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Chapter 4 - Queen’s Gambit by A.J. Hall

The sounds of fighting were getting fainter; the defenders mostly dead or fled for the woods. A ragged chorus of singing arose from the rear of the great house – the men must have found the kitchens and, with them, the cellars.

Douglas damned Johnson’s eyes for not keeping them in hand before recalling his first mate was dead; killed in the frantic melee before the gatehouse.

No matter. They would sober up on the long march back to the ships. No-one would trouble them; the villages and hamlets along the lower dale had been systematically burned and despoiled, their inhabitants massacred. Once he had secured his prize they would be off before anyone knew they had been here; certainly before any resistance could be mustered.

Douglas put his foot incautiously on a patch of drying blood at the stair head, almost fell, and cursed. Blood. Here. Someone had been up here ahead of him. Someone – despite his express order – had made a break for the upper regions, tried to get to the Queen first, tried to get her away, aiming to take Douglas’ prize, rob him of his promised reward –

Not that he should have been put in this position in the first place; he, a Douglas, being forced to bargain for permission to return to Court, haggle like any market tradesman for what should have been his by right. Lesser men – that arrogant, lily-skinned pretty-boy Rupert, black-browed Sebastian, all the veterans of the Heir’s very private entertainments at the Castle – had been back carousing in the capital before King Ambrosine’s funeral choir had finishing singing the Dies Irae.

All this unnecessary humiliation – as if the fact that he, unlike those others, had been formally exiled should have been allowed to matter at all, when King James could have reversed his predecessor’s decision with a couple of scrapes on ink on a piece of paper, less trouble than selecting the royal breakfast or ordering a groom flogged.

It wasn’t even as if such an act was anything other than a plain righting of one of the last reign’s numerous wrongs. Everyone who mattered knew him the victim of a miscarriage of justice. Nobody should have subjected him to the humiliation of a public enquiry, nobody should have interfered with the harsh, necessary discipline of a naval dockyard, started to ask for log records and muster rolls, expressed hypocritical, manufactured outrage at the fates of a few matelots, wharf-rats, the sweepings of the waterfronts, destroyed his life over those nonentities, those irrelevancies.

Nobody except a little surgeon-general, not even a career soldier, promoted above the heads of better men for boudoir swordsmanship, deputising in bed for an impotent King.

When he carried the Queen-consort of Gaaldine back to the Court of Gondal as a hostage, perhaps Douglas could persuade King James to insist that John Watson led the negotiation team to get her back. He’d know, of course, that he would be a dead man the instant he crossed the border, one way or the other, but that wouldn’t stop Watson, not with his numb-brained notions of honour, if his presence might add a feather-weight on the side of the mad Queen’s safety.

Yes. That would be the best revenge. And the key to all of it was just feet away.

“Stop right there.” The growl from the dark of the passage had a tell-tale break in it. Someone badly wounded and at the end of his endurance.

“I’ve come for the Queen,” Douglas said, conversationally. “Want to make it easy or hard, soldier?”

“I –”

Whatever words the unseen defender had been about to choke out were lost; the door to the Queen’s apartments was flung wide. The blaze of light from the room inside almost dazzled him for a moment.

“You will be the commander of the opposing force,” a low, musical voice said. “The Queen’s grace is ready to receive you.”

Douglas blinked several times until his vision cleared. The girl who stood in the archway wore a white silk gown in the archaic Court style, its deep scooped neckline skimming so low that Douglas could glimpse the top of the dark aureoles of her nipples. A sharp, hot spike of lust hit him. The Queen was to be rendered untouched to Gondal, not that that would be a problem; their spies had reported she looked decades older than her forty years, crazed and skinny with unkempt hair and bare feet, moving through the house like a revenant in a clouder of cats.

This girl, though was a prize of war, his own private prize. No reason to tell her so now. She would discover it soon enough. He bowed, feeling old Court habits sliding back around him like a familiar, well-worn cloak.

“Tell her grace I am honoured by the privilege of an audience with her.”

The girl drew back, motioning him across the threshold. The door whispered shut behind him. He looked around with interest.

Beeswax candles in silver sconces blazed on every flat surface. The room was sparsely but handsomely furnished with heavy carved furniture in dark, foreign woods. A richly embroidered tapestry, depicting the chase and capture of a unicorn, curtained a niche to the left of the door, closing it off entirely from the main room. Some personal shrine, presumably. In the corner of the room a lit brazier breathed out the heady, aromatic fumes of some exotic gum or resin.

“It is the Queen’s pleasure that you take wine with her,” the girl said, plucking at his sleeve and leading him towards one of the two throne-like chairs positioned on either side of the cold hearth. She gestured towards a crystal decanter three-quarters full and to the glasses beside it.

Douglas smiled. A transparent device, of course, but one had to admire the girl’s spirit for trying it. He settled himself in the nearer chair, crossing his booted ankles.

“The Queen’s hospitality overwhelms me, but I regret it is quite out of my power to accept. We have a long journey ahead of us tonight, and I shall need to keep a clear head. Now, where is the Queen?”

“That would be me.”

The unicorn tapestry twitched aside, and a slender figure stepped out into the room, her hair unbound, a rippling dark curtain round her shoulders and down her back. Her dress was of the same style as the girl’s, but far more elaborate; covered in delicate, dancing patterns worked in seed-pearls and crystals. It would not have been out of place on a royal bride going to the altar.

The girl filled a wine-glass, and brought it to her, dipping her knee as she proffered it.

“Thank you, Lisbet. Now, open the blinds. I would see the stars.”

Douglas tensed, then relaxed. A madwoman’s chambers. Bars across the window. No escape there.

She turned to face him. “You have entered Alwentdale under arms, killed my liege-people, destroyed their homes. It ends here. Look to the unicorn.”

“What the –”

The tapestry bellied out from the niche and his world came down in ruin about his ears.

“Dear God!”

The blast hit them like a wall of solid air; followed a second of so later by a thunder roll which reverberated off the cliff faces as though it would tear the mountain apart. They turned and looked down the valley towards the Residence. A great bloom of flame was rising into the night sky. By its glow they could see tiny figures running like ants.

“Stage one of a two –” Another bloom of flame, followed a split second later by another thunder-roll. The Crown Prince caught Ripley’s arm. “Look to the gate-house. Start counting. One coronet, two coronet, three coronet…”

He had reached thirteen when, with a force which seemed double that of the previous explosion, the gate-house went up in blue and orange flames.

“Hah! A three stage explosion.”

“But how did she contrive it, with so little gunpowder?”

The Crown Prince stood for a moment, looking down at the blazing wreckage of the Residence. “Before she was the mad Queen of Gaaldine, she was my mad cousin Genia. She always liked explosions. She taught me to make gunpowder when I was nine years old. And there was oil, brandy and flour in the Residence as well as powder. For her, it would have sufficed. Come. She’s bought us time to raise Ulvastdale and trap the remnants of the sea-wolves between our forces and the wreckage of their burning boats. Let’s not waste it.”