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Chapter 5 - The Cock o’ the North by A.J. Hall

“The gentlemen beg leave to rejoin the party, if it please you, ma’am.”

The sound of the withdrawing room door creaking open was a symphony composed by St Cecelia herself. Joy swept over Charis; release at last from Lady Backwater’s coarse preening over her lovers and Lady Desborough’s interminable recital of her children’s excellences. Lord Lestrade, entering first among the gentlemen, caught the full benefit. His face altered. Abruptly, he turned his head aside like a man emerging from a dark door into sunlight too bright for him to endure. Giving her only a sketch of a bow, barely enough for gentility’s sake, he blundered past and sank into the window-seat, waving away the servitor’s offer of refreshment.

She gasped. Then, as Colonels Ross and Wardlaw entered side by side as befitted the two military men of the gathering, the spirit of Mischief or of her more reputable cousin, Inspiration, infected her.

She dropped into a low curtsey before the two colonels. As she rose, she nodded to Colonel Ross.

“My commiserations on this afternoon’s defeat; it must be bitter indeed. My household told me your white-striped bay was reputed all but invincible.”

Discipline put fetters on the colonel’s tongue, though it was plain from his face the shaft had gone home. She thought of Chris’s distress — if Colonel Ross had been ignorant of his grooms’ chicanery, then shame on him for an inattentive master! — and twisted the weapon with a sure hand.

“Of course, on this side of the Border, they had not have had the opportunity to see Lord Lestrade ride, and would not heed my tales from Gondal’s court. If you must lose, colonel, no shame to lose to his lordship. My father, the king, himself, often said that a horseman of Lord Lestrade’s calibre arises but once or twice in a generation.”

Out of the tail of her eye she caught a stir from the direction of the window-seat.

Colonel Ross, his Borders accent becoming more marked by the second, his speech punctuated by little, angry jerks of his chin, rapped out, “Nothing would give me greater pleasure than a fair race between my horse and Lord Lestrade’s Bayard.”

Booted feet hit the flagged floor.

What did you say?”

Charis spun, to see Lord Lestrade already on his feet in the window embrasure. As for the look on his face — Holy Virgin! Not even on the race start line had terror and exhilaration so warred within her.

“The Widowmaker.” She had boasted of his nickname to Frances, the day they met. She blushed for the callow girl of half a year ago, repeating like an infant or a parrot a phrase heard but not — until this instant — understood.

All the men were disarmed, as custom demanded, but Charis sneaked a glance at the archaic war trophies pinned to the walls, and prayed their fixings were sound.

Colonel Ross signalled the servitor to refill his brandy glass. It took three attempts. He raised it in an abbreviated salute to Lord Lestrade.

“Let be, lad; I’m a fowl too old and scrawny to be worth your skewering.”

Charis had never realised, before, that high courage might come wrapped in a fussy, dapper little package, with a shiny, bald head and an uptilted white moustache.

Charis saw Lord Lestrade’s knuckles clenched white with strain. “I’ll know your meaning, sir. Are you asserting I did not race fair?”

“You, my lord? No.”

“Then what do you mean to imply, sir?” The edge of Lord Lestrade’s rage had blunted; his tone showed it.

Lady Backwater dropped, disappointed, to a sopha. Lady Desborough raised her handkerchief to her lips and let out a feeble giggle.

“Imply?” Colonel Ross shook his head. “Did you not see my man brutally served by that gypsy lad on Rasper?”

For a moment, Charis was baffled. Then hot shame, mixed with indignation, overcame her. Fortunately, the company were too focussed on the little bantam-cock colonel to notice.

“Slashed with the whip, right across his face. Without that coward’s trick, my lord, I warrant he would have fought you hard for —”

Charis, her face crimson, made rather a business of moving to Annie, standing immobile againt the wall, and giving unnecessary instructions about sweetmeats. Everyone ignored her.

Lady Backwater oozed across to Colonel Ross.

“Deprived of victory, and by a perfidious gypsy? Oh, sir, I do feel for you — and yet, what a daring lad, and such a fighter! Oh, la! I only wish I’d met him.”

“I wish I’d met the owner.” The Castellan puffed unbecomingly up the stairs into the withdrawing chamber and flopped, heavily and without apology into the chair that had been made ready for him. “I’d be tempted to make him an offer. I’d not thought there was a horse in the Borders who was the equal of my Thunderhead — present company excepted — yet this Rasper could have been out of the same dam.”

Charis avoided meeting Annie’s eye.

“Who is the owner?” Colonel Ross demanded. “I’m minded to send him my compliments and ask him if he proposes to defend his rider’s blackguardry.”

Charis’s heart skipped a beat. She felt a soft tug on her sleeve and turned to find Annie, who whispered in her ear. Charis turned back to the assembled guests.

“I am informed the dancing is about to begin. Shall we repair below?”

Lord Lestrade strode across the room. “My lady? Might I claim the honour of opening the ball with you? Truly, I would set all today’s laurels — however won — as blades of grass besides that favour.”

Charis’s heart missed a beat, and started thudding erratically. Could he have penetrated her secret? The way he had stressed the word “however” hinted as much. And, truly, when she had turned her head to look, perhaps her facecovering had slipped —

If so, he gave no other sign of it. She descended the wide, shallow staircase on his arm. Trumpeters on either side announced the arrival of the castle party in the state ballroom.

Under cover of the noise Lord Lestrade leaned in a little and said, very low,
“You have grown up a great deal in these last years, milady. I had — in truth, I had not expected to find in you what I have. And that which I have found — Good God, to think we let the greatest jewel in all Gondal pass out of our keeping and into our enemy’s stronghold.”

“Stronghold?” She felt possessed; giddy with the exhilaration of the day, with the wine she had drunk at dinner, with the danger which she had felt above, in the withdrawing room, when Lord Lestrade had all but challenged Colonel Ross. “But, my lord, I am chatelaine here. I keep the keys — none other.”

“Ah!” Lord Lestrade’s sigh almost sounded like a gasp. “My lady, I depart tomorrow. As matters stand, who knows when we may meet again. I would pay my farewells to you — if farewells they must be — as friend to friend, not chilled by the cold breath of diplomacy and the guard of publicity. If you would come to the village church, a whit after Terce, come alone and I will speak the thoughts of my heart to you.”

Her mind reeled. All her training, all her instincts, told her she was stepping onto quicksand. Women of equal rank had been incarcerated for life for less than that. But if it were only to say farewell…

Distantly, amid the press, she glimpsed Lady Backwater, her face alight with calculation. How dare that woman’s coarse imagination reduce all that was beautiful, pure and sacred to her own base coinage? She’d show her how wrong she was.

Charis swung back to Lord Lestrade. “Yes, my lord. I shall come.”


She reached her room, footweary from the dancing, head ringing with the music, guts churning with rich food and excitement. There, on the very centre of her pillow, rested a single red rose, its stem wrapped in the gold chain awarded to the owner of the winning horse.

Beneath it lay a scrap of paper, inscribed in an unmistakeable hand.

My lady. Until the seas dry and the mountains fall.