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"God's Death!" roared Elizabeth. "Will you not give me one day's respite from this tiresome pestering? You make my head ache."
The Queen's councillors could hardly keep pace with the extraordinarily tall and slender woman now moving in great strides across Whitehall's wide lawn to her waiting mount.
Her chief advisor, William Cecil, a stern and steady man of middle age, was torn between admiration and despair of his new young queen, now attired in a purple velvet riding habit, her goldred hair flying long and unbound behind her. Headstrong and stubborn did not begin to describe Elizabeth Tudor at twenty-five. Reckless she was, lacking in anything vaguely resembling restraint, with a razor wit and a bawdy tongue unfitting England's monarch. But, he was forced to admit, her intellect was broad and magnificent. She spoke six languages as fluently as her own and was easily as magnetic as her father Henry VIII had been in his long and turbulent life. If only, thought Cecil, she did not take such perverse delight in outraging the great lords whom she had appointed to counsel her. Cecil chanced her further wrath.
"I beg Your Majesty to give the archduke Charles more thought. He is, besides being the best match in Christendom, said to be, for a man, beautiful and well-faced."
"And, more important," added Elizabeth with a decidedly lascivious leer, "well-thighed and well-legged."
"I'm told his stoop is not noticeable when he's on horseback," added Lord Clinton, hoping they were gaining some ground. But Elizabeth stopped in her tracks and turned on them so suddenly that the councillors collided with one another like players in a stage comedy.
"And I am told he's a young monster with an enormous head! Good Christ, the pitiable choices for husband you offer give me scant cause to change my state of matrimony."
"Prince Eric is a..."
"Lumpen Swede," finished Elizabeth.
"But he's very rich, Your Majesty, and generous to the extreme."
"But that ridiculous delegation who came simpering to court in their crimson robes with velvet badges of arrow-pierced hearts...?" Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "You ask me to consider the French king who has stolen Calais, our only remaining port on the Continent...and Philip, my queen sister's swarthy Spanish widower, who is a devout and unwavering Catholic?! Come now, gentlemen, surely you can do better than that."
"Are the English suitors more to your liking, then?"
"The English suitors?" Elizabeth's eyes seemed to soften, and a hint of a smile tilted the comers of her scarlet mouth. She turned and continued at a more leisurely pace toward her fine chestnut stallion trapped in a footmantle laced with gold, and toward the tall well-built young man of confident posture and athletic grace who stood beside it, reins in hand. Cecil regarded Robert Dudley, the Queen's Master of the Horse, with quiet annoyance. It was surely Dudley who brought the smile to the Queen's lips and the almost languorous sway to her walk as she crossed the remaining distance to her mount.
"Indeed," she purred, "I do like my English suitors far better."
Cecil could hear the councillors grumbling discreetly at the sight of Robert Dudley. This arrogant nobleman's outrageous pursuit of the Queen and her even more scandalous acceptance of that pursuit were creating an unwholesome climate that imperiled Elizabeth's chances of marrying honorably here or abroad. For Dudley, believed by many to be the Queen's lover, was a married man. Cecil pushed out of his mind the thought that Elizabeth's wanton behavior was her way of insuring that she would never have to marry, but could instead keep a series of lovers throughout her reign; worse, that the Queen might be showing a streak of her mother's nature. The Boleyn blood was tainted with perversity. As it was, everyone from Elizabeth's royal advisors who supplied her with endless choices for matrimony, to her childhood mistress Kat Ashley who begged the Queen to come to her senses, to her loyal subjects who petitioned her daily was demanding that for her honor's sake and the welfare of the kingdom she marry and relinquish the reins of government to her lawful husband.
Elizabeth approached Dudley, who, rising from a deep bow, stood straight and manly, his strong features and clear-eyed expression forcing even Cecil to admit the horsemaster was a fine figure of noble virility. Dudley locked his gaze on the Queen's. With no thought to the disapproving stares of her councillors, Elizabeth reached up and with careless intimacy caressed Dudley's cheek, drawing her long white fingers down his face, slowly tracing the sharp fine of his jaw and chin, ending with a tiny tickle in the hollow of his throat.
"How does my great stallion?" she asked, suppressing a smile. Perhaps the outraged sniffs and sharp intake of breath from behind prompted her to slap the chestnut steed's massive flank with a resounding thump, affording her stunned councillors the distant but grateful possibility that the Queen's remark was not the grossly vulgar one they suspected.
She turned to Cecil and bestowed on her advisors a warm, playful smile. "My lords Clinton, Arundel, and North, I do greatly appreciate your clement advisements and take them to heart." She allowed Robert Dudley to boost her onto the horse, and sat tall and regal in the saddle looking down upon the men. "My choice of husband and king is one not lightly made, requiring much reflection. So you will forgive a poor weak woman's hesitancy to commit. But I do promise this. When the decision is made, you will indeed be the first to know. Good day, gentlemen."
With a swift kick her horse was off. Dudley, inclining a mockingly respectful head to the councillors, leapt upon his own horse and sped off after the Queen, who had already attained a full gallop.
Cecil and the other chagrined advisors turned and, without meeting each other's eyes, began a slow and troubled walk back to the royal palace.
It was late in the afternoon when the first sunshine pierced the overcast, falling through the cottage window in a golden swath across Elizabeth's pearl white and naked breasts. Dudley, reclining close beside her propped upon an elbow, traced a lazy path around the small dove-soft mounds with a rough-skinned but gentle hand. He grazed the rosy nipple and it moved beneath his touch. An unexpected sigh escaped the mouth whose painted lips had by now been kissed clean. Her eyes fluttered behind the lids and opened slowly.
Elizabeth and Dudley had had a hard ride through green April fields and come at last to the royal hunting lodge, a rough and tiny timbered house at the edge of Duncton Wood. The pair had entered laughing, breathless from their exertions but with the blood racing in every extremity, and had fallen into passionate embraces and kisses, and, as had been progressing in the months preceding, to several intimacies.
"You take some liberties with your queen, my love," Elizabeth murmured with just a trace of sharpness.
Measuring his words and finding room for boldness, Dudley replied, "I mean to take more, Your Majesty."
Her protracted and steady gaze was surely meant to cause hesitation. But Dudley was a man aroused and almost past caring. Elizabeth's sleeves and bodice lay undone around her reedlike torso, but the skirts and petticoats of her velvet riding habit were still intact upon her hips and legs, though rumpled and softened by the steamy vapors of their afternoon's embraces.
His wandering hand caressed Elizabeth's waspish waist and the hot, moist ridges of her spine. He pushed his fingers down beneath the lacy underkirtle to find the soft vee between her buttocks and, with this grasp, pulled her hips against his. She gasped in sudden pleasure and, so emboldened, with the skirt all loosened from above, he groped to find her mound of maiden hair.
He answered her command with one fierce kiss covering her mouth. She moved beneath him, but not in ardor. She pulled her face away.
"Don't stop me now, Elizabeth."
"Yes, stop I tell you, stop!" Her voice had changed, had lost its silk. Her body's softness turned to rigid wood. Dudley's features flushed with helpless rage. He pulled his hand reluctantly from the Queen's great skirts.
Elizabeth watched Dudley's beautiful face as he struggled to control himself. His naked desire for her body which she loved and feared had changed, with her command to stop, to sudden fury and then to something different, more difficult to discern. She was queen. He was her subject. His eyes showed the confusion of this awkward state. She was, she knew, the only woman in England who had the power to command a man this way. This exultant strength was new, for her coronation had been only three months before, and Robert Dudley had been her dear friend since early childhood. Once she'd become queen, his loyal affections had taken on a fervent quality which she had found altogether irresistible. She had with an imperious flourish named him her Master of the Horse, and he had ridden proudly behind her in the coronation procession for all the world to see. Most believed them already intimate to the fullest degree. But Elizabeth had withheld the ultimate favor.
"Robin, love..." She stroked his hot, damp cheek.
"Don't call me love," he said with a sullen gaze.
"I'll call you what I will," she said in tart response. The light was fading fast and they both knew their precious private time would soon be ending. Elizabeth sat up, pulled her bodice back together, and fumbled with the many closings. "Come, help me with this now." She teased him with a coquettish grin and despite his pique he was, as ever, completely charmed by this frail girl. His clumsy fingers pushed the tiny pearl buttons through their satin eyes. Once his fingers slipped purposely, brushing her now corseted breast with his hand.
"Your councillors are wild with fear," he said. "They think you mean to marry me and make me king." He sat up, pulling closed his shirt and vest, not looking her in the eye.
"And what, pray, would they have us do with your good wife?"
"Wife? Have I a wife?" he joked.
She stood before him, forcing their eyes to meet. "If you and I were wed, would you forget me so easily?"
He saw that he had blundered, not simply making light of his own loveless marriage but recalling the coldbloodedness with which her father had discarded his wives, including Elizabeth's mother. But this girl, his queen, his love Elizabeth, drove him mad with her changeability. At times she opened to him like a flower to sunlight, laughing, teasing, making wicked plans in much the way they had done as children. In those times they were as if intoxicated, crazed with delight in each other's company. She had even contemplated marriage to him. Sometimes she pushed him to be strong with her, to dominate and be her master. Then with the swiftness of a summer storm she turned dark and harsh, playing upon his insignificance, toying with him as she would a chess piece.
"I have too many suitors, Robin princes, kings, and emperors to think of you to marry." She said this flippantly, but he sensed a softening in her. He watched her move as she put on her velvet jacket, saw the shoulders droop just so, the eyes unfocused, the forehead tight and strained. Wishing to bring her back to mildness, he pulled himself erect and made his stand, looming tall above her. His voice a mellow purr, he tilted up her head to his.
"Do you not think you have some loyal subjects of your own to make an heir for the English throne?"
"An heir?" Her eyes flashed and seemed almost to snap. "An heir, Robin? Is this the issue here? Not love but royal offspring? 'King Robert, father to many sons, high ruler of England and, oh yes, I'd forgotten, husband of Elizabeth.'"
"You twist my words, you take me wrong!" he cried.
He'd chosen ill and blundered yet again. Elizabeth crossed the rough-hewn floor and made for the cottage door, her face flushed crimson. Her succession to the throne had been a ghastly road littered with the dead. Robin Dudley was her love, not her lord. To talk of heirs now in moments sweet as these was a noxious thing. She pulled open the door but Dudley slammed it shut.
"Let me by."
"I command you!" she roared.
Dudley saw the purple pulsing veins beneath the parchment skin of Elizabeth's hollow temples. He saw that she was about to cry. He dropped to his knees before her.
"Your Majesty..." He could not go on for a moment, terrible emotions overwhelming his reasonable mind. He raised his arms a supplicant and encircled her waist. Despite the many layers of cloth and corset bones he felt her trembling. "Oh, forgive me, please."
"Robin, rise...I did not mean for you "
"No, no, let me speak." Though his head was bowed he spoke with such intensity that every word was sharp and clear. "I knew you as a child, Elizabeth. Born a royal princess, then cast aside as bastard by a father who wanted only sons. Sent from court to live in obscurity and in poverty. You suffered without his care. But in that nursery schoolroom where my father sent me, I found a jewel. A brilliant mind, a glowing soul, a lovely face as pale as a Yorkshire rose. I loved you even then. We were brother and sister, friends, schoolmates. We laughed, we wept, we helped each other through some times, did we not?"
Dudley did not raise his head to receive the answer, but he knew his words were being heard. The talk of older days and childhood had stopped her trembling, and her breathing eased and slowed.
"This frail, sweet girl survived a tender brother's reign and death, a bloody sister's rule and demise...to become Elizabeth the Queen. The girl is gone, but in my mind not the playmate, not the sister, not the friend. They remain. But now I feel a greedy passion for the woman's body. This creates a deep and terrible bond, each to the other. True, I am married to Amy Dudley by the law. But to you I am married by my heart and soul and mind."
"Robin..." Elizabeth's voice was soft now, but he commanded her to silence with his eyes, holding her gaze with steady intensity.
"Let me say this. I am yours completely subject, vassal, obedient servant. If you would have me as your husband, you will still command me and I will have attained a heaven on earth. If you choose a consort not myself, for reasons of alliance, I will understand and serve you. If you choose another man for love...part of me will wither and pass away. But hear this, Majesty. No matter what you choose to make of me, I will always love you as I did when first I saw your lovely self, and I shall fight and die, be torn asunder limb from limb, to save this land and your own right to govern as you will."
Without warning Dudley tore his shirt and vest open and laid bare his chest. With a flash of gleaming metal he had slashed it with his dagger.
"God, Robin!" Crying now, Elizabeth fell to her knees, pressing her fingers over the wound to stanch the crimson flow. "I would not have you die for me. I want you to live for me...make love to me. Make love to me, now."
Robin Dudley had nothing to do but obey his queen.
Copyright © 1997 by Robin Maxwell