Table of Contents

Chapter 1 - The Cock o' the North by A.J. Hall

“Pentecost.” Charis placed knife and fork down on their bejewelled case with calculated delicacy.

The Castellan eyed her. “If you go spearing your tongue on that unnatural Turkish device and die of blood poisoning, I daresay you’ll expect me to grovel to the King, for losing the Crown Princess on my watch. Yes, and to that playacting husband of yours, wherever he’s got to.”

“Should any such implausible accident occur, you may console Sherlock that at least I was using his own gift at the time.” Her fingertip traced the entwined seed-pearl “S” and “C” device on the side of the case. “Anyway, we were not speaking of forks, but of Pentecost. It approaches hard upon us.”

The Castellan wiped his own fingers clean of gravy on a bit of bread, ate the bread and pushed back his chair from the table. His bandaged foot stuck out awkwardly on the footstool in front of him. Charis gave it a surreptitious glance. That fractured foot-bone must be healing slower than she had hoped.

“Why is it,” he enquired, apparently of the dining chamber’s ceiling, “women will use their tongues for anything, but the one thing a man would prefer? Perhaps your grace’s husband was giving your grace a hint.”

The Castellan should try half an hour alone in the Palace salon with Anthea, or a tough watch at the Lying In Hospital with Sarai, if he thought those tactics could disconcert her.

“Pentecost,” Charis repeated. “In the year of our Lord sixteen hundred and eighty-nine. A odd-numbered year, you’ll remark.”

The Castellan snorted. “That’s not the only odd thing about this year.”

“Agreed.” She smiled, hoping it looked confident and assured. “Which is why we should be chary of breaking with tradition — at least, not if we can help it. So, since it is the turn of Castle Cavron to host the Pentecost Truce, should we not be making preparations?”

“The Cock o’ the North fair? And what benighted, unbaptised imbecile told you about that one?” He glared down the table at Chris and Ray. They tried to make themselves look unobtrusive, without success.

“My late mother, Queen Felicia. My earliest memory is of seeing her present the prizes at the Truce tournament.”

No reason to mention Annie’s jogging Charis’s memory that morning, while they’d been practising single-stick in the old tennis court.

The table’s centre-piece was a silver-gilt Bacchanalia, crude in several senses of the word. The Castellan reached into its depths, extracted two walnuts, and opened both by twisting one against the other.

“I might have known. Look, your grace — ma’am — kid — no disrespect to your dear deceased mama, but she did have the armies of Gondal behind her, if anything started kicking off.”

The Castellan had made the walnut trick look effortless. Doubtless there was a knack to it. Attempting it untutored would make her look like an idiot. She picked up a handful of raisins instead.

“Mama did not preside over the Pentecost Truce as Queen of Gondal, but in right of her surname. We are the senior landowner on the Northern Border. Since I inherited her dower lands, I also inherited her position as President of the Truce.”

“Ah!” The Castellan took another swig of wine and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “But as your grace astutely observed, it’s an odd numbered year. It’s the Southern Border’s turn. So your lands — and long may you enjoy them, your grace, which isn’t something you’d hear the Pretender of Gondal say, were you to dine with him — aren’t relevant to the matter at all.”

“Over my dead body will I dine with the Pretender of Gondal.”

“And no doubt the same thought has also crossed his mind. You’ll have heard of Sweetmilk Willie Armstrong’s Bridal Feast? They made a song about it, and everything.”

Charis gulped, relieved she had not attempted the nuts for a different reason. “My father did not care to have the songs of the Borders sung in the Palace.”

“Too rustic for his grace’s tastes? Well, I’m not proposing to sing —”

“Your restraint does you credit.”

The Castellan glared at her. “Back in your great-grandfather’s time, it was. Young Sweetmilk talked the Bell heiress into eloping with him. Only, as luck would have it, on her way to the tryst she walks into a squad of her father’s men, coming back from a raid on Nixon lands and full of stolen Nixon spirt. So they don’t recognise who it is they’ve caught. But, right at the end, the moon comes out from behind a cloud and it shines on her dead face amid the heather. Which, as you can imagine, sobers them all up like nobody’s business.”

Charis’ fingers tightened round her goblet. The Castellan appeared not to notice.

“Of course, no-one with the brains of of a half-soused stoat is going to go home to old man Bell to tell them they’d raped and murdered his one ewe lamb. So they came up with a tale.”

“A tale?” Her voice came out properly indifferent, thank the Virgin.

“One of the brighter sparks in the whole dim crew had seen the looks the Bell girl and Sweetmilk were chucking at each other last Pentecost fair. So they explain to old man Bell they’d come on the girl dying in the heather, and her last breath was a prayer to be revenged on Sweetmilk and all the Armstrong crew. All nice, tight, and convenient.”

Charis gritted her teeth and looked the Castellan in the eyes.

“And so they returned with the body to her father’s tower and he swore them all to secrecy. And Bell sent word to Armstrong’s hall, bidding them all welcome to the Bells’ hall, for the feud had gone on too long and what better to end it than by a feast? So Sweetmilk thought a miracle had come and came with all his men to feast. Never had they tasted so delicate a venison as the flesh of the white doe upon which they dined. And then in came Bell’s cook bearing a great silver platter with a lid on it. ‘Behold,’ said Bell, ‘I have saved the best morsel to the last.’ And there was Janet’s head, sitting on the platter. And while they were paralysed with horror the Bells fell upon them and not a man of the Armstrongs left that place alive.”

She ran out of breath, and felt herself shivering. She stared into her glass, willing something to happen. Perhaps the ceiling would fall in; in most of these Border castles, that would have been an odds-on bet, but no, not here, not in Castle Cavron. The King had spent thousands of thalers on worked ashlar and German military engineering to make the place fit to withstand the worst Gondal could throw at it.

But, if not the ceiling collapsing, then an incursion of bandits down the Pass of the Eagles, or an alarm of plague in the little town at the foot of the cliff.

Anything to prevent her having to face the Castellan’s eyes.

Liquid swirled eloquently into a glass.

“Thin stuff, this Angrian piss. Reckon they’ve passed a duff load off on us. I’ll be having a word with the cellarer. Try this, instead.”

Blindly, she raised the glass he had thrust into her hand and swallowed. Raw fire ran over her tongue and down her throat.

“Strikes a bit fierce, doesn’t it, the Border spirit?”

Charis curled her fingers round the stubby glass and, without allowing herself pause for regret, drained the remainder of its contents in one draught.

She swallowed, hard. Her voice came out at least an octave lower than before. “For centuries my people have held the Pentecost Truce. We will hold it this year, and I shall sit as President in both my titles: head of the Moriarty family to the North and lady of the Warden of the Border Marches to the South.”

The Castellan paused. Then he rose to his feet, putting most of his weight on the chair back and as little as possible on his bandaged foot.

“Ray, Chris. Move your arses. We need a race-course cleared and stands run up around it, all the flags out of storage and provisions brought in for five days solid feasting. The lady wants us to hold the Cock o’ the North fair, and — by St Joseph’s divinely-appointed horns — the Cock o’ the North fair will be held.”

He dropped his voice, so that his final words were audible to the two of them alone.

“Look, kid, this is only going ahead because you’ve convinced me — against the odds — that you do in fact know the kind of conniving, double-dealing, bloody-handed bastards we’re dealing with here. But listen and learn. I’ve lived in these parts twice as long as you’ve been alive, and I’m still learning. There’s no bottom to the treachery of a reiving lord. And the sweeter they talk and the sweeter they sing and the sweeter they smell — well, the more rottenness they’re concealing. You remember that, your grace, and we may all get out of this with whole skins.”