Mistress Spy

By: Pamela Mingle

For the Twain Book Club


Twenty-one years and counting





Chapter One


February 1570

She charged into battle with the zeal of one who demands justice and will accept nothing less.

They had been riding all afternoon on the old Stanegate Highway, from Carlisle east toward Naworth Castle, where the rebels were mustering. There were five of them besides herself—two friends she had persuaded to join the fight and three others they had picked up along the way. It was a frigid February day, piercing deep to the bone with an unforgiving cold. When the beacons came into view at last, their flames a call to battle, she glanced at her companions triumphantly.

They scarcely had time to give their mounts a rest and let them graze and drink before the order was given to move out. She kept the bright red banners, adorned with white gryphons, in view, and hoped her friends were close by. A fellow riding alongside her leaned in and said, “What about the reinforcements?”

At a loss, she said, “What reinforcements?”

He glanced around, as though fearful of being overheard. No chance of that, in the din of hundreds of men mustering for battle. “Word is, more than a thousand Scots are supposed to be joining up with us. Far as I can tell, they’re not here.”

She shrugged. Why did they require more men? There were infantry and horsemen as far as the eye could see, though they looked like a ragtag lot. Nobody in mail or armor. She rode on, keeping her eyes on the banners ahead, from time to time searching the crowd for her friends. But to no avail.

They could see the queen’s forces in the distance. It was almost as though they wished to sneak past. No judge of the difference between brilliant or foolhardy military strategies, she accepted chasing after an enemy who clearly did not wish to engage as part of a plan. Lord Dacre was their commander, and in her vengeful fervor she would follow him anywhere. On his orders, they gave chase until finally, circling ahead of the queen’s southern army, they lay in wait near the Gelt River where Hell Beck joined it.

In mere moments, her belief that justice would triumph shattered.

Hundreds of horsemen at the rear of the queen’s army began a vicious attack, pushing Dacre’s troops out onto the heath. She dismounted, electing to take her chances as one of the infantry. Within minutes, mayhem ensued. Mounted troops wielding lances made short work of the men, most of whom carried nothing more than dirks. A lucky few were armed with pikes. Arrows flew, and she ducked every time she saw a bow raised. But before long, the smoke from the harquebuses was so thick, she could see nothing, nor could she hear anything other than the screams and shouts of both the rebels and queen’s men. What a fool she’d been, expecting an orderly military action. She’d gotten chaos instead.

Their footmen broke through and tore into the rebels with pikes, and cavalrymen attacked with lances. She looked on helplessly as men around her were run through with rapiers or felled by blows to the head. The darkness helped to mask the grievous wounds, but when she dropped to the ground to avoid a hit, a nearby cry for help pierced the frigid air. Crawling in the direction of the sound, she located the injured man. With blood foaming at his open mouth, he tried to speak.

“Finish me.” Though the words were garbled, his meaning was clear. Knowing she couldn’t do what he required, she began backing away. “Pray, help me,” he said, a note of desperation in his voice. Feeling cowardly, she continued to edge away, and when it seemed safe, sprang to her feet and lunged onward. She was too fired up—and apparently too brainless—to sense the inevitability of the outcome, or even the extreme peril she was in.

Having removed her travel cloak, she shivered in her thin shirt and doublet. Neither did much to ward off the bone-chilling cold. Ahead, mist rose from the river like a curtain of gauze. She tripped over more than one lifeless body, both human and beast. Shouts of command and cries of the wounded were muted in the dense air. Clutching the handle of a dirk that had belonged to her brother, she longed for the chance to put it to use. If she could surprise one of the queen’s men, catch one of them unawares…a life for her brother’s life. That was all she wanted.