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The gallows were heavy with rebels that spring. So many still dangled at the crossroads that even my beloved nurse, Hepzibah Jones, could not distract me from them all. In the days after our entourage set out for London, leaving our redbrick manor tucked behind its moat in Lincolnshire's hills, I saw much but understood little about the uprising that had gripped the south of England. Sir Thomas Wyatt had attempted to topple Queen Mary from her throne.
Jem, the towheaded stable lad in charge of my pony, told me that Father's boyhood friend, the Lieutenant at the Tower, had chopped off Wyatt's head and there still might be a few mad rebels running loose ready to snatch up red-haired girls. But it would take a desperate rebel indeed to attack a party large as Father's. For ten days as we traveled along the Great North Road the grand procession filled the muddy track ahead of me and behind.
Banners of red rippled from the staffs in the herald's hand, the Calverley lions warning simple people to clear the way for persons of rank. William Crane, our Master of the Horse, with his deeply lined face and gentle eyes, directed all from astride his sturdy dapple gelding. I wanted to position my pony beside him. Crane never ran out of animal stories to tell. But my nurse, riding pillion behind Jem, would not hear of it, afraid one of the two wheeled carts jolting along the road might crush me despite Crane's efforts at order.
Eight wood-and-iron carts rumbled at various stages along the rutted road, carrying traveling chests and furniture, bedding and clothes. Their most precious cargo: Father's instruments for looking at the stars. Mother's maid, Arabella, with her face bonny as a gillyflower, had packed them all in linen and locked them in coffers. That was why we were going to London-to fill up chests with books and scientific equipment for Father to take back to Lincolnshire, where we could experiment to our delight. We were bound to stay with the Lieutenant of London's Tower while mother refilled her medicine chest and chatted with the Lieutenant's wife, whom she knew of old. Most exciting of all, Father would spend three weeks studying with the most brilliant man we would ever know, Dr. John Dee, whom father had studied with at Cambridge.
"I think I spy a brigand there!" Jem teased, pointing to a shadow in the trees, but I had been on the road too long now to be fooled by his tricks. What brigand would attack such a procession? Yeomen guards marched at the beginning and end of our caravan. Their halberds bristled, ready to repel any highwaymen who might hope to steal rich clothes and jewels. I was glad the guards were near, since Father rode far ahead of me in the procession, much preoccupied with my mother, who rode in a chariot pulled by four horses. She had felt poorly a good part of the journey, the incessant jostling turning her olive complexion gray, her sharp tongue clamped behind pinched white lips.
On the ninth day we left our horses at the town of Reading where hostlers from the inn we stayed at promised to bring the beasts into the city. The rest of us finished the last leg of our journey by barge. I collected ever more questions to ask Father about the curiosities I spied upon the bustling river-highway filled with those wise or prosperous enough to avoid the crowded city streets.
Boats skated like water bugs across the Thames's sour-smelling water: Great oceangoing vessels bristled with masts. Richly appointed barges carried important personages to and fro. Wherries ferried simple people about their daily tasks.
Even those rare breaks in the crush of humanity on the riverbanks overwhelmed me, where high stone walls held the city back from the elegant grounds of houses grander than any I had ever seen. Sprawling palaces glittered with windows, and whimsical towers soared up so high that if you climbed to their tops I imagined you could see all the way to the ocean.
Yet the barge we had boarded in Reading could not take us all the way to our destination, Father had warned me. Even the queen herself could not pass London Bridge without disembarking from the royal barge. Travelers had to cross the road leading to London Bridge on foot, then board another vessel to take them farther downriver, switching boats the only safe way to escape the rapids rushing through the great stone arches that held the bridge aloft.
Three of the Calverley barges docked and a trumpet blared, Father's servants clearing a path through the fat pool of merchants' wives, flocks of sheep, and farmers trying to squeeze their way onto the much narrower bridge.
I could not wait to reach shore. "Do not fall in the river and drown, child!" My nurse, Eppie, nearly crushed my bones in her grip as we scrambled out of our first boat. I lingered, fascinated by the racing water. "Hold on tight lest you get lost in this thieving crowd." For once I did as I was bid. People churned through the narrow streets, horses and carts and figures small as dolls pressed against the half-timbered houses. An apprentice darted past us, knocking Eppie's headdress askew. She made a sound like a cat when its tail has been trod on. "I shall be glad when we are on a barge again, safe from the villains that crowd the city streets."
"Do you think there are Gypsies somewhere in that crowd?" I asked, eager.
Eppie made a sign to ward off the evil eye. "May those wild demons go back to the hell that spawned them!"
I did not want the wild demons to go anywhere at all. I was fascinated by those exotic rogues so lately come to England, selling horses they enchanted with a breath. Eppie said the Romany wanderers were dangerous, low creatures. Yet, I had seen them do magic with my own eyes when a dark-skinned Gypsy boy charmed my pony. She never shied away from water again. But thoughts of Gypsies vanished as Eppie and I neared London Bridge. My eyes almost popped, I was so stunned by the structure. Houses marched across the Thames from one shore to the other as if it were another street. How had they built them in the middle of the river? I was certain Father would know. But my parents had got so far ahead of us they disappeared from view.
I tugged Eppie faster until I spied my parents already settled in a fine tilt-boat. A canvas canopy painted with stars shaded passengers from sun and rain, while piles of red cushions mounded the seats. Delighted, I wrenched free of Eppie and scrambled down the slippery stone jetty that thrust into the Thames. My Father laughed as I clambered into the boat. "So you have decided to join us, Mistress Curiosity?"
"Mistress Rat's Nest, I would say." Mother tucked back a lock of my tumbled hair. "You look as if you crawled through a hedgerow."
"Did you ever see such a bridge? If you stood on top of the house in the middle, I wager you could take a bite out of a cloud."
"What do you think a cloud tastes like?" Father asked. I peered up at the bridge, to puzzle that out. But my gaze fixed on something far different, pikes bristling with traitors' heads mounted above London Bridge's gatehouse.
"Father, look!" I pointed at the birds who circled, diving to pick the flesh. "How can there still be people in the streets when so many have lost their heads?"
But my mother answered. "Do not forget that sight, Nell. That is what happens to people foolhardy enough to anger a queen."
"Foolhardy or brave," Father muttered.
"John!" Mother shot a frightened look at the steersman who manned the oaken rudder. Luckily, he was arguing with the man drumming out the rhythm for the sweaty oarsmen rowing us along.
"What do you mean, Father?" I asked, intrigued. Mother's world was simple as brown bread. Father's was delicious with imagination, like cake. "A traitor is bad," I said, absolutely certain. "Like Hobgoblin Puck who sleeps under my bed." I rubbed the old scar on my hand from habit. "People whose heads got stuck up there did something wicked." His expression left me uncertain. "Did they not?"
"Are you able to keep a secret, little Nell?" Father's eyes turned solemn beneath the brim of his brown velvet hat.
"You know that I can."
"By God's soul, John!" Mother gasped. "She is five years old! And the things that come out of her mouth! You will have us all taken up for treason!"
Father switched to Greek, the language we spoke when he taught me my lessons. "Is your mother right? Are you too young to understand you must say nothing of this to anyone once we reach the Tower? Especially my friend Sir John Bridges?"
"They could stretch me on the rack until my bones break and I would never say a word. Wat Smith says that is what jailers do down in the dungeons."
"We will hope very fervently it will not come to that then, won't we, Little Bird?" Warmth spread through my middle whenever Father called me by this pet name. "You know who our queen is, Nell?"
"That is right. She is old King Henry VIII's eldest daughter. Do you know who Queen Mary intends to wed?"
"King Philip of Spain. I heard you talking to Father Richard about that before he had to go away." Father Richard had been our priest at Calverley. He had answered all my questions about God and Martin Luther, the monk from Germany who had nailed a letter to a church door telling all the things the Pope was doing wrong. Trying to figure it all out made my head ache, but Father Richard never got cross with me for pestering him. Mother warned me not to expect God to be as patient as Father Richard. Even her eyes got red when he had to flee to France so no one could take his wife and sweet baby away.
My father cleared his throat. I knew he missed Father Richard, too. "Sir Thomas Wyatt and the other men who rebelled against Queen Mary last winter were very afraid of King Philip." Father ignored mother's reproving glare. "Do you know why?"
That was easy for a girl who had been raised in the reformed religion to answer. "Because he is Catholic." I hesitated, and then asked in a hushed voice, "When he is king will he burn us up like they did my godfather?" Father had locked himself in his library for three days after the messenger brought that grim news from Smithfield.
Sadness took over Father's eyes again and I knew I had put it there. I hugged my belly, the whalebone busks that kept my bodice stiff digging into my hips. "Wat says Protestants burned up Catholics, so they are just making it even. I did not believe him."
"What Wat said is true. I wish it was not. Would God we could allow each other to come to faith in our own way. There is only one Christ. He cannot be happy His followers are trying to murder each other in His name."
"You would allow Rome to rule us?" Mother demanded. It was a shock to hear her speak Greek as well. She had learned much while serving as one of Queen Katherine Parr's ladies before King Henry died, but mother rarely bothered speaking anything but English. "You would have us be vassals to Spain?"
Father patted Mother's hand. "Your mother has cut to the practical root of the problem as always, Nell. Spain is much bigger and much stronger than England."
"But not braver!" There could be no doubt of that. I had been raised on tales of Agincourt and Cr}cy, where my ancestors had fought.
"No. Not braver," Father said. "Still, think of the conflict this way. You know your friend, Wat?"
"Wat is not my friend! He pushes me because I am littler than he is."
"What would happen if you had some marchpane and he did not? Would he try to take yours?"
"He might try." I scowled. "I would stick him with a pin."
"I am sure you would fight bravely," Father said, "but chances are Wat would succeed in taking your sweet, because he is twice as big as you are. That is what people fear Spain will do with England. Take all that is sweet from our country and force us to fight their wars, follow their religion. We would become more Spanish than English."
"But I do not want to be Spanish!"
"That is what the rebels thought. They hoped to sweep the Spaniards out of England."
"And Queen Mary off of the throne," Mother added.
"But then who would be Queen?" I asked.
"Sir Thomas Wyatt hoped to put the crown back on Lady Jane Grey's head."
I remembered the story of Lady Jane. King Henry's sickly boy, King Edward, made her queen of England after he died. She only ruled for nine days before Mary took the throne away from her. They had chopped off Jane Grey's head at the very fortress we were going to visit. "If Jane cannot be queen, then who else could be?"
Father cuddled me close. "Princess Elizabeth."
"Wat says she is a bastard and her mother was a witch."
"People who say Elizabeth is not King Henry's daughter are fools." Father stroked my red curls. "Anyone with eyes can see she is Tudor to her bones. The Protestants will rally around Princess Elizabeth in earnest now. May God save her."
"Why does God need to do that?" I asked.
"Because the princess's head is loose on her shoulders, that is why!" Mother said. "Mark my words, Queen Mary will treat Elizabeth just as she did Lady Jane!" Mother's voice caught the way it did whenever light hurt her eyes. It almost sounded like crying.
I shivered. Now that I had seen the traitors up on pikes it was easy to imagine someone's head coming loose and rolling away. "Where is the princess now?" I asked. "Is she hiding from the Spaniards?"
"I wish that she were somewhere hiding," Father said. "No, the princess is locked up in the Tower while Queen Mary decides what to do with her."
"Someone should let her out." I was amazed no grown-up had thought of it.
"Indeed, Little Bird. I wish someone could." Father gathered me in his arms; I loved the smell of him: ink and leather and books.