Nobody is innocent. Every crown is tarnished. Welcome to the start of a major new epic fantasy series from the million-copy bestselling Karen Miller.
Brassy-sweet, a single wavering trumpet blast rent the cold air. The destriers reared, ears flattened, nostrils flaring, then charged each other with the ferocity of war.
“Huzzah!” the joust’s excited onlookers shouted, throwing handfuls of barley and rye into the pale blue sky. The dry seeds fell to strike their heads and shoulders and the trampled, snow-burned grass beneath their feet. Blackbirds, bold as pirates, shrieked and squabbled over the feast as children released from the working day’s drudgery shook rattles, clanged handbells, blew whistles and laughed.
Oblivious to all save sweat and fear and the thunder of hooves, the two battling nobles dropped their reins and lowered their blunted lances. A great double crash as both men found their marks. Armour buckled, bodies swayed, clods of turf flew. Their destriers charged on despite each brutal strike.
With a muffled cry, his undamaged lance falling, abandoned, Ennis of Larkwood lurched half out of his saddle, clawed for his dropped reins, lost his balance and fell. For three strides his horse dragged him, both arms and his untrapped leg flailing wildly, helmeted head bouncing on the tussocked dirt. Then the stirrup-leather broke and he was free. Squires burst from the sidelines like startled pheasants, two making for the snorting horse, three rushing to their fallen lord.
Heedless of the vanquished, the crowd cheered victorious Black Hughe, youngest son of old Lord Herewart. Hughe let slip his ruined lance, pushed up his helmet’s visor and raised a clenched, triumphant fist as his roan stallion plunged and shied. The mid-afternoon sun shimmered on his black-painted breastplate, thickly chased with silver-inlaid etchings.
“Fuck,” Balfre muttered, wishing he could reach beneath his own armour and scratch his ribs. “Did a more rampant coxcomb ever draw breath?”
Standing beside him, sadly plain in undecorated doublet and hose, his brother sighed. “I wish you wouldn’t do this.”
“Someone must,” he said. “And since you refuse, Grefin, who else is there? Or are you saying our dear friend Hughe isn’t ripe for a little plucking?”
Grefin frowned. “I’m saying the duke will be ripe to toss you into the dankest dungeon he can find once he hears what you’ve done. You know he’s got no love for—”
“Aimery clap his heir in irons?” Balfre laughed. “Don’t be an arse, Gref. His pride would never let him.”
“And your pride will get you broken to pieces, or worse!”
Hughe had pranced his destrier to the far end of the makeshift tourney ground, so his gaggle of squires could prepare him for the next joust. Ennis was on his feet at last, battered helmet unbuckled and tugged off to reveal a wash of blood coating the left side of his face. Much of his close-cropped flaxen hair was dyed scarlet with it. He needed a squire’s help to limp off the field. As the shouting for Hughe died down there came a scattering of applause for Ennis, no more than polite recognition. Harcia’s rustics had little patience for defeat.
Balfre shook his head. “You know, if Hughe’s a coxcomb then Ennis is a pickled dullard. Any donkey-riding peasant with a barley-stalk could push him off a horse.”
Turning, he looked down at the eager young squire who’d run the short distance from their rough and ready tourney-stall and halted at his elbow.
The squire flinched. “Master Ambrose says it be time for your bout, and to come, my lord. If it please you.”
“Tell Ambrose to polish my stirrups. Fuck. Does he think the joust will start without me?”
“No, my lord,” said the squire, backing away. “I’ll tell him to wait, my lord.”
Balfre watched the youth scuttle to Master Armsman Ambrose. “Speaking of pickled dullards . . . ” He grimaced. “I swear, Grefin, that turnip-head must’ve snuck into Harcia from Clemen. He’s witless enough to be one of scabrous Harald’s subjects. Don’t you think?”
But his brother wasn’t listening. Instead, Grefin was raking his troubled gaze across the nearby jostling villagers, and Ennis having his split scalp stitched by a tourney leech, and beyond him the small, untidy knot of lesser men who’d come to test their armoured mettle and now stood defeated, and the heavily hoof-scarred tilt-run with its battered wicker sheep-hurdle barrier, to at length settle on Hughe and his squires. The chuffer had climbed off his destrier and was exchanging his dented black-and-silver breastplate for one unmarked but just as gaudy. It would be a vaunted pleasure, surely, to dent that one for him too.
If this weren’t such a public place, be cursed if he wouldn’t hook his brother’s legs out from under him and put his arse in the dirt where it belonged.
“Hold your tongue, Grefin. Or better yet, since you’ve no stomach for sport, trot back to the Croft and lift your lance there, instead. Plant another son in your precious wife. After all, you’ve only sired one so far. You must be good for at least one more.”
“I mean it,” he said, keeping harsh. Refusing to see the shadow of hurt in Grefin’s eyes. “If all you can do is carp then you’re no good to me. In truth, it havocs me why you came in the first place.”
“To keep you from breaking your neck, I hope,” said Grefin, still frowning. “What havocs me is why you came! Look around, Balfre. We stand in an open field, far from any great house, and those who cheer and groan your efforts are villagers, herdsmen, peddlers and potboys.”
“So you’d deny the local churls an hour or two of entertainment? You’re turning mean-spirited, little brother.”
Grefin hissed air between his teeth. “It’s a question of dignity. Aside from you, and Hughe, and Ennis, who of any note came today to break his lance? Not our cousin. Not even Waymon, and he’s a man who’ll wrestle two drunk wild boars in a mire.”
“Come on, Gref,” he said, grinning despite his temper. “Even you have to admit that was funny.”
“Side-splitting, yes. And I’m sure the squires who broke themselves to save Waymon from being ripped wide from throat to cock laughed all the way to the bone-setter!”
“No, Balfre. You’ll listen,” his brother said, and took his elbow. “You’re Harcia’s heir. You owe its duke more than this joust against a gaggle of mudder knights fit only to ride the Marches.”
Wrenching his arm free, Balfre looked to where Ambrose and his squires stood waiting. His stallion was there, his unbroken lances and his helmet. Catching his eye, Ambrose raised a hand and beckoned, agitated.
He looked again at his niggling brother. “Where and how I choose to romp is my concern. Not yours. Not Aimery’s.”
“Of course it’s Aimery’s concern. He has enough to fret him without you risking yourself here. Those bastard lords of the Green Isle—”
Familiar resentment pricked, sharper than any spur. “You can throw down that cudgel, Grefin. When it comes to the Green Isle, Aimery has his remedy.”
“Balfre . . . ” Grefin sighed. “He needs more time.”
“He’s had nearly two years!”
“It’s been that long since Malcolm died. But Mother died in autumn, and here we are scant in spring.”
“What’s Mother to do with it? She wasn’t his Steward!”
“No,” Grefin said gently. “She was his beating heart. He still weeps for her, Balfre. And for Malcolm. Both griefs are still raw. And now you’d have him weeping for you, too?”
The chilly air stank of churned mud and horse shit. A troupe of acrobats was amusing the crowd as it waited for the last joust. Motley painted canvas balls and striped wooden clubs danced hand-to-hand and man-to-man through the air, the jonglers’ skill so great they never dropped even one. From time to time they snatched a cap from a villager’s head and juggled that too. The field echoed with delighted laughter.
Balfre glared at them, unamused. Aimery weep for him? That would be the fucking day. “I never knew you had such a poor opinion of my lance-skills.”
“This has nothing to do with jousting,” Grefin retorted. “Please, Balfre. Just . . . let it go. Who cares what a sophead like Hughe mutters under his breath?”
“I care!” Blood leaping, he shoved his brother with both hands, hard enough to mar Grefin’s dark green doublet. “When what he mutters is heard by a dozen men? I care. And if you cared for me, you’d care.”
“I do! But Balfre, you can’t—”
“Oh, fuck off, Grefin! Before I forget myself and give those gaping churls reason enough to gossip for a week!”
Grefin folded his arms, mule-stubborn. “I don’t want to.”
“And I don’t care what you want.”
Holding his brother’s resentful stare, unflinching, Balfre waited. Grefin would relent. He always did. There was a softness at the core of him that made sure of it. A good thing for Harcia he wasn’t Aimery’s heir. Such a softness would leave the duchy’s throat bared to faithless men like Harald of Clemen.
At last Grefin huffed out a frustrated breath. “Fine. But never say I didn’t warn you,” he said, and retreated.
Still simmering, Balfre returned to Ambrose. The Master Armsman near cracked his skull in two, shoving his gold-chased helmet onto his head.
“For shame, my lord,” Ambrose said in his rasping voice, come from a sword-hilt to the neck in the desperate, long-ago battle that had made Aimery duke. “Dallying like a maid. This might be a rumptiony shigshag we be at but still you should be setting of a timely example.”
Balfre bore with the reprimand. The armsman had served two dukes of Harcia already, thereby earning for himself a small measure of insolence. With a nod, he held out his hands so the turnip-head squire could gauntlet him. The burnished steel slid on cleanly, cold and heavy.
Ambrose started his final armour inspection. “You been watching that rump Hughe?”
“I have,” he said, twisting his torso to be certain of no sticking points in his breastplate, which was gold-chased like his helmet and worth more than Hughe’s horse. “Nothing’s changed since the last time we bouted. He still drops his lance a stride too soon, and sits harder on his right seatbone.”
“True enough.” Ambrose slapped his pupil’s steel-clad shoulder. “And shame be on his tiltmaster. But for all that, he be a brutey jouster. You’ll be kissing dirt, my lord, if you don’t have a care.”
“Then shame be on my tiltmaster,” Balfre said, flashing Ambrose a swift smirk. “If I do kiss the dirt, I’ll have to find myself a new one.”
Because this was no formal tourney they lacked judges to keep time or award points and penalties. There was the lone hornblower, though, for the sake of the ragged crowd. As Hughe remounted his restive stallion, one of his squires ran to the man and gave an order. Obedient, the appointed villager blew his horn to alert the crowd to the next joust.
Balfre nodded at Ambrose, then crossed to the wooden mounting block where his destrier was held fast by two squires. As he approached, one of them was doltish enough to shift too far sideways. The stallion lashed out its foreleg and caught the man on his thigh with an iron-shod hoof. Squealing, the squire crumpled.
“Maggot-brain!” said Ambrose, hurrying to drag him clear. Then he gestured at turnip-head. “Don’t stand there gawping, you peascod. Hold the cursed horse!”
The excited villagers set up another din of handbells and rattles and whistles. Stood at a distance in their second-rate armour, Ennis and the vanquished mudder knights cast envious looks at the stallion. Quivering with nerves, eager for the joust, the horse tossed its head and swished its thick black tail. As Balfre reached the mounting block it bared its teeth and snapped, strong enough to rip fingers from an unprotected hand.
“Bah!” he said, and punched the stallion’s dish-round cheek. “Stand still!”
Walking to and fro, the hornblower sounded another rallying blast, coaxing more raucous cheers from the crowd. On the far side of the tourney ground Hughe kicked his roan destrier forward, scattering his squires like beetles. One tottered behind him, awkwardly carrying his lance.
Rolling his eyes, Balfre picked up his reins, shoved his left foot into his stirrup and swung his right leg up and over his jousting saddle’s high cantle. The moment he settled on his destrier’s back he felt the animal tense beneath him, its breath coming in angry grunts. Not even his heaviest gauntlets muffled its throttled energy, tingling from the curbed bit to his fingers. Through the steel protecting his thighs and lower legs he could feel his mount’s barrel ribs expand and contract, and the pent-up furious power in the muscular body beneath him. This was his best horse, and they were well-matched in both temper and skill. Only for Black Hughe would he risk the beast here. But Hughe was owed a mighty drubbing, and to be sure of it he’d chance even this animal.
With a decided tug he closed his helmet’s visor then held out his hand. “Lance!”
The weight of the carved, painted timber woke old bruises and strains. Stifling an oath, he couched the lance in its proper place, pricked spurs to his horse’s flanks, then softened the bit’s sharp bite.
The destrier leapt like a flycatcher, snorting. White foam flew from its mouth. Prisoned within his gold-chased helm, his vision narrowed to a slit and the crowd’s roaring a hollow boom, Balfre laughed aloud. Aside from a writhing woman pinned on his cock, was there anything better in the world than a lance in his hand, a grand horse between his legs, and a man before him a handful of heartbeats from defeat?
No. There wasn’t.
Snorting, ears pricked, the destrier settled into a stately, knee-snapping prance. He sat the dance with ease, guiding the stallion to the start of the tilt-run with nothing more than his shifting weight and the touch of his long-shanked, elaborate spurs. There he halted, and paid no heed to the crowd’s wild cheering or the stallion’s threatening half-rears.
“Black Hughe!” he called, loud enough to be heard through his helmet. “You stand ready?”
“I indeed stand ready, Balfre!” Hughe shouted back. “Do I have your pardon now, for the unseating of you later?”
“You’ll have my pardon once you answer for your slur.”
“My lord,” said Hughe, defiant, then closed his own visor and demanded his lance.
As the hornblowing churl took his place midway along the rough tilt-run, horn ready at his lips, the watching villagers and mudder knights fell silent. Only the blackbirds kept up their squabbling, seeking the last grains of seed.
The horn sounded again, a single trembling note. Balfre threw his weight forward as he felt his stallion’s quarters sink beneath him, felt its forehand lift, saw its noble head and great, crested neck rise towards his face. It bellowed, a roaring challenge, then stood on its strong hindlegs. Night-black forelegs raked the air. He loosened the reins, gripped the lance and spurred the stallion’s flanks. The horse plunged groundwards, bellowing again . . . and charged.
Blurred, breathless speed. Pounding heart. Heaving lungs. Nothing before him but Black Hughe on his horse and the memory of his hateful taunt, dagger-sharp and unforgivable.
Seven thundering strides. Six. Five.
He tucked the lance tight to his side, closed his thighs, dropped the reins. Blinked his eyes free of sweat . . . and took aim . . . and struck.
A double shout of pain, as his lance-head impacted Hughe’s armoured body and shattered, as Hughe’s undamaged lance struck then glanced harmlessly aside. Pain thrummed through him like the ringing of a great bell, like the clashing of a hammer against the anvil of the world. His fingers opened, releasing the splintered remains of his lance. Then they closed again, on his dropped reins. He hauled on them, unkindly, and his destrier shuddered to a head-shaking halt. A tug and a spurring, and he was turned back to look for Hughe.
Herewart’s youngest son was sprawled on the tilt-run’s dirt like a starfish, his fancy breastplate dented, his helmet scratched, his brown eyes staring blindly at the sky.
“My lord! My lord!”
And that was Ambrose, the old, scarred man, running hoppy and hamstrung towards him. Turnip-head and another squire scurried at his heels. Hughe’s squires were running too, the ones that weren’t dashing after his ill-trained horse.
Ambrose, arriving, snatched at the destrier’s reins. His pocked face, with its faded sword marks, stretched splitting-wide in a tottytooth smile.
“A doughty strike, my lord, doughty! The best from you I’ve surely seen! Lord Grefin will bite his thumb, for certain, when he’s told what he missed.”
Grefin. A curse on Grefin and his milksop mimbling. Balfre shoved up his visor, then kicked his feet free of the stirrups and twisted out of his saddle. The jar in his bones as he landed on the hoof-scarred ground made him wince. Ambrose saw it, but nobody else. He held out his hands for the squires to pull off his gauntlets, and when they were free unbuckled and tugged off his helmet for himself.
“Take the horse,” he commanded. “I would speak to Black Hughe.”
“My lord,” said Ambrose, holding stallion and helmet now. “We’ll make ready to depart.”
The villagers and mudder knights were still cheering, the ragtag children shaking their rattles and handbells and blowing their whistles. He waved once, since it was expected, then turned from them to consider old Herewart’s son. The lingering pains in his body were as nothing, drowned in the joy of seeing his enemy thrown down.
“Lord Balfre,” Hughe greeted him, his voice thin as watered wine. His squires had freed him from his helmet and thrust a folded tunic beneath his head. “Your joust, I think.”
With a look, Balfre scattered the squires who hovered to render their lord aid. Then he dropped to one knee, with care, and braced an aching forearm across his thigh.
Black Hughe was sweating, his face pale beneath the blood seeping from a split across the bridge of his nose. More blood trickled from one nostril, and from the corner of his mouth. He looked like a knifed hog.
“I’m not dying, Balfre,” Hughe said, slowly. “I bit my tongue. That’s all.”
“And to think, Hughe, if you’d bitten it the sooner you’d not be lying here now in a welter of your gore, unhorsed and roundly defeated,” he said kindly, and smiled.
Hughe coughed, then gasped in pain. “My lord—”
“Hughe, Hughe . . . ” Leaning forward, Balfre patted Black Hughe’s bruised cheek. Mingled sweat and blood stained his fingers. He didn’t mind. They were his prize. “I’m going now. Without your horse and armour. I didn’t joust you for them.”
“My lord,” said Hughe, and swallowed painfully. “Thank you.”
“Not at all. And Hughe, for your sake, heed me now. Remember this moment. Engrave it on your heart. So the next time you think to slight my prowess with my lance? You think again – and stay silent.”
Hughe stared at him, struck dumb. Balfre smiled again, not kindly. Pushed to his feet, spurning assistance, gave Hughe his armoured back and walked away.
* * *
Temper sour as pickled lemon after his fractious dealings on the Green Isle, Aimery of Harcia disembarked his light galley in no mood for delay. Not waiting to see if his high steward and the others were ready, he made his way down the timber gang-plank, booted heels sharply rapping, and leapt the last few steps with the ease of a man half his age. The surety of steady ground beneath his feet at once lifted his spirits. Ah! Blessed Harcia! Never mind it was little more than a stone’s throw from the mainland to the Green Isle. He’d stick a sword through his own gizzards before confessing to a soul how much he hated sailing.
“’Tis good to be home, Your Grace,” said his high steward, joining him.
Staring at the busy harbour village of Piper’s Wade crowded before them, Aimery breathed in the mingled scents of fresh salt air, old fish guts, people and beasts. Some might call the air tainted, a stench, but never him. It was the smell of Harcia, his duchy, sweeter than any fresh bloom.
“We’re not home yet, Curteis. Not quite.” He smiled. “But this’ll do. Now, let’s be off. I can hear the Croft calling.”
His party’s horses had been stabled against their return at nearby Piper’s Inn. With their baggage to be off-loaded from the galley and transported by ox-cart, he led his people to the inn with purposeful haste, greeting the villagers who greeted him with a nod and a friendly word in passing, making sure they knew he was pleased to see them but alas, could not stop . . . only to be halted in the Piper’s empty, sunlit forecourt by a wildly bearded man in embroidered rags.
“My lord! Duke Aimery!” Skinny arms waving, the man shuffled into his path. A soothsayer from the old religion, half his wits wandered off entirely. Lost, along with most of his teeth. Twig-tangled grey hair, lank past his shoulders, framed a seamed and sun-spoiled lean face. His pale grey eyes were yellowed with ill health, and sunken. “A word, my lord! Your pardon! A word!”
It was held bad luck to spurn a soothsayer. Aimery raised a warning hand to his four men-at-arms. “Keep yourselves. There’s no harm here. See to the horses and you, Curteis, settle our account with the innkeeper.”
They knew better than to argue. As he was obeyed, and his scribe and body squire hastily took themselves out of the way, Aimery turned to the ragged man.
“You know me then, soothsayer?”
The soothsayer cackled on a gust of foul breath. “Not I, my lord. The stars. The little frogs. The wind. The spirits in the deep woods know you, my lord. But they whisper to me.”
“And what do they whisper?”
Those sunken, yellow-tinged eyes narrowed. “I could tell you. I should tell you. But will I be believed? Do you honour the spirits? Or . . . ” The soothsayer spat. Blackish-green phlegm smeared his lips. “Are you seduced by the grey men, my lord?”
The grey men. The Exarch’s monks, harbingers of a new religion. It had barely scratched the surface of Harcia, though its roots grew deep in other lands. The soothsayer stared at him, hungrily, as though his reply must be a feast.
“I’m seduced by no one,” he said. “Every philosophy has its truth. Speak to me, or don’t speak. The choice is yours. But I’ll not stand here till sunset, waiting.”
The soothsayer cocked his head, as though listening. Then another gusting cackle. “Yes, yes. I hear him. A needle-wit, this Aimery. Prick, prick, prick and see the blood flow.” A gnarled finger pointed to the early morning sky, eggshell-blue wreathed in lazy cloud. “Three nights past, my lord. As the moon set. A long-tailed comet. The sign of chaos. Were you witness? It made the black sky bleed.”
Three nights past at moonset he’d only just crawled into his borrowed bed on the Green Isle, head aching with arguments. “No. I didn’t see it. I was asleep.”
“Asleep then, asleep now.” Eyes stretching wide, the soothsayer shuffled close. “Time to wake, my lord duke, and see the trouble festering under your roof.”
A clutch at his heart. “What trouble?”
“There was a man who had three sons. Lost one. Kept one. Threw the third away. The fool.”
“What do you mean? What—”
“Be warned, my lord duke,” the old man wheezed. “Unless you open your eyes you will sleep the cold sleep of death.” A rattle in the scrawny throat, a sound like the last breath of a dying wife. A dying son. “And no right to say you were not told. You have to know it, Aimery. A long-tailed comet cannot lie.”
But a man could. A mad man, his wits scattered like chaff on the wind. Aimery stepped back. “Be on your way, soothsayer. You’ve spoken and I’ve listened.”
“Yes, but have you heard?” The soothsayer shook his head, sorrowful. Or perhaps merely acting sorrow. Who could tell, with a mad man? “Ah well. In time we’ll know.”
It was nonsense, of course. He had little time for religion, old or new. But the soothsayer looked in a bad way, so he pulled a plain gold ring from his finger.
“Take this, old man. Buy yourself a warm bed and hot food. And when next the spirits whisper, whisper to them from me that a faithful servant should be better served.”
The soothsayer’s eyes glittered as he stared at the ring. Then he snatched it, and with much muttering and arm-waving hobbled out of the forecourt.
“Your Grace,” Curteis murmured, arriving on soft feet that barely disturbed the raked gravel. “Is aught amiss?”
Aimery frowned after the soothsayer, an indistinct bundle of rags vanishing into the high street’s bustle. Mad old men and their ramblings. Throw a stone into any crowd and you’d likely strike at least three.
“No. Can we go?”
Curteis nodded. “Yes, Your Grace. As it please you.”
They rode knee-to-knee out of the inn’s stable yard in a clattering of hooves, with his body squire and his scribe and his men-at-arms close at heel.
“Be warned, Curteis,” he said, as they scattered pie-sellers and cobblers and fishwives before them along Piper’s Wade high street, “and share the warning with them that ride behind. I wish to sleep in my own bed under my own roof sooner rather than later. Therefore we shall travel swiftly, with few halts, and should I hear a tongue clapping complaint I swear I’ll kick the culprit’s arse seven shades of black and blue.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” said Curteis, smiling. He was well used to his duke.
With the past two weeks fresh in mind, Aimery scowled. “I tell you plain, man, I’ve heard enough clapping tongues lately to last me till my funeral.”
“The lords of the Green Isle were indeed fretsome, Your Grace.”
“Fretsome?” He snorted. “Snaggle-brained, you should call them. Vexatious. Full of wind. Especially that cross-grained fuck Terriel.”
“Your Grace,” agreed Curteis. “Lord Terriel and his noble brothers farted many noisome words. But you set them well straight.”
Yes, he did. And woe betide a one of them who again dared defy his judgement. That man, be he ever so lordly, even the great and grasping Terriel, would find himself so handily chastised there’d be scars on his great-grandson’s arse.
Bleakly satisfied, still impatient, Aimery urged his iron-dappled palfrey into a canter, then swung left off the high street onto Hook Way, which would lead them eventually to his ducal forest of Burnt Wood. If the rain held off and no mischance befell them, with the horses well rested they’d be in and out of the forest by day’s end. Spend the night in Sparrowholt on its far side, leave at dawn on the morrow, ride hard with little dallying and with fortune they’d reach the Croft before sunset.
And so it proved. But when he did at last trot beneath the arching stone gateway of his favourite castle’s inner bailey, feeling every one of his fifty-four years, he found himself ridden into yet another storm. For standing in the Croft’s torchlit keep, clad head to toe in unrelieved black velvet, was old Herewart of nearby Bann Crossing. He trembled in the dusk’s chill, tears swiftly slicking his withered cheeks. Waiting with him, stood at a wary distance, Balfre and Grefin.
“What is this, Balfre?” Aimery demanded of his accidental heir, even as his gaze lingered on his youngest son. His favourite, now that Malcolm was dead. “Why am I greeted with such confusion?”
He’d sent a man ahead, to warn of his arrival and stir the castle’s servants to duty. As they hurried to take the horses and relieve Curteis and the scribe of their note-filled satchels, and the men-at-arms waited with their hands ready on their swords, he saw Balfre and Grefin exchange disquieting looks. But before his heir could answer, Herewart let out a cry cracked-full of grief and approached without leave or invitation.
“Your Grace, you must hear me! As a father, and my duke, only you can grant me the justice I seek!”
“Hold,” he said to the men-at-arms who were moving to protect him. Then he looked to his steward. “Curteis, escort Lord Herewart within the castle. See him comforted, and kept company in the Rose chamber until I come.”
Very proper, though he was also weary, Curteis bowed. “Yes, Your Grace.”
“Your Grace!” Herewart protested. “Do not abandon me to an underling. My years of loyalty should purchase more consideration than that. I demand—”
“Demand?” Summoning a lifetime’s worth of discipline, Aimery swung off his horse to land lightly on his feet. “My lord, be mindful. Not even a lifetime of loyalty will purchase a demand.”
Herewart’s colour was high, his wet eyes red-rimmed and lit with a burning fervour. “A single day of loyalty should purchase the justice I am owed. And be warned, Aimery. Justice I’ll have, as I see fit, and from your hand – or there will be a reckoning. This is not cursed Clemen, where injustice wears a crown!”
Silence, save for Herewart’s ragged breathing and the scrape of shod hooves on the flagstones as the horses hinted at their stables. Aimery looked to his sons. Grefin stood pale, arms folded, lower lip caught between his teeth. There was grief for Herewart there, and fear for his brother. As for Balfre, he stood defiant. He knew no other way to stand.
Belly tight, Aimery looked again at Herewart. “What has happened, my lord?”
“My son is dead, Your Grace,” said Herewart, his voice raw. “My youngest. Hughe.”
The blunt words tore wide his own monstrous, unhealed wound. “I’m sorry to hear it, Herewart. To lose a son untimely is—”
“You must know he was murdered,” Herewart said, bludgeoning. “By your son and heir, Balfre.”
“Liar!” Balfre shouted, and would have leapt at the old man but for Grefin’s restraining hand. “It was ill chance, not murder, and he’d still be alive had you taught him how he should speak of Harcia’s heir! The fault is yours, Herewart, not mine, that your son’s bed tonight is a coffin!”
Aimery closed his eyes, briefly. Oil and water, they were, he and this son. Oil and flame. Balfre, you shit. When will you cease burning me? “What ill chance?”
“None,” said Herewart, glowering. “Hughe’s death was purposed. Your son challenged mine to a duel and killed him.”
“Duel?” Balfre laughed, incredulous. “It was a joust! I unhorsed him by the rules, and when I left him he was barely more than winded. How can you—”
“No, my lord, how can you!” said Herewart, a shaking fist raised at Balfre. “My son made a ribald jest, harmless, and you, being so tender-skinned and pig-fat full of self love, you couldn’t laugh and let it go by. You had to answer him with your lance, you had to goad him into unwise confrontation in the company of churls and mudder knights and take your revenge by taking his life! He breathed his last this morning; his body broken, your name upon his blood-stained lips.”
Pulling free of his brother’s holding hand, Balfre took a step forward. “Your Grace, Hughe’s death isn’t my—”
Aimery silenced him with a look, then turned. “My lord Herewart, as a father I grieve with you. And as your duke I promise justice. But for now, go with Curteis. He’ll see you to warmth and wine while I have words with my son.”
Herewart hesitated, then nodded. As Curteis ushered him within the castle, and the inner bailey emptied of servants, squires, men-at-arms and horses, Grefin tried to counsel his brother but was roughly pushed aside.
“Balfre,” Aimery said, when they were alone. “What was Hughe’s jest?”
His face dark with temper, Balfre swung round. “It was an insult, not a jest. And public, made with intent. I couldn’t let it go by.”
Grefin glanced at his brother, then nodded. “It’s true. Hughe was offensive. But—”
“But nothing!” Balfre insisted. “For Herewart’s son to say my lance is riddled with wormwood, with no more strength to it than a pipe of soft cheese, and by lance mean my cock, never mind we talked of jousting, he questioned my ability to sire a son. He as good as said I wasn’t fit to rule Harcia after Aimery. And that’s treason, Grefin, whether you like it or not.”
Grefin was shaking his head. “Hughe was wine-soaked when he spoke. So deep in his cup he couldn’t see over its rim. He was a fool, not a traitor.”
“And now he’s a dead fool,” said Balfre, brutally unregretful. “And a lesson worth learning. My lord—” He took another step forward, so sure of his welcome. “You can see I had no choice. I—”
“Balfre,” Aimery said heavily, “what I see is a man possessed of no more wit and judgement at the age of three-and-twenty than were his when he was five.”
Balfre stared. “My lord?”
“You killed a man for no better reason than he had less wit than you!”
“But Father – I was wronged. You can’t take Herewart’s part in this!”
Oh Malcolm, Malcolm. A curse on you for dying.
Aimery swallowed, rage and disappointment turning his blood to bile. “Since last you saw me I have done nothing but ride the Green Isle, hearing complaints and chastising faithless lords who count their own petty needs higher than what is best for this duchy. And now you, Balfre, you encourage men to defy my decree against personal combat. What—”
“It was a joust!” Balfre shouted. “You’ve not banned jousting. I was obedient to all your rules. I made sure of a tilt barrier, my lance was well-blunted, and I—”
“And you killed a man, regardless,” he said, fists clenched. “Much good your obedience has done you, Balfre. Or me.”
Balfre’s hands were fisted too. “That’s not fair. Father—”
“Do not call me Father! On your knees, miscreant, and address me as Your Grace!”
Sickly pale, Balfre dropped to the damp ground. “Your Grace, it’s plain you’re weary. You shouldn’t be plagued with the Green Isle. Appoint me its Steward and I’ll—”
“Appoint you?” Aimery ached to slap his son’s face. “Balfre, if I let you loose on the Green Isle there’d be war within a week.”
“Your Grace, you misjudge me.”
“Do I?” He laughed, near to choking on bitterness. “And if I were to break my neck hunting tomorrow and the day after I was buried you learned that Harald of Clemen had yet again interfered with Harcian justice in the Marches? Tell me, would you tread with care or would you challenge him to a joust?”
“Harald is a cur-dog who sits upon a stolen throne,” said Balfre, his lip curled. “Thieves and cur-dogs should be beaten, not cosseted. If Harald feared us he’d not dare flout your authority, or entice Harcia’s men-at-arms to break your decrees, or demand unlawful taxes from our merchants and—”
“So you’d challenge him with a naked sword, and slaughter two hundred years of peace.” Aimery shook his head, stung with despair. “Never once doubting the wisdom of your choice.”
“Your Grace, there’s no greater wisdom than overwhelming strength and the willingness to use it.”
And so the decision he’d been avoiding for so long, like a coward, was made for him. He sighed. “I know you think so, Balfre. Grefin—”
Grefin looked up. “Your Grace?”
“The Green Isle has been left to its own devices for too long. Therefore I appoint you its Steward and—”
Forgetting himself, Balfre leapt to his feet. “No!”
“Your Grace—” Alarmed, Grefin was staring. “I’m honoured, truly, but—”
“Enough, Grefin. It’s decided.”
“No, it isn’t!” said Balfre. “You can’t do this. Like it or not I’m your heir. By right the Green Isle’s stewardship is mine. You can’t—”
Aimery seized his oldest son’s shoulders and shook him. “I must, Balfre. For your sake, for Harcia’s sake, I have no other choice.”
“You’re a duke,” said Balfre, coldly. “You have nothing but choices.”
“Ah, Balfre . . . ” Run through with pain, he tightened his fingers. “The day you understand that isn’t true is the day you will be ready for a crown.”
Balfre wrenched free. “Fuck you, Your Grace,” he said, and walked away.