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This summer, Queen Elizabeth I is in no mood for games. She and her court were expecting to spend the warmer months lounging in great manor houses, feasting in the fields, tempting forbidden romance, and perhaps engaging in sport. But someone in the Queen's entourage isn't playing by the rules—and soon Elizabeth is dodging crossbows, longbows, and—worst of all—the threats of her greatest rival, Mary Queen of Scots. As bodies and clues pile up, the mystery and dangers deepen like the surrounding forests. Now Elizabeth must fearlessly confront her foes before she loses her crown—or her life.
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Though she was riding sidesaddle with but one hand holding the reins, Elizabeth Tudor spurred her horse to a faster gait, forcing the others to keep up with her. Her crimson hair spilled loose from her snood, her skirt flapped, and the hooded hawk perched on her leather-gauntleted hand spread her great gray wings as if to fly.
The queen was desperate to escape the palace, where problems proliferated like rabbits, or rather, she thought, like rats—perhaps even the sort that leave a leaking ship. She heaved a huge sigh.
“Your Grace, what’s amiss?” her dear friend Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who alone kept pace beside her, asked. “Do you feel well enough to test the new hawk?”
“Of course I do! I’ve led you a merry chase this far today.”
Even her longtime court favorite’s fervid attentions hardly helped her disposition, however dashing he looked ahorse. He was attired much too grandly for riding and flying her new gerfalcon, the breed fit for a king. Robert, whom she had called Robin all the years they had known each other, had given her the hawk as an early birthday gift. ’S blood, she was nearly thirty-six, she realized, and shook her head, which tumbled more tresses free.
With the excuse of testing the prowess of the bird, the queen had brought a small entourage on a morning’s robust ride. She could not wait for her summer progress through Surrey and Hampshire that she had just decided on last night. Though she’d chosen hosts for the journey who needed testing themselves, it always heartened her to be out among the common folk of England.
“This looks to be a good spotwith a bit of open ground,” she announced as she reined in. “We shall fly Swift here.”
Being watchful to keep the bird facing the wind so she wouldn’t beat the air with her huge wings, the queen dismounted with Robin’s steady hand on her free arm and her loyal guard Jenks holding her horse. The queen’s handsome, young falconer, Fenton Layne, four other guards, and two of her ladies-in-waiting hastened to follow their sovereign’s lead.
St. James’s Park had most often been used by the Tudors to hunt deer; by ordering the surrounding marshes drained, her father, King Henry VIII, had created access to it near his country retreat of St. James’s Palace. Elizabeth seldom used the old redbrick edifice, but she loved the crooked, wooded lanes and ragged bits of open meadow. It was but a half hour’s ride from her main London palace of Whitehall, though she seldom managed a visit.
For each time she snagged a few hours for herself, more couriers came with news of Mary, Queen of Scots’s plotting, though Mary was now England’s “guarded guest” in the north of England. Or messengers rode in with word of Spanish hostilities on the seas. Worse, couriers conveyed rumors of possible rebellion in England, a future uprising led by her own northern lords, men who were entirely too close to Elizabeth’s Catholic cousin Mary in more ways than one. And almost every time William Cecil, her trusted chief secretary of state, called on her, it boded only bad news and dire dangers.
“The sun and wind feel good,” she told Robin. “I pray this mild weather continues as the court moves south next week. We’ll go first to Oatlands, then to Guildford and Farnham, even to the River Meon and clear to the south Channel. I seldom see the sea with its vast waters, fresh and free.”
“You’ve made a little sonnet upon it. Our queen is a poet and doesn’t know it,” he teased, obviously trying to lighten her mood, though, since she’d declared she would not wed him, Robin had moped about a great deal himself.
“I need diversion, it’s true,” she admitted quietly, so the others would not hear. “With all this wretched talk of attacks on our meager navy by those Spanish bullies who think they own the seas, I look forward to hearing from Captain Francis Drake. I shall send word he is to meet us at one of our destinations on the progress.”
“Rough, untutored sea dogs, all those captains from the west country,” Robin muttered, his tone taut. “Drake and his cousin John Hawkins—they’re all pirates at heart, so beware you do not trust or heed Drake overmuch.”
“Robin,” she said, as she stroked the gerfalcon’s gray back to calm her, “I swear, but you sound jealous—or envious.” She sighed again. “But I am envious, too. To be land-bound, England-bound, as I shall ever be, is right for a queen, but I would like not only to see the sea but go to sea.”
He hooted a laugh but stopped in midyelp when she glared at him. He quickly sobered. “It’s a hard life, Elizabeth,” he whispered, using her first name as he did only in their moments of privacy.
“ ’S blood and bones, everyone thinks I am coddled and spoiled, but I know much of a hard life, and you’ll not tease or gainsay me on that.”
She turned away from the others pressing close and put her hand to the feathered and tufted green felt hood that covered the hawk’s head. Instantly, her falconer, Fenton, broad-shouldered, blond, and blue-eyed, stepped forward to be ready to take it from her when she freed the bird to fly.
But before she snatched off the hood, she heard something that made her pause. Thunder on this clear day? No, hoofbeats, distant ones but coming closer. Swift sidestepped on her hand, still blinded by the hood and snared by the leather jesses that tethered the bird’s ankles to her fist. The small bells on the jesses jingled as the foot-and-a-half-tall bird of prey tensed in anticipation.
The queen frowned into the sun to see who approached. When she was young and exiled from her father’s court for being Anne Boleyn’s daughter, she had learned to fear a quick, unheralded approach by anyone, for it usually boded ill. Queen she might be, but some things still haunted her heart.
Robin, too, turned in the direction of the hoofbeats and covered his eyes to squint across the little meadow. Four riders burst from the line of trees. Behind her, Elizabeth heard Jenks and several others scrape their swords from their scabbards.
“It’s Cecil and his men,” she called to them, but her pulse did not stop pounding. “He must have news that could not wait.”
Still holding the hawk, Elizabeth strode to meet her chief advisor as he reined in several yards away. She recognized those with him, all Cecil’s underlings, a scrivener, two guards, and his favorite courier, Justin Keenan, a handsome man, who often rode back and forth with important documents between Cecil and the court when he was elsewhere on queen’s business.
“Bad news, my lord?” she called to him.
Though only forty-eight years of age, the man was out of breath, but then Cecil’s strength was in his intellect and loyalty, not his body. He was thin with a shovel-shaped brown beard, which was turning as silvery as frost.
“Only the news that you yourself created, Your Grace, in your suddenly ordering the court to prepare for a progress,” he got out in one ragged burst, bowing briefly before rising to face her eye to eye. “Before word reaches those I hear will be your hosts, I need to speak to you about the wisdom of it all.”
“Cecil, I am indeed going on my annual progress. I refuse to let either Englishman or foreigner think that threats to my kingdom rile me in the slightest, nor will my concerns about Queen Mary of Scots stop me. She is under my control, although I warrant she hardly realizes that yet, even if her dangerous allies mayhap do.”
“But to be out of the capital with the threat of the northern rebellion possibly exploding in support of a Catholic queen to replace you on the throne—”
“I am heading south, not north, dear Cecil. Granted, you must needs stay behind in London at least for some of the time, to keep an eye on that serpent of a new Spanish ambassador de Spes. And I am taking along my second-least favorite cousin, Thomas Howard—the great and grand and glorious Duke of Norfolk, at least in his own eyes. That way he can’t get into mischief with Mary or the fomenting rebellion, for I’ll have him tied to me like this,” she added, and lifted her wrist with the bird to show it was firmly tethered by the straps she held.
“But your plans to stay at both Loseley and Titchfield, hosted by Catholic hosts of highly questionable loyalty . . .” He cleared his throat, then lowered his voice even more. “I realize you have ever had a policy of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer, but with the Spanish so on edge far too near our borders here or even in the New World—”
“I planned to explain it all to you when I returned after flying my new falcon. Look you, Cecil,” she said as she whipped the hood from the bird and, loosing the jesses, cast her skyward. Swift’s great wings spread as she leaped free, beating the air, circling to climb to a great, soaring height from which she would see and strike her prey.
The queen could tell Cecil still felt thwarted and overthrown. “Yes, Your Majesty,” he said, his voice hardly audible over the cheers of the others. “Not only do all your enemies make a fatal error if they believe you are off on a mere jaunt of summer diversions, but—” He stopped and hacked into his fist.
“But what?” she asked, as she watched the gerfalcon swoop like a shot toward some feckless prey they could not yet see.
“I was just thinking that, though that gauntlet is still on your hand, this supposedly carefree royal progress you propose is indeed throwing a gauntlet down in the face of all your enemies, be they English, Scottish, or Spanish.”
“And so, as ever, we understand, trust, and support each other perfectly, my Cecil.”
Pointing up at the diving hawk, she turned and shouted to everyone, “Look, Swift has already flushed something!” Lifting her skirts, with the others in pursuit, she set off at a run toward where the bird had plunged to earth for its kill.
Copyright © 2007 by Karen Harper. All rights reserved.