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The Puzzle At Holkewith Hall

January 1562, Whitehall Palace

            “Kate, I do fear I have a predicament.”

            Kate Haywood glanced up from tuning her lute to see Queen Elizabeth sitting at her desk across the royal sitting room.  With the Christmas festivities behind them and the cold winter wind outside, court had become a quiet place.  The queen's ladies sat at their embroidery or their reading while the queen worked on her endless papers, wrapped in their fur-trimmed robes, their whispers the only sound except for the whine of that wind.

            Kate still had her work organizing the queen's music, but it was slower of late, giving her too much time to miss her suitor Rob, who was away at his own duties in the country.  A predicament sounded like just what she needed.  “Truly?” she asked eagerly. 

            The queen laughed.  “Ah, even you, my resourceful Kate, feel the dullness of our winter days.  But here indeed is something intriguing.”

            She waved a letter at Kate, impatiently indicating she should move closer.  Kate put down her lute and made her way across the chamber.  She could feel the stares of the ladies clustered around the fireplace, watching her progress with curiosity and a bit of jealousy.  It was always thus.  High-born ladies whispered about why a lowly musician should be so favored by the queen.

            They didn't know the truth about Kate's family.  They could never know.

            She shrugged away their whispers, as she always tried to do, and focused on the paper in the queen's bejeweled hand.  She was indeed intrigued.  Ever since she returned from the queen's errand to France in the summer, life had been sadly devoid of any intrigue.  Surely that should be a good thing?  No poisonings or stabbings or foreign plots, only banquets and dances.

            But Kate hated feeling useless.

            “I hope it is not a new violent murder, Your Grace,” she said.

            Elizabeth gave a bark of laughter.  “Not at all, Kate.  At least, I hope not.  Merely a puzzle I am asked to adjudicate.”

            “A puzzle?”

            “Aye.  Perhaps you have heard of an estate called Holkewith Hall?”

            Kate ran though her memories of great houses the court had visited on progress.  Since Elizabeth had become queen, there had been many of them.  “I don't think so.”

            “Ah, well, it is not a large place, but once it was a pretty one.  Not far from London.  My old friend Sir Jeremy Withins is a neighbor.”

            Kate nodded.  She did remember Sir Jeremy and his wife, a kindly older couple who had once suffered imprisonment under Queen Mary for their loyalty to Elizabeth.  They seldom came to court, but when they did they were great lovers of music. 

            “A good man, though I fear not in the best of health these days,” the queen said.  “Tis he who writes.  It seems he is rather disturbed by some doings at Holkewith.”

            “His neighbors?”

            “Aye.  Apparently the stability of Holkewith affects everyone around it, as I know to be true of these country neighborhoods since our lives at Hatfield.  Here, read for yourself.  Tis something like a play.  It's too bad your actor friend Master Cartman isn't here to help.”

            Kate took the letter, thinking it was indeed too bad Rob wasn't there.  He would hate to miss out on any adventure, and she had the delicious feeling an adventure was finally shaping up here.

            To the illustrious queen,  she read in a wavery, old-fashioned hand.  Forgiving me for intruding on your valuable time, but I hope an old, faithful subject can humbly ask your assistance in a matter affecting his neighbors.

            Several months ago, Lord Holkewith of Holkewith Hall died, leaving two sons, twins, Robert and Colin, aged twenty, the elder Robert by an hour being the heir.  The younger son sadly drowned a few weeks ago when the two were out swimming, or so we were told.  A sad occurrence, but their heir still lived.  Or so we thought.  Last week a young man appeared at Holkewith claiming he is Robert!  Now, with the two men looking so alike and each making claims to be the eldest, we do not know.

            I have been asked to determine which is the rightful heir.  Thus far I am unable to do so, and it is causing much turmoil in the neighborhood.  Only Your Majesty's impeccable judgment can save us.”

            Kate looked up from the letter, her thoughts whirling.  It was indeed like a play, two twins each claiming to be the eldest.

            “What think you, Kate?” Elizabeth asked.

            “If even Sir Jeremy, who must know the two men, cannot tell, how can we?”  It seemed an impossible dilemma.  But Kate had to admit, it was an intriguing one.

            Elizabeth tapped her long, white fingers on the desk.  “I somewhat remember the Holkewith lads, so handsome.  The younger was a bit of a rascal, the elder quiet, and they often seemed to be in a quarrel.  Siblings should help one another, not fight each other to the blood.”  Her voice was quiet, as if she remembered the dark days of her own sister's reign.  Then she smiled and snapped her fingers.  “I say we depart now.  I feel in need of a journey anyway, the air here grows stale.  I'm sure Sir Jeremy will loan us a chamber for a few nights.  Cecil can escort us in secret, we need not tell the whole court.”

            Kate was right—an adventure was afoot, she could see it in the determined gleam of the queen's dark eyes.  “I will start packing now!”

**

            Holkewith Hall was indeed a pretty house, though a haphazard one.  The central portion looked quite ancient in the fading gray light, made of stone and pierced only by small windows, topped with a crenelated walkway.  Two large wings spread to the sides, half-timbered, freshly plastered, shining with large new windows.  Whichever was the lord now, he kept a finely maintained house.  But there were no lights at the windows, no smoke at the chimneys.

            “It looks peaceful enough, Sir Jeremy,” the queen said as they drew up their horses outside the iron-bound front doors.  The stone above was carved with the Holkewith badge of an otter, appropriate for a family riven by drowning.

            Kate thought she saw a shadow behind one of the windows, a flicker as if someone peered down at them, but it was quickly gone.

            Whoever it was, they wouldn't have seen an awe-inspiring group, Kate thought.  Just Cecil, the queen's chief secretary, herself, and a footman and lady-in-waiting with Elizabeth, all of them bundled in plain cloaks.

            “Most of the servants have gone,” Sir Jeremy said, his voice tired.  “Couldn't stand the quarrels.  There is still a cook, and mayhap a maid or two.”

            “I hope there is someone here to greet us,” the queen said.  “I hope you did not forewarn them of our arrival?”

            Sir Jeremy gave a wry smile.  “Your Majesty, I did not know myself, until you appeared in my hall.  But I'm most grateful you're here.”

            “Then shall we proceed?”  Elizabeth nodded at her footman, who pounded at the door.  It took several minutes of tense silence, but at last the portal swung open.  A young man, his jerkin haphazardly fastened over his shirt and his blond hair awry, stood there with a lamp.  “What do you want?  We need no guests now!”

            “Master—er, Lord Holkewith,” Sir Jeremy said uncertainly.  “You should temper yourself.  This is...”

            “I am the lord, whatever you say.  You should leave.”

            The queen studied him.  “Ah,” she whispered to Kate.  “This must be the one who returned from the drowning claiming to be the elder Holkewith.  Is he Robert, do you think, or Colin masquerading as his brother?”

            “Whoever he is, he could do with some manners,” Kate whispered back.

            Elizabeth threw back her hood, revealing her upswept red curls dotted with pearls.  “My good man, whoever you be, I do urge you to be civil.  I have come at Sir Jeremy's request to judge your estate, and I don't best enjoy being out in the cold.  Do you know me?  We did meet once.”

            The man's eyes, reddened as is from lack of sleep or too much ale, widened, and he pushed his hand through his hair as he bowed.  “Your Majesty.”

            “Indeed, and I am thirsty.  Perhaps you will find us some ale while you and your brother tell us your tales.”

            “I do vow, Your Majesty, that I am the elder Holkewith, who sadly was unable to save his younger brother from the river,” the man said, his tone calmer, sadder, more polite.  “I fear my brother has lost his senses amid his dilemma, to claim such a thing.  I am sure you will find me to be in earnest.”

            Elizabeth frowned at him.  “We shall see.”

            Cecil helped the queen down from her horse, and Kate followed them into the great hall.  It was nothing like the queen's halls, but one from a hundred years ago, darkly paneled and solemn, the ceiling soaring above them to blackened beams, tapestries lining the walls.  The silence echoed, and the only light was from a fireplace at the far end.

            A young maidservant in a stained apron was desultorily stirring at the fire in the great hearth.  When she saw the queen standing there, she went white and ran away.  That was when they saw a man sitting in a tall-backed chair in the shadows.  He rose and peered at them suspiciously.  Kate gasped, sure for an instant the man behind them suddenly flew before them.  He looked exactly like the man who let them in, tall, long-limbed, blond, haphazardly dressed, though his beard was longer.  He looked weary, but he gave them a smile that would surely be dazzling at any other time.

            “We are most blessed, brother,” he said in a soft, bitter voice.  “The queen herself has come to shine her sun on our case.”  He bowed low, with a flourish.

            Queen Elizabeth seated herself in his vacated chair, handing Kate her gloves and velvet riding cap.  “I have heard this sad tale of two brothers, one of them trapped in a terrible lie, and realized a fine manor like Holkewith cannot be masterless for long.  Your brother has told me something of his tale, that he is Robert Holkewith and saw you, Colin drown.  Now I would have yours.”

            The man laughed.  “If my esteemed brother told you thus, Your Majesty, I have naught to add, except that he lies.  It is a dull story.  I did indeed fall in the river behind the house and was carried away, and was in a fever for a few days.  I was taken in by a kind cottage family, and when I was well enough I came home—only to find I no longer exist.”

            “That does not sound dull in the least,” Elizabeth said.  “But truly a puzzle.  Can you prove you are who you say?”

            “If I could, Your Majesty, we should not be in this quandary,” he answered.  “I have only my good word.”

            “And I have mine!” his brother shouted.  “I have been sole master here these last several weeks, and none have doubted me.  My tale is the true one.”

            Cecil leaned close to Elizabeth and whispered in her ear.  She frowned.  “This is surely thirsty work, and I have traveled far today.  Kate, would you fetch me some ale from the kitchen?”

            “I will call back the maid to do that,” the brother who had opened the door said.  “Useless scull.”

            “I would prefer my lady do it.  I am most particular about my ale.”  Elizabeth caught Kate's eye and gave her a tiny nod, and Kate knew she was to do more than fetch ale while belowstairs.  The servants in a fine house, even when they were few as now at Holkewith, always knew more about what was happening than anyone else.  And they would talk to a fellow attendant long before they would the queen.

            As Kate hurried from the hall, she heard the queen say, “Now, tell me more of this cottage family...”

            Kate slipped back out the front doors the way they had entered, hoping to find some clue.  She was not at all sure what there was to see, but the cold, clear wind was bracing after the dark oppression of the hall.

            She made her way around the far wing of the house, toward the curling smoke of the kitchen chimney behind.  The gardens were gray and silent in the cold, but she could tell that in the summer they would be beautiful if properly looked after.  And who would do that?  Which brother was the true Lord Holkewith?

            At the back of the gardens she glimpsed a line of trees, a stand of woods, and she could hear the splash of running water.  Mayhap the river where the man had slipped and was carried away?  She gathered her cloak closer around her and went to investigate.

            The water was deep but ran sluggishly, and when she knelt to dip a finger in it she found it freezing.  No one could have lived long in there if he lost his footing and perhaps hit his head.  Someone who was nearby could indeed make the attempt at rescue, but would he be able to do it?  Mayhap the brothers had been quarreling that day, as they were said to often do, and one had slipped.

            Kate wondered how good the two brothers were at swimming.

            She heard a sudden rustle from the underbrush nearby.  Her heart pounding, she spun around, scanning the ground for a weapon in case someone had come to push her in.

            “Who is there?” she called, hoping she sounded braver than she felt.

            There was another rustle, a crack of branches—and a dog slinked out from behind the trees.  He was a large beast, but rather thin beneath his thick gray fur.  He looked at her form enormous dark eyes and whimpered.

            “Oh, you poor thing,” Kate whispered.  She knelt down and held out her hand to the dog.  He cautiously crept closer and sniffed at her bare fingers.  He went very still as she stroked his ears and murmured at him, obviously well-trained to be with people.  “Let's go find you something to eat.  You look hungry.”

            He gave a low whine, as if to agree, and followed her back to the Holkewith kitchens.

**

            “Oh, mistress, I see you've found Dicken!” a stout, red-faced cook cried as Kate appeared in her doorway.  There were few servants there, only the cook in her white apron and a couple of lads turning the spit, but the space was well-kept and warm, unlike the great hall.

            “Dicken?” Kate asked.

            “Aye, poor old dog.  He ran off days ago.  He's the master's dog, never leaves his side.  Come on, you poor wee thing, have a few scraps.”  She slid a few bits of a beef into a bowl and laid it before the dog, who sniffed at it warily before taking a small bite.  “You look tired, too, mistress.  Traveled far, have you?”

            Kate laughed.  “Not as far as Dicken, it would seem, but I would not say no to some ale and a bit of bread.  I'm meant to take some up to the hall as well.”

            “Aye, we did hear there is a grand guest there, but the lads don't know who.”  The cook gave Kate a speculative glance, but asked nothing more.  “You just sit there for a moment, and I will make some spiced wine.”

            Kate sank down on a stool near the fire, and Dicken leaned against her skirts as he ate.  “It must have been greatly unsettled here these last few days.”

            The cook and kitchen lad exchanged a long glance.  “Aye, a bit.  Not knowing who should give the orders.”

            “And none can tell which twin is which?”

            “None could ever tell them apart since their mother died all those years ago,” said the cook, mixing up the spices for the wine.  The air filled with sweet scent of cinnamon.

            “Is it really the queen herself come to tell us which is which?” the lad said, his eyes wide.  The cook nudged him, but she too looked most curious.

            “She wishes to help, if she can, for Sir Jeremy is an old friend,” Kate answered.  “But she does not know the twins.  If none here can tell...”

            “Of course they can tell!  If they dared,” a voice suddenly cried from the stone stairs leading up to the hall.  Kate turned to see the maidservant who had been there when they first arrived hurrying toward them.  She was young, thin and pale but pretty under her rumpled cap.  “Lord Robert is kindness itself; his brother was obviously jealous.  Tis just like him to do such mischief!  I grew up here, I know.”

            “Madge, you do not know that.  What has gotten into you?” the cook scolded.

            “The queen will surely see.  She will...”  Madge stopped when she saw Dicken beside Kate, and her thin face broke into a beaming smile.  It completely transformed her.  “Dicken!  You came back!”

            Wagging his tale, he ran over to the girl to let her rub his ears.  There was none of the wariness he had shown with the others.

            “I found him by the river,' Kate said.  “He does seem like a nice boy.”

            “Aye, he is,” Madge said.  “He was lost when Lord Robert drowned.  We feared he was—well, that he was gone, too.  Poor Dicken.  He must have been scared to run off thus.”

            Run off when he thought his master dead?  Kate studied Dicken as he let Madge coo over him, and thought of how he liked her but wasn't sure of the others, though he must have lived at Holkewith all his life.  The queen had such a dog, a little spaniel who would let none others feed him. The cook said Dicken was the master's dog.

            “Tell me, Madge,” Kate said.  “Is Dicken positively loyal to his master?  To Lord Robert, that is.”

            “Oh, aye!  He was given to him as a pup, and follows him everywhere,” Madge said.

            “Hmm,” Kate murmured.  Dogs were indeed loyal to those who were kind to them, as were servants. “I think I may have an idea.  Madge, Dicken, come with me...”

**

            “...have run things since the rains!” one of the twins-the false one?-shouted as Kate led Madge and the dog up the stairs toward the great hall.  She expected to hear the queen shout back, as no one ever dared lose their temper around Elizabeth without getting a triple measure back, but the vast hall was silent except for the echoes of that shout.

            Madge cringed, and Kate reached out to squeeze her hand before she pushed the door at the top of the stairs all the way open.  She saw the queen still in her chair by the fire, the two twins standing before of her, one of them red-faced and the other silent, his arms folded over his chest.  Sir Jeremy was shaking his head sadly, but the queen was expressionless.

            Elizabeth glanced up.  “Ah, Kate, there you are.  I hope you have found something for us?”

            “I may have, Your Grace.”  Kate urged Dicken forward.  At first, he shrank back toward Madge, as if the shouting had frightened him.  Kate pointed toward the twins, and the dog glanced at them, his ears laid back uncertainly.  Suddenly, as if a bolt of illuminating lightning struck the gloomy chamber, his tail shot up, wagging, and he took off at a run.

            “Dicken?” the shouting man muttered.  “How did you get here?  I saw you jump in...”

            Dicken leaped up onto the quieter brother, the one Kate was now sure was truly Lord Robert, the real Lord Holkewith.  His sad face sparked with a smile, and he caught Dicken in his arms.  “Saw him jump in the river after me, when you would not try to save me, Colin?  Dicken knows me.  He has always known me.  He sees through your lies as no one else could.”

            “Of course not!  This dumb beast knows naught.  I do not lie!  I am...”  But his protests died away as he looked desperately around the hall, only to see the queen scowling at him.  He broke away and tried to run from the hall, but Cecil and Sir Jeremy blocked him.  The masquerade was at an end.

            Kate smiled as she watched the dog reunited with his master.  Elizabeth took her arm and led her away from the dramatic scene.  “How on earth did you realize the dog would know, Kate?”

            “Do not dogs always know their master, when that master is kind and loving to them?  The maid said Dicken had been with Lord Robert since he was a puppy, and had vanished when his master did.  Their loyalty to repaid tenfold,” Kate answered.  “Just as it is with you, Your Grace.  And Dicken realized I would help him, he came to me when he hid from everyone else, so he must be something of a judge of character.  Of course he would know.”

            “Most extraordinary,” Elizabeth murmured thoughtfully.  “You know, Kate, when we return to Whitehall, I think we should find you a puppy...”

     

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