The King’s Inquisitor, Excerpt by Tonya Ulynn Brown

The queen of Scotland is dead. Her almoner’s son, William Broune, has fulfilled his father’s wish that he should serve the king, James VI, at court. William finds himself caught between loyalty to the king or loyalty to his conscience. As William is forced to serve as the king’s inquisitor in the North Berwick witch trials, he must make a decision. Will he do what the king asks, and earn the wife, title, and prestige he has always desired, or will he let a bold Scottish lass influence him to follow his heart and do the right thing?

If William doesn’t make the right choice, he may be among the accused.


I browsed the shelves of books, resisting the urge to run my hand over every copy presented to me. A sea of deep burgundies, russet browns and rich blacks sang out to me as their supple leather coverings beckoned me to touch them, stroke their coverings, smell their pages and drink in their alluring words. It was a feast for my senses, yet one that I partook in painfully. For along with the enticing sights and smells came the overwhelming tinge of memory. Memories of Father bringing me along as he sought out a book he needed for study. The recollection of times spent together browsing the shelves and soaking in the captivating draw of a good story.

I picked up a copy of a new book called Astrophel and Stella. It looked to be a collection of love sonnets. I read several lines and thought it would make for great entertainment on the coming long winter nights when Mother and I would retire to our spots by the fire for quiet reflection. No matter that Mother’s idea of quiet reflection was the reading of her book of hours. Perhaps I could convince her to listen to a few sonnets, for they did sound lovely when I glanced through them. I carried the book for a while until I spied a copy of Tamburlaine the Great. My heart began to pound as excitement rushed through my veins. My brother, Nick, had mentioned seeing Christopher Marlowe’s play of the same name in London two years before. His letter made it sound so exciting, and I bemoaned the fact that I would never get to see such entertainment the likes of what Nick got to experience in London.

I grabbed the book and quickly put Astrophel and Stella back on the shelf. As much as I thought I would enjoy the sonnets, I couldn’t resist a good tragedy. And Nick’s description made me to know that I would thoroughly enjoy this book. 

I took my selection to the counter and placed it on the smooth, worn surface in front of Master Gordon. He took one look at the book, eyeing the title over the rim of his spectacles.

“Are ye sure, Ailsa? The players in London have put out some questionable material over the past decade. I’m not sure this title here is fit for female consumption.”

“Nick said it was a wonderful play, and he highly recommended it.”

Just then the little bell above the door rang. Gordon’s face lit up as he moved to the new customer. “Jean, can ye assist Ailsa with selecting a book, please?” he called over his shoulder.

Selecting a book?  I already selected a book. I didn’t need Mistress Gordon’s assistance in selecting a book. I crossed my arms in agitation. Out of respect for Master Gordon I would wait for his customer to leave before confronting him about his opinions on my book choices.

A stout woman came through the doorway and greeted me with her usual cheerful self. “Ailsa, dear! How are ye? How is your mother?”

But her greeting went unanswered when the voice of the new customer spoke up from the other end of the counter. I would recognize that voice anywhere. 

“Master Gordon, good day to you. I had a few minutes and thought I would stop in to see if those books were in that you ordered for me.”     

My fingers instinctively went to the feather, tucked safely within the folds of my skirt. Now I could speak to William when he had finished his business with Master Gordon. But as I rehearsed what I would say to him in my mind, Mistress Gordon noticed my distraction and leaned in closer so she could whisper to me. “He is a fine specimen, is he not?”

I felt heat flush my face as I tried to nonchalantly ask, “Who?”     

A grin spread across her face, and her eyes brightened. “The king’s man, at the end of the counter. I know ye noticed him. How could ye not?”

I picked up my book and flipped through the pages in a fluster. “I hadn’t noticed,” I lied. “Can I pay for my purchase, please? Then I’ll be out of your way.”

Mistress Gordon reached for the book, and then said, “He always looks so impeccable. And that dark hair. If I were thirty years younger—”

“Jean,” Master Gordon interrupted. “Excuse me for a moment, sir.” He nodded at William then approached Mistress Gordon and me, a look of consternation on his face. “I do not think this is the wisest choice for Mistress Blackburn. Can ye help her pick out something else?”

The heat that burned on my face moments before was now a flaming fire. I could feel William’s eyes on me as he listened to the exchange between Gordon and his wife. I silently wished for the floor to open up and swallow me. I needed to speak to William, but I did not wish for this kind of attention. And I certainly didn’t want Gordon’s interference with my book selections.

William drew closer to us until he stood hovering over me. My skin turned to gooseflesh at his nearness, and I struggled to keep my breathing even. I did not need his opinion either. He would surely side with Gordon, and that would be the end of it.

“What seems to be the problem?” William asked, leaning over my shoulder to peer at the book that lay before me.

“I-I don’t think this is a suitable choice for a young woman, Master Broune. I have known Ailsa and her father for years, and I’m sure her father would agree.” 

“With all due respect, Master Gordon, I know my father better than ye do. He would not object. And my brother gives his blessing.” I spoke with feigned calmness, trying desperately to maintain my composure in the face of this unwelcome opposition.

Gordon looked desperately to William. “What think ye, Master Broune?”

I shut my eyes to his interference. The anger bubbling within me was now palpable, and I feared that if I lost my temper, I could do irreparable damage to my relationship with the bookseller. I did not care about any damage between William and me.

“You can read, lass?” His question was a legitimate one, yet it irritated me like a pinprick to my eye. I took a deep breath through my nostrils and tried to calm myself before answering.

“Master Broune, I know ye find it very difficult to believe that a woman could be useful for anything more than adorning your arm at court and perhaps providing ye an heir when the time is right. But some of us do actually have competent minds, capable of reading and writing, and even holding intelligent conversations now and then.” I looked at him finally, fluttering my eyelashes in mock adoration.      

He took a step back, a patch of color staining his cheeks. “I meant no offense, Ailsa. I am well aware that women are capable of reading and writing. I am always delighted to meet a woman with whom I can hold an intelligent conversation.” 

“Because intelligent women are so few and far between, ye mean?” I stared him down, watching the injury blaze in his eyes.

“You insist on twisting my words, Mistress Blackburn. I find that very off-putting, as this is not the first time that you are guilty of it.”      

My stomach tightened as I watched the irritating grin fade from his face. I almost felt sorry for the loss of his pleasure and feared that I may have overstepped my bounds. Now I felt awkward and stupid. Master and Mistress Gordon stood with mouths agape as they watched our conversation. I suddenly felt the air tighten between us, and I couldn’t breathe.

“Ye know what, I think I’ll hold off on my purchase for now, Master Gordon.” I pushed the book toward him and his wife, as I reached for my purse, making sure it was still attached at my hip. Pushing past William, I pulled my cloak tighter about me as I braced for the cold January air. “Good day to ye all,” I said as I stormed out of the bookshop.

That insufferable man. He had turned a beautiful, almost spiritual experience of a trip to the bookseller into an embarrassing catastrophe. Or perhaps it had been Master Gordon that had done that, but William certainly had helped. I set off down the street, pushing the fact that I had wanted to see him, to speak to him about the danger the king was in, to the back of my mind. I needed to calm down before sharing any insight with him. The information I had was important, but it would just have to wait.  

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Meet Tonya Ulynn Brown

Tonya Ulynn Brown is an elementary school teacher. She holds a Master’s degree in Teaching and uses her love of history and reading to encourage the same love in her students. Tonya finds inspiration in the historical figures she has studied and in the places she has traveled. Her interest in medieval and early modern British history influences her writing. She resides in rural southeastern Ohio, USA with her husband, Stephen, two boys, Garren and Gabriel, and a very naughty Springer Spaniel. 

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