Authors: McKenna Juliet E.
Corrain tensed. Could it be so simple? Would he be back on the road to Halferan the very next day, confirmed as legal guardian to Lady Zurenne and her daughters?
Would he truly have escaped these noble lords’ questions as to exactly why the corsairs had vanished so suddenly? And worse, secured the coastal barons’ gratitude, for succeeding where his own dead lord had failed. For persuading the Archmage of Hadrumal to help them, by telling them where the raiders would land so that the Caladhrians could lie in wait to burn their ships.
He had told that lie to protect Halferan. Now he must stand by it. At least until he was confirmed as baron in his dead lord’s place. Then Lady Zurenne and her daughters would be protected under Caladhrian law, even if Archmage Planir brought the wrath of Hadrumal down on his head, undeniably guilty of telling and perpetuating that untruth and more besides.
Lord Licanin rose to his feet from the bench on Corrain’s sword hand. Steely-haired and wrinkled though far from his dotage, he regarded Baron Karpis opposite with measured dislike.
Karpis was perhaps ten years younger, his prime softening into fat disguised by his chestnut doublet’s expensive tailoring. Corrain wondered if an apothecary’s dye bottle was responsible for the matching colour of the baron’s carefully pomaded locks.
‘My noble lords,’ Lord Licanin began.
Before he could say another word, something crashed into the hall’s great wooden doors. A steely clash of blades outside cut through the booming reverberation.
Noble voices rose in disbelief and indignation.
‘What is going on?’
‘Where are the Ferl troopers?’
‘Is it corsairs?’
Corrain stared at the shivering door. Could it possibly be corsairs? Of all the men gathered here, he alone knew what resources the raiders might now have to call on. Had he truly brought that disaster upon Caladhria?
Or was he about to face the Archmage’s wrath? Because the wizards of Hadrumal knew that Corrain was responsible for summoning the vile sorcerer who had really destroyed the raiders. Before the treacherous bastard had decided to claim the corsairs’ island lair for his own.
The Mandarkin wizard Anskal might have promised to spare Caladhria any future raids but Corrain had no faith in wizards. His own dead lord had trusted a renegade mage and that had been the death of him.
The wicket door flew open and a man fell headlong through it. He scrambled to his feet, one of the Ferl gate wards.
The man had a bloodied nose and a swelling eye. His sword was still in its scabbard though and that clash of blades outside hadn’t been repeated. It was only a common brawl, Corrain realised.
Then he heard young Reven shouting incomprehensible abuse. A moment later the lad choked on a yell of pain.
Corrain was out through the door inside a handful of long strides. He saw a man in a dun jerkin standing over Reven, ready to plant a boot in his ribs.
Grabbing the man by his shoulders Corrain flung him away. Taken wholly unawares, the man reeled backwards down the steps of the hall’s grand portico.
Reven had given a decent account of himself before the blow that had felled him, Corrain noted. The man had a split lip and a bloodied nose.
Regardless, he hauled the bleary-eyed lad to his feet by the front of his already torn shirt. He shook him with all the frustration he couldn’t turn on those cursed nobles cowering in their parliament.
‘What fool’s game are you playing? Where is Sergeant Fitrel?’
Reven pointed with a wavering hand. Appalled, Corrain saw the old man in the midst of the fracas. It seemed that all the Halferan guards were intent on beating some Karpis retainers in crimson jerkins senseless.
‘Stand down!’ Corrain thanked all the gods whom he didn’t believe in that he could still call up a guard captain’s razor-edged tones. ‘Halferan, form up!’
Anger gave his words such steely authority that three of the Karpis men stood to attention before they realised what they were doing.
The Halferans in their pewter livery withdrew to the other side of the hall’s broad entrance. Corrain swiftly assessed their injuries. At least he saw nothing worse than bruises, bloody scrapes and torn clothing. Better yet, the Halferans had inflicted far more hurts than they’d suffered on the Karpis men.
He caught Fitrel’s eye. The grizzled swordsman could only see out of one. The other was already swelling shut.
‘Report, sergeant,’ Corrain growled.
‘Captain!’ Reven spoke up from the pillar he was leaning on. ‘You didn’t hear what they’ve been saying.’ The boy could barely restrain himself. ‘Mocking every one of us, aye and saying such vileness about Halferan’s ladies—’ He broke off, colouring furiously.
Corrain could imagine what stable yard filth had been flung. Hard-riding troopers wouldn’t bother with tactful enquiries about his frankly scandalous marriage. Lascivious speculation about young Lady Ilysh’s performance on her wedding night would have been the least of it.
‘How can some erstwhile guardsman manage the myriad tenants and complex affairs of a barony?’
Corrain wheeled around to see the great hall’s doors now standing open, revealing the barons crowding the entrance. Some were wide-eyed with curiosity. More betrayed distaste as they contemplated his dishevelment. Corrain’s exertions had left his doublet wrenched askew and the shirt beneath had come untucked.
‘He will never command the respect of men he rode with as a common trooper. Look at them, scuffling in the streets. Drunk, like as not.’
Now he saw who was talking. Baron Karpis had raised his voice to carry far beyond his immediate companion.
Scorning Halferan when Karpis men had started this fight. Deliberately too, Corrain didn’t doubt that, not after Reven’s account.
Could he convince the parliament that this scuffle had been provoked? Would it do any good for Halferan’s cause, even if he did?
Would he be back on the road tomorrow, returning to tell Lady Zurenne how utterly he had failed her?
Taw Ricks Hunting Lodge, Caladhria
1st of For-Autumn
O WE KNOW
when the—’ Doratine’s pencil hovered over her slate ‘—when he’ll be home?’
At which time, presumably, they would all know what to call Corrain. Zurenne shook her head.
‘There’s no way of knowing how long this parliament will last. But he’ll send a messenger ahead when they’re on their way. If he doesn’t?’ She shrugged. ‘He and the guardsmen will have to make do with whatever meat and bread may be found.’
‘Should I prepare for other guests?’ Doratine’s shaking pencil betrayed her with a shrill squeak on the slate. ‘Lord Licanin?’
‘You have your menus. You may go.’ Zurenne spoke more curtly than she’d intended.
How dare Doratine even hint that the parliament would insist on her sister’s husband remaining as Halferan’s guardian?
However grateful they might be for Lord Licanin’s undoubted aid and indeed, his own guardsmen’s sacrifice, when the corsairs had attacked, Lady Ilysh was her father’s rightful heir. Zurenne had married her to Corrain with every legality observed in the Halferan manor’s own shrine. The parliament could not ignore their own laws, even if Lysha was barely old enough to be blooded by Drianon.
And Corrain had sworn to Zurenne on that same altar, before the goddess of home and motherhood, that the marriage would be in name only, to ensure that she and her daughters would never again be subject to some unwanted guardian’s unchallengeable authority.
But it never did to be on bad terms with the servants. Zurenne managed a conciliatory smile. ‘You have my authority to tell Master Rauffe to buy whatever you wish at the Genlis market.’
‘Thank you, my lady.’ Doratine curtseyed and hurried from the room.
Though of course that made it all the more likely that Master Rauffe would knock on her door with some veiled complaint that Doratine had stepped on his toes. They were forever encroaching on each other’s jealously guarded responsibilities.
Zurenne allowed herself an exasperated sigh. Halferan Manor had been big enough to accommodate them all separately. Doratine’s spacious chamber had been the most favoured of the servants’ rooms above the storehouses beyond the kitchen and its range of buildings. Master Rauffe and his wife had enjoyed the steward’s comfortable dwelling beside the barrack hall and opposite the baronial tower.
All that lay in ruins. Now the entire household was crammed into this modest lodge, only ever intended for seasonal visits by the baron, his chosen guests and their handpicked servants.
Zurenne reminded herself to be thankful that some long-dead Baron Halferan had substantially extended the original timber and plastered-brick building. That had only offered a single wide hall with this sitting room and its adjoining bedchamber to the rear and a garret above for servants.
She looked at her needlework laid ready on a polished marquetry table. She had been delighted to find the delicate piece in that furnishing warehouse, when she had fled to Claithe in search of some comforts after her first few miserable days here.
Besides, she had told herself, the barony’s reputation would benefit from the merchants seeing her composed and prosperous. Everyone would see that whatever their sufferings, Halferan had survived the corsairs’ attacks. Now all their travails lay in the past.
So she had scattered the Archmage’s blood money like a ploughboy sowing seed. She had bought Relshazri joinery, pottery from Peorle, fine wools and linens carried south by merchant ships from Col, Trebin lace and buttons from Duryea. Pewter and brass wares for the kitchen and servants’ hall all the way from Wrede in northern Ensaimin.
Now her purchases looked as out of place here as she was. This lodge had been decorated throughout with a practical eye to the hazards of mud and worse consequences of a day’s hunting with horses, hawks and hounds.
The frivolous chairs that framed the round table looked positively foolish beside the scarred wooden settles intended for guests taking their ease in breeches and boots after a long day at the chase. The costly new carpet in front of the cavernous, soot-darkened fire place was almost as ridiculous.
Besides, no amount of frills and fancies could distract Zurenne from the constant reminders of her beloved husband’s presence here, reminding her wherever she looked that he was never to return.
The scars on the stone door jamb showed where he’d been accustomed to sharpen his knife while waiting for a groom to bring him his horse. He had inked the map in the entrance hall showing the different chases through the local forests with his annual tallies of deer and boar.
Zurenne picked up a book of Tormalin poetry. She had bought it in hopes of distraction after her daughters had been sent to bed and before they woke in the mornings. Now it reminded her too readily of that small stock of thoughtful books which she’d found on a shelf in the bedchamber, debating the natural philosophy of birds and beasts.
It was so easy to imagine her beloved sitting and reading in quiet candlelight, pleasantly weary after a day on horseback, well fed on venison or game birds. Zurenne had never begrudged him his visits here, his escape from the burdens of his barony.
Tears, so often a threat, even so long after his death, welled in her eyes.