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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A Second Daniel Preview

Hello, my friends!

Permit me to give you an idea of the scope of this project first. It's a series of historical novels known together as "In the Den of the English Lion," set in Elizabethan England during the years 1592-1603, with plenty of flashbacks. The first book, previewed below, is called A Second Daniel. It took about five years to research, write, and rewrite.

Our hero, Noah Ames, is a barrister at the Court of Queen’s Bench. Noah has a deep, dark secret, which some of you may guess before reading. So, when he accidentally gets caught up in the deadliest political intrigue of the day, he’s got a lot at stake. For the historically inclined among you, the intrigue was in fact as deadly and complex as depicted in the novel.

Thank you for your interest, and enjoy reading this preview of A Second Daniel.




UNCLE AVRAM HAS HINTED that his special customer’s house across the Thames can be seen from this hillock in the market square, but the only thing young Menachem can make out on the opposite bank is a scary-looking castle looming in the distance. Wherever the customer’s house may be, Uncle Avram has promised to take him there to deliver groceries as soon as the sun goes down. Menachem is eager for even this small adventure outside the Southwark food market.
      It’s nearly dusk, and red clouds streak the sky. Church bells clang in Southwark Priory on the near side of London Bridge, and north across the river in the walled City of London. The rain of the previous evening still dampens the packed dirt under the market, and a few small pools of muddy water dot the ground.
     By this time in the evening, business has dwindled. Around the market, each family closes its booth at its own pace, the day’s receipts by now fixed in amount, whether good or bad, with nothing to be done about it at this late hour. A cloth is dropped over the entrance to each booth, telling the casual shopper that food can no longer be purchased here.
     Uncle Avram, known locally as “Avram the Jew,” selects the perfect produce for his special customer. The best specimens have been withheld from general sale all day, stored in special wooden crates covered by a tarpaulin. As he still needs to supplement their quantity, he traipses about the booth scowling, intently studying each potato, each parsnip, each carrot, to ensure it’s clean of rot and dirt, and can pass for the most desirable of its kind. He dusts his wares thoroughly, crates the items he’s just selected, and loads everything onto his oxcart. The evening air grows chill as he sets about hitching his cart to the ox.
     Menachem spies his pretty cousin Rachel peeking and smiling at him around the edge of one of the carts. Though he’s lived with Avram and his family for little more than a week, already he seems to have captured her heart. She has a visitor this evening, her stout cousin Beth. As the children have been taught to keep silent whenever Avram fusses about his special customer’s order, what ensues is a little dumb show, such as those seen nearby at The Theater and The Rose before the real play begins.
     Having apparently noticed how taken Rachel is with Menachem, Beth prances into Menachem’s full view with an exaggerated feminine strut, one shoulder jerking forward with each step, and a preening air about her upturned nose. Rachel makes no attempt to conceal her jealousy, and shoves Beth arse first into a puddle, which makes a little splush that Menachem finds even funnier for its quietness. Silently, Rachel points derisively at Beth, who lurches to her feet and drags Rachel out of view. A brief scuffle ensues, the only sign of which is an occasional soft slap or rustling sound. The girls reappear, slightly muddier than when the show began.
     Uncle Avram finishes hitching together ox and cart. “Ready,” he says, winking at Menachem and grabbing the reins. Menachem clambers up and settles in beside his uncle. Aunt Sarah waves goodbye, and the girls follow suit, still eyeing each other warily.
     The ox jerks the cart out of a small rut, and Avram and Menachem begin their trip in comfortable silence. As the market diminishes in the distance, London Bridge looms ever larger.
     Uncle Avram hands him a long wooden switch. “You keep those people away from the cart,” he says, pointing at a painted woman, “and away from the food. Half of them have more money than we do. They are not so poor as they look.”
     Menachem accepts the switch and assumes a forbidding countenance for their trip across London Bridge, which he soon realizes is not used merely to cross the river. For much of its length, it’s occupied by activities beyond the range of his experience. The furtive glances of those involved remove any doubt that such activities are improper, perhaps even unlawful.
      A brazen woman, the tops of her breasts exposed, begins to approach the cart but, seeing Menachem’s innocent face and Avram’s threatening glare, she stops and recedes into the  gloaming. Another woman raises her skirts to flash her legs, but then reverses course, realizing there is no business to be had from this cart. Halfway across the bridge’s span, a few beggars huddle around a small fire to ward off the coming chill. From the corner of his eye, Menachem spies what appears to be two men grunting and humping beneath an outsized coat so large it must have been made especially for concealment.
     He is not as shocked as another child his age might be. Having heard Bible tales of illicit practices, he is strangely reassured to see that they weren’t conjured up merely to frighten little children into behaving themselves. He glances at his uncle’s face and takes comfort from his sober eye and his steady hand on the reins.
     At the far end of London Bridge, it’s rumored, one can often see severed heads on pikes. Now, with a new queen about to be crowned, all the heads have been cleared away. Rumor has circulated that the new queen regards such displays as detestable signs of barbarity and that she’ll replace them with new heads only under the most pressing of circumstances.
     As they leave the bridge, Uncle Avram points to his left and breaks the silence. “Over there is Chancery Lane, where there’s a whole building for the conversion of Jews to Christianity.” He smiles, shakes his head, and laughs. “Goyim.” He jerks the reins, and the cart turns right.
      On their left soon appears the walled castle Menachem spotted from the hillock in the market square. Over its long stone wall peer several stone buildings and one tall white tower.
     “What place is this?” he asks, his eyes wide.
     Avram snickers. “This is the customer’s house. We’re bringing them groceries.”
     Menachem whistles softly. “They must be very rich, and happy!”
     Uncle Avram shrugs. “Rich, yes.” He pauses. “Happy?” He shrugs again, but says nothing.
     “There must be a lot of people living here,” says Menachem. “Surely, we can’t be bringing food enough for them all.”
     The cart approaches a gate guarded by four burly men wearing colorful uniforms and holding long pointed pikes. As the cart draws close enough for Menachem to read their expressions in the fading light, they seem in no mood for a chat.
     Avram slows the cart to a crawl, his posture stiffening. A few cautious words pass between him and the foremost guard. Avram draws a paper from his pocket and hands it to the guard, who examines it though there is barely enough daylight left for reading.
     “That’s the royal warrant, all right!” says the guard, returning the paper.
     Avram pockets the paper and discreetly palms a coin into the guard’s hand. The guard takes a step back, at first raising his hand to wave them through. But as his eyes light on Menachem, he shouts “halt!” and smiles sheepishly, evidently embarrassed by his hesitation.
     “If you don’t mind my asking, Goodman Jew, who’s the English boy?” He nods toward Menachem. “I mean … who is he to you?”
     Avram’s head jerks around toward the boy, as though he’s completely forgotten that his nephew’s been seated beside him the whole time.
     “Oh, he’s not English,” Avram says cautiously. “He’s a distant cousin, an orphan, who just came to us from Poland.” He leans toward the guard, and whispers something inaudible.
     The guard nods gravely, and regards Menachem with pity. Drawing his great head so close that Menachem can smell the whiskey on his breath, he smiles discreetly, winks, and says hoarsely: “Welcome to the Tower o’ London, boy.”
     Menachem isn’t sure what it is about the way the guard has spoken those words, but there is something threatening inside them, as though the Tower of London is not at all a place to feel welcome. The guard takes a step back, and waves them on.
     A few manly shouts are heard calling and answering, some from above the wall, some from inside what now appears to be a giant compound of stately stone buildings.
     The cart creeps up the cobblestone path to a giant gate of latticed iron. There the ox stops unprompted and waits, as though it has done this before. Chains clank, and wood creaks against metal. Slowly, the gate begins its rise, revealing sharp spikes along its base. Menachem shudders to imagine what such spikes would do to someone unfortunate enough to be caught under them when they drop.
     They pass into a tunnel-like enclosure with a latticework iron gate exactly like the first at the opposite end. The gate behind them clanks shut, trapping them in the tunnel.
     No longer able to contain himself, Menachem asks quietly, “What are these gates called?”
     With a hushed awe that matches Menachem’s own, Avram replies, “They’re called a ‘portcullis.’”
     Menachem mouths the word, and whispers, “Are they to keep the Jews out?”
     Avram suppresses a laugh, his face reddening. He composes himself, and replies, “No. They’re to keep out the goyim who don’t bring groceries.” He tousles the boy’s hair. The gate ahead of them creaks up, and the cart advances into an open cobblestone courtyard.
     It is now full dark. No light shines from any building except for a modest stone cottage, also dark but for the glow of coals still smoldering in a tall fireplace beneath a carved wooden hearth, such as one might see in a great kitchen. The cart turns toward the cottage, and a cold breeze runs through Menachem’s cloak and up his spine like icy fingers, as though he has passed into some ancient fairy tale where anything might happen.
     The second gate thunders closed behind them.
     A low fence surrounding the dark cottage blocks the cart’s way to the rear door, which means that the crates will have to be carried in one by one. Avram and Menachem climb down from the cart, careful not to stumble in the dark. Avram pulls a torch from the rear of the cart, lights it, and lodges it in a sconce on the fence. He takes a sack of potatoes from the cart, hands it to Menachem, and points to the rear door of the cottage. “I’m giving you one small sack, so you’ll have a hand free to open the door.”
     Just then, a muffled shout escapes a building across the courtyard. A man’s voice. Though it sounds distressed, there seems to be no fear in it. Avram turns first in the direction of the shout, then back to his nephew and nods toward the cottage’s rear door. “Go ahead. I’ll be in soon.” He takes a few hesitant steps toward the source of the shout, which has died away in the night.
     Menachem turns toward the cottage door, carrying the sack in the crook of his left arm. Apparently the door has been left unlocked by design, as the key has been left jutting out of the lock. He turns the iron knob and goes inside.
     He finds himself in a kitchen that must have been left dark and vacant no more than a few hours ago. There is still a stuffy heat inside, along with unfamiliar scents of finely prepared foods. A few droplets of water cling to the base of a pan hanging from a hook above the fresh-water basin. The stone walls have kept the chill wind out, except for the breeze now entering through the open door behind him.
     Across a work area the size of his uncle’s booth, an archway leads out of the kitchen into an unlit hallway. He closes the door behind him, half expecting his uncle to barge in before it can fully close. The breeze dissipates, but his uncle does not appear. He comforts himself in this strange new place by softly singing a tune he heard Rachel sing just yesterday. Although the lyrics are unknown to him, his wordless and soft young singing voice overcomes the gloom of the small cottage. He places the bag of potatoes on the marble base jutting out of the fireplace.
     Sensing a presence behind him, he is too frightened to turn. He gasps, and his eyes go wide. A cultured young woman’s voice emanates from the archway across the kitchen, with a lilt of humor. “If you leave the potatoes so near to the flame, they shall be roasted long before anyone will care to eat them.”
     Menachem turns, and there, directly beneath the arch, stands a graceful young woman in a rich gossamer dressing gown. The deep red glow of the firelight illuminates her as something in a dream. He wonders fleetingly whether she might not be some beautiful wraith rather than a real woman, but he quickly dismisses the thought, as the bemused stare that holds him motionless is humanly warm and benevolent. Her most striking feature is her long red hair. Not the brassy red that he has sometimes seen affected by fine older ladies, but a rich auburn that reminds him of warm sunshine, newly tilled earth, and roan horses.
     She appears to have been interrupted in preparing for bed, as she wears no makeup. Her face is a healthy pink. Though her eyelashes are nearly invisible but for the flimsy shadows they cast on her lids, her dark red eyebrows betray a sharp intelligence and afford her an air of confidence and authority. Perceiving his adulation, she casts him a broad smile with the slightest suggestion of impishness. “Put the potatoes on the wooden board, and bring one to me.”
     Menachem lifts the bag off the pediment. It is already hot to the touch and, left where it was, would soon have been scorched from the heat of the dying fire. He places it on the board, where he realizes he should have laid it in the first instance, and opens it to remove a potato for the lady.
     “What tune were you humming when I came in?” she asks.
      Menachem strains to recall whether he was indeed humming before she made herself known. For an instant he cannot recall any part of his life that took place before she spoke to him. Then he remembers Rachel, and the song. “I think it’s called ‘Greensleeves.’”
     “That’s what I thought. My father wrote that song,” she says wistfully. She steps forward, lifts her skirts off the floor, and perches delicately on a bench facing the fire, only a few feet before him. Although he can feel the fire’s heat at his back, all he can think of is the warmth exuding from her.
     “Are you a cook?” he ventures.
     “No,” she replies, “although this is my kitchen. Are you the grocer’s boy?”
      He bows courteously. “At your service,” he pronounces beautifully, just as he was taught by Aunt Sarah.
     The Red Lady (which is how he now thinks of her) giggles with delight.
    “And what is your name, squire?”
     He plays along with her elevated courtliness. “I am known as Menachem, madam.”
     “And your surname?” she asks. He looks at her, puzzled. She rephrases her question. “Your family name?”
     “I have no surname,” he replies humbly.
     “Well,” she says, “I can see you are a quick learner, anyhow.”
     “And what, may I ask, is your name?”
     She muses for a moment before answering. “You may ask, squire. I think that I shall not tell you my first name, for you may not call me by it. But my surname is ‘Tudor.’” She stresses the word “surname,” as though to caress him for attentiveness to his lessons.
     Menachem’s mind races. He has heard that name before. “Is that not the name of the royal house of England?”
     She smiles. “Why, yes, Menachem, it is!” When she says his name, it sounds like Manokkem.
     After a moment’s thought, he ventures: “Are you a relative of the Queen?”
     She regards him forlornly. “Alas, I am not. But where is my potato?”
     As Menachem is about to hand it to her, she snatches it away, and her coy expression dares him to snatch it back. She is too quick for him, tossing it from one hand to the other, always too gingerly for him to reach. She giggles, and the music in her voice makes her seem little more than a schoolgirl having him on. She raises the potato over her head, and Menachem, not about to be defeated, places a foot on the bench beside her and steps up. Reaching as high as he can, he tugs the potato from her grasp.
     He steps back down and sees that her expression has changed in an instant. Now she seems to be fighting off a sadness. Although he doubts it has anything to do with the potato, he kneels before her and offers it back to her with both hands.
     She laughs despite herself, and tries in vain to fight the tears forming at the edges of her eyes. She blows her nose into her handkerchief. “You may keep the potato, Squire Menachem.”
     “Why are you so sad?” he asks, sorry for any part he has played in her dismay.
     She tries to speak several times, but no voice will emerge.
     “Have you any children?” he asks.
     She shakes her head, and the tears well up again. He has put his finger on it. He assures her calmly, “You are young and beautiful, and shall no doubt have many happy children.”
     She draws herself together, and clears her throat.
     “Alas,” she says, “I am so lowly a person that I lack the authority to make such decisions for myself.”
     From the corner of his eye, he sees men with torches emerge from a big stone building far across the courtyard.
     She sees him notice them. “They’re looking for someone.”
     “For whom, I wonder?”
     She laughs sulkily. “For me.”
     The door behind him bursts open, nearly stopping his heart, and lets in a blast of cold air. It’s Avram, and he’s alone.
     But Avram’s expression is frozen in amazement. His eyes, wide as saucers, are riveted on the Red Lady’s face, and at first he seems unaware that his nephew is in the room. Then he kneels reverently, his eyes downcast, and pulls Menachem beside him by the back of his shirt, pressing him down onto bended knee.
     “Forgive him, madam, please. He is just a boy who knows nothing.”
     She smirks. “He has done nothing requiring an apology, Goodman Grocer. But you do him wrong to say he knows nothing.” She casts Menachem an appraising eye. “He speaks English beautifully.” Her glance darts skeptically from the small, swarthy grocer to the tall young boy whose hair is very nearly the color of her own. “Is he of your family?”
     Avram fixes his stare on a place just before the lady’s feet. “He is distantly related, madam. His parents lived in Poland, but … passed away in a fire.”
     “How dreadful!” she replies. “His English has nothing of the Pole about it. He is not Polish, is he?”
     “Indeed, he is not, madam. His people went to Poland from Flanders many years ago, but they continued to speak English in their home.”
     She nods knowingly. “That is because they are English, having been deported to Flanders by my illustrious ancestor Edward the First. Is that not right?”
     Beads of sweat begin to form on Avram’s forehead and glisten in the red light of the coals. “You are correct, madam.”
     “An achievement of which my family can be right proud,” she says sardonically. “How long has he been with you in England?”
     “Less than a fortnight, madam.”
     To Menachem’s young eyes, an idea seems to be forming in the lady’s mind.
     She cocks her head. “In such a brief time, has anyone in your family grown especially fond of him?” Avram evidently has no idea how to respond. “Do not be coy, Goodman Grocer. You know what I mean. Would your wife or children be bereft by his absence?”
     Avram is dumbstruck, his eyes now boring a hole in a spot before her feet. Menachem somehow has the strange feeling that his life is being negotiated between the Red Lady and Avram, and that the Red Lady clearly has the upper hand. Avram appears to be drowning.
     “Well, madam,” Avram shrugs. “We all welcome him, but it is the women who seem to be especially fond of him, especially my daughter.”
     The Red Lady looks askance at Menachem and smiles bitterly, as though she knows him to be the devil himself. “I can understand that, Goodman Grocer.” She straightens herself and stands up to her full height, a simple motion that nearly causes Avram to swoon.
     She regards Menachem, and sighs. “You are beloved of women. You sing well, and speak beautifully. All in all, you seem headed for an easy life, Goodman Menachem.” She brings her chin up to a proud height. “I shall ensure that your life is made less easy” — Menachem looks up at her imploringly — “but far more meaningful” — she hesitates — “and important. Goodman Grocer, would your family object to my placing this boy under my protection, in the custody of an educator at Merton College, Oxford?”
     “But, madam, there is the matter of his Hebrew religion — ”
     She waves away his concern. “His private religious practice will be fully respected, and he will be permitted to visit with you and your lovelorn daughter on holidays.”
     Avram’s shoulders fall in relief. Through the windows, torches approach, ever closer to the cottage. The shouts of men can now be heard, some guttural, others belonging to cultured nobility.
     “Your name is Añes, is that correct?” she asks.
     “It is, madam.”
     “Well, let’s make his a little more English,” she says pensively. “He shall be known as ‘Noah Ames.’ Now, will that be all, Goodman Añes?”
     “Yes, madam. Thank you, madam.”
     “You are most welcome. I will send for Goodman Ames in a few days.”
      The torches are now very close. Menachem is sure that, if the kitchen were illuminated by more than glowing embers, the men outside would have discovered the Red Lady well before now. Down the dark corridor behind the lady, there is a loud banging on the heavy front door, through which a man commands sternly, “Open up, in the name of the Queen!”
     Now the lady’s eyes open wide. “Go!” she says excitedly, waving them out the rear door.
     Avram scoops Menachem violently into his arms and rushes out of the door, shutting it quietly behind him. At first he appears to duck down, but Menachem sees that his knees have buckled beneath him. Avram struggles to stand again, and rushes away toward the oxcart, pulling Menachem behind him by the hand. Reaching the bushes, Avram lowers his head and quietly vomits.
     While Avram composes himself and feebly struggles to find a water bladder in the cart, Menachem watches through the windows of the cottage as a strange scene unfolds.
     A man and a boy enter through the front door. The man is quite stout, and appears to suffer from a crippling foot injury. Discovering the Red Lady, he claps his hands in relief and collapses into a chair, removing one boot and rubbing his foot, while the boy lights candles throughout the kitchen. The lady’s hair is just the color Menachem perceived in the firelight. The man dispatches the boy through the front door. Although Menachem cannot hear the instructions given the boy, he assumes he has been sent to assure the other search parties that the Red Lady is found.
     The man’s voice is too deep to make out, but the words of the lady, though muffled by the windows, can be heard. “Sir Henry,” she says, “I have told you that I will not be kept under guard like a common criminal!” She kneels to massage his wounded foot. “Your gout must be so painful! Poor Neville!” She wags an admonishing finger. “How could you allow yourself to be enlisted on a pointless errand such as this?”
     Sir Henry places his hands sympathetically on her shoulders, and peers deeply into her eyes. Although she stamps her foot and turns away, from that point the voices die down, and the lady’s words can no longer be heard.
     “Menachem,” whispers Avram, “come over here, out of the light.” He places himself and the boy outside the view from the cottage windows. Sounding exhausted, he points to a stump and says, “Sit.” He stoops and hugs Menachem as though he loves him more than his own life, and begins to quake, although whether from fear or relief Menachem could not say. “It is true, what they say. God protects children and fools. Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, the Lord is One.” He draws his nephew’s face from his chest, holds him squarely by the shoulders, and looks him in the eye.
     Menachem can no longer bear the silence. “Who was the Red Lady?”
     Avram regards him incredulously. “Who did she say she was?”
     “When I asked her, she would not tell me her first name, and said her family name is ‘Tudor.’ But she said she is not related to the Queen.” Voice full of concern, he asks, “Will they hurt her?”
      Avram regards him skeptically. “Think hard, Menachem. Is that exactly what she said?”
     “I — I asked her if she was a relative of the Queen, and she said” — his eyes roll up in deep recollection — “‘alas, I am not.’”
     Although Avram is apparently losing patience, he says indulgently, “Menachem, we are Jews. We live by our wits, or we do not live long. If a lady at the Tower tells you she is named ‘Tudor,’ but she is not a relative of the Queen, then who is she? You know this. Who is she?”
     Menachem’s furrowed brow slowly relaxes. Much of what he has heard and seen begins to fall into place. Tears stream from his eyes.
    “She is the Queen.”



FEBRUARY 26, 1592


If you would like to continue reading, you can grab your copy of A Second Daniel here:

If you'd like to read the prequel to A Second Daniel for free (entitled "Escape"), you can find it here, but I recommend you read A Second Daniel first to provide some context:

posted by Neal Roberts @ 9:52 AM   0 Comments