Series: Raven Queen
By Pauline Francis
I am not afraid to die.
I have walked the three miles from Leicester prison, tied to a horse carrying the two men who will hang me. Now they are sitting on the ground, swigging their ale before they begin their dirty work: one old, one young, but both toothless. And I know the young one is the wild one, the one to watch.
I drag my hands towards the pocket of my breeches and finger the rosary beads hidden there, whispering, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”
“Blood drinker!” the old one cries.
The young one sniggers. “Look at that! He’s pleasuring himself before he dies! The devil makes work for idle hands.”
No, I am not afraid to die. Death is only a hobgoblin sent to frighten us in the night! my father used to say. But although my mind is strong, my body betrays me. I wet myself. To my surprise, although the men wrinkle their noses, they make no mention of it.
Another thought consoles me. I shall see my mother for the first time in the new world that is waiting to welcome me. Then panic tightens my throat. How will she recognize me now that I am almost fully grown? I was only a baby when she died.
How stupid I am! I shall know her from the painting my father keeps of her in a locket: fair skin, fair hair and eyes soft brown like almonds dappled in an autumn sun.
“Was it worth it then, for an apple and a loaf o’ bread?” the old one asks. “Doesn’t your God tell you it’s wrong to steal?”
I nod. “Yes, but it does not deserve death. ‘Society must take responsibility for its thieves since our society forces thieving’,” I quote.
Their mouths gape.
I am almost light-hearted now as I carry on, “Have you not read Utopia, gentlemen? It is a very good book and I can heartily recommend it to you.”
“Fancy words!” the old one hisses. He pushes the boy forward. “But they’re no good to a condemned man. Get up there, lad!”
The apprentice springs onto the horse’s back and my lips move in silent prayer. His friend sneers, “Too late for that!” and staggers to his feet, pushing me up onto the horse’s back where I sway. The boy is already reaching for the noose above my head and, in a second, it lies heavy around my neck where it will soon squeeze the life out of me.
At least I shall hang in the beauty of the countryside and I thank God for that. Dew glints early on the grass for the sun is already sinking, and above me the gallows is so new that I can smell its sweet sap.
“I like town hangings best!” the boy calls down to his friend. “All them people baying for blood, so to speak. Quiet gallows ain’t my style.”
“I forgive you both for the wrong you are about to do,” I say quietly.
He takes a step back from me, almost losing his balance in his anger and I expect him to hit me, so I duck. As I stand up again, lurching like an acrobat I once saw, he leans forward, steadying himself until his eyes are level with mine. I can see myself in them: all tangled hair and beard. Almost a stranger.
He spits in my face.
I stand still, feeling the spittle slide down my forehead, sticking in my eyebrows and eyelashes. A skylark calls in the sky and I glance up, straining the rope. Then I laugh out loud. Dear God, my last sight of your beautiful creation has been dimmed by a hangman’s spittle. Oh, I am weary of this world and I long to lay down the burden of my life.
The horse rears and pricks its ears at the thud of hooves beyond the hedges. The boy jumps down and the men draw back, whispering. I cannot hear what they are saying although it is clear to me that they are disagreeing.
The old one insists, “I’ve been told to wait till sunset!”
“Who’s going to know?” The boy’s voice is mocking. “Except the ravens!”
“We’ll wait, lad.”
As the thudding shakes the ground, the hanging horse starts to snort and paw the air and the boy decides. “Time to meet your maker!” he shouts, slapping the horse’s rump, and I look to heaven as it leaps forward without me, jolting my body.
A rush of air deep inside me.
And far off I hear my voice cry, “Mother!”
I have lived the life of a princess since the day I was born. But it did not bring me what I wanted. I am still trapped.
My beloved Ned speaks of love, freedom, a future. To walk with him in the forest, our raven soaring above us, is my only joy. But my father plans that I shall be betrothed to the King and I am afraid. Queens of England have a habit of dying. I have no desire to take the throne, no wish to find myself in the Tower of London.
Wife, Queen - I fear it will bring me to my knees. A mesmerising tale of love and tragedy based on the life of Lady Jane Grey, all too often remembered as just a line in a history book. Reveals the treachery, power struggles, and religious turmoil of the Tudor Court. With internet links to recommended websites about the life and times of Lady Jane Grey. Winner of the Highland Children's Book Award 2008 and shortlisted for the 2008 Leeds Book Awards 2008.
“"This stunning and lyrical tale will hold readers captive and haunt them long after the last page has been turned."”
Becky Stradwick, Borders Bookshop
With 20 years of experience as a Secondary school teacher and trained librarian, Pauline has a passion for teaching and encouraging creative writing. Pauline had her first book published in 1994, and has had several books published since, including a number of retellings of well-known classics.
Visit www.paulinefrancis.co.uk to find out more.
“Not many of us will have given Lady Jane Grey much more than a passing thought, and not many history textbooks give her much more than a passing line. This nine-day queen, the 16-year-old victim of plotting and intrigue during a particularly bloody and turbulent period of Tudor history, is easily overlooked, sandwiched between the brief and sorry kingship of Edward VI, and the heady, bloody reign of Mary I. Like any good storyteller, Pauline Francis asks the simple questions: what could her life have possibly been like? How did she thing and feel, love and hate? She answers them in full with a visceral, mesmerising debut novel that brings this little-regarded historical character to life. The story of Jane’s brief and tragic life is told in her own voice and that of her admirer, Ned. The fate of these star-crossed lovers – he a Catholic from a disgraced Catholic family and she an extreme Protestant with Royal blood – is relayed through a series of thrilling, climactic tableaux in haunting, lyrical style.”
Elaine Williams, TES Magazine
“This resonant novel about Lady Jane Grey, who was queen for nine days, is told in a dual narrative - by Jane, an ardent anti-Catholic of the "new faith", and Ned, the boy with whom she falls in love, without knowing he is Catholic. It fleshes out intriguing historical facts: that Jane's parents were cruel and manipulative, that she was offered as a bride to the young Edward VI before being forced to marry the stupid son of power-hungry Dudly who placed her on the throne for his own ends, and that, at the accession of Catholic Mary Tudor, she was imprisoned in the Tower and executed aged 16. Francis adds the fictional character of Ned to this outline, making Jane a rounded, feeling character, passionate and spirited, although trapped by the circumstances of others' self-interest. Written in timeless language, with a hint of the poetic in the spare prose, the book underpins the love story with throughtful imagery and symbolism - snared birds, blood on snow, woodland settings for the youngsters' trysts that suggest the innocence of Eden. The book has an enduring theme of religious intolerance, makes the 16th-century vivid and ends with and unforgettable twist.”
Nicolette Jones, The Sunday Times Culture Supplement
“In the dramatic opening chapters of this engrossing novel, a young man has his head through the hangman's noose when Lady Jane Grey swoops in on her horse and rescues him. Ned's crime is to be a Catholic in the reign of Edward VI, but Jane, though herself committed to "the new faith", cares little for his offence, convinced only that it is wrong to treat another human being in this manner. It is an irony that cannot be lost, even on those only dimly aware of the sorry fate of England's nine-day Queen, and one that grows more poignant when she offers him a job wielding an axe in her father's forest. Alternating chapters depict their star-crossed love-affair from both sides, its fate inevitably sealed as Jane, growing into womanhood, finds herself increasingly at the mercy of her ruthlessly ambitious father. Based on an intriguing amalgam of fact and fiction, and drawing heavily on the characteristics of historical romance, the book is clearly written partly to fuel adolescent interest in this turbulent and bloody period of British history. Inevitably, not all adult readers will concur with the author's stance on historical events and characters, but teenage girls in particular will be drawn to this moving story.”
Kate Agnew, EducationGuardian
“This compelling tale, based upon the life of Lady Jane Grey, is reshaped with grace and power. Told in a timeless voice, it is rich in characters and shot through with deeper themes of love, faith, loyalty and betrayal. Jane was the oldest of three daughters, an intelligent, spirited girl trapped in a totally unsuitable lifestyle in one of the most powerful Protestant families in England. Unbeknown to her, the boy Ned, whom she saved from hanging, was a Catholic destined for the priesthood. The tender account of their blossoming love is shrouded both by truth and concealment. This is in stark contrast to the evil, manipulative corruption rife amongst Jane's immediate family and their ruthlessly religious contemporaries. Jane's life was sacrified to satisfy their lust for power and control of the English throne. This is not a comfortable read but one which is richly rewarding.”
Jenny Blanch, Carousel no. 35, March 2007
“Vivid and poetic.”
Ann Turnbull - author
“Philippa Gregory for a younger audience, a really great read!”
Rachel Forward, Gardners