Authors: Sarah L. Thomson
For Ric, with thanks and love
S. L. T.
December 1592-January 1593
They put the heads of traitors on spikes over the gate of London Bridge.
“They boil ’em first,” said a woman’s voice from behind us in the jostling crowd. “And dip ’em in tar.”
“Oh, aye,” another voice answered her with ghoulish satisfaction. “Makes ’em last longer. They do say some of ’em have been up there ten years and more. Take care, then—”
That last part was to me, for I had stopped in the middle of the road, putting out a hand to clutch my brother by the arm. The two women pushed past, grumbling. People walked around Robin and me as we stood, looking up at the great stone gatehouse with a tower three stories tall rising over the arched entrance to the bridge. On the top of the tower, in the red-gold light just before sunset, we could see the long poles with the blackened heads. They
had no faces anymore, but it was too easy to imagine the hollow eyes watching us, the empty mouths stretched open in silent warning.
“Rosalind?” Robin asked me, very quietly. “Will they do that to Father?”
“Of course not!” It was a relief to be angry, to let my anger set my feet moving again. “That’s for traitors. Father’s no traitor, Robin.”
“Peace, Robin!” The crowd was pressing in close on either side as we squeezed underneath the gate and onto the bridge, and it would not do to talk in public of what our father had done. Or of the evening I had been picking rosemary in the garden. I’d come into the kitchen, my hands full of the small, sweet-smelling leaves, and had heard voices. Peering into the hallway, I saw my father standing at the open front door. Outside, holding a lantern, was Thomas Chapman, the sheriff.
“’Tis late for a visit, Tom,” my father had said mildly.
“I have no choice in the matter, Master Archer.”
From where I stood, hesitating at the end of the long, dark passage, I could see other men behind the sheriff, men that I knew.
“You’ll let us in, Master Archer,” the sheriff said.
“Indeed,” my father answered, looking out at our
friends and neighbors, come to tear our lives apart. “It seems I have no choice as well.”
No, it would not do to talk about it now.
I kept tight hold of the sack over my shoulder that held everything I owned in the world and took Robin by the hand. Normally this was a thing he would not allow, now that he was all of ten and disdained mothering by his older sister. But he did not let go, and swung his own sack with his other hand as we made our way across the bridge, wide as a street, with shops lining either side. The air was damp with the heat of late summer, and heavy with the stench of the River Thames below.
Apprentices were closing the stores for the night, clearing off the goods from the wooden shutters, hinged at the bottom, that could be let down into the street to form counters. But as I passed by a glove maker’s, my eye lingered on a white pair sewn with pansies. In an instant a boy Robin’s age, eager for one last sale, snatched the gloves up and held them out to me. “Very pretty, mistress, and soft as a kitten’s fur, just feel this now, and the height of the fashion…”
Shaking my head, I gripped Robin’s hand and walked on. It was true I had money in my purse, hanging from the girdle beneath my petticoats for safekeeping. But it was not for luxuries like new gloves. The Rosalind Archer of two weeks ago, daughter of a rich merchant, might
have fancied such vanities. But the Rosalind Archer of today had different uses for her money.
There was another tall gatehouse to walk under at the far end of the bridge, and then we were in London itself.
This city, I thought, was bursting at its seams. The buildings crowded together, shoulder to shoulder: houses, taverns, inns with their bold wooden signs, fishmongers, the pavement before them slick and bright with blood and silver scales. Even the air was crammed full of noise. “Fish! Freshest fish!” bellowed the shopkeepers, and women with baskets on their arms argued shrilly over prices. Someone laughed and chattered to a companion in a language I had never heard. The breath in my nose was thick with smells—the filth of the river, horse dung in the street, meat cooking in the taverns, the sour tang of beer, and the strong, salty, rotten stink of fish.
I felt battered and shaken and breathless. My feet, of their own accord, faltered and stopped once more. How did anyone ever find their way in this maze, this din, this absurd mass of people? In my panic, all I wanted was to turn and run, back across the bridge, back down the country roads Robin and I had trudged so wearily, back to the village where I knew every house, every face, where I practically knew every sheep in the fields.
Foolish. Impossible. Oh, the village was still there, the
houses and the fields and no doubt the sheep as well. But there would be no returning, either for Robin or for me. And hadn’t I learned in these past weeks that the men and women I had grown up among were as much strangers to me as the people pushing past us in this unfamiliar street?
I took a breath to steady myself. We had nowhere to return to. But we did have somewhere to go. We had come to this overwhelming city for a reason—to find our father. And when we did, it would not matter that we were strangers here, that we were lost. Because when we found him, then we would be home.
“Rosalind,” Robin said impatiently, dropping my hand. “Why dost thou stand there? We must…” I could not hear the rest of his sentence as he pushed his way forward into the crowd. In a heartbeat he was lost to my sight.
Lost to me.
Fighting down a spike of panic, I shoved my way after him, looking everywhere for a tall, skinny boy with a crop of brown curls and a green doublet with striped sleeves. I saw nothing. “Mind thyself!” someone said impatiently, and I was pushed to one side. I was not tall enough to see over the heads of the people before me. Where had he gone? Peering frantically left and right, I walked straight into the person in front of me and all but broke my nose on the back of his skull.
“Rosalind!” Robin complained, rubbing his head. “Canst not watch where thou’rt walking?”
“Robin!” I could have shaken him for giving me such a fright. “Art mad? Stay close to me!” And I seized hold of his sleeve.
My brother’s jaw tightened, and his face took on the stubborn look I knew, to my sorrow, very well. It was a look that went with his old complaint:
Let me be. I need not obey thee. Thou’rt not my mother.
Well, I may not have been his mother, but I was the closest thing he had to one, since our mother had not lived two hours after his birth. I had raised him from a swaddled babe, and he might have given me some gratitude, if not obedience. But I knew better than to expect it.
Now he twitched his sleeve free of my grasp and scowled at me. “God’s teeth, thou’rt worse than a mother hen,” he grumbled. “Thou’rt not my nurse.”
“Then do not act as if thou needst one,” I snapped. “We’ve no time to waste traipsing about London.”
standing like a stone in the street,” Robin pointed out. “I was not the one idling away our time.”
“Thou dost not even know the way.”
“Nor dost thou!”
Saints preserve me from little brothers, I thought, and turned my attention to a woman walking past. Her hair,
dark as a Spaniard’s, was tucked under an elegant velvet hat. “Pray, mistress,” I said to her. She didn’t even turn her head to look at us. “Pray, sir—” I tried a little louder with a man striding by on our other side, in the long gown of a scholar. He glanced aside, sniffed, and walked quicker.
“What needst thou, lass?” someone asked kindly.
But the kindness didn’t stop me from turning with a rebuke sharp on my tongue. The woman who’d spoken was clearly a servant, in a plain, patched gown, fish tails poking out of the basket over her arm. How dared she use the familiar “thou” to me, as if she were my equal?
Then I bit back the words on their way out of my mouth and saw myself as I must look to her: unwashed and footsore, dusty from the road, curls of brown hair straggling down beneath my coif, lost in a strange town without a man or maid to attend me. In truth, I did not appear to be someone that even a servant should address with a respectful “you.”
So I swallowed my hard words and my pride along with them, although the taste was bitter in my mouth, and answered civilly, “We are looking for Chancery Lane.”
“Ah, well then, thou hast a fair bit of walking still to do.” She pointed up the hill before us, into the heart of London. “Dost see the crossroads ahead? Turn west there and walk along Westcheape and Watling, through
Ludgate. Then thou’lt be in Fleet Street, and thou must turn right into Chancery.” I blinked in confusion at the unfamiliar names, and she smiled. “Never fear, lass, thou’lt find thy way.”
I was not so sure of that, but I thanked her, and Robin and I set out through London.
We left the fish markets behind as we turned west, and we made our way among the crowds, keeping near the houses and shops as carts and wagons clattered down the center of the street. This time Robin kept close to me. “Is all London like this?” he asked.
“Ah, Robin, how should I know? Father used to speak of it….” When Father came home from selling his woolin London, he’d have money in his purse and gifts for Robin and me: lace for my petticoat, buckles for Robin’s shoes, sweet gingerbread. He’d sweep us both up in a hug to crush our ribs, declaring that he’d missed us terribly, that he’d wept for grief every night. And then he’d laugh and tell how he had been to the playhouse to watch
with the grand swordfights or seen the famous bear, Tom of Lincoln, triumph over five dogs at the baiting.
He had never talked about crowds that seemed to use up all the air, or streets that twisted like a maze, or heads on spikes over London Bridge.
I hurried Robin along as the light began to fade, not even sparing much of a glance for the huge stone bulk of St. Paul’s Cathedral as we passed by. I’d no wish to be out on the streets after nightfall. We must reach Chancery Lane before dark. There, I thought with gratitude and relief, would be refuge and safety and some sort of peace. All things that had been sorely lacking since the night Sheriff Chapman had come to our door.
When we did arrive at last, I saw that Chancery Lane was a quieter street than the ones we had just walked through. The houses looked freshly plastered and prosperous. “Which is it?” Robin asked.
“I know no more than thee. We must ask again.”
“Hurry, then.” Before I could put out a hand to stop him, Robin had darted away to a tavern, where a group of young men stood talking and laughing under the hanging sign.
I would not have chosen to ask the way of men gathered outside a tavern door. But Robin was already speaking to one of them as I approached.
“Do you know the house of John Eastfield?” he asked.
“Eastfield?” The man who answered had a thick country accent. “Na, there be no Eastfields here.” Someone in the group sniggered, as if it were a joke.
“But—’tis Chancery Lane? Our father said—”
“John Eastfield is a friend of my father,” I said with dignity. They were trying to have a joke with us, it seemed. No doubt they would think it amusing to misdirect strangers. “He has lived in this street these past five years.”
“Aye, that he has. But he lives here no more.”
It was a second man who spoke, wearing apprentice’s blue. I had never seen eyes like his before, a sharp light gray, so pale that they seemed almost no color at all. They went oddly with his thick black brows and hair.
“Has the family moved?” I asked, uncertain.
“Aye, moved into prison.”
Oh, sweet saints…
“The law came for them just last week. Papists, the lot of them. Wife and children, too.” All the men in the crowd were staring at us now.
“Papists?” I gasped. I knew I must seem horrified, and my real shock made the act convincing. “How dreadful! My father had some business with the man, but he never thought….” My voice died under the pressure of the bright interest in the watching eyes. And after all, why should I explain myself to them? “Come,” I told Robin. There was low laughter behind us as we turned.
My heart was thumping a command to my blood.
Run. They’ve guessed. They know—
But my head overruled the order. There might still be
a chance that these men did not know our secret. In that case, running would be the worst thing we could do.
“Stay a moment—”
I turned, fear clutching at my throat. Beside me, Robin clenched his fists. But how could we fight anyone, a ten-year-old boy and his sister?
It was the pale-eyed apprentice, with a friendly look on his face. “Pay no heed to them,” he said, jerking his head back toward his friends. “You are strangers in town?”
Why did he want to know? But even in my panic, I could see nothing but kindly interest in his face. I nodded warily.
“Where dost wish to go?”
My head spun. I had not thought beyond reaching Chancery Lane and the refuge there. But that refuge had been a false hope, and now it was gone. Where did we wish to go?
“The George Inn,” I said at random, naming a place my father had sometimes stayed.
“That’s not so hard. Seest the apothecary on the corner?” He pointed to the sign with the Turk’s head, swinging slightly in the wind. “Turn there and walk east to Ludgate. Thou’lt see the George near there.”
The frantic rhythm of my heartbeat was beginning to ease. He did not know the truth. But why was there a
smile playing at one corner of his mouth, as if there were something secretly amusing about an apothecary and an inn?
“I thank you, friend,” I said, giving him the formal “you” without thinking, as if that could keep him at a distance. But I did not let myself walk more quickly than usual, and I hissed at Robin to stay close, as we took our way in the direction he had told us.
The apothecary’s apprentices were closing the shutters for the night as we turned the corner and found ourselves in a narrow alley lined with houses rather than shops. Overhead the upper stories of the buildings stuck out, each overlapping the one below, so that neighbors might have leaned out of their attic windows to shake hands in greeting.