The Beginning: The Burning
In every candle flame, in every torch, camp and bon fire, I see her face. Every time I stretch out my hands to the hearth’s welcoming warmth, I see her writhing in agony amongst the flames: blackened, burnt, and bald, her beautiful long black hair all gone, eaten up by the hungry flames. And I hear the rattle of the heavy chains binding her firmly against the stake.
Her eyes alone—so deep a brown they appear black, just like mine—remain the same, human still, amidst the ruins of a beauty the flames would render monstrous. The fire, and those who condemned her to this fate, have stripped her of everything else—her dignity, her liberty, her property, her life. They have also deprived two young children—a boy of seven and a newborn girl—of their mother. But “Justice must be done,” “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live,” her judges sanctimoniously declare.
Though twenty years have come and gone, her eyes haunt me still. Awake or dreaming, I see them, pain-filled and beseeching, rimmed in red and overflowing with tears, as they turn to me, silently conveying a message heart-heavy with a mother’s love and regret that she will not be there to care for me and see me to manhood grown.
I hold her gaze, and it is as if we two are alone, and my ears are deaf and my eyes blind to the boorish Gascon peasants and French soldiers that surround us. Even though my nursemaid, Agnes, is there, her hand upon my shoulder, I neither hear nor heed her tearful, urgent pleas that we leave this accursed place. In this moment only my mother and I exist, everything else is as nothing, and time has stopped.
Even should I be cursed with eternal life, forgetfulness would never find me. The memory is seared into my mind just as surely as if it had been branded there. Indeed, my body is branded. I carry the mark of that day upon my hands in the form of scars from when I, a foolish and hysterical child, tried to pull her from the flames.
Even now I am haunted by the laughter of those who watched as I yelped and leapt back, reeling, nearly fainting from the blistering intensity of the pain radiating from my palms. I hated myself then; defeated by the least little lick of the flames, when she stood powerless and trapped within their midst. And, most of all, I hated them—that merry, mocking crowd, cavorting round the bonfire like May Day revelers while my mother burned!
How many of them had come to her for healing herbs, salves, and specially brewed teas to help ease their aches and pains, to have their wounds dressed, their bones set, and their children brought into the world? How many of them had found their way, in tears and dire need, to our door? My mother, Claremunda of Marcia, was as kind and wise as she was beautiful, and her heart and door were always open to those in need; no one was ever turned away. And now they dubbed her “Satan’s handmaiden” and cast her into “the purifying power of flame!” Hypocrites! My heart screamed.
Nowadays those who gaze upon my hands say the scars are the Devil’s Mark, left upon my flesh when Satan’s crimson-eyed night-black hellhounds reared their ugly heads to lick Piers Gaveston’s hands the night he swore his allegiance to the Dark Lord. I make no attempt to hide them. I wear gloves only in winter and when I ride. All other times, I flaunt them, decking them with a glittering array of rings, especially rubies which I adore above all gems. Even though they ceased to pain me long ago, Edward, His Most Christian Majesty King Edward II by the Grace of God, (or Nedikins as he prefers me to call him in our most intimate moments), covers them with kisses and soothing lotions as if they still festered and throbbed. But the truth is, no lotion, no matter how cool or sweet smelling, can soothe away the pain of seeing the person you love best in the world being burned alive before your very eyes while you stand by, small, helpless, and alone, surrounded by those who do naught but laugh and cheer.
No sooner had I leapt back from the fire’s agonizing kiss than I was swept up, high into the air, by the village priest. “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live!” his voice thundered as he held me above the dancing flames and I felt the soles of my red leather shoes scorch. Choking and nauseous from the scent of smoke, and her dear burning flesh, he drew me back, and a tearful sigh escaped me, for I had grown so slick with sweat I feared I would slip from his grasp and fall straight into the flames. He turned me round to face him and I remember thinking what a crime it was to entrust a man with such soulless eyes with the salvation of men’s souls. “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live!” he repeated, shaking me hard. “Remember that, Piers Gaveston, witch’s brat!” With that he cast me aside, flinging me from him as if I were some stinking bit of offal that offended his nose and eyes. I struck the ground so hard that my shoulder was jarred from its socket and the breath knocked from my lungs.
Before I could regain my breath or wits and summon strength enough to scream the curses that raged within my heart, Agnes snatched me up and fled as fast as her legs could carry her. From over her shoulder I had my last glimpse of my mother. The chains had stopped rattling. She was still now; her head sagged forward, like a flower grown too heavy for its stem.
This is how my story begins. Of course I was born like everyone else, but it was the day my mother died that changed forever the course of my life; a life, like hers, that is also likely to end in murder.
Thus here I sit in gloomy, windswept Scarborough Castle, perched high upon the cliffs above a raging sea, awaiting Edward’s return with reinforcements—by which I mean a miracle—while Pembroke’s army bays for my blood. Or is that but a delusion wrought by the crashing waves and the wind whistling through the cold stone walls?
Our provisions, like our numbers, are few; few would rally to the cause of the most hated man in England. And with every day that passes that number shrinks as yet more of my supporters slink away into the night.
The time to surrender draws nigh. I will not see this siege drawn out until all are skeletons and starving. But not yet, not while a slender hope remains that Edward may return in time, even though that hope has no more substance than a cobweb, I will cling to it for just a little while longer. Soon, I will do what needs to be done, soon; but not yet. For now I shall while away the anxious hours with this little book Edward gave me.
The covers are gold, embossed with vibrant emeralds and peerless pearls, but the pages are blank, a clean creamy field of vellum that awaits my words. When he gave it to me, Edward said that the words I would fill it with would far eclipse the value of the gems outside, though I daresay he intended that I should immortalize our love in poetry or pen laments to dying swans.
Poor Nedikins, I fear the value he places upon both me and my words will plummet when he reads this; if he reads this. Whether this book will ever reach him, I do not know. But, if it does, and should it survive that encounter, it will be in a very battered state. You see, I know Edward very well. For twelve years I have been the center of his world. Verily, I can see him now as he reads the revelations I shall soon set down. Pearls and emeralds will fly as he bashes this book against the wall, or flings it onto the floor and leaps and stomps upon it, screaming: “How could you do this to me?” Like as not, he will end by throwing it in the fire then burn his fingers snatching it out again. He may even set his tunic afire beating out the flames. But be that as it may, I am determined to set down the truth about my life since no one else can do it for me. Edward is blinded by desire, to him I am perfection. His behavior does naught to belie the rumors that I have bewitched him. In England they say there are two kings: Edward who reigns and Gaveston who rules. And to my child bride Meg. so sweet and trusting, I have been too much a stranger. Agnes and Dragon, who know all, can neither read nor write. Others know fragments of the story, but not the whole, and by everyone else I am despised.
Mayhap even now, when I have only just begun, it is already too late to set the story straight. My infamy, I fear, is too well entrenched. Whenever they tell the story of Edward’s reign I will always be the villain and Edward, the poor, weak-willed, pliant king who fell under my spell, the golden victim of a dark enchantment. There are two sides to every coin, but when the bards and chroniclers, the men who write the histories, tell this story will anyone remember that?
People say so many things: facts, falsehoods, and fanciful marriages betwixt the two, but nothing is ever exactly as it seems. Whatever I am—good or bad; wrong or wronged; guilty or not—please do not condemn me unheard. As the end of my life draws nigh, please allow me to have my say; withhold your judgment for just a little while…