“You were foolish to marry him,” Kate said, perched on the edge of her mother’s unmade bed. Her family had more troubles than most. They were of noble blood, yet poor. Kate balled her hands in anger, thinking, ’Tis my mother’s fault. She’s the one who has brought shame on us. A sister of the Queen of England should know better than to wed a commoner.
She seethed in her black mood, the black mood that had brought her to her mother’s chambers. Now she desired to annoy her mother by acting a child rather than a maid near to fourteen summers, and swung her legs, backward and forth. Her lady mother, as if aware of Kate’s intent, did not look her way, but pulled the drawstrings of her red kirtle around her tiny waist. Nimble fingers knotted cords. Two months after the birth of her fourth child, she was as slender as a maiden—indeed, more slender than Kate.
Kate’s heart burned with jealousy. Not only was her mother beautiful—more beautiful than she could ever hope to be—but since her churching, her mother’s every waking hour was taken up with caring for her new baby son and infant daughter. It was time her mother remembered she also had another daughter.
Her mother shot her a look from underneath a shifting curtain of golden hair. “Remember to whom you speak,” she snapped before snatching up the faded, patched bodice beside Kate and pulling it over her white shift.
“Pray, why should I remember?” Kate murmured under her breath. While her mother dressed, she crumpled her own skirts, pieced together from remnants found in the clothes coffers and made anew. Since the unwise marriage to Stafford, spending coin on material for a new gown or even a simple shift was out the question. Kate wanted to jump off the bed and stamp her foot. “Madam,” she at last spat out, “’twas not me who dishonoured the family.”
Straightening, Lady Mary stilled with widening eyes. Her mouth moved, but she made no sound; tears spilled down her pale, drawn face. Kate stood, and brought her hands up to her heating cheeks. She wished she could call the words back. For the past year, her anger had brewed, bubbled over, and scalded her too-tender mother. Confused, hating herself, she reached out her hand. “Mama, forgive me—”
Her mother waved her away. “How dare you!” She stared at Kate as if seeing a stranger. “Do not speak to me of honour or family. You understand nothing; nothing.” The baby whimpered and she rocked the cradle. “Hush, poppet,” she crooned, brushing away tears. She faced Kate again to speak in a quieter, firmer voice. “The only true honour I’ve known in my life has come from becoming the wife of William Stafford. Will loves me—despite the world and its opinion.” A grimace distorted her beautiful face. “Why should I marry a man for his wealth or his bloodlines, when good fortune gave me the love of a true and honest man?”
Kate fidgeted under her mother’s concern.
“I want the same for you. Why do you think I refuse to allow your grandfather to find you a husband? You will thank me for it; ’tis better to beg your bread with a man you love than end up simply as a man’s property.” Her mother firmed her mouth. “Can you not see how Will treats me? Can you not see his gentleness, his respect, his devotion? Believe me, I am richer than your aunt.”
Lady Mary bent over the cradle and tucked the blanket around the tiny, swaddled infant, talking all the while. “I am a patient woman, Kate. I’ve excused your rudeness and closed my eyes and ears to your cruelty to my husband when he has only offered you kindness. Every night I’ve prayed—every night I’ve asked the good Lord God to help you see the error of your ways so again you would be my good and dutiful daughter. But no more. I vow to you, my child, I will use the rod. Aye, Katherine, I will use it if you continue down this road.”
Half-covering her mouth in shock, Kate stared at her mother.
The baby bleated and filled up his lungs to ring out a loud cry. He kept crying until Kate clenched her fists at her sides. She wanted to block her ears. She wanted to hit something. She wanted to push over the cradle. To silence her brother forever. Silence my brother forever? Frightened by her thoughts, tears smarted her eyes. Oh God! Dear God, I didn’t mean it!
Her mother gathered up the baby, blanket and all. Now she wanted to do the same, hug the child to her and beg for forgiveness. I don’t want you dead, but I wish both you and your sister had never been born. I will only share my mother with my brother Harry—not low-born, half-bloods like you.
Sitting on the coffer at the end of the bed, Lady Mary loosened the drawstrings of her bodice and nursed the baby. Kate squirmed, discomforted by the sight of the white, swollen breast. Blue veins traced their way to her mother’s heart. Reminded of life and mortality, she raised her eyes to Lady Mary’s taut, grim face. Feeling slapped, she dropped her gaze and stepped away.
“Do you want to know why I do not use the rod?” her mother asked. “Would you like to see the scars from my lord father’s discipline?” Lady Mary laughed, gazing above her daughter’s head.
Kate shook her head, taken aback by her mother’s words and the sharp, bitter edge to her laughter. She had rarely seen her mother in this mood, with her temper so easily roused.
Watching her mother gaze down at the sucking baby before she stroked his fair head, Kate welcomed, after her sinful thoughts, an unexpected connection to her tiny brother. Despite their different fathers, he, too, was blonde like their mother, blonde like her and Harry. Kate drew out a tendril of her uncombed hair and studied its reddish tinge. No. Close, but not completely alike. For several heartbeats, she daydreamed of her tall father, the father she could barely remember. His face obscured, the sun shone down on his head and turned his hair aflame.
Lady Mary kept her eyes on her infant. Her low voice trembled. “The scars from his rod are still there for you to see.”
Kate shuffled her feet. “What did you do?” she asked, not daring to pose the real question in her mind: How could my kind, good-natured grandfather beat anyone? She squirmed, putting aside the memory of his last visit. Nay—that day, and her mother’s scars, must have been her mother’s fault. Everything was her fault.
Eagle-proud that his second daughter was consort to the King, and proud, too, that he was now Earl of Wiltshire and Ormond, her grandfather shared that pride by his choice of costly gifts to Kate, his oldest granddaughter. “Ah,” he would say, “the blessing of fine grandchildren. You and your brother are truly your father’s children.” He would laugh then and kiss her brow, ignoring the distress of her lady mother; it always upset her mother when she was reminded of Kate’s father.
Kate bent her head to hide her smile. Her mother’s eyes filled with tears whenever Kate mentioned her father, William Carey. It proved to Kate that her mother loved him more than she did Stafford. Happy in that knowledge, Kate remained content to keep her precious memories of her father to herself.
Her lord grandfather had visited them rarely at Rochford Hall. The last time was when he had come to express his anger at her mother’s new marriage, his raised voice roaring in the solar so none could fail to hear him. “You not only unforgivably dishonoured the name of the family, but also the sire of your children,” he shouted. After he rode away, her mother had hurried away to her room and locked the door. Despite its thick wood, Kate heard from within the sound of weeping. There had been no more visits or gifts since that awful day.
Lifting her gaze again, it seemed her mother, now focused utterly on her baby, didn’t wish to look at her. Is she still angry? Kate pondered the threat. Her mother always disregarded their household priest when he warned her: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Once, she only needed to narrow her eyes in Kate’s direction for her to remember to behave. Now a devil had her in its grip. She struggled to control her rage, her jealousy, her smouldering resentment. Far too often, they devoured her.
“What did I do?” Lady Mary asked. She shifted the baby to her other breast. “I was unwise and spoke my mind about the offer of marriage to … your father.” She paused and stared at Kate. “As if I wished to marry a man I knew only by name. Daughter, I was not much older than you.” Her lips formed an uneven gash in her unhappy face. “My harsh words angered my lord father. He called for his rod and broke me into submission. It was many days before I slept on my back again. I vowed then I would never use the rod on a child of mine.” Lady Mary laughed. “But I had my revenge. The beating inconvenienced your grandfather, and he needed all his skills of diplomacy to smooth out matters before the wedding could take place. Your grandfather doesn’t make a habit of damaging his property, but Anne and I had our ways to rile him.”
Kate shrugged and stopped really listening. Basking in her own youth, Kate disregarded her mother’s ancient history, thinking it no concern of hers. Mention of her aunt recalled to her the recent letter from court. She shuffled her feet for a second time. “I want to go to court.”
Startled, her mother looked up, her quick movement dislodging the baby. Deprived of his milk, he yelled in protest. Murmuring, her mother resettled him and gazed again at her daughter. Had she mistaken her mother’s fear? Now her stern expression made Kate blink.
“Why? For whatever reason would you want to go there?” her mother asked.
Kate hesitated over her answer, not brave enough to tell her mother how much she wanted to be with her aunt. From her first years, she had always idolised Aunt Nan, desiring to be just like her. She did not want to be weak like her own mother—a woman satisfied with so little. But a kernel of truth offered Kate an easy answer, one her mother would better understand. “I miss Harry. I haven’t seen my brother for so long. Since—” She bit back the rest of the words, but her unsaid accusation thrummed between them.
Lady Mary did not move. Grief cut into her face: she no longer looked like a young woman. “I miss him, too.” Holding the babe securely in the crook of her arm, she rubbed her eyes with her free hand. “I cannot understand my sister. Does she not realise how my heart aches for my son? Every day, I pray for my summons to court…. I beg her to send for me … only to receive from my sister a gold cup and a bag of angels. She thinks coin and a costly cup, a reminder of the status I reject, recompenses me for Harry, for my son. Then she asks for you to come. Nay, commands you to come.” The pain unhidden on her face, she blinked, her mouth moving silently, as if in prayer. She began to speak. “It was difficult enough before Will. Now I am punished and utterly robbed of Harry because I married for love.” Lady Mary lowered her head, nestling the baby closer. “It seems she now wishes to rob me of you. Methinks Nan is jealous. Mayhap she has reason.”
Kate almost laughed. “Jealous? Jealous of you?” She lifted her head in pride. “Aunt Nan is Queen of England.”
Her mother raised her eyes, and a shutter fell down. “You’re too young to understand.”
Furious, Kate charged towards her mother, stopping but a step or two from her. “Always, you say that. I am near fourteen, Mother. Old enough to wed, old enough to leave this place.”
Lady Mary’s eyes flashed. “You are old enough when I say so and not before.”
Before Kate could hurl back an answer, the door opened. Ducking his head under the low lintel, honey brown hair sweeping its curl against his shoulders, her stepfather entered the chamber. Seeing his wife nursing his son, he dimpled his boyish grin. Kate clicked her tongue in annoyance. When her stepfather noticed her, his wide smile all but disappeared. “Our Kate causing trouble again?”
Kate stiffened, and almost choked. It wasn’t a question, rather a statement. She wanted to spit and snarl at him. How dare you? How dare you? He had no right, no right at all to lay claim to her. Since wedding her mother, he blithely purloined a father’s role and showed his wide-eyed wonder when she took offence at his mummer’s playacting. Was he such a fool, so blind, not to realise she detested him, that he could never replace her lord father?
Kate fought back her desire to shout, “He’s not my father.” Time after time, her lady mother forgot the man of true nobility who lay cold these last nine years in the grave. Kate did not forget. Her father lived in her memory bathed in golden light, a laughing, gentle giant who came home bearing gifts. He taught her to ride, to sing and make music. At night, he sat her on his lap, telling her stories about England’s kings and queens. Sometimes he pretended Kate was a princess, making her giggle when he fell to his knees and begged for her boon, her mercy. Safe in his arms, she fell asleep listening to the croon of his lullaby. He still sang in her dreams—dreams in which she ran and ran towards the sound of his song, searching for him, calling for him, but never finding him. She awoke, weeping, her heart broken anew.
Even dead, her lord father, William Carey, was worth ten of Stafford—and more.
Bent over the baby, Lady Mary drew a deep breath. “She desires to go to court, Will.”
Her stepfather frowned and looked towards Kate, then back at his wife. He smiled like a lovelorn country bumpkin and strode across the room, his stepdaughter all forgotten. He kissed her mother, next kissing the top of his son’s head. Kate clutched the sides of her gown, once more wanting to hit something. Every day was the same, watching her mother and her husband at their love games. She might as well not exist; utterly engrossed in each other and their little daughter and baby son, their world left no room for her.
Her stepfather stirred. “Why not let her go?”
“You know why.” Her mother spoke so quietly, so distressed, Kate stared at her, confused.
Her husband touched her cheek and dropped the hand to her shoulder. “You cannot protect Kate all her life.”
Her mother shook her head and gazed at the sleeping baby before pulling firmer his swaddling cloth. His stomach full for a time and his mouth open, her half-brother reminded Kate of an ugly, dead fish.
“’Tis too soon,” her mother said. “I do not forget what happened to me. I never will.” Glancing Kate’s way again, her stepfather kissed her mother. “Mary, tell her.”
Kate’s mother stared up, her face ashen and her eyes large and panicked. “I cannot. I vowed to William.”
“Carey’s long dead.” He softened his tone and took her hand. “Sweetheart, no one expects you to keep a vow to a dead man. Think you. The vow was only important while he lived.”
Lady Mary shook her head and lowered her face to smell the baby; she often did this since his birth. A faraway look transformed her face.
Where is this conversation leading? Sadder stories about Mother’s youth? Kate wanted none of it. Her mother’s past didn’t concern her—even her lady mother’s vow to her lord father. As long as it didn’t prevent Kate from going to court, her mother was welcome to her secrets.
Audibly sighing, Mary Stafford dropped her husband’s hand. “I swore to William, on my immortal soul, I would never speak of it. I cannot break a vow such as that. I will not.” She turned. “Leave us, Kate.”
Her mother’s eyes sparked in warning, her hand gesturing towards the door. “Leave us, I say.”
“Do as your mother asks of you,” her stepfather said. He touched his son’s cheek, not even bothering to glance her way.
“You cannot tell me what to do,” Kate snapped.
“Kate.” Babe in arms, her mother rose, her eyes blue fire in a white, furious face. “Leave now, or I will find that rod and you’ll rue the day you were born.”
Kate opened her mouth, but her mother’s burning gaze sizzled her protest into unspoken ash. She licked her dry lips. She had never seen her mother so angry, or so hard.
Her beloved lord Father had died from the Sweat when she was only five. One day laughing and singing, teaching her to play the lute, the next day, in the grave. William Carey was no more. She wished he had never died; that he was here to protect her, care for her. Guide her. Love her. Life would have been so different. She would have grown up with her brother, rather than grieve again two years later when her grandfather forced her mother to relinquish Harry. But her brother was the heir, the all-important male; he had to be raised at court to learn his proper position. From that time, Kate could wrap her lady mother around her little finger and get her own way. Her mother’s unspoken terror that her daughter, too, could be stolen from her made Kate feel the most precious thing in the world.
She glared at her stepfather’s lean, broad-shouldered back, wishing she could dagger him with a look. Taking the sleeping babe from her mother, he carefully and tenderly placed him back into his deep cradle, watched on by his wife with a beatific smile on her face. Jesu’, she looks like the chapel’s holy Madonna. Her mother was such a fool. Both of them, seemingly no longer aware of her, were fools. Especially him.
She blamed her mother for turning her life upside down, but shouldn’t she lay the true blame at her stepfather’s feet? Yes, all of it was his fault. Despite missing her brother, Harry, she and her mother were happy together. She had gloried in her mother’s love and needed no one else but her.
She was ten when Stafford came to court her mother, and he had swept her away from Kate with his smiles, his sweet talk, his caresses.
Before her jealous eyes, her mother blossomed, became a young woman again. Marrying him she acted the bride, wed for the first time. Kate could not understand why her mother surrendered to him with joy and a bewildering relief. She could not understand her mother at all. Like a flower in full bloom these past years, her mother stood straight and tall, and astonishingly strong. A flower with petals opening to the sun; the sun of her husband’s love. It was Kate who wilted now.
“Katherine Carey,” said her mother, standing next to her husband. “Why are you still here?” She scowled at Kate, fisted a hand and enclosed it in the other.
Kate decided it was time to flee. About to shut the door, she heard her stepfather say, “You’ve no choice; send the girl to court.”
Astounded to hear him champion her, she paused outside the chamber. She cocked her head, full of disbelief as she listened to Stafford. Soft words, soothing voice and no doubt gentle hands—the thought flaming her anger again—at last coaxed from her mother the permission Kate needed. Kate shook her head in bemusement. He had patiently used the same tactics with her mother as he did with a nervous, man-shy horse.
My mother a horse? A ray of knowledge pierced the ugly laughter bubbling in her throat and prevented its escape. Man-shy? Her twice-wed, beautiful mother—man-shy? All Kate’s life, her mother allowed few into her circle of trust and rarely ever a man. One year it took of Will’s well planned wooing before her mother completely gave her heart to him. Most women, even her mother and sister, she viewed with suspicion; she put up a barrier of protection between her and the world. Even with her mother and sister? Why? Kate carefully shut the door. Something, or someone, must have hurt her. And not a little hurt. A hurt she could not forget. A hurt that still bled.
From the chamber came the sound of her mother weeping. Surely her going to court was no reason for her mother to sob like this, like her heart broke—or as if she had just learnt someone had died. Kate wiped her clammy hands on her gown and walked away, unable to shake away her sense of foreboding.
* * *
See more: The Light in the Labyrinth