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A shiver ran down Rulf’s spine. Though the castle doors were barred, he was still fearful of the sound of horses approaching. With so few men, the king had put his sons on lookout, but the king himself was still here in the Great Hall, as if nothing was amiss, as if Mortreth’s army were not at this very moment hurtling towards them through the dark.
The king was too proud and wouldn’t surrender. He would let them all die here rather than ask his rival and neighbour, Blanchland for help. In desperation, the queen had tasked Rulf to get a message to Blanchland at Brinburgh Castle without her husband’s knowledge.
The king glanced towards him. Rulf’s heart thudded, he had a feeling the king could see where he’d been; out to the stables to see his brother Ulric, when going out of the keep and the courtyard was strictly forbidden. Servants had been whipped for less.
‘Give me a song, or a jest, Rulf,’ The king ordered from the high throne on the dais. ‘That’s what I pay you for, is it not?’
Rulf picked up his lute. His fumbling fingers slipped on the strings. He told himself to be calm. He must obey the king, act as if this was just another day. It was the fool’s role in life, to make the royal household laugh. Even when they knew they could not possibly hold the castle with so few men, and death was just around the corner. It was at times like this that he wished he’d not had a withered leg, and that he’d been trained in archery instead of playing the fool.
The lute sounded thin in his fingers, and the song he chose too brittle and bright. He saw his lovely Alys, the queen’s maidservant, glance over at him with a look of disdain as she passed with a pile of arrows she had been fletching. She would think him shallow, to play at a time like this. His heart quickened at the sight of her; the urgent need to get her away from this place. But even if he could, where would they go? There was not another dwelling for miles around, the castle was an island in a sea of forest and plain. The nearest place was Brinburgh Castle, and that was two day’s ride. He hoped his plan would work. A slim chance, but what was the alternative? This couldn’t be their fate, to die this way at the whim of a tyrant king?
Alys began to take away the meat platters, and other bare-footed servants hurried in and out with sweetmeats to the king’s table, whilst incongruously, the men loaded their bristling quivers at the great doors. The king, stubborn as ever, was determined the banquet and jesting must continue, even though preparations for war were inevitable. His barons were at table with him, talking business and drinking wine. They knew to humour him as if nothing was amiss, although he saw their uneasy glances at the windows. Rulf wondered that a man could be so careless of his subject’s lives, all for his own bravado and vanity.
Rulf continued his song, the plaintive twang of the lute echoing in the rafters, though he longed to stop. He was afraid he would not hear the first sounds of Mortreth’s army approaching. The king though, ignored it, as if to shake a fist at their impending doom.
‘Enough!’ The king said, flapping a greasy hand at Rulf. ‘Your mournful face displeases me. You, girl, go and see what news there is from the ramparts.’ He gestured to Alys, whose eyes flared in surprise, but she nodded mutely and disappeared up the stone stairway.
Rulf watched her go, his chest constricting. Pray God his brother Ulric was in the queen’s bedchamber by now.
Alys hurried to the stone stairs. It was bad of the king to make Rulf play the lute at a time like this, when all they longed for was silence. She could see nothing from the slit windows as she ascended, but her mind conjured a nightmare of figures moving stealthily in the dark. Only forty men, they had, and Mortreth would have more than a hundred. What chance had they against such a force? Her stomach roiled. How many more hours of life?
Up the curving stairwell to the battlements. She creaked open the door to the slash of rain. What a night. The moon skulked behind thick cloud, but she saw the dark figure of Prince Benedic, no helmet, keeping watch, his hair plastered to his head, his leather breastplate sodden as he paced back and forth.
‘Anything?’ she asked.
‘Not yet,’ he said, ‘but it’s hard to see in this rain. What’s my father doing?’
‘Eating.’ She shrugged.
‘Did he send you? Has he found a safe place for you women? My mother?’
‘Away from the bedchambers, safe in the west tower, sir, I made sure of that.’
Benedic sighed, shook his head. No-one was safe anywhere, and well he knew it. ‘We need a miracle,’ he said. ‘Wait.’ He stiffened, peered out into the dark. ‘What’s that?’
She looked to where he was pointing. Dark shapes, pinpricks of torches, the wavering shadow of a pennant. Prince Favian, who had also been on watch, came running up, ‘Mortreth’s men. Quick! Send word below!’
Her innards turned to water, but Alys hurtled downstairs, shouting ‘Take arms!’
On the second floor, she ran through the upper rooms, making sure all the women had fled to the west tower. As she flung open the door of the queen’s bedchamber, a man leapt to his feet. Startled eyes. Wet hair, rain running off his shoulders. A stranger.
The queen’s coffer was open. And he was holding the queen’s favourite necklet – a distinctive circle of gold with four rubies set in the shape of a cross.
He made to run, but she blocked the doorway. ‘Who are you? What are you doing?’
‘Nothing,’ he protested. ‘The queen asked me to fetch this—’
‘I’ve never seen you before, and I’m the queen’s maidservant.’ Yet even as she said it, she recognised something familiar about him. Wasn’t he one of the stable hands? ‘Where did you come from? How did you get in?’
‘The queen’s fool; he let me in the back, through the servant’s gate.’
Alys barred his way. ‘Rulf? No. You lie. Nobody comes and goes. The king forbids it.’ Yet she could see the rain on his clothes.
‘There’s no time, woman.’ He withdrew a dagger from the sheath at his side. ‘Mortreth’s army is coming for us. There’ll be a mighty battle and you’ll be the losers unless you let me fetch help. I’m to take this to Blanchland, to prove who sent me.’
Was he telling the truth? He made to push past her, but she grabbed his sleeve, unwilling to believe him. As he descended the stairs, she clung to his arm, half-falling, until he took out a blade and pointed it to her throat. ‘Leave go, if you want to live!’
A swipe towards her throat. She gasped and stumbled back. It was enough time for him to race for the stairs.
She pelted after him, clinging to the rope handrail, twisting down the narrow stairs. ‘Thief!‘ she shouted.
By the time she got to the bottom, all was panic and confusion. Men were massing at the main door and arming themselves. The king was ushering the barons up the stairs to the keep. What did it matter now if someone took a hundred of the queen’s jewels?
‘Stop that man!’ Alys cried, but her voice was uncertain and nobody heard her.
To her surprise, Rulf threw down his lute and the wet-haired stranger grasped him by the arm and hugged him. He held up the queen’s jewel, and Rulf gave a smile of acknowledgement. Seeing them side by side, the resemblance was unmistakeable. Same dark eyes, same broad forehead and short, square chin.
‘Not the main door,’ Rulf said, as the stranger pulled him towards the kitchen. ‘There must be another way out of here.’
Alys ran and put herself in their way. ‘What’s all this?’ she said. ‘Where are you going?’
‘No time to explain. This is my brother, Ulric.’
‘He tried to stab me,’ she said.
Ulric shrugged. ‘You were in my way.’ He pulled Rulf away. ‘Hurry. The servant’s gate – the way I came in. Quick before Mortreth has the castle surrounded.’
‘You have horses, brother?’
‘Ready by the back gate,’ Ulric said. ‘But are you sure you want to? I can go alone.’
‘We’ve been through this. I know people think of me as just a fool, a man in motley who can only jest, and do nothing useful or serious with his life. I want to do this one thing, to prove I’m a man, like all the rest.’
‘You are a man to me, Rulf,’ Alys said. ‘You always have been.’
Rulf took hold of her shoulders and pressed a kiss to her forehead. ‘Then wish us luck, my love. We’ll fetch help, or die trying.’
‘Don’t you dare die, d’you hear me?’ Her words were cracked. ‘Now ride like the wind. God speed you both.’
She followed them down to the back gate, persuaded the men-at-arms to let them go. She watched them gallop away, mud and stones splattering up from the horses’ hooves, towards the dark bulk of the forest. When they’d gone the men bolted the door fast. The scrape of the bolt sounded like a prison gate.
The siege was almost over. Nine days and they had managed to hold off Mortreth’s men, but at what cost? There was scarce a man left alive. The ramparts were filled with their dead. The king himself had fallen, trying to drag Benedic’s body down from the battlements. Favian, his other son, an arrow through his back, had toppled into the enemy and been swiftly dismembered. Only then did the king realise, with a desperate bellow of pain, what his pride had cost him. Now they were to be starved out. Mortreth would simply wait.
Alys tried to comfort the queen, but after the loss of her sons she had lost the will to survive. ‘I can’t surrender,’ she said. ‘He would expect me to stay.’ She meant the king, who had brought about this calamity. With no men to protect them, it meant rape and death for them all. Alys kept her from the doors and prayed until her knees were rough and raw from the cold stone floor. Was Rulf alive, or was he one of the pile of dead killed that dark night and strewn over the fields? Not knowing was the worst.
Coming down from the queen’s chambers, weak and faint with hunger, Alys peered out through the slit in the stairwell. Encamped below, like a black fungus surrounding the castle walls, were Mortreth’s men. The rain had stopped and smoke from their fires hung in the air blackening the walls. In the far distance, she thought she heard the growl of a wildcat. She shuddered. It would be feasting on their dead.
She was about to turn away when the smoke began to billow. The wind must have changed. Through the smoke she saw two riders approaching, but behind them, a dark blur. She blinked. The blur turned into a great tide of men and horses, filling the horizon.
There was no noise, except the rushing of a wind howling inside her head. Below her, Mortreth’s men leapt up, gestured towards where Blanchland’s army ploughed onwards looming larger every moment. At the sight of them they scrambled for arms, but then sensing defeat they began to scatter. Everywhere men ran, falling over themselves, like vermin leaving a burning building.
The sight brought tears to her eyes. Alys ran down the stairs. ‘Blanchland’s men are here,’ she shouted. But already the women were crowding the windows.
It took six women to lift the heavy wooden bars from the door, and then to haul open the courtyard gates. Alys was first into the open. It was only now the wind in her head stopped and she was able to see Rulf and Ulric dismount.
Rulf walked towards her, his gait uneven, but his shoulders back. ‘I feared we’d be too late,’ he said.
‘What took you so long?’ she said. But she was smiling through her tears.
And all along the watchtower, women were waving their kerchiefs to welcome him home.
© Deborah Swift
Did you guess the title?
All Along The Watchtower - Jimi Hendrix
Before publishing her first novel Deborah worked as a set and costume designer for theatre and TV. She also developed a degree course in Theatre Arts at the Arden School of Theatre, where she taught scenography and the history of design. In 2007 she took an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University, and since then has juggled writing with teaching. Deborah has been published by St Martin’s Press, Pan Macmillan, Endeavour Press, Accent Press and Sapere Books.
|Reviewed by Discovering Diamonds
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