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So Worthy My Love
Author: Kathleen E. Woodiwiss

 

Prologue

 

THE MAN WAS RELATIVELY YOUNG, perhaps five or so years past a score and ten, yet the lines of fatigue and recent deprivation were accentuated by the stubble of a beard that roughened his cheeks and chin and which seemed to age the handsome face. He was seated on a large, square-hewn block of stone that had tumbled from the jumbled ruins behind him. On a blanket spread near his feet a girl of two or more plucked listlessly at the woolen hair of a doll. She seemed to be watching and waiting.

The man tipped his head back to catch the warmth of the midday sun on his face and breathed deeply of the cool, fresh breezes that brought the brushy tang of heather to him from across the moors. His head throbbed as he reaped the rewards of his recent excesses, which a long sleepless night had done little to ease. His hands hung limply over his knees, and his chest ached with the weight of his agony.

The pounding in the back of his skull began to ease after a time, and he sighed at the release. He had come here to find some hint of a memory of brighter days when there had been three of them, and they had gamboled happily across these same slopes. The child, Elise, was not of an age to understand the permanency of their loss. She only knew this as a place where a warm, soft, and laughing person had played with her and had giggled in glee as they rolled on the sweetly smelling grass. She waited expectantly for that loving loved one to appear, but time fled and that one did not come.

Clouds gathered above their heads and hid the sun. The wind turned northerly and was suddenly cold and chilling. The man sighed again, then opened red-rimmed eyes as a light touch caressed the back of his hand. His daughter had crept close to him and now looked up at him inquiringly. Her eyes bespoke her sadness as if she too, in her own child’s way, had come to understand that the memory would never again return to life and there was no further reason to stay in this place.

The man saw in the deep blue eyes, in the dark russet hair, in the delicate shape of her chin and the soft, expressive lips, a hint of the wife he had loved so completely. He swept the girl into his arms and held her close, breathing deeply to quell the sobs that threatened to wrack him. Still, he could not stop the tears welling up between his tightly closed lids. Slowly they coursed down his cheeks and fell into the soft curls.

The man coughed and held the tiny girl from him. Again their eyes met, and in that long moment was born between them a bond that nothing of this world could sever. They would ever share a touch, and it would span whatever distance separated one from the other while they remembered the one they had both loved so dearly.

 

 

Chapter 1

 

London became a place of unrest as tales of treason and paid recompenses began to be noised about with more frequency. Life in the city was mingled with a series of alarms as the Queen’s agents sought to uproot conspirators. Wild shouts and the clatter of running feet often shattered the silence of the streets during the darkest hour of night, then would come an insistent pounding of a heavy fist upon a solidly bolted door, followed by torchlit interrogations that sometimes resulted in multiple hangings and the display of severed heads on London Bridge. The attempts on the Queen’s life did not cease, but seemed to roil up from the nether realms of the earth. Mary Stuart was a prisoner of England and Elizabeth Tudor was on the throne, and one was as much in danger of losing her life as the other.

November 7, 1585Near the Village of BurfordOxfordshire, England

THE TINY FLAMES of myriad squat candles frolicked in jubilant accord with the wedding guests as they stepped in lively time to the courante. The festive music of the performing minstrels filled the great room of Bradbury Hall, blending with the revelrous laughter of the lords and their ladies. There was indeed much cause for celebration, for the oft-arranged betrothals and much-canceled weddings of the beauteous Arabella Stamford had finally resulted in a successful union. Just as amazing was the fact that no great disaster had yet befallen the brave swain who had so zealously sought her hand these past months. Of the six who had previously held the distinction of being the lady’s betrothed, none were known to be alive, including the late Marquess of Bradbury in whose country estate the guests now celebrated. Reland Huxford, the Earl of Chadwick, had decried the possibility of a curse on one so fair and had rushed recklessly on with his courtship, heedless of the dire fates of those who had preceded him.

Now triumphantly wed, he stood joined to his bride by a garland of green while all around them leather-bound tankards and silver goblets were lifted in boisterous toast to the newly espoused couple. The strong ales and heady wines did much to warm the spirits and encourage the jovial moods, and servants hastened to tap fresh casks of the dark ale and hogsheads of claret and sack lest the excitement flag and fade.

Edward Stamford was ecstatic at having finally gained a son-in-law of both wealth and title, but the giving of his daughter’s hand had not been accomplished without a certain measure of pain. Reluctantly he had conceded that the wedding banquet warranted more than the usual staples, and under his baleful eye huge trenchers of suckling pig, stuffed goat, and gaudily adorned birds were set before the ravenous guests. He winced in miserly distress as the succulent meats, elaborate puddings, and tasty sweetmeats were devoured with impartial gluttony by those who had come to indulge in his rare display of largess, but if any took note of their host’s lack of appetite, they kept such observations in reserve.

It was an uncommon day indeed when Edward Stamford appeared kindly disposed toward anyone. Rather, it was said of him that he was something of an opportunist who had acquired his wealth through the misfortunes or follies of others. No one could aver that these windfalls had occurred through any clever manipulations of his, but Edward was always eager to seize whatever harvest he could wrench from those who had carefully sown and nurtured. His most noteworthy, if vocally reluctant, donor was the erstwhile Lord of Bradbury Hall.

No one was cognizant of the supreme sacrifice Edward had been required to make in order to divert attention from his own involvement in the murder of the Queen’s agent. By casting the blame on Seymour, he had dismally foreseen relinquishing every honor and advantage he had once aspired to gain from his daughter’s union with the man. It was the very least he would lose if he were successful, he had realized, and if he failed? Well, the dangers to himself had been too enormous to even entertain. Not only had there been a threat of reprisal from her sovereign majesty, but the Marquess had for some time been touted as the finest of the Queen’s champions, and tales of his prowess with a sword had been well-published. In his mildest nightmares Edward had seen himself being skewered to a wall by the nobleman’s long, shining, two-edged rapier.

Cautiously he had woven his tale while Elizabeth had lent an ear to his accusations, but he had underestimated her fondness for Seymour. She had flown into a rage, incensed that a favored lord would be accused of treason and murder by one held in such low esteem. It was only when witnesses affirmed that the Marquess’s gloves had been discovered beside the slain agent that Edward had gained the leverage he needed. The Queen finally had relented and, with a venging stroke, had sealed Seymour’s doom by calling for his immediate execution. Dealing out swift justice to traitors, she had stripped him of his title, possessions, and estates and spitefully heaped the latter two upon his accuser. Edward’s glee had been immeasurable, but fear had come quickly in its stead when Seymour vowed from his gatehouse cell at Lambeth Palace to see all those who had precipitated his fall from grace brought to justice. Though the nobleman had been scheduled to meet the headman’s axe a short fortnight away, Edward had nearly crumpled beneath the onslaught of fear, wary of even closing his eyes lest he never open them again. It was the cleverness of the man which had frightened him, and he had good cause to be afraid, for it was the Marquess’s plan to escape his guards when they crossed the bridge on their way to the Tower. Fate, however, decreed otherwise, and Seymour was shot and killed by a guard trying to halt his escape. Edward received the news in trembling relief and had finally deemed it safe to begin the transfer of his household from his own rather barren manor to the Marquess’s wealthy estates.

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