By Patricia Finney
"The Duke of Parma has a three-part plan against England. First, there is the Armada. Second his army in Flanders which is to be carried over when the Armada has taken control of the Narrow Seas. So much is known to all. But the third part makes or mars all. It is the lynchpin of the whole enterprise… they name it their Miracle of Beauty…"
1587 and the Spanish are preparing to launch the Armada, their Holy Enterprise of England, to rescue the English from heresy and kill Elizabeth, their Witch-Queen.
Ex-soldier David Becket is now responsible for the Queen's Ordnance, while he struggles to deal with his tortured past and the vivid dreams of an England invaded by Spain that plague him. He discovers that large quantities of gunpowder are going astray. Can someone in the heart of the English government be selling munitions to the Spanish?
Simon Ames, Becket's old friend, has been captured by the Inquisition in Lisbon as he attempts to spy for the Queen. His wife, Rebecca; a black slave, Merula, and Becket are permitted to try to rescue him on one condition. They must also infiltrate the Spanish fleet and unravel the riddle of the Miracle of Beauty. But Simon has been sentenced to forced labour as a galley slave on the Armada and, chained to an oarbench, is now bound for England.
Patricia Finney's brilliant reworking of the Armada story is an imaginative tour de force. Its panoramic sweep takes the reader into the hearts of the Spanish and English as the two fleets manoeuvre and come to battle, and it shows how different England's history could have been had the Spanish landed. Thrilling, intricate and inspiring, this is a tale of gods, of courage, of love, and, ultimately of redemption.
First page sample:
'Sir, sir, Mr Becket, sir. The Queen wants you!'
The dreaming Becket had sat up, rubbed his eyes full of hangover, blinked uncomprehending at the young man. 'What? Why?'
'The Spaniards have landed. They took Gravesend last night.'
And in the dream his belly had swooped and clenched and he had changed his shirt, combed his hair, put on his buff-coat over his doublet, strapped on his sword and run ahead of the courtier to Walsingham's stables, which boiled with frightened men and terrified horses. He had to punch a groom to get his hands on a horse and he galloped for Westminster through streets that were already full of people asking each other what had happened, what should they do.
He knew something was odd, even in his dreaming self, for St James's Park was leafy and plump with greenery, not pale with spring buds. Late summer of 1588, the year that would end an Empire, according to the prophecy.
Two of Ralegh's guards waited for him at the Court Gate. He was hurried past knots of grim-faced, shouting men, weeping women, taken straight into the Queen's Presence chamber and found her flanked by Ralegh and his tall red-clad men. She was ivory-faced but most splendidly dressed in black velvet sprinkled with pearls and her crown on her head.
Becket dropped to both knees and bowed his head, feeling his heart thump, somehow more painfully aware of the print of rush matting into his kneecaps than he was of the girls sobbing behind him. The Queen swept down from the dais and stood before him, and he saw that with her knack for the dramatic, she was wearing a poniard dagger on her belt, very splendidly jewelled with rubies.
'Mr Becket,' she said, 'we thank you for coming in our hour of need. Will you do us a great service?'
'I am Your Majesty's liegeman,' said Becket, wondering what suicidal madness she was going to ask him to undertake now.
'Mr David Becket,' she said, her voice ringing through the room, 'we hereby appoint you Captain of the Rearguard, with complete powers over our sovereign city of London in its defence.'
Becket blinked for a moment. Ah, that suicidal madness. Something inside him wondered cynically what had happened to the Lord Mayor and his aldermen. Rumour had whispered the week before that they had been locked up in the Tower on account of selling ordnance to the Spanish.
'In my name, you are to delay, frustrate, annoy and murder the Spanish for as long as you possibly can, using every advantage and ally that London affords. You will deny to the Spaniards any benefit that you can. You may not surrender the city under any circumstances.'
Looked at one way, it was very unlikely that Parma would ask him to, seeing that London had no walls and could not stand siege. Looked at another, it was a backhanded compliment to him that the possibility might even be considered, a compliment typical of the Queen's corkscrew mind.
'Further, Mr Becket, I desire that you shall not permit yourself to be killed or taken and when the time comes that you shall rejoin us in Oxford.'
It was a thought to make his booze-battered brain reel, that she was giving him any command at all, no matter what the situation. Gravesend. They had taken Gravesend in the night. Obvious, when you thought of it, for Tilbury ws too well-defended and Gravesend on the opposite bank of the Thames, controlled the river as well. His mouth was full of dust.
Something in her voice made him look up. She was smiling at him.
'If we are still alive in a month, make no doubt we shall reward you with great honour,' and the dry humour in her voice said she perfectly well knew what men said of her promises, and didn't care. Then she put a heavy gold chain over his head.
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