Father must protect me or I am dead.
Lizbeth Ives stumbled off the last step of the stairwell in her haste and landed hard on her knees. The guards’ footsteps echoed in the distance. She glanced over her shoulder. Dancing shadows brought the torch-lit stone walls to life and sent her already pounding heart into a frenzy.
Scrambling to her feet, Lizzy clutched the neck of her mantle, safeguarding the document hidden in the bodice of her gown, already envisioning her head atop the chopping block. Her throat burned with every step. The passageway seemed longer, narrower, darker than it had when she was a child. She rounded the corner, and a bout of dizziness set her off balance. Her eyelids pinched shut, if only for a moment to ease her escalating fear. She swallowed hard then inhaled the sour stench of the dungeon, a smell she would never grow accustomed to regardless of the years she’d spent in the Tower.
Two men, who’d guarded the dungeon since her childhood, straightened in front of the arched doorway as she approached. She forced her steps to a calm, even clip.
“Good den, Lady Ives.” One guard dipped his head in greeting.
“Sirs.” She acknowledged them with a quick bow. “I have need to speak with my father.”
“He is at work,” the taller replied. “Lord Ives will not be pleased with your interruption, m’lady.”
“Then I will suffer his fury of my own will. Now step aside, and allow me entrance.” The authority in her voice shocked her, but she had no time for niceties. Lord Hollister’s blackguards would be upon her any moment.
“As ye wish.” Each guard slid sideways, granting her access.
She entered the antechamber and set the bolt in place. A single rushlight illuminated the short passage before her.
She clutched Mother’s rosary, sliding her fingers over the glass beads to count her steps, until she reached the chamber door.
The sound of Father’s whip snapped in her ears and jarred her insides. Her fingers stilled over the door lever. She cursed her lack of bravery and wished for the thousandth time she’d been born to the smith or the miller. She wrapped her rosary around her wrist, shook out her hands, and then fisted them to cease their trembling.
Father would not pity a coward.
She summoned the courage to push open the heavy door. The sharp odor of burnt flesh singed her nostrils, sending her hand immediately to her face. She set the iron bar in its catch, then turned toward her father.
Her presence went without notice. Father wouldn’t hear a tree if it fell behind him.
He wielded his whip, delivering a blow that sliced into a man’s back in a slash of crimson. “Confess and pledge fealty to the sovereign liege of England or die as a result of your obstinacy,” Father demanded, his tone heinous, cold, cruel. She hated the person he portrayed beneath the black cloak.
“I confess naught.” The prisoner’s white-knuckled fists gripped the iron rings binding his shackles to the stone wall. Thick blue veins laced through his forearms, matching the color of an ancient symbol inked around his muscular arm above his elbow. Black hair clung to his nape by the sweat of his suffering. He did not cry out or plead for mercy, though the bold red lines painting his bronze skin told her he’d been in Father’s company long enough to yield. Still, the fool held tight to his tongue.
She turned her head away from the scene only to fall upon a blood-soaked man crumpled in the corner. He bore a similar mark around his arm, indicating an affiliation between the two prisoners. Father’s methods had obviously been more than he could withstand. The pallid color of his skin told her his blood had failed to flow some time ago.
The scrape of metal knifed up her spine as Father released the prisoner’s manacles from the hooks in the wall. The large breath of relief he blew as he fell into a puddle at Father’s boots came prematurely. She knew Father’s routine—whipping preceded the burning. The man’s crime would determine what followed.
She squared her shoulders. “Lord Ives.” Her voice sounded small, weak, and she abhorred herself for fearing her father. She cleared her throat and clutched the tails of her sleeves, now a tangled mass in her hands. “Lord Ives,” she called out louder. “I have need to speak with you.”
Father whirled, his amber eyes filled with the light of madness. “Begone!”
He raised his whip to her, and she searched for a glimpse of the gentle man she once knew. Her heart jumped. She pushed the hood of her mantle back. “Nay, Father! ’Tis I, Lizzy.” Holding her arm in front of her face, she braced herself for the biting sting, all the while praying he would not deliver the blow.
His grip on the knout eased the same time a raspy howl filled the chamber.
The prisoner reared up from the floor, all flesh and rigid muscles. With his fingers clasped into a giant fist, he drove the iron cuffs into Father’s temple, knocking him sideways into a trestle table. Wood splintered like miniature arrows. Metal instruments clanked onto the floor. Father faltered but retained his footing.
“Nay!” She vaulted across the chamber and clung to the prisoner’s forearm as his powerful fist caught Father in the nose. Osborn Ives was a big man indeed, but the force behind that blow knocked him off his feet and into the wall.
The impact sent a jolt through her breast.
Father staggered. The black whip slipped from his gloved hand and coiled into a ring like a dead serpent. The lump sliding down her throat mimicked her father’s body withering to the floor along with her hope for protection. Desperation, hopelessness, and anger surged.
“Get away from him.” She shoved the prisoner hard.
He grunted, but remained steadfast to his position. His fingers curled around her forearm. “Scream, and ye will cease to breathe.”
“I will not. I vow it upon my soul.” She struggled to break free of his bruising grip, her eyes fixed on the only person she had left in the world. “Please, he is my father.”
The brute released her and made only a slight hesitation before going to the other prisoner. She dropped to her knees alongside her father and checked his breathing. The pulse in his neck flittered, but he remained unmoving. She feared Lord Hollister would see her head in the basket before Father awoke. In truth, that act would be preferred to the fate Lord Hollister planned for her. She would be no man’s concubine. As the chief warder he might hold favor with the king’s council now, but once she exposed his association with the man conspiring against the crown, she and Father would finally be free of Lord Hollister’s personal vendetta.
“…May God sustain you, and the company of Heaven enfold you, my brother,” the prisoner whispered in Latin.
In communion with all the faithful, may you dwell this day in peace. She couldn’t prevent her mind from finishing the familiar chant. She looked up. The prisoner reflected her pose. His large hands cupped the dead man’s face. Try as she might to quell her sympathy, she knew the pain of losing someone close and her heart ached for him.
A crash blasted and nearly sent her heart through her ribs. Only seconds later, the chamber door shook within its frame.
“Open, by order of Lord Hollister.” A shuffling of feet accompanied the guard’s order.
Her breath caught. She shook Father’s shoulders. “Please wake. You must help me.” Tears she’d held back for years dripped from her chin and splashed over his cheek.
The prisoner stood and swayed. His weight fell against the wall. Hugging his midsection, he drew a deep breath then turned toward her. Piercing ice-blue eyes held her paralyzed. No words passed between them, but the dire consequences of their situation grew in volumes.
Another bang at the door set them into motion.
She sprang to her feet.
The prisoner collected two daggers from the floor and tucked them into the waistband of light-colored trews. He hesitated only long enough to snarl at her. “Where are the keys?”
She scoffed internally. The man was a fool if he thought she would release his shackles and give him an advantage over her. She had enough trouble of her own. She knew too much and had to find protection. Lord Hollister was an adversary she could not fight alone.
“The keys, lass.” The prisoner held out lightly fisted hands.
“You are a prisoner of the crown. I cannot help you.”
His response came in the form of a glare and a snort, both of which she ignored. She rushed across the chamber and frantically dug her fingertips along the wall’s seam. The secret door ground open, her passage into the darkened maze beneath the city. A burst of musty air brushed her face. The blackness promised freedom, but curse her coward’s heart, she was terrified to enter. Three and twenty was far too old to fear the dark, yet she couldn’t prevent the panic taking over her mind and body. Her breath came in tight gulps.
She reached for the wall torch as another crash splintered the door behind her.
“Go!” The prisoner pushed her into the narrow tunnel.
Her fingers fell short of retrieving the torch. The thick stone door sealed shut behind them, blinding her instantly. Her eyes widened, searching the pitch for the smallest existence of light. A pinhole. A slit. But the only source she found was the bright white explosion of terror behind her eyes.
Arms bent, she steadied herself between the walls closing in around her. In one sweeping motion, she was hauled up against the prisoner’s chest. She sucked in an audible breath. A strong hand covered her mouth and trapped the scream inside her. Raising high up on her toes, she clawed at the forearm imprisoning her. Oh, God, protect me.
She had to get back on the other side of the wall.
Back to the light.
She couldn’t breathe. Her legs wilted beneath her. A palm pressed flat against her stomach. The chain binding his manacles draped between her heaving breasts and pressed against the document that had brought her here—a document promising to endanger the crown, and now, her only hope of freedom.