Chapter 1 - The Abbess of Norburyness by A.J. Hall
David’s earliest memory was of being shown the walnut tree which marked the far boundary of the estate and being told he must not venture beyond it. The prohibition assumed the dread inevitability of Divine Law. Were he to break it the skies would open and tempests of fire rain down from the heights.
A host of lesser rules gave his life shape, texture and meaning. That, his nurse told him, was part of the natural order of things. Little boys of good family must learn to obey so they would be fit to command, once they were grown to man’s estate.
“Good.” A term so unspecific as to be functionally useless.
To his nurse, “good” meant being different from the barefoot village boys whom David sometimes glimpsed from the topmost attic windows, egging one another on to throw down fruit from the orchards or filch carp from the stew-ponds. To the cook, it meant not getting underfoot on a baking day or stealing cake mixture from her bowl. To the groom, it meant sitting with back straight and heels down and not sawing away at the poor beast’s mouth like a whoreson gipsy fiddler, sir!
As for Dr Ferdinand, his tutor, David soon learned that an artfully placed question about what goodness meant would send his tutor off on incomprehensible mutterings about Plato. These would always end – if they did not begin – with Dr Ferdinand wandering off to the library, and not emerging for hours.
But, since David had never met anyone who claimed him as kin and no-one answered his questions about his origins, what it meant to be “a boy of good family” remained a mystery as unfathomable as anything that lay on the far side of the walnut tree.
The year the old pony died, everything changed. First came the night of the bells. A mounted messenger arrived at the house as dusk was falling and a freshly bathed David was being prepared for bed. The bells of the village church, oddly muffled, rang on and on throughout the night. Later that morning the priest came and they knelt in the chapel for hours, praying for the steadfastness, good counsel and judgement of those placed in positions of authority over the realm.
Somehow – David never remembered whether anyone officially told him – he gathered King Rollo was now in Heaven. Where, presumably, he was making the acquaintance of the old pony. David found the thought curiously comforting as he lay in bed at night, having said his dutiful prayers.
“So we’ve got a King Mycroft again,” he overheard his nurse saying, some days later, to the cook. “Perhaps it’s a sign, eh? Now the boy might get his rights.”
“Nurse!” Dr Ferdinand’s voice ripped through the house. David cowered; he had never known the gentle tutor sound so angered. “Nurse! Come in here at once!”
David never saw his nurse again.
Perhaps the same summer, perhaps next, a carriage came to the house in the cool of the early morning. David had been roused before dawn, scrubbed and dressed in tight, formal clothes. He climbed inside with his tutor. The blinds were pulled down and the carriage rolled off into the unknown.
The novelty soon wore off. The unfamiliar clothing scratched and pinched. The squeak of the harness, rattle of the wheels and Dr Ferdinand’s snoring meant he could hardly hear himself think. The reek of sweat, horse-dung and stale, mixed with a peculiar, pungent odour from the carriage hangings, insinuated themselves into his nostrils and caught in his throat.
He fought for as long as he could the slow roiling of his belly, the rise of saliva into his mouth, the teeth-rattling jolting of the carriage, the buzzing like angry insects in his head. Eventually he could take no more.
“Sir, I –” He caught desperately at Dr Ferdinand’s leg.
“Eh? What?” Dr Ferdinand woke as David’s overtried stomach gave up the unequal struggle and he vomited over his tutor’s shoes.
The rest of the journey was a blurred, interminable misery. When they finally emerged from the carriage into blessedly fresh air the sun was westering behind a range of hills which assumed the majesty of mountains to David’s eyes. Before them were the lime-washed walls and innumerable turrets of a massive building. He pressed close against his tutor and caught his hand.
“The Abbey of Norburyness,” Dr Ferdinand said, striding forward and pulling fearlessly on a triple linked chain. A bell started to peal. It struck David’s shaken nerves with a profound horror, as though it were summoning his soul from out of his body.
A little postern opened in the great oak door of the Abbey, framing a blinking servant.
“Pray take us to Sister Maria Elizabetha. She is expecting us,” Dr Ferdinand said.
They followed the servant through endless corridors, which thrummed with silence. David felt the weight of centuries of devotions concentrated to their very essence.
They paused before a polished olive-wood door on an upper floor. The servant tapped on it and a clear, low, woman’s voice bade them enter. Dr Ferdinand gave David a gentle push between the shoulder-blades as the door opened, so that he crossed the threshold first.
A nun sat on a stool in the corner of the sparsely furnished room. David had never seen a real nun before, only those in the great oil-painting of the Last Judgement in the library at home; grotesque figures locked in lascivious congress with priests, their skirts half over their heads, or writhing with torment on the end of demons’ pitchforks.
This nun was beautiful but cold, like a lily or a marble statue; pale, unlined skin, sculpted bones and penetrating grey eyes. She regarded him for a second, then crossed herself.
“So like. So very like.” She looked above his head, at Dr Ferdinand. “Does he do well in his studies? “
Her tone of command struck David with peculiar awe.
Dr Ferdinand coughed. “I invite you to examine him yourself, ma’am. We have recently been studying Caesar. De Belli Gallico.”
“Ah. Yes. Of course. The obvious choice, all things considered.” Beautifully moulded lips curved in an enchanting smile. “Tell me, David. Have you noticed that Caesar alwaysthrows his cavalry across the river? And that it is always the correct thing to do? Have you ever considered matters from the point of view of the Gauls, David? The third, fourth or fifth time, were you a Gaulish commander, what would you have done then? Assuming you had observed Caesar, your enemy?”
He sent a terrified, pleading glance sideways at his tutor. Dr Ferdinand shrugged, as if to say, “It’s up to you.” David swung to face the formidable, gentle figure in the grey habit. His voice almost failed him; he willed himself to speak. It came out as a strangled gasp.
“Trenches?” Eyebrows arched towards the starched white line of her wimple.
“I would – I would dig trenches. And set in them sharpened stakes. On my side of the river. So that the horses –” Over-bold, his words, like Caesar’s imagined equitates. He stumbled over himself and came to a stop.
“So that the horses would suffer the tearing open of their bellies and, even in their forward flight, be thus impeded?” She leaned forward towards him, her eyes brilliant. He nodded, transfixed.
“Have you heard enough, ma’am?” Dr Ferdinand sounded a trifle less assured than was his wont.
“For the moment. He seems – ” She paused, considering. “I have duties on the morrow. You will rest overnight in the Abbey guesthouse. You will not see me before you leave. But you may bring him again. Sooner, this time. Before the autumn.”
The servant was ushering them out, he could hardly bear it. He turned, and cried out, “Is it you? Are you my family?”
She paused, brought her hand to her brow and brushed it down, as in a salute. “David. We are all of us brothers and sisters in the Lord. Let that be enough.”
The door fell shut between them.
He could remember in exquisite detail the day his half-formed suspicions about his origins crystallised into a sodden, shameful conviction; the day he looked in the glass which hung in the study and mouthed the words I am a bastard.
It began with Hatteras, the deputy groundskeeper.
A few weeks after David’s visit to the Abbey, an elongated, wasted figure in shabby clothes, caked with the dust of the road, limped up to the house. Notwithstanding his ragged appearance, the man insisted on telling his business to none but Dr Ferdinand. On being shown into the schoolroom (through whose window David had been covertly watching his approach for some minutes) the scarecrow proffered a letter with all the reverence due a holy relic. Dr Ferdinand glanced at it, nodded, and despatched the man to the kitchen before, with unaccustomed sharpness, bidding David to attend to his studies.
Once dinner was over and Dr Ferdinand snoozing in the library in accordance with custom, David extracted the letter from his tutor’s papers with little difficulty.
I send you Jerome Hatteras. This man has sacrificed much in the service of this realm. Give him succour and shelter, afford him due employment and you will not find your generosity misplaced. He has worked well in our gardens in the months he has been with us. Ensure he has the comfort of trees.
Sister Maria Elizabetha’s cool, authoritative tones came off the page as clearly as if she had been present.
Within a few weeks Hatteras became part of the estate, fixed and unobtrusive as the stones of the house or the walnut tree itself. He had his oddities – even the distant sound of fireworks, for example, would turn him into a stone-faced mute and David once stumbled across him buried in the hay at the far end of the loft, white and shaking, during a particularly bad thunderstorm. However, for the most part he displayed a wealth of practical humanity which was the antithesis of Dr Ferdinand’s scholarly detachment. In Hatteras, David found someone to whom he might bring troubling questions and who – if he did not always supply an answer – would never make him feel foolish or ashamed for having asked.
When the most important question of David’s life arose, years later, he took it to Hatteras. Not that he recognised it as an important question at the time. Not at all.
There had been a fight in the village the night before. The cook and the scullery-lad were gossiping about it as David entered the kitchen. The cook snatched up bread and a couple of cold chicken legs and thrust them at him.
“There,” she said. “Take those and don’t come back; I’m short-handed enough already this morning with Rosie gone and I don’t want you underfoot when I’m working.”
David took the offering – and, when her back was turned, a handful of dried plums – and went out into the grounds. Hatteras was engaged in training the branches of the peach trees en espalier against the garden wall. He looked up at David’s approach.
“You’ll be wanting to know about the ruckus. Here, hold this.”
David obediently pressed a springy branch flat against the wall while Hatteras, the mermaid tattoo on his forearm writhing sympathetically with each stroke, hammered six nails along its length. Hatteras tied the branch into place with an economical series of knots and stood back to admire it.
“Take a full gale to shift that. Right, I reckon I’ve earned a break.” He led them towards a bench in a sheltered angle of the wall.
“Like one of these?” David shyly proffered a chicken leg.
“Nancy throw you out, did she? Well, I daresay she’s got enough on her plate. Yes, don’t mind if I do. I trapped a couple of coneys in my snares this morning. Plump little beasts – aye, you can tell they’ve had their share of my vegetables. You can take them in to Nancy when we’ve finished. I daresay she’ll find a use for them.”
“The fight,” David said.
Hatteras leant comfortably back against the wall. “There’ll be a few sore heads in the village this morning, and not just from the ale, though that didn’t help.”
“What was it about?” David bit into the chicken leg. There was a dark pink line of congealed blood along the bone, proof of the cook’s inattention to its proper roasting.
“Ah. Well. Perhaps you’ll have marked that kitchen lass –” One gnarled forefinger, deeply embedded with soil, described an uncertain diagram in mid-air.
“Rosie?” David flushed, wondering whether he had betrayed too much understanding of a topic of which he was not, officially, cognisant. Still, he’d noticed Rosie’s pale face, abstracted air and – recently – thickening waist and drawn his private conclusions. Such things had happened before.
“Aye, that’s the one. Well, Nancy thought, with one thing and another, it was high time she had a word with the girl’s father.”
David nodded. That, too, had happened before. On the two previous occasions there had been a great deal of shouting and a black eye or so but it had all ended in church bells pealing out for a wedding and a weaving, torchlit procession along the lane he could see from the high window.
Hatteras finished his own chicken leg and flicked the bone over the wall. “Only it didn’t go so well, did it?” The question was purely rhetorical. David leant in to catch the rest. “Her father went round to speak to the lad –”
“Frank?” The gangly under-groom was another of David’s favourites. He’d seen Frank reduced to tongue-tied, fiery-cheeked confusion by Rosie’s teasing countless times. Doubtless, so had the cook.
“You don’t miss much, do you?” Hatteras gave a half-whistle of admiration. “Could have done with you on lookout. Aye, Frank. Only – the lad says he hasn’t laid a finger on her. What’s more, they get him down to the church and he tells the priest he’ll swear it on anything they ask him to. So the priest says, get the girl and her father down there, see what she says. And she confirms the lad’s story. Only she refuses flat out to give the baby’s father a name, either. Half the village is looking on by now, and all. So her father grabs a drover’s whip from someone and says he’ll have the name out of her if it’s with her last breath. And Frank steps up and says, over his dead body, no matter what she’s done, knocks the whip out of her father’s hand and then punches him half way into next week.”
Hatteras sucked in his cheeks. “Oh, aye. Well, that was where it started. It was all over the village by the time it finished up. If the father is ever going to step forward, there’ll be a few people owing him grudges for not doing it sooner.”
A memory swam up from sluggish depths. Whispered words behind the kitchen door; a departing tradesman, features twisted in gloating ; a pattern of darkening bruises like a bracelet encircling the pale skin of Rosie’s arm, sleeve quickly drawn down to hide it. David heard his own voice as if from a distance.
“Did Dick the Fish join in the fight?”
“Dick the Fish?” Hatteras sat up, all at once, as if someone had pulled his strings. “I’ve not seen him round here for a couple of months – he’s had his boy covering his deliveries over this side of the country recently. Saw something, did you?”
David chewed his lower lip. “I think so.”
Hatteras nodded magisterially. “I wouldn’t put it past him, the dirty beggar. And him Rosie’s uncle-by-marriage on the mother’s side, too.” He got to his feet. “We’d better tell Nancy.”
Despite his twisted leg, he made rapid progress through the grounds, so that David, trotting anxiously behind, trailed by a good few yards by the time Hatteras reached the back door. It opened before he touched the doorknob. The cook’s voice came out loud and shrill, words tumbling on top of each other, like the garden stream in spring, after the snows melted.
“Oh, someone found you, thank the Blessed Virgin. You must go and see the priest. Dr Ferdinand didn’t know Rosie like you and I knew her, and he said, when they came to tell us she’d been found in the mill-pond, such things happen and the priest must do as his conscience dictates but you knew her and if you tell the priest he’ll know she’d have never done anything so wicked – whatever he thinks about that, because that’s weakness, and we all can be weak, but Rosie was never wicked – and if she slipped and fell into the pond, what’s to wonder about there, with all she had on her mind and maybe, after all, it’s for the best, for what kind of life would she have had now, when she’d been disavowed in the front of the whole of the village, in the church and all? Aye, I don’t care what anyone says, it’s a blessing, in its own way, both for her and for her baby, for who’d want to bring a child into the world knowing it’d have to live out its life as a bastard, eh?”
“Nancy.” Hatteras’ voice sounded a warning note even before he moved aside and the cook saw David standing there. Her change of expression – the horrified hand clamped, belatedly, against her lips – had a grotesque clumsiness which might, in other circumstances, almost have been funny.
“Excuse me,” David said, ducking sideways, wriggling eel-like between Hatteras and the cook. He was upstairs, standing before the glass in the study, staring at a face which had become something alien and incomprehensible, before he allowed himself to cry.
He had a fever, later that summer. His world shrank to the four walls of his room, which rarely remained in the same place. Sometimes they spun away, leaving him alone in the middle of a whirling wilderness. Sometimes his environs pressed so hard upon him that he fancied he’d been taken for dead and lay shroudless and unshriven at the junction of four lane ends, earth filling his mouth.
He woke from one of those graveyard dreams to find a man in rust-black robes standing by his bed, a leather case packed with gleaming instruments held high before him. David shrank back in horror. He knew – no matter how – that the man had been sent to cut his throat. His body would be put in a sack, weighed down with rocks and dropped to the bottom of the millpond. A fit way to dispose of a bastard.
“Steady there,” a voice rumbled from behind his left ear. “Don’t startle the lad.”
David’s mouth was dry; it made speaking a torment. “Hat-” he managed.
“Aye, lad.” A firm hand gripped his shoulder. “Do you trust me?”
He managed a tiny nod.
“Then lie back and let the physician bleed you. It’ll sting a bit, but it’s what’s best.”
David allowed himself to sink back among the bedclothes. He inclined his head towards the man in rust-black robes; the tiny movement took all his strength.
“Proceed,” he breathed.
The progress of recovery was slow and deadly dull, especially since Dr Ferdinand had also fallen victim to the same fever. The cook sent up an endless stream of delicacies intended to tempt the fickle appetite of an invalid, but could not assuage David’s ravenous boredom.
When he was able to dress himself and walk up and downstairs without a steadying hand on his arm, a carriage came from the Abbey with messages bidding him finish his recovery there. Dr Ferdinand was still too weak to travel. Hatteras, well-scrubbed and oddly stiff in an old-fashioned suit whose pungent smell of cedar and tansy revealed it had spent several years in one of the attic chests, helped David into the carriage and then climbed in behind him.
For the first time they travelled with the blinds up. They passed through the village, whose life he had seen only from far windows or at second-hand, in the words of the estate servants. They wound through broad-leaved woodland, the sun shining dappled green through the leaf canopy , crossed rushing upland becks by rough stone bridges, moved through rich farmland laden with ripening crops.
Unlike the previous occasions they broke their journey at an inn. They ate in a private room, away from the heaving taproom below, whose pandemonium penetrated even through the thick oak door. After the meal had been cleared and they were sitting by the fire, Hatteras said, seemingly inconsequentially, “All the men in my family go to sea. Far back as anyone knows.”
His words woke a fugitive flicker of interest. David leaned forward, cocking his eyebrow inquisitively.
“My great-grandsire, he went to sea first when he can’t have been much older than you are now. And he hadn’t been at sea more’n half a year when he was in a great battle. Masts thicker than a forest and the sun striking off the gilt on the figureheads so you could hardly see for the dazzle, that’s what he told my dad, when dad was a little ‘un. And when the morning came, all the heralds were trumpeting that we’d swept the Turk off the seas for good.” Hatteras filled his pipe. “Great-grandpa was at sea for another fifty years after that, and he saw some actions – oh yes – but he never saw a commander to equal Don John. He’s a model you could do worse than taking. It’s not how a man gets here that matters. It’s what he finds within himself once he’s here. Bed, now. We’ve an early start on the morn.”
Their arrival at the Abbey was marked with more ceremony than before. Sister Maria Elizabetha had succeeded to the office of Abbess and was now, it seemed, a very great personage indeed. On the day of their arrival David was ushered into her presence – not in the small withdrawing room of earlier visits but in a stately audience chamber, fraught with musicians and the attendant shadow of priests.
On entering her presence, Hatteras thrust him forward with a firm push between his shoulder blades. David almost turned on him. Instead, he swallowed the insult, bowed his head and kissed her extended ring finger, crowned with a great, ugly, silver and amber confection.
“Go and be thou healed,” pronounced the dispassionate voice above his head. Bewildered and, obscurely, ashamed, he pushed his way out of the room. He did not see her again for three days.
Once the Infirmarian had given him a thorough examination and a remarkably unpleasant tonic, the Abbey grounds and library were put at his disposal. With a little effort he satisfied his curiosity about the great battle which had swept the Turks from the sea and about the commander of the Christian forces. The information fretted at the bitter, sore place which had existed deep inside him since the day of the espaliered peach tree.
On the third day, during the evening hour of recreation for the Abbey’s inhabitants, he was walking in the orchard when someone caught at his sleeve. He turned to see one of the novices. He followed her into the chapel, through a chantry close by the altar and, by a small private door, into a spacious apartment in which the Abbess sat. Without a word the novice placed a footstool next to the Abbess’ chair and withdrew, leaving David and the Abbess alone. She patted the stool.
“Come, sit by me,” she said. “Hatteras tells me certain matters have weighed heavy on you over recent months. Tell me of them.”
Words burst out of him in a torrent. “I know why he told me to take Don John as a model, it was because he was a – a bastard, too, like me, but his father was the Emperor, he knew he was, and he acknowledged him and so did the king of Spain, and I don’t know who my father was – or my mother – and no-one tells me anything.”
She clasped her hands in her lap. For a moment he feared he would be rebuked, but then she nodded.
“I foresaw, years ago, that this time would come. I have spent many nights in prayer, seeking guidance as to my true course when it did. I will give you the knowledge you seek. But, David, with knowledge come perils. Follow me.”
She rose, and led the way back into the chantry. With the greatest possible reverence she knelt before a gold and crystal reliquary, unlocked it and withdrew a fragment of dried bone, no bigger than a chicken drumstick.
“A foot bone of St John the Divine. Place your hand upon it. Presently I shall ask you to swear a most solemn oath. Do you know what will happen if you break it?”
Images from the Last Judgement in the library whirled before David’s eyes. He nodded, dry-mouthed.
“The time may come when duty will bid you speak. Only your own conscience will tell you when that time arises. But I will ask you to swear not to reveal what I am about to tell you – by word, hint or careless gesture, by implication or omission – except at the most solemn need and after due thought and prayer and only where you have great trust in the person with whom you share this knowledge. Do you understand?”
He nodded again.
“Good. Place your hand on the relic and repeat the oath after me.”
He stumbled over one or two of the words – they seemed to weigh down his tongue like chains – but he got to the end of the oath without stopping. She smiled.
“Well done. Now. When we first met, you asked whether I was a member of your family.”
“You told me we are all brothers and sisters in the Lord.”
“And that remains true. However –” She paused for a moment. “When I lived in the world, your mother was my younger sister, Catherina. She was very dear to me. At the time of your birth I had entered a sister house to this one as a postulant. A messenger came late one evening, bringing the news that you had been born and that my sister - ” For a moment her voice faltered. “That Catherina was not expected to live. She had asked for me and I was free to go – I had taken no vows at that point – but the Abbess called me and said she feared for me; the night was dark, the journey long and hazardous and I had little expectation of seeing my sister alive at the end of it. She urged me not to risk myself.”
David could see how it had been. His birthday was in November. The weather would have already broken, wild storms and howling winds.
“But you went,” he said, very sure this was not a story that ended with a simple “no”.
“I went,” the Abbess agreed. “The journey was everything I had been told it might be, and worse, but my sister was still alive at the end of it. More than that, still able to know me. To tell me what she must, to ensure your safety.”
She drew a deep breath. David could tell she weighed each word as she said it – had practised them, no doubt, over the years from that wild November night. “She told me that she had married your father seven months earlier. In the chantry to the Abbey chapel at Norburyness. On this very spot where we now stand.”
“But – “
” Let me finish. Your father was on his way to war; the Abbey was on a convenient cross-roads. The marriage was hurried, secret, by night; just the parties and the priest. In the morning your father went on his way. He died on campaign. Your mother, therefore, was unable to proclaim the match.”
“But surely, wouldn’t he have left – a letter, or something? In case?”
“Letters can be mislaid. It may still emerge.” The Abbess looked at him. “Though, I assure you, I have had the Abbey’s own records examined. Most thoroughly.”
“The priest –”
“As I said, I have had the records examined. Your mother did not name the priest. ” The Abbess shrugged, exquisitely. “In any event, my sister had not proclaimed the marriage in the months following your father’s death, and she begged that I should not do so either.”
“David.” The warning note in the Abbess’ voice caused him to fall silent. “In everything she did, your mother thought only of you. Her last words were a plea to keep you safe.”
“And how could I not be safer if she’d proclaimed the marriage? Surely my father’s family –”
“You have not yet asked me who your father was. Let me tell you.” She leaned across and whispered four words in his ear.
His hand convulsed with shock. The relic dropped to the floor of the chantry. He whimpered in sheer panic.
“Pick it up.” The Abbess’ voice betrayed no hint of the magnitude of his transgression.
David scrambled for the relic, kissed it in fervid, flurried apology and handed it back to the Abbess, who locked it back within the reliquary with the air of a woman who takes no further chances.
“You do right to tremble. Your very existence puts you in grave peril; your mother knew it. She implored me to arrange for you to be brought up in seclusion, ignorant of your origins.”
“But if he was my father, I’m the rightful –” An abrupt sense of the enormity of what he had been about to utter swelled his tongue and almost choked him.
“Ssh. Not even here, where we suppose ourselves to be alone. Such words are treason, and neither your youth nor my habit would be sufficient armour against the consequences.”
“It’s not treason if it’s true,” David muttered.
The Abbess smiled, grimly. “And you propose to prove it true how? That family holds what it has.”
“On that, we can agree, Few people who saw you, knowing what to look for, would deny it. You are your father’s image. ” She sighed. “A fact which may bring us to ruin yet. “
Notwithstanding her tone, David hugged the knowledge to himself.
People will look at me and see my father. My father the –
Again, imagination baulked at the enormity of it all.
The Abbess gestured with one beautiful hand. “Speaking purely in the abstract, a son – even the posthumous son of a second marriage – has a stronger legal claim than a daughter’s son. But where the daughter’s son is a ruthless, able man, ensconced in power, do you expect he will simply step aside in favour of a child? Or that his advisors would allow him to do so? Your fever almost proved fatal. I can assure you that the news of your death would have been welcomed in the Palace in a way that news of your existence would not.”
The knowledge hit like a boot in his chest. “The King would order me killed?”
“Catherina feared so. Or, at least, that some courtier, desperate for advancement, would take it upon himself to do the deed. You have heard the story of the English saint, Thomas of Canterbury? No? You should study it. That, more than anything else, should show why the secrecy I command of you is necessary.”
“Hatteras – I think he suspects who my father was. And there may be other servants, at the house -” David thought of his old nurse, and fell silent.
The Abbess pursed her lips. “Hatteras is a special case. He found refuge in the Abbey when all but broken by the perils of the sea, and his loyalty to us is absolute. As for the others, it is plain you are a boy whose family – for whatever reason – does not propose to acknowledge him. It is equally clear the family is a rich and powerful one. Such cases are uncommon, but scarcely unknown. Equally, gossip circulates and the more extravagant the tale, the spicier the gossip. And the less likely to be believed.”
She looked at him, her brow creased in thought. “David, understand this. Catherina never – except to me, at the very last – revealed the marriage. With good reason. Whatever anyone suspects, you are safe provided they do not know that. Catherina was always the wisest of us. For your sake and hers, respect her choice. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” he said, dutifully and untruthfully. He had always been taught that the King represented the apex of an earthly pyramid which symbolised the Divine order: God’s plan for the cosmos made manifest on Earth. Kings might – perhaps – be misled for a time by corrupt advisors. Nevertheless, their authority was absolute.
But if the King were not the King? What then? His whole cosmos had been overset in less than half a turn of the glass. He needed time to deal with that. Time and solitude.
“I understand,” he repeated, and saw the Abbess’ brow smooth.
“Well, then. Away to your meal. We will not speak further of such matters.”
She could command his silence. She could not forbid his thoughts. Those, both for the remainder of his stay at the Abbey and after his return home, took him down byways and into territories which were doubtless very far from those she might have desired.
He was perched in the walnut tree composing poetry the first time he saw her.
Last winter he had stumbled across the wonderful history of Parcifal, by an anonymous Gaaldine poet of the last century “after certain German and French models”. From the first stanzas, dealing with the hero’s upbringing in a forest stronghold by a mother who had determined at all costs to protect her son from the seductive dangers of his knightly destiny, David had been captivated. Over the spring and early summer, in stolen moments and behind his tutor’s back, he’d been composing his own epic in imitation, though he’d only ventured to commit a scattered handful of the less personal fragments to paper. He had the rest safely in his head, though. Odd additions would come bubbling up, while tilting at the mark in the stable-yard or enduring the endless drills required by his fencing coach.
His hero – he had yet to settle on a name, having tried several, none of which quite fitted – had put paid to a gang of brigands and was approaching the lair of the dragon where his true love was bound as a sacrifice – by the time David became aware of the screams. He parted the branches of the tree, still vivid with the spring’s new growth. A couple of hundred yards down the road which snaked along the edge of the estate, a woman was struggling to free herself from the grasp of a hulking figure. Even with the benefit of only a handful of previous glimpses, David recognised Billy Half-Soaked, a mumbling, terrifying apparition, always the first to be suspected on the odd occasions when cats turned up strangled or sheep mutilated.
David cast a glance back towards the house, but it was the siesta hour; the very reason he’d chosen to climb into the walnut tree, knowing he would be undisturbed. By the time he’d run back into the house, roused someone and brought them out again it would all be over – whatever it was. And, given the stories whispered by the maids, that could be bad. Very bad.
There was nothing for it. David took a deep breath, slid down the walnut tree and dropped over the wall into the lane beyond.
The heavens did not fall.
David had closed half the distance between him and the struggling figures before the real problem hit him. Billy Half-Soaked moved with the witless brute strength of a bull; his neck nearly as broad as his head, his shoulders massive.
Parcifal might have tackled giants but David had a more realistic view of his own abilities. He made his approach more stealthy, waited until he was almost upon the struggling pair, then made the imitation whip-cracking sound Hatteras had shown him, followed up with a full-throated shout.
“Men, we have him surrounded! Rush him on my signal!”
Billy Half-Soaked lumbered frantically off through the sparse undergrowth lining the lane, not even casting a look behind him to see if he was indeed being pursued. David leant over the woman, extending a hand to pull her to her feet.
“He’s gone, ma’am. But he’s a known ruffian in the district. It won’t be hard to find him for punishment.”
“Sir, I am most infinitely obliged to you. Would it be possible – would you be so kind as to escort me home, sir?” Her voice had a warm, breathy intonation; her unfamiliar accent hinted at all kinds of exotic possibilities. Not from round here.
David gulped. He had acted in the heat of the moment, but now that had passed the sense of his transgression was beating over him in cold waves. Now she was inviting him to compound his crime. But what alternative was there? If he brought her back to the house and arranged for Hatteras to take her home, not only would he look like the worst kind of milksop but he would still have no hope of pretending to Dr Ferdinand he hadn’t strayed off the estate. The worst of both worlds, then.
“It’s not very far,” she said, hesitantly, as if anticipating a refusal.
Her hair, a soft brown colour which reminded David of his pet dormouse, was tumbling around her face, framing features whose sweetness struck him as the very epitome of female beauty. The cold, formalised descriptions used by the poets took life and meaning for the first time. It felt as though a hand were round his heart, squeezing; his head spun as if from too much cider.
He bowed very low. “I would not dream of abandoning you, ma’am. Where do you live?”
She gestured, feebly, along the lane. David’s interest quickened. The old manor house which was the only property of note in that direction had been an empty, half-ruined wreck for as long as he could remember. At the start of spring, though, it had become a hive of activity, carpenters and builders swarming about it. A tide of gossip concerning its transformation washed in from the village via the maids and, of course, Hatteras.
The house, they learned, was the property of a Gondalian lady of some rank, but had been left empty during the endless border wars of the last decades. Now, with the improved relations between the kingdoms over recent years, it was apparently to be occupied again. The village had been divided over whether the new occupant would prove a cuckoo in the nest – was she not a representative of an ancient enemy? – or herald new prosperity for the district. David, assuming the lady in question to be some ancient dowager, had taken little interest. Now the matter assumed a rather different complexion.
He slid his arm under hers, a little stiffly, unsure of the proper etiquette and acutely conscious that she was a couple of inches taller than him. She leaned gratefully into his support. So close, he could feel her still trembling, hear the thumping of her heart. A wave of protectiveness surged up.
“There will be someone at the house to look after you? You are, perhaps, staying with relatives?”
She shook her head. “It’s mine. My father’s mother was a gentlewoman of Gaaldine; it came as part of her dowry portion. It was a great grief to her that the wars kept her from revisiting it. And a joy in her last months to think I might live there in her stead, at least part of the year. And I – oh, you have no idea how wonderful it sounded, having a house of my very own.” She smiled, half shy, half proud. “The family were horrified. Except Jim, of course.”
A pang went through him. Of course. He should have known.
“Is your husband not here with you, ma’am?”
“My husband?” She looked at him as if he had suddenly grown another head, and then laughed, a shaky laugh with a wild edge to it. “Oh, you thought that Jim – no, Jim’s my brother. Well, half-brother, otherwise of course he’d have inherited, but he couldn’t be kinder if he’d been my full brother. Grandmamma’s papers were in such a mess, it wasn’t even easy to find out where the manor was, let alone establish my title, but Jim had his own man of business see it through and fended off the family and here I am. And we are here.”
They were at an elaborate pair of wrought iron gates. David could just glimpse the house through the old trees on the far side.
“Will you come in, and take a cup of wine?”
“I –” He saw her face begin to alter as she sensed his impending refusal. The loneliness he sensed about her spoke to something deep inside him. Only the truth – humiliating as it was – would suffice. “Nothing would give me greater pleasure, ma’am. But – ah - my guardians are very strict. I am not to leave the estate.”
“But –” Visibly, she choked back whatever it was she’d been intending to say. “So you ran a double risk for my sake?”
That, at least, was an opening David’s reading had primed him to answer. “Ma’am, no risk is too great when it secures your safety and happiness.”
An indescribable expression trembled on her lips; he reminded herself that she was still shaken from her recent ordeal and ladies, the books made clear, were strange, unstable creatures, particularly after a shock. After a moment, she steadied her voice. “I am infinitely obliged. But – no point in running unnecessary risks. If you hurry, you may get back home before your guardians miss you.”
“And you, ma’am?”
“I’ll be fine. Truly.” Her voice, if not wholly convincing, at least sounded as if she intended to be believed. “But you, go. Hurry.”
He had taken a few steps when she called him back. “My apologies. I had not thought to ask my rescuer’s name?”
“David,” he said. She waited; he shook his head. “Just – David.” Hebron, the surname given him for formal purposes, marked him a ward of the Abbey, named from the Bible, like a foundling. He might be oath-sworn not to reveal his true identity, but before his lady he would rather present himself incomplete than under false colours.
She extended her hand. “I’m Molly. Molly Hooper. I trust we will meet again soon, David. And thank you.”
The saints were, apparently, on his side. He made his way home unobserved and was blamelessly occupied by the fountain in the courtyard, honing his poignard, by the time dusty, sweat-stained messengers arrived from the village, crying out that Billy Half-Soaked seemed to be at his old tricks again, and had they men to spare to join the hunt?
About two weeks later the doorbell rang when he was at his studies. Dr Ferdinand, who had clearly been finding the lesson almost as tedious as David had, bustled below as soon as the footman arrived to announce visitors had arrived, with letters of introduction from someone of importance at the University in Glasstown.
Left to his own devices, David took the opportunity to filch a couple of sheets of paper from his tutor’s private store. Since his meeting with Molly he had sought to capture her beauty and sweetness in verse, and for the first time he thought he might have achieved something almost worthy of her. But he had to see the shape of the thing on paper. He was engrossed in it when the door, unexpectedly, opened again.
Caught red-handed, David had no chance to hide his work. Dr Ferdinand crossed the room in two strides, twitched the paper out from under David’s protecting hand and raised it to his face. His lips twitched.
“I was not aware we had the combination of Helen of Troy and Portia Catonis living in the district.”
David flushed scarlet. His tutor dropped the paper down on the desk.
“Come, boy. Make yourself presentable. We have visitors.”
David smoothed down his hair and followed his tutor downstairs to the larger withdrawing room. The footman opened the door and David barely stifled a gasp. Seated on one of spindly gilt chairs, turning to watch as they entered, was Molly Hooper. And behind her, his hand lightly resting on the chair back, was a slightly built, dark haired man whose heavy-lidded eyes shone with mocking amusement.
“Dr Cornelius,” Dr Ferdinand said, “may I present my pupil, David Hebron?”
The man’s mouth widened in a broad smile. “You are most fortunate in your tutor, young man. Dr Ferdinand’s Commentaries on the Georgics of Virgil has earned him a European-wide reputation.”
Improbably, Dr Ferdinand flushed like a girl being teased about new ribbons. “Dr Cornelius, you flatter me.”
“Oh, hardly. But may I introduce your pupil to my sister? Molly Hooper; David Hebron.” His voice had a lilt to it, utterly unlike his sister’s but curiously attractive, nonetheless.
Molly, blessedly, made no indication of their prior acquaintance. She rose and curtseyed, formally. David bowed.
“How lucky for my sister, to have such learned neighbours, in this remote part of the world,” Dr Cornelius said. “Our family worried she might pine and die of ennui for want of polite company. I shall be able to reassure them fully on my return.”
“You are not proposing to make a long stay yourself, sir?” Dr Ferdinand looked faintly disappointed; it struck David that his tutor, too, must have been pining for polite company, however well he concealed it.
“I’m truanting from my duties in the North to be here at all. Business made it imperative, though. My sister was frightened by some local ruffian shortly after her arrival in the district. I came to ensure the man was duly punished.”
“Ah, yes.” Dr Ferdinand nodded. “We heard something of the affair. A known imbecile and trouble-maker – I trust, ma’am, you took no serious harm?”
“None.” Molly’s fingers fretted at the lace of her sleeve, she looked anywhere but at David. “Whatever the man intended, he was driven off by a local boy, before he could complete his designs.”
“My sister, alas, was too overcome by shock to get the young hero’s name or even register enough of a description to allow us to trace him. A pity. We are both deeply in his debt.” Dr Cornelius betrayed no hint of any privileged knowledge, though Molly crimsoned.
“Well, that’s unfortunate. Still, at least the ruffian has been apprehended.”
“Apprehended and is at this very moment on his way to forced labour in the stone quarries.” Dr Cornelius smiled, grimly. “In our grandfathers’ day we might have sold him to the Sultan to row his galleys. Still, hewing marble should cool his ardour. I doubt the district will be troubled by him again.”
That, David felt, was entirely proper. Billy Half-Soaked had dared to raise his hand to Molly and so deserved to be annihilated, utterly. Let him rot in the heat and dust of the quarries! He caught Dr Cornelius looking at him, his expression approving, as if he read his thoughts.
“Might I ask a favour, sir? I would feel happier if my sister had a suitable escort in her walks and rides about the district. Could your pupil be spared to accompany her?”
Time stopped. Blood thundered in David’s ears. He could not bear to look at his tutor’s face. Say yes, say yes, say yes –
“I – ” Dr Ferdinand paused and then, self-evidently, changed what he had been going to say. “I am sure that both of us would be honoured. Yes. Indeed.”
“Thank you.” Dr Cornelius’ smile gave his face an echo of the same winsome charm as his sister. “At the end of the summer I shall be returning to make a longer stay. I look forward very much to making your better acquaintance then, David – Hebron. Something tells me you are a young man full of fascinating possibilities. It will be interesting to see how you develop. But until then, farewell.”
They rose and took their leave.
The great entrance bell of the Abbey pealed, once. The Abbess paled, her composure for once cracking.
“So soon. I had not expected them to arrive for another turn.” She hesitated for a moment, and then opened the door to a tiny, windowless closet, its shelf bearing a book of hours testifying to its use for private meditation. “In here. Stay quiet, whatever transpires. Reveal nothing. Remember that.”
The Abbess had been many things to him over the years. He owed her this. David nodded, and she closed the closet door. A key grated softly in the lock. After an interminable wait , he heard the low hum of voices as the door to the apartment opened.
“My Lord Duke, greeting. And to your - companion.” There was a faint hesitation in her voice, an almost deferential note. He knew her innate sense of self, her sure knowledge that in temporal matters she ranked as high as any aristocrat in the kingdom – higher, indeed, since she acknowledged no liege save God and the Blessed Virgin. Matters must be serious indeed.
“Thank you for receiving us.” The new voice shook him to the bone. Dr Cornelius, here? But Molly had hinted that her brother was a great man in the Northern court, sufficiently great, indeed, to be forced to adopt an alias for his travels in the Southern countries, for safety. What his true name was, David had never learned. Perhaps, now, he would.
“The news I hear is grave,” the Abbess murmured. “Can you confirm it?”
“Alas, what comes to your attention in this secluded place may be but a few whirling snowflakes compared to the blizzard which rages outside the stout walls of your nunnery.” The Duke’s voice was unctuous, self-assured.
The Abbess allowed a touch of asperity to enter her voice. “We live outside the world; we cannot afford to live in ignorance of it. Is it true that the Crown Prince has appointed that infidel woman as his personal physician?”
“And thereby given her almost infinite influence. When a patient is closeted with his physician, who knows what may be said, what promises extorted?” Dr Cornelius sounded weary. “We in the North have learned far too much of what an unscrupulous Court doctor can make of such an opportunity.”
“The Crown Prince’s antics are not of great interest to me,” the Duke said.
“No?” Something feline and dangerous stirred in Dr Cornelius’ tone; David felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck. “You surprise me. Not that I’m presuming, Corbisdale, to school you in the politics of your own land.”
“You’d better not. In any event, my concern is with the wolf, not the fox, however the latter preens and parades himself. The wolf – bothers me.”
“I hear he has not refused a petition to allow a new mosque or synagogue to be built in any of the towns of the land since he ascended the throne. Can this be true?” The Abbess, cold and direct.
“True?” The Duke snorted. “He has stated it would be shame on Christendom were he to show himself less accommodating to the infidel than the Sultan is to Christian folk within his borders. To say nothing of atrocious policy. The very words I heard him use.”
“Holy Mother.” David pictured the Abbess crossing herself. “Where will this end?”
“In blood. Obviously.” Dr Cornelius’ voice had nothing of the playfulness David was used to from long days in the orchard, two summers ago. “That’s what people do. If no-one stops him, you will have the Western wars of religion on the soil of Gaaldine. The future of the Church itself lies in your hands, ma’am.”
Dr Cornelius sounded silky smooth. “When you lived in the world, ma’am, your ties to Mycroft I – the last truly Christian king of Gaaldine – were notoriously close.”
“That woman exists no more. I left her on the far side of these walls when I took my final vows.”
“That woman had a sister. Equally close – if not closer – to the late King. The companion of his last years.”
“You appear remarkably well-informed.”
“Like yourself, ma’am. I cannot afford to be otherwise. Your sister had a child, I understand.”
David’s heart started thudding so hard he was afraid those on the other side of the closet door might hear it and drag him out trembling into the light.
“And if she did?” The Duke sounded bored. “One could fill a creeve-ball team with the late King Mycroft’s bastards. They pose no threat to the wolf, and he knows it.”
“I referred, Corbisdale, to the late King’s last years. Years in which he was a widower – and therefore free to contract a new marriage. Suppose this child were not –”
“Stop!” The Abbess’ voice rang out unexpectedly loud, she must be standing right up against the closet door. Bad move, part of David’s mind chimed in, recalling Dr Cornelius giving advice in the apple orchard. Women move close to that they most cherish. And he knows so much already. Suppose – a mislaid letter has been found?
“I merely draw your attention to a self-evident point. All the King’s other bastards were born before the death of your late lamented Queen Ismenia – honestly, what is this obsession your Royal family has with the more unfortunate women from the Greek classics?”
“They haven’t named one Cassandra yet,” the Abbess said drily. “Though perhaps, in the current circumstances, they should consider it. I concede, certain phrases in your letter to me piqued my interest. Hence this meeting. Now I know what you were implying. Thank you for settling my mind. But for the purposes you have in mind, gentlemen, you are little better served by a child who could have been legitimate but cannot be shown to be so than one who emphatically could not.”
“A fair point. And well made. But – one that begs the question, does it not?”
David almost stopped breathing. The Abbess, too, had an unfamiliar note in her voice as she responded.
“And do you have an answer?”
“Ah. In, I regret to say, a manner of speaking. That is, not in a form that could ever be brought before a court of canon law.”
Very, very carefully David knelt, his ear against the closet door. He would not miss a word of what followed.
“As we are all aware, the official explanation for the death of Mycroft I on campaign was a virulent enteric fever.”
“Poppycock! The King was poisoned by someone in the pay of Gondal, and everyone knows it.”
“For a fact everyone knows, Corbisdale, no-one in Gaaldine has had any success in proving it. I wonder, are we to take that as a tribute to the skill of our agents or to the incompetence of your investigators?”
The choked sound David heard presumably came from the Duke. Dr Cornelius gave a familiar little chuckle.
“In any event, King Ambrosine has always claimed utter ignorance of the matter.”
“What else would one expect?”
“True. Though, for a king, he has always been sadly lacking in the skills of dissimulation…In any event, certain parties in Gondal have always been just as intrigued by King Mycroft’s death as anyone here could be. And so, some years ago, when his former chaplain arrived in Gondal –”
A sharp, indrawn breath. “The Royal chaplain?”
“Former chaplain. It would appear he lost Court favour on the death of his late master. His career after that – was not edifying.”
“I met the man, on a few occasions.” The Abbess sounded like someone who had just swallowed wormwood. “He was like ivy around an oak. I could well imagine that, deprived of Royal support, he might find himself bereft.” She paused. “Tell us more?”
“Oh, it went swiftly downhill. He had – appetites – his reduced status could not support. He fell – oh, so easily – into the trap of depending on others to give him what he needed. In a relatively short number of years he fetched up in Gondal, and there – I’m afraid – he must have fallen into the hands of someone who did not scruple to apply – pressure.”
“What would you? The intended prize must have been knowledge of how King Mycroft died – the chaplain, after all, had been close to him in his last hours. Either Gondal or Gaaldine would pay much for that information. But, nothing. Can you imagine how disgusted the interrogator must have felt? And then, at last, a glimmer. Our man starts babbling about a marriage, in the chapel – no, in the chantry chapel – here, in this very Abbey.”
“Does he claim to have celebrated the marriage in question?” The Abbess’ tone was so detached David might almost have kissed her on the spot.
“No.” For a moment he thought he heard Dr Cornelius falter. “He spoke – pardon me for mentioning the fact – of something he had heard in confession.”
“I told you at the outset, canon law will have nothing to do with what you hear today. By whatever means, the interrogator seems to have broken through the man’s resistance – he was a disgraced priest, but a priest nonetheless, so I cannot imagine what it must have taken. But it would seem in confession His late and ambiguously lamented Majesty of Gaaldine told his chaplain he had gone through a form of marriage with a certain Lady Catherina.”
“Can the cleric be brought to testify?”
“Would any cleric testify to having betrayed the secrets of the confessional? No matter what the pressure?” The question hung between them for a moment. Then Dr Cornelius added, “In this case, anyway, the question is moot. It would seem his interrogator went a little too far and overestimated his subject’s stamina. Either that, or God intervened. He died. And so, by a series of events I’ll not bore you with, the interrogator’s notes ended up with me. To the best of my knowledge, no other living person has seen them. But they are enough. Corbisdale, if you wish to challenge the wolf, I advise you to find the boy.”
“The boy may not wish to be found. The boy may think it advisable that he is not found.” The Abbess was still very close on the other side of the door.
“That is, if true, unfortunate. For Gaaldine above all. Come, Corbisdale. Let us leave the lady to think over what we have spoken of. You and I shall walk in the Abbey grounds, and discuss – hunting.”
“Ye-es. Or, to be precise, how best to bring down a wolf.”
David heard the door close behind them and, a moment later, the sound of the Abbess’ key in the closet lock. He stepped forth, his face set.
“David –” the Abbess began. He shook his head. Destiny surged through his veins. He knew exactly what he had to do.
“Have someone take me to his Grace the Duke of Corbisdale. I find I have matters of mutual interest to discuss with him.”
“The Crown Prince knows,” David said flatly, laying the note on the oak table (thick cream-white paper, blood-red seal bearing a sword-and-sunburst device. A semi-official signet. Acting in right of the Royal Family. Not the King’s formal emissary.)
“The Crown Prince is a capering mountebank.” Contempt infused the Duke of Corbisdale’s voice. “He pretends to more knowledge than he possesses, so as to panic the weak-minded into self-betrayal. With lesser men, it sometimes works.”
“This note fell out of a book I’d left in the library while I went to eat. Someone in the pay of the Crown Prince was in your castle less than a turn of the glass ago and you call it pretence?”
The Duke looked as if he were repressing an impulse to strike at him only with an effort.
A small victory, at least.
“So,” the Duke said after a short pause, “what does the Crown Prince want?”
“A meeting.” David kept voice and body studiedly neutral. “To examine my bona fides.”
“Out of the question.” The Bishop brought his fist down on the table. “If it weren’t a trap – which it so evidently is – I’d still ensure no decent boy came into the Crown Prince’s orbit.”
“In case he witnessed him kissing his wife?” A new voice cut in, silky-smooth and amused. Dr Cornelius.
The Bishop’s normally sallow face turned puce with rage. “You dare to throw that in my face?”
“You know, if you weren’t such a very learned and upstanding churchman, your fascination with whatever it is the Crown Prince does when he’s not being a thorn in our flesh might lead people to talk.” Dr Cornelius yawned. “So boring, isn’t it? The things petty men trouble their brains over?” He turned away before the Bishop could respond, looking across the table at David. “You’ve grown up over the last few years. What a pity my duties elsewhere have stopped us becoming better acquainted. We would have found so much to discuss.” He glanced down the table. “We should accept this meeting. Provided we can choose where.”
“You have a suggestion?”
Not for the first time, David wondered why the Duke – who he’d never seen defer to another living being – accorded such respect to the slight, unassuming Dr Cornelius.
“There’s a town – an excruciatingly dull little town – between the lakes up in the north-eastern corner of Gaaldine. Snowed in all winter, of course. When the snows melt they’re just dying for some fun. So they hold an Easter fair. All the peasants flood in from miles around. Just perfect. No-one will remark on strangers.”
“Meet amid crowds? For a matter of this delicacy? Impossible!”
Once more Dr Cornelius ignored the Bishop. He fixed his dark, hooded eyes on the Duke. “Just before you reach the town proper, there’s a gorge, crossed by a single-arched stone bridge. The locals are so proud of it, they claim the Devil built it. In exchange for the soul of the first living creature to cross.” He smiled. “Cheap labour, honestly.”
The Bishop gave an indignant, bitten-off little cough. The Duke waved a silencing hand.
“Someone standing on the bridge’s mid-point would be safely out of musket range, but in sight at all times. No treachery possible. That is where we will offer the meeting.”
There was, as David had grown to expect, a great deal more argument before matters were settled. Again, as he had come to expect, Dr Cornelius carried the day. David took himself to bed at last, hugging one thought closer than a man might hold a lover.
It may have taken the threat of armed force, but my father’s kin know I exist. And wish to meet me.
The fair had brought colour and life to the grey, mist-wrapped little town: market traders, musicians, players, revellers, hot-sausage sellers, fire-eaters, jugglers, a man leading a dancing bear on a string. David forced his way through the packed, winding streets by strategic deployment of his elbows. The bridge was thronged in both directions. Late arrivals were still pushing their way into town and a steady stream of narrow-souled individuals leaving.
A gypsy fiddler spun and dipped, weaving his way through the throng, eyes half-closed, lost in the music which fell in a waterfall of notes from the instrument beneath his hands. His unusual height was accentuated by his extreme slenderness and his fantastical garb, an over-large, frock-skirted coat which swooped and billowed all about him. A barefoot boy of no more than eight or so preceded him, shaking a hat for coppers, his white teeth flashing as he traded outrageous jokes with the fair-goers.
David watched the progress of the pair, fascinated, for some moments before recalling his instructions.
Behave naturally. Whatever you do, don’t look like a man awaiting an assignation.
He strolled along the bridge, buying a skewer of hot roast mutton from a vendor, regretting it the instant he realised he had no napkin to wipe the grease from his hands. He dropped the skewer over the parapet, watched it spiral like a falling leaf through the spray thrown up by snow-melt thundering through the smooth sides of the narrow gorge.
A hand caught his arm. “Tell your fortune, sir?”
He turned. “What?”
The gipsy fiddler handed off his instrument to the boy, who capered away with it.
“Tell your fortune, good sir. You stand on the cusp of destiny. One way lies disaster, the other way hope. Cross my palm, sir, and let me show you which is which.”
David’s heart jumped, before he cursed internally at his gullibility. An easy guess about a young man standing on his own. If I’d been a girl, he’d have talked of a choice of suitors.
“A man makes his own fortune,” he said brusquely.
The gipsy’s eyes were an odd colour, changeable like river-polished agates. His gaze seemed to strip away clothes and skin and leave David a quivering mess of exposed nerve and muscle.
“A man’s choices make his fortune. The man who chooses to walk through the valley of the crows should fear great evil.”
The valley of the crows – crows – corbies – Corbisdale.
David fumbled inside his jerkin for his money pouch, found the thin sliver of a ten-cent piece, and held it out. “Tell me my fortune, then.”
The gipsy took the coin, bit it, spun it in the air, caught it and extended his closed hand to David. “Open my fingers.”
Where the coin should have lain, on the gipsy’s palm was a heavy gold signet ring, bearing the device of a single sword crossing a sun-burst.
David took a step backwards. “You – you’re you.”
“We are each of us always ourselves,” the gipsy said, his tone mocking. He slid the ring onto his little finger. “Even in disguise. But which you are you, David Fitzroy?”
The Crown Prince of Gaaldine bids you declare your identity and intentions.
Phrases mouthed into the silence of his room on countless sleepless nights over the last years rose to his tongue.
“I am the surviving legitimate son of Mycroft I of Gaaldine. He wed my mother in the chantry chapel of the Abbey at Norburyness before riding to war with Gondal.” His next words seemed to come from a place wholly outside himself. He heard them as if from a stranger. “I am your rightful King.”
“Secret marriage.” The Crown Prince shrugged dismissal. “Canon law doesn’t care for them. Too much opportunity for obfuscation. Secret marriage on the eve of battle. Even worse. The man rides off to war and doesn’t come back; the woman’s left with child. Of course she claims there’s been a ceremony. What’s her alternative? Being branded a whore, her child a bastard. Who’d want that when the alternative is a small white lie? No, don’t interrupt.”
He gestured, vigorously. “Look at it from my grandfather’s viewpoint. Going to war, what’s his first priority as king? Obvious. How stands the succession? Could be worse, could be a great deal better. One surviving son – middle aged, no legitimate offspring, no character and precious few brains. Handy having an adult heir without the spirit to try to promote himself early; not so brilliant when you picture him trying to do your job. So, the next line of descent. Oh, yes, the Princess Royal’s boys. Boy, rather, because the moment Gaaldine crosses Gondal’s border under arms King Ambrosine is going to execute the younger one to show you what he thinks of treaty violators. Don’t pretend to look shocked; a king’s need from time to time to accomplish the deaths of his closest relatives must have crossed your mind, certainly if you’ve inherited more from my grandfather than a tendency to double chins and the most unflattering profile in the Palace portrait gallery. Has crossed your mind, in fact, hence the agreement to meet here, on a bridge out of musket range, in front of five thousand or so disinterested witnesses. Hence, also the stipulation that we come unarmed, a stipulation, I note with interest, you were more than prepared to break.”
David gulped. His own dagger had materialised in the Crown Prince’s hand. He spun it in the air as he had the coin, catching it by the grip.
“A renowned student of Virgil, Dr Ferdinand, but less accomplished in the ungentlemanly arts. ‘Concealed’ isn’t a petrified epithet when it comes to weaponry. I spotted this little toy when you were still ten feet away. Hardly the best way to make a first impression.”
He lunged forward, hellishly quick. David recoiled against the rough stone of the bridge’s low parapet, almost tipping over into the swollen beck thirty feet below. The Crown Prince’s hand snaked out, caught his wrist and pulled him back from the brink.
“Steady. I’m not planning on killing any of my closest relatives today. Five thousand disinterested witnesses, remember?” With an adroit flick of the wrist, he sent the dagger over the parapet. “No point in asking a town boy to dive for it. They say the hole in the river bottom just below the bridge is deep enough to reach to Hell. Still, a Corbisdale blade’s a small loss. You’ve heard the tale of the Master Swordsmith of Brendelhame? Every blade he made for the Corbisdale family broke before it could harm anyone. He said he knew they’d always have changed sides between making up their minds to strike and the blow landing.”
David set his teeth. “You were talking of the dilemmas my father faced as he rode to war, I believe?”
“Mycroft I’s concerns with regard to the succession? Indeed. Let us continue with his choices. Rule out your younger grandson; he’s dead meat. What about the elder? Not bad; he’s already spent years doing the work the heir to the throne should be doing. No worries about his competence. Better still, he’s married, wife’s just produced twins, boys, very good. Only babies, though. Babies die. Also; he backed the peace treaty in Council. His honour’s compromised by this pre-meditated breach; plus it’s going to lead directly to his brother’s execution. Families are strange things, especially ours. It’s possible he actually cares. So, what next?”
“I’ll tell you what next, Sherlock –” For a moment the sheer enormity of addressing the Crown Prince by his given name stuck in David’s throat. He glimpsed amused recognition of his hesitancy in the other man’s eyes and forced more assurance into his voice.
“He married my mother. To secure the succession.”
The Crown Prince looked bored. “Your mother was already his mistress. The sister of his last mistress, in fact. Her family pushed the younger girl into my grandfather’s way when they sensed her sister’s power over him was beginning to wane. Common pattern. You might find it happening to you, if you survive this current mess. Even a King’s bastard is quite a prize to play for, at Court.”
Bastard. Abruptly, David was back in the house in the country, staring at his face in the glass, mouthing hateful words to himself.
“The King married my mother. I was born in wedlock.”
“So you claim. However, for a family who were unblushingly ready to deploy their daughters as pawns in the power game, your mother’s kin seemed remarkably reticent about announcing they’d queened one of them, don’t you think? Also – another interesting fact – you were born a little over seven months following my grandfather’s death. But the midwife who delivered you attests –”
“What?” He regretted the exclamation almost before he had uttered it.
“Do trynot to be avoidably stupid.” The Crown Prince’s voice was redolent with disappointment. “How many people do you think claim to be the rightful ruler of Gaaldine in an average year? There’s a clerk in the Palace who deals with little else. Once he’s excluded the blatant charlatans, the hopelessly insane and the obstinately self-deluded he passes the few cases which are left onto Palace Security for further investigation. They eliminate the vast majority without ever having to trouble my brother’s Council.”
An admission, of sorts. “And yet, here you are.”
Something in the Crown Prince’s stance – the tiniest of relaxations – told David he had somehow made up for his earlier blunder. Two blunders, if one counted the dagger.
“I assure you, this situation is as unique for me as I presume it is for you.” The Crown Prince’s tone hardened. “Assume that before I agreed to this meeting I read everything our agents had gathered about you and spoke, personally, to numbers of crucial witnesses. Assume, as a result, I know a great deal more about you than you do yourself.”
God! Hunger, fierce and compelling, rose up within him. His whole life had comprised sudden silences, unanswered questions, mysterious spaces where other men had life and connection and family tales. And this man could unlock all of that, make him whole.
“Mind your backs, goodmen. Easy, there. Come up.” A passing drover, shepherding a flock of unruly hoggets into the town, forced them into the little ‘V’ shaped recess overhanging the beck at the bridge’s mid-point.
The Crown Prince continued as if the interruption had not occurred. “According to the midwife you were one of the biggest babies she’d ever delivered. Hardly consistent with your being almost two months premature. At the time of the alleged wedding your mother must have suspected she was with child. Mistresses often delay telling the father but in this case the father’s a king; an ageing king at that. Makes a difference. Also, he’d fathered a few children in his time. Even if she hadn’t said anything, he’d have guessed.”
“So he married her to ensure the baby would be legitimate.”
“On the eve of war? Don’t you think, if so, he’d have left a letter in the Royal Archives to avoid this very situation in the event of his death?”
His own words echoed back to him in the cool, sceptical tones of the Crown Prince. He summoned up an echo on his own account. “Letters may become mislaid.”
“I assure you, letters written by my grandfather never did. He prided himself on being the ultimate creature of reason and order. If a letter was not found, we can safely assume one was not left. Given who’s been directing your education over the last few years, the next part of the puzzle may come as a surprise to you. Bear with me.”
David gaped. “Directing my education? I’m sorry?”
“Let’s hope we’re not all sorry before this ends. Turn your attention to Gondal. After all, your father - my grandfather – was about to invade the place. I can assure you his attention would have been fully on it. Again, put yourself in his position. There’ve been countless border incursions over the years, from both sides; what can you do to make this one different, make it stick? Oh, that’s interesting. King Ambrosine has been married to Queen Felicia getting on for seven years, but no sign of children. She might be barren, but could be him; no little bastards reported from any of his numerous well-attested liaisons, looks like the problem’s his, then. One other thing. She’s the late King Ambrosine XVI’s only heir – that is, under our law and in the opinion of the growing Modernist party in Gondal she should be Queen Regnant, not Consort. Check your strategy again. Invade Gondal, kill Ambrosine XVII, marry his widow. Let the claims of a mistress of middling aristocratic rank and limited physical charms stand in the way of a coup of that magnitude? Impossible.”
“Was she not very beautiful?” David blurted, and then flushed, hating himself.
“Queen Felicia?” The Crown’s Prince’s eyebrows rose. David, who had meant his mother, found himself nodding, numbly, reluctant to expose himself yet further before this man, who knew too much already.
“In repose, Queen Felicia had the face of an amiable horse.” The Crown Prince paused, his crisp tones altered, a note almost of – wistfulness? – entered his voice. “But when she smiled, it was like the sun coming out over the high moorland. It could light up the Great Banqueting Hall of the Palace in Gondal town.” His mouth twisted up, wryly. “I doubt that was her principal attraction to my grandfather. As for your mother, I never met her. I cannot, therefore, satisfy your curiosity. Though, if you choose to return with me to the Palace, I can contrive introductions to others who can remedy my deficiencies in that regard.”
The offer, so casually made, took David’s breath away. He had been warned that the Royal Family could not be trusted; been prepared for threats, bribery or outright disbelief. He had not expected this. He scanned the prince’s face for signs of treachery.
“Why would you do that?”
“It’s the safest course.”
“And you expect me to be interested in your safety? And in that of the K- the pretended King?”
“Oh, my brother and I can look after our safety. And we also have an army of people – I speak purely literally – dedicated to that task. Have you considered whether anyone’s looking after yours?”
“I -” David’s mouth went dry. His last memory of the Duke of Corbisdale’s face – a faint, gleeful smile twitching at the corners of his mouth, cold-fish eyes looking anywhere but at him – was suddenly horribly acute.
“The Duke first met you over three years ago. You were not quite fifteen at the time. He would have perceived you as younger. Literally and in understanding. Inevitable. Given your secluded childhood and his own – personality.” The Crown Prince’s tone barely altered on the last word, but David heard contempt like a knife slicing through flesh. “First impressions stick. It’s how people think. Regarding you as young and therefore pliable, the Duke expects to rule Gaaldine in your name.”
“Never.” The word came out as a low snarl.
The Crown Prince smiled, sphinx-like. “Quite so. A man who has inherited my grandfather’s chins would never submit to being a puppet ruler. Come in with us.”
David swallowed the sting, losing it in the sweetness of the implied compliment. “You ask me to give up my birthright and so proclaim my mother a whore?”
“Do you really think she’d have made sure you grew up in ignorance of your family if she’d wanted you to take your current course?” For the first time David heard anger bubbling up behind the Crown Prince’s words. “For God’s sake, man, think! The Duke seeks a manikin he can manipulate, the Pretender of Gondal – your ‘Dr Cornelius’ – wants to foment civil war, my brother will sacrifice anyone and everyone – not excepting himself – to preserve his kingdom and the Abbess of Norburyness will do whatever her Port-Royal confessor claims her God requires, to sweep the heretics and the infidels off the soil of Gaaldine and raise up a purified Church militant as the true power within the realm. Between the four of them they’ll tear you into pieces and leave your remains on gibbets in every corner of Gaaldine.”
His voice had thickened with passion; impossibly, David thought he saw tears standing in his eyes.
“I – ” He paused, irresolute. It had seemed all so simple, in the Duke’s private apartments in Corbisdale Castle. He was, after all, the rightful King. Of course, his journey to the throne would be hard and lonely; so he had told himself with earnest would-be sophistication. But loneliness was something to which his childhood had inured him.
His ignorance, now, almost made him smile. As a child he had been lonely because he had been constantly alone. Now –
He turned, scanning up and down the bridge. The fair crowds were no less, though the man with the bear had vanished, doubtless into the main squares of the town, where pickings would be richer. The traffic on the bridge in both directions was still thick enough to make the central recess the only place they could safely stand without being borne onwards by the sheer press of humanity.
David had never felt more lonely in his life.
“If you continue on your current course,” the Crown Prince said, speaking low enough to be barely audible above the pounding of the beck, “you will cause a great many people to die. People of this realm – which is my brother’s – and of Gondal – which is my wife’s. We cannot support that. One way or the other, you must fail. You will fail. Believe me when I say that success is impossible – all I can offer you is survival.”
“Survival as what? As a Royal pensioner?”
“As a member of the Family, albeit a left-handed one. What that entails is dependent on your own talents and ambition. But a seat in the Council and a Dukedom – those might well be within your grasp. We expect one of Gaaldine’s senior Ducal titles to lapse in the near future.” The Crown Prince’s face was set and cold, the tears vanished as if they had never been. “You will note, the promise of survival is a strictly personal one.”
“Half the Northern provinces will go up in rebellion at a word.” It sounded less convincing in David’s mouth than it had in the Duke’s.
The Crown Prince’s right hand almost blurred as he ticked off points on the fingers of his left. “Corbisdale will rise, but the Duke’s co-conspirators will prove broken reeds. Egremont will temporise with soothing messages until the crisis resolves itself. Langwith’s old lung trouble will make an opportune reappearance. Seaton and Thornhill will be late and bring fewer men than the Duke expects. Their heirs will remain at Court, conspicuously uninvolved.”
The solid granite of the bridge beneath David’s feet seemed suddenly insubstantial and treacherous. He recalled furtive meetings with masked men, who arrived at the hunting lodge in the hills above Corbisdale’s seat under cover of darkness; faces glimpsed by rush-dips and names murmured once, only, over handshakes sealing a bargain. He had thought their security impregnable.
The Crown Prince made a small noise of satisfaction, that of a man who has made his point and seen it taken.
“As for the other northern power bases, Alwent, as ever, will be a shit, but a loyal shit – his interest is too much bound up with the Crown’s to be otherwise. Pity: his head would look far better on a pike than on his neck. The Crown holds Cavron. It is far more defensible than it was even a year ago. The hordes of Corbisdale and Gondal will break on it, if only its commander shows the necessary steel.”
David swallowed, hard. “You suggest my choice lies between betraying my country or my mother’s memory.”
“There is a third possibility.” The Crown Prince had moved very close to him, his low voice virtually in his ear. “You could execute – before unimpeachable witnesses - a deed which, without denying your mother’s marriage, renounced your claim on the throne on the basis that the marriage’s covert nature, lack of acknowledgement by my grandfather and the delay in its coming to light creates, in your view, an unacceptable risk to the realm.”
“And what of me?”
“You would retire into private life.” The Crown Prince hesitated. “A very long way from here. France, perhaps. Or England. Or the Low Countries. I have correspondents across Europe who would assist you in settling into a new existence.”
“As what?” He surveyed the motley figure beside him. “An itinerant musician, perhaps?”
The Crown Prince smiled. “Compared to the tedium of court life, I’ve often found the notion tempting. But not unless your bent took you that way. I could ensure that you had a generous settlement. After all, my private resources are considerable.”
“Your private resources?” David jerked his head up.
“Ah. Yes.” David thought he detected a shade of embarrassment in the Crown Prince’s voice. “My brother – has a Council to placate. As you have not yet raised your flag in open rebellion, he could justify your coming to Court as the late King’s self-acknowledged bastard. Anything else – no.”
“But then –” David tried to reconcile the Crown Prince of the Duke’s whispered sneers with the sheer magnitude of the gesture. “You would put yourself in conflict with the King, for the sake of my mother’s good name?”
“Don’t mistake it for altruism. It sometimes – pleases me – to flaunt my freedom of action, compared to Mycroft’s. Though I doubt my head will end up decorating a pike for it, should that be troubling your conscience.”
David gulped. “Might I have a moment to myself, to consider?”
The Crown Prince nodded.
David turned away, looking down into the gorge, over the parapet. Far below, the beck tumbled over itself in its rush down to its confluence with the Ulva and thereafter, in due course, to the sea. It occurred to him he had never seen the sea. Now, if he chose, he could take ship and not touch land for a thousand miles. Or he could go to Court and perhaps end as an admiral, should fortune favour him. From Hatteras’ stories of his time at sea, being a bastard was, if anything, a positive advantage in a naval officer.
When the blow struck between his shoulder-blades he thought, for the briefest of moments, that one of the drovers who were still crossing the bridge had taken an unpardonable liberty.
“No!” The shout from beside him sounded almost inhuman.
A strong grip clamped around his wrist and then he was falling, falling, endlessly falling with a grey mist all about him. A slew of odd, unconnected memories – sights, sounds and scents of a past life which seemed at once impossibly remote and inescapably immediate – bombarded his senses. The dull ache in his back reared up in a searing wave of agony and the waters of the beck closed above his head.