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I had never known my mother; she had died giving me life. Whether my father loved her or not remains a mystery to me, though I am inclined to believe that he did not. Not completely, at the very least. As the last of her life's blood seeped from her, I was handed off onto a wet nurse to be forgotten for a time, my father disappearing from our lives for more than a year. He returned with a new bride after that, who took over the running of the house. She ordered the help, saw to that the castle was presentable, catered to the number of guests that came and went from the grounds. What she didn't look after, the housekeeper, Madame Wilkes, did. Where we once lived in quiet and peaceful seclusion, our household now bustled with boisterous life.

My father's wife was Lady Cecilia. She will always be that to me. I never called her Mother, or my lady, or even Lady Manners. From the beginning she did not like me, and, in time, I learned to return her affections in kind. She was not unattractive per say; her face was long and slender, her eyes piercing in their gaze, but her face was also hard and cold as iron. She had been a widow, as my mother had been before her, when my father married her. I often wondered at his choice in quiet moments, but then it was plain to me from an early age that love held no part in their union. She was a wealthy woman, still of an appropriate age to bare children. More importantly, to birth him sons.

The majority of our household avoided me, lest they risk the scorn of their mistress. I was left for my nurse, Mary, to look after. She fed me, clothed me, made sure I was clean and groomed. She raised me as her own, and even took me to worship with her and her son amongst the Catholics; the church of my mother.

"She can hear you, Sweetling," she used to tell me when we would go to light candles. "Your momma can hear you when you need her to. She is with the angels now."

From that time on I often went to pray when I felt lost, or the empty craving for my mother's touch overwhelmed me.

Mary was a gentle soul, and a wise woman. As the years passed on she took to becoming my maid instead of my nurse. She taught me to read in my nursery when I was old enough, the way she had taught herself. We read what we could find; the Bible, a prayer book, tracts and sermons from the kind old priest from our church, as well as ballads and small literature that she chanced upon. As I grew more adept I searched the manor for more things to read, combing the rooms and my father's library. I took whatever caught my interest, reading to Mary about myths and legends of the Greeks and Romans, philosophy, astrology—works my family would not have approved of; I especially loved the stories of Atalanta. Adventure and discovery. That was the life I wanted.

The expression Mary gave to me then would haunt me for many years. Her eyes filled with a knowing sorrow and sympathy; those were things far beyond my reach, never to be attained. I had been born a girl.

She quickly rushed to assuage my disappointment. One day I would marry a high lord, keep his house and bare his children, and see them off on their own adventures. I was better off spending my time learning the other great arts so that one day I would attract the attention of the one I wanted, not the one pushed at me. Just like Atalanta.

I read on defiantly, holding my book so she could no longer see me. My face had crumpled into a mask of misery, the tears threatening to spill over. I had never realized before that moment that having been born female would be such a grievous disability. Perhaps Mary is wrong, I thought to myself. She was only a servant, not the highborn daughter of a wealthy man. She couldn't possibly tell me what I could and could not become.

I continued on as I had before, wandering the house as I pleased, always careful to avoid the Lady Cecilia or her ill-tempered housekeeper, Madam Wilkes. My father was often away on business, always trying to reach higher than his grasp had been before, and his lady was a woman bread of high society who constantly found herself away, floating from one party to the next in order to flaunt her status and remain close to the freshest gossip. I seemed to be there as an afterthought, a pretty thing to be shone to guests, an addition more often bullied than loved. And frequently ignored.

We lived in a castle in Lincolnshire called Belvoir, a stone's throw away from the villages of Redmile, Knipton, and several others. Our home was old; it wasn't large in the way of most castles, but it had been in the possession of my family for more than a hundred years and remained the seat of the Barons de Ros ever after my father and I. In rare moments when I was able to find time alone with my father, he would tell me of the grand legacy that was our family's name and how we would make it greater. This castle was a sign of that greatness. It sat at the crest of a great hill overlooking the forest and meadows. And though it was remote, we did not lack for company. My father and Lady Cecilia's ambitions brought visitors from near and far, business men and courtiers too curious to stay away. At one time they even had the honor of hosting the king, himself. To me, it was a wild playground unequal to anything else I had ever known.

My father did not spend all of his time at Belvoir. At least part of every year he was in London, playing at court. I knew that his trips were important; his favor with King James was largely what paid for our extravagant life here, but as I grew older, I began to resent his absence. When he did return to us, I would scold him and pretend to be angrier than I was, even though he brought me presents to carry my favor. A horse—which died—and a dog that Gage turned mean. A dead horse and a foul-tempered dog were no excuse for an absent father. When he was away, I would wander into his study late in the night and curl up in his chair. The room was large and dark, like all the others, and in his absence it seemed even emptier than before.

When he was at home, the candles would all be lit, the fire put to a blaze, and his study would come into being again, breathing life back into the castle. It became my favorite place in the world. It was filled with the most wonderful things from his travels, or that had been given to him as gifts from the various people who came to visit him. A beautiful ornament of polished white marble, silver, and glittering jewels in the shapes of spiders sat on one of the taller shelves of the bookcase, brought all the way from Prussia. And beside it sat a box of lustrous black wood inlaid with gold leaf, which he said contained an old book hidden within its confines, brought with him from Vatican City in Rome. And the room held an assortment of other wonderful objects from so many far away places. A great map drawn and painted by a Danish mapmaker of high renown, carved elephants tusks from across the Mediterranean, seashells from Italian shores, cups of silver from Germany.

Among my favorite things of his was a globe of dark wood, expertly crafted in Spain, which sat in the corner of the room. Across its face, in lines of black and red, were the countries of seven continents painted with delicate hands. Sometimes we would stand together, spinning the globe before stopping it with both hands, tracing the countries with our fingers as we told off the names, like blind men reading a face. He was proud of the things he had done, proud of his curiosities. He liked to point out the distant lands from which his treasures had come. To me, they became as familiar and ordinary as pewter or the pottery of other homes.

My father had come from an insignificant noble family but, being venturesome in his youth, and ambitious besides, he and his brothers had set out to travel across Europe and even spent time as rebels among our own countrymen. He had been lucky to walk away with his life. Then, in a miraculous twist of fate, he had somehow found himself in the favor of the king, rather than a head on a spike.

I loved to hear the tales of his life before my birth, and he often loved to tell them. I would sit on his knee as he held me, my head resting against his shoulder, and take comfort in his warmth, his voice, and the sound of his heartbeat so close to my own. He would tell me of the people he had met, the places he had been, and the things he had seen.

My favorite stories were of his sword. It was a fine piece of steel, a rapier expertly crafted by a great forger. The hilt was gilded in a polished white gold, emblazoned with the fluer de lis in a sparkle of glittering gems, and the pommel was laid with silver thread and velvet of dark blue. I never saw him use it, never saw him even lift it from its casing, but he claimed that it had once belonged to a great musketeer of France. He called it Destin.

~o~

Besides his life at court, my father also had a number of other responsibilities bestowed on him by the crown. He held title as Knight of the Bathe, Earl of Rutland and Lord-lieutenant of Lincolnshire, and later even became the constable of Nottingham Castle and a keeper of Sherwood Forest. Though he only spent part of the year at court, he was more often away on business than at home.

Mary taught me to read, but I learned to letter and number in my father's study. My copy books were the invoices and accounts, logs and bills of lading he used in his daily business. I liked to sit at his desk, cramped by the scatterings of paper that crowded it. I felt closer to him then; the room smelled of him, and it were as though a small part of him had been left behind.

Laboriously copying out lists of names and goods, balancing them against sums of money, helped to distract my mind from his absence. I'd do it for mornings together, covering myself in ink and pages and pages in words and figures. Finally, Mary discovered what it was I had been up to. She shooed me from the room, and chased me out to play elsewhere.

I would run down to the kitchens, begging Gage for some of the sweets that he had made that day or some honeybread, then I would be off to find William.

I had always known William. From my first memory we had been together. His mother was my Mary, and there had never been a time when he was not there with me. Mary had raised me as one of her own until I was three or four, when my father had plucked me from her arms to raise separate from her son, the way one might pluck a puppy from a litter. As a young child, he was an indulgent parent—some might say too indulgent—and I remember only kindness from him; it was not until much later in my life that I would learn different. I was left to run wild across Belvoir, spending most of my time getting into mischief with the other children of the castle and neighboring villages.

I did not want for playmates. The castle, neighboring fields, and trafficking roads attracted children from all around. I led them on with my pockets full of sugary sweets and cakes twisted up in paper. "Spice," they called it. "Got any spice, Cathy?" We made playthings out of whatever we could find: swarming through the field, playing king-of-the-hill, making seesaws with planks, rolling barrel hoops along with sticks, climbing trees, and swinging from the branches.

William was our leader, and his word was law. I was the mate to his captain, and together we led a marauding crew across the countryside.

My mind was made up. Even then. I knew what I would do.

My father had no plans for me, other than that I was to be married. It was in this that I would prove most helpful. My father needn't bother himself with the trouble of finding me a groom; I was a smart girl, capable of choosing for myself. William was destine to do great things, just as his father had in serving the king, and when he was bound off on his own adventures, I would follow as his wife. Had we not already sworn a solemn oath to each other? Pricking our palms and bleeding them together? He was bound for greatness, and so I would go with him.

I was certain of this. William was as good a choice as any—the best choice—and I wasn't one to change my mind easily. Why would I? It did not occur to me that we would not always be together. His life would always be mine, too.

We lived for each day, and each day was similar to the one before. That was our life, and it was a good one. We thought it would always be that way, until we arrived at the future we saw for ourselves. How were we to know the future was to be so much darker than all that.


The Three Musketeers © Alexandre Dumas . The Three Musketeers (2011) © Summit Entertainment

The Duchess © andromeda-smile

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