father did!”

“Of course, you shall, Your Grace. By the way, Templar also knows Mildred’s state of mind,” he added, with a nod toward his friend, who, with his sprightly wife, brought up the rear of the procession as they neared Cecil House. Templar was somewhat unsteady of step, so by now their party was a bit strung out.

“You told him before you told me—and I had to nearly pry it from you?” she asked, tapping his arm with her fan, hoping he took her words as banter and not rebuke. “Then you two are closer than I realized,” she mused when he did not defend himself.

Strangely, Cecil now looked pained, as if she’d accused him of some dire deed. Under the portals of his London home, he glanced back with a frown at his dignified fellow lawyer while they waited for the others to catch up with them.

“I understand your concern for Mildred’s being out of sorts,” the queen assured him. She spoke quickly, wanting to get this out before they went inside for a light repast. “As unhinged as my dear Kat’s become, I surely know why you don’t want the word out. People presume to gossip, to stare and poke and pry—in my case to whisper that I’ll replace her as First Lady of the Bedchamber or Mistress of the Robes—or even put her away somewhere. But, God as my witness, I never shall, not Kat.”

“She’s been almost—forgive my bluntness, Your Grace—a mother to you.”

“She has indeed, and I will take that from you, Cecil, when another dare not say such. So we both have those dearest to us in sad straits and shall search out ways to best treat these malaises of the mind, shall we not?”

Cecil had no time to answer as Margaret Stewart pressed close to be certain she would be directly behind the queen to enter the doors of Cecil House. Inside the threshold, liveried servants scurried to take hats and gloves and proffered trays of cooled Rhenish and sweetmeats. In the bustle, Elizabeth studied the distinguished-looked Templar Sutton and his buxom wife Bettina, for she had never met them before the ceremony. She guessed the silver-haired and –bearded Templar was a good two decades older than his wife.

“Master Sutton,” Elizabeth said as everyone strolled into the dim, wood-paneled parlor, “you and your wife must come to court, and we shall discuss the state of law and lawyers in my realm.”

“’Tis a fiercely litigious society we live in, Your Gracious Majesty, though lawyers, necessary and sought after as they may be, are much abused in tales and jests these days. I shall be honored to come at any summons from my queen.”

He inclined his head and splayed a hand on his chest as if he would declaim a fervid closing argument even now. “And, I must admit,” Templar added, “it has long been a dream of mine to see your great vintage hornbeam maze at Hampton Court.”

“Then consider the invitation for Hampton. Indeed, my court moves there on the morrow as there have been rumors the dreaded plague will return to the city.”

“Pray God not, but for today’s occasion, I shall strike a happier note,” Templar said as Cecil came closer. “I must show you what I brought for my new godchild.”

“As we have no children, Your Majesty,” the dark-eyed Bettina put in, “my husband’s former law students like Lord Cecil and others at your court have been his heirs. Beyond the law, mazes have ever been his passion, and I believe he’s interested more than one student in them, too.” The petite woman spoke with a hint of continental accent, one the queen recognized was, blessedly, neither Spanish nor French, but Italian.

Templar Sutton produced from a black velvet drawstring bag a handkerchief-sized wooden puzzle, open on top, that resembled an intricate maze. He dropped a wooden ball into its opening, then tipped the piece so that the ball clicked into turns and out of dead ends as it rolled toward the center, which sported an elaborately carved
E
.

“Charming and clever, too,” the queen proclaimed.
“E
for the newborn Elizabeth or the royal one?”

“For both,” Templar declared, beaming.

“He gives these to his law students,” Bettina explained, “with a
J
in the center for
Justitia
to demonstrate that the law is like a labyrinth.”

“Or like life, since—” Elizabeth began, then noted with alarm that Mildred Cecil suddenly stood in the doorway of the room.

She looked like a ghost loosed from limbo. Though Mildred Cooke Cecil was a respected and learned woman, one with strict Puritan leanings, she looked as if she’d been on an all-night debauch. Her hair could have nested birds, her nightrail and gown were pulled awry, and she looked feverish and frenzied. So much, the queen thought, for tradition and ill luck at christenings.

“Cecil …” the queen murmured, gesturing only with her eyes and the tilt of her head. He turned and gasped to see his wife.

“If you are going to give Tom the lands at Stamford, what will you give Robert then?” Mildred cried as if they had been in the midst of a deep, privy conversation.

Cecil moved instantly toward her, but she tried to shake him off. “Robert shall inherit the new property,” Cecil said, his voice low and restrained, “and the grand house yet to be built. Come, Mildred, back to your bed.”

She leaned far out to nearly topple the spare Cecil as he tried to steer her from the room. Her loosed hair swinging wildly, half covering her face, Mildred looked past his shoulder at the queen.

“Are you taking him away again—back to court?” she cried. “I cannot be without him, cannot lose him!”

“Do not fear, my lady,” Elizabeth said as everyone else gawked. “You have borne your lord a lovely child, and your family needs you.”

“It is you who needs a lord and child, Your Majesty!” Mildred shouted, then pulled free of Cecil and ran from the room with him in quick pursuit.

Everyone stood silent and still. Elizabeth felt her face flush. “It’s some sort of fever talking,” she said, turning away to look out the window as if naught were amiss. But she was astounded by the behavior of the tormented woman, as bewildering as the convoluted dementia which oft possessed her dear Kat. And sometimes, if God’s truth be told, she thought, even Elizabeth of England, the calm and courageous, the grand and great, floundered in the dark turns and dead-end agonies of her own fears.

BOOK: The Thorne Maze
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