Escape was impossible. The falcon pursued her. She could not run fast enough, and he was nearly upon her. He swooped down, his eye getting bigger and bigger, looking straight through her. He grabbed her with his talons, pulling her within the span of his enveloping wings. Something hit her face. So hard. She fell like a stone. Then blackness. Nothing.
Markenfield Hall, Yorkshire, Monday 10th October 1569
The rut had started. In the far distance, across the many fields the Markenfields owned, and toward the ruins of Fountains Abbey, the fallow deer gathered. I could hear the insistent, deep-throated, repeated belching of the stags. The surrounding air was damp, and a mist lay low on the ground as I rode up to the front of Markenfield Hall. I was glad I had worn my wadmol cloak. The leaves on the trees lining the road were turning red and gold – a sign of the winter to come.
The drawbridge was down, and the guard standing outside the gatehouse on the far side of the moat signalled for me to cross. I entered the courtyard and dismounted, untying a soft leather bag from my saddle before a young groom took the reins and led Mutton over to the stable block on the left. The smith was busy at his anvil; the familiar ring and smell of hot metal drifting out into the sharp morning air made me feel at home. I could almost imagine that if I should but put my head around the door of the smithy, I would see my father striking the iron. I had spent the first seven years of my life here with my father. He was the smith, and they had employed my mother in the kitchen. My eyes misted. I wished he could have been here to witness this day. The day his son was on the cusp of marching alongside the Master of Markenfield on a pilgrimage, just as his father had done with the old master many years ago.
Smoke billowed from the kitchen chimney, and the rich smells emanating through the open leaded windows made my stomach groan. I had already broken my fast with bread and cheese, but I could always find room for good food at any time of the day. I knew the cook, Goodwife Green, and a broad smile and a quick compliment about her cooking skills before I left would almost certainly buy me a fresh piece of bread with a dollop of butter or goose fat.
I looked up at the grand house before me. The creamy York stone was blackening with age but showed the strength and thickness of its walls. The buttresses and high crenulated roof gave the appearance of being in a castle’s confines rather than a gentleman’s home.
I felt a sense of awe whenever I came back, even after all these years.
A man appeared in a doorway to the right of the kitchen and came over. I recognised him. Samuel Fenton.
‘Good morrow, Samuel. Fare thee well?’
He nodded. ‘The Master is expecting you. Come this way.’
I followed him and entered the door that led to a dark stone staircase, which took us up to a level above the undercroft. Another heavy wooden door awaited at the top, and Samuel opened it to reveal the Great Hall.
‘Goodman Gray to see you, Master,’ he said before retreating to stand by one of the large, ornate leaded windows.
A massive fire roared in the cavernous hearth at the western end of the Hall, making the vast space feel warm and welcoming. Thomas stood up, abandoning his breakfast of stuffed pheasant and bacon. Tall and slim, his neat beard framed his narrow face, and his steel-blue eyes sparkled with confidence.
Another man was sitting at the long oak table in the centre of the room. I immediately recognised Richard Norton. He was the high sheriff of the whole of Yorkshire and Thomas’s uncle. Although elderly, the man was by no means frail but well-built with white hair that fell onto his shoulders. He had sharp, beady eyes and carried with him an air of authority and high standing. He was also one of the men my father had marched alongside on the Pilgrimage of Grace in ’36. I hoped my dream of marching alongside these two men would be fulfilled soon.
‘Come. Sit with us, Robert.’ Master Thomas patted the chair next to him.
I felt ashamed standing before them, they in their fine doublets, me in my coarse woollen cloak and leather jerkin. I took off my felt hat and bowed low before walking over to the table and taking my place beside them. The sight before me made me drool, knowing there would be no need to butter up Goodwife Green after all.
‘Help yourself. There is plenty,’ said Thomas, slurping on a flagon of ale.
I did not need telling twice and pulled my knife from my belt. Cutting myself a large slice of pheasant, I ate hungrily. The fowl tasted heavenly on my tongue, rich and flavoursome. Samuel came over to the table and poured a jug of ale, placing it in front of me.
‘I hear you have fashioned my nephew with a set of spurs fit for a king,’ said Richard. He pointed at the soft leather pouch. ‘Come now. Do not have us wait. Let us see your work.’
‘As you wish, my lord.’ I wiped my hands on my cloak and opened the strings of the bag, lifting both spurs out and passing one to each of the gentlemen. The spurs gleamed from the hours of polishing, the solid silver inlay worked into and bold against the glossy sheen of the leather straps; delicately engraved in miniature with the Five wounds of Christ, each hand and foot showing where the nails had punctured the skin. The crown of thorns was so exquisitely intricate and as sharp to touch as the barbs on a rampant sloe. The rowels were true and straight, each spike evenly spaced.
‘By Jesu, Robert. You are an excellent spurrier and silversmith,’ said Richard. ‘I have not seen this quality of workmanship outside of London. You will make Rippon famous.’ He turned to Thomas, adding, ‘And you, my nephew, will wear spurs charged with Catholic spirit when we ride out. We cannot fail in our noble task now.’
‘Indeed, Uncle,’ said Thomas. ‘I will ask my close friend Nicholas Morton to bless them before we march. A priest of such high standing will surely have His ear.’
My shoulders widened as I pulled myself upright, sitting straight-backed with pride at the high sheriff’s compliment. My cheeks burned hot, and I could not temper the broad smile on my face. Master Thomas patted my arm and spoke. ‘You have served me well, Robert. I hope to have you at our side when we commence our crusade.’
‘Of that, you can be sure, Master,’ I said, still basking in the pleasure of their praise.
Thomas took a purse from his belt, counted out two pounds in silver and gave it to me.
Knowing our meeting was at an end, I stood and bowed to both men again. ‘I am grateful for your generosity, Master; I will pray every night until you send for me.’
I took my leave, and Samuel led me back down the steps. I collected my horse from the stables and rode back over the drawbridge and down the broad road. The silver coins jingled in my purse, and I made sure I was out of hearing distance before I threw my cap into the air and cheered my good fortune. Catherine would have her beautiful feather mattress sooner than she knew, and I would follow in my father’s footsteps and march alongside my master. I decided not to tell her of the coming rising just yet. There was no point in causing her to worry in her condition. At that moment, a cloud covered the bright sun, casting a shadow over me, and a darker thought crossed my mind. What if I could not be with her for the birth of our child?