Chapter 1 - The Castellan of the Eagles by A.J. Hall
“Lord – Osric.” The Castellan made it sound like a particularly juicy obscenity.
“Yes, sir.” Chris tried to repress the urge to shuffle from foot to foot. As the junior garrison officer in Castle Cavron, he’d expected this duty as soon as the semaphore tower had clicked into life to announce the imminent arrival. That didn’t mean he hadn’t been dreading it.
“What in the name of the ever-living Christ’s sacred foreskin have we done to provoke an inspection from the bleeding bloody equerry and chief arse-wiper general to the Crown Prince? You may be the most useless bunch of floppy-eared layabouts ever to try to pass yourselves off as members of Gaaldine’s finest, but I don’t need some poncey Palace poofter swanning in and telling me how to run my garrison.”
Chris tried, without conspicuous success, to make himself invisible. The Castellan’s expression, as he paced across the room, evoked the local landlord’s tales of volcanic islands he’d sailed past in his youth before retiring to run The Mariner’s Rest, about as far inland as a tavern could be. If, Chris thought apprehensively, the guv’nor started to shoot jets of molten rock hundreds of feet into the air, he, for one, wouldn’t be a bit surprised.
“And another thing.” The Castellan came to a dead stop, swivelled on his boot-heel and pointed his finger at the centre of Chris’s chest. “You want to watch yourself, fresh-faced young lad like you. Whatever he and the rest of the Crown Prince’s set get up to in the capital, I’m not having him thinking he can waltz into my castle and equerry any of my team, got that? Any funny business, you come straight to me and we’ll see how this Lord Osric enjoys wearing his crown jewels round his neck instead of inside his codpiece. Savvy?”
“Savvy.” Chris gulped, trying to calculate which of the others would be least likely to humiliate him if he asked for enlightenment concerning whatever the hell it was the guv’nor was on about.
“Right. Pass the word. Before he arrives, I want every bit of armour every last one of you possesses polished until you can see to shave your face in it – or, in Raimondo’s case, his arse, that being the hairier and more presentable end of his anatomy. I want edges on weapons keen enough to halve feathers longways in mid air. I want a guardroom with a floor so clean you could eat your dinner off it and if Phyllis could get the maids to pull off the same trick as regards the refectory table I’d be greatly obliged. And – one last thing.”
He leant forward, so his face was inches from Chris’s.
“In my long and dirty experience of life, you don’t start getting interest from On High unless there’s trouble on the wind. So I want you lot to keep your ears open and your mouths shut. Whatever he’s here to find out, I want him to leave without knowing it. Whatever he’s here to pull over on us, I want stopped before it starts. And may the good Lord have mercy on the lot of you, because if you screw up that simple task I surely won’t.”
The apple core hit John neatly on the nose. He blinked, opened his eyes and raised his head. Their horses cropped the lush grass. They’d been climbing slowly from the plains since dawn, this river bank haven their first resting spot in hours. Here the air blew pure, scented with mountain grass and the never-melting snow of the high peaks.
Sherlock’s face swam into his field of vision. “I said, what were you grinning about?”
John’s grin broadened. “You. Ginger.”
“Red-gold. At least, according to the label on the bottle. Colour-blind barber or old stock, do you reckon? Anyway, that’s all right. For a moment I was afraid it might be the beard.”
John put his head on one side. “No. I like the beard. Very – um – rakish.”
“Could start a trend.”
“Over my dead body.” Sherlock flicked a second apple core at John with the same pinpoint accuracy as he had the first. Something sharp as a blade twisted in John’s heart at the sheer, uncomplicated joy on his face.
“Bit dramatic, that option.”
“Have you any idea how much information a man betrays by the little twitches of the muscles near his mouth? It’s hard enough to keep track of potential conspirators as it is. Let’s not give them an excuse to cover up large swathes of the evidence. God, it’s good to be away from all that for a bit. And perhaps – when we get back – Charis might just have conceded I’ve rejoined the human race.”
That hit hard, and harder still because it was up here, in the blissful air of the hills, where John had allowed himself to be at ease and unguarded.
“Perhaps you should have stayed – tried – “
“Rubbish. It’s high time Charis had to handle something like a four-day progress to the provincial capital on her own. Heaven knows, she can hardly make a worse mess of it than I’d do.”
Whatever emotion had twisted Sherlock’s features flitted before John could pin it down. Those mobile lips turned mocking. “The provincial ladies will coo over her beauty, admire her pearls and commiserate about her feckless husband, who’s had the temerity to run off to see a man about a horse – so similar, so very similar, to their own dear lords and masters. Anyway, let the future look to itself. We ought to make the castle before dusk, if we leave now. Once you’ve settled me there, make for the tavern. If there’s more than one, choose the one the garrison drinks at. I’m sure an old soldier like you will be able to pick the right one.”
“I’m sure I shall. But you? Now there’s only the horses to hear us, perhaps you might enlighten me as to the point of all this. Why go into Castle Cavron posing as your own non-existent equerry?”
“Tell me – old soldier. Why walk blind into hostile territory when you could have first-class intelligence just for the price of a trivial disguise and a day or so’s effort?”
“Hostile territory? This is your own country, here.”
“And? If it were only the threats from Gondal and Angria that Mycroft and I had to worry about, we’d sleep three times sounder than we do now. Princes, John, have no choice about keeping their enemies close. And as for friends – well, court life doesn’t leave much room for friendship.”
“So, pretty much the same as Gondal, then,” John muttered.
Sherlock, if he’d heard the comment, ignored it. He rolled to his feet in one swift movement. “Once you’re in the tavern, don’t hesitate to damn ‘Lord Osric’ to the uttermost ends of Hell. You’re my body-servant, I’m your master. It will increase confidence if those around you understand you hate my guts. And don’t feel any need to go easy on the Crown Prince, either.”
He was at the foremost horse, slackening off the hobbles about its feet. As he swung into the saddle he looked back, his grey eyes piercing.
“Don’t give anything away, John. And whatever there is to know, find it out.”
It was not difficult to find the tavern; its location hadn’t changed in twenty years. The landlord (a new man, mahogany-skinned, his hair hanging in beaded braids to his shoulders) nodded as John paused on the threshold, head tipped up to the inn-sign.
“Welcome back, my friend.”
John suppressed a betraying twitch of guilt.
“I’ve not been here before.” Dear God, why did the fates conspire to mock him so? The same bar-parlour, seen once by candle-light, a lifetime and a half ago. Still vivid, unforgotten, hardly altered after all these years. (The sabre-cut marring the mantelpiece’s dark oak – that had a tale to tell, if any dared.)
The landlord moved out from the shadows behind the bar with a slow, dancer’s grace, the smile heavy in his voice. “You weren’t wondering at the change of name?”
“Wondering at the name, full stop. The Mariner’s Rest? This far from the sea?”
“Ex-army, yes? If you’d been a sailor, you’d know. When a man runs from the sea, he runs a very, very long way. The name’s Horatio. I own this place. What can I get you?”
“A room, please. Since my lord-and-master has taken a whim to dispense with my services for the night. And a very large drink.”
Another voice spoke. “If the man’s buying, Horatio, I’ll have another glass of the Angrian red. The good stuff.”
John turned. “My pleasure. Ma’am.”
She laughed; a warm, throaty, full-bodied laugh. “Oh, don’t ma’am me. Call me Phyllis. I run the castle. But don’t let the Castellan know I told you. He wouldn’t want the peasants getting the right idea.”
After that, the evening took a distinctly unexpected – but by no means uninformative – turn.
“So, that was interesting,” Phyllis said. “He’s better looking than I’d expected. Better manners, too.”
Chris, with enormous care, deposited the round on the table. Everyone grabbed their drinks at once. It had been an extremely fraught day and a half.
“Who is?” Ray plonked his half-empty tankard back on the table.
Phyllis took a sip of red wine and grimaced. “Horatio! Tavern cat having incontinence problems again? I know we finished the last of the Angrian yesterday, but I expect to pickle my liver in better than this vinegar. Who? Who d’ya think? The Crown Prince, of course.”
Ray guffawed. “The Crown Prince? That wasn’t the Crown Prince, that was Lord Osric, his whachemecallit –”
“His queerie,” Chris supplied.
“Takes one to know one,” Ray said. “Anyway, him. I don’t know what you mean about manners. A right bloody pain in the arspect he turned out to be. And as for the questions he was asking – and that supercilious expression on those ginger chops when we didn’t have the answer he wanted as quick as he expected it – I expected the guv’nor was going to lamp him one before the day was out.”
The tavern door swung open once more. The new arrival shook raindrops off her dark hair.
“Got held up, sorry. Half of bitter, Chris, please, if it’s still your round.”
Phyllis grinned at her. “Annie, tell ‘em who’ve you been chamber-maiding since yesterday evening?”
“The Crown Prince? I’ll tell you what, I don’t care if it is true what they say about him. Horatio, what are those fish with all the arms you told us about once?”
The landlord, arrested in the act of wiping the table, looked up. “Octopuses?”
Annie nodded. “Yup. I reckon half the guests at the castle are descended from them, and all. Turn your back for a second and there’ll be another hand down your placket. But not the Crown Prince. Me, I’m all for it.”
Ray looked from one woman to the other. “Go on, tell me this is a set-up. How come you could recognise him, anyway?”
The two women exchanged knowing glances.
“Wedding souvenirs,” Annie said. “My gran got that plate with the heads of him and the Princess embossed on it. I bet Phyllis’s sister did the same. They’re both nuts about the Royal Family.”
“That’s right. Got it on her mantelpiece. Not going to forget a profile like that in a hurry. My mum had a spaniel once that was the dead spit of him.”
“But I thought the Crown Prince had black hair –” Chris said.
Phyllis patted her bun. “I hate to shatter your boyish innocence, but there are such things as hair dyes. After all, without a bit of chemical assistance, they’d be putting me in a crystal casket in the Cathedral and calling me a sacred relic.”
Horatio winked at her. “A little bird told me a woman’s only as old as the man she feels, is that right?”
“Ssh, Horatio. No tales out of school. You’ll shock the children.”
Chris blinked and, prudently, decided he was better off not knowing.
Annie put her hand into the pocket tied to her belt. “Right.” She produced four straws. “Horatio, do the honours. Hold them so we can draw.”
“What-?” From the expression of dawning horror on Ray’s face, Chris knew he was missing something.
Annie snorted. “Well, someone’s got to tell the Castellan, haven’t they? And I can’t imagine he’s going to be particularly pleased, do you?”
“Off the road!”
Hooves pounded behind them; Sherlock caught John’s bridle, forcing their horses into cover in the scanty undergrowth and brush in the roadside coppice. Through the trees they glimpsed three riders, the foremost a thick-set, instantly recognisable figure, pelting hell-for-leather towards the provincial capital. They vanished round the next bend and the hoof-beats died away to silence.
The sheer malicious glee blazing on the Prince’s face could have started a brush fire.
“I do wish I could be there when the Castellan arrives to find there is no Lord Osric attached to my household. Which of the women spilled the beans, do you think?”
“Women?” John twitched guiltily. Surely he hadn’t let anything slip –
“Well, did you see the garrison officers? Several villages round here must be missing their idiots. The Castellan smelt a rat, of course, but I – hinted – a couple of things which convinced him I was on an anti-peculation trawl. After that, he was so intent on keeping me away from the books, he hadn’t time to wonder if I really was who I said I was.”
“He’s on the take?”
“John, he’s the Castellan of a border fortress in an area that’s had practically no official attention for the best part of twenty years. Of course he’s on the take.”
“So you’re going to ask the King to remove him for corruption?”
“Do think. He’s got unofficial contact with every bandit fortress on both sides of the Debateable Lands and a team who – whatever their mental deficiencies – would follow him anywhere. Probably from sheer curiosity.” Sherlock put his head on one side. “He’s a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking bully who’s clawed his way up from the ranks and hasn’t given a tinker’s damn about those he’s trodden on in the process. As a result, every petty lordling within three days’ ride hates him worse than poison.”
“And you say that as if it’s a good thing.”
Sherlock’s smile showed his teeth; John felt the hairs lift on the back of his neck.
“Oh, it is. After all, I outrank every aristocrat the local squirearchy has ever met in its entire collective life and Charis outranks me. While they’re all falling over themselves to curry favour with us by slandering him, some very interesting things will crawl out of the woodwork.”
The last few strands of undergrowth parted. They found themselves back on the road.
“And the corruption?” John said doggedly.
“Did you ever hear what happened to the King of Gaaldine who began his reign with an announcement that there’d be ‘No further tolerance for corruption in the realm’?”
“No – “
“And nor did anyone else. I don’t think they even found the body. His tomb in the Cathedral’s certainly empty. I’ve checked. No; provided the Castellan keeps the fortifications in good condition and his hands off his soldiers’ pay and victuals, I’ll keep my observations on the topic to myself.”
“So what are we going to do?”
“Double back to Castle Cavron. With the Castellan temporarily engaged elsewhere, I can establish my own network of contacts. We’ll start with your lady friend, John, the one with the dyed hair and the filthy laugh. And that girl who was acting as chamber-maid for me seems well overdue a promotion. If they get on, and if she passes the Master of Arms’s bodyguard training, she should suit Charis down to the ground. She needs someone to run her domestic staff. Oh, and I’ve one other job for you.”
“What?” John didn’t bother to hide the dark suspicion in his voice. No-one would have trusted the Prince in this mood, not with that manic gleam in his eye and the bubbling hilarity in his voice.
“For the Court’s benefit, I’ve been off horse-buying. Can’t afford to spoil my alibi. Try starting with the landlord of the tavern. If he doesn’t know of a horse for sale, he’s bound to know a man who does.”
John sighed. “Any particular requirements as to the nag in question?”
“Oh, yes.” Sherlock leant over from his horse, so their faces were practically touching. “I want a filthy-tempered, bloody-minded beast that will tear huge bleeding lumps out of anyone who tries to lay hands on it or its rider. I want an animal which can keep its footing on a mountain pass a goat would baulk at, survive in an emergency on whatever winter rations it can forage or steal, keep on going through snow hours after Guards’ chargers have foundered and which can, at a bare minimum, out-think the junior garrison officer in Castle Cavron with one hoof tied up under its tail.”
“So no pressure, then.”
“John, I’m trusting you.” Without warning, Sherlock tossed him a small, leather bag. It chinked as John caught it. “Don’t let them rook you, but, for the right animal, I’m not setting any upper limit on price. It’s a present for a Queen, after all.”