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The Queen and the Archer by Jane Fairweather – Sample

The Queen and the Archer by Jane FairweatherPrologue

Summer, the palace of King Uther of Lyonesse at Venta

 

“I don’t care if it has been raining, I want to get out of this stuffy palace and get a walk!” declared Princess Rosamund of Lyonesse.

Her attendants looked at one another. None of them dared say it, but walking out onto the palace grounds in long skirts that trailed the ground and with satin slippers on their feet did not seem the most sensible of ideas. The ground was sodden, there were numerous puddles, and it seemed almost certain that the rain was going to return.

“Perhaps we had better find your highness a cloak and a bonnet, and I think the other girls should find theirs before we set off,” the chief lady-in-waiting suggested helpfully, procrastinating.

“By which time the rain may well have returned!” the princess retorted irritably. “Why is it that because I am a girl I must be cosseted every inch of the way? I am heir to Lyonesse and one day I may well have to lead an army.”

“Oh, leading armies is for men, your highness,” said the chief lady-in-waiting, sounding distinctly shocked. “Your father, the king, will find you a husband for things like that.”

“Lady Philippa,” the princess retorted astringently. “I do not require lectures about what I am going to do when I am queen of Lyonesse. Anyway, I am going. You had better come with me, I suppose, since you are supposed to keep an eye on me. The rest of you can stay since you seem terrified of a little rain.”

The princess strode towards the door into the great central hall that led to the outer world. Lady Philippa signed to the other young women to stay where they were and followed her mistress, tutting as she went. Really, the princess needed a mother’s guidance, but her mother was long dead! Her father had once been so good with the girl, indeed unusually good for a man, but he now seemed to be drifting into a painful old age and increasingly not of this world.

“Oh, for the power to apply the rod to that haughty behind!” Lady Philippa thought as she hurried after her mistress, who was striding ahead and almost running in her eagerness to be outside before the rain returned. But whipping the girl was something only the king could do, and she doubted very much if he would be interested in this minor misdemeanour; indeed he would probably laugh.

* * *

The princess was not the only person who wanted to get out of the palace regardless of the rain. Lord Edward of Gaunt was generally regarded as a fop and a joke. He devoted far too much time to gambling, though if anyone had bothered to look closely, he won more than he lost, quite possibly because while he drank a lot on occasions, he was almost abstemious while at the card table, and he tended to go in for games of skill rather than chance. He was famous for spending extravagant sums of money on his clothes and not least his shoes. His latest footwear was a cause of much mirth at the court, for the shoes were twice as long as his actual feet and had to be tied by long strings to his legs to stop him falling over himself. And yet there were other sides to Lord Edward that went almost unnoticed in the gossip of the court. He always found a little time for the practice of the military arts, and he had talked much about tactics with his father, the formidable Henry of Gaunt, who had fought at the right hand of the present king at the famous battle of Caer Vadon.

Anyway, today, like the princess, he had decided he was not going to let the rain keep him indoors, and to the mild horror of his servants who would have to dry his things out later, he had swept out into the rainstorm having put not one but two cloaks over his shoulders and a large felt hat on his head. He had gone a quarter of a mile before he realized he had forgotten to change his precious shoes. However, they were already sodden and he could not be bothered to go back, so he pressed on.

He had a pleasant walk in the palace wood, which gave him some shelter and emerged to find the rain had more or less stopped. He looked wryly at his shoes and decided the only thing for it was to buy a new pair. He strode on back towards the buildings of the king’s summer palace at Venta. To his surprise he saw Princess Rosamund striding towards him up the path to the wood wearing a very pretty green velvet gown that suited her superb red hair extremely well, and neither cloak nor bonnet. Some way behind the princess, Lady Philippa, chief lady-in-waiting, was puffing along looking extremely fed up with life. He liked the princess, he decided, though he knew the general feeling of the court was that she was a spoilt brat who ought to be soundly whipped and never was. There was an awful lot of life in her, and though she was scarcely classically beautiful with her large bottom and diminutive breasts, he found her very attractive. The face and the hair made up for a lot, he thought.

Then he realized with some horror that the princess was heading straight for a deep puddle on the path, which she seemed intent on walking through in her satin slippers. He hurriedly advanced, took off his first cloak, and then threw the second almost dry one into the puddle. He then bowed long and gracefully to the princess and heard Lady Philippa clucking her thanks to him. He was not prepared as he stood up to receive the full weight of the now very wet cloak in his face, followed by a very deft kick to his right leg.

“If I need your help, you stupid fop, I will ask for it,” the girl was saying in a fury and striding on almost maliciously through the puddle.

Then Lady Philippa was clucking away and expressing her extreme apologies for her mistress before hurrying after her. Curiously, and perhaps he was the only one at that court who would have done it at that time, Lord Edward of Gaunt, instead of being offended, smiled to himself and thought this girl might have the making of a queen.

* * *

The very same summer day as this very strange contretemps between Lord Edward of Gaunt and Princess Rosamund, Duke Rhys II of Carlaeon, premier noble of the realm of Lyonesse, was feeling rather proud of himself. He was in the duchy of Brittany as the representative of King Uther of Lyonesse and commander of the only significant military force that Lyonesse maintained in time of peace. That this was necessary at all was due to the long-standing tendency of the kings of France to periodically nibble away at the lands of the ancient duchy. And sure enough, no sooner had the duke taken charge for six months, which were all that the king allowed to each of his senior nobles in turn, than Sir Thomas of Avignon, acting on orders from Paris, had slipped across the border and taken a very small castle by surprise. And today the duke was about to undertake the first military operation of his life and was feeling rather proud about it.

“The men are in position at the gate house, sir, and at the rear of the castle,” the very competent officer that King Uther provided to assist each noble in turn, informed him.

“You are sure they will all run to the gatehouse when we start our feint there?” Duke Rhys enquired.

“They will have to, your grace. They will leave a couple of sentries, but no more than that, I suspect. Then our picked men, led by Will Scott—a very fine man is Will Scott, your grace, a great favourite of King Uther—will get over the wall and take them from the rear. Almost certainly they will surrender then. It is usual on these occasions to let the common men go and ransom the commander and any knights of course, your grace.”

“Of course!” said the duke amiably, thinking most of the ransom was going to end up in his own pocket.

“It does seem a surprisingly large garrison,” said the officer. “They seem to keep men on the walls in all times and weathers. Without that I would have recommended an assault two weeks ago, without bringing up the extra troops. I do hope his majesty will not begrudge the expense.”

“Of course!” said the duke.

* * *

Will Scott was a formidable man with his large aquiline head, curly black hair, and sharp penetrating eyes. There were those among his comrades who joked that he must be some noble’s bastard, but he had no reason to suppose this was true, and he rather resented the idea, though it was true that he had never known his father. Nevertheless, whether it was true or not, he always stood out among his fellow soldiers and was widely regarded as the best scout in King Uther’s royal guard, whether among the small forces that acted as royal bodyguards across the channel, or the far-from-large army that protected the ancient rule of Lyonesse in Brittany. But he was also more than a little proud of having won the Golden Arrow on more than one occasion in the annual archery competition that King Uther held each year to encourage a high standard in his limited forces. And King Uther had spoken to him personally on a number of occasions; Will flattered himself that there was a touch of common feeling between the old king and himself, though he was realistic enough to know the attentions of kings to someone of peasant stock rarely meant that much.

But anyhow, today Will was feeling thoroughly restless. There was something wrong with this siege, he was sure of it. Sir John of Chorham, Will’s very capable commander, had held off for several weeks from launching his assault because of the unexpectedly large enemy garrison; and as long as the besiegers kept themselves at a cautious distance this had seemed perfectly reasonable, though Will all along had kept wondering how they were feeding so many men. After all, they could only have had the food that was in the castle when they had taken it, which in turn must have been intended for far fewer men than the present garrison. But now that he and his comrades had crept to the edge of the ditch for the assault, he was puzzled in the extreme; there was no sign of any movement on the walls and yet they seemed crowded with men.

“Doesn’t it strike you as odd that hardly a man of them has moved back to the gatehouse?” Will Scott muttered to his fellow corporal John Longbottom as they peered at the rear of the castle wall through the gathering dusk and listened to the tremendous row of the feigned assault on the gatehouse.

“Their captain has some sense and is not responding to the duke’s feint at the gatehouse,” said John.

“Yes, but look at them!” Will replied. “Not one has moved a muscle since we have been here. Could they be something like puppets?”

“If so, they do look very like men!” John replied thoughtfully. “And if so, we are going to look like damn fools, sitting round this castle for three weeks, waiting for reinforcements. Perhaps we should ask for orders. If those are men on the walls, it is going to be suicide putting the scaling ladders up.”

Will coolly half stood and took aim with his bow. A man-at-arms on the wall toppled backwards. John shrieked to Will he would get himself killed and pulled him down. There was no response whatever from the wall. Will repeated the process. Again, a man-at-arms toppled. Again there was no response.

“There is no one there! You are right, mate!” said John with incredulity.

“Well, I told you so, John Longbottom,” said Will decisively. “They are puppets, or similar, they have to be; if they weren’t, there would have been at least one shaft heading in my direction. Come on, lads, let’s get it over with.”

* * *

Though he had taken his first castle, like many men before him Duke Rhys found the fruits of victory to be bitter. There had only been a handful of casualties, but one of them had been the officer that Uther had provided to advise him, who had exposed himself too much at the gatehouse and taken a crossbow bolt in the head. Then this knight, Sir Thomas of Avignon, had turned out to be poor and worth nothing as a ransom; he had apparently undertaken this mission in the hope it would improve his fortunes. And finally there was the sheer humiliation of discovering there had been only fourteen men in the garrison. The rest had been carefully put together puppets. Someone with Sir Thomas must be a competent puppeteer. He wondered who? He might have some use for a man like that. He had a conspiracy of his own in the making, at least if his chief servant John Flambard had anything to do with it. He wondered yet again if he should go along with this mad scheme, but John was very persuasive, and every time they went through it, the idea seemed less mad.

He glared down from his horse at Sir Thomas of Avignon, who had been stripped to his shift and was standing defiantly with his hands tied in front of him and chains on his ankles. He realized that if Uther’s officer had been here, he would have been told what to do with the prisoner, but the man was dead and he could do what he wanted.

“You two men,” he barked, “bring Sir Thomas out of the castle for me.”

The two men, who were from those who had been in the assault on the rear of the castle, did as they were told and took Sir Thomas by the arms and led him through the gatehouse. The duke followed on his horse.

Will Scott, who was also present, was puzzled and followed. Probably this inexperienced duke was just going to entertain Sir Thomas in his tent as often happened after a siege, but if so, why was he not being asked for his parole and why had he not been given his clothes back? Anyway, the duke would want the key to Sir Thomas’s manacles, which Will had in his hand.

He came through the gatehouse just in time to see that the unfortunate knight had been forced into a kneeling position, his outstretched arms were being held by the two archers, and Duke Rhys was unsheathing his great sword.

“Your grace,” Will positively screamed. “This man surrendered on good terms, you cannot kill him!”

The duke turned to him nonchalantly and said, sounding very reasonable, “I think you forget your station, Master Scott, is that not your name? Whether this man lives or dies is my concern. I remember being told you are a man in good standing with his majesty King Uther, so I will let your rudeness pass, but now I have business to deal with.”

Then the duke turned away and started once more to take his sword out of its sheath. Will moved with the speed for which he was famed among his fellow soldiers, barely bothering to think, except that this was wrong and must be stopped. He came up to the duke, drew back his fist, and thumped it into the duke’s jaw. The duke fell unconscious to the ground. The two archers, who respected Will’s authority, relinquished their hold on the prisoner.

One of them muttered, “You did good there, mate, but you’d better get out of here.”

A moment more and the knight’s manacles were unlocked and his hands untied, and both he and Will Scott were away on the duke’s own horse. The two archers proceeded to punch one another, if not too hard. When the duke came round, they were able to claim not that unconvincingly that they too had been taken by surprise.

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