Two Pretenders

Issue #60

He spends his days sitting at the window, like a maiden in some troubadour’s tale. Watching the life of the fortress go by. The King is not in residence; the King, perhaps, does not want daily reminders of the prisoners who share his palace. Out from under the royal eye, the servants and soldiers move at a gentler pace, exchanging jokes in the courtyard, or resting for a moment in the warmth of summer’s sun.

After a year of watching them, he is bored enough to fling himself to the paving-stones below—if only the window were large enough. And if only the shackles did not hold him back.

The alternative to boredom is remembrance. And that, he avoids at all costs.

A creak, as the door opens behind him. The prisoner does not bother to turn around. His dinner doesn’t interest him—and if it isn’t his dinner, if it’s some minion of the King come to knife him in the back, well, there’s no particular merit in being knifed in the front instead. He hears the expected clack of a bowl set upon the floor, and waits...but the door does not creak closed.

Nor does a blade free him from this Purgatory. No, that sort of work happens in the dead of night. That is when the would-be murderer comes to—

The prisoner jerks, as if to throw off the memory by force. Not a memory. A dream. A mad fancy, and not a good one, at that.

Moving shows him the scene behind: the bowl on the floor, and the open door. But the young man standing a few steps inside his cell isn’t the usual guard. Something about him is familiar, and so the prisoner stops, very suddenly, staring at his face.

“Forgive me for disturbing you,” the young man says. The words come out by rote: whatever occupies his mind, it isn’t apology. “Are—are you Perkin Warbeck?”

Hysterical laughter rises up in the prisoner’s throat like vomit, and is choked down the same way. To be asked that, now, on the heels of insistent memory, and this young man’s face like an echo—

“They tell me I am,” he says, before he can think better of it. Of course he’s Perkin Warbeck. So his parents called him, and his life depends upon his agreement.

His life. Such as it is.

The young man says, “I brought you your food.”

Any man with eyes could see that. More rote words, as if this stranger is delaying—either his departure from the room, or his real purpose in coming. Warbeck merely waits, until the young man shifts uncomfortably and looks at the battered shoes on his feet. Then Warbeck asks, “Did you come to stare? See the pretender to England’s crown, only a farthing a look, but if you want to throw anything you’ll have to pay more—”

“No!” His cell is small; the young man’s denial rings sharply off the stone. “No,” he repeats, more softly. “I—I was once a prisoner here, too. I know how tedious it becomes. I wanted to offer my sympathy.”

Against his will, curiosity pricks through the apathy in which Warbeck has wrapped himself. The Tower of London is no place for ordinary captives. This is where the King keeps nobles, traitors—

—his kin—

He shoves the thought back again.

There’s something odd about the stranger’s face. A young man, yes, but how young? It’s difficult to say. Warbeck thought the fellow a few years his own junior; now he is not so sure. He might even be older. And familiar...yes, the look is there. The Yorkist look, calling to mind the long wars between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, before Henry Tudor came to settle them all, by marriage and the sword.

With that understanding comes a name. “You’re Lambert Simnel.”

The visitor ducks his head again. Warbeck fights down another urge to laugh. Two pretenders, meeting face-to-face at last. He takes some pride in the fact that his own rebellion got further; on the other hand, Simnel was crowned in Dublin, which was more than Warbeck ever achieved. Edward VI, they’d called that false King, because he was supposed to be the young Earl of Warwick. Cousin to the dethroned boy-King Edward V, who along with his brother the Duke of York was murdered—so they said—by King Richard. Here in this very Tower. A sordid and useful tale, for those who opposed Richard. Like Henry Tudor, who had succeeded him.

Warbeck has seen the young earl. Another prisoner, just like him, just like the murdered boy-King and his brother. Simnel’s supporters claimed that earl was the impostor, of course. The resemblance is a good one, allowing for the fact that Warwick is a simpleton, and Lambert Simnel is not. There’s intelligence behind those eyes, though it seems he’s learned to cast them down with a servant’s proper humility.

“Tell me, Simnel,” Warbeck says, lifting one of his shackles, “do you envy me? I may be chained here, but you’re chained to the spits in the King’s kitchen. His mercy to you may be worse than his cruelty to me.”

Simnel smiles faintly, unreadably. “King Henry understood that I was a mere boy, the puppet of those around me, and not to be blamed for their treason.”

A mere boy. Warbeck heard from one man that Simnel was ten at the time of the rebellion; another said he was sixteen. Seeing him now, Warbeck understands the confusion. Time grips every man the same—but not this one.

Simnel moves at last, easing the door almost shut before coming further into the room. The state of the door hardly matters. Warbeck is chained, and even if he weren’t, there are guards between him and the stairs; and beyond them, the royal palace and fortress of the Tower of London. There will be no impromptu escapes, whether Simnel closes the door or not.

So Warbeck merely shifts aside, allowing his visitor access to the narrow slit of the window. It’s a novelty, having companionship in his cell. He tries not to think about how it will feel when Simnel goes away and he is left here, alone once more, with nothing but false memories to occupy him.

The young man closes his eyes, appreciating the cool breeze across his face. It’s a look Warbeck recognises: the attitude of the prisoner, slipping briefly into the dream of freedom. Yes, Simnel knows how it feels, as only a fellow captive can.

But the King granted him mercy. When was he ever here?

Before he can decide whether to ask or not, Simnel poses his own question. “What do you think he intends to do with you?”

Henry Tudor. The new King, as Warbeck keeps thinking of him, even though he’s been on the throne nearly fourteen years. Many people talk that way. There are men of forty who don’t remember a time when England’s crown was secure. Four usurpations, one King cut down in battle, and one dead either peacefully or by poison, depending on who tells the story. And more than a few rebellions. If Henry feels uncertain about the stability of his rule, no one can blame him.

“If I’m lucky? He’ll keep me here,” Warbeck says. “The value of displaying me on his progresses has declined, and then I escaped once, so now he knows he can’t trust me.” That escape still makes Warbeck’s mind itch, like grit in a shoe. Wondering if Henry let it happen. As an excuse to confine him more harshly.

Or because he believes the stories. But that would mean that Henry, too, is mad, just like one Perkin Warbeck.

It’s Simnel’s face that makes him think these things, bringing the memories up like water from a buried spring. Turning his mind to mud. Warbeck faces the room instead, going to the limit of his chains. “And there’s only one end for those a King cannot trust.”

“I won’t let him hurt you.”

The declaration hovers in the air, like an arrow in mid-flight. The instinctive answer of a protector—as if Simnel really were the elder of the two, and sheltering Warbeck against the shadow of the headsman’s axe. Warbeck has just a moment to anticipate the pain; then the arrow strikes home.

I won’t let him hurt you. Words he’s heard before—his memory insists upon it, against the evidence of his reason. Not just the words, but the place, the voice, the fear of death; the dam has broken, and all the things he dares not think of, all the things that cannot be, come flooding back to drown him.

He swore never to speak of it, not to anyone, but his tongue betrays him in an instant. Staring blindly into the dark corner of his cell, he murmurs, “Sometimes I think I’ve been here before. In my dreams...I have the strangest dreams.”

He pauses, fighting not to say more, and into that pause comes the young man’s quiet answer. “Dreams of this place. Not this cell—a proper chamber, with a proper bed, and servants, and no shackles. But a prison just the same.”

“And a cruel King. Like in the stories your nursemaid tells. He steals the crown, and locks away the two boys who stand in his path—”

“The boy-King of England,” the young man says, “and his little brother, a royal Duke.”

Slowly—more slowly than the roasting spits in the King’s kitchen—the prisoner turns back. The light through the window gilds one side of the young man’s face, and now his age truly is impossible to guess, but the prisoner knows. The one they call Lambert Simnel is older than he, however little it appears to be so.

And they share the same memories.

Strange enough memories, for two men like them, to think they’ve been here before. But that is the easy part, the sane part. He could have lived with such dreams, and scarcely been troubled. What comes next is such madness that he has buried it for fifteen years, so deeply it can only be uncovered by nightmares.

The man who is not Simnel smiles, without humour. “The tale goes on, doesn’t it? The children are afraid, so very afraid, that their uncle will murder them, in order to protect the crown he has taken. But a beautiful lady finds them, and soothes away their fright.”

Her face is indistinct, after all these years spent convincing himself it was never real. Perhaps she was beautiful; perhaps not. Her gentle voice, though, whispers in his mind, as if she stood even now at his shoulder. Hush, little one; there is nothing to fear so long as you are with me....

He remembers her promise all too well. And a boy trying to be a man, saying, I won’t let him hurt you.

All of it so very like a tale. “The boy-King begs her to protect them. And late one night, when their uncle comes their chamber—”

The creak of the door; shoes touching down with exquisite care upon the floor, as if afraid of waking the stone itself. A muffled whimper: neither boy is asleep, and the little Duke is trying so hard not to cry. He mustn’t be a child now; his brother has asked him to be strong. They have to be strong, because Mother isn’t here, and neither is the lady who swore she would watch over them. But he is so afraid....

Then comes her voice, singing like the sun itself, until the chamber somehow glows without light. A voice that speaks of dainty sweets, and meadows in which to play, and lullabies when bedtime comes; of safety and warmth and freedom from care. His throat aches with sudden yearning. To be there—oh, to be there and not here, to go far, far away—

What must it have looked like, to his uncle and the knight who accompanied him? Did they see the boys go, see the creature that took them? He doesn’t know. All he knows is this: one moment he was in that dark chamber, fearing his own death; the next, they both were with the lady, who promised they would never want for anything again.

It wasn’t true. Safety and warmth and freedom from care—what they had was a child’s dream of such things, and once a boy tries to be a man, he can’t go back. The little Duke might have accepted it, but his brother, older and wiser, would not let him. And so that paradise was broken.

He whispers, “I got lost on the way back. I ended up in France.”

Regret shadows his brother’s face, showing the greater age he rightfully claims, and more besides. “Better that than staying...I was there three years, I think. It was three years here, at least. You see what it did to me. At times it was like she promised, but the rest....”

He doesn’t have to explain. That adults might promise one thing but deliver another was a lesson these two learned at an early age.

A journey out of wonder, that ended with him stumbling down a narrow street in a town he later learned was Tournai. A couple who adopted him, and gave him a new name, because he could not remember his own; that was one of the things he lost on the way back, paying it to some hideous creature as fee for his passage. A new life, wherein he learned not to think about the things he did remember, until the day he went to Ireland and saw coins bearing a face he recognised. A face he had once called Father. It had that look, the Yorkist look, and so did he; a few gentlemen saw that and decided to make use of it. They never knew—because he did not tell them—the terrible irony in their decision to declare him Richard, the long-lost Duke of York.

As if he hears that thought, the young man by the window smiles. Painfully. “I did not look old enough to be King Edward,” he says. “The three years I lost...over there. So they proclaimed me a different Edward instead. It was almost the same.”

The simpleton Earl of Warwick, locked away in the same prison they had escaped. Their tale fell apart in the end; the evil uncle did not die at the hand of the boy-King, returned in triumph from his flight out of this mortal world. Richard III fell instead at Bosworth, fighting another usurper. And by the time the lost young Edward came back, by the time the lost young Richard remembered his name, it was too late; that usurper was Henry VII, the first Tudor King, and the crown rested firmly on his head.

They had tried anyway. Both of them had. And this is where it left them: the boy-King turning spits of meat in Henry’s kitchens, and the little Duke once more in the Tower.

If this is the madness of Perkin Warbeck, at least he can take comfort in knowing that Lambert Simnel shares it, too.

I won’t let him hurt you.

A declaration that never changes, no matter what has passed. His brother nods once, a swift movement, as if someone could be watching through the high, narrow window. “I can try,” he whispers. “You and Ned. But it will be dangerous.”

Escape. Maybe another rebellion. Coronation, either for him or Ned, Edward of Warwick, their poor simple cousin. Or perhaps for one Lambert Simnel, who looks enough like Ned to pass—so long as Henry cannot prove the lie by showing the earl in his possession.

For nearly forty years, men have torn at the crown of England like dogs fighting over a bone. Yorkists and Lancasters and a Tudor to bring the houses together, and much good has all that fighting done anyone. But his alternative is this: a cell, and chains, and the possibility of execution anyway. Right back where he began, but in less comfort. And this time there is no lady with a beautiful voice to offer him the dream of safety.

He wouldn’t accept if she did. His brother is the only one he can trust.

A brief, fierce embrace, away from the window’s gaze; the two cling to each other now not like boys but men, reunited after years and worlds apart. For all the rumours, all the stories of how Richard III murdered the princes in the Tower, and even their supposed impostures and bids for the throne, nothing comes close to the truth—and nothing ever will. Only with each other can they be honest, in this fleeting moment of reunion.

It cannot last. The servant has stayed too long already; the guards will wonder what he is doing. They hold onto it as long as they can, Richard, Duke of York, and the deposed King Edward V of England; then they step apart and are Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel once more.

Pretenders indeed. But not in the way that King Henry believes.

When the door is closed, and he is alone in the cell, he goes back to his seat at the window. But this time, he does not watch the servants and soldiers as they go about their work.

This time—for the first time in fifteen years—he permits himself to remember.


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Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She most recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent; the first book of that series, A Natural History of Dragons, was a finalist for a World Fantasy Award and won the Prix Imaginales for Best Translated Novel. She is also the author of the Doppelanger duology of Warrior and Witch, the urban fantasies Lies and Prophecy and Chains and Memory, the Onyx Court historical fantasy series, the Varekai novellas, and more than forty short stories, nine in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including two set in the world of the Onyx Court series and three set in her Driftwood world. For more information, visit www.swantower.com.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“And Blow Them at the Moon” by Marie Brennan
“More Full of Weeping Than You Can Understand” by Rosamund Hodge

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Comments & Scrivenings
2 Comments on “Two Pretenders”

2 Responses to “Two Pretenders”

  1. DgB says:

    01-17-2011, 09:56 PM
    DgB

    I enjoyed this one even more than “And Blow Them at the Moon”. Well done!

    – David

  2. Adam Henry Sears says:

    01-21-2011, 04:30 PM
    Adam Henry Sears

    Well,…

    This is a well-conceived story. I’ve never been good at learning history, so I would never know any of the details about that age in time, but from what I read here I can see that historical fantasy certainly interests you. I certainly enjoyed the political intrigue and the way the scene sets the stage for further developments. Very appetizing.

    I find your style of writing a bit disjointing, however. You have many places where sentences are incomplete or segmented. I found that a little cumbersome as I started to read your piece here. It threw me off a little and it took me a while to get used to. Of course, that may be only my opinion, so don’t take it to heart.

    But, thanks for sharing. I enjoyed reading your story. It reminds me a little bit of Melanie Rawn in the way the politics and schemes are depicted. Have a great day.

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