A Clash of Spheres: A Sir Robert Carey Mystery #8

A Clash of Spheres: A Sir Robert Carey Mystery #8

It's late August, 1592. Sir Robert Carey, cousin to Queen Elizabeth from the wrong side of Henry VIII's blanket, remains at his post on the Borders at Carlisle. He has ...

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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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late august 1592

Their dalliance had progressed in a stately fashion from whispers and stolen kisses in corridors, to dancing while the musicians played for them alone in crowded sweaty halls and banqueting tents full of unimportant other dancers, to light-fingered explorations of stocking tops and codpiece and stays, to this. Marguerite was heavy-eyed and languorous and, thank the Mother of God, not inclined to talk too much. Meanwhile the man who said his name was Jonathan Hepburn and that he sometimes worked for the Earl of Bothwell, was lying flat on his back, utterly spent, letting the sweat dry on his skin.

She yawned, stretched like a cat, got up and went to the door of the little servant’s chamber, where the man whose chamber it actually was, waited patiently and counted his cash.

“Do you have any wine?” she asked in a voice that was tinged with a foreign language. For a wonder, it turned out that he did, and for a paltry English shilling would give them some. She brought in two pewter goblets of white wine. Hepburn sat up on his elbow and took the goblet, toasted her, and drank.

It was dreadful, acidic with a suspicious fishy aftertaste, but he got it down.

Of course, Marguerite was a married woman and it showed in the stretchmarks on her stomach and the dark aureoles of her very nibblesome nipples. She had given her lord at least one or probably more children. But her hair was blond and so was her crotch and she had a luxuriousness to her that Hepburn associated more with Southerners. It was business, all business, but, by the God of the World, sometimes you could mix business with pleasure. The fact that she was married to a very dull conscientious man by the name of Sir David Graham of Fintry was what was important. He was not a Border Graham, not one of the notorious clan of five brothers who had gone south in the 1520s, kicked the Storeys off their lands, and helped turn Liddesdale into the complete thieves’ kitchen it now was. He was from the northerly respectable Grahams. There were interesting rumours about him but the most interesting thing about him was a stone-cold fact. He was a Groom of the King’s Bedchamber, by hereditary custom.

“My dear,” Hepburn said in the caressing voice he used for all women, “what if your husband catches us?”

She frowned and plumped down next to him on the narrow servant’s bed with the sour sheets. “He would be very angry,” she said with a sigh, chewing her bottom lip, “He might kill you and hurt me. Or kill me as well.”

“Surely not, so old-fashioned?”

She shrugged and her voice took on a tinge of bitterness. “He killed a young man I looked at—only looked at, honest to God—and he was very cruel to me. The King hushed it up. He locked me in a storeroom where it was very cold and dark and there were many spiders.”

Hepburn nodded. That was what he had heard. Now, was the other rumour true?

“Perhaps we should not see each other for a while,” he said sadly, “so he doesn’t get too suspicious.”

She shrugged, quite French although she wasn’t French, started billowing linen over her head. “If you are already tired of me…” she said, her voice muffled.

Hepburn jumped up from the bed and embraced her. “How could I be tired of you?” he whispered and she tweaked him where he was demonstrating that he was not tired of her at all, which made him gasp and her giggle. No help for it, he had to take the risk. This last detail was simply too important to go on mere hearsay. “I’ll have to go to a priest this afternoon, but I don’t care…”

“What will he give you for penance? Fasting?”

“Perhaps,” said Hepburn who had fasted for religious reasons but not on any priest’s say-so. “Will you too have to find a priest? Or are you a Protestant…?”

“What? And now be utterly damned forever? I would never be so silly. I am a Catholic.” She grinned impudently at him. “I have found a very nice tame priest called Father Crichton who never gives more than a decade of Aves, a Paternoster, and a Gloria.” Just for a moment, Hepburn had to hold his breath. Was Crichton actually here, in Scotland? He had had no idea, thinking the man was still in northern Spain. “Is he a Jesuit?”

“Yes, but he is nice,” She giggled and wriggled at the way he was stroking her breasts through the fine linen of her smock, “Not as nice as you, but nice.”

“He isn’t supposed to be as nice as me…” He was busy nuzzling her neck. “When did he arrive?”

“He came with my Lord Maxwell and his Italians in April or May, I think, to help with the new Armada but stayed at Caerlaverock. Now he is at Court and everyone who is not a stupid Lutheran or Calvinist goes to him.”

That Armada, too, if it existed, had been wrecked by storms. “My priest is old-fashioned and strict. Perhaps I could confess to your nice Father Crichton?”

She giggled again. There was something so relaxing about  a feather-headed woman with stunning blond curls down her back. “Why not?”

Emilia had been dramatic and very sexy and had been completely resistant to his plan, which she thought stupidly risky. And then she had suddenly gone off with the Deputy Warden of the West March, Sir Robert Carey, so she could buy his guns and take them to Ireland, as if that was less risky.

“Wherever did he find you, Sir David Graham?” he wondered to himself in the Deutsch of his childhood and she answered him in Low Dutch. “In the Spanish Netherlands, of course, where I was living in a very boring village full of very boring Protestants.” “But you are from Antwerp,” he guessed shrewdly and was rewarded by a kiss on the mouth which he enjoyed immensely.


Her face suddenly crumpled like a child’s. “I don’t want to think about poor Antwerp,” she whispered, her mood changing like a cloud crossing the sun, “I never want to think about it.”

Hepburn looked at her carefully. She must have been a child at the time of the Spanish Fury in Antwerp. Had she been there?

“My dear…” he began.

“Never! I never want to think about it!” she shouted in Low Dutch and hit him in the chest with her fist, as if he were another man entirely. Hepburn put his arms around her to quiet her and found she was kissing him greedily, desperately, scratching his back. After one second of hesitation—what had brought this on?—he went with it and took her again, like an animal, while she moaned and tears pushed their way out under her eyelids and finally she screamed so he had to put a hand over her mouth. He took it away when she bit him and she then looked at him with old eyes and said, “Never say that name to me again.”

“All right,” he said. He managed a light smile and she smiled back at last. Jesu, who could fathom women? It was beyond him.

There was an anxious knock at the door.

“Sir, my lady, I must go serve the Queen in half an hour,” came a voice.

“Give us ten minutes,” said Hepburn, picking his hose up from where he had folded them and laid them down carefully. Marguerite was already at her petticoat forepart, buttoning and pinning with a will.

They came out separately, went in different directions. Marguerite hurried to the Queen’s chambers where she sat on a corner cushion and gossiped with one of the Queen’s plump Danish women. Jonathan Hepburn went down to the buttery to get himself a quart of ale to help him recover and with thinking out the next stage in his very elaborate plot that would end with James VI of Scotland dead, and Scotland and England in murderous chaos.

carlisle, early december 1592

The Grahams took up position under the Eden Bridge at about four o’clock in the morning, as near as anyone could guess, with the sky perpetually leaking rain. The water was freezing cold and high as well and the horses all protested about it as they splashed in and stood there sulkily, huffing and puffing.

“He’ll be back before five, I guarantee it,” said Wattie. “Naebody’ll want to be oot in this any longer than they have to.” The bridge itself would not keep you dry, because it had been raining long enough for the stones themselves all to be leaking in the places where they had worn and there were potholes going right through. It was an old bridge. Some said the builders of the Giant’s Wall had made it for a sort of warm-up for the Wall itself. Archie Fire the Braes pushed another man called Sooks Graham out of the one remaining dry spot there. Well dryish. His pony was wet obviously and so were his legs and boots. There was a whispered sequence of snarls, and then Sooks shoved another man out of a slightly drier spot and so on down the line to the youngest one there who philosophically stayed under the last bit of parapet which gave no shelter at all but did conceal him from anyone crossing the bridge at night.

“And ye’re sure he’ll not be there?” said another man. Wattie  grinned and scratched under his helmet rim.   “Ay, certain sure. He took offence at the doings last month and he’ll no’ come in wi’ us, but he willna help the Courtier, see ye.”

The youngest had a rough iron cap over his golden hair which was lent him by his cousin Sooks, since the colour was such a liability at night despite being dirty. He lifted it and scratched like Wattie at a place where it rubbed.

“He’ll have the other men of the guard, though.”

“Ay,” said Wattie cheerfully. “It’s Sergeant Dodd I worry about.”

Young Hutchin nodded and wondered what it was about Sergeant Dodd that made everybody so careful of him and wondered how he could get some of that stuff himself.

“What about the new men from the South he’s brung in?” he asked.

“Och,” laughed Wattie, “who’s worried about a bunch o’ soft Southerners? Not me.”

Everybody sniggered a little. They stood in silence for a while, as the dripping eased off.

Wattie put a hand out. “Damn, it’s stopped raining,” he said thoughtfully.

Young Hutchin moved his hobby out a couple of feet and back in again. “Ay, it has.” It was still raining under the bridge, as the puddles on the bridge dripped through slowly, but outside it had eased off to basic miserable dampness.

Wattie sighed. It would have been a lot better if the rain had carried on but you could never rely on the weather, except to be as thrawn and contrary as it could. They would have preferred rain, so it had stopped raining. Well, the night was still as black as pitch and that would have to do. The men they were waiting for did not usually carry torches.

# # #

Carey was wet and uncomfortable but in good spirits. He had brought the four Southerners who had learnt to ride well enough, and started teaching them the finer points of Border life. For  a wonder, nothing very much was happening on either side of the Border, and just on the off chance and on impulse he had forayed into Liddesdale a way and found a remarkable number of cattle and horses penned up in a narrow little valley. He had taken a close look at them on foot by the light of his only dark lantern and found three different brands in four animals, grinned wolfishly, and given his orders.

Dodd was not there, being safely at home with his wife in Gilsland. To  be honest, Carey was quite glad to be rid of  him because from being a naturally dour and taciturn man, since the incident at Dick of Dryhope’s tower, Dodd had become… well, sulky was too weak and nebbish a word, really. If Carey got more than four words out of him in an evening, he was doing well. He had not expected Dodd to like what he had done but it was now more than a month in the past and he was getting tired of the whole thing.

Still, this would be good practice for the new men and the other Borderers would enjoy teaching them the arcane art of cattle-driving with the four-legged treasure they had found.

It being so dark and raining, of course the herds had protested loudly at being moved and gone in dozens of different ways, while the loose horses trotted about uneasily. A couple of calves got free and went exploring, and Perkins fell off his horse when he went after one of them, which entertained Bangtail, Red Sandy, and Sim’s Will no end. Bessie’s Andrew, no longer the youngest and least important man, started shouting, and then someone else’s horse stood on his hind legs while his rider cursed and beat about with the ends of the reins until he calmed down again.

“We should have brought the dogs,” said Carey, making a mental note to bring Jack and Teazle next time and see if Jack might make a better herding dog than he did a hunter. The men of the guard were now circling the cattle, making little yips and yarks until they finally got the cattle moving out of the valley and into the main run of Liddesdale, southwards. The horses went with the cattle, not liking to be alone and shying at everything. Yes, it would take at least an hour longer to bring the stolen cattle in, but it would be well worth it and Carey felt he needed something to cheer him up. He was probably going to lose his place when Lord Scrope finally went south to his estates, and he could turn his share of the booty into much-needed cash.

He spotted two cows and a heifer making a break for it northwards and went after them with a high yip yip, galloped his pony round them and turned them about so they were running back to the main herd. He whacked the lead cow with the butt end of his lance and found Bessie’s Andrew there on the other side to encourage them a bit more.

The herd heaved itself together again and started moving west at a dignified lollop with a lot of question and response in the lowing. Most of them were English kine from the brands and it stood to reason they would prefer to go south to more familiar fields, so it was sheer obstinacy that was sending them west. Bangtail and Red Sandy galloped their ponies into the path and turned them with more shouted yips and yarks. All the cattle stood and bumped each other, lowing questioningly. There was a bony old screw up near the front, with a crumpled horn, tossing her head and barging other cows when they went the wrong way. He could almost hear her, “Ay, this way, ye lummocks.” Just for a moment he tried to imagine the cow politics that had made her the leader but his usually vivid phantasy could not cope with this, and he found himself laughing quietly at himself. Still, what was it Dodd had said about even goats having degree in their herds and refusing to follow an underling? “Sim’s Will,” he said, “get that animal with the crumpled horn and bring her to the front. No, not that one, the bony one.”

It took a moment for Sim’s Will to get a rope round her neck and then Carey took the rope’s end and forged his way through the pungent beasts and the mud until he and the old lady were at the front. She bellowed loudly and set out for the South with decision, sniffing the air and mooing and, for a wonder, the others followed her at last in mostly the right direction.

An hour later, as they came over the last hill, he could just make out Eden Bridge and the Sauceries beyond and relaxed because they were nearly home.

# # #

Wattie cocked his head, accidentally tipping a helmet’s brim of water down his neck.

“What’s that?” he asked uneasily. “There’s a herd of cows there…”

“Bringing them in for market?” said Fire the Braes, who knew less than most about such things, as he had been at the horn since he was in his teens.

“At this time? The gate’s aye shut and will be for another two hours, whit’s the point of it?”

They hushed as the mixed lowing and sound of hooves came closer and closer. Suddenly the noises went up a notch with anxiety and the sound of hooves became confused, the drumming stopped just before the bridge. Wattie signalled the other Grahams to stay still and quiet.

“What the devil’s got into them?” demanded a Court voice just above them. “They were moving very nicely a moment ago, why won’t they go onto the bridge?”

A single horse’s footsteps rang above them, and Wattie was sitting his mount like a stone fountain, with the puddle water still running down, his head tilted and his mouth open.

That was when Hutchin’s mount, which had been bad-tempered all night, straddled his legs and let fly with a long stream of pungent shit, right into the water.

Dinna let him notice, Wattie prayed to his nameless god of reivers, go on, yer flash Court sprig, ye dinna ken…He glowered at Hutchin who couldn’t really be blamed.

There was a scuffle as Carey turned his horse on a sixpence and galloped back to the herd, while his voice bellowed, “Bring them on!” They stood still while the hooves went around to the back of the herd and then came the boom of a dag being fired into the air.

The lowing went up to near panic levels. The kine had heard gunfire before and didn’t like it. They tried to go back, found men with lances and ropes in the way, turned about and found the bridge was clear, but more frightening men on horses with lances and swords and bows were coming up the riverbanks  on either side as Wattie’s relatives decided to take a crack at the valuable Deputy anyway, seeing they had come so far and spent two hours standing in the wet in the river. And seeing the Deputy was worth fifteen pounds on the hoof, dead or alive. Fire the Braes was shouting something incomprehensible about the kine, Wattie was bellowing purple-faced at them to stop. And there was Carey in a panicking sea of cattle, finishing reloading his dag, putting it in its case and drawing his sword, whacking the arse of the cow with the crumpled horn with the flat of it and charging forwards.

She let out a moo that was more a battle cry and lurched forwards, tossing her head and looking for something to gore in revenge, found a pony in front of her and stuck the crumpled horn in, found a space clear of men and horses and barged into it, followed by all her sisters, nieces, cousins, and second cousins plus the strange cows and the strange horses, all following her in a chaotic bunch because she was in front and moving.

The press of them running onto the bridge barged the next horseman backwards, so the hobby lost his feet and the rider fell off, the third was ridden by Fire the Braes, who was laying about him with his lance, so they went round him and then took him with them. Another boom from behind confirmed their feeling that they did not like loud bangs and they wanted to get away from them, so they went up to a speedy trot and then a run and bowled over another horse as they stampeded over the bridge, their eyes rolling and their horns tossing.

And there was the blasted Deputy in the middle of it, plastered with dung from a nervous heifer, swapping blows with the still-shouting Wattie Graham and another cousin who came up from the other side, until Carey bent with a wicked look and tipped the man out of his saddle, then turned to deal with Wattie again. He found the kine had shoved him in the opposite direction and took a shot at him with his other dag, missed but hit somebody else.

Somehow he still had hold of the old cow’s rope, so he kicked his horse to keep up, and went with her while yet another Graham tried to go the other way to Liddesdale and got shoved off the bridge into the river while his horse did the sensible thing and scrambled to stay with the herd.

Just as the other Grahams turned to run, Carey caught sight of golden hair and bellowed, “Hutchin Graham, I want to talk to you!” but couldn’t go after him because he, too, was being carried along in the flood of animals. He kept his seat, caught up with the old lady again, as the cows came off the bridge and galloped down and into the Sauceries and trampled down the fences…And then they stopped because there was lovely soft rich grass there, nurtured by some of the town’s nightsoil, the meadows being kept for the garrison’s horses. And so they fanned out and started to enjoy the feast while the sun notionally came up behind the clouds.

Carey’s legs were a bit bruised from the crushing, but, for a wonder, nobody had stuck him with a horn. He rode up to the old cow, took the rope from round her neck and gave her a slap on the shoulder in thanks. He got a glare that reminded him of his mother, which made him want to laugh.

All eight of his men came trotting up, some of them with prisoners who would ransome very nicely. None of the prisoners was Wattie Graham, but Fire the Braes was furious.

“They’re ma ain cattle ye’ve reived from me, ye bastard!” he shouted and Carey looked mildly offended.

“They’ve got a wonderful range of brands,” he said, “Pringle, Storey, Ridley, I think that one is an English Armstrong.”

“They’re mine, damn ye!”

“No, I think you reived them, Archie.”

“Ay,” bellowed Archie, his hands tied behind his back in fists. “Ay, Ah worked hard to reive them and they’re all mine, stolen fair and square!”

He realised that Carey was laughing at him and so were some of the men, especially Andy Nixon, the square Carlisler who often now was second in command. “Och, piss off, ye lang streak o’ puke.”

Nixon lifted his fist but Carey shook his head. “Well now,” he said conversationally, as Perkins and Garron and East, commanded by Nick Smithson, tried to do something about the fences so the cows wouldn’t wander off again. “What were you doing waiting in ambush under Eden Bridge like a bunch of god- damned trolls, only not so pretty? How many of you were there?”

“At least forty…Ah’ll tell ye nothing.”

“Well, you will after I’ve put you in the Licking Stone cell for a bit,” said Carey, his voice oozing sympathy which made Red Sandy and Bangtail start snickering again. “It’s not much fun, I’m told. It’ll be much harder for you to talk to me once your tongue has swollen to twice its size with licking a few drops of water off the rough stone wall.” Although from the way it had been raining recently, Carey rather thought Fire the Braes’ real problem would be not drowning. However Fire the Braes was not to know that.

“Och,” Fire the Braes said as Nixon attached him to the other two prisoners by a rope and jerked on it. “Ay, it was all Grahams, for the brave ye put on us last month, taking and hanging our cousins and guests…”

“For murder. And mentioning Lord Spynie.”

Archie shrugged, “So what? And Ritchie of Brackenhill put the price up on ye, tae fifteens pounds and a helmet, so we’ll no’ be the ainly ones…”

“Forty men?” “Mebbe thirty.”

“That’s what I thought. And someone had a try at me last week in Bessie’s, only Bessie’s wife saw him and cracked his skull with a jug.”

“Ah dinna ken,” said Fire the Braes sulkily.

“They say your tongue bleeds as well and then clots and so it cracks open…”

“Jesus, will ye stop? I came in wi’ Wattie for the money and the fun of it, and now ye’re threatening me wi’ the Licking Stone cell and I’ll no’ have it, any of it.”

“It’s been busy all month and then in the last week it’s gone silent as the grave, what’s that about?”

“Ah dinna ken!” shouted Archie and tried to lunge at Carey who backed his horse a couple of paces while Andy Nixon and Bangtail hit the reiver a couple of times to quieten him and teach him manners.

“So, let’s see, we’ve got Fire the Braes, Sim’s Jock Graham…” Bessie’s Andrew Storey hurried up to him. “There’s one shot dead, three of them got trampled by the kine, one’s still alive and the other two died, four ran intae the town, the rest forded the river upstream and ran for Liddesdale, Wattie Graham with them.”

“Where’s young Hutchin Graham? I swear I saw his hair.” “Dinna ken sir, probably ran intae the toon as well.” “They’ll be at the postern gate arguing with Solomon Musgrave by now. Separate out the horses, we can always find a use for them and some of them have no brands on them.”

He trotted to the northern town gate, the Scotch gate, where he found it shut, the postern gate shut tight and the gate guards denying stoutly that they had seen any Grahams, that there had been any Grahams anywhere—that Grahams existed, that there was a postern gate at all, and if there was, that it had ever been opened all night and certainly that there had ever been five people who might have gone through on payment of an irregular toll and certainly weren’t Grahams….

Carey sighed, trotted back, brought in the three reivers on their feet and one slung over a pony’s back, along with the eight men who were all looking very pleased with themselves, as well they might, except for Perkins who was protesting at being nicknamed Falls off his Horse Perkins.

Reviews of

A Clash of Spheres: A Sir Robert Carey Mystery #8

“I love P.F. Chisholm’s mysteries!  A Clash of Spheres has it all: heart-thumping suspense, wry humor, political intrigue, a king in peril.  Robert Carey is irresistible, a swashbuckling courtier who is cousin to the Tudor queen, impulsive, courageous, too clever by half, in love with an unhappily married woman, and best of all, it is all true.”

Sharon Kay Penman

“The court of Elizabeth I once more outpaces today’s politicians for cunning, effrontery, and vengeful machinations. As usual, Chisholm moves effortlessly from fascinating historical background to philosophical musings to violent action.”

Kirkus Reviews

“A climactic chapter features a debate between supporters of the Earth-centered Ptolemaic system and advocates of the rival Copernican system. Chisholm does a good job illuminating the quandary felt by many when new scientific discoveries challenged the old religion. Loyal to his queen and his conscience, Carey proves an able statesman in an installment full of adventure and intrigue.”

Publishers Weekly