Monday, June 6, 2011     17:19

THE LARK

Book 1 of the Mary, Queen of Scots trilogy

Available in paperback.

Price £5.99


When John Russell is called to be whipping-boy to the Dauphin of France, he doesn't realise that he and his little sister Lark, the sweet singer, will turn the fortunes of three kingdoms.

Religious wars are nothing new.

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I wished I could see the lady's face clearly. She must be a royal lady-in-waiting.  But although her deep blue gown was silk, it had a narrower skirt and less embroidery than maman's. She liked pearls. She had a double rope of huge ones round her neck, far too big to be anything but fish-scale imitations. I looked at her; she looked at me.  "Madame," I ventured, "who have I to see, do you know?"
               "It is the queen herself who wishes to see you."
               I was half delighted, half appalled. "Queen Catherine de Medici! What does she want with me?" Now I could place the slight accent. This must be one of the queen's Italian friends. Thank goodness I'd been polite!
               "You have no idea? So. She will no doubt tell you herself, when she feels the time is right." She chuckled. "Would you like a biscuit, or some fruit?"
               When I offered her the dish, she took a strawberry with me. "It seems strange to get a strawberry so early in May," I said.  "My little sister rubs them on her lips to redden them."      We talked for quite a while. I did most of the talking, but still managed to polish off half a dozen delicious little biscuits and a glass of juice. The lady in blue chuckled at my stories about school and home, and when I told her how embarrassed I'd been when Montgomery had caught me rolling about the floor with Lark, she laughed again.
               "Lark?" she asked. "Why do you call your sister that?"
               "Her real name's Alice, madame, but dad always called her Alouette." I was quite at ease now. We'd finished the strawberries. Well, I'd finished the strawberries. "And Alouette means a lark. And she's small, and sort of bright and chirpy, and she sings very well. Though I can't say so, of course, or she'd get big-headed!" She nodded her understanding. "Maybe you could hear her some day? Maman would be honoured by your visit."
               "I doubt if that will be possible," she said pleasantly. "I shall be leaving Paris soon. So."  She rose, and pointed to the door. "Be so good as to open for me, Jean de Rouxelle. Come along. It is time you met the queen."
               My stomach crawled with new apprehension. The next room was long and narrow. Bright tapestries hung between tall windows. Round a lady playing a set of virginals in the middle  a group of richly dressed people, jewelled and perfumed, stopped singing, turned and bowed or curtseyed deeply. I looked up. For the first time I saw in full light the face of the lady I'd been talking to, so easy and relaxed. Those huge pearls! They were famous! I should have known!
               The queen gestured to the lady to go on playing, and walked quietly to a high chair at the side, where a servant brought her wine. Her shallow, dark eyes studied me. "So, boy? What are you thinking?"
               I gulped. "Madame, what can you want of me? You have pages -"
               "More than enough," she nodded. "My eldest son, Francois, the Dauphin of France. He is betrothed to your own young Queen of Scots, Marie. Rather older than he is, and vigorous. And he loves and admires her, and wishes to be in all things her equal.”                 She sighed, looking at something away beyond the tapestries. "My son is high-spirited. Rashly so. He is - he was sickly, but is growing stronger. Stronger every day," she repeated, as if to convince herself. "But he is too courageous for his own good. He forces himself too hard, and takes long to recover. And yet, if anyone tries to restrain him, he is insulted, and drives himself even harder." I could almost see the boy as she spoke of him, and felt sorry for the lad.
Suddenly she gripped my arm fiercely. "You will take care of him for me, Jean. You will be his friend. You will help him become the man he wishes so desperately to be, but little by little. You will distract him from foolish over-exertion, but help him to grow up. That is what I told Lieutenant Montgomery to find me. A boy who is strong but kind, who will be a true servant to my son, to help and support him. To that boy the future King of France will give his friendship. Honour, money, rank, power, anything is possible for the right boy.  And I think that Montgomery may have chosen well. You will be a good friend to my son, Jean de Rouxelle. And I shall be a good friend to you." She smiled. The shallow eyes stared steadily into mine.
               My grin of joy faded at a sudden chilliness. What if I failed her...?
               She was waiting for an answer. What could I say? "I promise I'll do my best, Your Majesty. But -" I had to ask - "why me? Surely some of the sons of the nobles of France would be better friends for the dauphin than me? More suitable than just a half-Scots lad, John Russell? Will they not be angry? Jealous?" I trickled to a stop.
She was laughing again. "Jean de Rouxelle, I think there is not one who will be jealous of you. For I am sending you to him not as a companion, although I trust you will become his friend. You are going to join my son's household as his whipping-boy."