Much as I love historical novels I am also limited to how much I can read in a month and sadly this is one book I wasn’t able to fit on to my reading list. However, for my stop on the blog tour I do have an extract from the book to give you a flavour of the story.
Blurb: Bess has the voice of an angel, or so Henry VIII declares when he buys her from her father as a member of the music, the Royal company of minstrels, best grows up with in the decadent Tudor Court navigating the ever-changing tide of royals and courtiers. Friends come and go as cracked voices, politics, heartbreak, and death loom over even the lowliest of musicians. Tom, her first and dearest friend is her only constant but as Bess becomes too comfortable at court, she may find that constancy has its limits.
Setup: Spring, 1517. Bess Llewelyn, sold to the King by her father, has been with the court for several months. She has undergone much training and is about to perform for the King and court for the first time since her purchase. Her future rests on the success of her performance.
The still morning air was shattered by the winding of the horn as the hunt thundered from the stables. The sky was pink-tinged, the grass soaked with dew.
I watched as the horses streamed up the slope of Shooter’s Hill, the gaily dressed riders looking like figures from a tapestry. Despite their pace, the attitude was leisurely; everyone knew there would be no real sport. King Henry was at the head of the field, splendid in Lincoln green velvet, a jaunty plume in his cap. He kept a close hand on the reins of his black horse as it twitched and bounded with contagious excitement. I clapped my hands when he stood in the stirrups and let the horse have its head and prance along. After everyone had admired his prowess, the king pulled his mount back to ride alongside the queen’s well-mannered gray mare.
The murmur of voices behind me ebbed and flowed like the Thames, but I was all impatience like the king’s horse and turned from the window. “Mistress, are we leaving?”
“Does it appear that we’re moving, Bess?” came the reply from across the chamber. “Don’t fuss. You’ll spoil your gown.”
Mistress Keith, rounded and glowing like an apple, placed a circlet of leaves and gillyflowers on my head. “You’re lovely,” she said with a pat of approval. “You look like a young lady in that gown.”
I thrilled to her words, for hadn’t I thought the same? I didn’t often care how I looked, but this gown was beautiful, and I felt more tolerant than usual of the girlish chatter of slippers and sleeves. The heady scent of the wreath made me sneeze, and I did so stiffly, careful not to disturb the ornaments sewn to my willow-green bodice and skirt.
The performers left in a series of carts, travelling along the worn roundabout path. We arrived ahead of the hunting party and were hidden away when we heard the horn. Henry Guildford, dressed as Robin Hood, shouted a challenge to the royal party to join his merry men.
I experienced a moment of disbelief that I should be a part of such a world and felt in my stomach a fluttering much like the wings of the captive birds netted for the occasion. I prayed I would not disgrace myself when the time came.
Soft music filtered through the trees as the king and queen were led to the dais inside the vast silken tent. I stayed hidden behind my tent-flap, dreamily watching the grand spectacle, wishing it was what the king pretended it to be: an innocent hunting-party overtaken by robbers and whisked into the forest.
The outlaws served the party with course after course of sumptuous fare carried apace from the palace kitchens. I lost count of the number of peacocks, cooked and reunited with their feathers, their beaks and claws turned to gold. There were courses of fish and fowl, lark, and pheasant, and a special dish of stewed lampreys, the king’s favourite. There was much wine and laughter, until I thought the performances forgotten, but at last, Guildford rose and bowed before the king.
“Your Grace, if a poor man may make so bold as to attempt to please his sovereign, I would offer you a little entertainment.” He flung his arms wide, and three musicians entered. Harry and Gilbert looked well in their outlaw garb, but I was most proud of Tom, who was tall and fine in green hose and a leather jerkin over a soft white linen shirt.
Their music was gay and light and rang out marvellously in the enclosure. I judged no one need strain to hear and would pitch my own voice accordingly. When the trio began the last of their songs, joined this time by a group of girls in white flower-bedecked dresses, I readied myself for my entrance.
The king shouted his approval, and Gilbert and Harry bowed their way out of the tent, while Guildford took the stage again, his handsome, fleshy face smiling at the success of the entertainment thus far. “I would offer another treat for His Majesty,” he said. “A small sprite, found in the wood. Fairies, as Your Grace knows, cannot be tamed, but this one has consented to sing for us.”
Someone pushed me forward, and in small, springing steps, I joined Tom before the king and queen, dropping into the low curtsy that was now second nature. Master Fayrefax’s tune emerged from lips and lute as perfectly as it had sounded in the composer’s mind when he wrote the piece. I knew it without vanity, knew it as well as I knew Tom’s songs were better.
There was silence as we performed, and when we finished, King Henry broke into hearty applause. Tom put his hand on my shoulder, and we made our bow together, then retreated to let the next performers come forward. Before we ducked out of the tent, I heard the king say, “Methinks I have heard that sprite before. She sings exceeding well.”
I threw my arms around Tom. “He liked it!”
“Of course, he did.” Laughing, he pulled me loose and set me down on a felled tree, gently, for fear of my gown. “You’ve an angel in your throat, Bess, and King Henry is too much a musician not to know it.”
I leaned back and looked up at the sky, seeing it only as chinks of bright blue through the thick trees. “I would not sing so well were anyone else to play for me.”
“Silly child,” he said, kneeling and brushing grass from my skirt. “I can’t play for you forever, Bess. They won’t allow it. You must learn to stand on your own.”
About the author:
Karen Heenan was born and raised in Philadelphia. She fell in love with books and stories before she learned to read, and has wanted to write for nearly as long. After far too many years in a cubicle, she set herself free to follow her dreams – which include gardening, sewing,
travelling and, of course, lots of writing.
She lives in Lansdowne, PA, not far from Philadelphia, with two cats and a very patient husband.