In 1605, King James I sat on the thrones of England and Scotland. A group of men, led by Robert Catesby, planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London to kill King James, Queen Anne, their children, and all the lords of England. The plotters were Catholics in a time when, at best, Catholics were fined into poverty, and at worst, they were burned at the stake.
William Cranmore is one of those men. Lark Alleyne, who started his working life at court, has been recruited as a spy and is put under the direction of Cranmore, who is to teach him the sword as well as the craft of spying. During the course of their work, Cranmore, a man who has never loved anyone, falls deeply in love with the sweet natured, overtly loving younger man.
Can William and Lark foil the Gunpowder Plot before the king and his family are murdered?
I’d thrown away the blood-stained wool hose I’d worn yesterday, and wore upper hose of red velvet to match my doublet and nether hose of black wool. My leather bear-paw shoes were very fashionable: I’d paid a full fortnight’s salary for them, and I resented that when he came to rest, William Cranmore set me on muddy ground. I wrinkled my nose and stepped out of the mire.
“Save your fancy apparel for festivals and dress more appropriately in future,” he said. “I’d suggest black. It’s less likely to be seen at night.”
“Why should that matter?” I loved my fancy clothes and was especially fond of scarlet velvet.
He smiled, but only with his mouth. “It might protect you from raperes in dark stairways. But perhaps you don’t really want to be protected.”
My hands flew to my hips. “How dare you suggest such a thing? Why do you think I carry a dagger?”
Without pause, Master Cranmore clouted me across the head. “Don’t use that tone with me or I’ll flog your arse with a stick.”
Memories of the floggings my father had given me remained vivid all these years later and I did not want a repeat of them. Rubbing my face, for he had caught me on the cheekbone and it hurt like a bee sting, I said, resentfully, “I have no sword.”
Master Cranmore beckoned one of the men at arms -- they were stationed all over the palace -- and when the soldier approached, he pilfered the man’s sword straight from the sheath before he could protest.
“Hand back my sword,” the soldier bellowed.
Using the man’s weapon to threaten him, Master Cranmore pricked the soldier’s neck with his own weapon until blood ran down his jerkin. “If I could disarm you that easily, you’re not fit to serve your King. You know who I am.”
Chin down, the soldier muttered, “Yes, Master Cranmore.”
“You have not been paying attention when I train the guards. Now shut up and watch.” The man did as he was told, as did others, and a crowd began to gather, watching us practice in the quadrangle for a while, and then dispersing until another crowd moved in.
Both awed by the man and slightly afraid of him, I spent the next couple of hours being shouted at, shoved, threatened, and criticised until I never wanted to see his face again. The surprise and pleasure with which I had greeted his presence in the kitchen was equalled now by my desire that he should leave my sight and never return to it, but I had learned a good deal and felt that I was beginning to understand swordplay.
At long length, Master Cranmore took the sword from my hands and sent it sailing through the air to its owner, who caught it by the hilt and walked away. Some of the men and women standing about applauded my efforts before wandering off about their business, and it was only then, exhausted and red in the face from exertion, that I heard a man say quietly to his companion, “He’s a pretty tart, and no mistake. He has a lovely arse, as soft as a virgin.”
I recognised his voice from the stairway the night before.
Had I not spent the better part of the afternoon being abused, I’d have taken note of his face and planned to pay him back later. But I was in a state of high excitement and anger over Master Cranmore’s treatment of me, and I pulled my dagger from my waistband and ran at the soldier, piercing his leather jerkin and making contact with the flesh of his middle. Too shocked to fight back, the man screamed, clutching at his belly as his blood ran freely.
“Scoundrel,” I screamed at him.
A hand closed over mine, and Master Cranmore removed my weapon while looking at the man who now lay on the muddy ground. “Was it him, Lark?”
“Yes, it was. I recognised his voice.”
“Get him to the surgeon,” Master Cranmore called out. We stood back as a group of soldiers lifted their comrade between them. “Stay away from the boy from now on. As you see, he’s becoming adept with a sword, and if his arm fails him -- mine will not.”
My innards still fluttering with the thrill of revenge, I watched the soldier being carried off growling and cursing. Had Will just threatened to defend my honour? He had! All the resentment of the last few hours melted away as he became my champion.
“Don’t do anything so stupid again. Learn to be circumspect, Lark,” he told me before striding off, leaving me somewhat deflated. I checked my clothing as I walked back inside the palace. My fine hose and doublet were spattered with mud. I must hurry to the kitchen and use the pump to clean myself, and then I’d better go in search of my lord who should be with the King at this time of the day, and I must look my best to appear before the King.