A reward has been offered for my head. They’ve nicknamed me the Robin Hood Surgeon.
© Kate Bridges. All rights reserved.
“Charlotte, your father would like to see you hanged.”
Polly Springfield, my maid and closest friend in the castle, said this in a terrified whisper as she entered my chambers.
Gooseflesh rose on the back of my neck. My lips went dry. “Did he say this?”
“I heard him myself with Her Majesty’s guards, only a moment ago. Oh, Charlotte, they’re settin’ secret traps about the palaces to catch you.”
“This is worse than I ever thought.” I slumped against my sofa, my long skirt crumpling at my ankles. I gripped my screwdriver in one hand and the secret invention I was working on in the other. To most people, it simply looked like a silver button with a long shank. But how could I be excited about it now? Polly, in uniform, perched on a cushioned chair. Summer morning light spilled into my sitting room. It was horrid being stuck here in Windsor Castle, twenty miles from London and everything I considered home.
“My own father wishes to see me dead.”
“But he doesn’t know it’s you he’s lookin’ for,” said Polly, her golden hair tucked neatly into her mop cap. “He thinks he’s lookin’ for a man! A spy who’s stealin’ medicine and equipment from the Queen to treat the poor.”
That much was true. No one knew who I was, but people had nicknamed me the Robin Hood Surgeon. I didn’t deserve the title. I was practicing medicine accidentally. I had only happened to be in the right place at a time when people had needed medical help. Since I’d read many of my father’s medical textbooks and watched him practice for years, I knew how to help them. My father, Dr. James Sycamore, private surgeon to Queen Victoria, was taking it personally. He believed a thief was loose in the city, stealing his supplies and mocking him.
I’m a sixteen-year-old girl who’s mocking no one. I’m as normal as anyone my age.
Why, I could list how normal I am off the top of my head:
1. I look like any other young person. I have long black hair and constantly battle these rubbish pimples.
2. I’d rather spend time with my friends than be alone.
3. I’m excited about training my new puppy.
4. I fancy shopping at the market.
5. And I adore the feeling of home.
The only unusual thing about me is my interest in medicine. But my father and his circle would never allow me to become a doctor because I’m a girl. Sometimes I wonder if they’re right. Who am I to think I could be as brave and as smart as my father?
If I had a mother, she might understand me better. She might have noticed that over the past few years, I always agreed to travel with my father in his work, rarely arguing, no matter how many times he told me we were moving again and that I had to say goodbye to newly made friends. But this time I craved to shout and argue.
“He only wants the best for you, Charlotte,” Polly insisted as she watched me work the screwdriver again on the back of the button. I gave her a look. She added, “I mean other than wishin’ to see you hanged. He simply wants you to marry well and learn to manage a household.”
“I would rather be the royal mouse-catcher.”
“At least there’s adventure in that.”
“Blimey, Charlotte, that’s nonsense.” Polly rose and dusted another invention of mine. Slim daggers disguised as clothespins. One snapped and nearly sliced her finger. “Ah!”
“Careful. I can’t get those working properly.” Polly had become such a trusted friend in the two months since she’d been working here. Without her, I’d go stark raving mad being in the company of all these rule-loving adults. Polly was the one who helped me sneak out of Buckingham Palace after midnight, wore disguises with me, and shared stories about handsome boys. She was also very practical.
“Is your secret button nearly finished?” She moved on to the safety of straightening pillows.
“Almost. Just have to make another matching partner.” The idea was to sew one into the inside of your jacket, sew the other inside a friend’s, and when separated, you could communicate with each other by pressing on them. Either button would vibrate in the other person’s jacket. If I had the time I intended to make several, one for each of my friends.
“Don’t you miss them?” I asked. “Don’t you wonder what they’re doing? Jillian and Benjamin and… and Peter?” I missed them so terribly, it felt like a heavy brick was leaning on my heart. Seventeen days ago, after a foiled assassination attempt on the Queen, the royal advisors had whisked Her Majesty and her court here to Windsor Castle for her protection. (I mean, it happened so quickly I didn’t have the opportunity to say good-bye to my friends!)
None of the adults would ever believe it had been me and my friends who had stopped the assassins. No one should be questioning my loyalty.
“Well, yes, I do miss talkin’ to them, and laughin’ the way we do,” Polly whispered with a smile. “The saints be blessed, all’s been quiet here for these seventeen days. There don’t seem to be any other assassins. They’ve all been caught, put to trial, and hanged.”
“Exactly my point. Why can’t we return to the city? Surely the Queen is safe now.”
Polly began tidying one side of the room while I grew exasperated with the screw that would not tighten. I pinched and pinched and finally tossed the screwdriver and button into a drawer with the others. I walked to the tall windows and scooped my nightclothes from the floor. I was a rather messy person, but didn’t that prove again how normal I was?
I peered out of the windowpanes. Three golden, mechanical owls soared in perfect unison to sit on my ledge. The iron birds were breathtakingly beautiful. Their six-foot wings sparkled with pure gold feathers. They’d been created by the Royal Gadget Engineers and their duty was to frighten away any pigeons that might build nests and create a mess on the castle walls.
“Ack!” shrieked Polly behind me. “Those owls are huge!”
“They won’t harm you.”
I picked up a golden feather that I’d been working on. A few of the owl’s feathers had fallen out over the past couple of weeks on my ledge, and I had retrieved and modified them.
“What’s that?” asked Polly.
“A feather I made into a miniature beacon.” I slowly cranked open the window and inserted it into an owl’s wing. The owl ruffled its plumage, but didn’t fuss with the new feather. Delighted, I added two other feather-shaped beacons to the two other birds.
Success! They were imperceptible. Hopefully if I ever got my secret button working, it could also be used to communicate and call these owls. I wasn’t sure for what exactly, but a girl never knew when a trusted mechanical owl might come in handy.
“I don’t know how you think o’ these things,” said Polly, getting back to her work.
I looked down at the guards patrolling the courtyards and cliffs. Loneliness chilled my heart. What did the Queen and her stuffy advisors care about me? What did my father care what it was like to be uprooted with him every time the Queen traveled?
It was no use talking to adults.
I tucked away my nightclothes and turned to Polly, who was dusting the fireplace mantel. I hesitated to ask the next question for fear of the answers, but knew I must.
“What sort of traps is my father setting?”
“I didn’t hear specifics, I’m afraid.” Polly pulled out a pocket-handkerchief and sniffled into it. “Sorry, but it’s so frightenin’, I can’t keep from blatherin’.”
I swallowed past my dry throat. “I shall have to be extra cautious then.”
Polly scowled. “Don’t you fear for your life?”
“What sort of life is it when I can’t choose my own direction?”
“Please, I beg of you, stop this beastly mess. You don’t need to give away any more of the Queen’s supplies. You don’t need to learn medicine–”
“It’s not that I’m trying, it just happens–”
“But you’re givin’ me turnscrew nights–”
A bang on the door startled us. We both swung round.
Polly, fourteen years of age and two years younger than me, adjusted the cap on her peach-colored hair and raced out to answer. “Who is it please?”
She pulled open the door. Her posture went rigid.
My father’s voice bellowed from behind the slab, alarming me as well. “I wish to speak to my daughter.”
Polly allowed him entrance and he stepped inside, dressed in a formal frock coat, pressed shirt and tie.
“Yes, sir?” I went to greet him. My heart was pounding from fear that he was here to snatch me and give me to the Queen’s guards.
He towered over me, same black hair I had, same curled lock on his forehead. Except he was twice as heavy, and a hundred times more powerful in the royal household.
This was the man who would see me dead.
My throat constricted. I didn’t dare look at Polly for fear of giving away my anguish.
My father and I used to get on so well. There was a time when I could tell him anything and he would understand. But something had happened when he thought I had reached marriageable age. He wished to train me to become a wife to someone suitable, and there was something else inexplicable, perhaps to do with my becoming a woman and his fear for my future.
I still loved him, but he might never know how much. He’d taught me how to swim and hold my breath under water. How to tell the difference between a turtle dove and a pigeon. He’d taught me how to sword fight before others made him stop. He’d taught me to value myself and my own beliefs. But the one thing he didn’t teach me, would never teach me, was how to do what he did.
Others might call me the Robin Hood Surgeon, but he’d given me his own nickname: the Queen’s Thief. Sadly, if they ever caught me, he would surely walk the gallows beside me to the hangman’s noose. Everyone in Her Majesty’s court would hold my father accountable for my treason to the Queen.
Some would say that I had two identities. It was something I grappled with. Who was I and who did I wish to be?
“Pack your things, Charlotte,” he rumbled. “We’re returning to London.”
Oh. How unexpected.
A ripple of relief met my lips.
I would see Peter. I would be with all of my friends. I looked discreetly at Polly. She was frowning. I knew what she was thinking, but I could not agree.
Stop this beastly mess.