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Chapter 2 - The Cock o' the North by A.J. Hall

“Oh, Holy St Agatha’s blessed bleeding tits, what do we have here?”

Charis looked up from the slate in front of her, on which she had been reviewing the proposed rotation for the marshals of the course.

Out of the throat of the pass, clearly visible from their vantage point on the North Tower, a throng of riders was emerging, pennants flying, their horses garlanded with green leaves in token of peace.

The Castellan jabbed a forefinger in their direction. “Trouble. The first batch of our Gondalian friends, and judging by their gear and horses that’s no petty lordling, either. One of His Nibs’s chosen few, coming along to get an eyeful of our new defences at close quarters, shouldn’t wonder. How’s your heraldry?”

She narrowed her eyes. “Not at that dist — Oh!”

The riders halted. They formed up into fours, their parade-ground slickness suggesting they knew themselves to be observed. A glittering figure on a black charger, self-evidently the commander, rode to the front and turned to face his men.

At his signal a giant of a man, whose grey horse seemed shrunk to the size of a pony beneath him, trotted to the front of the troop.

Two dismounted troopers paced forward, bearing a furled standard between them. They saluted the commander and then, with visible effort, handed their burden up to the mounted giant.

With almost insulting ease, he took it in one hand, raised it above his head, twirled it once round and then brought it down and settled its base in a socket by his saddle. He saluted his commander; had the salute returned and then advanced to the head of the troop.

All the rest of the troop fell into formation behind him; first at a stately walk, then at a suspended trot. At the very moment when they broke in a canter the giant leant forward, released the standard’s bindings and let it stream forth on the wind.

Charis caught her breath. A red, mailed foot against a black and white chequered background. But she had never thought to see those arms in Gaaldine. Dreamt, yes — but in dreams which left her half-ashamed, half-exhilarated and which she had vouchsafed to no-one, least of all her confessor.

The Castellan bore an expression of weary disgust. The arms must be equally familiar to him. “Well, what did I tell you?”

She held her voice steady with enormous effort. “You believe Lord Lestrade is here to spy out our new defences?”

He glared at her. “What other purpose could he have?”

Charis, prudently, made no reply.

Having consigned the slate to Ray and bade her tiring maid wait on her in her chambers in a turn of the glass, she slipped unobserved down one of the castle’s many stairs to the library.

It was a scanty, neglected collection of works, moth-eaten and damp-stained. It could hardly have been more suited to her purposes had every single volume been hand-picked.

She pulled down works of heraldry from the shelf, blushed at a chance mention of “sabaton gules, field: chequy sable and argent”, read and re-read the scant paragraph allotted the Lestrade family in Deeds of the Border Lords, traced a finger down rent-returns dotted out in wavering brown ink, recited divides betwixt demenses and countereys on his ancestral lands. She gloried in each grain of information she could winnow out.

The fragile castle librarian appeared touchingly grateful anyone had ventured into his musty domain. At first, he followed her round, bobbing at her elbow. Then, when he saw the direction of her studies, he vanished into the further reaches of the shelves, re-emerging half-choked with dust, holding out more and yet more crumbling volumes he thought might assist her.

Annie appeared in the doorway, to signal guests were arriving. Charis repressed the urge to snap with an effort that felt superhuman. How dare Annie intrude at a moment like this, when she was on the verge of important insights? How dare trivial concerns like guests intrude upon her delicious wallowing?

A split second later, she realised. Guests! How could she have been so dense?

“Annie! Summon my maids at once. My chamber, now. Oh, how am I supposed to greet anyone looking like a farmhouse slut after a rainstorm? Annie! Stop dawdling — we’ve not a moment to lose.”


The fair was all she had hoped. On the grassy slopes on the far side of the river the pavilions of the worthies rose in ranks of silk-trimmed canvas. Their fires at night were secondary constellations, glowing through the dusk. (The Castellan, prosaic and sour, observed, “Last time I saw a sight like that from a rampart, we were down to boiling rats for soup before the relief force got through.”)

The less worthy found shelter where they could. Annie, matter-of-factly explaining the swish and splash of buckets in the early morning, told her many simply passed out in doorways or building corners when the night’s ale proved too much. A dawn clean-up detail from the army camp woke them before any in the castle or the tented village were stirring, so no harm done.

The traders’ booths spiralled down, almost from the castle’s gates, following the single street until they engulfed even the lower parts of the village, beyond The Mariner’s Rest, where respectable people did not venture.

All the castle party succumbed to the general air of licence. Chris and Ray took to whispering in corners and giggling. Annie and Phyllis appeared in finery saved up against such a festival. Charis even surprised the castle librarian, whom she’d never seen out-of-doors before, returning from the fair early on the first day.

“Have you been shopping? What have the traders brought in? Is there anyone selling Chinese silks with dragons woven in? Or ginger in syrup?”

“Not shopping, no, ma’am.” He brushed across his forehead with the back of his hand. “My old eyes become weary these days. I’d heard an oculist had set up his booth. I went to see if he might mix me a soothing eye-wash.”

Charis bristled. How dare some peripatetic quack muscle in on her territory? Though, true, optics were a specialist branch, and one she’d had little experience of…

“Might I see?”

He produced a little stoppered bottle. She uncorked it and took a deep sniff. Rue and witch hazel, admirably sharp and defined, no hint of mildew and a good, scholar’s hand on the label.

She nodded her approval, handed it back and the librarian passed on through the archway into the castle.

She’d worried about presiding over the truce court. In fact, it proved simplicity itself. Flanked by the Castellan and Lord Lestrade (her thoughts lingered on his name, as if savouring a morsel), guided by their experience, she sent the petitioners away satisfied.

Still, the end of each day left her wondering if she should demand to go deeper, or whether they would laugh at her as an overconscientious novice, making too much of trifles.

Her co-judges rattled through a heavy caseload with admirable dispatch, true. They knew the lands and the people far better that she could, no doubt. No-one complained (who would dare?).

But —

Take that case about whether a dispute between local families had been cattle-rustling or a misunderstanding over when a particular instalment of a dowry became due. Odd that the bride had not looked to her husband when giving evidence, as was her wifely duty, or to her father, as habit might have dictated, but away, into the crowd, as if looking for some other guidance. Sherlock would have been bound to have known what to say, to shock her into an admission. But maybe she had nothing to admit. Lord Lestrade, coming down decisively on the dowry misunderstanding side of the argument, had seen nothing amiss, nor had the Castellan. She must be wrong.

On the final day of the truce, the horse races were held. Before dawn Charis and Annie rode down to inspect the course. Fortunately, Charis’s waiting gentlewoman had bunions, which made her unequal to the exercise.

The race stewards had done well. The ropes and pennants defined a fast, tricky circuit of thin soil, good turf and, so early in the year, excellent going. The startline was on the water-meadows. The course tracked along the firebreak which split the wooded slopes below the village, over the Royal highway and made a hard right turn on the far side of the army camp, finishing in a glorious straight just in front of the President’s box and the grandees’ stand.

Charis and Annie left their horses in the care of one of the grooms and set off on foot, the second groom trailing a decorous ten paces behind. So early in the day, the dew had yet to burn off the grass. The sky had a pearly sheen which betokened heat later. Too soon to tell if it would turn thunderous.

They had completed the circuit and returned to the water-meadows when a small knot of men emerged from the rushes. No-one could mistake their leader, his hair damp and tousled, his shirt negligently unlaced and hanging out of breeches which clung to damp, shapely legs even more tightly than their tailor had intended.

“Oh, there’s a shame, ma’am. Five minutes earlier and that would have been a sight for sore eyes.”

“Annie, be silent!” The order came out with all the self-righteousness of one who’d thought exactly the same, but at least had the grace not to utter it. From Annie’s barely suppressed grin, she’d taken it in exactly that spirit.

Charis raised her voice. “Good morning to you, Lord Lestrade. I trust you found your dip refreshing?”

She swept down in her lowest and most elaborate curtsey. When she lifted her gaze, it was to meet a mischievous sparkle in Lord Lestrade’s dark eyes.

“Milady, I find everything about this morning refreshing. Indeed, it improves with each passing minute…My friends and I were just setting out to walk the course. Might I prevail — too much to ask, I know — but might I have the honour of your company?”

The invitation caught her between extremes of delight and terror. Did he truly desire her company or was his invitation merely a thing of form, humouring the child he perhaps still thought her? Would accepting brand her a wanton in the eyes of Lord Lestrade and his companions? Would they talk about her that night in their cups, and laugh, in that way men did, like that?

What on earth was she supposed to say?

The training of years came to her aid. She paused for one carefully judged, artless second.

“My lord, what a fortunate chance. My companion and I came down from the castle with that very intention. But we’d not hoped to have the company of such a renowned horseman. Are you racing yourself?”

He smiled; it set her heart thumping. “I am, milady. It’s not the fashion in Gaaldine or Angria, but I’d scorn to leave the post of danger to some half-starved gypsy lad. What honour can there be in a trophy won by proxy?”

As if the thought had only just occurred, he added, “Of course, milady, it might be the prejudice of youth speaking. No doubt when thirty is well past, and forty begins to appear on the horizon — if I last so long — I’ll be more than happy to let a jockey risk his neck on my behalf. But, until then, the honours I lay at my love’s feet will be those I’ve fairly won.”

“Your love?” She pursed her lips as she had seen the Court beauties do, when they conversed with Papa. “The Border winds whisper strange tales about you, Lord Lestrade. They would have it your fancy shifts like an opal, as the sun turns.”

“Milady, I — the Border breezes wrong me. You know the wild-cat of the high forests? The more the shadows shift, the better he may stalk concealed. And, once he fixes on his object, not death itself can shake him from pursuit.” He dropped his voice, so she had to strain to hear. “You of all people should not impugn my constant heart, milady.”

The blood roared in her ears. She could hardly breathe. Her voice sounded as if from a long way away.

“Well then, my lord, should we proceed?”

She hooked her arm around his, ignoring Annie’s barely suppressed snort. Together, they paced down the course.

They were half-way along the firebreak when Phyllis’s messenger, red-faced and agitated, caught up with them. And that, of course, changed everything.