Late afternoon sun would glint off the sewing needles as they darted in and out of embroidery. Low staccato chatter reverberated around the circle, the sound of court ladies who didn’t need to concentrate on what their quick hands were doing. An idle listener might mistake what they heard for tittle-tattle, harmless enough even in Puritan England. Nevertheless, for those in the sewing circle there were tales within tales, patterns in the stitches for those careful enough to look. Scandal could be conferred with a raised eyebrow and gossip smothered with a press of lips.
Lady Anne Parkenham would certainly have a tale to tell tomorrow. There had not yet been light in the sky when she had been woken from her rooms at court by an impatient knocking. Perhaps her maid had taken another turn. Perhaps it was something more sinister; who could tell in these days of upheaval? Upon opening her door, her candle threw light over two soldiers-at-arms, their cheeks unshaven and their eyes wide, momentarily struck dumb by the opulence around them.
‘You’re needed elsewhere in the palace, Lady Anne,’ mumbled one, his eyes fixed to the ceiling to protect the dignity of the women in her nightdress.
‘Elsewhere?’ asked Anne, her voice gravelly through sleep and fear. ‘I’m…this is entirely improper! What do you mean by rousing me at this hour? I…’
‘Miss,’ growled the second soldier, placing his hand on the door. ‘I’ve orders to escort you to the kitchens immediately. Whether your feet touch the floor on the way is a matter for you.’
At that, Anne dressed herself with as much decorum as she could manage without a maid before joining the two men in the corridor. She did not give them the satisfaction of enquiring about her destination again. Recent events meant that one could never be entirely sure at whose behest a command was issued. Better to see to whom she was brought first. Plate mail clanking and skirts rustling, they made their way down through the still-sleeping palace.
Soon carpets became stone underfoot, and Anne found herself in the kitchens for the first time. She was escorted to the pantry, where her escorts indicated that she should enter. Hardly daring to imagine what scandal might await her and yet aware of the soldiers behind her, Anne eased open the door. Despite herself, she gave a small gasp. Filling the doorway was a huge figure dressed in the garb of a Roundhead captain. Like his men he was unshaven, but unlike them he showed no unease at addressing nobility.
Anne swallowed. ‘After a fashion, yes.’
He raised his hands and hooked them into the doorframe. ‘They said you had the nimblest fingers. Amongst the high-born ladies.’
‘That is not for me to say,’ said Anne, hiding a shiver and trying to sound bolder than she felt. ‘I might ask, however, why you have had two brutes accost me in my rooms in the middle of the night. Answer well, or I’ll have your head for this!’
The captain smirked before standing aside and motioning for Anne to enter the pantry. He nodded to a lumpen, shrouded shape stretched long on a wooden table.
‘We haven’t time for you to be shocked. The task is to be completed within the hour. I’ll be back presently with a candle.’
Anne approached the table, aware that the soldier had stopped in the doorway to watch her. There was a body under the cloth, of that she was sure, but of whom? It was misshapen. All of the pieces seemed to be present but oddly…stretched. A single hand was all that was visible, hanging from the side of the table.
‘Those are lace cuffs around that wrist,’ said Lady Anne.
‘That they are,’ replied the captain in a steady voice.
‘A beautiful ring on his finger as well.’
‘That it is.’
‘I remark upon these because three days past King Charles was beheaded for treason.’
‘That he was.’
Anne could hear nothing apart from her own breathing and that of her companion. The three-feet-thick pantry walls made sure of that.
She turned to face the captain. ‘On whose authority did you presume to take me from my chamber tonight?’
‘Lord Oliver Cromwell’s. He’s of the opinion that even a papist king should be buried with his head on his shoulders.’
Anne turned to the body once more, her fingers making the sign of the cross against her chest. She spoke without turning.
‘If one of your thick-fingered men has tried their hand at the task I shall need more than an hour. I require a needle. A fine one. And more than one candle. Wax, not tallow.’
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