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God's wounds, but it was another fight. And Anna was sure she could guess what the cause was, too.
She put down the costume she was mending, and peered over the railing of the upper gallery to the stage below. Morning rehearsal had not yet begun for Lord Henshaw's Men, and only a few of the players sat there, desultorily running their lines as Old Madge swept up the used rushes of yesterday's performance. It seemed an ordinary start to a day at the White Heron Theatreperhaps she had imagined that shout.
Nay, for there it was again, moving closer from the lane outside. A man's hoarse yell, a woman's scream. A mocking laugh.
The men on the stage heard it, too, breaking off mid-sentence to turn curiously towards the bolted doors.
'It seems Master Alden has returned,' Anna called down to them, her voice calm and steady. Unlike the rest of her. Her hands trembled as she longed to grab Robert Alden and give him a violent shake! And then to drag him close and kiss him
'Fool,' she whispered, not knowing if she meant himor herself. She had fought hard to impose control on her life, and she wasn't going to let a ridiculously handsome, troublemaking actor wreak havoc on that.
'Shall we bring him in?' asked Ethan Camp, the company's comedian. He relished a good brawl.
'I suppose we must,' Anna said. 'He owes us a new play, and we'll never have it if his arms are broken.'
She spun round and hurried towards the narrow staircase, lifting her grey wool skirts as she dashed down the winding wooden steps past the lower galleries, empty and echoing so early in the day, and into the yard which was open to the sky above. The quarrel was louder there, as if the participants played to the groundlings.
But Anna knew too well that if any blood was shed it would not be from a burst pig's bladder hidden under a costume.
Ancient Elias, the porter, was already unlocking the doors, the players drawing their daggers. Even Madge leaned on her broom, looking on with keen interest.
As if theatre life was not already unpredictable enough, Anna thought wryly. Robert Alden could always be relied upon to liven things up.
And that was why she was such a fool. She finally had her life orderly again, after the end of a most ill-advised marriage and a blessed widowhood. She helped her father with his many businesses, especially the White Heron, and she loved the challenge of it all. The fact that she was good at the work, and was needed, was something new and welcome. She could do her work and hide backstage. She had no more use for the perils of romance. Especially with an actor.
But when she looked at Rob Alden she felt like a silly girl again. A blushing, giggling clot-pole of a girl, just like all the legions of ladies who only came to the theatre to watch him on stage. To toss flowers at his feet and swoon. To lift their skirts for him in one of the boxes when they thought no one was looking.
He was a handsome, tempting devil, indeed. One with the magical gift of poetry in addition to his azure eyes and tight backside. Anna refused to be tempted. Refused to be another of his easy conquests. Her task was only to lure plays from him, those wondrous tales that drew vast crowds and great profits. A play by Robert Alden was always a great success, and ran for days and days to sold-out crowds.
But there would be no beautiful words if he killed himself in a brawl, which Anna feared he might. He had a reputation even in tumultuous Southwark for his temper.
As soon as the doors swung open she dashed through them, clutching the fearsome weapon of her sewing scissors even as she wished she had the short sword she carried when she collected her father's rents. The actors were right behind her.
Southwark was fairly quiet in the morning hours. A district that made a living in dubious pleasures like bear pits, brothels and tavernsall the things that were banished from within the city walls and into the suburbscould never easily rouse itself after a long night's revelry. The thick pearl-grey mist drifting off the river hung over the shuttered, close-packed buildings and the muddy, mucky lanes.
But a few shutters were thrown open, sleepy faces peering down to see what the trouble was. Trouble always attracted attention in Southwark, no matter what the hour. But everyone soon melted away once it was over.
Anna first saw the womana buxom female clad in once-bright, now-dingy yellow satin, her matching yellow hair straggling over her shoulders. She was crying, the tears carving streaks in her thick face paint.
Anna's gaze darted to the man who stood in front of the whore, waving a sword around wildly. A great, portly bear of a man, with a reddened face and thick black beard. He looked quite unhappy, ready to explode, and Anna felt a cold touch of disquiet in her belly. The man was obviously drunk, and that made him even more unpredictable.
Unlike a play, where the script made it clear how all would end. Had Rob gone too far this time?
She turned to face Rob, who seemed most unconcerned by the whole scene. Probably he, too, was ale-shot, but he gave no indication of it. His blue eyes shone like a summer sky, his grin was merry and mocking, as if imminent disembowelment was greatly amusing.
Unlike his opponent, Rob was lean and lithe, with an actor's powerful grace. His unlaced white shirt revealed a smooth, muscled expanse of bare chestand a wide smear of blood. He held a rapier, lightly twirling the hilt in his hands as the weak sunlight flashed on its blade and on the gold rings adorning his ink-stained fingers.
Anna knew that he was a skilled fighter. Everyone knew that in Southwark. She had seen it too many times, both on stage and in the streets. The man's mocking tongue and quick temper were irresistible temptations to brawlers. But somehow this time felt different. There was a tense charge to the air, a feeling of time standing still before crashing down on them.
'Mistress Barrett!' Rob said, giving her an elaborate bow. 'I see you have come to witness our revels.'
'What seems to be the trouble this time?' she asked, glancing carefully between Rob and the enraged bear-man.
'He's a boar-pig of a cheat!' the bear-man roared. 'He owes me money for the lightskirt.'
The woman's sobs grew louder. ''Tweren't like that. I told you! Some men aren't brutes like you. I weren't working then.'
'Aye,' Rob said cheerfully. 'Some of us know how to be a gentleman and woo a lady properly.'
Gentleman? Anna pursed her lips to keep from laughing. Robert Alden was many thingswitty, clever, and damnably handsome. Gentlemanly wasn't one of them.
This was just another quarrelover payment to a Winchester goose. Yet somehow she still sensed there was more to it. Something else was happening underneath this common, everyday disagreement.
She opened her mouth to argue, turning back to Rob, but just then that strange tension snapped and chaos broke free in the quiet morning. With an echoing shout, the bear-man lunged at Rob, all flailing arms and flashing blades, faster than she could have imagined possible.
His men, half-hidden in the shadows, tumbled after him, shouting, and everything threatened to hurtle over into a full-blown battle. Anna pressed herself back against the wall.
But she had underestimated Rob. Debauched he might look, yet the long night had lost him none of his actor's grace. Swift as the tiger in the Queen's menagerie, he sidestepped his attacker, reaching out to grab his arm. Using the man's bulk against him, Rob flipped him to the ground. A brittle snap rang through the air, causing the bear-man's minions to freeze in place as he howled in agony.
Rob gestured to them with his blade. 'Who is next, then?' he called.
Predictably, no one took that offer. They scooped up their fallen leader and ran away, the sobbing whore reluctantly following them. The sudden explosion of violence receded as fast as it had come.
'I hope you are content now,' Anna murmured.
Rob leaned his palm against the wall near her head, laughing. 'I am, rather. They ran like the gutter rats they are. Didn't you find it amusing, Mistress Barrett?'
'No, I did not. I think ' Then she saw it. The smear of blood on his bared chest was a thicker, brighter red, staining his rumpled shirt. 'You're hurt!'
She reached out to touch him, but he drew away with a hiss. ''Tis a scratch,' he said.
'A scratch can lead to the churchyard if it's not seen to,' she protested. 'I am the daughter of Tom Alwick, remember? I'm certainly no stranger to wounds. Please, let me see.'
He glanced past her at the gawping actors, reluctant to lose their excitement so fast. 'Not here,' he muttered.
'What? Do you fear having your modesty offended? Fine, we can go to the tiring-house.'
'I will happily shed my garments for you, Mistress Barrett. You need only ask ' Suddenly Rob swayed, his bronzed face ashen.
Anna caught him against her, her arm around his lean waist, as alarm shot through her. Robert Alden was never pale. Something troubling indeed must have happened in the night.
'Rob, what is it?' she gasped.
'No one must know,' he said roughly, his breath stirring the curls at her temple as he leaned against her.
Know what? 'I will not let them,' she whispered. 'Come inside with me now, and all will be well.'
If only she could believe that herself.