This morning I heard a man scream for the ﬁrst time in my life. It is not a sound I wish to hear again: guttural, shameful, travelling across the stable yard and up through the lantern tower.
I awoke in a sweat of ice. Josiah lay in bed beside me, staring at the ceiling with the same horror I felt all over my skin. Memory fell with a sickening blow: the King and Queen. It could not be – please Almighty God – it could not be that some harm had befallen them?
The dreadful noise came from outside. It set the dogs barking. I ﬂung myself out of bed and ran to the window. Raindrops spotted the glass, I could not see out clearly. A gauzy haze hung in the air after last night’s storm. Puddles steamed in the morning heat.
‘What is it?’ Josiah demanded.
The reply did not come from me – it arose from that place where the dreams brood, where knowledge arrives fully formed. ‘Someone is dead. Life has left this house.’
He was up in an instant, the coverlet thrown back and his bare feet thudding on the boards. I saw him snatch up his sword before he ran into the corridor.
We were not the only ones awake. Guests milled about in their nightclothes, bleary-eyed, their hair tangled from the night before. As soon as Josiah saw them, he assumed an air of calm.
‘Do not be alarmed. Pray, return to your beds. I will go and ﬁnd the cause of this disturbance.’
They mumbled, rubbing their eyes. Tired as they looked, they did not seem inclined to obey him.
I followed Josiah down one ﬂight of steps, desperate to see the children safe. I found them gathered outside the nursery with Lizzy, all deathly pale. Hetta’s sparrow screeched from within. Hairs raised on the back of my neck. Mary once told me that sparrows carry the souls of the dead.
‘We do not know what the commotion is,’ I told them. ‘Your father has gone to deal with it.’
‘Mistress?’ Lizzy tried to catch my eye but I would not look at her. One glance, and I knew I should lose hold of my composure.
‘Not now, Lizzy.’
I must appear every inch the mistress, in command. I turned my back on her to face the children. Despite her early night, Hetta looked more exhausted than the boys. I felt her forehead. She was burning up.
‘Go back to bed,’ I ordered. ‘All of you, back to bed.’
The boys groaned. I did not heed them; could not stop to argue with them. A strange energy stirred me, a kind of nauseous excitement, and I returned the way I had come, intending to reassure the guests.
Crackling beneath all the fears in my mind was the one I could name: the plague. There had been sweltering temperatures and reports of sickness in London. Now my child was aﬂame with fever. I prayed to God it was not the plague.
We lost Mary to a sweating sickness. People told me it was a kind, swift death, but they did not see it. If my sister died in kindness, I dare not imagine cruelty.
She was well in the morning. Yet as we dressed, I felt it for the very ﬁrst time: the sense of foreboding I have come to trust above my other senses. Our eyes met and I knew Mary felt it too. By noon she was abed.
It began with shivers. Then came the heat, scorching through her skin, running off her in rivulets of sweat. Before the night had passed, her jaw was bound. Gone. Dead at only twenty years old.
My bare feet crunched against the rushes on the ﬂoor. Beset by memories of Mary, I did not notice Jane running up the stairs. I collided with her and we both fell back, blinking, bewildered.
‘Oh, mistress, forgive me.’ She did not look like herself. She had been up earlier than us, I realised. She had been awake and about her
duties before the scream sounded.
‘Jane! Jane, tell me what has happened.’ She burst into tears.
I wrung it from her piece by piece. I did not need to go down to the stables, to smell the blood and see the ﬂies for myself; it was all there gleaming in the pupils of her eyes.
There was a dead horse in the stalls. Not just dead – mutilated. Its tail was cropped and nailed outside the door, its mane attacked with a frenzy of scissors. The ostler found a score of lacerations scratched in the skin, like a tally you might carve upon a tree.
‘Which horse, Jane?’
‘Oh . . . m-mistress!’ she sobbed. ‘Not my grey mare?’
Jane shook her head. I saw a glimpse of the truth shining back from her wet cheeks. ‘W-worse.’
‘No. You are not saying . . .’ ‘The Queen’s horse!’ she cried.
My legs gave way; I slumped against the wall and then slid down it, straight to the ﬂoor. ‘But who would . . . Puritans?’
‘I don’t know, mistress, I don’t know. Mark says someone’s missing from the stables.’
‘A boy. A gypsy boy. Bless me if I knew we had one! What was he thinking, taking on a nasty, dirty beast like that?’
My blood froze. Merripen. Merripen had done it.
I do not know how. I do not know where a boy of nine or ten years old would ﬁnd the strength for this infernal act. Where, in his young mind, would such a hideous urge come from?
The Queen’s horse! The Queen’s!
My head splits with agony. It is my fault, mine. We are ruined. The court will never return here. Josiah . . .
Dear God. Josiah will ﬁnd out. He will know what I did, that I have destroyed his life’s ambition with my foolish whim. Can a marriage withstand that? Can my heart?
God forgive me in my wickedness. I wish it had been the plague.