Dark Lady of Doona

Doona Front Panel.final

Excerpt:

Chapter 1
Dublin, March 1579

The cell door banged open. The noise and sudden torchlight invaded my head, making the pain worse. I squinted as I struggled to get my bearings. I steeled myself for the onslaught, whatever it may be this time. Boots scuffed across the floor.

“Get up, you,” a gruff voice said, kicking me for good measure.

My bones ached to the marrow. I groaned as I tried to sit up.

The man sighed with impatience. “Come on then, we haven’t got all day. Hey, Sam, help me with this one, will you? Don’t know why they keep the old ones alive, the damn stinking creatures. Makes more work for the rest of us. It’s not like they ever make it home.”

Rough hands pulled me up and dragged me to the open door. “Why the rush, boys? You have a lot of other grandmothers to torture today?” I asked.

“You shut up,” grumbled the man, shaking me. “No one said you’re allowed to talk.”

Together, the guards dragged me to the room where the stench of fear and old blood would never be washed away. A worn chopping block stained with old blood stood next to a shallow metal pan. I grimaced as they shoved my head onto the block. I felt the decay against my neck. A gloved hand yanked my hair from the nape of my neck.

“Considering this one’s crime, ‘tis a shame there’s no spectacle for this. Head lopped off down here in the dark. Ready, Sam?” The gloved hand crushed my face into the block. “Stay still, you.”

My teeth clenched as I heard Sam heft the axe and give it a swing, and the rusted blade flew past my eyes and bit the block with a shattering thud. “Missed, you oaf,” said the first guard.

Sam laughed. “I always like to rattle them first. Makes the kill more fun. Ready now? One, two…” He cast aside the axe and pressed a much sharper blade to my scalp. My hair fell in swaths around my face as they had a good laugh at my expense.

As I sought to hold onto my sanity, I let a memory of cutting my hair take me back to my childhood. I did it to prove my courage. When father said little girls couldn’t be sailors, I became indignant, then furious. I persisted. He refused. Then one day he came home with my brother to find Mother despairing. She said I’d gone mad. After some shouting, I emerged wearing my brother’s clothes, my hair cut close to the scalp with Father’s hunting knife. I stormed into the room, telling him I’d be better than any son he could hope for. My brother Dónal flushed with indignation, yet his eyes bore the light of relief. He wasn’t heir to the sea and he knew it. Late at night when we couldn’t sleep, he confessed his hatred for being on the ships. Every day, I yearned to be out there with Father. I abandoned my chores whenever I could to go sit by the sea and watch the waves roll onto the rocky shore for hours and studying the weather like he did.

Father ruffled my short hair. “Little baldie.” He laughed. “You want your chance, I’ll grant it to you.”

He worked me hard, making me scrub every inch of the ship and haul cargo with the men. And thus I came to spend more time on sea than land. I became my father’s dutiful apprentice as he navigated the treacherous waters of the coast, and I never complained as I attended to every task assigned to me. The men sent me over the side of the ship on a line to untangle the fishing nets that were being pulled under the keel. Such tasks were meant to scare me off, but they wouldn’t have me do them unless my safety was assured. The ship sat in still water. No one would risk the life of the chieftain’s daughter. The line was tied tight around me, and two men in control of holding and maneuvering it would never let me go. But they’d laugh and joke. “The girl’s in the drink! Maybe the selkies will come to claim her!” Upon mention of the seals that could change into human form, my focus on untangling the nets diminished as I eyed the water for creatures sneaking up on me. The men laughed all the harder. “You only hear of female selkies who are caught by sailors. What of the male selkies then? What do they get? Not much access to young women, I’d wager. Let’s give them a little princess for their selkie kingdom!” I’d clamber up the line in a panic, sometimes convinced a length of seaweed brushing my ankle was actually a selkie’s touch.

Despite my young age, I proved myself many times over. There was no question I was my father’s true heir, “a prophet of the weather,” as he came to be known. He taught me everything from navigation to haggling and trading. And taking tribute.

Such memories keep me alive now. The stone cell which holds me is damp, dark, and cold. There’s never more than a dim flickering light from the torches down the corridor. This prison. They can’t break me or make me forget the warm feeling of embracing those I love. They can’t make me forget the feeling I have when I close my eyes and feel the ship rocking on the swells and hear the seabirds crying out to each other. They’ve taken my freedom, but they haven’t severed my spirit.

Their food is cooked with no soul. I’ve had their food outside of their prisons, and it’s the same. It’s sustenance for a child they don’t want. The flavorless bread with its crust as hard as bark hurt my mouth. Chunks of watery turnip sat in a greenish-grey broth like a barren archipelago. Congealed pools of fat from the meat they saved for themselves floated on the surface of the liquid. The taste of spoiled onion overwhelmed the broth. I’ve had dull food on long voyages before, but I’d never had to endure anything so foul. The guards seem to enjoy the hateful looks I give them. It feeds them. I try to resist, but my nature betrays me. They deserve nothing but my contempt.

Even the rats are meaner here. Deprived of light and food, they have a tendency to bite. The rats on my ships keep to themselves. My ships—my dreams of them keep me sane. Each one bears the pennant of my clan, the white seahorse on a green background. Terra marique potens, carved on the bowsprit of each one in the fleet. Powerful by land and sea.

I dream of a mooring line tied to the post of my bed. The hawser led to my favorite galley, the Queen Maeve, named for the ancient queen of Connaught, given to me by my father when I started commanding my own fleet. I gave birth on that ship. I rescued a man who became my lover after his wrecked on our coast. Each battle was fought well; I once cleaved a man’s skull on the deck for trying to set our sails afire when we were under attack. I regretted some bloodstains in the aged wood, those of the kin who fought by my side, but I could still point to any portion of the Queen Maeve and tell a tale of conquest.

The captain of the guard interrupted their game. “She’s been summoned.”

“Burning time?” asked Sam, never knowing when to give up the joke. This routine would have been tiresome if it wasn’t so terrifying. One day, that blade may cross my neck, out of laxness or boredom. I knew they had no intention of executing my like that—officially.

“A visitor from London,” said the captain of the guard.

“Oh, well, pardon us!” said Sam. “Sorry we didn’t dress her up for you.” He grabbed me by the scruff of my neck like a pup and hauled me to my feet.

“Another transfer?” I asked, ignoring the guards behind me.

“You’re being released. I hate seeing your kind put back out there,” the captain said with disdain, stepping aside so I wouldn’t brush him as I walked by.

I returned his snide glare as I brushed the grime from my tattered clothes. When he opened the door, I flicked the bugs from my coarse tunic on him. “It’s about time. I’m too old to be sleeping on the floor.” I strode past him as though he was a servant.

The captain gave me a bored look. “If you hadn’t raided the Earl of Desmond’s land, you wouldn’t be here.”

“I wasn’t taking anything that wasn’t mine. Connaught belongs to the MacWilliam, and thus to me. We take care of each other. Invading settlers have no right to the land they steal.” I gave him that smile that always disarms men. I may not have my hair, but he had plenty else to look at. Life at sea made me lean, not like those pallid cows they call wives. The captain tripped over himself as I swept past him, and he followed like a confused dog.

I expected to be led into court to be stared down by a dozen of Queen Elizabeth’s satraps as they shuffled their papers and scowled down their noses at a woman who held more power than they’d ever know. They served a powerful woman, but they likely resented her, too.

Instead, I found myself in a private office, not even a scribe in sight. I figured there was a reason why they transferred me to the notorious dungeon of Dublin Castle. After I was captured raiding the Earl of Desmond’s land, my men and I were imprisoned in Limerick. The men captured with me had been hanged. I was the only one left. I mourned the sacrifices made in an attempt to break my will. After a year and a half, Lord Drury came to Limerick and demanded my transfer to Dublin. I suspected the demand for transfer served to test the loyalty of the Earl of Desmond. The ruling authorities were displeased with him. They were of the opinion he was becoming too much like us. They were probably testing his sympathies. But now, my instincts told me there was something else to it. They were testing me as well.

The man behind the desk was no ordinary bureaucrat. His expression remained stern as he sat, motionless. He exuded not only intelligence, but a hard-edged commitment to his convictions. He was about my age, broad-shouldered, and the touches of grey in his beard were widening. His deep-set brown eyes were trained on me, unwavering.

“Grace O’Malley Bourke,” he said in solemn tones, using the English translation for my name. It rankled not to correct him, but the shackles on my wrists reminded me of my position.

“And whom do I have the honor of addressing?” I asked, shifting in an attempt to get the pain out of my back.

“I am Sir Francis Walsingham, Principal Secretary to her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth.” His hand went to his beard as he paused to assess my reaction.

I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of being impressed. I wondered what I did to deserve such attention. “Where is Lord Drury? He seemed so very keen on bringing me here.”

“He served his purpose. I have important matters to discuss with you,” he said.

I resisted a curt response. My survival depended on my answer, I could see that. “Well, you obviously have some purpose in mind.”

“We are…unfamiliar with your territory. We don’t even have a map of the west coast where you hail from.”

I tried not to appear openly smug. I suspected they lacked knowledge of the area, given how English ships blundered through Clew Bay, but I hadn’t known for sure. I doubted the solution was going to be as simple as me providing a map for him.

“Persistent rumors plague the court. What can you tell me about the Spanish armada?”

Ah. The armada. “With all due respect, Sir Walsingham, I can’t give you pertinent news. I’ve been imprisoned for two years. Anything can happen in that time. For all I know, all of Clew Bay is populated by Spanish settlers.”

He almost laughed, but he caught the smile in time. “I assure you, Clew Bay is as you remember. I want to negotiate with you, Mrs. Bourke. Like you, we desire peace.”

Mrs. Bourke. They just didn’t understand. Mr. Bourke was more often referred to as “the husband of Granía” than people called me Mrs. Bourke. I waited for him to explain.

Sir Walsingham let his fingers stroll down his beard one more time before placing his hands on the desk. “I would like to suggest a collaborative arrangement. I release you, and you are free to return home and live your life as you see fit. In exchange, you contact us with any news of the activities of the Spanish, or any other information that may cause concern for Queen Elizabeth.”

It seemed a small price to pay for my freedom. But how could he guarantee I would prove to be reliable?

He must have detected my skepticism. “You may wonder how I can place trust in you, being a pirate and all…”

My mouth dropped open, and then snapped shut without a sound. Pirate. I take what is rightfully mine. Tribute for the chieftain—my husband—though many would say he is chieftain in name only, and in truth I lead our clan. The greedy merchants of Galway refuse to acknowledge Clew Bay belongs to me, and they have no right to free passage. Especially since they passed a law banning us from visiting their fair city. They begged the English for help, saying I robbed them of their goods, thus, I earned the label of pirate. But I didn’t want to argue. Whatever I needed to say and do to avoid seeing the dungeon again, I’d commit to their demands.

“Sir Walsingham, I control my territory. We have our rights as chieftains and traders—”

“I respect your position. I’m not questioning what you do, but I do raise how it’s perceived by your rivals. If we can collaborate, we can help you. Should you be in need of our help, if your reports prove true, you only need ask. If you are…unreliable, then if anything should befall you or your family, no aid will be made available to you.”

I reminded myself that dealing with these colonial administrators was not unlike haggling with merchants. Each side aims high knowing they will meet somewhere in the middle. At least the moderately honorable ones do. And Sir Walsingham gave me the impression I could trust him.

I looked him square in the eye and smiled, nodding at the papers before him. “I’m quite sure your reports tell you that I’ve offered my army to the Crown in the past. I met with Sir Henry Sidney more than two years ago—”

“Yes, I know. No need to explain, Mrs. Bourke. Sir Henry Sidney is a dear friend, and he spoke highly of you. This is one of the reasons why I decided to talk with you in hopes that we can successfully negotiate and come to an agreement that benefits us both,” he said.

“Did he tell you about how I gave him a tour of the bay around Galway?” I asked.

Walsingham returned my smile. “Indeed, and you charged him fare for the pleasure of the tour, and he did wonder whether the crumbling seawalls of Galway had been impacted by your own cannon fire.”

“No, Sir Walsingham, I never fire on cities, only on ships I battle on the open sea,” I said. I feared he may be leading me into a trap with the conversation. Before I could lose my composure, I looked him in the eye. “I have nothing against Galway, except their laws. But as you well know, even relations within your own country can be…complicated.”

His eyebrows arched, his smile became more sardonic. “Indeed.”

“The laws banning my people from Galway are mostly due to my first husband’s folk, but that’s a long story not relevant to our discussion, Sir Walsingham,” I explained.

“Well, in any case, Sir Sidney was impressed. And his son, Philip, well…need I say, came away from the experience adoring you.”

I laughed. “Yes, he sent me some of his poems. My husband Richard tries not to be jealous.”

“Philip said you taught him how to use an astrolabe. You know, I’ve always been fascinated by tools of navigation. I wish I had time to learn how to use them better.”

I gave him an appraising stare. “Should you find yourself in my territory, I’ll show you myself. And by finding yourself in my territory, I mean visiting, not taking measurements for a settlement.”

He presented me with a paper to sign. I found it interesting he presumed I could read a lengthy contract in Latin, and though I could, the ability to read and write was a rarity among women. He likely knew more about me than I could imagine. “We must trust each other, Mrs. Bourke, and I—”

I gave him a hard look. “I mean no disrespect, Sir Walsingham, but if we are to trust each other, let the truth be known. No one calls me Mrs. Bourke. Please do me the favor of calling me Granía. Those who do business with me do.”

He looked mildly surprised. “I thank you for your candor, Granía. Now, to our agreement. An exchange of intelligence. Send word when you can, and I have agents in every port from Scotland to North Africa. You’ll know them, and they’ll know you. Do as I ask and I’ll provide assistance whenever possible. Is this amenable to you?”

I perused the document, finding the proposed terms to my satisfaction. But as always, when dealing with the imperial-minded English, their promises and actions were frequently at odds. But in the interest of my impending freedom, I agreed. I’d cope with the consequences later. I signed the parchment with a gilded quill and pushed the document back toward him. “And about my release?”

He nodded, evidently pleased. “I’ve sent for representatives to bring you home.”

I looked down at the filthy clothes I wore. My baldness no longer felt defiant as when I remembered my childhood antics to earn my father’s attention. It served to remind me of the brutality I endured for the past two years. My emotions crashed like waves on a rocky shore during the worst of tempests. Gratitude, humility, shame, anger—of course he knew I’d comply. If I proved to be reliable, at best, he’d ignore my territory. At worst, if he ever felt I’d betrayed our agreement, the English forces would apply more pressure and war would erupt.

Sir Walsingham rose from behind his desk. “Please, follow me. I’ll take you to them.”

Before I could guess who awaited me, the door swung open as the first tears distorted my vision. My son-in-law, Richard, stood with some of my crew. Richard, more commonly known as the Devil’s Hook, arched his shoulders proudly. His self-assured smile and vivid blue eyes always lured side-glances from admirers and jealous souls. A warrior with an abundance of strength, he proved to be formidable as well as handsome. I relied on him to lead my army on land. As much as I loved my ferocious husband, my son-in-law was less unpredictable on the battlefield.

The sight of him made me sick with longing. Home. My fleet. The fresh air of the sea filling my soul with strength. I’m sure he hardly recognized this emaciated and grimy wretch before him. We didn’t speak as I embraced him. I held onto him, hoping to gain something of his strength.

“Let’s go home.” His whispered words made my tears flow freely, a rare occurrence.

Genuine fresh air would have to wait. Upon my release, the stench of English-controlled “freedom” disgusted me. Dublin was as crowded and filthy as the dungeon, just brighter with the light of the sun. It was impossible to avoid the refuse in the streets as we walked. My son-in-law took my arm and guided me, my legs being weakened, while asking question after question.

“Yes, Richard, I still feel ill. That dank hole robbed me of my health, but I’m not dead yet as much as they may like me to be. Once we get out of this wretched city, I’ll feel better.”

He placed his arm around my shoulders. “We’ll be home soon. Margaret will have your favorite meals prepared. Everyone misses you.”

“And I miss them more than you can fathom,” I said, giving an imperious glance to those who gave us uneasy looks for speaking Gaelic. Cursed invaders. It’s our language. We should be tossing them such looks.

“I think he left something out, you know,” he said, slowing down as I pulled on his arm. My son-in-law’s long strides were too much for me to keep up with. “He told me something of his plans for you, but I’m sure there’s one aspect he didn’t mention.”

“I’m sure of it,” I said as I struggled to catch my breath.

“He’s concerned about your beloved husband, who has been stirring rebellion in Munster.”

“And what am I supposed to do about that?”

“They’re hoping your presence will keep him close to home.” He grinned as he winked knowingly.

I laughed heartily, despite how much I coughed. “I’ll stay in bed only so long. What the chieftain does is his own business, just like what I do is mine. Foolish English aristocrats, do they think we’re so simple?”

The pain in my head sharpened as the sun blinded me. It was a cold, winter light and the sky was clear. As I breathed, I felt the sick air of the dungeon in my lungs. For the past year, I’d been coughing up mold and dust. The poison black spit was a sign of the infected souls of an occupied people.

The streets were narrow and uneven. Deep holes caused carts to jolt noisily as their wheels rolled over them. The stone walls of the buildings smelled musty, even in the crisp winter air. Layers of filth coated everything. White-washed walls became dirty yellow with splashes of mud from passing horses.

With the bright sun and loud noises around me, my head felt as fragile as a cracked bottle. I winced and kept my eyes to the street. My stomach churned as my vision focused on the garbage and manure. People stepped though ankle-high muck and the grime stained their shoes and hems of their dresses and pants. My legs were unsteady. I resented how much I needed to depend on Richard’s arm. I limped onward, muttering under my breath, tired from a short journey.

At one point, I was roused out of my daze by a savage growl coming from a nearby alley. A boy about seven years old wore a shirt too big for him and torn pants. His boots were mismatched. He crouched on the ground, struggling to hold onto a pigeon’s carcass. A thin mutt with mangy brown fur held a firm bite on the sad morsel. Snarling, the dog bared its teeth and pulled back a step. The boy pitched forward, crying out as he refused to give up his prize.

I kicked the dog in the belly as we passed by. I leaned down as it yelped and scampered back, not quite ready to surrender as it continued to growl, eyes narrowed and ears back. “Give the boy some food,” I yelled.

The boy clutched the pigeon to his chest. “Papa Tom will cook this for me,” he said. The gleam in his eye indicated this was the first meat he’d had in weeks.

The dog ran off, yelping again as Richard threatened another kick to the ribs. My eyes sharpened. A small group of youths stared at us from the nearby alley, focused on the pigeon. My compassion for the unknown loner swelled as I stood to block their path. “Go on, boy, go to your Papa Tom. Richard, give the boy a hand.”

He nodded and followed the boy away from the alley. Richard dug his hand into his pocket and the clink of coins made the other urchins squint angrily, jealous at the sound.

“You leave him be, and you’ll get your own coin,” I warned. I waited a few minutes before I let them go, giving each a couple of coins as they left.

“One good deed and you’ve been out of prison less than an hour,” Richard said as he took my arm again.

“We take care of our own,” I said, giving him a hard look. “No one would be left in such a state at home.”

“We could adopt him. He could keep the lines clear in the rigging.”

“He’s light enough, but uncoordinated. Did you see him fall over? Can’t have him falling from the mast, can we?” I asked. Richard chuckled. I bit my lip as I limped down the road. My body hurt more than I cared to let on. “Can’t take on every orphan. Ships would sink under the weight of them. How soon until we get to my ship? You brought the Queen Maeve, didn’t you?”

The salty air of the ocean soothed me as we approached the docks. My pain lessened a bit as I saw the tallest masts in the harbor first. My pace picked up and my breath came easier as I pressed on. My very soul ached when I saw the waving emerald pennant of my own ship. Like an ancestor’s ghost, the white seahorse beckoned, coming to lead me home.

As I walked up the boarding plank, I trembled with a sudden chill. Staring at the worn railing leading down its length, I feared the ship would vanish and I’d find myself back in the dungeon. I reached out to give the rough railing a tentative caress. A splinter found its way into the tip of my finger and I smiled as I licked the drop of blood away. Since this was no dream, I could order some water to be drawn to finally rid myself of the grime of my lengthy internment. My crew had thought ahead, providing me with fine French lavender-scented soaps. The new clothes they handed me were a sharp reminder of how much weight I had lost. My hip bones only barely held up the pants. The men laughed at my shiny scalp when I emerged from my captain’s quarters. My son-in-law handed me a leather cap lined with fur. “You may be a great beacon, but you should stay warm.”

“I feel like I’m home already,” I said, beaming at the crew.

They each found a moment to greet me as we hurried to set sail. I closed my eyes as we pushed off, enjoying the gentle rocking motion. The ocean air nourished my soul. It was all the more pleasant as we passed a ship from India and the scent of spices infused the briny air. The piquant odor of spice served to remind me how hungry I was. “What kind of food do we have, Aiden?”

The quartermaster leapt to attention. “While we were waiting for your release, we bought quite a few supplies. We have some bread, Captain. And we just bought a few rounds of cheese.”

“Where’s the cheese from?” I asked.

“From France. It’s brie,” Aiden said.

I shrugged. Not my favorite, but anything capable of banishing the memory of the terrible food from the prison would be welcome. “And we have something nice to drink as well?”

“Brought a dozen cases of wine from the same merchant. Good stuff. Comes from a region known for the perfect combination of weather, water, and grapes.”

“Spare me the merchant’s speech. As long as it’s good, I don’t care where the grapes come from,” I said, shaking my head. The cap on my bald head reminded me of my days as my father’s apprentice. The fading harbor of Dublin distracted me as the docked ships began to shrink against the horizon. The sounds of the city began to blend into a single, ever-distancing hum. The hazy air tainted yellow-brown and grey hung over Dublin and smoke from forge fires choked the city from above.

I didn’t feel at ease until the ship headed south toward Wexford. I kept trying to convince myself it wasn’t a trick, that they’d send ships after us, burning us in the water—or even worse—drag us back to the dungeon. Yet we were free. There were fewer trading ships and naval vessels once we were south enough. We sailed at a slow pace, allowing me to take in the sights that I’d been deprived of for two years. We ported in Cork before taking the ships around the western corner of Ireland and then headed up north into Clew Bay. In Cork, we traded the French wine for a shipment of whiskey better suited to my tastes.

Sleeping at sea healed me like no balm could. Sometimes I slept in the wide berth in my quarters. During the day, I liked to go to the crew’s cabin and be gently rocked in the hammocks they used. To keep the ship going day and night, we had a rotating crew and an interesting conversation always occurred as the men came to the cabin to rest. We passed the time as we always did, playing cards or dice and catching up on all the news. The winter’s wind made it too cold for me to spend all day on the deck, ill as I was, but I did manage to get some of the color back in my skin in time I spent above on deck. The cool air felt good on my scalp, which was now itching with the growing stubble. My cap made the itching worse. I grimaced as I scratched away, only adding pain to the discomfort.

When we finally rounded the corner into Clew Bay, my homesick tears refused to be hidden any longer. The sight of my territory allowed me to release the grief I held for the men who died under my command. That they should never see the bay again broke my heart. I remained on the deck throughout the crossing of Clew Bay out of respect for their memory. We entered a narrow passage that took us to my beloved home.

The castle at Carraigahowley stood tall. My youngest son once said it looked like a giant’s tooth sticking up out of the ground. In the night, the few windows glowed with activity. Men patrolled with torches. The narrow windows flickered with warm hearths and the shadows of my family within. The guards noticed our approach and the men advanced, ready to meet friend or foe.

The man of the house rode at the front with his battle axe prepared to strike. Tall, broad-shouldered, imposing to the core of his soul. The fur cloak he wore to deflect the March winds made him all the more formidable.

“Husband,” I called out, “It’s good to see you.”

Richard-an-Iarainn jumped down from his horse, throwing aside the weapon to embrace me. I cried rarely in his presence, but the relief I felt by being in his arms was heart-wrenchingly overwhelming. I pressed my face into his cloak of pine marten fur.

He fed me well that night. They’d just been hunting and the venison was cooked to perfection. The tender meat glistened in its juices. A coating of herbs caked the roast. Fragrant loaves of bread lined the table with crocks of freshly churned butter. The roasting juices from the venison swirled richly with the butter as I dredged a piece of bread across my plate, savoring the brothy flavor.

I told them tales of my imprisonment as we ate. Uncles, aunts, cousins, and my brother Dónal stared in wide-eyed astonishment as I told them of the unbearable isolation and darkness.

My daughter Margaret reached out shyly to touch my head. I looked away, frustrated by the tears welling up in my eyes. It felt so good to be home that the memory of being imprisoned in Dublin became all that more agonizing. I quelled my anguish as Margaret cuddled up beside me. “How often did they cut your hair?” she asked.

“Every few weeks. They kept telling me it was time to be burned at the stake. The joke never got old for them,” I said, unable to keep the bitterness out of my voice.

“They’re savages,” she said as she rubbed my shoulders.

I glanced at her to give her a hopeful smile. A reflection of myself, Margaret was tall and lithe with wavy black hair and dark eyes, but her complexion was smooth due to her life within the castle. Sheltered but gentle in spirit, Margaret was the most compassionate soul in the household.

“It was practical. Don’t want to get lice,” I said.

Margaret sighed. “They were cruel. They don’t need to say things like that.”

I scratched at my scalp. “I think I have some scars where they cut me. The guards had rough hands.”

Margaret leaned in, touching my head softly. “There are a few small marks, but no one will notice once your hair grows back.”

I held her hand and felt comforted by the affection. With my silence, the conversation drifted. They praised the bravery of my son-in-law as Margaret clung to him as he recounted his side of the story. “I was certain they’d imprison me as well for a while there. But I must say, Walsingham is an interesting man. Not sure how much I can trust him, but he talks a good game. You know, Granía, he could be useful to us.”

I winked at him. “I like how you think, son. Let’s use him to our advantage. If we please him enough, we’ll get resources and possible backing if one of our local rivals becomes an obstacle for us.”

My husband looked offended. “You don’t need some royal lackey to deal with your rivals. You have me! I live here, not in London. I care about what happens here—what does this Walsingham prat care?”

I turned to him, my wry smile fixing him. I refilled his whiskey. “You’re just jealous, Richard.”

“I am not, foolish woman. You’ve spent too much time in that dungeon,” he said before drinking down the contents of the cup in one gulp.

I resisted the urge to box his ears, as much as he deserved it. I gave him a look of warning as I downed my own glass. Not having whiskey for two years and having lost so much weight, I was more susceptible to its effects than I expected.

Richard shot me a smug expression. “I’ll bet you we expose him for some falsehood and he’ll turn out to be the fraud they all are.”

Always a gambling woman, I took up the bet. “And what is your stake, man?” What are you willing to bet?”

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