KINGS AND PAWNS
December 20th, 1555
GREENWICH PALACE, ENGLAND
The news had spread across the palace like wildfire. From the highest nobleman to the lowest stable hand, everyone heard that the King's sisters had been found innocent of any crimes against their brother. Of course the attempt on the King's life still hung over all their heads, an unwelcome stain on the Yuletide festivities, but as Paul's mother served her son his afternoon meal she seemed optimistic.
"No other King in Europe could come through such an ordeal as our Edward! It was truly God's will that he pass through this tribulation unscathed! Why-"
"Where is Father? He was not at the stables the whole day long and now he neglects his daily board?" the young man asked, in no rush to hear any more of her talk.
His Mother frowned and quickly stepped towards the hearth, keeping her eyes averted. Anne had watched her husband leave before the sun had risen and he had not returned for his own lunch. William had been restless and fretful lately and his fighting with Paul had become nearly unbearable. The news of the Princess Elizabeth's imprisonment and that of her woman Margaret Sidney had soothed his worried for a few days but now that she was released he feared his son would soon fall to folly.
"I would not know. He kept no counsel with me this morn. You say he wasn't at his post at all?"
"No, but the whole palace is in such disarray I don't think he was missed. The Magistrate meeting held everyone in sway."
Anne shrugged and dusted her hands off on her skirts. She had her own work to do and her husband's secrecy wasn't something that pleased her. She fixed her eldest son with a look. Her youngest was out and about causing the mischief young boys often did. What mischief Paul planned on getting into she didn't yet know.
"Did tit now? Even you I suppose?"
He held up a hand.
"I know Father's wishes. I have no business in Mistress Sidney's affairs. I neglected to respond to any of her letters too dear Mother. I doubt the lowly stable hand is even on her mind anymore."
"From the looks of that letter it'll take more than a few nights in the Tower to make her forget you."
She said so with motherly pride. Paul was a handsome lad, a charismatic boy who would make a good catch for any honest London girl. Margaret Sidney was no honest London lass. He laughed and pinched his mother's rosy cheek.
"I have moved onto greener pastures Milady. Its about time I got serious and begat you a few grandchildren I suppose."
Any talk of marriage and children always soother his Mother and the rest of the meal was peaceful for Paul. As he left, telling Anne that he was returning to his own post at the stables he couldn't help but imagine that very picture.
Margaret, her long auburn hair pulled back, her brow lightly misted with sweat. Her smile broad, her countenance peaceful, and a babe in her arms swaddled in clean linen. Her child, his child; their child…
As he made a right turn towards the palace and away from the stables he couldn't help the sweet, warm feeling that filled his veins. He had had his fair share of maids. They were itches, simple itches that simply needed scratching. Usually he lost them just as quickly as he'd found them, but this one haunted him. Margaret was much, much more than an itch. She was an inferno in his veins; a dull fire that burned and cleansed. One that was as blissful as it was painful.
He had to see her.
There was quickness in his step that led him through the familiar halls and pathways of Greenwich at an impressive speed. He knew where she would be now, and he hoped his information (gotten through charming one of her chamber women) was correct.
Then, as if appearing by magic, there she was.
She was dressed demurely, in all white with her long hair flowing freely around her face. She walked behind a stern faced, somberly dressed man. Paul knew who he was. Sir William Cecil, the Cambridge man and newly minted Chancellor. He aided the young lady into a litter, where she was obviously alone, and stepped off a few paces to speak with one of his own men.
Taking his one chance Paul ran towards the opposite side of the carriage. There, only a few inches from him, did she sit. She was cold, wrapped in a thick velvet and fur cloak. In the cold he shivered but her face warmed him from within.
Her name on his lips sounded like a choir of angels. She turned, and her own eyes lit at the sight of him. They filled with a thin mist of tears and she let out a small sigh. He pulled back the velvet curtain that separated them and felt her warm breath on the skin of his hand. She looked radiant, resplendent. He felt his fingertips caress her cheek but could not speak.
His own name, from her lips, sounded even more heavenly than hers from his. He wanted to pull her through the window and run, as fast as he could. Wherever they went her would protect her, provide for her…
"Quick, we haven't time. Where will you meet me? Where can I see you again?"
The words were out before he'd had time to review them. Her face flushed and she sputtered, looking as Sir Cecil mounted his horse. They were moving, Paul followed, trying his best not to be seen. But soon that would become impossible.
"I am to go to my sister's home, in London. Hendon House. Can you come? We will be able to see one another there. Say you will come."
"Expect me tonight. I swear upon my honor."
She took his hand and held it to her lips for a brief second before the horse really began to trot. With one final lash of his whip the driver lead the litter away and Paul tried his best to duck out of sight. Hendon House, home of the Sherriff of London.
It was on Bread Street, that much he knew. His love awaited him there. He could barely contain his joy as he returned to the stables.
December 20th, 1555
HENDON HOUSE, LONDON
"Oh my darling girl. Oh sweet Madge, you are so thin. Having you cadged up in the tower like some common-"
Margaret looked up at her sister and then back towards Cecil with wide eyes. Anne was unperturbed. There she stood, in a handsome blue and white gown. Her husband, it seemed, was doing quite well for himself. Their home was well furnished and the jewels at her throat looked quite expensive.
Her sister looked beautiful. At thirty, she was the spitting image of their Mother, her namesake. Behind her, huddled by the door were her equally beautiful offspring.
William, the eldest at eleven, was dark haired and sallow skinned like his Father but had an earnest face and a ready smile. Anne and Phillipa were six and four, while the little John was only a year. He tottered away from his sister and towards this strange woman.
Madge held a hand in front of her mouth, stifling a laugh.
"He means 'who' dearest Margaret." Anne leaned down and scooped him into her arms, pointing at her sister she smiled "It is your Aunt Margaret John. Say hello!"
Her head had just been filled with thoughts of Paul, hopes that he would in fact come and find her at her sister's home. Now as she was introduced to all her nieces and nephews her thoughts turned to family. Lucy was there as well with her husband, the lawyer Sir James Harrington. Their sons John and James were there as well. At sixteen and thirteen they stayed a bit farther away from their younger cousins.
Sir Cecil's wife Mildred weas present as well, having no children yet from her marriage to William. Mildred wrapped Margaret into her arms and offered her a soft kiss on the forehead. Margaret closed her eyes and let out a slow breath. She could smell food and the house was full of people who loved her. Away from court, it seemed a miracle.
"Where is Henry? Where is Francis?" Anne asked as they sat down to eat "I had expected them both."
"Henry is coming." said Sir Cecil "He went to visit with his wife and to fetch young master Phillip."
Margaret beamed. She wiped her face with a soft linen cloth and turned towards her sisters.
"And Francis has left for Sussex. She bid me a swift goodbye before…"
She paused. Everyone froze. It had been right before Jane's wedding and the King's near death. She had been unable to inform the rest of the family as Francis had asked. She wondered if her sister knew of what had befallen her. The Earl of Sussex was still at court, surely he would have written to her.
"Ah yes," Sir Fitzwilliam intercepted "Before the Lady Jane's wedding. I heard that was quite the event. How are the seasonal celebrations at the palace dear sister?"
Madge was grateful for the diversion. She easily entertained the table with her tales of the feasts and masques. Her sister's watched her, amazed that their sheltered little Madge had bloomed into such a sophisticated little court flower. They had thought that Francis landing an honest to goodness Earl was a step up for their family. Now, now their hopes really did rest on Madge's shoulder. Lands, titles, dowries, endowments, royal licenses. The family of a Queen consort was in line for many perks. But there was no talk of marriage to the King, Margaret had gone through enough and Henry had warned most of them that she was in no mood to discuss it. Madge didn't know that, but she was especially grateful not to have to hear about it on that night.
Then, as desert came, they all began trading stories of their own past holidays. Soon, it seemed, the night had whittled away to nothing as the clock struck ten. Still Henry had not come. Margaret felt sadness fill her when she realized he would not be coming this night. She had so hoped to see him, to set things right.
"Smile dearest. He will come to fetch you in the morning; Anne has your room made up right next to mine. Come, you must be tired."
The rest of them had retired to play cards after the children were put to bed. Margaret was not tired, but she would take the excuse to leave their company. Lucy left too and a maid servant named Elaine helped her undress. As she slipped the nightshift over Madge's shoulders she leaned forward, her black hair shining in the firelight.
"I have a message for you Mistress."
The words were so quiet Margaret barely heard. As she turned to question the girl she slipped a small piece of paper into her hand and bowed her way out. Margaret opened it and her heart began to race.
"The Buttery, at midnight, my liege lady."
The message was clear. Paul was here and he meant to meet her in the buttery at twelve. Margaret felt her whole body begin to heat up, her feet barely touching the ground as she raced to the bed. The fire crackled merrily and she crawled beneath the covers, clutching the little sheet of paper to her breast. As the hour dragged on, she heard Lucy enter her own chamber and soon it seemed the house was quiet. Sitting up, she reached for the heavy silk robe laid out for the morning. Pulling it over her shift she quickly tied it and headed for the door.
Elaine was sleeping on a pallet in the hall and snored slightly in the darkness. Margaret crept past her, the dark hall creaking slightly beneath her feet. No one stirred, it seemed the house was asleep for the night. She rushed towards the buttery as quickly as she could and as she neared she listened for the chime of the clock in the great hall. Twelve of them rang out and she took a deep breath, pushing the heavy wooden door back. Inside, casks of wine and kegs of ale sat silently in darkness. The darkness was only cleared by a small candle, near the door that lead into the kitchens. In the candlelight, she could make out Paul's shape.
Suddenly she was frightened, no longer rushing towards him as she had been. He turned, and his eyes caught hers, ablaze in the candlelight with his thick, fair hair hanging over his brow. He wore a plain, rough, white shirt and black breeches. He was stunning, there only a few feet from her. He wore none of Edward's finery but had his own exquisite majesty that made her suck in a chilly breath. As she took a step forward she saw his face break out into a breaming smile and she felt her bones turn to jelly. He stepped forward as well, closing the remaining gap between them. He did not touch her, only stood dangerously close. She could smell him, feel the warmth radiating from his body. Her eyes closed, and she breathed in deeply.
"I was unsure if you would come. I hoped…."
The words seemed to break the spell. At once his hands were on her. Strong hands, one wrapped around her waist, the out clutching at her elbow. She looked up at him, seeing the frenzy in his face and she smiled herself.
"Margaret, my brave girl. You followed the Princess into the Tower? Why?"
"She is my friend." She whispered, her own hands reaching up to encircle his neck. One hand reached for his mass of hair, hopelessly tangling her fingers within. He breathed against her forehead, his strong arms pressing her close to him all the while. "I would follow her wherever it was asked of me."
He looked down at her, his eyes filled with amusement. Loyalty, the girl was loyal. That was an honorable trait. This was no flighty, fair weathered wench. She leaned into him, her lips grazing the skin between his collarbone and his neck. They swayed against each other, drunk off of their proximity to each other's bodies.
"I feared for you, I returned your messenger and got no response. Soon I heard the news, and I wondered if I would ever…"
"Sh…" she saw the fear and anger well up again on his face and felt guilt that she had caused him such pain. He trembled as he held her and she looked up at him "The King would never-"
Those words were enough to stop his trembling. His face, so expressive only moments before seemed to turn to stone. The warmth of his embrace all but fled as he gently held her away from him. He examined her in the candle light. Mention of the King, King Edward, the man who had imprisoned her, the man who ruled them all. He took a step back, Margaret felt her heart sink.
"I had nearly forgotten, the fool that I am."
Madge let out a small cry and covered her mouth. He did not react. Suddenly this meeting seemed ill timed and ill fated. Edward. How could she have forgotten? Leaving his prescence her thoughts had turned to Paul. Paul, who she was beginning to believe that she loved. But what did love matter to her? As she knew it her marriage was not her decision and her last discussion with Henry had lead her to believe that Edward really did mean to make her his bride. Had this ordeal changed his mind? She was unsure. The only thing she knew was that she wanted Paul's arms around her again. She took a step forward.
"You must know, none of it is my choice. Paul I have come to…I believe that you have bewitched me somehow. In waking, in sleep you haunt me. And what do I know of you? Of your family? Of your faith or your convictions? I know only this-"
Another step and another. He did not meet her eyes, but he did not retreat either. Taking his face in her hands she forced their eyes to meet. His seemed misted over with tears, but his jaw was firmly set. Hard, unmoving. She gently kissed along it, his stubble tickling her lips as she did so.
"I know only that whatever man you may be, I yearn for your presence in my life. Do you believe me?"
Slowly, painfully, he leaned down. Lifting her chin with his finger he raised her face to his and gently kissed her lips. She felt him pull her close and spread her hands against his broad chest. As they embraced the candle sputtered and nearly went out. In the deeper darkness he leaned back, falling into a pile of sackcloth and rushes. Madge laughed as they plummeted to the floor, and felt the vibrations of his own laughter underneath his fingers. In total darkness he kissed her, his hands exploring the contours of her body over the thin material of his night shift and robe. She shivered, her mind melting away at his touch.
"What are we to do Margaret? What would you ask of me?"
They paused. Looking into his eyes she felt a moment of panic. She could not do without him, but Edward….if Edward knew about this…
"He'd have our heads if he knew. Both of us."
He nodded solemnly.
"This is dangerous Madge. What you are doing is treason. I cannot be your downfall."
"Or I yours!"
"Oh you foolish woman. What man would not rejoice in your love? I'd take death gladly if only-"
"I'll hear no talk of death!" she sat up, her eyes wide and her hair sticking out every which way "Speak not of it. I've only just found you, I'd not trade this for the world."
"Not for a cornation and a crown?"
She fixed him with a humorous look.
"What common English Queen has lived a happy life Paul? Elizabeth Woodville? Anne Boleyn? Katherine Howard? Jane Seymour?"
He began to speak and she put a finger to his lips.
"I shall refuse him. I shall tell him I have entered into a pre contract with the man I love."
"Refuse the King? For a stable boy? It isn't done, no one would allow you to!"
"Allow me to? I shall do as I please. They left me to rot in the country and now that I've been noticed by the King they all suddenly have an interest in my fate? Fie! I'll have none of it. I'll wear no crown!"
"Fie you say? Surely you've gone mad Margaret."
"Would you have me marry him?" she huffed "Is that what you want? To call me your Queen rather than your wife?"
He took a deep breath in. His wife, this beautiful creature. He had been with so many maids, not one had he ever imagined wedding as well as bedding. He'd yet to bed the girl and he could see her beside him at the altar with no fear.
"I'd rather face a thousand hells milady."
"Then no more talk of the King. I have decided."
He laughed and she laughed and he held her tightly to him. After a few moments her breathing evened out and she was asleep. He would let her, for a while, before he woke her and sent her back to her chambers. Her words were wonderful, the ideas grand, but a sense of dread filled him. He knew not if he'd ever get the chance to hold her again. He had heard the rumors. As much as she said she loved him, what did he really have to offer? And how could they truly escape the desires of their King?
It didn't seem possible.