My Mistress heard that the Queen shoots a longbow and has set herself to the same. As we tread the frozen river, ice all about us like the blue-white wastes of the underworld, I pull my cloak tighter to my shoulders. I’m beginning to wish that Lady Buckley had not chosen me.
‘I shall learn at once,’ she’d announced one morning when the first frost clung to the topiaries. I’d twitched, knowing that more was to come. My Mistress’ mind set, was often not set on one course. ‘Her Majesty’s been practising on the ice as I will do.’ As she gestured to the whitening landscape beyond the windows, unable to hide her impatience, my spirits plunged.
Our river isn’t as mighty as the Thames, but it’s frozen deep as you like. For days now, solid as a boulder, so Lady Buckley says. We’ve watched the younger men skating upon it, whirling like leaves in a gust. And even though still unsure, I’ve seen the loaded oxen cross daily; not one has yet broken through.
I’m to carry my Mistress’ quiver. And what could I ever say, but, ‘Yes, my Lady.’ I’m a character that’s already been written; the plot of her life set down. The other maids, though equal to the task, were overlooked on this biting morning. Not for the first time, I envied them for it. A day spent close to the hearths has more allure.
My mother started me on this path, for good or ill. I know she’d wanted the good. ‘Don’t let yourself be the bad apple in a basket, Joan,’ she’d said, shooing me out of the door to my chores. ‘Go feed the geese, else we’ll have to eat them soon enough!’
Now that our breath is puffing in the sharp air, I wonder at my Mistress’ plan. It’s far bolder than I’d first imagined. To shoot a bow is one skill, to seek out targets on the ice, quite another. But Lady Buckley is headstrong; some would say, foolhardy. To my mind, certainly, she’s just that.
When I’d first arrived at the grand house, coaxed over the threshold by my mother, I’d near trembled. As a new maid, my place was to learn from the ladies who’d served through many winters. ‘Mind you do precisely as Lady Buckley instructs at all times,’ I was told. ‘And never question her.’
My Mistress, I’d discovered, follows the courtly ladies; the Queen more than any. ‘Her Majesty has the finest taste in all matters,’ she’d said only days before when new cloths had arrived. ‘You have much work to do, everyone.’ I’d cast down my eyes; they were the ugliest patterns I’d seen in a long while.
The drape of a gown, the shape of a cuff, the fit of a hood; my Mistress strives to meet the latest fashions. Unlike the other maids, this only makes me sour. ‘Yes, my Lady,’ I’ll say as I dip a curtesy. She changes her fancy like the rise and fall of the wind, and I never know which way she’ll go next.
My mother, I came to learn, succumbed to the sweating sickness. As seasons passed, I’d slowly begun to believe that I am that apple, turning black to the core. Lady Buckley was ever displeased with me. ‘For the sake of all that’s Holy, girl, I mean you to begin at once!’ she’d shout when I idled. My fingers were sore from the needle and my arms ached from shaping, and reshaping, her attire. Curses stayed unspoken.
I watch my Mistress prepare. She’s received some instruction and knows how to hold herself. As she stands the bow, it’s the full height of her. I’ve watched the bowmen on occasion, but she’s the only lady I’ve seen. It’s said that the Queen wishes to try all that her father could do, and I wonder if that’s why she took up the longbow. What greater an archer to follow than King Henry himself. But she’s a Queen and my Mistress is far beneath. “I’m ready, girl,” Lady Buckley calls. “Fetch the quiver nearer.”
Her shot seems to fire true, but dips wide. “It always takes a little time to feel the flight,” she says, by way of explanation.
I press my lips. “Of course, my Lady.”
Each target is a small woodblock mounted on a stand. The men had been out early to place them, just as the weak sun gave enough light. The next one’s far enough that I’ll need to haul the quiver. I hear a snap beneath my boots and feel them slip. Glancing down, I see the surface ahead changed; clearer and smooth. I gulp on dread.
As I stop and turn, Lady Buckley’s not awaiting me as I’d expected, but is striding to the target. Dread sticks like gristle in my throat as I hear the cracking again. Only, I’m stood still.
Then it strikes me. My Mistress, plunging through the broken ice, gasping as the cold water embraces her. Her jewelled fingers, the last part to disappear. I see her hair billow like golden fronds, her floating limbs outstretched as she sinks into the frozen blackness.
I’d never see her pinched lips move again; hear her voice telling me how to be. I’d not have to flit with her on another wind-change. I’d be free of my position; free of her. Forever, free of her.
“Look out, my Lady!” I bellow, shocking even myself.
She stutters to a halt, dropping the bow with the effort. Wooden notes clatter into the stillness. She turns, her stern eyes wide. “What affects you? You made me drop it, you foolish girl.”
I do not move. “I think there’s thinner ice, my Lady. I heard it cracking, just over there.” Her gaze follows as I point.
“I see.” She tuts and fussily smooths her skirts. “Well, unless you’re mistaken, I can but thank you.”
Fresh snowfall is tumbling from the low clouds. I feel strange, a little unsteady. Blinking against the flakes, I gaze at the blue-white wastes and try to slow my giddy breaths. I, did, not…
I, did, not, let, her, fall. Perhaps I’m not so wicked, besides.
Lady Buckley’s voice shatters my frozen mind. “The men will fetch the quiver and bow. We’ll return to the house at once. Come, girl!”
“Very good, my Lady.” As we go, I look to the distant, silver trees and picture a lively hearth to greet us.
The silent snow falls thicker upon our hoods and cloaks. I’ll never be like the Queen, or even like my Mistress. I’m far beneath them both. But still, not a bad apple either; I smile, my mother’s soul can rest on.
Christine Collinson writes historical short fiction. Her debut flash collection, A Pillow of White Roses, was published in August 2023 by Ellipsis Zine. Over the past five years, her work has been widely published in online journals and print anthologies. Find her on Bluesky and X @collinson26.