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Chapter 4 - The Cock o' the North by A.J. Hall

Charis had never felt so sick in her entire life. Nothing had prepared her for the noise, the stink, the press of bodies around her, the sheer pandemonium of the course. Truly, one saw nothing from the cool isolation of the Royal Box. (Up in those lofty heights Lady Backwater, the notorious second wife of one of the biggest landowners in the district, was making the most of her unexpected promotion. As they passed below, Charis saw her lean right across Colonel Wardlaw, giving him the full benefit of her ample assets. Momentarily distracted from her churning guts, Charis hoped the commander of her husband’s regiments knew stinking fish when he smelt it. There was mercury in the castle inventory, but she could think of few things worse than being called upon to prescribe it in such a case.)

She followed at Horatio’s boot-heels down the course, barely resisting the temptation to cling to his coat, relying on his sharp elbows and ready wit to force a way through the throng.

Mercifully, no-one in the crowd paid the slightest attention to her. Barefoot boys in hand-me-down jackets and breeches were everywhere. With walnut juice rubbed into every inch of exposed skin and a hot, itchy black wig concealing her own light hair, there was nothing to distinguish her from the rest of the locals.

Ray and a greenish-looking Chris were ahead of them at the paddock, hanging like grim death onto the reins of a black horse. It snorted and jittered, lashing out with powerful hooves, ears back and lather already starting around the bit.

The horse had not a white hair on its body. Charis plucked urgently at Horatio’s jacket sleeve.

“But that’s not —”

He turned to her and raised his finger to his lips. “Hush, mon brave. You of all people ought not to let appearances blind you to what lies underneath.”

A few paces ahead a tall man, wearing an absurd, overlong frock-coat despite the heat, stopped dead and turned to scrutinise them. Charis’s knees shook. However, after an endless moment, he raised his fiddle to his shoulder, nodded in salute to Horatio and wandered off into the throng, playing pizzicato. The strains of his song drifted back to them:

The word runs on the mountainside/The word runs on the strand
Our Lord the King has given his heart /To a widow from Eng-er-land

The smothering blanket of fear lifted, just a little. Oh, to see Mycroft’s face, if he could hear his affairs summed up in bawdy song on a provincial race-course! The thought sustained her through Ray and Chris’s last-minute, mutually contradictory tactical advice, which stirred up nerves and temper in equal measure. It sustained her as they wound a gaudy, stifling cloth around her neck and lower face. (Most of the riders had done the same, a precaution against divots and dust; it would not immediately mark her as someone in disguise.) It sustained her through being boosted aboard Thunderhead, who tossed his head, danced sideways and did everything short of dumping her ignominiously on the paddock turf.

Then she and Thunderhead were on their own, cantering down towards the mill on the start line. Still the tune rang in her head, a fine-spun thread linking her to a world a thousand miles away from this alien mass of heat and terror and turmoil.

A thread to cling on to.


CHRIST! The bastard — the lousy cheating bastard!” “It’s fine, she’s still up — oh, God, he’s barging in again— Yessss! Smack in his cheating face.” “Excellent use of the whip, my friend.” “I can’t look.” “Well don’t. And don’t try to sit up, or you’ll be sick again.” “Come ON! Come ON — only ten lengths more — “
“There’s Colonel Ross in the box — just look at his face — he knows his man’s shot his bolt —” “Holy Virgin — watch out, on the outside — ” “Christ, girl, don’t let that smarmy prick steal your race — NO! Don’t turn your head, just go for the line — Oh, shit.”

A trumpet sounded. The remainder of the field trailed across the finish line. Volunteers poured onto the course to round up the remaining loose horses. The one that had fallen in the firebreak stretch had already been despatched.

On the poles above the Royal Box, jerkily, the banners went up. On the lowest of the three poles, Colonel’s Ross’s black and red, on the far side, a fraction higher, their own yellow-and-black stripes, but in the centre, fluttering out in the post of honour —

Sabaton gules, field: chequy sable and argent.


No-one had told her how she would feel, after.

In the spirit of the moment, saying “yes” had been the easy course. It required less thought than saying “no”.

These were her people. If there was one point on which Papa and John and Sherlock and all the romances she had ever pored over in every library she had ever entered in the whole of her short life were agreed on, it was that a knight stayed true to his people, come what may.

To the lasting disappointment of everyone she had ever known, she was not, and never would be, a knight. Nonetheless, she would live or die by the knightly principle. She would defend her people, and her people’s honour.

But no-one had told her how she would feel, after.

At the end of the race she had dropped, bonelessly, from Thunderhead’s back into the arms of someone she only belatedly recognised as Horatio. He half-carried, half-propelled her up the hill, away from the course, into the Mariner’s Rest. There, in a back room, she sponged off the worst of the grime and walnut juice. She dropped borrowed jacket and breeches into a heap, lest they be recognised, wrapped herself once more in the respectable rust-black robes, and slipped through a side door into the street.

The day’s heat reflected back from stone walls and cobbles. The declining sun slanted long shadows across the near-deserted streets of the upper village.

Down the slope the course would still be thronged, bets would be being paid up, the starters for the next race called. Up at the castle, the evening’s banquet would be being prepared.

Caught between two worlds, she walked in blessed, unfamiliar solitude.

If anyone had been there to hear, she could have talked of the race until the sun set, and rose, and set again. In her head, she went over it stride by stride — the fear and the glory, the pride, the anger, the queer, twisted satisfaction as her slash with the whip had found its mark and — at the very last — fury at her own idiotic mistake.

For she really had only herself to blame. If only she had trusted her instincts, trusted Thunderhead, ignored the pounding hooves behind her and driven single-mindedly for the line.

It seemed hardly likely she would have another chance to race equal with men (and such men, too) and it would be a lifetime’s regret that she would only be able to think, “I raced and nearly won” rather than “I left them to eat my dust.”

The musician in the absurd frock coat was sitting on the steps of the stone cheese-market but his eyes were turned inward in his head, like those of a man who had taken kif, and he was oblivious to anything except his own thoughts. From the way his lips moved and he plucked out occasional phrases on the strings he must be composing something new.

Annie and Phyllis waited by the sally port, bubbling with suppressed giggles. They set her off, too. Not since she left her schoolfellows at the convent had she felt the same delicious sense of belonging. Together, arm in arm, distinctions of rank momentarily overlooked, they stole into the still-deserted castle.