Chapter Two

When I entered the King's Stables, shaking the dew from my hem and traces of mud from my shoes, I saw him sitting on a hay bale that had been pushed against the stable wall, his arms limp at his sides as he dozed. I stifled a giggle that rose in my throat, and walked down the long isle, patting the velvet noses that nudged me as I past. I made no attempt to muffle my steps, though the thick covering of wood shavings deaden them enough that he did not stir as I approached.

I jumped onto the hay bale next to him with purposeful noise and gracelessness, and exclaimed, "Good day, Tam!"

He jolted awake, his green eyes flying open and to my face before his fright-stiffened body sagged with recognition, those eyes rolling back up into his head with the lids falling over them.

"How can ye be so bloody perky this early in the morn?" He grumbled good-naturedly as he rubbed his unshaven chin. He leaned back against the wall and turned to me.

"It's terribly hard." I replied, as I myself let the wall support me, pausing to listen to the gentle thud of my head hitting it. "I find that if I force myself to be so, I actually start to feel so."

Tam stared at me with one eyebrow raised, before turning away and closing his eyes again. "I don't even have the strength to force meself."

"I also don't stay up into the wee hours drinking and playing at cards." I said and elbowed him playfully.

"No, you only stay up into the wee hours reading!" He retorted, elbowing me back with a grin. I feigned outrage and began to protest, but he quieted me with another look and raised brow.

The teasing trailed off into a contented silence, with us resting, our hands lying in our laps. I closed my eyes and felt the cool morning air breeze across my face, bringing with it the comforting and sleepy smells of hay and horse…

I did not realize I had dozed until my head dropped onto Tam's muscular shoulder hard enough to make my ears rattle. I came awake and sat up to find my ears ringing with Tam's easy rich laughter. I blushed a bit and turned away to hide it, rubbing the side of my head as an excuse.

"Did you honestly just nod off?!" Tam asked disbelievingly, his head inclined towards me, still laughing. "I asked ye a question, ye know!" I faced him with a sheepish smile, my lashes fluttering slightly- a habit of mine when embarrassed that I cannot seem to break.

"Mayhap you can ask it again?" I inquired timidly, swinging my feet against the hay bale and willing my cheeks to cool.

Tam patted my hand softly in reassurance where it lay on the bale next to him. "I asked ye who ye wanted to take out today."

I thought a moment, taking stock in my head of all the steeds whose masters were neglecting them. "Who needs it the most, do you think?"

Tam bit the corner of his mouth as he considered, his eyes roving the stalls and blinking against the strands of fine brown hair that the breeze blew into them. "Hmm, Locksley, I believe. He's been a terror all morn."

"Locksley it is, then." I hopped off the bale and went into the tack room, closely followed by Tam. I grabbed the brush box as he grabbed the saddle and bridle.

Locksley's stall was in the middle of the long row on the left side of the stable. He was a big, beautiful bay, expensively bred, with large glossy brown eyes. He met me as I entered, clucking softly. He explored my worn blue gown for any pockets that might contain a treat, and not finding any, retreated moodily to the back of his stall.

"Oh now", I chided him, "Tam says your behavior has not warranted a treat. Perhaps after our ride, you can have one." He turned one eye on me, and then on Tam as he thudded the saddle to rest on the stall door, then looked sullenly away again. I picked up a curry comb and began to groom him.

Tam picked up another curry, and pulled a shoe pick from his britches' pocket, before scowling in my direction.

"Ye know, they don't call me 'Head Groom' for naught." He went around Locksley, and raised a foot.

"I suppose they don't." I said off-handedly, continuing down the belly, and onto the flanks. Tam lifted a hind foot, picked it, and then traded sides with me.

He picked the other two and then grabbed a soft brush, while I had begun with the hard brush to get rid of all the curried up hair. He spoke again when we were once more on opposite sides of the horse.

"You know I don't like it when ye help, Miss Maura." He stated firmly, though his discomfiture was evident in the strained sound of his voice.

I sighed. This was a regular argument that had become more and more frequent the more time I spent at the stables. I was quite tired of it, but kept patient because I knew that it was not pride that made Tam say, but integrity.

"Despite what you think, Tam, I am a servant same as you." I glanced over the withers at him, though he did not look back at me. His brow was furled, and his chiseled jaw set hard.

"Aye, so you say. But servants don't go to lecture and have dancin' lessons."

"Oh Tam, if you want lessons too, I'm sure they can be arranged for you!" I retorted with mock seriousness, smiling mischievously at him.

"Well, you're just hilarious!" He said sarcastically, rolling his eyes bright with amusement as he leaned on Locksley's back and grinned back at me. I stuck my tongue out at him in return.

The bridle went first, and I held Locksley's head straight as Tam placed the saddle and tightened the girth, as Locksley tended to nip as this was done. Tam then insisted on leading him out of the stable and to assist me in mounting.

Out in the Horse Guard Yard, Tam gazed up at me, shading his eyes from the twinkling morning sunlight with one of his roughed hands, the other resting on his cocked hip. "Where do ye think ye'll go?"

I gazed through the wrought-iron of the Park Gate. "Just through the park, I should think."

"How long d' ye think ye'll be?"

"Why, will you worry?"

He gazed up at me for a moment before answering, "And what if I will?"

It was my turn to look him over before replying, "Then I would call you a good friend." I smiled shyly, always finding his attention a bit overwhelming.

He shrugged. "Protocol, truly. I don't want the blunt force of yer mistress's anger if ye fall and break something."

He let out a roar of laughter as I gasped in shock. "A joke, Miss Maura!" He patted the horse's shoulder, and smiled a bit apologetically. "Not more then an hour?"

I put on the best air of disdain that I could muster before saying, "Not more then that I suppose, sir."

I smiled over my shoulder at him as I trotted out the Park Gate. He waited until I was through, before returning to the stables.

It was a truly glorious morning. The sun was bright and full, though its rays were not strong enough yet to have burned off the cool fog that clung over the lush green lawn of the Park. There were only a few clouds in the dazzling blue sky, like the largest gobs of fresh-combed sheep's wool, which drifted wistfully along. I kept my posture straight and Locksley on a tight rein until I felt sure that Tam had gone back into the stables. Then I let Locksley have his head, and we took off like the wind, as if chasing after those lumbering, leisurely floating clouds. I did not want him to see me, for I knew he would lecture me about the hazards and dangers of such vigorous riding, and how perilous it was for delicate young ladies. But I would not hear of such nonsense; I could handle a horse with spirit. It was truly the only part of me that was left solely to me; they dictated what I studied, what I learned, how I danced, how I spoke. But they would not tell me how to ride my horse.

I listened to the steady tattoo of Locksley's hooves, and thought blissfully of nothing. Such a rare thing in my life then; to not have the inside of my head resonating with the notes or counts of a song, of lines from a book, or herbs and their uses. Or, most recently, lost acquaintances inexplicably and abruptly appearing again. I had not seen nor heard from Lord MacLachlan for several days. In fact, not many others of the court had seen him as well. After his sudden arrival, besides a few visits to old friends, he had been mysteriously absent from dances and dinners and the usual mingling in the hall. Most attributed it to the great distance he'd journeyed, for it was common knowledge by then that he had indeed come from the royal court of his most Catholic Majesty of Spain. That, and the misfortunes he suffered there, were cause for a few days spent abed. The gossip about him did not diminish, however. It quieted, to be sure, but lingered still.

I cared not a jot about the whole affair, though I had taken to the habit of gazing around corners more carefully, most unwilling to let myself be taken by surprise again. There was a tiny part of me, though, that wanted to discuss it; with Hanna, who was returning from the north that day. She was the only one I wanted to exchange confidences with, and before she could be tainted by the incessant blathering of the Ladies-in-Waiting. I contemplated briefly in seeking the opinion of Tam, but since friendship with a gentleman of even the lowest importance was so new to me, I was too intimidated to broach such a sensitive issue with him. And as I said, his attentiveness overwhelmed me and left me always feeling a bit insecure.

I rode until Locksley began to blow air, then turned about and began at a slower pace back to the stables. As we approached, I saw Tam waiting for us just inside the gate in the yard. I led Locksley to a halt, and Tam held the reins as I dismounted. He looked the horse over first, then me.

"A wee bit out of breath?"

I smiled beneath my lashes as Locksley gave another blow. "I think we both are." He gave a hardy chuckle before motioning for me to follow him into the stables.

He led Locksley into his stall, and I followed, prepared to help him untack and cool down the beast. But he simply would not hear of it; he made me sit just outside the door on an overturned bucket.

"Tam, be serious. Let me help you." I tried to persuade.

"I am serious, Miss Maura. And the answer is nay!" He hefted the saddle and swung it off Locksley's back with a heave of his broad shoulders, and settled it pummel first on the floor against the door.

"But I feel like such a lump, sitting here while you do all the work!" I frowned in frustration at his ridiculous insistence upon my being treated like a lady and not a servant.

Tam hung the bridle on a hook outside the door with a sigh. "All right. This may come as a shock to ye, but the King actually pays me a salary for tacking and untacking any horse in these stables, no matter who rides it." I scowled and rolled my eyes at his poor joke. "Why are ye so ready to do work anyway? Ladies-in-Waiting are supposed to like to sit on their arses and let others do work for them."

"Oh believe you me, I know. And it is precisely the way they treat those others that makes me so ready to take part in the work." I knocked some dirt from my shoes so I did not have to look into Tam's handsome face. "I fear being guilty by association." I replied quietly.

Tam picked up a rag and began to wipe down the horse. "Ah, I wouldn't worry about it, Miss Maura. Anyone can tell just by looking at ye that ye've a good heart." He bent down and picked up another, tossing it to me with a smile. "And anyone who can't tell only has to talk to ye to find out."

I blushed without being able to hide it this time, mumbling an incoherent thank you before trying to cover up my ineptitude by taking unusual interest in wiping the sweat from Locksley's coat.

"Me parent's are coming to visit in a fortnight." Tam remarked casually after a pause that I found positively painful.

"Really? That's marvelous, Tam! You must be so thrilled!" I brightened at the chance for unbiased conversation.

He laughed in his beautiful way. "I am, truly. Though, I'd be much happier to be visit them, at home." He gazed sympathetically across Locksley's withers at me. "Ye know how it is. I miss Scotland as much as I miss me family."

"Aye, I do as well." I sighed longingly, picturing the room and the trails of my childhood fondly.

"Ye have it better then I, though- yer family traveled with ye!" He jabbed me playfully in the back as he passed.

"There can't possibly be any comparison!" I retorted, throwing the rag at the back of his head. "My entire family consists of Mistress Blythe and myself. That's it! Whereas you, my friend, have a true mother and father, and a brother and a sister!"

Tam paled slightly at my words, though they were spoken true to the feeling of the moment. "I do apologize, Miss Maura. I forgot, honestly, about your predicament. Forgive me, please." He wrung the rag a bit nervously in his hands.

I was shocked. "There is no call for remorse, Tam. I was not trying to elicit pity or guilt with my words. I meant them as playful as yours were." He smiled a most attractively shy smile. "However, thank you for your concern." I sat back down on my bucket.

Tam nodded in agreement and relief as he began brushing Locksley. His expression became reserved of a sudden, and he brushed seemingly without purpose. It lasted a long moment before he began to speak.

"I was wondering, Miss Maura, if ye would so honor me by having dinner with me family and me." His eyes flitted to my face uneasily. "Yer one of the only friends I have made here, and I would very much like for me family and ye to meet." He scratched his neck with his free hand nervously.

I was delightfully surprised. "Your invitation is most flattering. I would dearly love to have dinner with you and your family, Tam. Simply name the date and hour, and I shall be there!"

His green eyes twinkled and he grinned happily. "Good. Good!" He repeated enthusiastically, before avidly began brushing the horse once more.

"Oh Tam, I long to see Scotland again." I breathed deeply, imagining that the air I inhaled was not of England, but of my home.

"As soon as we're both able, Miss Maura, I promise ye that I'll escort ye back to Edinburgh. Ye can stay with me sister and her husband."

I bounded up from my seat, my hands clasped tight with hope. "Truly, Tam? You'd do that, for me?" I could not believe it!

"I do so solemnly swear, milady." And he made a little bow.

"Oh, thank you, thank you! A thousand times, thanks!" I did a little pirouette as we both giggled.

"Lord knows, I miss it as much as ye do." He glanced outside at the cast of the shadows on the yard. "But quick, Miss Maura, or yer mistress will be missing ye!"

"Goodness, your right!" I said as I, too, noted the time. "Thank you for the loveliest morning, Tam! And for you kind invitation, I am truly flattered…" I babbled in trying to express how truly grateful I was for the sense of belonging he had given me.

"Off with ye, silly lass!" He laughed merrily, waving the rag after me as I skipped off to my apartment to meet Mistress Blythe to begin my day of duties.

I came into our apartment, closing the door behind me, to find Mistress Blythe laying a plate of eggs and bacon on the table.

"There you are, love! Quick, clean yourself up so we can eat." She gave me a quick smile as I entered my room. "And change your gown!" She called after me, "Imagine, horse hair in the food…" I heard her grumble to herself as she went back into the kitchen to get the rest.

I went to the washbasin that stood at the end of my bed, and cleaned my hands and face with some lavender-scented soap. Then I went to the armoire that took up the wall next to the door, and took out a clean cotton gown of olive green. Stripping down to my shift, I tossed the dirty blue one I had worn into the bottom of the armoire and shut it. Pulling the fresh gown over my head, I thought about how small my room was. There was the armoire that barely contained all my clothes; it was the only one that would fit through the doorway. Then the wash stand, with the basin and a palm-held looking glass that I hardly ever used. Against the wall opposite the door was a little table and chair, piled with books and papers and quills and ink, where I did some studying and writing. And of course my bed, my most prized possession because of it's size; it was my parents' marriage bed. It dominated the tiny space, and left just enough legroom around which to walk. I had a nightstand with a candelabrum, and a self over my desk which was stocked with more taper and pillar candles, a few trinkets, and my money jar.

I walked back out to the dinning area, since the rest of the apartment was open, one section merging into the next. The kitchen opened into the dinning room where the table sat. That became the living room with a tiny fireplace, where we sat in the evenings at times in the two old rocking chairs or the settee, which was usually only used when we had company. Off the dining room were the doors to Mistress Blythe's room and my own, and then the door that led to a closet Mistress Blythe had converted into the herb pantry. There she kept all her supplies and tools for preparing her medicines.

I set the table just as Mistress brought out a basket of bread, some butter and a small pitcher of black currant juice. We took seats across from each other, and Mistress said the blessing.

"Bless us, O Lord, for these thy gifts, which we are about to receive, from thy bounty, in the name of Christ, amen." She immediately began to load my plate with eggs and bacon. "How was your ride this morning?"

"It was excellent, mum. It's a splendid day out." I poured her and myself a mug of the juice.

"And how is Master Macalister fairing? Such a lovely young lad, is he not? I've overheard nothing but wonderful things about him." She took a slice of bread, and passed the basket to me with an inquiring look. "You've been spending a lot of time down there of late, haven't you?"

I remembered the events of earlier, and willed myself not to flush. "Tam is very well, mum. And yes, he is very charming and very kind. He pretends to enjoy my company, and staves off my feeling homesick." I replied as coolly and as impartially as I could, focusing intently on reaching for the butter.

"There's no pretending about it!" Mistress balked. "Not with the way you scamper like a little mouse out of here, before the crack of dawn, to go down and see him!" She laughed when she saw the color rise in my cheeks and my lashes begin to flutter.

"I do not know to what you allude, Madam. Tam and I are but fond acquaintances, who share similar pastimes and enjoyments." My voice wavered against all my efforts to keep it from doing so.

Mistress Blythe smiled affectionately across the table. "Whatever you wish to call it, my dear, he is much more deserving of your attentions, in my opinion. Anything to keep you from brooding over that Lord Good-For-Nothing." I paled at her words, but she did not seem to notice. "Just remember that you are required to solicit the consent of the Queen about any possible matches. She may have plans for you, and would not take kindly to having them disrupted."

I just nodded my understanding. Leave it to Mistress to jump such unfounded conclusions. We spent the rest of the meal chatting about nothing in particular; she shared any concerns or bits of gossip that she had gathered. I listened for the most part, commenting or giving my opinion when it was asked for.

Soon we were finished, and after cleaning the table of the remnants, Mistress went to the pantry to stock up the basket, and I to my room to tie on my apron. We met again in the dining room, before proceeding to the corridor of the Ladies-in-Waiting.

Mistress Blythe and I went from room to room, checking on each lady as she was rising and beginning her toilette. We listened to any symptoms and complaints, and discussed the solution before its administration. Most common were complaints of the stomach and head, easily remedied with a tincture and a meal or drink of water.

As Mistress was occupied with a particularly overdramatic complaint dealing with nightmares, I crossed the hall to Hanna's door. I gave a hopeful knock and was delighted to hear her tinkling voice granting admittance.

I entered and closed the door behind me. She stood at the foot of her enormous canopied bed with her Dutch maidservant, unpacking her things from her journey.

"Maura!" She exclaimed happily, rushing over to me clasp me lightly and place a dainty kiss on each of my cheeks. I reciprocated her affections just as willingly.

"How was your trip? Your cousin is better, I pray?"

"Ah yes, she is much better, thank you. The traveling was long, but not too tiring. And it was very good to see home again." She squeezed my hands affectionately, and then led me over to sit on the edge of her bed. "But tell me, how have you been fairing?" She gazed at me eagerly, her blue eyes shining like the largest sapphire gems.

"I have a bit of news to share with you, Hanna." I replied. She turned to say something in her native tongue to her maid, then back.

"Truly? I love news!"

I laughed at her excitement. "I can't tell you now, however. I'm on rounds with Mistress Blythe. But, I'll sneak here tonight, after the last bell."

"Ooh mischief! I will be wide awake and eagerly awaiting!" We both giggled, and I stood up to leave.

"Well, I must be getting back. Have you any complaints you'd like me to pass onto Mistress Blythe?" I inquired pleasantly.

"No, I am just tired. I believe I will have a nap before dinner." She smiled sweetly, tucking a tendril of her soft dark hair behind her delicate ear.

I nodded, "That sounds well, and I am glad that you have returned safely. Sweet dreams!" I called cheerfully over my shoulder as I left.

"See you!" I heard Hanna reply sweetly before the door clicked into place.

I found Mistress Blythe again and made my report. We completed our rounds without much more disturbance, and I led the way back to our apartment for a quick luncheon of bread and some fruit. Rushing to my room, I removed my apron and felt my hair to make certain I was still presentable, I grabbed my assigned books and hurried to the Chapel for my lectures; the first lesson of the day.

I will not bore you with the particulars, for it consists of the parson attempting to impart to me the ways in which the Lord commands women to be good wives and mothers; some of which I am not entirely convinced of, and all of which is very tiresome.

I had just enough time to scamper down the many passageways to an empty room near the wine cellar. Here was where I was taught how to play the lute and the harpsichord, to sing, and to dance; it was for those very activities that a room supremely isolated was chosen, so I could not possibly drive any chance listeners mad.

For I was miserable at these four endeavors. My fingers, though thin and nimble, have not the width of palm that is required for lute players. I started my education of the harpsichord too late in life, and since I have always been rubbish at numbers, I found reading the notes very challenging; though I fair tremendously better on it then on the lute. My lungs are too weak to let forth a clear, round sound from my throat; when I sing, it is rather low, airy, and soft. Despite all exercises and much dedication on the part of my tutors, I am barely audible above any musical accompaniment.

And as for dancing? I sincerely thought it would be easier to teach a pig then myself; it would certainly be more entertaining to watch. I was merely pitiful; I had no grace or poise, and constantly would trip over the hem of my gown or my own feet. Granted, it was only part of the time that I had a dancing partner, which made my comprehension of the steps all the more difficult. Honestly, if ladies are not supposed to lead, then how was I to move anywhere without a partner to do the leading? It was my hardest lesson, and caused me the most strife, for dancing was such an essential part of the life of a Lady-in-Waiting. And it looked so beautiful when done right! Dancing was to make ladies look elegant and romantic, as if to say, 'Here, dear gentlemen, would be a good match!' When I attempted, it only served as confirmation to my lurking suspicions that I was neither elegant nor romantic, and would be a most undesirable spouse.

So it was that I slunk back to the apartment, hungry and heart sore, my books tucked beneath my weary arms, at a quarter to nine in the evening. After wishing Mistress Blythe a forlorn good evening, I trudged to my room to deposit my books on my desk. I returned to the kitchen to wash my hands and assist with the rest of the preparations for supper.

We ate our bread, pork, potatoes and greens in relative quiet, for Mistress Blythe seemed as weary as myself. It was fortunate, for I was in no state of mind for idle chatter. The failed dancing lesson had made me feel more vulnerable then usual, for reasons I could not discern, and so I felt that a poisoned dart was ever perched upon my tongue, needing only the slighted provocation to be loosed.

After the meal was cleaned up and put away, Mistress Blythe retired to her rocker in the sitting room to a bit of mending by the lingering rays of sunset. She wished me a good night, with a kiss on the forehead that did a bit to restore my feeble spirit, before I went to my room to make use of the light as well.

I washed up, unplaited my hair, and put on a graying black house gown over my shift. Then I crawled into bed and began my assigned reading as I waited for the bell.

When it's tolling echoed faintly throughout the whole of the palace, I replaced my marker and set my book on my nightstand. Sliding into a pair of soft muslin slippers, I peeked into the living room to be sure that Mistress had gone to bed, before tiptoeing out of the apartment and down the hall to Hanna's room.

I found her bundled like a princess under the covers of her luxuriant bed. She smiled broadly, athrill with our mischievousness; the light from the candelabrum on her nightstand made her pale complexion glow, her night black hair, bright lips and flashing eyes standing in stark contrast. She could have been a painted masterpiece, if she stood still enough. Her beauty made my breath hitch for a moment before I could speak.

"Where you seen?" She asked breathlessly with excitement.

I scowled and shook my head. "What would it matter if I was? Those that are wandering the halls at this time don't want to be seen themselves! They would never betray a fellow sneak." I smiled as I plopped myself opposite her, at the end of the bed. The bedding sighed as it settled beneath me.

"How went your lessons?" Hanna asked pleasantly, handing me a pillow.

I shrugged, placing it behind my back and head. "Well enough, I suppose. I still cannot play or sing or dance, but I do love reading."

"How I know you do." She replied, and we smiled at one another. "But do not give up hope, Maura." She reached over to pat my hand reassuringly. "It takes much practice to be accomplished. It will come to you in time, I know." She pleaded with her sapphire gaze, anticipating my drawing away from such confidence in myself. Realizing that she could not compel me to see her view, she changed the topic of discussion. "So, tell me what news you have! I cannot bear the suspense a moment longer!" She wriggled in her seat, making me giggle in spite of myself.

"When I was just a girl in Scotland," I began, taking her hand in mine, "I met a very handsome young lad who befriended me, and became my very first close companion. He also became my first love." Hanna sighed with contentment; tales of romance and chivalry being her favorite. "We became nigh inseparable, and he led me on many adventures, being several years older then I. I knew that he cared for me more than an older brother should, and so I loved him for his attention and his thoughtfulness.

"But then one day he disappeared, and I feared, never to be seen again." I swallowed painfully as the memories poured like a waterfall into my mind's eyes, bring with them all the burning feelings of that time. "He left without a word or warning, and it broke my girly heart. I forgave him, but I never forgot him."

I took a deep breath, glancing into Hanna's perfect face to see she was following my every word. She nodded when she met my eyes. "As you were gone home, a new lord arrived. And it is that very same lad, though now very much a man, who had captured my girlhood heart."

Her jaw fell open in amazement, and she squeezed my hand. "Are you certain it is truly he?"

"Positively. He sought me out."

A gusty gasp escaped her, as her free hand found her throat. "No!" she shrieked in a whisper. "Oh, Maura! This is like a story! What did he say to you? Did he profess his love?"

I could not contain my mirth, but laughed heartily at her silliness. "No, thankfully, he did not. He repeated the introduction of our first meeting, and handed me the very same flower he did on that first acquaintance."

"Oh, Maura! That, too, is a profession of love! Just a subtle, more refined one! Believe me, I have read much about these things." She patted my hand assuringly, before enveloping me in friendly embrace. "Oh, how beautiful! My own closest friend has a secret admirer!"

I clasped her shoulders firmly, giggling, "Hush! Tis no such thing. You've yet to hear the rest!"

"There's more?! Hurry, before my heart stops with anticipation!"

"Well, it appears that in his absence, he has been very busy. From the gossip I gathered whirling around the court, he had come from the Royal Court of Spain in mourning in association with heretics, with a reputation as a womanizer, a gambler, and a drunkard."

Hanna's mouth fell open again in shock. "Very busy, indeed. Maura dear, you must be very wary of this gentleman, lest he is seeking to lure you into his bed with flattery."

I fell back against the pillows with a sigh. "I have thought of that myself, love. And it saddens me deeply for he was such a good heart when I knew him those years ago. He was tender and noble and…"

"And had meant much to you, I see." Maura gave me a happy little smile, before she turned serious. "But that was long ago, as you said. The Lord has seen fit to visit troubles upon him, as the hearsay would have us believe. So he is not your young man any longer, but changed for better or for worse. You must watch yourself with him. Promise me, Maura. I would not see you dishonored by such an unworthy man." She held her hand up for me to take.

"And so for you, Hanna. If he comes courting, for he shall as soon as he lays eyes on you, that you won't give in to his advances. It would be much more of a shame for you to fall prey since you are a much finer lady then me." I smiled at her, though worry churned within me for her gentle soul.

"I promise."

"I promise." I grasped her hand tightly.

We two relaxed against the pillows, satisfied. For a moment of silence we were left to our own thoughts; mine occupied with storing away once more the biting reminiscences that the conversation had dredged up.

"Well, I must be going." I said as I rose.

Hanna nodded. "Thank you, Maura, for letting me into your confidence."

I gave her a tired smile. "And thank you, Hanna, for being such a good friend." She smiled tiredly as well.

"Good night."

"Sweet dreams."

I closed the door behind me without a sound, and began to creep back down the hallway to my room. I had just rounded the corner when I heard the floorboards creak behind me, down the corridor that led past the hall of Ladies-in-Waiting. Was that a figure I saw in the weak light from a lit sconce? A figure of a man? I was too frightened to find out; my intuition telling me that all this talk had roiled up the Devil himself.

I scampered as quick and as silent as a mouse to the safety of the apartment, not once looking back.