Helen of Gyrewend stood silently at the edge of the Great Hall, restless. It had been eight days since the beheading, but she couldn’t clean up the remaining blood until the formalities were finished. The archdeacon was praying to Our Lord for the safety and health of Queen Elizabeth and for the soul of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, whose head and body were to be sealed in the same casket today. Praying, and taking a damned long time about it, to Helen’s way of thinking. She was itching to do away with the last traces of that hateful woman. For three nights running, her dreams had been filled with blood and flames.
As a housemaid, Helen had naturally not been present at the beheading itself; such affairs of state were not a public event like a regular hanging. Her part had been limited to laying the sawdust and arranging the dried timothy and sweet william underneath the block. Afterwards, all of those stuffs, with their load of royal blood, had been gathered up and burned in an oak fire supervised by the Earl and his family. The Earl had read a proclamation afterwards about how every drop of Mary Stuart’s blood had been returned to God. As his lordship said the words, they became the fact that the histories would record.
Or course, it was not really true, as they all could see. When the workmen had removed the scaffold, they’d discovered a double handspan of dried spatter right where the block had been. Helen had gotten a black look and a hard word from Thomas Butler for that. “Shoulda piled the sawdust higher, Helen Slopjob,” he’d muttered to her. It didn’t matter that she’d piled it as high as she’d dared, high enough that Mary Stuart’s sharp nose had practically been in the herbs as she waited for the axe. Who knew the dried up old biddy had so much blood in her? Moreover, how could it possibly have soaked through the stuffs and the wood so completely?
As a punishment for letting some of the royal blood spill, Thomas had ordered her to sweep and mop the entire Hall by herself. Behind the expressionless face she always put on when someone was praying, she was impatient for the archdeacon to finish up. Mary was burning in hell, prayers or no, and that was that. You can’t try to have the rightful Queen assassinated and be a Papist besides and not expect to burn. No purpose in wasting anymore breath on her as far as Helen could see. In her mind, she could see the dead traitor kneeling, her white hair lifted by surrounding flames in a close circle of stones. When Helen closed her eyes, she could almost hear Mary’s suffering. It surprised her that the sound wasn’t what she might expect of someone being tortured, but more like a chant, something half-way between a cough and a hiss. As it echoed, it became more terrifying and horrible than screams or cries, the sounds a human could make. Over and over, it filled the vision … yog-sothoth, yog-sothoth, yog-sothoth…
Helen opened her eyes. Fotheringhay Castle was certainly well rid of Mary and her coven of hangers-on. They were a bad lot from head to heel, to be sure. They spoke French among themselves, mostly, though they spoke proper when with the Earl and his family at meals and such. Had spoken, Helen reminded herself. All gone now. Mary straight to Hell, the rest of them soon to follow. With Mary gone, the rest of them had been packed off to London for their own trials, to start as soon as the dead Queen of Scotland was in the ground. They’d be hung for their parts in the treason; no fancy beheadings for such as them.
All their belongings had been packed up as well. She’d lent a hand with the packing, and had seen some of their ornaments. Some strange and troubling things among them. Oddly carved candlesticks and jeweled talismans, velvet bags filled with smooth stones, ancient looking books filled with nonsense words. None was in a proper reliquary, so no one knew what to make of them. Folks said they were stuff from Spain and France, where the Papists held sway. Helen had seen Papist things before, from some of the old churches hereabouts. Mary’s things hadn’t looked like anything she was familiar with, except for the rosaries, crucifixes and breviaries. If Mary had been practicing some form of worship that was strange even to other Papists, then she was doubly damned, to be sure.
Out of the corner of her eye, she looked at the dried blood. She’d been unable to think of anything else since the execution. Three swipes with a mop would clear it away, but there it had been for days on end, a stain on the pavers on her reputation. The execution wasn’t officially over until the burial, so she’d had to endure the sly looks and dull japes from the backstairs maids through two Sundays. Bad enough that it hadn’t been her fault, but the delay made it all worse.
Finally, the archdeacon finished up and all were blessed and dismissed. Helen left with everyone else. She turned right in the outer hallway to fetch the broom, mop and bucket she’d had at the ready since daybreak, then went right back into the Hall. As Helen swept, she thought about what a botched job that beheading had been. The cooks could take off the head of a live and struggling goose with one swipe, but the executioner had to take three strokes at Mary’s neck, still though she lay on the block. Helen had heard all about it. She had always assumed that royalty and the peerage would get the best. The axeman had certainly seemed like he’d known what he was doing when he’d been practicing in the days before. She thought of how, aftertimes, in the servant’s hall, he’d made comments like he’d felt some kind of pull on his axe to make him miss his stroke. Thomas Butler waggled his eyebrows at such excuse-making, but now Helen wasn’t sure what to think.
She swept the whole floor, but worked around the stain. She did a proper job of it, but swept as quickly as she could. Alone in the Hall, she was filled with the memories of her dreams. Her old twig broom whisked across the floor, and the rhythmic, hissing sound made her skin crawl. Finished with the sweeping, she brought the mop and bucket out from the corner and approached the middle of the room. She dipped her rags in the water, lifted and let them drain back a bit, then moved to make use of the sodden mass.
Her arms pause and she stopped as a thought struck her. Why had there been no flies?
She slowly set the dripping mophead down and looked at the blood on the floor. The chopping blocks at the butcher’s and in the kitchen always attracted a cloud of the little devils, even now in February and even after the wood had been scrubbed. She thought about the days since Mary’d been executed, trying to recall if she’d seen any flies over the blood stain when it had been fresh. A beheading was so unusual that everything about it had seemed strange, but as she considered, she could not recall any such vermin. Surely Mary’s blood should attract them, royal blood though it was.
Helen closed her eyes and shook her head to rid herself of the sudden idea that Mary had somehow not been human when she’d died. No, that was madness. Papist and traitor, but still human for all of that. She opened her eyes and firmly shoved the mass of wet rags over the blood. She pressed hard and scrubbed back and forth a half dozen times before lifting her mop away.
From the glistening pool of rewetted blood, the face of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, looked out at Helen, her wild, pleading eyes filled with tears. Helen’s knuckles cracked and whitened as she gripped the mop handle. Mary’s lips formed a spill of words that the maid could not clearly understand. Mary cried out regret and sorrow, fear and pain. There was something about stones and a book, and a terrible mistake she had made with them. From the depths of flames and blood, Mary desperately wanted Helen to do something, to open a door or gate of some kind. Helen could neither hear nor understand. All was darkness around the blood, the fires within its wetness the only light in the Hall that reached Helen’s eyes. She saw Mary suddenly jerked downwards, away from the surface. The dream-sounds from Helen’s visions of hell came up from the blood and filled her ears … yog-hothoth… yog-hothoth… yog-hothoth…
Helen stared into the bloody pool as it expanded in front of her to fill her vision entirely.
Almost an hour later, Thomas Butler passed by the Great Hall. He saw the bloodstain gone and saw Helen standing staring at the spot where it had been. He walked up and cuffed her aside the head for standing idly. Her dead body fell forward, eyes fixed wide open. Her head struck the lip of the bucket, spilling its contents to splash and spread across the stones.