Table of Contents

Chapter 3 - The Cock o' the North by A.J. Hall

“Chris, how could you?”

Apparently the shock of having his liege lady address him by his first name got through where all previous attempts had failed. He half sat up, stared at her muzzily, said in a tone of profound horror, “Oh, no!” and flopped back on the pillow. Using the minimum possible number of movements he turned onto his side and vomited feebly into the bucket placed there. He flopped back onto his back and closed his eyes again.

Charis looked across his supine body at Phyllis. With a minute crooking of her forefinger, she indicated she should join her in the passage outside. They found a convenient window embrasure, soaked with early sun. Just the place for a lady and her trusted servant to loiter, while the castle came to life around them.

“So. Now. Tell me everything. Make sure I’ve understood.”

Everything came gushing forth, as if she’d pumped a pump handle.

Two minutes into it Charis blessed Sherlock’s training at keeping a convoluted story straight in one’s head. Five minutes in, she wished he was hearing this, not her. She raised an arresting hand.

“Stop! Blessed Virgin, I don’t need you to drown me in excuses. Just tell me I’ve got the facts straight. You — you all — bet your entire wages on the outcome of a horse-race? With Chris riding?”

Her voice went up in a disbelieving shriek; she clapped her hand over her mouth lest anyone hear. Fortunately, they were all about their business downstairs.

“Not the whole race, ma’am. Just a side bet.” Phyllis sounded as if she was clinging to sanity by a thread.

In a flash of insight Charis saw how it must have been. Annie and Phyllis protesting the idiocy of the scheme; Ray and Chris bearing them down with that concentrated refusal to listen to objections which men seemed to find so much more effective than logical argument. Ray and Chris, flushed with enthusiasm, betting far more than they’d been given leave to hazard. Now all four of them were in the soup and Phyllis forced to intercede for them with Charis, without even the relief of an I told you so, at least in public.

And Phyllis’s messenger had snatched her away from walking the course, from Lord Lestrade’s entrancing presence, for this! As if she hadn’t got enough to think about, without people descending on her, demanding things, behaving as if she were somehow responsible for them, as if sorting out their petty little problems was somehow her job, as if —

As if, in short, she was the President of the truce, senior landowner to the North of the Border, lady to the Warden of the Border Marches and Queen of Gondal.

Charis bit out her next words with precise fury.

“So. Not an entire horse race. Not defeating the cream of every stables in the Borders. I suppose I should be relieved at the modesty of your ambitions. But defeating Colonel Ross’s white-striped bay? A side bet? Have any of you seen that horse gallop?”

From the strain around Phyllis’s mouth, the sense of a torrent of words kept back, Charis suspected she had not merely seen Colonel Ross’s white-striped bay perform, but had expressed herself forcibly on the topic.

Charis drew a deep breath.

“And did it not occur to Chris, once the bet was placed, that he shouldn’t have been drinking with anyone, let alone Colonel Ross’s men?”

“He couldn’t have known —”

“He could have had wit enough to guess.” Time was running short. Her mind flicked to her accounts rolls — she could cover the losses, if worst came to worst, but it would take a nasty bite out of this quarter’s domestic appropriations, even if Phyllis had told her the full extent of their exposure, which she’d lay her own odds she hadn’t, and she was damned if she was going to petition Mycroft for an advance from her dower coffers in such a cause. Besides, this was a sporting wager — not just money, but honour in the balance and she’d sat through enough cases in the truce court by now to know just what affronted honour led to, in the Borders —

“Can anyone else take the ride?”

Phyllis shook her head, but her expression belied the gesture. Charis decoded it with ease. She made an exasperated noise.

“You cannot possibly be serious.”

“Who else could do it? Ma’am. You’ve been riding Thunderhead every day for the last fortnight —”

“Who told you?”

The Castellan’s haphazard custodianship had confined Charis’s official rides to promenades on a palfrey so placid it was practically stunned, or, at best, to short canters on the Creature. The Castellan, though, could not be everywhere, especially since his injury. Someone had to exercise his charger. Masters of the castle horse, likewise, had to live, especially when (as Annie helpfully hinted) they were supporting two families, an official one in the grace-and-favour next to the stable block and an unofficial lady in the next village down the valley.

Charis would never love Thunderhead the way she loved the Creature, but those surreptitious dawn gallops had given her a sense of kinship with the powerful black stallion with the lightning-flash blaze. He, too, was trapped in an unchanging valley, with few opportunities to show his quality.

Phyllis delivered herself of a pointed sniff. “Someone in the castle needed to know, in case we’ve a broken neck to account for one of these mornings. But since you know the horse, and ride a good ten pounds less than Chris —”

“Fifteen at a minimum!”

“Thought that might fetch you, ma’am. Aye. Well. Could be. As I was saying, since you know the horse —”

“I’m supposed to be watching the race. To say nothing of handing out the prizes afterwards. How am I supposed to be in two places at once?”

Phyllis’s face relaxed. Belatedly Charis realised that in moving to “how?” she had conceded vital ground on “whether?”

“Ma’am, you’re the Crown Princess. No-one has the right to tell you where you should be — well, save for two people, maybe, and they aren’t here, thank all the saints. You don’t have to give any excuse for not attending the races — you’re honouring them, not the other way round — but if you choose to let it be known you’ve had urgent dispatches from Court that require your attention, then who’s going to challenge you?”

“The Castellan —”

Phyllis gave an eloquent snort. “You hardly think, ma’am, we’d have aimed to race his horse in the festival if we hadn’t already had a plan for the Castellan?”

Charis blinked, and concluded that if rank had any privileges, they assuredly included not having to delve any deeper into the implications of that remark. She returned to more pressing issues.

“Anyway, I can’t go making an exhibition of myself in the face of all the Borders. Think of the scandal!”

Phyllis got to her feet. “Follow me — that is, if you would be so good, ma’am.”

Stealing out of the castle turned out to be easy, once Phyllis had draped her in a rusty black robe of homespun wool, the kind of thing up-country grandmothers wore to muck out the goats or bring water from the spring. Wearing it was like having a cloak of invisibility. Something to remember.

She had not expected them to go as far as the Mariners’ Rest — for a moment she even feared they would go past, into the wilds of the lower town. Phyllis’s knock must be known; the tavern’s door opened and they passed into an alien world.

Even Charis had to stoop to avoid banging her head on the lintel. The maid who had let them in vanished into the back of the inn. Phyllis plonked herself down on a stool, with an air of expectancy. Charis, too much on edge to sit, wandered around the room.

The air reeked of tallow and stale tobacco smoke. It was sharp with asafoetida and a hint of myrrh. A shark’s white-bleached jaws hung above the bar counter, forever agape in a jagged grin. A moulded bronze head — full-lipped, long nosed and surmounted by a many-layered tiara — surveyed her from a stand in the corner. The weary detachment in its wide-spaced eyes transcended time and distance. She had seen it in her father’s face and in her brother Mycroft’s. Even without the crown, Charis would have known it as a royal portrait.

She crossed the room to inspect a stuffed bird above the fireplace and instead found her hand exploring a deep, time-smoothed notch in the black oak mantel-shelf.

“Now that’s a funny thing I’ve seen since I’ve been here. Whoever comes in here, whatever else I give them to look at, they always go to that.”

The rich, relaxed voice came from out of the gloom behind her. Booted feet crossed the bar parlour, ringing loud on the flagstones. With a great effort, Charis prevented herself from turning round.

“Who did it?”

“Self-evidently, a short man in a very bad mood. More than that, I cannot say.”

At that, she did turn round. The tavern-owner — he could be no-one else — stood smiling at her.

Any thought of standing on her dignity melted like butter on a griddle. She would sooner have pulled rank with her confessor. Indeed, the tavern-keeper’s very presence gave her that sense of a burden being lifted that came after a good confession, the sort one dreaded for days.

“Horatio,” the tavern-keeper added helpfully. “And you, of course, will be —”

“No names,” Phyllis rapped out. “Not here.”

He nodded. “No problem. In any event, I was only going to say, ‘And you, of course, will be Thunderhead’s new rider’.” He paused for a second. “A better choice than Chris, at that.”

“As far as seat and nous goes, certainly.” Phyllis’s sour expression made the compliment all the sweeter. Her next words brought Charis back to earth.

“As for the rest — well, she’s got to pass close up, as well as in a crowd, and if she gets unmasked — well, that’s a rough bunch out there, and they aren’t conspicuous for being broad-minded.”

Horatio raised an eyebrow. “You sure? This is the Borders. All can be taken in stride, if you just sing it to the right tune.”

Phyllis snorted. “Then I suggest you find us a bloody good musician.”

“Again, no problem. The town is full of them at present.” His face crinkled in a smile. “As you know very well, my friend. How much did you pay that fiddler to give us The King and the Widow from England yesterday?”

“Ssh.” The look Phyllis shot in her direction might have been evidence of guilt, if Charis had thought her capable of it. “What happens at the fair stays at the fair. At least, if I’ve got anything to do with it. So, Horatio, what do you reckon?”

He looked her up and down, with the cool, dispassionate scrutiny of a fencing master or a dressmaker.

“A wise man told me recently, ‘the most convincing lies are those a man tells himself’. It’s not what you look like that will matter; it’s who the crowd will think you are. Come with me.”