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"A briskly paced debut rich in spiky characters, eccentric accents, and, above all, a charismatic hero with a sense of honor and a sense of humor." —Kirkus Reviews
In 1592, Sir Robert Carey comes to Carlisle to take up his new post as Deputy Warden of the West March. He has wangled his appointment to be nearer his true love (a married woman) and farther from the gimlet eyes of his creditors and the disapproving eye of his father (the Queen's cousin—possibly her halfbrother). And of course, he can use the money.
Sir Robert won't see a profit from the perks if he fails to keep the peace. Alas, he is quickly challenged by the murder of a lad, the possible betrayal of a disappointed rival, the ire of the lady's husband, and the question regarding the hundreds of horses being stolen from all over the neighborhood. It's hard to say whether the greater danger lies without the city walls amidst the scheming Scots or within them amidst the unruly English garrison.
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A Famine of Horses
A Sir Robert Carey Mystery
By P.F. Chisholm
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2017 Patricia Finney Reprinted with permission from Walker & Company
All rights reserved.
Sunday, 18th June 1592, noon
Henry Dodd let the water drip off the end of his nose as he stared at a trail in the long sodden grasses. It was simple enough: two horses, both burdened, though from a long slide mark by a little hump he thought the bigger of the two was carrying a pack rather than being ridden by a man who could have avoided it. The prints kept close enough for the one to be leading the other.
He looked up and squinted at the low hills north of the border where the Picts' Wall ran. They melted into the grey sky so it seemed there was no difference between the earth and the cloud and a lesser man might have made comparisons between them and the area of moss and waste between, where the purely theoretical change between England and Scotland took place.
Sergeant Henry Dodd, however, had no time for such fancyings. He was mortally certain that the two men, or possibly one and a packhorse, had been where they had no business to be, and he wanted to know why.
Blinking intently at the traces, he turned his horse and let her find her own path amongst tussocks and rabbit holes, following the trail before it was washed into mud.
Behind him his six patrolmen muttered into their chests and followed in sodden misery. They had been on their way home to Carlisle from a dull inspection of the fords on the River Sark when the Sergeant had seen the trail and taken it into his head to follow it. By the time they got to the guardroom, Lowther's men would have taken the best beer and the least stale loaves and if there was cheese or meat left, it would be a wonder.
Dodd crested a small rise and paused. Ahead of him three crows yarped in alarm and flapped into the sky from a little stand of gorse, to which the trail led directly.
"Sergeant ..." began Red Sandy Dodd, nervously.
"We're still in England."
"We could send some men out this afternoon ..."
Dodd twisted in the saddle and looked gravely at his brother, who shrugged, smiled and subsided. The sergeant turned and kicked his reluctant mare down the slope towards the gorse.
The others followed, sighing.
Beside the stand of gorse was a stone marked about by the prints of hooves where horses had stood. From there into the gorse there was a swathe of flattened and rubbed grass, stained here and there by smears of brown almost completely turned back to mud now. None of the horses wanted to approach, they neighed and sidled at the smell. The Sergeant's mare tipped her hip and snorted long and liquidly in warning.
Dodd leaned on his saddle crupper and nodded at the youngest of them.
"Right, Storey, go and fetch it out."
Bessie's Andrew Storey had a pleasant round face with a few carefully nurtured brown whiskers about the upper lip and he looked denser than he was.
"In there, sir?"
You're struggling against fate, said the Sergeant's dour look.
"Ay," he answered.
Dodd turned away to inspect the marks in the ground again. Bessie's Andrew looked at the gorse and knew his horse had more sense than to venture in. He slid down from his saddle, knocking his helmet from its hook as he went and muttered as it landed in a puddle.
"Bessie'll have your guts if yon man's got plague," said Bangtail Graham cheerily. Dodd grunted at him.
Nobody else spoke as Storey squelched through the scrub, following the trail, pushing spines aside with his elbows and sidling through the gaps as best he could. His sword caught on a low branch and another spined branch whipped back as he let go of it and caught him round the back of the head. Still cursing he disappeared from sight.
"There's a body here, Sergeant," he called at last.
"Is there now," said Dodd in tones of sarcastic wonder. "Whose?"
"I'm not sure, sir. The face ..." There was a pause and a sound of swallowing. "The face is pecked, sir."
"I dunno, sir. From the look of his jack, I'd say it might be a Graham."
There was a general shifting in saddles. Dodd sighed deeply as Bangtail Graham came up beside him looking worried and intent. The other men looked covertly at the two of them from under their lashes.
"Dunno, sir. He was shot in the back."
"Fetch him out then, man," said Dodd gently, "it's wet out here."
Sunday, 18th June 1592, noon
Barnabus Cooke had bruises and blisters on his backside and was filled with loathing for his master. The rain fell without cease, as it had since they left Newcastle, the horses were sulky and unwilling, two of the packs had been so ill-stowed by the grooms at their last inn that they forever threatened to break loose. In the meantime the expensive brocade trim on his cloak (that his master had told him not to bring) was ruined, and his velvet doublet would need an hour of brushing if it was not to dry to a lumpish roughness and his ruff was a choking wad of soaked linen that he had not the heart to take off and squeeze dry.
His master came trotting up to ride beside him and smiled.
"Only another ten miles, Barnabus, and we'll be in Carlisle."
Ten more miles, only ten, thought Barnabus in despair, what's sir's bum made of then, cured leather? "Yes, Sir Robert," he said. "Any chance of a rest?"
"Not around here, Barnabus," said Sir Robert Carey, looking about as if he was in some dubious alley in London. "Best keep going and rest once we're inside the castle."
Barnabus looked about as well, seeing nothing but disgusting empty green hills, close-packed small farms, coppices of trees, rain, sky, rain. No sign of civilisation except the miserable stone walls the barbarian northerners used in place of proper hedges, and the occasional ominous tower in the distance.
Behind him trailed the four garrison men from Berwick that Sir Robert's brother had sent to meet them at Newcastle, and behind that Barnabus's nephew Simon whose mother had terrorised him into taking her baby to learn him gentle ways. That was while he and Sir Robert had been at Court, serving Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, eating palace food and standing about in anterooms and galleries while Barnabus raked in fees from the unwary who thought, mistakenly, that the Queen's favourite cousin might be able to put a good word in her ear. That was in the happy profitable time before the letter came for Sir Robert via the Carlisle Warden's messenger riding post. Barnabus had been sent out to buy black velvet and see if Mr Bullard would give Carey a bit more credit and make a new suit in two days flat.
To be fair Sir Robert had offered to get Barnabus a job with his friend the Earl of Cumberland if he didn't want to go into foreign northern parts. He'd even offered to pay some of the back wages he owed, but Barnabus Cooke had been too much of a fool to grab the offer and stay in London where he could understand what men said.
The four Berwick men were muttering incomprehensibly to each other again. One came cantering past Barnabus, spraying him with mud, to talk urgently to Sir Robert.
Barnabus hunched his back and shifted forwards a little to try and take the weight off the worst worn parts of him. Sir Robert was talking quickly with the soldier, his voice suddenly tinged with an ugly northern harshness, so Barnabus could no longer understand him either.
There were men with lances on one of the hills nearby, he could see that now. Sir Robert was staring at them, narrowing his eyes, peering north, then south.
Barnabus began to feel a little sick. Everyone was behaving exactly as if they were in Blackfriars coming out of a primero game and the alley was blocked by armed men.
There were eight lancers, to be precise.
Sir Robert was riding alongside him now.
"Have Simon come up behind me," he said in a low voice. "Where's your gun?"
Barnabus collected his scattered wits. "In the ... er ... in the case, sir."
"I told you to have it ready."
"Well, but ... it's raining, sir"
"Is it loaded?"
Barnabus was offended. "Of course." He saw that Sir Robert already had his own dag out under his cloak, and was winding the lock with a little square key he carried on his belt. Suddenly Sir Robert's insistence on expensive modern wheel-lock guns without powderpans made sense — who could keep a powderpan dry in this weather?
"Sir," ventured Barnabus, beginning to think, "if it's footpads, I've my daggers."
Sir Robert nodded. "Good man," he said. "Go to the rear with Robson. If there are eight on the hill, there's another four behind us, somewhere. If they come up fast, kill them."
"What, all four, sir?"
"As many as you can, Barnabus."
Sir Robert turned his horse to go to the front, stopped.
"Aim for the faces, they'll be wearing padded jacks."
Heart thudding under his wrecked doublet, Barnabus slowed his horse until he was level with Simon, sent the boy up ahead and then nodded to the Berwick man who joined him.
"Spot of bother coming then, eh?" he said brightly, hoping the rain would disguise the fact that he was sweating.
The Berwick man frowned at him, shook his head. "Ah wouldna like tae ride for Carlisle at this distance."
"No," said Barnabus with feeling, "Nor me."
"It's aye the packs they'll be after."
Barnabus made a face. The three pack ponies were trudging along under a remarkable quantity of clothes and gear, including, Barnabus was sure from the weight, a certain amount of weaponry.
"Why didn't Sir John send more men?" asked Barnabus, "Seeing it's his brother."
There was a cold stare from the Berwick man.
"He didnae have more men to send."
"Well," said Barnabus desperately, "we're still in England, ain't we? They can't be Scots, surely?"
The Berwick man rolled his eyes and did not deign to answer.
They rode along and the men with the lances paced with them. Sir Robert was casting increasingly anxious glances to the rear. At last, one of the broader of the strangers detached from the group and rode down through the scrub to stop beside a flowing pothole. Sir Robert held up his hand to stop his own procession and trotted forwards, smiling blithely. That was a thing the Court taught you, reflected Barnabus, drying his hands on his padded breeches and taking out one of his daggers covertly under his cloak. To paste a smile on your face and keep it there, no matter what.
The two men talked while Barnabus tried to see in two directions at once. Was that a movement behind a rock there, in the rain? The sticky squelching was only the rearmost pony shifting his feet, and that ... no, it was a rabbit.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Sir Robert laugh, lean forward and ... thank God, shake the man's hand. Barnabus let his breath puff out once more, and resheathed his dagger with fingers that were trembling so much it took him three tries.
Sir Robert waved them on towards him, while the broad northerner did the same with his men. Snorting protestingly the pack ponies let themselves be led forward to pick between the pools and ridges, while the strangers came down from their hillock. Four more materialised from the south, but walking not galloping.
"My brother-in-law Lord Scrope," said Sir Robert loudly, "has very kindly sent Mr Thomas Carleton, Captain of Bewcastle, to escort us the last few miles into Carlisle, the country being somewhat unsettled since the death of his father."
The Berwick men grunted and relaxed a little. Barnabus suddenly felt his gut congeal as he puzzled out the implications. Footpads were one thing, highwaymen were another thing, but a country where the Lord Warden of the West March had to send an escort for the area around his own city ... What in God's name was Carey doing here?
"Welcome to Carlisle," said the Captain of Bewcastle, looking like a beer barrel but sitting his horse as if he were born on it and ignoring the little rivers running down the curves of his helmet. "I see the weather's kept nice for you."
Sunday, 18th June 1592, afternoon
Bangtail Graham had gone into the gorse to help young Storey and after a while and a great deal more profanity, the two of them came struggling out with the dripping corpse between them. It was well stiff, but in a bent position, as if the lad had been frozen while making a bow for the first time in his life. Dodd gestured for them to lay it down on its side, and dismounted to take a closer look.
He'd been shot from behind, that was clear enough. There was a gaping hole in the chest and white ribs visible in the mess of red, mixed with tatters of shirt, doublet and leather jack with the padding quilted in the Graham pattern. The crows had not had time to wreck his face completely: there was no mistaking the long jaw and sallow skin of a Graham. No doubt the eyes would have been grey.
Red Sandy had ridden up behind Dodd to peer at the body.
"Devil take it," he said. "Is that ...?"
"Ay," said Bangtail, wiping his hands on the seat of his horse, looking upset and disgusted, "it's Sweetmilk Geordie."
"Oh Christ," said somebody.
"Jock of the Peartree's youngest boy," said Dodd heavily.
Bangtail nodded. "He'll not be happy."
Dodd blinked through the thinning rain at the grubby sky and wondered briefly what particular thing he had done was warranting this, in God's ineffable judgment. Storey was openly worried, while the other men were gathering closer and looking over their shoulders as if they were expecting a feud to explode immediately like a siege bomb. Which it would, of course, but in due time. Dodd coughed and shook his head at Archie Give-it-Them who had his hand on his swordhilt.
"Sim's Will Croser, I want your horse."
Sim's Will was the next youngest to Storey and slid from his mount resignedly, grabbing his steel bonnet from the pommel and putting it on. As if he had shouted an order, the others all put on their own helmets. Dodd thought about it and decided to stay with his squelching cap. Why deliberately look more martial than you were?
Croser was taking his own cloak off, but Storey said, "His cloak's in the gorse still."
Sim's Will crashed into the gorse to fetch it, while Dodd walked all around the corpse and toed him. Dead and gone since yesterday, no doubt of it. The pale leather of the jack was stained black around the small hole in the back where the bullet went in.
Croser had returned and was laying the cloth on the ground. Storey and Bangtail moved the corpse onto it and bundled it up, a makeshift shroud. Bangtail tried to cross Sweetmilk's arms on what was left of his chest. The corpse was not co-operative so he made the Sign of the Cross on his own. Croser covered his horse's eyes and led him forwards, while Story and Bangtail huffed and heaved to get Sweetmilk slung over the animal's back before he knew what was happening. Sweetmilk fitted nicely, which helped. By the time the hobby's small but sharp brain had taken note of the blood and the weight and it had begun to hop and kick, Croser had wrapped his stirrup leathers round Sweetmilk Graham's wrists and ankles and after a couple of protesting whinnies, it quieted and stood looking offended at Croser.
"Lead your horse, Sim's Will," said Dodd. "Archie and Bangtail to the front, Archie goes ahead a way, Bessie's Andrew and myself with you, Red Sandy and Long George at the back. Anyone asks, it was a Bell we found."
They paced on towards the ford of the Esk at Longtown, hoping they would meet no Grahams.
Longtown was quiet and the ford seemed clear of danger, though the water was higher than usual. Archie Give-it-Them splashed across, scrambled up the bank, and cantered on down the path. Dodd waited a minute, then gestured for the rest of them to go on. Then just as they were in the middle of the ford, Archie came galloping back on the opposite bank, with five fingers raised, and then a thumb pointing down, meaning he'd seen ten men ahead, and as Dodd made to draw his sword, five more came out of the bushes on foot. Bugger, thought Dodd.
"I'm the Sergeant of the Carlisle Guard," he shouted. "We're on Warden's business."
Bangtail's horse was already out on the bank, but Sim's Will, Bessie's Andrew and Dodd were still in mid-stream because Sim's Will was having trouble leading his hobby through the high water. Bessie's Andrew stared open-mouthed at the lances surrounding them, stock still. Dodd swung about and brought his crop down on the laden animal's rump. It whinnied, pranced sideways and at last Croser hauled the snorting animal up the other bank. Dodd and Andrew Storey followed.
"Surely they wouldna dare ..." stuttered Bessie's Andrew.
Well, at least, Dodd thought, feeling his pulse in his temples and wishing he'd put his helmet on while he had the chance, if they were planning to dare, they would have done it while we were still sloshing about in the Esk.
Excerpted from A Famine of Horses by P.F. Chisholm. Copyright © 2017 Patricia Finney Reprinted with permission from Walker & Company. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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