A Famine of Horses: A Sir Robert Carey Mystery #1

A Famine of Horses: A Sir Robert Carey Mystery #1

With a Note From the Author. In the year 1592, Sir Robert Carey, a handsome courtier, comes north to Carlisle to take up his new post as Deputy Warden of ...

About The Author

P F Chisholm

P.F. Chisholm is a pseudonym of a well-known writer of historical thrillers, childrens’ books, and nonfiction blogs and ebooks. Previous ...

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Sunday, 18th June 1592, noon

Henry Dodd let the water drip off the end of his nose as he stared at a trail in the long sodden grasses. It was simple enough: two horses, both burdened, though from a long slide mark by a little hump he thought the bigger of the two was carrying a pack rather than being ridden by a man who could have avoided it. The prints kept close enough for the one to be leading the other.

He looked up and squinted at the low hills north of the border where the Picts’ Wall ran. They melted into the grey sky so it seemed there was no difference between the earth and the cloud and a lesser man might have made comparisons between them and the area of moss and waste between, where the purely theoretical change between England and Scotland took place.

Sergeant Henry Dodd, however, had no time for such fancyings. He was mortally certain that the two men, or possibly one and a packhorse, had been where they had no business to be, and he wanted to know why.

Blinking intently at the traces, he turned his horse and let her find her own path amongst tussocks and rabbit holes, following the trail before it was washed into mud.

Behind him his six patrolmen muttered into their chests and followed in sodden misery. They had been on their way home to Carlisle from a dull inspection of the fords on the River Sark when the Sergeant had seen the trail and taken it into his head to follow it. By the time they got to the guardroom, Lowther’s men would have taken the best beer and the least stale loaves and if there was cheese or meat left, it would be a wonder.

Dodd crested a small rise and paused. Ahead of him three crows yarped in alarm and flapped into the sky from a little stand of gorse, to which the trail led directly.

“Sergeant…” began Red Sandy Dodd, nervously. “We’re still in England.”

“We could send some men out this  afternoon…”

Dodd twisted in the saddle and looked gravely at his brother, who shrugged, smiled and subsided. The sergeant turned and kicked his reluctant mare down the slope towards the  gorse.

The others followed, sighing.

Beside the stand of gorse was a stone marked about by the prints of hooves where horses had stood. From there into the gorse there was a swathe of flattened and rubbed grass, stained here and there by smears of brown almost completely turned back to mud now. None of the horses wanted to approach, they neighed and sidled at the smell. The Sergeant’s mare tipped her hip and snorted long and liquidly in warning.

Dodd leaned on his saddle crupper and nodded at the youngest of them.

“Right, Storey, go and fetch it out.”

Bessie’s Andrew Storey had a pleasant round face with a few carefully nurtured brown whiskers about the upper lip and he looked denser than he was.

“In there, sir?”

You’re struggling against fate, said the Sergeant’s dour look. “Ay,” he answered.

Dodd turned away to inspect the marks in the ground again. Bessie’s Andrew looked at the gorse and knew his horse had more sense than to venture in. He slid down from his saddle, knocking his helmet from its hook as he went and muttered as it landed in a puddle. “Bessie’ll have your guts if yon man’s got plague,” said Bangtail

Graham cheerily. Dodd grunted at him.

Nobody else spoke as Storey squelched through the scrub, following the trail, pushing spines aside with his elbows and sidling through the gaps as best he could. His sword caught on a low branch and another spined branch whipped back as he let go of it and caught him round the back of the head. Still cursing he disappeared from sight.

“There’s a body here, Sergeant,” he called at  last.

“Is there now,” said Dodd in tones of sarcastic wonder. “Whose?”

“I’m not sure, sir. The face…” There was a pause and a sound of swallowing. “The face is pecked, sir.”

“Guess.”

“I dunno, sir. From the look of his jack, I’d say it might be a Graham.”

There was a general shifting in saddles. Dodd sighed deeply as Bangtail Graham came up beside him looking worried and intent. The other men looked covertly at the two of them from under their lashes.

“Which Graham?”

“Dunno, sir. He was shot in the back.” More silence.

“Fetch him out then, man,” said Dodd gently, “it’s wet out here.”

Barnabus Cooke had bruises and blisters on his backside and was filled with loathing for his master. The rain fell without cease, as it had since they left Newcastle, the horses were sulky and unwilling, two of the packs had been so ill-stowed by the grooms at their last inn that they forever threatened to break loose. In the meantime the expensive brocade trim on his cloak (that his master had told him not to bring) was ruined, and his velvet doublet would need an hour of brushing if it was not to dry to a lumpish roughness and his ruff was a choking wad of soaked linen that he had not the heart to take off and squeeze dry.

His master came trotting up to ride beside him and smiled. “Only another ten miles, Barnabus, and we’ll be in Carlisle.”

Ten more miles, only ten, thought Barnabus in despair, what’s sir’s bum made of then, cured leather? “Yes, Sir Robert,” he said. “Any chance of a rest?”

“Not around here, Barnabus,” said Sir Robert Carey, looking about as if he was in some dubious alley in London. “Best keep going and rest once we’re inside the castle.”

Barnabus looked about as well, seeing nothing but disgusting empty green hills, close-packed small farms, coppices of trees, rain, sky, rain. No sign of civilisation except the miserable stone walls the barbarian northerners used in place of proper hedges, and the occasional ominous tower in the distance.

Behind him trailed the four garrison men from Berwick that Sir Robert’s brother had sent to meet them at Newcastle, and behind that Barnabus’s nephew Simon whose mother had terrorised him into taking her baby to learn him gentle ways. That was while he and Sir Robert had been at Court, serving Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, eating palace food and standing about in anterooms and galleries while Barnabus raked in fees from the unwary who thought, mistakenly, that the Queen’s favourite cousin might be able to put a good word in her ear. That was in the happy profitable time before the letter came for Sir Robert via the Carlisle Warden’s messenger riding post. Barnabus had been sent out to buy black velvet and see if Mr Bullard would give Carey a bit more credit and make a new suit in two days flat.

To be fair Sir Robert had offered to get Barnabus a job with his friend the Earl of Cumberland if he didn’t want to go into foreign northern parts. He’d even offered to pay some of the back wages he owed, but Barnabus Cooke had been too much of a fool to grab the offer and stay in London where he could understand what men said.

The four Berwick men were muttering incomprehensibly to each other again. One came cantering past Barnabus, spraying him with mud, to talk urgently to Sir  Robert.

Barnabus hunched his back and shifted forwards a little to try and take the weight off the worst worn parts of him. Sir Robert was talking quickly with the soldier, his voice suddenly tinged with an ugly northern harshness, so Barnabus could no longer understand him either.

There were men with lances on one of the hills nearby, he could see that now. Sir Robert was staring at them, narrowing his eyes, peering north, then south.

Barnabus began to feel a little sick. Everyone was behaving exactly as if they were in Blackfriars coming out of a primero game and the alley was blocked by armed men.

There were eight lancers, to be precise.

Sir Robert was riding alongside him now.

“Have Simon come up behind me,” he said in a low voice. “Where’s your gun?”

Barnabus collected his scattered wits. “In the…er…in the case, sir.”

“I told you to have it ready.” “Well, but…it’s raining, sir” “Is it loaded?”

Barnabus was offended. “Of course.” He saw that Sir Robert already had his own dag out under his cloak, and was winding the lock with a little square key he carried on his belt. Suddenly Sir Robert’s insistence on expensive modern wheel-lock guns without powderpans made sense—who could keep a powderpan dry in this weather?

“Sir,” ventured Barnabus, beginning to think, “if it’s footpads, I’ve my daggers.”

Sir Robert nodded. “Good man,” he said. “Go to the rear with Robson. If there are eight on the hill, there’s another four behind us, somewhere. If they come up fast, kill  them.”

“What, all four, sir?”

“As many as you can, Barnabus.” “Right sir.”

Sir Robert turned his horse to go to the front, stopped. “Aim for the faces, they’ll be wearing padded jacks.” “Yes sir.”

Heart thudding under his wrecked doublet, Barnabus slowed his horse until he was level with Simon, sent the boy up ahead and then nodded to the Berwick man who joined  him.

“Spot of bother coming then, eh?” he said brightly, hoping the rain would disguise the fact that he was  sweating.

The Berwick man frowned at him, shook his head. “Ah wouldna like tae ride for Carlisle at this  distance.”

“No,” said Barnabus with feeling, “Nor me.” “It’s aye the packs they’ll be  after.”

Barnabus made a face. The three pack ponies were trudging along under a remarkable quantity of clothes and gear, including, Barnabus was sure from the weight, a certain amount of weaponry.

“Why didn’t Sir John send more men?” asked Barnabus, “Seeing it’s his brother.”

There was a cold stare from the Berwick man. “He didnae have more men to send.”

“Well,” said Barnabus desperately, “we’re still in England, ain’t we? They can’t be Scots, surely?”

The Berwick man rolled his eyes and did not deign to answer. They rode along and the men with the lances paced with them.

Sir Robert was casting increasingly anxious glances to the rear. At last, one of the broader of the strangers detached from the group and rode down through the scrub to stop beside a flowing pothole. Sir Robert held up his hand to stop his own procession and trotted forwards, smiling blithely. That was a thing the Court taught you, reflected Barnabus, drying his hands on his padded breeches and taking out one of his daggers covertly under his cloak. To paste a smile on your face and keep it there, no matter  what.

The two men talked while Barnabus tried to see in two directions at once. Was that a movement behind a rock there, in the rain? The sticky squelching was only the rearmost pony shifting his feet, and that…no, it was a  rabbit.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Sir Robert laugh, lean forward and…thank God, shake the man’s hand. Barnabus let his breath puff out once more, and resheathed his dagger with fingers that were trembling so much it took him three tries.

Sir Robert waved them on towards him, while the broad northerner did the same with his men. Snorting protestingly the pack ponies let themselves be led forward to pick between the pools and ridges, while the strangers came down from their hillock. Four more materialised from the south, but walking not galloping. “My brother-in-law Lord Scrope,” said Sir Robert loudly, “has very kindly sent Mr Thomas Carleton, Captain of Bewcastle, to escort us the last few miles into Carlisle, the country being somewhat unsettled since the death of his father.”

The Berwick men grunted and relaxed a little. Barnabus suddenly felt his gut congeal as he puzzled out the implications. Footpads were one thing, highwaymen were another thing, but a country where the Lord Warden of the West March had to send an escort for the area around his own city…What in God’s name was Carey doing here?

“Welcome to Carlisle,” said the Captain of Bewcastle, looking like a beer barrel but sitting his horse as if he were born on it and ignoring the little rivers running down the curves of his helmet. “I see the weather’s kept nice for  you.”

Bangtail Graham had gone into the gorse to help young Storey and after a while and a great deal more profanity, the two of them came struggling out with the dripping corpse between them. It was well stiff, but in a bent position, as if the lad had been frozen while making a bow for the first time in his life. Dodd gestured for them to lay it down on its side, and dismounted to take a closer look.

He’d been shot from behind, that was clear enough. There was a gaping hole in the chest and white ribs visible in the mess of red, mixed with tatters of shirt, doublet and leather jack with the padding quilted in the Graham pattern. The crows had not had time to wreck his face completely: there was no mistaking the long jaw and sallow skin of a Graham. No doubt the eyes would have been grey.

Red Sandy had ridden up behind Dodd to peer at the body. “Devil take it,” he said. “Is that…?”

“Ay,” said Bangtail, wiping his hands on the seat of his horse, looking upset and disgusted, “it’s Sweetmilk Geordie.”

“Oh Christ,” said somebody.

“Jock of the Peartree’s youngest boy,” said Dodd heavily. Bangtail nodded. “He’ll not be  happy.”

Dodd blinked through the thinning rain at the grubby sky and wondered briefly what particular thing he had done was warranting this, in God’s ineffable judgment. Storey was openly worried, while the other men were gathering closer and looking over their shoulders as if they were expecting a feud to explode immediately like a siege bomb. Which it would, of course, but in due time. Dodd coughed and shook his head at Archie Give- it-Them who had his hand on his swordhilt.

“Sim’s Will Croser, I want your  horse.”

Sim’s Will was the next youngest to Storey and slid from his mount resignedly, grabbing his steel bonnet from the pommel and putting it on. As if he had shouted an order, the others all put on their own helmets. Dodd thought about it and decided to stay with his squelching cap. Why deliberately look more martial than you were?

Croser was taking his own cloak off, but Storey said, “His cloak’s in the gorse still.”

Sim’s Will crashed into the gorse to fetch it, while Dodd walked all around the corpse and toed him. Dead and gone since yesterday, no doubt of it. The pale leather of the jack was stained black around the small hole in the back where the bullet went  in.

Croser had returned and was laying the cloth on the ground. Storey and Bangtail moved the corpse onto it and bundled it up, a makeshift shroud. Bangtail tried to cross Sweetmilk’s arms on what was left of his chest. The corpse was not co-operative so he made the Sign of the Cross on his own. Croser covered his horse’s eyes and led him forwards, while Story and Bangtail huffed and heaved to get Sweetmilk slung over the animal’s back before he knew what was happening. Sweetmilk fitted nicely, which helped. By the time the hobby’s small but sharp brain had taken note of the blood and the weight and it had begun to hop and kick, Croser had wrapped his stirrup leathers round Sweetmilk Graham’s wrists and ankles and after a couple of protesting whinnies, it quieted and stood looking offended at  Croser.

“Lead your horse, Sim’s Will,” said Dodd. “Archie and Bangtail to the front, Archie goes ahead a way, Bessie’s Andrew and myself with you, Red Sandy and Long George at the back. Anyone asks, it was a Bell we found.”

They paced on towards the ford of the Esk at Longtown, hoping they would meet no Grahams.

Longtown was quiet and the ford seemed clear of danger, though the water was higher than usual. Archie Give-it-Them splashed across, scrambled up the bank, and cantered on down the path. Dodd waited a minute, then gestured for the rest of them to go on. Then just as they were in the middle of the ford, Archie came galloping back on the opposite bank, with five fingers raised, and then a thumb pointing down, meaning he’d seen ten men ahead, and as Dodd made to draw his sword, five more came out of the bushes on foot. Bugger, thought  Dodd.

“I’m the Sergeant of the Carlisle Guard,” he shouted. “We’re on Warden’s business.”

Bangtail’s horse was already out on the bank, but Sim’s Will, Bessie’s Andrew and Dodd were still in mid-stream because Sim’s Will was having trouble leading his hobby through the high water. Bessie’s Andrew stared open-mouthed at the lances surrounding them, stock still. Dodd swung about and brought his crop down on the laden animal’s rump. It whinnied, pranced sideways and at last Croser hauled the snorting animal up the other bank. Dodd and Andrew Storey followed.

“Surely they wouldna dare…” stuttered Bessie’s  Andrew.

Well, at least, Dodd thought, feeling his pulse in his temples and wishing he’d put his helmet on while he had the chance, if they were planning to dare, they would have done it while we were still sloshing about in the Esk.

A long-faced, grey-eyed, grey-haired ruffian in a patched and mended jack and a dull blued steel helmet trotted forward, his two younger sons behind him. The third they had across Croser’s hobby, of course. Surely nothing he’d done recently deserved this much trouble, Dodd though protestingly. Just in time he saw that the idiot lad Storey was reaching for his sword, and he spurred his horse up behind and cuffed the boy out of the  saddle.

“If you want a fight, you can fight them alone,” he  said.

Jock of the Peartree smiled. He had four teeth missing and one chipped and a nose that had been broken at least three times. Storey picked himself up out of the mud resentfully.

“Now then, Jock Graham,” said Dodd  civilly.

“Is that one of mine ye have there, Sergeant  Dodd?

Dodd did not look at the corpse. “It’s one of the Bells, I think,” he said. “We’re taking him to  Carlisle…”

“I’ll have him.”

Dodd sucked his teeth and thought. He liked silence, and the little jinks of harness and the creaking noise made by men in leather jacks leaning forward with their spears only confirmed the blessedness of it. Behind them the Esk was purling its way to the marshes about Rockcliffe castle and thence to the sea. There were hardly any men in the fields with the wet, most of them at the summerings anyway, a few women peering out of their huts further down the road. Jock folded his arms and narrowed his eyes impatiently. Dodd could see no reason for hurry, the man was dead after all.

“Well Jock,” he said at last, “I’d need to ask the Warden’s permission…”

“Now.”

Dodd sighed, his gloomy face lengthening with weariness. “What makes you so interested in a Bell?”

“I’m nae interested in any dead Bell, nor you neither Sergeant, and ye know it. I think he’s a Graham,” said Jock. “That’s good enough for me. I’ve five men out…”

“On a raid?”

“They were in Carlisle to buy horses.”

“Ah,” said Dodd agreeably, “I see. Well, Jock, as you know, I’d like to oblige you, but I canna. If you had found him, that would be one thing. But we found him and that makes him Warden business for the moment.”

“If ye drop him accidental off the horse, and I come upon him, then I’ve found him, eh?” suggested  Jock.

Dodd looked at his men. “If it was myself and none other, then I’d oblige you, Jock.” He glared at Bangtail who seemed dangerously close to opening his mouth. If Jock of the Peartree knew for sure that his favourite son was dead, there was no telling what he might do…God help the man that killed Sweetmilk, Dodd thought, for nobody else will dare.

He leaned on the crupper again, calculating ways and means. They were about five miles from Carlisle which was over-far for a race as far as he was concerned, if he could avoid it, and nobody in their right senses wanted to mix it with the Graham surname. Storey might, but then Storey had family reasons.

Jock of the Peartree was speaking. “What use d’ye have for a corpse in Carlisle?” he demanded. “There’s a man that’ll foul no more bills and it’s late to think of stretching a rope wi’ him.”

“It’s the law, Jock,” Sergeant Dodd explained, all sweet reason, with a trickle of either rain or sweat itching his back under his shirt. On the other hand they were at least talking, and it was probable even the Grahams might think twice about killing the Sergeant of the Carlisle Guard and his men. Possible at any rate. “The law says there should be an inquest for him and an inquest there will be. If he’s yours, ye can have him to bury in two days.” As if that closed the conversation, Dodd clucked at his horse, waved the men on, and rode slowly past the Grahams. Collectively holding their breath and praying that the Grahams were not in a mood for a fight, the patrolmen followed after, with Croser’s mare pecking irritably at the leading rein as she bore her cloak-wrapped burden. The prickling down Dodd’s spine continued until he heard Jock of the Peartree shout,

“Two days, Henry Dodd, or I’ll burn your wife from your land.”

Red Sandy winced, but Dodd merely looked back once and then continued. Bangtail Graham, who was Jock’s nephew by marriage, had the grace to look embarrassed.

“It’s his way of talking, sir…” Dodd’s face cracked open a little.

“God help your uncle if he goes up against my wife and her kin, Bangtail,” he said, before slouching deep into the saddle and seeming to fall asleep.

They reached Carlisle as the rain slackened off a little and the day slumped towards evening. The cobbles were slippery and treacherous and none of the townsfolk were impressed by Dodd or his men, making way with very ill grace.

“What will we do with him?” asked Red Sandy as they passed through the gate by the uneven towers of the Citadel. “We canna take him to Fenwick or any other undertaker, Jock will hear ye lied to him by morning.”

Most of the shopkeepers on English street were too busy shutting up their shops to pay much attention to  them.

“I never lied to him.” said Dodd, “I said I thought it was a Bell. I canna help it if I made a  mistake.”

Red Sandy grinned and waited.

“We’ll take him to the castle and find a storeroom to put him in until the inquest.”

Once past the Captain’s Tower into Carlisle keep, they found the courtyard and its rabble of huts full of disorderly folk. Lowther was back from an inspection of the Bewcastle waste, and the castle guard was being changed. Carleton and his men were in town as well. Dodd and his men threaded quietly through the confusion to the Queen Mary Tower, where he, Bessie’s Andrew and Red Sandy hauled Sweetmilk awkwardly up the stairs and into one of the empty chambers that unexpectedly had tallow dips lit around the walls. They rolled the corpse onto the bed and covered it up with the counterpane.

“He’ll ruin the bedcover…” muttered Bessie’s Andrew, whose mother gave him a hard life.

“Aw shut your worriting, Andrew,” said Red Sandy. “Any fool knows a corpse that cold doesna bleed and, besides, that counterpane’s older than you are, or it should be, the state it’s in.” When they clattered down the stairs and out under the rusted portcullis, they found Bangtail and Long George waiting for them in great excitement.

“Ten new horses in the stables?” Not even Dodd could hide his blazing curiosity which he showed by rubbing his cheek with his knuckles. They hurried to the stables by the New Barracks to look at the beasts.

Four of them were easy enough, being long-coated hobbies with Berwick garrison brands on them; the other six were puzzles, no doubt about it, great tall animals that stood with their heads hanging down in weariness as they munched at their fodder and steam still coming off them, though they had been unsaddled and rubbed down already. One in particular was a large-boned handsome warhorse that looked almost a different kind of animal from the ugly little hobbies he was sharing stables with. Nobody in the entire West March owned a horse like that. Nor did anyone recognise the brands but there were no strange grooms about to question and so they all went back to the barracks in search of vittles.

As expected, Lowther’s men had made free with their rations and the ale had succumbed to the usual vinegar fly, so they went back through the Captain’s Gate to the outer ward where Bessie Storey had her strictly illegal but long-tolerated alehouse hard by the crosswall.

An hour later, Dodd’s belly was gratefully full of Bessie’s incomparable stew and ale, and he was already hoarse with argument over the likely stamina of the six new horses and how a cross with one of his hobbies might turn out.

“See, you’d get the southern speed and a bit of extra bone…” Red Sandy was explaining when he noticed Dodd had gone silent and was trying to become invisible in the back of the booth. Red Sandy looked at the door and saw a boy in Scrope’s livery craning his neck.

“Sergeant Dodd, Sergeant Dodd…” called the boy.

“He’s here,” said Bessie’s Andrew, waving, no doubt getting his revenge for the gorse bush.

The boy came barging over through the press, neat work with his elbows.

“Sergeant Dodd,” he squeaked, stopped and managed to drop his voice. “The Warden wants you, he wants you in the Keep, sir.” “Now?” asked Dodd, wondering why he had paid good cash to be Sergeant of the Warden’s Guard and whether he could find some fool to sell the office to and recover his  money.

“He wants you to meet his new Deputy.” “I already know Richard Lowther.”

“No sir.” The boy’s face was alight with pleasure at knowing something Dodd didn’t. The conversations round about them suddenly sputtered and died. “It’s not him.”

“What?” demanded Dodd, who had been straining himself to be pleasant to Lowther in anticipation of his confirmation in the Deputyship.

“I thought he was set to get it,” protested Red Sandy, concerned about his own investment, “I thought the old Lord promised him…”

The boy shook his head. “It’s not him.” “Well who is it then?” demanded Bangtail.

Cunning disfigured the child’s face. “I dinna ken,” he  said.

Dodd picked up his cap which had been steaming next to the fire. “Is it still raining outside?”

“Yes sir, but he wants…”

Sighing, Dodd unfolded his lanky body from the booth and began pushing and sidling between the drinkers to get to the door. Argument and betting on the new Deputy’s identity exploded behind him with Bangtail’s voice full of glee above the rest, “God, Lowther’ll be in a bate in the morning. He’s already sold his offices.”

At the door, digging his cloak out of the steaming heap, Dodd looked narrowly at the boy.

“Are you one of Bangtail’s  kin?”

“Second cousin, once removed, sir.” “Graham?”

“Yes sir, Young Hutchin Graham.”

That was an ill to-name to be saddled with, thought Dodd, he’d be called Young Hutchin when he was seventy and bent like willow.

“Then you’ll be Hutchin the Bastard’s boy?” “Yes sir.”

“You know who my Lord Scrope’s new deputy is, don’t you?” “I might,” allowed Young Hutchin  carefully.

They stepped away from Bessie’s door and dodged to the covered way from the drawbridge to the Captain’s Tower. The rain had slackened off to a fine mizzle and the dusk was stretching itself out above the clouds. The boy grinned.

“It’s not one of the Warden’s relatives.”

“Of course it is,” said Dodd. “Why else would he make a mortal enemy of Richard Lowther.”

Young Hutchin shook his head and looked smug. Dodd sighed and gave him a penny. Perhaps he wouldn’t make it to seventy.

“It’s one of his wife’s kin. He’s just ridden up from London and the Queen’s Court and the strange horses in the stable are…” “Good Christ!” said Dodd disgustedly, “It’s a Carey. It’s  not Sir John is it? Say to me Scrope hasn’t made John Carey Deputy Warden in the West March as well?”

“Oh no, sir, that one’s still just Marshal of Berwick Castle. It’s his youngest brother Robert.”

“Who?”

“Robert Carey. Sir Robert, I heard. Lady Scrope’s his nearest sister in age and she thinks the world of him and he’s no money and would like to be away from Court, so I heard, so she made my Lord offer him the place…They’ve put him in the Queen Mary Tower for the night, in the main  bedchamber.”

“Ah.”

They were let in through the Captain’s Gate at the shout of their usual password, crossed the yard and came to the stair to the door of the Keep where Scrope’s apartments were. At the foot Dodd gave Young Hutchin another penny.

“Fetch your cousin Bangtail, my brother Red Sandy and Long George Ridley, oh and Archie Give-it-Them if he’s sober and tell them to shift the baggage that’s in the Queen Mary Tower into one of the feed huts for the night. Tell them to do it now, not when they’ve finished their quarts.”

“Ay sir. What is it?”

“A  package,” said Dodd gravely. “Go on, run.”

Dodd waited until the boy had disappeared through the Captain’s Gate, reflecting that whoever Hutchin the Bastard’s mother had been, she must have been uncommonly fine-looking for her looks and hair to survive two generations of Graham breeding so well. The lad had better never go near the Scottish King’s Court with that tow head and blue eyes, not until he’d put on enough bone to defend himself.

He opened the heavy door and went into the big main room. Two of Scrope’s attendants were there and a round ugly little man was huddled up on a stool by the fire in the vast fireplace finishing mulled ale from a leather tankard. Next to him was a soft-looking lad, sitting on a pile of rushes, dispiritedly oiling some harness and in the corner, four louts with Berwick stamped on their voices were arguing the toss over whether a shod horse went better than an unshod one in a race. The ferret-faced man on the stool slapped his knees, stood up and said something in what sounded like English, if spoken by a man with a head-cold and the hiccups. Dodd couldn’t understand a word seeing it was some kind of southern talk, but the boy did and the two hurried out into the rain, the boy tripping on some of the harness straps.

Dodd passed through with a polite nod to John Ogle, the Warden’s steward, and climbed the spiral staircase in the furthest corner.

At Scrope’s impatient “Enter” he pushed open the oak door with the mysterious axe-mark in it and went in. The air was full of woollen steam from the heavy cloak hanging by the fire and Scrope’s hangings were given a courtly glamour by the fat wax candles all about the room. At least it was warm  there.

Scrope, as usual, was sitting hunched like a heron in his carved chair by the desk while Richard Bell the clerk packed up papers behind him. Two other men looked up as he came in. Captain Carleton was standing, and a stranger was sitting at his ease on the cushioned bench.

“Good evening, Sergeant,” said Scrope, “any news from the patrol?”

“The Sark fords are high for the time of year and I doubt anyone’s been across them this summer, except perhaps the horse smuggler we’ve heard tell of,” said Dodd. “We met Jock of the Peartree with fifteen men by the Esk ford at  Longtown.”

“What was he doing there?” asked Scrope.

“Looking for lost cows?” suggested Thomas Carleton sarcastically. He had parked his bulky body in front of the fire, blocking most of the heat, and wore a face full of repressed amusement.

“He said he’d five men that had gone to Carlisle to buy horses.”

Carleton snorted. “Good luck to them. We’ve a famine of horses hereabouts.”

“I trust you sent him packing,” said Lord Scrope. Dodd said nothing. The man sitting on the bench with his mudcaked boots stretched out in front of him and crossed at the ankle smiled slightly. His face was long and beaky with something indefinably familiar about it, he had dark red-brown wavy hair, and very bright blue eyes, and a neatly trimmed little Court beard and moustache.

“Was there anything else, my lord?” asked Dodd patiently. “No…Yes.  Sir Robert, may I  present to you Henry     Dodd,

Sergeant of the Guard. Henry, this is my brother-in-law Sir Robert Carey, who will be my Deputy Warden.”

Dodd made a stiff-necked bow, Carey came to his feet, returned the courtesy, held out his hand and smiled. There was one who’d be expensive to put in livery, thought Dodd. He was taller by an inch or two than Dodd, who found himself in the unfamiliar position of looking up at someone. He took the proffered hand, which was long, white and nicely manicured, with three rings on it, and shook it.

“Sir Robert,” said Dodd non-committally.

“Apologies for hauling you up here on such a foul evening,” said Carey affably. “Captain Carleton says he’s too busy to take me for a tour of the area tomorrow, and I was hoping you would oblige?”

It was on the tip of Dodd’s tongue to say that he had a lot less time than Carleton, and stay out of trouble, but then he reflected. After all, this was the Warden’s brother-in-law, a courtier come riding up from London, and not just any courtier but one of Lord Hunsdon’s boys. He might even be grateful for a friendly face. Perhaps if he got on well with this Court sprig, who seemingly was the new Deputy Warden, Dodd might snaffle a couple of the offices in the Deputy’s gift to sell on. And Lowther was a miserable bastard in any case.

“No trouble, sir.”

“Dodd, is it? From Upper  Tynedale.”

“My grandfather’s land, sir. Mine comes to me from my wife, I’ve a tower and some acres not far from  Gilsland.”

“Bell or Armstrong land?”

Dodd coughed. “Ay sir,” he said stonily. “English Armstrongs. And a few Dodds.” He hated nosiness, particularly from courtiers. Though Carey looked little like a courtier in his dark green woollen doublet and paned hose; just the lace on his collar and the jewels gave the game away.

There was a clatter of light boots on the stair and Scrope’s lady came through the door in a hurry, her doublet bodice open at the neck and her satin apron awry. Scrope looked up and smiled fondly; she was a pleasing small creature with black ringlets making ciphers on her white skin. At the sight of Carey her face lit up like a beacon.

“Robin!” she shouted and ran into his arms like a girl. Carleton’s lip curled at the sight, which had cost Richard Lowther at least fifty pounds and much credit. Carey grinned, kissed her, lifted her up and kissed her again. She giggled and batted him  away.

“Was it a hard journey?” she asked. “How is the Queen, did you meet John?”

“Yes, well enough, no.” said Carey methodically. “Philadelphia…” began Scrope.

“I may greet my brother, I think,” said Lady Scrope haughtily. Carey whispered in her ear and she frowned, then picked up a work bag from near the fire, sat down on her stool and began rapidly stitching at a piece of white linen, her steel needle with its tail of black flashing hypnotically before Dodd’s eyes. “And I wanted to speak to him privately as well.”

“When we…”

“How much did you want?” asked Carey. Lady Scrope tutted at him.

“Not money,” she said primly. “I do not always lose at primero, you know.”

“Oh no?” said Carey sceptically. “I swear on my honour I have seen you draw to a flush with no points on three separate occasions.”

Dodd, who had heard some of the legends about Lady Scrope’s gambling, hid a smile.

“My lord has been teaching me better play,” said Lady Scrope with dignity, a blatant lie as far as Dodd was concerned, since Lord Scrope was even worse than she was.

Carey raised his eyebrows severely.

“My lord,” said Dodd across the argument, “I must have a private word…”

“Later, Sergeant, later,” said Scrope irritably. “I have some business with Sir Robert, my dear…”

Philadelphia made three minute stitches and finished off the end, unfurled a new length from her bobbin, snipped, threaded and began stitching again. A blackworked peapod was taking shape like magic on the linen. “Pray continue,” she said. “My business can wait a little.”

Dodd decided he had been dismissed and turned to go, wondering what the disturbance downstairs might be. Carleton came with him. They were stopped by Carey’s voice.

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