Half asleep, she rolls over to his side of the bed, tucking her knees up to her chest and pulling her long nightgown over her feet as she moves. Outside the warm circle of her body heat, the sheets here have grown cold, and she shivers as she draws the coverlet over her head to block out the pale, early morning light seeping through the window.
I wish someone would come in and stoke the fire, Mary thinks miserably.
I wish I had asked for another blanket.
I wish I had some warm manchet bread. And jam. Some warm bread and jam.
And then - because she is chilled to her bones, because the room is too quiet, because she longs for nothing more than to rest her head in that warm space between his neck and his shoulder - I wish Francis were home.
I wish Francis were home.
I wish Francis were home.
All other thoughts are crowded out by that one refrain. An endless loop in her mind. An open wound that will not heal. She buries her face in his pillow. She wouldn't even care about being cold or hungry, if he were home.
She wouldn't be cold or hungry, if he were home.
If only he were home.
She must have dozed off, for it seems only seconds later that she hears Ginette's familiar voice calling, "Pardon me, your Grace." She doesn't respond, and only burrows deeper into the feather mattress. Several moments pass before she hears Ginette speak again, more worriedly now. "Your Grace?"
"I'm here," she mumbles, her voice muffled under the bedclothes. She hears the clickety-clack of heeled footsteps approaching just before the blankets are suddenly and unceremoniously flung aside. She lets out a startled yelp, and blinks her eyes against the sunlight that is now pouring through the window, much brighter now. Yes, she most definitely had dozed off. Squinting through the glare, she sees the face of Catherine de Medici staring down at her, and her heart instantly stutters and slams out of beat. Catherine rarely visits her chamber, and when she does, it's usually because something has gone wrong.
Bolting upright in the bed, Mary immediately darts questioning eyes to Ginette, who lingers by the door and shrugs helplessly as if to say, I tried to stop her. Her gaze then shifts back to Catherine, and she swallows thickly.
"You've heard something." It isn't a question.
"Yes, a courier on horseback arrived early this morning."
"And?" She clutches Francis's pillow to her, her thoughts immediately dark. Oh God. Was he dead? Is that why Catherine had come, to deliver the news herself? Because if so, she couldn't bear to hear it. She couldn't. Not here, in their bed, clutching his pillow and wearing a nightgown sewn by the nuns as part of her trousseau, and worn for the first time on their honeymoon.
No. No. In a panic, she tosses the pillow aside and scrambles off the mattress, tangling her feet in the sheets and nearly tripping and falling flat on her face in the process.
Catherine's eyes follow her, bemused. "My dear, what on earth are you doing?'
Mary is all the way across the room now, her back against the far wall. "If you're going to tell me that he isn't coming home, I can't...I can't be in that bed when you do," she declares vehemently. "I'd never be able to sleep in it again. I'd have it dragged out behind the stables and burned."
"Oh, honestly, Mary." Catherine shakes her head with a scornful tut-tut of disapproval. "Do you think I could be this calm if I were delivering news such as that?"
The iron band that had been squeezing her lungs disappears as suddenly as it came, and Mary's knees go wobbly. She grasps the back of the chaise lounge for support. "So he's alright?"
"I've heard no news of Francis. The courier rode ahead of the army only to bring word that the men are on the march and expected to arrive sometime this afternoon."
"Yes, Mary. Today. Must you always be so dramatic?"
That was rich, coming from the woman who conducted dress rehearsals for her own execution, but Mary hardly cares about that now. She exhales for what feels like the first time in months, and sends up a quick, heart-felt prayer.
Thank you. Thank you for sending him back to me.
Catherine gathers her skirts to leave, but pauses halfway out the door. "You might want to get dressed. And comb your hair, dear. You look affright."
Mary has to fight the urge to roll her eyes. "I'll take that under advisement," she retorts, but she can't quite muster up her usual sarcasm toward her mother-in-law. She is too elated for that.
Before long she is standing in front of the looking glass of her dressing room, shifting her weight anxiously from one foot to the other as Kenna struggles to help her into her gown. "Mary, I will never get this thing laced if you don't stand still."
Greer glances up from where she sits on a nearby stool, embroidery hoop in one hand and needle in the other. Thanks to Mary's constant fidgeting, it is taking twice as long to get her dressed than usual. Unlike Kenna, however, Greer appears unperturbed. "Oh, leave her alone, Kenna. She's excited. You can't blame her."
Mary flashes her a grateful smile. "Excited and...nervous," she admits.
"Can't blame you for that either," Greer says kindly.
Mary runs her hands down the sides of her bodice and surveys herself in the small mirror. "Does this look alright?" she asks anxiously. "Or should I wear the black skirt with the -"
"No," Kenna growls, coming around from behind her to lace the cuffs of her sleeves. "I absolutely refuse to wrestle you into another gown. It's either this, or you're going naked."
Mary's thoughts immediately turn to Francis, and she blushes to the roots of her hair when Greer then catches her eye with a knowing smile. "I'm not sure Mary thinks that's a bad thing," she remarks cheerfully.
She begins to stammer, flustered. "No, no I only thought - "
"You don't have to explain, Mary," says Kenna, giving her shoulders a reassuring squeeze. "You miss him. You're ready for him to come home."
She spends the afternoon in the library, pacing up and down the long room with its view of the courtyard. Occasionally she pulls forth the folded sheet of parchment that she has tucked into her sash and, opening it, reads the words written thereon in angular, heavily slanted script:
Nevertheless I long - I pine, all my days -
to travel home and see the dawn of my return.
The lines are from the postscript of his most recent letter, received over a week before, which she recognizes from the Latin translation of the Odyssey which they used to pour over as children. He had always been drawn to its thrilling heroics and gore - Ulysses outsmarting the Cyclops, the journey to the Underworld, sailors snatched up into the jaws of Scylla and eaten alive.
In her mind's eye, she can almost see the two of them now: a pale faced girl whose ribbons were forever dangling loose and a boy with hair the color of burnished gold, lying on their stomachs against the soft carpet, the thick, leather-bound volume spread open between them.
"I like Circe. Ulysses gets all the credit, but he never would've made it home without her help."
"Circe? How can you like Circe? She turns men into pigs!"
"Lucky for you, you'd hardly know the difference."
She remains in the library until nothing is left of the sun but a splash of bright pink on the horizon, leaving behind a sky that is quickly deepening to purple, and casting the room in long shadows. Her ears are ringing from the strain of listening, listening for hours, listening in vain for the fanfare of an approaching trumpet, the sound of horseshoes clattering on the cobblestones of the Cour Ovale.
From behind her, someone softly clears his throat, which breaks the gloomy silence and nearly causes her to jump out of her skin. She whips around, hoping against hope that it might be him. Perhaps he had ridden ahead of the column of soldiers. Perhaps he -
But it is a servant who stands there, the gold fleur de lis of his livery gleaming dully in the shaft of light spilling in from the corridor. She manages to smile at him politely, refusing to give any sign of the disappointment that hits her like an anvil to the chest.
"Would you like some more wood added to the fire, your Grace?"
"No, thank you. I'm perfectly fine."
"If you intend to stay, I feel I should warn you that it will become much colder in here now that the sun has set."
She hesitates, reluctant to leave the library and its view of the darkening, empty courtyard, yet knowing that she cannot stay there all night, relentlessly pacing and waiting. She will go insane. She'll die. In the future, children will dart past the doorway and refuse to enter, whispering to one another, This is the room where Queen Mary went mad. See the path she wore into the carpet? When the moon is full, they say you can still see her ghost walking up and down, up and down, up and down.
"It's alright. I was just leaving."
She finds Catherine in her chambers, lounging in a fur lined robe and languidly popping grapes into her mouth as she reads from a stack of letters.
Without bothering to be announced, she strides purposefully through the door and stops once she has reached the center of the room. "You said they would be back today," she says accusingly.
Catherine looks up at her, unruffled. "I merely repeated the message sent here by the general. Something must have caused a delay." Both her words and her tone are smooth as silk, and yet it is there, a tiny flicker in her eye: she is worried, too. When it comes to her children, she is always worried.
Having learned long ago that seeking comforting words from the queen is nothing but futile, Mary spins on her heel without another word and stalks back to her chambers, where she picks at the plate of bread and cheese brought to her after she refuses to go down to dinner and attempts to write some letters. There is so much to be done, and yet she cannot concentrate. She looks down at the parchment before her and sees that she has written the word "Edinburgh" three times in succession, which she then savagely scratches out with the tip of her quill. Tiny inkblots splatter across the page, so she crumples it up and tosses into the fire out of frustration. It's no use trying to get anything done. Not tonight. Instead, she steps into her slippers and shuffles over to the window, pressing her nose against the cold glass as she gazes out. Beyond the lights of the chateau, everything is dark, shapeless. A black void.
Francis, where are you?
She is still leaning against the window frame when two of her servants arrive to ready her for bed. Compliant as a rag doll, she allows them to remove her skirt and stockings, the stiff petticoats and the intricately embroidered bodice. Once she is in her nightgown and robe they leave her, and there is nothing left for her to do but crawl once more into that huge bed. At his side, it has been her oasis in the desert and her harbor in the tempest, but without him it feels more like a funeral barge, and she has the sudden sensation that one more second in it alone will have her tearing out her hair. Her mind made up, she lights a taper, reaches for her robe and his pillow, and then makes her way out into the dimly lit corridor. She is immediately spotted by one of her guards, whom she waves away as he takes a questioning step towards her.
"It's nothing," she calls out. "I'm just going to see one of my ladies."
"Might I escort you, your Grace?"
"No, it's fine. Truly. But thank you."
It doesn't take long for Greer to answer her door. One look at the girl standing before her, white-faced and miserable, and her brow instantly furrows in concern. "Mary? What are you doing here? Is something wrong?" She leans out and glances up and down the corridor, as if the answer might lie in its shadowy recesses, but there is nothing. "And why are you carrying a pillow?"
Mary pulls it to her chest and crosses her arms around it. "I hope I didn't wake you."
"No, I was reading." Greer says nothing else and waits, her expression searching.
"I was just wondering…I mean, I was hoping…" Mary falters, and when she speaks again, no pretense of the queen addressing one of her ladies remains. Only the girl in need of her friend. "Can I please stay with you tonight?"
"Oh, Mary," says Greer, looking for a second as if she might cry, and then pulling her into a warm embrace. "Of course you can." Together, they step inside and close the door to the world behind them.
"Doesn't this remind you of when we were little girls?" Greer asks as they settle under the thick pile of blankets. "How we would take turns sleeping with you each night?"
Mary smiles. "And how we would always get in trouble for staying up too late and talking?"
Greer's voice deepens into a spot-on imitation of their former governess. "Good little girls say their prayers and go to sleep," she mimics. "They do not stay awake half the night giggling and poking fun at the Bishop of Meaux!"
Mary chuckles at the memory. "As if it were our fault that he reeked of malmsey wine and fell over the altar rail!"
"Oh, of course it was. Just like it was our fault the night we dove under the sheets and discovered that someone had dumped a pile of toads at the foot of the bed. And there we are, screaming our absolute heads off -I swear, I had to jump up and down to shake one out of my chemise! - and she's the one who gets so flustered that she runs straight into the wall and knocks herself out cold!"
They both dissolve into fits of laughter, and when she is finally able to speak once more, Greer wipes her streaming eyes and continues. "I can recall thinking very clearly, 'If she marries that little twerp after this, I'll never forgive her'."
"I gave him a good thwack upside the head as a reward, if it's any consolation."
"New Testament or Old?"
They fall silent, and Mary cannot stop thinking of the mischievous boy who had once dumped a bucketful of toads into her bed, and how she knows now that she had loved him, even then. Sensing her sudden melancholy, Greer reaches across the sheet for her hand, and they thread their fingers together just as they had done as children. "He's coming home, Mary."
Mary squeezes the fingers now entwined with her own, grateful to have such friends. "I know he is, Greer," she says with a sigh. "I know."
But, he doesn't. Not the next day, nor the day after. Mary refuses to go back to her rooms and continues to stay with Greer, whose steadfast belief that everything will be okay manages to keep her thoughts from turning to the worst.
On the third day, feeling that she will scream if one more person looks at her with concern or pity, she makes her way back to her old rooms and there, among Francis's swords and her long-abandoned toys, she wraps herself in one of his traveling cloaks and somehow manages to work through a stack of correspondence. It is the last thing she feels like doing, but allowing her mind to roam free is not an option. You are a queen, she tells herself as she affixes a wax seal to one of the letters. And if something has happened to Francis, you will still be queen. You don't have the luxury of wringing your hands and falling apart.
Later in the afternoon she wanders down to the stables to check on Hector, the Arabian thoroughbred sent by the sultan in Constantinople as a wedding gift. Francis had been immediately besotted by that damn horse, and on days when his responsibilities didn't permit him to ride, he made an effort to slip out to the stables anyway, even if all he had time to do was offer up an apple as a treat.
But Hector, unlike his namesake, was not bred for war, and so he, too, was left behind when Francis left to take Calais.
Mary finds him in his stall receiving a good brush-down at the hands of one of the stable boys, who cannot mask his surprise when she reaches out and asks, "May I?"
"Of course, your Grace."
The boy hovers briefly while she takes the brush and begins running the stiff bristles down the beautifully gleaming black coat. Once he sees that she knows what she is doing, he drifts away to check on a new foal, leaving Mary and Hector alone in the stall. The unexpected turnover in groomers has the stallion's ears twitching back and forth, so Mary makes soothing noises while she works until they once again droop in relaxation. "I know I'm not the one you're looking for," she murmurs, stroking the brush down his neck. "I miss him, too."
"Mary?" Her thoughts are shattered by the breathless ringing of a voice. "Mary, where are you?"
Footsteps pound across the packed-earth floor and moments later Kenna - red-faced and out of breath - rounds the corner of the stall. "Where have you been?" she cries. "We've been looking everywhere for you!"
Mary instantly freezes, the brush poised in mid-air. "Why?" Her voice comes out high-pitched and anxious, not at all like her usual self. "What's happened? Has there been some bad news?"
Kenna shakes her head, and to Mary's relief her face breaks into a grin. "No, you silly goose. They're back! One of the watchmen spotted them. They're marching toward the golden gate as we speak. You can see the banners through the lime trees! Mary - Mary, what's wrong?"
She hasn't moved. She has hardly breathed. She struggles to hold hope at bay until she is certain. "You're serious? You're sure?"
"Yes, and we've been searching for you ever since! They should be arriving any moment now, so come on!"
Instantly, Mary hurls the brush aside and grabs Kenna's hand, not even bothering to close the stall door before they take off running together. They pause briefly to collect Greer, who is awaiting them at the stable entrance, and then the three girls are dashing pell-mell across the grounds of the chateau, a colorful whirlwind of fluttering skirts and cloaks. They burst into the courtyard to find it packed with people, all waiting in anticipation of the army's return, and as she slows to catch her breath, Kenna and Greer fall back to give her some space. "It's strange how after months of waiting, these last moments are the most agonizing," she observes, but she is already distracted, her eyes searching for him even though no horsemen have yet entered the gate.
And then suddenly the crowd erupts in cheers of victory as the first of the cavalry stream into the courtyard. There is much waving and shouting and shedding of happy tears as men begin to dismount and seek out their wives and families among the pressing throng. Through the snatches of conversation around her, Mary hears them speaking of the melting snow that had turned many of the roads into impassable mud pits, and how the search for alternate routes had delayed them for days.
Mary stands on her tiptoes, desperate now for a better look. As dauphin, Francis would have ridden at the head of the army, but there is no sign of him. All around her soldiers are reuniting with loved ones, and she winds her way around them, leaving Kenna and Greer behind and craning her neck so that she might see past to the column of men who continue to funnel through the gate. She strains her eyes, knowing she will be able to recognize him by the sunlight gleaming off his fair hair, turning it to gold, just as it had the day she first returned to court.
She was waiting for him then, and she is waiting for him now. But she cannot find him.
Minutes pass, and she feels as if a shard of ice has lodged itself within her heart. Where on earth could he be? She blinks back the hot sting of tears that prick her eyes. She will not cry in front of all these people. A queen does not invite pity.
A harsh lesson, indeed, but one that she is slowly beginning to learn.
Had something happened to him during the final days of the campaign? Could he have fallen victim to some terrible illness? Such things happen all the time, and the very thought halts her in her tracks as a hundred possibilities tear through her mind, each more awful than the last.
If something has happened to Francis…
I won't just be a widow, she thinks, her throat beginning to tighten in despair. I'll be an orphan. She isn't sure how that could be true, but she knows that it is. She may be Scotland's daughter and queen, and her duties and responsibilities may forever lie with her, but it is Francis who reads aloud to her on long evenings, and Francis who once carried her down to the infirmary when she was ill with fever. It is Francis who taught her to skip stones across the lake, who took her out onto the promontory and showed her how to spot the constellations. And it is Francis who always listens, whether she is talking about affairs of state or playing her lute or teasing him about his messy morning hair and the thousand and one directions it manages to stick out from his head. She closes her eyes to shut out the images and -
She hears his voice and her eyes fly open as she whips her head toward the sound and instinctively begins pushing through crowd. Her eyes desperately scan the faces of the surrounding multitude, and still she does not see him. Where is he? Where - ?
And suddenly he is standing in front of her, the sunlight gleaming off his fair hair, turning it to gold.
He is there and he is kissing her and he is home.
Then he stops and rests his forehead against hers, and for one perfect moment there is no France or Scotland, no crowd of people clamoring around them, no kingdoms or crowns or treaties - nothing. She breathes him in and there is nothing else, nothing else in the world, save the two of them and her overwhelming joy at once again being able to reach out and touch his face.
But the moment cannot last forever, and finally she pulls back and stares up at him as tears seep from under her lashes. She doesn't bother wiping them away. She refuses to avert her gaze for even a moment, so starved are her eyes for the sight of him. "You came back," she whispers, and though the tears continue to spill over, she is smiling.
He beams at her, radiant, and she cannot help but lean into him once more. He wraps his arms around her, and when he presses his lips against her temple she begins to cry in earnest. She is suddenly exhausted, and wishes fervently that she had the power stop time so that they might spend eternity just as they are now, with the only thing that mattered being the fact that he has returned to her safe and sound.
It's such a pleasant little dream.
He feels her shaking and holds her tighter, stroking his fingers through her hair as he comforts her. "Shh...It's alright. I'm here. I'm home. I'm so, so glad to be home."
She draws a shuddering breath as her tears subside, and she nuzzles her cheek against that warm, familiar space between his neck and his shoulder that she has missed so much. "I know," she murmurs. "I'm glad to be home, too."