"Chisholm's Sir Robert Carey novels are the sort of books that cause one to rush out of the house and leave the supper burning, for fear of finishing one after the bookstore has closed and the others are out of reach." —Diana Gabaldon, #1 New York Times bestselling author
Sir Robert Carey took up his northern post as Warden of the West March in order to escape the complications of creditors and court life. However Carey merely trades one set of troubles for another.
One black night in 1592, Carey is on patrol along the unsettled border anchored by the garrison in Carlisle. It's a disaster. First, there's the fugitive he has to hand over to the warring Scots. Next come Wee Colin Elliot's sheep stealers. And then a gun explodes and takes off the hand of one of Carey's men. Back in Carlisle, Carey soon learns more faulty guns lie in the armoury in place of the sound weapons shipped in only last week. When these explosive deathtraps are stolen, he sets off in pursuit of both batches of guns—and the thieves.
The search ends in Dumfries where King James VI of Scotland—potentially King James I of England when his cousin Elizabeth dies—and his raucous court have assembled. James is as dissolute as ever, lovely Lady Elizabeth Widdrington, Carey's true love, is still shackled to her husband, and seductive Signora Bonnetti takes a serious interest in Carey and in the missing guns. Will Carey be gallant enough to flirt with the Signora—and with treason?
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About the Author
P.F. Chisholm is a pseudonym of a well-known writer of historical thrillers, childrens' books, and nonfiction blogs and ebooks. Previous titles in the Sir Robert Carey and Sergeant Dodd series are A Famine of Horses, A Season of Knives, A Surfeit of Guns, A Plague of Angels, A Murder of Crows, An Air of Treason, A Chorus of Innocents, A Clash of Spheres, and A Suspicion of Silver.
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A Surfeit of GunsA Sir Robert Carey Mystery
By P. F. Chisholm
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 1996 P. F. Chisholm
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Surfeit of Guns
Friday 7th July 1592, late afternoon
Sir Robert Carey woke up to a knock on the door, feeling sticky-mouthed and bad- tempered and uncertain what time of day it was. He was in his clothes with his doublet buttons undone, his boots by the side of the bed. Through the window the diamond mosaic of sky had greyed over. Barnabus Cooke his man-servant came stumping in carrying a bowl of cold water, a towel over one arm, a leather bottle of small beer under the other.
"Afternoon, sir," he said in his familiar adenoidal whine. "Sergeant Dodd wants to know where you was thinking of patrolling tonight."
Ah. Night patrol, therefore an afternoon nap.
"I haven't decided yet," Carey answered.
He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed, hearing the elderly strapping creak beneath the mattress. Although the bed had once been honoured by the sleeping body of Her Majesty the Queen of Scots while she was briefly an uneasy guest in Carlisle, that was nearly thirty years before and it had had a hard life since then. He honestly thought a straw pallet on the floor might be more comfortable and certainly less noisy.
While he splashed his face with cold water and drank some of the beer, Carey gathered his thoughts and tried to wake up properly. Barnabus fastened his many buttons, helped him on with his jack. As always there was a depressing moment when the padded, double-layered leather coat, with its metal plates in between, weighed him down like original sin. Then, once it was laced and his belt buckled so the weight was evenly distributed between his shoulders and hips, his body adjusted and he no longer felt it. As armour went, it was very comfortable, much better than his tilting plate that was in pawn down in London. He had his new broadsword, the best the Dumfries armourers could produce, and Barnabus had oiled it well, though the hilt still felt rough and odd against his hand after he had strapped it on. His helmet was a fine piece, a blued-steel morion, with elaborate chasing on its peaks and curves, well-padded inside. He knew it made him conspicuous, but that was the idea after all—his men needed to know where he was in a fight.
Fully-dressed, he caught sight of himself in the mirror, saw the martial reflection and unconsciously smiled back at it. Barnabus knelt to put his spurs on, tutting at the state of the riding boots which Barnabus's nephew had forgotten to clean. Finally accoutred, Carey clattered down the stairs, his handguns in their case under his arm, weighing perhaps sixty pounds more than he had when he got up.
Sergeant Dodd and the men were waiting with their horses in the courtyard. Carey did a quick headcount, found they were all there and went over to ask Dodd what Long George had to say for himself.
Long George Little was the man standing next to Dodd. He was showing a pistol to him, a new one by the gleam of its powderpan, and Dodd was sighting down the barrel and squeezing the trigger.
"Dumfries work, is it?" Dodd was asking.
"Ay," said Long George, who was actually no taller than Dodd and an inch or two shorter than Carey himself, but gave the impression of even greater height because he had long bony legs and arms.
"What did ye pay for it?"
Long George coughed. "Twenty-five shillings, English."
"Mphm," said Dodd noncommittally.
"Good evening, gentlemen," said Carey with some sarcasm. "I'm delighted to see you, Long George. Where have you been since Wednesday?"
Long George's face was round and his beard a straggling decoration that refused to grow around his mouth but flourished all the way down his neck and into his chest hairs. The face suddenly became childlike in its innocence.
"It were family business, sir," he said. "One of the weans was sick and the wife thought it might be the smallpox."
"Ah. And was it?"
"Was what, sir?"
"Was it smallpox?"
"Nay, it was chickenpox."
Had he had that, Carey wondered, and decided he had. He remembered his mother putting him in a camomile bath to soothe the itching and cutting his nails down short.
"I might have needed you as a witness at the Atkinson inquest."
Long George shrugged and wouldn't meet his eye. Clearly he had made himself scarce precisely in order to avoid being a witness. "I'm here for the patrol, sir, amn't I?" he said truculently. "That's all ye want, is it not?"
Carey gave him a considering stare. "It will do for the present," he said coldly. Long George gazed into space, put a helmet on, knuckled his forehead and went to find his horse.
They were a little late going out, but the watch at the city gates had waited for them. They crossed Eden Bridge and struck north and east, heading for Askerton Castle and Bewcastle beyond that.
As the sun set behind its grey blanket of cloud, and the night closed in, they slowed down, letting their horses feel their way. It was a black night, blacker than mourning velvet, the sky robbed of diamonds and the countryside full of hushed noise. Most of the cattle were still up at the shielings but the small farms announced themselves with the snoring of pigs and occasionally sheep would wander abstractedly across the path they were using. The men were quiet behind him apart from the occasional clatter of a lance against stirrup or the jingle of a bridle.
Now he was properly awake and his nightsight had come in so he could see the world in subtle shades of grey, Carey couldn't help feeling happy. He knew it was ridiculous when he was theoretically supposed to stop multiple mayhem and feud on the lawless West March of England, with a grand total of nine patrolmen including himself, but still he never felt better than when he was on horseback wondering what might happen. His sister said he was quite mad to enjoy himself so much when at any time he might meet raiders who could kill him, but then she was a woman and would never understand.
However, most of the night passed in jingling boredom. And then at last they were passing by an outpost of forest not far from the Border and Carey was about to order them to turn for home, when they heard a crashing and clattering from between the trees. The men immediately began to spread themselves along the path and tighten their helmet laces. Carey put his hand up for caution. Long George was pouring powder into the pan of his new gun. But whatever was coming was four-legged and certainly not horses ...
The deer burst from the wood, tightly bunched, a group of young staggards and other rascals from what he could see of their antlers, their nostrils flaring and their white rumps flashing. They came suddenly, blindly, upon a line of men downwind of them and dodged in their panic from place to place. Long George lifted his pistol two-handed, screwed up his face thoughtfully and fired. The boom of the shot caused the deer to leap and double their speed, but one of them was turned into a still-moving fountain of blood, with most of its neck destroyed by the bullet. Gradually catching up with the disaster its legs stopped running and its body slumped into the ground, flopping about until it lay still.
"Good shot!" shouted Carey, delighted at the prospect of fresh venison. Long George grinned with pleasure and blew the remnants of powder off his pan.
Carey and Dodd dismounted, waited for the blood to stop and then inspected the beast. It was nicely fat and at least a stag, so although there was no particular honour in killing it, at least there would be good eating.
"We'll gralloch it and drain it for half an hour," said Carey. "The butcher can do the rest when we get it home."
Dodd nodded. "We're not poaching, are we?"
Carey thought for a moment. "I don't think so, we're on English land and anyway, Long George only hit the animal by accident, isn't that right, Long George?"
"Ay, sir. Me gun went off wi'out warning, sir."
The other men sniggered quietly.
"Exactly. And it would be a pity to waste the meat."
Carey did not have his set of hunting knives with him, but Dodd passed him a long heavy knife with a wicked edge that was suspiciously apt to the purpose. Stepping around to the back of the beast, Carey leaned over the carcass and made the belly-cut with a flourish, thinking of the many times he had broken a beast with full ceremony to the music of drums and trumpets in front of Queen Elizabeth at one of her various courtly hunts.
"By God, he does it prettily," one of the men remarked in a mutter to Dodd, who happened to be standing next to him. "Will ye look at him, not a drop on him?"
"Ah've seen it done faster," sniffed Dodd.
"Ay well, so've I, but that's with one ear out for the keeper ..." He paused, cocking his head thoughtfully. Far in the distance, there was more crashing in the deer's wake through the forest.
"That's a man running," said Dodd, swinging up onto his horse again and taking his lance back from Red Sandy. Carey looked up, stopped, wiped his hands and blade sketchily on the grass and vaulted up onto his own horse's back just as the sound of feet burst out of the undergrowth and shaped itself into the blur of a human being, head down, arms pumping. He saw them waiting in the darkness and skidded to a halt, mouth open in dismay.
Carey knew prey when he saw it; the man's oddly-cut doublet was flapping open and his fine shirt ripped and stained, his hose were in tatters and his boots broken. He had pale hair plastered to his face with sweat, a flushed face, a pale beard and a square jaw.
"Hilfe, hilf mir," he gasped. "Freunde, helft mir ..." His legs buckled and he went to his knees involuntarily, chest shuddering for air. "Um Gottes willen."
"He's a bastard Frenchman," said Red Sandy excitedly, aiming his lance at the man and riding forward.
"Nay, he's that Spanish agent ..." someone else shouted. Long George was reloading his pistol as fast as he could.
"Nein, nein ..."
"Wait!" roared Carey. "God damn your eyes, WAIT!"
In the distance, they could hear dogs giving tongue. The man heard it too, his eyes whitened, he tried to stand, but he was utterly spent and he pitched forward on his face, retching drily.
Carey dismounted and went over to the man.
"He's a French foreigner," said Red Sandy again. "Did ye no' hear him speaking French, sir? Can I get his tail for a trophy, sir?"
"It wasn't French," said Carey. "It was something else, High or Low Dutch, I think. He's a German."
Red Sandy subsided, mystified at the thought of a foreigner who wasn't French.
"Like one of them foreign miners down by Derwentwater," put in Sim's Will Croser helpfully. "Ye mind 'em, Red Sandy? They speak like that, ay, with all splutters and coughs and the like."
"Qu'est vostre nom, monsieur? Parlez-vous français?" Carey asked as he approached the man who was lifting himself feebly on his elbows. Behind him he could hear the men muttering between themselves. They were arguing over whether the German miners had tails like Frenchmen.
"Hans Schmidt, mein Herr, aus Augsburg. Ich spreche ein bischen ... je parle un peu de Français."
"Well, that's French, any road," said Dodd dubiously as the hounds in the distance gave tongue again, musical and haunting. The German winced at the sound and tried to climb to his feet, but his knees gave way. His fear was pitiful.
"I know, Sergeant," said Carey, coming to a decision, "Have the men move off the road into the undergrowth over there, spread them out. Not much we can do about the venison seeing they've got dogs, so leave it. Red Sandy, you set the men and don't move until we know what's coming after this man. If I shoot, hit them hard. Dodd, you stay here with me."
This they understood. Red Sandy swung his horse back the way they had come and the other six melted briskly into the bushes with their mounts. As the leaves hid them, Long George had the slowmatch lit for his pistol and was cupping it with his hand to hide it. Sim's Will Croser was taking his bow out of the quiver and stringing it. It was ridiculous that in this day and age most of his men had no modern firearms but must still rely on the longbows of their great-grandfathers, Carey thought to himself. They were waiting the devil of a long time for the ordnance carts from Newcastle.
Dodd loosened his sword, took a grip on his lance and slouched down in the saddle, sighing in a martyred fashion as he stayed out in plain view to back up his Deputy Warden. Heart beating hard, Carey could hear the other horses now, crashing through the undergrowth behind the hounds.
The German, Hans Schmidt, had got to his feet, swaying with exhaustion, jabbering away desperately in High Dutch, not one word of which Carey could make out. He could talk to a whore or an innkeeper in Low Dutch, but that was the size of his ability. French came easier to him.
"Nicht verstehe," he said. "Je ne comprends pas. Plus lentement, s'il vous plaist."
For answer the man put his face in his hands and moaned. There was no time left, the hoofbeats were too close. The German began wobbling away, across the field. Carey shook his head, remounted his horse and pulled both his dags out of their cases. They were already shotted and he wound them up ready to fire, but from the sound of it two shots would not be enough.
The dogs broke from the woods in a yelping tide, making his horse snort and sidle. Lymers and sleuth-hounds flowed around them, yelping excitedly, sniffing ground, hooves, bellies. The fugitive at least had sense enough not to run, or perhaps he could not. He had fallen and was curled into a ball with his hands over his face. The dogs gathered round, tails wagging furiously, sniffed curiously at the man, then caught scent of the partly-gralloched deer and gave tongue. They entirely lost interest in their original quarry and gathered about the deer. Some began pulling guiltily at the entrails.
"Off, off. Allez!" shouted Carey, riding over to protect his kill, looking around for the huntsmen.
For a moment it was hounds only, the horses heralded by sound. Then, like the elven-folk from a poet's imagination, they cantered out of the tree shadows, three, four, eight, twelve of them, and more behind, some carrying torches, their white leather jacks pristine and lace complicating the hems of their falling bands and cuffs, flowing beards and glittering jewelled fingers, with the plump flash of brocade above their long boots. Carey was surprised: he had expected one of the Border headmen and his kin, like Scott of Buccleuch or Kerr of Ferniehurst, perhaps even Lord Maxwell. Certainly not these fine courtiers.
The Master of the Hunt whipped the hounds off, and the highest ranking among them rode forward on a horse far too good for the rough ground. Carey recognised him immediately.
"My lord Earl of Mar," he said in astonishment, looking from the dishevelled panting German to the King of Scotland's most trusted advisor.
"Eh?" said the earl, squinting through the mirk. "Who's that?"
"Sir Robert Carey, my lord, Deputy Warden of the English West March."
"Eh? Speak oot, mon."
Carey repeated himself in Scots. Behind him he could feel Dodd sitting quiet and watchful, his lance pointed upwards, managing expertly to project a combination of relaxation and menace without actually doing anything.
The Earl of Mar was glaring at Carey's dags. Rather pointedly, he did not put them away. Out of the corners of his eyes he could see a further six or eight riders milling about in the forest, rounding up stray dogs, while three of the other huntsmen tried to reassert discipline over the hounds who felt they had a right to the deer's innards after their run.
"What are ye doing here?"
"Well, my lord, I could ask you the same question since we're on English land."
"We're on a lawful hot trod."
"Oh?" said Carey neutrally.
"Ay, we are. My lord Spynie, where the devil's that bit of turf?"
A young round-faced man with a velvet bonnet tipped over his ear rode forward. Some crumbs of turf still stuck to the point of his lance, and he was frowning at it in irritation. He was a handsome young man, of whom Carey had heard but had never met, known variously as Alexander Lindsay, Lord Spynie, King James's favourite and the King's bloody bum-boy.
"I see," said Carey, relaxing slightly and putting his dags away but leaving the case open. "Well, my lord, in that case, as Deputy Warden of the English West March, I am a proper person for you to tell the cause of the trod to, and if necessary, I will render you what assistance I can."
Excerpted from A Surfeit of Guns by P. F. Chisholm Copyright © 1996 by P. F. Chisholm. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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