Today is the day! I’m happy to share with you the winning submission for the ATWC writing contest! Out of all the stories, this is the one that intrigued me the most. Congratulations to CJ Lewis, you’ve won yourself a copy of Apricots and Wolfsbane by K. M. Pohlkamp!
A Boy for Master Tallis
“A message from the Queen, my lord!”
Thomas Tallis, Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, lost his tenuous hold on the tune in his head, spilt his ink and swore under his breath. “Thank you, Ned. Now, fetch me some fresh sand, will you?”
The boy returned a moment later and handed the new, fine sand over to his master along with a letter bearing the Queen’s seal. “Did you spill ink on your new song, my lord?”
Thomas looked at the boy. He should be angry with him, but he could not. He was so earnest and happy to be working. “Yes, Ned. But never mind. Maybe knock next time?” He sprinkled the sand and cleared up as much of the ink as he could, but it was no good; the Magnificat would need a new tune. “Probably just as well.” As soon as Ned had gone, Thomas sighed, lifted his eyeglasses to his nose and broke the seal on the letter. “Why on earth does she want to see me?” He put down the letter and left his study. “Ned? Get my good coat and ask Fraser to ready the coach. We’re going to Whitehall.”
Elizabeth, the glorious Queen of England, swept into the room and stood by the window that looked out onto the courtyard. Her jewels sparkled in the early spring sunshine, but the golden light also showed her face. The white paint her ladies applied every day could not disguise the pits left by smallpox that had almost taken her life five years ago. She looked so much older than her thirty-five years.
Thomas felt pity as he always did; she had been such a pretty little girl when he saw her first in her father’s court. He bowed low, giving her as fine a leg as his arthritis would allow.
“Do get up, Master Tallis.”
Thomas straightened himself with relief and smiled at his Queen. “Your Majesty. How fare you?”
“I am well enough, Thomas. God gives me another day.” She smiled wistfully and held out her hand for him to kiss. “I have a favour to ask of you.”
Thomas felt his belly clench. The Queen rarely asked for favours that didn’t result in suffering, financial strife or discomfort. “Of course, my Queen. You have but to ask.”
“Good.” She walked from the window and sat down in a large chair in front of the fire. “Sit with me, Thomas.”
Thomas took the chair on the other side of the huge fireplace and tried to relax as the warmth began to penetrate the cold leather of his boots. He read the words of the Queen’s motto in the iron fire back: Video et taceo. I see but say nothing.
“There is a boy I have been watching over. A foundling. He’s been at Eton College these past ten years and is a musical prodigy, by all accounts. I’d like you to train him.”
Whatever Thomas had been expecting the Queen to say, it wasn’t that. “A boy? How old?”
“He is fifteen. His name is Robert Spencer, but most people call him Robin.” She looked sad as she spoke his pet name and Thomas wondered if she ever regretted her childless state. “It was I who found him as a babe. I was riding out at Richmond, and I heard his cry.”
Thomas bowed his head before raising his face again to smile at the Queen. “A fortunate fellow indeed, my lady. It would be my honour to train him.”
Elizabeth smiled and nodded her head in reply. “Good. It is my wish that he resides with you at your house in Greenwich. He will be best placed to learn from you there. You have no children of your own, do you?”
Thomas felt his mouth fall open and made a conscious effort to close it quickly. “I … of course … I’m sure that my wife will be delighted to help Your Majesty. It will be an honour.” He didn’t truly feel it would be an honour. It would be an imposition. It was true that he and Joan had never been blessed with a child, but a fifteen-year-old boy was not going to be an easy addition to their happy home.
“Good.” The Queen rose from her seat, indicating that the meeting was over. “I will arrange for him to be brought to you tomorrow – that will give your wife time to prepare a room for him.”
Thomas stood quickly, his bones creaking in protest at the sudden movement, and bowed as low as he could. “Your servant, ma’am.”
Joan was certainly not delighted. When Thomas broke the news, her face fell into the aspect that told him he wouldn’t be welcome in her bed for at least a week. She sucked in her cheeks before sweeping out of the room, calling for Sarah, the housekeeper, to ready the second-best guest chamber.
The boy arrived the next morning, just as Thomas and Joan were sitting down to breakfast. Sarah brought him to them; a scared, thin boy with hollow cheeks and thick black hair that reached the collar of his worn shirt. He pulled the cap from his head, which left his hair in alarmed spikes, then he made a leg at his new guardians.
Thomas felt his heart open to the boy and rose from his seat, touching him on the shoulder to encourage him to stand straight. “Welcome to our home, Robin. Have you eaten breakfast?”
The boy looked hungrily at the food on the table. It was a simple meal of bread and honey, and when his stomach let out a loud growl of hunger, he shook his head.
Joan looked at the boy, then her husband. She couldn’t hide the sudden pull of emotion that the boy’s obvious hunger had inspired. She stood and took him by the arm, leading him to sit at the table next to Thomas. “Eat. There is plenty.” She turned to Sarah and smiled. “Bring porridge. And eggs.” She touched the boy on the shoulder, “Do you like eggs?”
Robin nodded, his mouth already full of bread and honey. He chewed quickly and swallowed. “Thank you, ma’am. I like eggs very much. And porridge.” He looked at the bread and honey on his plate, “This bread is very good. And I can’t recall the last time I tasted honey.” As if the honey wanted to make a point, a thin, golden trail of it began to drip down his chin. He lifted his hand and scooped it up with his finger, before licking it clean. He smiled apologetically at Joan and licked his finger again.
“Well, there’s plenty more where that came from, so eat your fill, Master Robin.
Robert Spencer was indeed a musical prodigy. Though still tender in years, he was accomplished at the harpsichord and lute and could make an alto recorder sound like the beautiful, sad cry of a despairing soul. As the weeks and months passed, Thomas taught him the rudiments of composition and trained his voice. He had a naturally pure, high tenor voice that, like his recorder playing, sounded like a soul in torment. When he sang the simple tune of the anthem, ‘If Ye Love Me’, Thomas felt as though his heart would burst with the beauty of it.
One bright summer morning, Thomas was struggling with a composition. When that Italian peacock, Striggio had sent his thirty-part motet for Elizabeth, Thomas’s male pride had been wounded. He was the one who wrote magnificent anthems for his Queen, so he would be the one to write something better. “I will create for you a motet in forty parts, my Queen.” He remembered his bravado and groaned.
“What ails, thee, Master Tallis?”
Thomas had almost forgotten that Robin was there, working at his desk in the study they now shared. He looked at the boy, who was growing into a handsome young man thanks to Sarah’s cooking and Joan’s loving care. “I’m regretting a foolish promise, Robin. I have a knack for making a rod with which to beat myself.” When the boy looked confused, he rose from his chair and smiled. “Walk with me, son.” He had begun to think of the boy as a son; a boy whose talents he could shape, and who would carry the memory of Thomas Tallis and his music forward when Thomas himself was no longer alive to do it.
They left the house and began to walk along the river. Thomas told Robin about the work he was struggling with. “It is for our blessed Queen. I chose the words from the books of Judith.” Spem In Alium would either be his greatest work or his greatest shame.
Robin laughed at his master’s tale, turning to look at Thomas, his face towards the sun.
As the golden light hit the boy’s face, Thomas was struck suddenly by a memory. The eyes – the hair – the pale skin; he was transported to an earlier time when he was first presented at the court of King Henry. He remembered the beautiful, laughing face of Queen Anne. Her belly was swollen with the child that would become his Queen, his Gloriana. The beautiful, laughing face of Robin Spencer announced his lineage as clear as if it had been written on a scroll and proclaimed by a crier. Thomas felt his stomach empty, and his legs weaken. This was not the son of some unnamed girl. This was the son of his Queen, the grandson of Anne, that lovely, clever girl who had fallen foul of Henry’s mercurial temper.
“Sire? Master Tallis?”
Robin’s voice brought him back to the present. “What? Oh. Yes. Let’s go back. I’m starting to feel weary.”
A month later, he took Robin and a troop of musicians to Whitehall to play for the Queen. Robin played Thomas’s soulful piece, ‘Like As The Doleful Dove’, his recorder sounding for all the world like the heart of a weeping girl.
Thomas observed Elizabeth as she watched the boy play. As the recorder sang with a note as pure as river ice, he saw a single tear fall from the Queen’s left eye, leaving an undeniable track in the perfect, white paste on her cheek. She lifted her hand and laid it gently over her belly as another tear fell. As if she sensed his eyes on her, she moved her hand and looked over at Thomas.
Master Tallis held the gaze of his Queen for a moment, and something unspoken passed between them. Thomas bowed his head briefly and smiled, before moving his eyes back to watch his protégé finish playing his Doleful Dove.
As the musicians removed to the ante-room to pack up their instruments, the Queen beckoned Thomas to her side. She held out her hand for him to kiss. “Master Tallis, I must congratulate you. You have taken the boy and shaped him well.”
Thomas bowed deeply and kissed the hand of his Queen. “It has been my honour and pleasure, Your Majesty. The boy is a rare talent. He is clearly of extraordinary lineage, and he was most fortunate that you should be there at his nativity.” He straightened and met her eye, holding her attention for a moment longer than would normally be acceptable.
Elizabeth bowed her head slowly and smiled. “You have my thanks and my trust, Master Tallis. I know that you will act in my best interests as far as the boy is concerned.”
Thomas bowed again and kissed his Queen’s white-painted hand once more. “Your servant, ma’am. Video et taceo.” I see and say nothing.