Songbird by Karen Heenan
Published by Authors 4 Authors Publishing Cooperative on the 3rd November 2019.
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. Bess grows up within 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.
Excerpt Setup: June, 1520. Bess has been with the court for several years. She and her dearest friend, Tom, have been given permission to visit their families prior to the entire court traveling to France for a great summit between the French and English kings. It’s the first significant contact she’s had with them since she joined the court, and the day doesn’t begin well—they’ve moved away and not told her. They first visit Tom’s mother, and then locate Bess’s people.
*** We found my parents at last in a tall, narrow house in Aldgate, smaller even than the place they left behind, but with no outward signs of disrepair. It was, Da said proudly as we followed him up the stairs, only two streets from the inn where he worked. He led us into a chamber that seemed small due to the number of things that were crammed into it. In the myriad of coffers, stools, and tables, I saw almost nothing I remembered. Despite the new furnishings, the rushes were sticky underfoot and did not smell clean. My mother’s appearance was surprising: prosperity took years off her age. She no longer smelled of harsh soap, and her hands were smooth with balm. She was attentive to Tom, and I compared her to his mother and was pleased with Mum’s efforts. Madlen also showed a great interest in Tom, and I smiled at her wasted coquetry. She was seventeen, and her looks, though similar to mine, were neater and more agreeable. Her black hair was restrained under a clean linen cap, and her figure was likewise restrained by stays so tight that her breasts plumped above her square neckline like risen dough. I saw her note with a frown that my dark skirts, though plain, were of better cloth. My parents insisted we share a meal with them and, not wanting to admit we’d already eaten, we agreed. It was a way for them to show how their lot had improved, and I was surprised at the quality of the meal my mother brought forth: it was comparable to the plain, savory food at court when there were no banqueting leftovers. Afterward, Tom and my father stayed around the table to talk, and we cleared up. My mother and I had nothing to say to each other, and Madlen ignored me, her dark eyes on Tom. I warmed with pride that she would think him worthy, for although he had grown tall and manly in the past year, as well as being the kindest boy alive, I could not judge him by his face after knowing him for so long. My parents asked questions about the king and court, and we tried to satisfy their curiosity. Da gathered much gossip at the inn, and the breadth of his knowledge was surprising. “Be it true that he has taken another mistress?” my mother asked with a scornful face. “Wasn’t Mistress Blount enough?” This was very recent news indeed. “Mary Boleyn is her name.” “A pretty woman,” Tom added, and I looked sharply at him. Mary Boleyn was small and blonde, with soft, complaisant gray eyes. “We’ll be leaving any day now,” I said into the silence that followed his comment. “To meet with the King of France.” Cardinal Wolsey’s efforts had not been in vain. He had managed to arrange a face-to-face meeting between King Henry and his French counterpart. Even before it was announced, I had known the Music would accompany him, for how could he hope to properly impress the French without us? “We’ve heard about that,” Madlen said, looking envious. “I’d love to see France. Tell us about it, Tom.” “The entire court is upside down with preparations,” he said and told her of some of our plans. “We were fortunate to get away today.” He did not exaggerate. I was glad to escape the flurry of packing and the fitting of new garments. Even the most menial servants were to have fresh livery for the occasion. Soon, it was time for my father to go to work. When he rose, I took Tom’s hand, and we followed. I felt no reluctance at leaving. It was good to see them and know their lives were better without me, as mine was better without them. Madlen would be married soon, my mother informed me, her eyes glittering—the son of Forsyth, the wool merchant, had asked for her hand. This was the culmination of my mother’s dreams, and it would not have been possible for my sister to be dowered if I had remained at home. They embraced me in turn, my father most warmly, wishing me luck in France and in life, my mother with some distraction, for as we left, a boy arrived with a note to announce a visit from Madlen’s intended. My sister embraced me last, with little grace. “You must come see me once I am married,” she said, smiling at Tom over my head. “We shall have a lovely home.” “I’m certain you will,” he said and put his hand on my shoulder. “We must go, Bess.” The expression on her face remained with me on the walk back to Westminster. It looked like envy, but what did I have that Madlen could want?
Meet 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, traveling and, of course, lots of writing.
She lives in Lansdowne, PA, not far from Philadelphia, with two cats and a very patient husband.
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