"Sign it, damn you!" Edward shouted.
Elizabeth laid her head on her arms and sobbed, "Edward, I can't. God help me, I can't do it."
His anger melted away as he saw her shoulders shake, and he knew her anguish was real. She wasn't just being obstinate this time. Edward knelt down beside Elizabeth's chair and took one of her hands into his own. "Bess, you must. You know you must. The Queen of Scots will not cease to plot against you. She cannot stop. And can you blame her? What would you do if you were in her place, imprisoned by another queen for these eighteen years?"
Elizabeth gave a small laugh through her tears. "I would plot. But I would be better at it, I wager."
Edward nodded. "She knows now you will never release her as long as she lives. She wants her freedom and the only way to have it is to overthrow you entirely. It is all or nothing, Bess. She has no other choice."
"How could she not know we would discover this?" Elizabeth muttered, gesturing to the small pile of coded letters Mary Stuart had thought she was sending to co-conspirators, but in reality were going right into the hands Elizabeth's spies. "To be taken in such a shallow ruse ..."
"She's stupid," Elizabeth retorted, and if there was any sin she could not forgive, it was stupidity. "Walsingham fed her just enough rope to fashion her own noose."
Edward tapped the documents in front of her. The death warrant for the Queen of Scots was on top of the pile, waiting only for her signature for it to be implemented. "And now you must employ it."
Elizabeth scraped the tears off her cheeks with the heels of her hands, wiping away the white lead makeup she wore as her Gloriana mask, revealing the wrinkled, mortal flesh below. She shook her head, and the diamonds she wore in her red wig caught the light. "Edward, I cannot. I cannot shed the blood of an anointed queen. She was right, you know ... The court did not have a right to judge her. No mortal does. Kings and queens are accountable only to God." She paused and rotated the ruby and pearl ring on her finger, the one that secretly contained a miniature of her mother. "At least, they should be. Though I would not be the first to shed royal blood, to do so makes my own vulnerable. It sets a very dangerous precedent."
"You have no other choice. As you yourself know, it is only a matter of time before a determined plotter will find a way to get a message into the right hands. As long as she lives, she is a symbol to rally around for every Catholic rebel in the kingdom. Mary Stuart will not stop until one of you are dead. Sign it."
Elizabeth rubbed her temples. "You have no doubt in this at all, do you?"
"I have no joy in shedding her blood, I assure you. She's my cousin, too, Bess. But I know the truth as surely as you know it. She is the heir with the strongest claim. You refused to sign the Parliament bill that would have barred her from the throne."
"You know why I - "
Edward held up a hand. "Yes, I do. But the fact remains that most people believe she is the next in line of succession. And there are those who would rejoice to have a Catholic monarch on the throne again. More than you care to admit. "
Elizabeth scowled. "My clever plan to avoid naming my heir in order to avoid a faction growing around them has not been as successful as I might have hoped."
"If you will not pick, then people will guess." Edward shrugged. "Treason though it may be to imagine the death of the queen, people cannot avoid speculating what the future may bring, and there are those who would choose to attempt to shape that future to their liking. Sign it."
Elizabeth looked back down at the document. "Edward, I cannot. James - "
"- will do nothing," Edward interjected. "He has demonstrated very little interest in the fate of his mother. He has been raised a Protestant and taught to believe she had his father killed and then eloped with the murderer. He has no memories of her, no personal or emotional connection to her."
"That may be, but she is still his mother, still his blood. Royal blood."
Edward nodded. "And yet he has not lifted a finger to free his mother from captivity. You know well enough James is happy to have Mary off his hands. It spares him the cost of supporting her in the manner her status requires, and keeps her from trying to interfere with his Protestant reign. Oh, he will protest her execution. He might even threaten or demand some sort of reparation, but he will do nothing, as he has done nothing for these last eighteen years. Nor will her French relatives. Nor the Pope. It will be naught but words they feel they must say to save face, but in reality, all will be glad a troubling problem has been solved."
"You are saying nothing I do not already know, Edward." Elizabeth traced her finger over the lettering on the warrant. "I just - "
"Bess." Edward met her eyes and held her gaze for a long moment. "Sign it."
Tears sparkled on her lashes. She picked up the quill, and hesitated for one last moment before she scrawled her name in the upper left corner, "Elyzabeth R." It looked nothing like her usual neat and graceful signature, ornamented by swirls and flourishes. She tossed some sand on it from the shaker, so it could be rolled up immediately without smearing and shoved it to a corner of her desk. She stood, staring down at Edward for a long moment before she said, "I don't want this implemented yet." And with that, she deliberately turned her back, walking over to stare at the window.
Edward understood. He took the document, rolled it up and stuck it into the pocket inside his doublet. He inwardly sighed, because Bella would not be happy when he told her he'd likely have to stay in the Tower for a time.
Elizabeth turned back to face him. Her shoulders were trembling. And her face ... She looked defeated, weary and grieved as Edward had rarely seen her. In that moment, she looked older than her fifty-four years. The dark circles beneath her eyes spoke of her recent sleepless nights. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, Edward thought.
"Ah, Bess." Edward pulled her into his arms and she sagged into his arms and released the sobs that wracked her slight frame. Edward made soothing sounds until she quieted. Over in the corner, Elizabeth's chief gentlewoman, Blanche Parry, looked up from her embroidery to meet his eyes. Even with her cousin, Elizabeth always had at least one of her ladies present as a chaperone. She knew her reputation was precious. The loss of Mary's was one of the contributing factors to why she was here, Elizabeth's prisoner.
Elizabeth pulled herself away from him and wiped her face after taking a few deep breaths. The mask was back in place. Her shoulders straightened and she resumed her seat at the desk, smoothing the papers there with her long, graceful hands.
"I'll be alright, Edward," she said. "Go on home to your wife."
Edward kissed her forehead and gathered up his things. He was exhausted. It was only a few hours to dawn. Bess watched him go, lifting a hand as he paused in the doorway to give her a smile.
"You've done only what you must," he told her.
"As I always have," she replied. There was a hint of bitterness in her tone, and in the twist of the small smile she gave him. She turned her head away, and the diamonds in her wig glistened in the firelight like frozen tears.
Edward had one last stop to make before he could go home. he rode for Burghley House. The servant who answered the door ushered him upstairs to William Cecil's office immediately. Apparently, Elizabeth's Secretary of State was just as sleepless as the Virgin Queen he served. Edward found Cecil seated at his desk, quill poised, and a questioning look on his face.
Edward wordlessly extended the death warrant. Cecil snatched it from him and unrolled it. As soon as he spied the signature at the top, Cecil dropped it to his desk and bowed his head. "Thank God. At last."
Edward didn't reply. He turned to go.
He stopped without looking back. "What, Lord Burghley?"
"Your efforts have spared your country the agonies of rebellion or civil war. Thank you."
Somehow, Edward didn't feel better. Despite the threat Mary represented, Edward could not rejoice at her death, or his part in it. He made a noncommittal sound and headed out of the house to where his horse was still waiting for him. He rode back to Hampstead Heath, arriving at the door just as the sun was beginning to peek over the horizon. He headed up to his chamber, divesting himself of his doublet and hose as he strode through the bedroom. He slipped into the bed beside Bella, wearing only his shirt, snuggling against her warm, sleepy body.
"Bess finally signed the Queen of Scots's death warrant," he said.
"I know," Bella replied. "She had to do it."
With a jolt, Edward realized he was no longer in the dream. He was speaking aloud to his wife. He sat up, pulling out of her arms. His heart hammered as he stared around his bedroom, so much different from the one he'd entered in his dream, with its yards of lush fabric and gilded furniture. But the woman lying in the bed was the same, and she had just answered him as though she knew what he was talking about.
He stared at her and she sat up, pushing back her tumbled dark brown hair.
"I don't know what is happening to me," he said. "It was like I was really there."
Bella didn't reply. She didn't laugh and say dreams could be like that. She didn't dismiss it by saying it was impossible, a silly fancy created by his sleeping mind. She didn't say anything, and somehow that made a stronger statement than words could have done.
His breath stopped.
Bella took one of his shaking hands her own. She laid it over her heart. "Trust me, Edward. There is no need to fear it, I swear."
"Are you causing these ... visions?" Had she bewitched him in some way? Had all of those books he read left his mind open to being invaded by these strange thoughts? Everything his faith had taught him until this point urged him to renounce those worldly influences, to publicly denounce them and plead for forgiveness to try to cleanse his spirit of these strange experiences. But despite his fear, these visions did not feel like demonic possession.
They felt like ... memories.
A cry from little Emmett in his cradle shook Edward out of his frozen state and he slid from the bed.
With his father's roof finished, Edward was free to work on Bella's land. Some of it, anyway - her grant was for thousands of acres, far more than one man could ever cultivate. But he made plans as he worked, cutting brush and hauling it to the side of the field to burn. If he could plant more fields in next spring, he could use the proceeds to hire hands or buy indentures the following year. If God gave them bountiful harvests, he could continue to expand the farm every year. Some day, they could have tenants, if the colony continued to grow and thrive.
It was those plans he concentrated on, keeping his mind firmly away from his strange dreams. He was so intent on his thoughts that he didn't hear Jasper come up behind him. He jumped when Jasper spoke, whirling around with the hatchet raised.
Jasper grinned and held up his hands in surrender. "Pax, Edward. I did not mean to startle you."
Edward lowered the hatchet. "Sorry, Jasper. Why are you out here?"
"To help you, of course. I will live beneath your roof soon enough."
Jasper nodded. "Alice and I will call the bans for the first time on the Sabbath."
Edward clapped him on the shoulder. "I am glad of it, brother."
Jasper's smile faded a little around the edges. "Your father still has misgivings."
Edward waved a hand. His father's opinion had begun to fade in importance after his own marriage. "He'll come around. You'll be a good husband to Alice, I know."
"If not, I can do as I dreamed last night and toss her over my shoulder and ride off to elope."
Edward laughed. Jasper sometimes had the strangest notions. "No horses available in New Plimouth to ride."
Jasper scratched his head. "Perhaps I could borrow one of Bella's goats."
Edward laughed again and they set to clearing the brush together, working in companionable silence.
Until they heard the scream.
Alice was teaching Bella how to make cheese from goat's milk. In all her years on land, Bella had never participated in cheese-making, so all of this was new to her. Bella pinned on an apron over her gray satin gown and joined Alice at the fireplace.
Alice turned out to be a very good teacher, patient enough to explain every step and answer all of Bella's curious questions. For the past few days, she had helped Bella skim the cream off the milk from Bella's goats and set it aside in a crock submerged in a tub of cool water.
"I'm glad there have been no thunderstorms," Alice said. They boiled the milk over the fire, and added rennet in a small cloth bag. Bella really wished she hadn't asked what rennet was. Now she wouldn't be able to eat cheese any longer. "If there are thunderstorms, the cream would be worthless."
Alice shrugged. She handed over the wood paddle to Bella so she could stir the pot while Alice wiped the sweat from her face with the hem of her apron. "I know not. I know only that a thunderstorm sours milk. The cream will not churn into butter, nor make for good cheese."
Bella pondered that while Alice got the strainer ready, securing a piece of cheesecloth over a bowl with a wooden hoop.
Alice's hands stilled and she looked up at Bella, a pink flush on her cheeks that had not come from the heat of the fire. "Bella, Jasper and I ... We've agreed ... That is ..."
"You're marrying soon?" Bella guessed.
Bella grinned and darted over to hug her, but had to resume stirring quickly so the milk would not scorch. "That's delightful! I have the perfect gown - Oh." She stopped and bit her lower lip. "Your wedding will be like mine, will it not?"
"We do not have ceremonies like the Papists do. Did you have a big, fancy wedding when you married for the first time?" Alice's eyes had that dreamy, excited gleam she'd had when she asked Bella about the court.
Bella was sorry to disappoint her. "No, it was ..." Well, she'd technically never had a marriage performed with the Duke of Cullen. They simply said they were married, and that was the end of it. No one had ever questioned it, and a couple stating they were married in front of witnesses was enough to constitute a legally valid union.
She was saved from having to explain it when Alice exclaimed, "The curds are forming!"
Bella tipped the pot over the bowl as Alice supervised. "Now, we'll rinse the curds in cold water, and salt it. You could put it in a net bag and it will keep for several days as it is, but I'm going to set it to age."
After washing and salting the curds, Alice pressed out as much moisture as she could, and put it into a clean cheesecloth, tying it snugly at the top. "My mother used to rub the cloth with butter," Alice said. "Another lady I knew in Holland dipped hers in wax, but who can afford to waste wax on that? What we'll do is wet the bag a few times a day with salt water until the rind is formed. It will mature in about two or three months, but it will keep for longer." She put it into a small wooden press and set it in the corner. "I wish you had a cellar. In Holland, we -"
Alice fell silent when they heard the scream, her eyes going wide.
"That sounded like Esme," Bella gasped. She picked up the hem of her skirts and ran for the door. "Watch the children!" she called over her shoulder.
"Bella! No, wait!"
Bella paid her no heed. She ran out into the dusty street and was nearly knocked over by the governor. "My pardon, Mistress," he said, grasping her shoulders for a moment to steady her before taking off toward the gate, his black shoes kicking up small clouds of dust in his wake. Bella followed him, keeping up easily with his long strides.
At the gate, Esme struggled to hold up a limp man. He sagged in her arms, as limp as a rag doll, his knees skimming the dust of the street.
Bella reached her first and slung one of the man's arms around her shoulders to help support him. His head lolled back on his neck. His thick, bushy brown beard couldn't conceal the hollow cheeks below and his arms were like twigs. He wore only a linen shirt and breeches, an embarrassing state of undress for an Englishman to be seen in public. Under the reek of body odor was the sour tang of sickness.
Bradford reached them an instant later. He patted the man's cheeks and got no response. "Lay him down."
"In the street?" Esme said indignantly.
"Take him to my house, then." Bradford nudged Esme aside, and Miles Standish took Bella's place to help half-drag, half-carry the man into the governor's house. Bradford's wife was ordered to clear the table, and she scrambled to set aside the candlesticks and plate so proudly displayed on it.
"Water," Bradford said to no one, and his wife again answered his command, bringing him a tankard, which he dumped on the man's face. The man snorted and jerked awake, his eyes scanning the faces around him in confusion. He reached up to grasp Bradford's arms. "For the love of God, help us, please!"
Bradford eyed the filthy hands that clutched at his doublet, their nails with black half-moons of grime beneath them, and gave a tiny grimace of disgust. "What is it, man? Who are you?"
"I'm Phineas Pratt, from Weymouth. Please, we need your help!" The man sat up and nearly fell over again. The governor and Standish pushed him back down to the table.
"Bring him some beer," Standish called and Mistress Bradford scurried to obey. Pratt gulped at the beer frantically.
Bella glanced around to see if anyone else was going to stop him, then darted forward. She grasped the bottom of the tankard and tugged it down from his lips. "Don't drink so fast. It will come right back up."
Bradford didn't seem to appreciate her interference. He stepped forward, nudging Bella out of her spot. Pratt lowered the tankard when it was empty and tried to sit up again. As though to prove Bella's prediction true, he opened his mouth and vomited down the front of his shirt. Mistress Bradford let out a cry of dismay and grabbed a length of linen toweling from a cupboard. Pratt weakly retched into it while Bradford glared at Bella as though she had caused it. Bella glared right back.
"ESME!" Carlisle roared from the doorway. He plowed through the people standing there, shouting his wife's name.
Esme recoiled, her eyes wide in her pale face, her hand flying up to cover her lips.
Carlisle shoved his way through the crowded room and grabbed Esme's shoulders. He scanned her from head to toe, as though checking for visible injuries. Then, to Bella's shock, he pulled her into a hard embrace, in front of everyone. His hands patted over her back, her shoulders, and then came up to cup her face.
Esme stood stock still, her eyes going even wider.
"Are you well?" Carlisle demanded. "Are you well?"
"Y-yes," Esme stammered.
Carlisle sagged against her. He laid his head on her shoulders and clung to her like a drowning man. Esme slowly reached up and laid her hands on his back, patting awkwardly at first and then stroking as Carlisle's shoulders began to shake.
"Praise God," he choked. "Praise be to God. I heard you scream, and I thought ... I thought ..."
"Shh," she whispered.
As entertaining as this spectacle was, Standish was impatient to find out more about Pratt, who was still gagging into the linen. "What is amiss? Why have you come?"
"The savages," Pratt gurgled. "They chased me here. We're starving. They have us so harried, we fear to leave the town. We have no food left, and we've traded away most of our other belongings to buy corn. Even our clothing ..."
Bella recalled what Jacob had said about Tisquantum using the situation to his own advantage. The same thought seemed to have occurred to Bradford and Standish. They exchanged glances over Pratt's head.
Standish waved his hand and a stout man carrying a matchlock musket made his way over to him. He sketched a quick bow as Standish ordered, "Send out a few men to check the woods to see if any of the savages are lingering about. Report back to me as soon as you can."
As he left, Edward charged into the room, his grass-green eyes searching every face until he located Bella. He visibly relaxed, even before he spotted Carlisle and Esme, over by themselves near the window, talking quietly. Edward came over to Bella's side, slipping his hand into hers. "Is all well?" he murmured.
Bella inclined her head toward the man sitting on the edge of the table. "Trouble at Weymouth."
Edward squeezed her hand.
"We've been working for the savages," Pratt continued as he held out the tankard for Mistress Bradford to refill. Wisely, he sipped it this time. "Trading our labor for corn. We've been felling trees to hollow out to make canoes for them, but it's never enough. Giving over the men who are still able to work for them, we're not able to cultivate our own fields. We're dying, one by one, falling to sickness or hunger. The men are dropping where they stand at their guard posts. We need help, governor."
"Is that why you've resorted to thievery?" Standish demanded. "Massasoit sent men to speak to us, charging they have caught your people breaking into their stores more than once."
"We hanged the thief," Pratt said, and to Bella's ears, it was overly-defensive.
"Did you?" Bradford asked, his voice mild. "For it was not what I heard."
Pratt dropped his gaze to the tankard in his hands, a mutinous set to his jaw. "Should we sacrifice an able-bodied man to appease those filthy savages? The man we hanged ... Well, he was dying anyway, and he volunteered to sacrifice himself to save us all. But since that time, we have been unable to leave the town because the savages are about. They even built some of their huts right outside of town in the swamp. We're surrounded! I barely escaped here to tell you of it."
Bella groaned inwardly and covered her face with her hands. Was it any wonder the Wôpanâak were keeping a close eye over the colonists after having their store houses robbed? Pratt may have been terrified at being followed, but Bella had no doubt if the Wôpanâak intended Pratt harm, he never would have made it to Plimouth.
Bradford looked around at the crowd of men and women in his home, soaking up every word of this tale. His eyes landed on Bella, and it was as though the sight of her had made him come to a decision. "Call all of the colonists inside the stockade and ask all of the men to come to the Meeting House at sunset. Good people, return to your homes. I will give you further information when a course of action has been decided upon."
There were some disappointed sounds but the large group of onlookers filed out, and Bella and Edward were swept along in the press of bodies. In the street, they stopped because Carlisle was calling out to them.
"Might Esme and I impose on your hospitality for the night?" he asked. He had his arm tucked around Esme's waist.
"Of course, father. There's plenty of room in Alice's - Where is she, anyway?"
"She was home with the children when I last saw her," Bella said.
"Where you should be," Edward said, bumping Bella with his arm, but he tempered his words with a smile. "My wife... When she hears a scream, she runs toward it."
"So did you," Bella replied, arching a brow.
"Aye, but I'm a man," Edward countered.
Bella snorted. "Having that woeful disadvantage doesn't change anything."
They all laughed - even Carlisle - as they walked the short distance back to the house. Bella frowned when they entered and she didn't see Alice anywhere. The baby tender was empty, and the fire had burned down to embers. Edward went over to add wood to it while Bella called upstairs. Alice didn't answer, so Bella lifted her skirts and climbed the stairs.
The rooms were vacant. Bella pushed aside the curtains and peered down into the yard. Her goats grazed on their tether, and her chickens pecked at the grass, but there was no sight of Alice or the children.
She hurried back down the stairs. "They're not here."
"Where could they have gone?" Edward took off his hat and hung it on the peg by the door. He shoved a hand through his hair.
"Perhaps she went to the market," Esme suggested.
"Perhaps," Bella said, but that didn't seem likely. She would have had to carry both babies, plus her purchases. She would have waited for Bella.
She put away the rest of the cheese-making supplies and washed the kettle and bowl. Esme rolled up her sleeves to help. "Don't worry, Bella," she said. "I'm sure she just ran off on an errand and will be back shortly."
Bella gave her a brief smile and set to scrubbing. Maybe she was over-reacting. No one else seemed concerned. Carlisle was talking to Edward about farming, though his eyes followed Esme as she travelled around the room, smiling at her whenever their eyes met.
There was a knock on the door frame and they all looked up to see one of the palisade gate guards standing there with Rose in his arms. Rose was sobbing and struggling to pry herself out of his grasp. "Mistress, I believe this little one belongs to you."
"Rose?" Bella flew over to take the terrified little girl from him. Rose pressed her hand to Bella's cheek and her mind flooded with images, even as she heard the confused guard say the scout group Bradford had sent out returned with the child. They'd found her wandering in the woods near Carlisle's farm.
"Why would she be out there?" Carlisle asked.
Bella knew. Rose had shown her. She couldn't speak.
Alice and Emmett had been taken by the Wôpanâak.
- Elizabeth wanted plausible deniability. She signed the death warrant, but ordered her councilors not to act on it. The council met and decided to execute Mary immediately. Elizabeth was informed afterward and flew into a rage, insisting she had never meant for the council to do that. She arrested the secretary to whom she had entrusted the signed warrant, and he was imprisoned the Tower. However, for nobles, being in the Tower could be pretty comfortable, with luxurious accommodations, servants, fine food, etc. The secretary went on trial and he politely defended himself in the situation, essentially attributing it to a big understanding, never implicating Elizabeth. The jury acquitted him of having any "evil intent," but since he had technically disobeyed his queen, he was convicted of misprison of treason and ordered to pay a massive fine. He was released in 1589, having never paid the fine, and though he didn't return to his post at court, he was paid his salary until the day he died in 1608. He "took one for the team," in other words, but he does not seem to have resented it.
- "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown." This comes from Shakespeare's Henry IV, written in 1597, ten years after Mary's execution. Pardon the anachronism, but I felt it fitting. King Henry mourns his insomnia with a soliloquy:
How many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature's soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
- "Thunderstorms spoil milk." This was believed in some regions up to the 1930s, when refrigeration became common. Today, it's understood that it was the warm, humid thunderstorm weather that spoiled the milk, not the lightning and thunder.