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Chapter 10 - A Stoop to a Rake by A.J. Hall

As she led the Creature up the steep street below Castle Cavron, Charis realised she had no idea what she was going to do next.

During the three blurred days and two nights which had passed since her leaving Lestrade’s castle, Cavron had been the only place she could think to head for. Now she was here, practical difficulties overwhelmed her.

The sun was westering low behind the mountains; the evening guard would be in place by now. She could not pass the gate without revealing her real identity. Then, first the castle garrison, then the village, then the whole of the three kingdoms would know her disgrace. And suppose the Castellan, alarmed by her absence, had sent word to the King? Suppose Mycroft were, even now, sitting behind those forbidding stone walls, ready to pass judgement on a forsworn Royal wife?

The familiar frontage of The Mariner’s Rest loomed up ahead. It gave her dulled wits something to cling onto. She slid to the ground and led the Creature round to the stable-yard. Then she knocked on the back door, trying to dredge up from some corner of her brain the pattern of knocks Phyllis had used on the day of the race.

Whether she’d succeeded or by sheer coincidence, Horatio himself opened the door.

He took in her travel-stained appearance in one glance. “So, mon brave, you have returned to us. You are very welcome.”

He whistled for a boy to take her horse. The Creature must have been as overwhelmed as his rider. He suffered himself to be taken to a strange stable without even a token nip or hiss.

Horatio half-led, half-carried her indoors. He had done so after the horse-race, she thought, with a kind of dim misery. How much she had thrown away, all unwitting of her good fortune, since that glorious afternoon.

He sat her in his own parlour and wiped the white dust of summer off face, hands and feet. He brought her pale, greenish wine, which fell on her dust-dessicated throat cool and reviving as spring water. He soothed her myriad scratches and insect bites with a salve compounded of mountain honey and astringent herbs. And, last and best of all, by some means unseen and uncomprehended, he brought her Annie.

“Ma’am, I’m right glad to see you. But you look worn out. Just let me get you up to the castle and I’ll see you have a hot bath and get straight to bed.”

Her own voice sounded very dull, very faint and very far away. “But what will we say to the Castellan?”

She had been missing for ten days. Search parties would surely have been sent out. Lady Backwater, for one, would have shared her suspicions of Charis’s whereabouts with anyone who would listen. Someone might even have seen them at the village church or — heaven forbid! — on the chapel garth.

“No need to worry, ma’am.” Annie nodded, as if to underline the reassurance in her voice. “The Castellan’s been away since before we found your bed empty. Your husband’s colonel got word of a big cattle-raid that was planned, out on the western edge of the march. Three or four riding families from the North, all in alliance. Colonel Wardlaw thought it might be a cover for something bigger, a raid by Gondal, maybe, ma’am, but the Castellan said it just needed to be stopped on general principles, ‘specially right after the truce, otherwise it made us look silly.”

Fury swept through Charis with the reviving warmth of the Border spirit.

“But neither Colonel Wardlaw nor the Castellan saw fit to tell me? Such rumours could be a feint, to draw Cavron’s defences away from the Pass!”

I would never have left the castle, had I known such a raid on foot. Not that such thoughts could change the past. Still —

“Hell’s teeth — has no officer in this unhallowed shit-hole ever been taught that incomplete intelligence kills more men than ordnance?”

An answering spark lit in Annie’s expression.

“Ma’am. I think you should say that to the Castellan, when he gets back. You’re in charge here, no-one else. It’s past time everyone knew it.”

“And never was a truer word spoken.” Horatio’s braids bounced as he nodded. “Besides, taking the fight to the enemy is a sound stratagem, mon brave.”

Like the Border spirit, her rage evaporated abruptly. Its passing left her dry-mouthed, heart thudding, overwhelmed by weariness. Take the fight to the enemy? She had no fight left in her.

“Come, ma’am. Time we were going.” Annie slid an arm around her shoulders easing her to her feet. She allowed herself to be led out of the back door, wrapped once more in a rust-black, all-concealing shawl. Leaning on Annie’s arm, she made a slow, weaving process up the main street, through the warm, murmuring dusk, thick with bat-wings and the pungent scent of drying horse dung.

It was only when they were at the castle postern, and Annie was reaching into the folds of her gown for a set of keys she most assuredly should not have had, that she managed to summon up enough energy to utter the question she had been forming ever since they left the Mariner’s Rest.

“Annie, why? Why stick your neck out for me? You need to be careful. It’s not as if it’s just the Castellan. It might even get you in trouble with the King.”

“Why, ma’am, didn’t you know? You took the ride for us. You’re one of us now. And you’re nothing if you don’t stand by your own. ‘Specially on the Borders. Steady, ma’am. Not much further, now. Just a few steps up here, and we can get you into that bath.”