Excerpt from Chapter One – MAID MARIAN
“A bonny fine maid of noble degree”
I dreamt that night of Atalanta, the fleet-footed maiden of my school-room lessons, who raced every man who dared challenge her. Atalanta, dark hair flying, flashed through my dreams like a blackbird in flight. She danced everywhere, in the wind, in the sun, across the field of ripening wheat, but when a hand gripped my shoulder she danced away, a spark disappearing into blackness.
The hand belonged to the queen of England, who herself contained all the power a king’s widow deserved. When I opened my eyes, I saw her there, heard her raspy breathing in the windless night, saw the age spots on her hands. She sat by my side, stroked my hair, and spoke without preamble.
“Your husband is dead, Lady Marian.”
“Dead?” I stared at her a moment, stunned more by the words and the notion than by the loss of a husband I neither loved nor trusted.
“Dead? How? How has he died?”
“A long sickness brought on by riding a tournament too early in the season. He had the best physicians, even the king’s own man, but blood-letting, no matter how well done, cannot save one who is already far gone. These things happen, you know, tragic though it may be. I would not trouble yourself, my dear child, if I were you.”
I believe I gasped, for to find my prospects so instantly altered stole away all of my breath. The queen had bid me not to trouble myself, but the more I considered, the more discomfited I became. In the strange ways of the mind, my thoughts became twisted, raveled together, so that Atalanta seemed almost to have brought death to Hugh’s young heart. I thought of his face, of his blood pooling in the catch-basin, and a deep shudder skidded down my spine.
The queen saw me start, saw me fall befuddled, and caught the chance to gather her skirts and slip through the door before I found my tongue. I caught a look from her as she exited, a penetrating glance such as one uses when peering through smoke. ‘Twas the look of the wary, of one who guards a secret — I had not expected it to fall from the face of my queen.
There I remained, all perplexed and alone. Annie, my tender nurse of childhood, was away on an errand of her own — I had no one to comfort me, no one to help me discern my way. For what course was I to take from here? What future lay spread for me now that Hugh was no more? Too, I was struck by the irregular honor of finding the queen in my own chamber. Surely this was no coveted task, to tell a young bride of her bride-groom’s death. What, then, made her come to me herself?
This question kept me from my sleep near half the night. When I dozed at last, the queen’s cold eyes played in my dreams, mingling together with glimpses I’d caught of her years before, when I was a child — dressed in her crimson cape, or bending from her carriage window. I knew her little, and she knew even less of me. What could have prompted her attention? The strangeness of it caught in my throat, like bread swallowed down with no wine to follow.
The next morning, when I ventured forth, I asked after Hugh wherever I could. At first the reports of his death seemed mild, but news traveled slowly from across the channel, and I had to let the rumors mellow before the wilder tales surfaced. Then I heard riddles enough to confound Aristotle. The knights told me that Hugh had been stricken by God for having got drunk on the feast of Saint Lawrence last August. The monks said he’d been thrown from his horse and trampled to death beneath its hooves. And his own page thought he had choked on a bowl of eels, prepared for him specially by the king’s cooks.
These confused, dissimilar reports frightened me and made me wonder what veil of secrecy had been pulled around Hugh’s death. My fear reminded me of a resolve I made four years before, at age thirteen, to never trust any living person in this world. It seemed my young husband might have survived his life better had he learned this lesson as well as I.
My earliest memory is of Nurse feeding me gruel with a horn spoon and me thrusting the spoon aside, just to see what would happen. My wedding was sometime later, when I passed my fifth birthday. I recall very little beyond the stiffness of the clothes I was made to wear and the weight of some jewels tugging at my headdress. I was taken by Nurse to kneel in the chapel, to smell the incense which even today can make me feel reverent. I saw Hugh beside me, looking miserable in his velvet tunic, his blond curls falling like tufts of wool against his brow. We had been raised as obedient children, so we knelt in our places and repeated the words we were told to say until finally it all finished, and we could run and skip again.
I recall Nurse telling me afterwards that Hugh and I were married. She showed me a ring in a leather box, that she said was a symbol of it. I thought perhaps marriage meant that Hugh and I were brother and sister, for I knew other children who had siblings and longed to be like them. Nurse said yes, it was something like that. And from that day forward, I noticed that when I pushed my spoon rudely away, she stowed her reprimand and merely offered the spoon once more with a coaxing smile.
My childhood, as any childhood should be, was made up of small habits and smaller routines. Recitations to the tutor were followed by meals, followed by naps, followed by playtime. But like any child — or any adult looking back upon childhood — it is the odd changes in routine which break out in memory, glowing amongst the dim grays of youth.
Christmas and Easter burn bright in my memory. If King Henry and his lady, Queen Eleanor, were in England, they were sure to call every noble person to Westminster castle for a grand court, so all might recollect the king’s majesty and vigor. We lived far to the north of London, and while travel during the winter months is always bitter, our long journeys through snow and mud seemed scarcely survivable.
The empty scent of winter still brings those journeys to mind — the soreness of being jostled all day on an ill-fitting saddle, the outer wraps which froze stiff from the damp mist of breath. Worst of all were the hours spent waiting while the men pried vainly at a wagon wheel, stuck fast in the mud. I liked to watch the men at their work, to learn what I could about horses and wagons and while away the next hour imagining how I might loosen a stuck wheel, were I master of the cart.
Days would pass, the air would grow warmer, and we would arrive at London town and then Westminster, both of which have grown similarly crowded and muddy in memory. There, in a wink, the relentless cold was changed over for heat and noise and the merriment of Christmas time. The great stone walls were always stuffed thick with men and ladies decked in velvet, trimmed with fur, hung all about with their best brooches, mirrors, and tassels. Fires leapt up the chimney towers with flames higher than my head, and dogs, excited by excitement itself, ran barking through the halls. Within the castle all was good food, spiced wine, treats made of sugar, colored yellow with saffron. Everyone was loud and joyous, and my eyes couldn’t move quickly enough to take it all in.
At these great courts I was generally called to pay my respects to Hugh’s mother, Lady Pernelle of Sencaster. This lady, I’ve heard, once was lovely, but years of worry had tightened her face until she resembled a walnut shell, hard and fixed in its dents and wrinkles. She was effusive in her love for Hugh and, as my mother-in-law, regularly stared at me with what I called her gaze of ‘measuring up.’ It was plain that I would never approach whatever height I ought to measure up to, and this left me feeling compressed in her presence. As a result I avoided her, taking up instead with Hugh, or climbing onto Nurse’s knee instead of Lady Pernelle’s. I suppose I alienated her by behaving thus, but children will act on instinct and rarely consider consequences.
Hugh moved in and out of my early life with the evenness of the tide. I was never surprised to see him; he was never surprised to see me; we simply picked up our play wherever we had left off the time before. In wintertime we threw balls of snow and slipped about on frozen lakes, and in summer we pranced on hobby horses or wove ourselves daisy chains. We were great friends. Once, at a meeting of some important people at Leicester town, we ran off and hid in the dove cote, pretending to be wild pigeons. I believe we had just perfected the art of cooing deep in our throats when it became dark and we, being young, fell asleep. Nurse found us there, well past midnight, surrounded by birds sleeping on their perches, with feathers matted in our hair.
I remember that night vividly, for when Nurse carried me away from the dovecote to my own place in our bed, the night air was freezing cold. I remember wanting to bury my face in her warm neck, but just then I looked up and saw the sky filled with more stars than I’d ever seen before. My thoughts of the cold vanished, and I gasped in silence at that great vision, so like a sheet of watery diamonds, glinting on rolling waves of the sky.
Artwork by JW Waterhouse.