Table of Contents

Chapter 2 - A Stoop to a Rake by A.J. Hall

At the well, the chapel garth had been transformed. Crisp white cloths were spread on the smooth turf, garlanded with fresh flowers, set with silver-gilt plates and goblets. The heady scent of spiced meat arose from braziers. As she approached, a lutenist concealed amid the trees struck up a fantasia upon Gondalian folksongs.

Lord Lestrade rose to his feet and swept her the lowest possible bow. As he raised his head and took in her appearance the corners of his mouth tightened. His brows drew down.

“My darling girl, what a terrible journey you must have had!”

Charis crimsoned. She alone, her hair blown into elf-locks by her wild gallop, clad in an ill-fitting pair of breeches and coarse wool jacket, reeking of her own sweat and that of the horse, struck a discordant note in this bower planned for a Queen of Faery.

Lord Lestrade smiled. “Never mind, my sweet. There are fresh clothes for you in the chapel vestry. You won’t have to suffer the indignity of that errand-boy guise a moment longer.”

He stretched out his hand to take her bridle. “Allow me.”

The Creature curled back his lips, baring grass-stained teeth. He scratched at the dirt with his off-fore foot, and, after a pause for consideration, stretched back his hind legs and released a gushing waterfall of stale, pungent and steaming. Lord Lestrade jumped back just too late to dodge the splash, and stifled an oath.

“Oh, I’m sorry —”

He pasted a smile on his face. “My dearest! I’m not one of your palace lords of Gaaldine, with no care but to keep my hands white for playing the clavichord and doing work better left to scriveners. Horses will be horses, as King Ambrosine — God rest his soul — used to say.”

The glance he cast at the Creature rather belied his forgiving words. Anyway, Papa’s full phrase (at least, when he supposed his daughter out of earshot) had been, “Horses will be horses, and I’ve no use for men who think themselves too refined to know which end the shit comes out of.”

Charis permitted Lord Lestrade to assist her down from the Creature and hand her into the care of two maids. A layered and elaborate riding habit of huntsman’s green trimmed with silver lace lay ready in the vestry.

The maids ministered to her competently, though something (doubtless the terror of attending on royalty) had rendered them almost dumb. Even when their duties required them to speak, their thick Borders accents made their Gondalian almost incomprehensible. Had less than two years away rendered home so alien?

That sense of disorientation grew once she joined Lord Lestrade on the chapel garth.

Save for her and the maids, the party consisted entirely of men. From a distance they might look like a carefree band of mayers, but the servitors presenting platters of sucking kid marinated in sheep-milk curds or chicken livers stuffed with almonds had hands scarred in the training ring, not the kitchen. The weapons that peeped from beneath their holiday garb were well-used and sharp. Those not serving food scanned the landscape in all directions, most especially in the direction of Cavron, the danger quadrant. Catching a few glances aimed at her, Charis thought they were calculating whether she was a cause worth dying for, and coming up short.

Despite her early start, the long ride behind her and the longer still in prospect, appetite failed. She took a last sip of wine — that, at least, took little effort to swallow — wiped her lips with her napkin and sat up straight.

Lord Lestrade selected a boned quail leg glazed in quince jelly from his own plate, and skewered it on a knife point.

“Let me tempt you, milady.”

She waved it away. “No, thank you; I —”

He popped the morsel between her lips before she could complete the sentence. She spluttered, fighting an unladylike urge to spit. When she could speak again she allowed a note of reproach to enter her voice.

“Lord Lestrade, I had finished eating.”

He smiled; she thought, irrelevantly, that she had not noted before how white his teeth looked. Nor how sharp.

“There’s a hard ride ahead of us. I can’t have your strength failing. Your province, my dearest, is the boudoir and the dancing salon. Now you’re in mine. This is hostile country, and we may have to fight for you before we’re through. Now, make a proper meal, speedily, and we’ll be on our way.”

Their path began to climb as soon as they left St Cecilia’s Well, twisting through the trees until they emerged onto a narrow path which wound its way up the side of the mountain, a sheer drop at their left-hand side. Not a route down which armies might come, this precipitous goat’s track, but a scout’s route, a spy’s trail. Charis mentally reviewed Castle Cavron’s defences, and wished she could send a message to the Castellan. They needed to place an outpost here.

Scrub and gorse gave way to bare rock: tumbled boulders, lying one atop another like the wreckage of some giants’ game. The men-at-arms became tenser, their hands resting on sword hilts, heads snapping round at each small noise. Charis could hardly blame them. Half a hundred men could lie concealed amid these rocks, and one would never know until they arose, bent on battle and red ruin.

Lord Lestrade lifted the Creature’s reins over its head so he could lead horse and rider behind him, since the path did not permit two to ride abreast. Charis suffered the indignity in silence, though part of her reflected acidly it would have been a great deal safer — for all of them — if she’d retained her breeches and the man’s saddle they made possible until they were across the mountains.

All that was forgotten when they reached the summit of the pass. The sun was sinking, gilding the slopes behind them with its slanted beams. The dales ahead, from which it had already passed, were pools of violet shadow. Above them a lanner — her own falcon, her heraldic badge — soared on the still air, uttering a high-pitched “kri, kri” as she hunted.

They reined in their horses.

“My dearest love.” Lord Lestrade turned to her, his melting brown eyes shining with emotion. “Permit me to welcome you home, to your own land.”

His horse sidled close to hers, so that his thigh pressed against her legs. Their lips found each other in a lingering kiss.

It was full dark by the time they reached the overnight stop, a fortified farmhouse, an outlier of the Lestrade estates, the tenants cleared away for the event, his troop of soldiers taking the place of herdsmen and dairy-maids. Another intimate little supper was laid ready in the best parlour, on wood scrubbed and polished to within an inch of its life.

Half-way through the meal appetite deserted her again. She fiddled a little with a bread roll to disguise her inactivity with platter and knife, looked up and caught Lord Lestrade’s eye. For a second she expected him to force food between her lips, as he had at the well. Instead, he pushed his chair a foot or so back from the table and subjected her to a slow, leisurely scrutiny. Hot blood rose to her cheeks.

The lines around his mouth relaxed into a half-smile, conveying not so much humour as satisfaction. He resembled nothing so much as a physician, noting the patient’s crisis had occurred precisely when and how the texts predicted. She shivered.

Without a word he crooked his smallest finger. The maids must have been standing ready. In an instant they were at her side.

“Her grace is wearied and wishes to retire,” Lord Lestrade announced.

She was at the door when his pointed cough caused her to turn. He lifted his fingers to his lips and blew a kiss in her direction.

“Later, my love,” he mouthed. She cast a horrified glance at the maids, who maintained a blank silence. Too bemused to do anything else, too conscious of the weapons bulging beneath the jackets of the servitors, she suffered herself to be led upstairs.

She thought, furiously, every step of the way.