…it is our deepest hope that, once at Court, you will see the great folly of your actions and rejoice at your happy escape from this poor match. The Queen has done our family a great honour by accepting you as one of her maids of honour. You have a chance to redeem yourself and our family name through service to Her Grace. To discover what will truly make you happy. Do not fail her, or us.
Lady Rosamund Ramsay crumpled her father's letter in her gloved hand, slumping back against the cushions of the swaying litter. If only she could crush his words out of her memory so easily! Crush the memory of all that had happened since those sweet, warm days of summer. Was it all just months ago? It felt like years, vast years, where she had aged far beyond her nineteen years to become an old, old woman, unsure of herself and her desires.
Rosamund shivered as she tossed the crumpled letter into her embroidered bag, curling her booted feet tighter around the warmer that had long gone cold. The coals weren't even smoldering embers now. It made her think of Richard, and their professed feelings for each other. The kisses they had stolen in the shade of green, flowering hedges. He hadn't even tried to see her when her parents had separated them.
And now she was being sent away from Ramsay Castle, pushed out of her home and sent away to serve the Queen. No doubt her parents were sure she would be handily distracted there, in the midst of a noisy, crowded Court, like a fussing babe handed a glittering bauble. They thought that, with Queen Elizabeth's patronage and all the fine, new gowns they had sent with her, Rosamund would find another match. A better one, more suited to the Ramsay name and fortune. They seemed to think surely one handsome face was as good as another in a young lady's eye.
But little did they know her. They thought her a shy little mouse. But she could be a lion when she knew what she wanted. If only she knew what that was…
Rosamund parted the curtains of the litter, peering out at the passing landscape. Her parents' desperation to send her away was so great that they had launched her out into the world as soon as the Queen's letter had arrived, in the very midst of winter. The world beyond the narrow, frost-rutted roadway was one of bare, skeleton-like trees stretching bony branches towards a steel-gray sky. Thankfully, it was not snowing now, but drifts of white lay along the roadside in lumpy banks.
A sharp wind whistled through the bare trees, bitterly chilling. Rosamund's escorts—armed guards on horseback, and her maid Jane in the baggage cart—huddled silently in their cloaks. She had not heard a single word since they had stopped at an inn last night, and likely all would be silent until they at last made it to London.
London. It seemed an impossible goal. The palace at Whitehall, with its warm fireplaces, was surely just a dream, as the cozy inn had been. The only reality was this jolting, jarring road, the mud, the never-ending cold that bit through her fur-lined cloak and woollen gown as if they were tissue.
Rosamund felt the hollow sadness of loneliness as she stared out at the bleak day. She had lost her parents and home, lost Richard and the love she had thought they shared. She had no one, and was faced with making a new life for herself in a place she knew so little of. A place where she could not fail, for fear she would never be allowed home again.
She drew in a deep breath of the frosty air, feeling its bracing cold stiffen her shoulders and bear her up. She was a Ramsay, and Ramsays did not fail! They had survived the vicissitudes of five Tudor monarchs thus far, and had escaped unscathed from them all, with a title and fine estate to show for it. Surely she, Rosamund, could make her way through the Queen's Court without getting herself into more trouble?
Perhaps Richard would soon come to her rescue, prove his love to her. They just needed a plan to persuade her parents he was a worthy match.
Rosamund leaned slightly out of the litter, peering back at the cart rumbling along behind her. Jane sat perched among the trunks and cases, and she looked distinctly grey and queasy. It had been hours since they had left the inn, and Rosamund herself felt stiff and sore, even tucked up among the fur robes and cushions. Feeling suddenly wretched and selfish, she gestured to the captain of the guard that they should stop for a moment.
Jane hurried over to help her alight. 'Oh, my lady!' she gasped, fussing with Rosamund's white-wool cloak and gloves. 'You look frozen through. This is not a fit time for humans to be out and about, and no doubt about it!'
'It is quite all right, Jane,' Rosamund said soothingly. 'We will soon be in London, and surely no one can keep a warmer household or finer table than the Queen? Just think of it—roaring fires. Roasted meats, wine and sweets. Clean bedclothes and thick curtains.'
Jane sighed. 'If we only live to see it all, my lady. Winter is a terrible thing indeed. I don't remember ever seeing a colder one.'
Rosamund left the maid straightening the litter's cushions and headed into the thick growth of trees at the side of the road. She told Jane she needed to use the necessary, but in truth she really needed a moment alone, a moment of quiet, to stand on solid ground and be away from the constant sway of the hated litter.
She almost regretted venturing away from the road, as her boots sank into the slushy snow-drifts and slid across frozen puddles. The trees were bare and grey, but so closely grown she soon could not see her party at all. The branches seemed to close around her like the magical thicket of a fairy tale, a new and strange world where she was alone in truth. And there were no valiant knights to ride to her rescue.
Rosamund eased back her hood, shaking her silvery-blonde hair free of its knitted caul. It fell in a heavy mantle over her shoulders, blown by the cold wind. She turned her face up to the sky, to the swirling grey clouds. Soon enough, the crowds and clamour of London would shut out this blessed silence. She would surely not even be able to hear her own thoughts there, let alone the shriek of the wind, the rattle of the naked branches.
The laughter? Rosamund frowned, listening intently. Had she stepped into a story indeed, a tale of fairies and forest sprites? Aye, there it was again, the unmistakable sound of laughter and voices. Human voices too, not fairies or the whine of the winter wind. Still feeling under an enchanted spell, she followed the trail of that merry, enticing sound.
She emerged from the woods into a clearing, suddenly facing a scene from another world, another life. There was a frozen pond, a rough circle of shimmering, silver ice. On its banks crackled a bonfire, snapping red-gold flames that sent plumes of fragrant smoke into the sky and reached enticing tendrils of heat toward Rosamund's chilled cheeks.
There were people, four of them, gathered around the fire—two men and two ladies, clad in rich velvets and furs. They laughed and chattered in the glow of the fire, sipping goblets of wine and roasting skewers of meat in the flames. And out in the very centre of that frozen pond was another man, gliding in lazy, looping circles.
Rosamund stared in utter astonishment as he twirled in a graceful, powerful arc, his lean body, sheathed only in a black, velvet doublet and leather breeches, spinning faster and faster. He was a dark blur on that shining ice, swifter than any human eye could follow. As she watched, mesmerised, his spin slowed until he stood perfectly still, a winter god on the ice.
The day too grew still; the cold, blowing wind and scudding clouds held suspended around that one man.
'Anton!' one of the ladies called, clapping her gloved hands. 'That was astounding.'
The man on the ice gave an elaborate bow before launching himself into a backward spin, a lazy meander towards the shore.
'Aye, Anton is astounding,' the other man, the one by the fire, said. His voice was heavy with some Slavic accent. 'An astounding peacock who must show off his gaudy feathers for the ladies.'
The skater—Anton?—laughed as he reached the snowy banks. He sat down on a fallen log to unstrap his skates, an inky-dark lock of hair falling over his brow.
'I believe I detect a note of envy, Johan,' he said, his deep voice edged with the lilting music of that same strange, northern accent. He was not even out of breath after his great feats on the ice.
Johan snorted derisively. 'Envy of your monkeyish antics on skates? I should say not!'
'Oh, I am quite sure Anton is adroit at far more than skating,' one of the ladies cooed. She filled a goblet with wine and took it over to Anton, her fine velvet skirts swaying. She was tall and strikingly lovely, with dark-red hair against the white of the snow. 'Is that not so?'
'In Stockholm a gentleman never contradicts a lady, Lady Essex,' he said, rising from the log to take her proffered goblet, smiling at her over its gilded rim.
'What else do they do in Stockholm?' she asked, a flirtatious note in her voice.
Anton laughed, his head tipped back to drink deeply of the wine. As he turned towards her, Rosamund had a clear view of him and she had to admit he was handsome indeed. Not quite a peacock—he was too plainly dressed for that, and he wore no jewels but a single pearl-drop in one ear. And not the same as Richard, who had a blond, ruddy, muscular Englishness. But undeniably, exotically, handsome.
He was on the tall side, and whipcord lean, no doubt from all that spinning on the ice. His hair was black as a raven's wing, falling around his face and over the high collar of his doublet in unruly waves. He impatiently pushed it back, revealing high, sharply carved cheekbones and dark, sparkling eyes.
Eyes that widened as they spied her standing there, staring at him like some addled peasant girl. He handed the lady his empty goblet and moved towards Rosamund, graceful and intent as a cat. Rosamund longed to run, to spin around and flee back into the woods, yet her feet seemed nailed into place. She could not dash off, could not even look away from him.
'Well, well,' he said, a smile touching the corner of his sensual lips. 'Who do we have here?'
Rosamund, feeling utterly flustered and foolish, was finally able to turn around and flee, Anton's startled laughter chasing her all the way back to the safety of her litter.
'Very nearly there now, Lady Rosamund,' the captain of the guard said. 'Aldgate is just ahead.'
Rosamund slowly roused herself from the stupor she had fallen in to, a hazy, dream-like state formed of the cold, the tiredness—and thoughts of the mysterious Anton, that other-worldly man of dark beauty and inhuman grace spinning on the ice. Had she really seen him? Or had he been a vision?
Whatever it was, she had behaved like an utter ninny, running away like a frightened little rabbit—and for what? For fear? Aye, perhaps fear of falling into some sort of enchanted winter spell. She had made a mistake with Richard—she would not do that again.
'You are a very silly girl indeed,' she muttered. 'Queen Elizabeth will surely send you home as quick as can be.'
She parted the litter curtains, peering out into the grey day. While she'd dreamed and fretted, they had left the countryside behind entirely and entered a whole new world, the crowded, bustling, noisy world of London. As her little entourage passed through the gate, they joined a vast river-flow of humanity, thick knots of people hurrying on their business. Carts, coaches, horses, mules and humans on foot rushed over the frosty cobblestones, their shouts, cries and clatters all a tangled cacophony to her ears.
Rosamund had not been to London since she was a child. Her parents preferred the country, and on the few occasions when her father had to be at Court he came alone. She was educated in the ways of Queen Elizabeth's cosmopolitan Court, of course, in fashion, dancing, conversation and music. But like her parents she preferred the quiet of the country, the long days to read and think.
But after the solitary lanes and groves, with only the bird songs for company, this was astounding. Rosamund stared in utter fascination.
Their progress was slow through the narrow streets, the faint grey light turned even dimmer by the tall, close-packed, half-timbered buildings. Peaked rooflines nearly touched high above the streets, while at walkway-level shop windows were open and counters spread with fine wares: ribbons and gloves, gold and silver jewellery, beautiful leather-bound books that enticed her more than anything; their colour and shine flashed through the gloom and then were gone as she moved ever forward.
And the smell! Rosamund pressed the fur-lined edge of her cloak to her nose, her eyes watering as she tried to take a deep breath. The cold air helped; the latrine ditch along the middle of the street was almost frozen over, a noxious stew of frost, ice and waste. But there was still a miasma of rotting vegetables, horse manure and waste buckets dumped from the upper windows, overlaid with the sweetness of roasted meats and sugared nuts, cider and chimney smoke.
The previous year had been a bad plague-year, but it seemed not to have affected the London population at all to judge by the great crowds. Everyone was pushing and shoving their way past, hurrying on their business, slipping on the cobbles and the churned-up, frozen mud. They seemed too busy, or too cold, to harass the poor souls locked in the stocks.
A few ragged beggars pressed towards Rosamund's litter, but her guards shoved them back.
'Stand away, varlet!' her captain growled. 'This is one of the Queen's own ladies.'
The Queen's own lady—gawking like a milkmaid. Rosamund slumped back against her cushions, suddenly reminded of why she was here—not to stare at people and shops, but to take up duties at Court. Whitehall grew closer with every breath.
She took a small looking-glass from her embroidered travel-bag. The sight that met her gaze caused nothing but dismay. Her hair, the fine, silver-blonde strands that never wanted to be tidy, struggled from her caul. She had hastily shoved up the strands after her excursion in the woods, and it showed.