Minda book series proposal details White-water writing for women
SettingSet 'sometime, someplace' in Mediaeval England this series follows Minda from rejected cripple baby girl to the most powerful person in the kingdom. She can fight, make a horseshoe and 'ambush the King with charm'.
She's intelligent, strong, charming and determined — a woman who makes use of all her resources and relationship-building skills to do whatever is needed — no matter how unpleasant.
Minda creates surrogate families as compensation for her lonely childhood and difficulties that would arise if she married, but it's not the same as having her own man and children to hold.
In the mediaeval countryside the steady economy is marginal and depends on the weather. The head horseman might be the only medicine-man and communities had no outside help in times of crisis. Law and order is not guaranteed and organised crime difficult to deal with. Noisy and filthy but full of variety, a town is a shock to a country dweller. It depends on trade and runs on money so if there is a cash shortage the town is strangled. These are just some of the many textures of mediaeval life shown in the background.
|Historical setting||5-book brand led by powerful heroine||Positive character with teenage troubles|
|Not history lesson||Not fantasy or sorcery||Not swashbuckling 'boys' fighting|
Series plot summary — five books 550,000 words
Eighteen year-old Minda has quite a struggle as she conquers disability and smugglers, fights outlaws and the church, wins devoted friends and murders her brother. Set in the middle ages she makes deadly enemies simply by being a strong woman who can do things men can't and not being afraid to challenge the church. After forcing her inheritance as duchess, Minda sets about rebuilding her corrupt and decayed dukedom. What starts as the King asking her to take nuisance adolescents of the noble families away to 'boot camp' turns into a cadet school where they learn fighting, estate management, teamwork, leadership and are eager to travel and trade. Minda isn't always in full command, personal problems can get her down but she never gives-up. The fourth book sees her protégés abroad building powerful alliances. Following books will probably be more 'struggles and friendships' at home and abroad, possibly with a full military campaign in Italy. Soon she will be managing her own international businesses and having to deal with murky politics that could lead to war. She's a target for many factions and some of her cherished cadets are going to get hurt or murdered in her cause.
The first book Minda grows up shows her from being rejected to becoming a ruthless but 'honest' young woman who is strong, clever, feminine and creates devoted servants to help her. In the end the threat of general lawlessness for which she has been trained doesn't appear but she needs every bit of her brazen confidence to uncover the smuggling activities of the church and organise the murder of her brother.
Book two Minda inherits starts as a race between death and the weather but soon turns into a deadly game of 'murder Minda'. She has to battle endemic corruption at the castle and an Abbot determined to get his hands on the wealth of the dukedom. She cleverly turns the populace of the town against the Abbey who nearly burn it down. Until recently Minda had never seen a town, now she travels through snow to be acknowledged by the King at the capital. She 'ambushes him with charm' and demonstrates skill, strength and fearlessness. Finally there is a selection day for cadets at which we meet some girl run-aways and street-boys who obviously have an exciting future.
Minda falters starts with her reforms bringing the dead town to life but she herself is worn-out, depressed and distressed in bed. Ironically her staff manage things themselves brilliantly under pressure. Her must-have-man is a young blacksmith but she can't marry him or anyone else or she'd lose control of the dukedom to her husband. Love brings her out of her misery even if it can't be fulfilled. What should be a holiday to recuperate turns into a nightmare of attacks, assassinations and what ought to be a peaceful use of the cadets to occupy a cathedral turns into a bloodbath. Thanks to her decisive action organising the defence of Lostnock and the shocking violence of the girls of the Black Team terrorising rebel supporters the uprising fizzles out — while the King is still dithering. There is no doubt that if Minda had supported the rebels the King would have been ousted. The book ends with cadets looking forward to commercial training and international travel, the Black Team setting off to Lanconia where 'something is bound to happen', hopes for investment and growth and a re-arranged political scene with Minda exerting an influence without getting involved in intrigue. The fly in the ointment is that Minda is still alone and not yet over her breakdown and they have all lost their supple adaptability like timber loses its softness as it becomes seasoned.
The Black Team keep out of trouble follows six seventeen-year olds to Lanconia [France] where they are 'on holiday' to stay out of trouble at home. They charm their way into the highest levels of society by their own efforts and knowledge that they have powerful backers who should be allies. Their inclusive attitudes are a novelty to the stratified Lanconian class system, but they show how it works. There are enemies in the shadows and the intelligence office is muddled and corrupt. The Black Team try to deal with enemies through others without much success, but they do expose the King's enemies and show him how to humble them the Bartonbry way.
Steady into the storm is about developing international friendships into reliable allies. At last Minda finds a man she can marry, but the Pope is furious, she's nearly assassinated, there may be war sweeping in from the Baltic and unrest in the northern counties. Minda has to do her best to make up for years of lack of leadership from the King with limited resources. One scheme is to raid the most wealthy churches as she'd like their money for defence (so she says) and they're not keen to decide against the Pope. With clever team-work the Abbot of her own Abbey changes sides and becomes a popular 'holy-man' legend that annoys the established church even more. The Black Team show their strengths and determination as individual characters involved with diplomacy, secrets, fashion, stiffening military defences, ruthless politics and inspiring generalship.
|Title||Vol||What happens - synopsis||Opening||Extract||Full text|
|Grows up||I||Abandoned child grows up strong. Learns hand to hand combat. Groomed to protect against outlawry. Deals with disabilities. Does blacksmithing as a hobby, finds a role as relationship fixer for smiths. Leaves 'home' to take part in anti-smuggling operations. Executes a rapist and child-murderer then takes dead child back to mother. Bonds the city smiths by dealing with their big problem. Organises the murder of her brother. Age at end 18. Read full synopsis||Minda is born deformed, rejected, brought up on remote estate, shows strength charm and determination.Read now
|After a punishing day's riding a dead-beat Minda is pestered by 'a new sister' from her brand new home.Read now||Final version complete as A4 PDF.
|Inherits||II||[Having murdered her brother] Minda is the only child of the dying Duke and should inherit the dukedom. Some very nasty people want revenge and the Duke's wealth. She has to deal with a poisioned atmosphere and corruption at the Duke's castle as well as attempts on her life. By satire and strength of personality she turns the people of the town against the Abbey. Now she has to go over the snow-covered hills to see the King. At the capital she uses outrageous cheek to charm the court. She undertakes to take nuisance 15-year old sons of nobles for 'outward-bound' training. One set of candidates is the Black Team of three motivated girls and two street-boys who show great potential. Read full synopsis||Friends leave [main town] Lostnock for [Duke's town] Bartonbry on a winters day.
|Minda is being presented to the King. She must 'ambush' him with charm. Read now||Final version complete as A4 PDF.
Download 119,000 Words
|Falters||III||Minda collapses into bed-ridden depression due to the stress of three solid months of pushing ahead many projects. Her staff rise to the challenge and deal with outstanding issues but it takes a visit from her heart's desire, a lowly smith, to bring back her spirits. The cadets [see end of volume II] are thriving and merged into a purposeless little army of a hundred and fifty men. Minda takes a holiday that is deadly due to betrayal and she's trapped. She cleverly gets the upper hand but the Little Army doesn't know that and races to help her. With unrest in the country and the dithering King in the capital, Minda's forces manage to stifle rebellion by sharp action and clever cadets. At the end everyone is stronger and ready to make a success of the future but Minda is exhausted again. Innocent enthusiasm of youth lost — replaced by adult strength and realism. Read full synopsis||Lots of good things are happening at Bartonbry but Minda is getting overwhelmed by small difficulties.
|Lucky is in charge of defending Minda in the town.
He has to know what's happening on the street.
|Draft version as A5 PDF Download 121,000 Words|
|Black Team keep out of trouble||IV||With the King's blessing the Black Team go to Lanconia to escape from the aftermath of the brutalities of Falters. This is a holiday and chance to look for trading possibilities. Lanconia has a strict class system and is suffering from two years of bad harvests. Despite attempts at anonymity their reputation and backers are soon exposed and they are people to make friends with. If Minda was to team up with the Duke of Orfleur that would destabalise the fragile powerbase of the King. The Team press-on to the capital to see what's going on and get a little mixed up in anti-Briton feeling and mysterious plots. With the backing of the Duke of Orfleur they arrange a farewell 'games day and feast' with emphasis on different entertainments for all ages. Their reception leads them to suggest that there will be a cadet school for Lanconians over the next winter. On leaving the capital plotters close to the King catch up with them but instead of racing out of danger they return to help the King. Eventually they untangle the plots, expose the powers behind them and help the King salvage what can be salvaged and trounce the rest. Finally John and James (orphans from Melbun docks) find a senior dockside criminal who helps them tie the loose ends so they can leave. At the end there are strong emotional ties between Lanconia and the Black Team and they have earned a huge amount of credit.||See PDF||The Black Team have just arrived in Lanconia. As Minda is a rising star and the Duke has an eligible son he is pleased to entertain these strange young people. Read now||Finished version as A5 PDF Download 106,000 Words|
|Steady into the storm||V||
Returning from Lanconia in July (ie. a continuation of IV) Minda is determined drive the economic progress
of Bartonbry harder to make up for the 'lost time' away, but we see her
skill at delegating and preparing the ground has paid-off in her
absence. All the cadets have volunteered for another year and there will
be additional foreign cadets starting from scratch in November. She has
to put up with two of her Black team girls getting married while she
can't. In November the Pope declares her Anathema and it looks like he
might encourage the unknown Baltic states to invade. Minda tackles this
head-on by planning to raid the wealth of the Church to pay for defence
forces. By brute realities she gets the local Abbot to accept the wealth
and organisation of his abbey will be used for more civic purposes.
Eventually, through clever team-work and he becomes really enthusiastic
and an exemplar of holy deeds loathed by the established Church.
At Christmas Rachel has become more than a figurehead for a miniature defence force and nobody doubts that Bartonbry is the force waking up a lethargic kingdom economically, militarily and internationally in trade and diplomacy. Minda's private life is transformed by the arrival of the Duke of Troctenburg who she fell in love with in Lanconia. She can marry him with the King's decree that the Duke isn't to hold any rights to the dukedom. With a bit of encouragement he gets the 'Bartonbry spirit'.
The Black team are split-up and set to work with experienced men to investigate piracy and take a clear message to the shires that the King is to be loyally supported by local lords or else he'll impose taxes and demands and get an outsider to command them.
Eventually in late spring Minda's forces loot half a dozen of the wealthiest churches. As a brutal message to the Church to acknowledge the Briton King against the Pope. To reduce their power. To give Bartonbry-led forces real military practice. To show the whole Kingdom how far Bartonbry can reach and how efficient it is. Also Minda lies about the amounts found and secretly keeps half for herself! The book ends with the Church officially anti-Pope, trade booming, remote lords being brought into line and a lovely marriage ceremony in Melbun cathedral.
|See PDF||Welcome visitors from Lanconia make a nice surprise. Read now||finaldraft version as A5 PDF Download 128,000 Words|
|More to come||At the end of book five we have a fistfull of interesting main characters,
and dozens of cadets, foreign cadets, foreign friends and enemies. There are many Minda-inspired
changes afoot which are bound to upset some powerful people and attract unscrupulous opportunists.
As cadets spread into the wider world bad things could happen. Is economic growth a bubble?
Will testosterone derail trade? Can the Pope be contained or is there likely to be a religious
war with all parts of Europe taking sides? Can Bartonbry really become a 'university town'?
Is the political structure resilient enough to deal with major disasters? There are hundreds
stories to be told over the next thirty years.
One day I'll get to write the Spy-mistress story that was my first plan!
|More extracts covering various moods|
|Humour Flor and Lucky are planning to steal the Abbots vestments for their mistress Minda Read now||Adventure The Black Team have just escaped from a kidnapping in Lanconia. They decide to split into two groups. One heads back to the capital Arlesene to try to get to the immediate cause. Mr. Hasty is an inteligencer who is probably their enemy. Read now||Romance
All the smiths of Lostnock are together for a musical evening.
New Year's eve in Melbun Read now
|Observing nature Henry is (priviledged) apprentice to Minton the tax surveyor. They are taking time off to visit Minda but instead of riding are treating themselves to the novelty of a barge trip. Read now|
Minda and her 'commando tutor' Brand are watching a track where they've just ambushed a string of smuggler's pack animals. The convoy has been sent to base with the others. Brand is interrogating one of the men. Minda is hidden. Already tonight Brand has stopped her throwing her knife to kill.
Maggie kills two old people. Read now
|Teens together Minda has organised a selection day for cadets to go back to Bartonbry with her. She insisted it was open to girls. Two run-aways, one high-class girl with permission and two semi-criminal boys from the docks are put together and given tasks. Read now||Fear
Minda has a phobia about owls.
Little Arthur is terrified of heights. Read now
|Close drama Minda has arrived at Bartonbry. Elphe's forge is where her fine gown has been sent ahead to. The plan is for her to change so she can enter what is now 'her' town in style. Read now|
Minda enters her castle for the first time. It is deserted.
Rachel uses brutal body-language to trap members of the Kings council. Read now
|Contrasts. Beginnings and ends Minda has just visited the most successful smith in Lostnock and is on her way to meet Toggy Jiller who has a black reputation and then his elder brother the dumb John Jiller. Read now||Woman's work A sweep through the woods has caught a child-murderer and rapist. Minda has just executed him on the spot. It is the first time she's actually killed someone and this is very bloody. Mr. Trentchard is the local lord of the manor. Flor is her long-time bodyguard. Lucky is a recently acquired mercenary. Read now||Charm and whimsy The previous smith of Barrington died. Minda arranged a marriage and is returning for a social visit. Previously Minda had made friends with the village children, given them rides round the green to fight lions as one rumour had it. Read now|
|Imagination of youth Battle of the sexes presented by the Black Team to a stunned audience of foreigners. Read now||Story telling Allegorical legends being invented about living people and the listeners. Read now||Learning The Black Team have different leadership skills and styles. Read now||Determined youth Jane shows the new chief intelligencer of Lanconia how to do his job. Read now|
While teenage girls and young women will identify and empathise with the heroine there is nothing pretty-in-pink 'girly' about the series.
The preparatory phase (first half of first book) is about a girl growing-up and proving she is strong in a family situation. This will have particular resonance with teenage girls and their mothers. The next phase, leaving home and leadership, will particularly appeal to young adult women.
Danger, excitement and determination to advance are themes of book two. These themes appeal to everyone. She's clever and builds surrogate families without losing the teenager's disregard of convention. Interestingly, her superb management skills are lessons for students of management.
Despite success and being surrounded by efficient and friendly staff she's lonely, depressed and has romantic problems. A familiar teenager's story. There is a lot about the cadets which is excitement for teenagers together.
Book four is about teens having adventures together and developing skills, attititudes and taking responsibility.
Book five is the hard work of maturity (in a teenage sense) with the rewards of individual independence.
Book one is a novel where the main thread is the personal development of the heroine. There is adventure, uncertainty and many studies of personal relationships.
Book two is a development where we already know what sort of person she is and how she uses her friends. Now we find out how she reacts under pressure and uses social skills to get what she wants. There is a much greater variety of action and suspense.
Minda appears in almost every scene of the first two books but book three is about how her leadership and influence extend and flourish even while she's ill in bed or kept in the confines of Lostnock. This gives the book the feeling of a saga as the various threads develop remotely. She may not be present but her presence often is. Hints of romance in book two are developed to distract her with unrequited love.
Book four sees six youngsters having adventure and achievement building on achievement.
Romance is in the air for book five as is personal adventure and heavy responsibility on young shoulders.
|Meet the players||Vols|
|Minda||Rejected as a child. Brought up as only foster child with love and care. Develops affinity for blacksmiths and skill at blacksmithing. Keen on weapons and works hard at showing her strength. When challenged at 16 to become a sort of 'warrior princess' she exceeds all expectations. By 18 she is educated, skilled at defence and fighting, brazen with men and brilliant at leading them, and has collected very loyal helpers. These characteristics combine to allow her to murder her brother the Duke's son, turn a gloomy castle and decaying town into a self-confident reviving economy. She charms the King and shows the nobles wit, strength of character and there's no power greater than her in the kingdom without any military force. At eighteen and a half she suffers a nervous collapse from overwork. Ironically most of her 'problems' are dealt with efficiently by the team of servants she's trained. One thing that can't be solved is a husband. She can't marry at all (let alone her lowly must-have-man) or her husband will take the Dukedom. She compensates for lack of family in the past and celibacy in the future by creating ones for others and taking on pseudo-motherly roles.||All|
|Flor||Village boy trained by Brand who initially shows no initiative. When assigned as Minda's personal bodyguard he soon begins to think for himself and use his military knowledge. They have absolute trust and loyalty for each other and know what the other is about to do so assist or prevent them doing something silly without recriminations. Minda teaches him to read and write and keep accounts. He is three years older than Minda. His first motto is 'Defend Minda' then 'What would Minda do?' His love life may turn out to be exciting. From volume 2 Minda is teaching him reading and writing and comes to rely on his loyal application to whatever task he gives her.||All|
|Lucky||Eight years older than Minda Lucky (named Lucky by Minda) was a penniless mercenary caught following Minda in Lostnock and soon turned to a loyal bodyguard with slightly different fighting skills than Flor. His knowledge of the less honest people of Lostnock and his liking to be alone compliment Flor and Minda's skills nicely. He cannot read or write but he has a spiritual side and good singing voice which he can put to good use. When settled at Bartonbry Doreen forces him to consider marrying to put an end to his lonliness. Able to be devious, trusted and happy to act independently he shows intelligence and initiative. He has a talent for acting which is put to outrageous effect. When there's a crisis needing emotional support Minda often shares thoughts with him.||All|
|Important others from book one|
|Brand||A stocky old soldier, chief 'outdoors' servant to Mr. Trentchard teaches Henry, Flor, and Minda countryside commando fighting and self-defence with the object of having a core of youngsters able to combat outlaws, smugglers and bandits. When he realises Minda's potential he spreads fantastical rumours of her daring deeds around and she becomes an icon.||1,3,5|
|Henry||Mr. Trentchard's son, the same age as Flor (possibly a half brother - we may never know) he was originally being coached to be a counter-outlaw fighter but Minda's superiority relieves him as he's not violent or heroic. We might call him a 'nerd', skillfully going through the motions of country-fighting without having his heart in it. He is an exceptionally fast and accurate archer. His passion is for figures, maps and economic geography. This leads him to become an apprentice Tax Collector able to assess an estate in a landscape by eye. Ironically it is Henry alone who kills the Duke's son. Due to Silk's influence high in the King's intelligence service (and Minda's close friendship) Henry is destined for important kingdom-wide service after settling down to being assistant tax collector.||1,2,3|
|Mr. Trentchard||A very important but enigmatic character in taking Minda from the enthusiastic, fearless sixteen year-old into a focussed fighter with a mission at eighteen. His motivation is creating a nucleus for self-defence against the forces of disorder and organised crime he fears will come in a wave over the complacent land. He is head of the household but not actually married to Mistress Marline. ('Bedroom' issues.) He often vanishes secretly for possibly weeks at a time (spying and trading). He is wealthy, supposedly a spice trader but lives in a quiet village a day away from the main trade centre. He soon starts treating Minda as an adult and she encourages him to marry Mistress Marline.||1,5|
|Mistress Marline||Mistress of Mr. Trentchard's household. (She's close yet not intimate with him - Not her fault.) Step mother to Henry and mother of Raysel and Delphia. She takes on Minda as her own daughter knowing that one day she will be a high-status lady and needs her education continuing and lady-like manners.||1|
|Raysel and Delphia||Mistress Marline's daughters. Raysell is a couple of years older than Minda, Delphia the same age. They have been brought up to be ladies without any peasant's duties. They are friendly and share homely activities but not Minda's fighting, field-craft, smithing and energetic focus on whatever she's doing. As time goes by both get married and use their education and priveledged start to good effect.||1,3,5|
|Mr. Bob (Lord Levendale)||Chief of anti-smuggling the 'Tax Officer' soon warms to an irrepressible Minda as a trainee. She brings him trouble on her first day which he recognises as issues he'd let ride. Over fifty, he fought in battle beside the Duke of Avel when they were both young men. Minda's clever and relentless pursuit of honesty and efficiency in his organisation and her ability to walk into any business and be charming are valuable to him for his office (not least in bounty for large seizures) and in his personal affairs. As a family friend he tries to get the Duke of Avel's son to come to terms with Minda but fails. Bound to Minda by loyalty, avuncular admiration and conspiracy he is the only noble the youngsters can trust. He goes ahead to Bartonbry to negotiate with the dying duke but ends up taking practical corageous action 'like Minda would' and saving the day. His next main task is to pilot Minda to the unknown world of the King's court. He is divorced, rich enough to retire but keeps the Tax Officer's job as his only daily routine.||1,2,3|
|Silks (Ripetto)||One of the King's most trusted inteligencers he normally appears as a travelling salesman. Mr. Trentchard alerts him to Minda's potential at an early stage. He lives for excitement (and female company) on the road to the great distress of his wife left in Melbun. Minda first meets him as a salesman first and spy second with no knowledge of his real status. Trust soon develops between them. Typically Minda asks why he is still travelling when he could settle with a wife and shop and promises to find him a wife (As she does!) He has a shadowy role in the murder of the Duke's son, which he later claims would have happened anyway in order to promote a long-cherished 'asset'. Through Mr. Bob He connects the Tax Office where Minda works with national and local intelligence which it needs to be effective. By serendipity Minda finds him a wife Rose not knowing he is already married. This inevitably gets discovered and Rose stabs him with a bodkin in the spine as Minda had showed her and paralyses him.||1,2|
|Blacksmiths||Mostly smiths are lowly and lonely even though they have essential skills. As Minda travels she brings news, emotional warmth, organises marriages and business opportunities. By knowing the smith-lore and able to 'make a shoe a knife and a needle' herself she is one of them a 'brother', welcomed for girlish charm and mother's strength. They call her the star-iron girl and as soon as her legend takes form it is developed by smiths as an anthem, carol and revival of their identity as a brotherhood.||1,2,3|
|Horsemen||Head horsemen Lewin and Perce have a lifetime of knowledge of caring for valuable animals. Their skills and remedies may be used for humans whatever the problem. Lewin He helps Minda forget her shock at seeing a smith suicide. All the women know he has masculine prick-pick-me-ups!||1|
|Characters introduced in book two|
|Duke of Avel||Charmless, wealthy, unsophisticated. Rejects Minda as a baby. Let's corruption and decay take over his estates. His son Humfrey is an arrogant debt-dodging wastrel who stands to inherit the Dukedom.||1,2|
|Sheriff Brock||Honest, unpretentious, happy and happily married, the sheriff of Bartonbry is mostly concerned with dealing with drunks. When Minda arrives she brings interesting problems but he can see she's a great improvement on the dismal Duke. He gently sets her limits but supports her in her battle against the would-be murders of the Abbey. He is soon working as part of a close team to deal with the crisis in Bartonbry. Eventually, possibly as a compliment to Minda, to give him some increased status to deal with a town that is waking-up and will be very important now Minda has injected capital and trade, the King makes him a baron. What's clear to everyone in Melbun (including the ambassadors) Brock is a trustworthy guardian for the town and Minda and a very pleasant ambassador for the town himself.||2,3|
|Brother caxton||Apothocary at the Abbey he was originally persuaded to provide the poison to kill Minda with. The awfulness of this is bad enough when he realises and he refuses to be party to the Abbot poisoning Little Arthur(who is the Abbot's own son) in revenge. Instead as a way to save the Abbey from riotous townsfolk he poisons the Abbot. As life in Bartonbry returns to normal he has frequent contact with 'the castle' and is charmed by the youthful cadets and smiles at their harmless but pointed mischief against the Abbey. When he realises that brothers from the Abbey are plotting to murder Minda he decides his place is with the Cadets and Little Army as they set off brave but unprepared for fighting caused by the Abbey's betrayal. After the action he is now a fish out of water, not very welcome at the Abbey and unused to the open society outside the Abbey.||2,3|
|King Edward||The King seems a nice enough fellow. Minda commands him easily. In truth he has no strength of his own so is delighted to have Minda loyal to him. His hands are bound by not being able to rely on the factions of nobles at court. When Minda takes on the church he relies on her to reduce it's power for him.||2,3,4,5|
|Doreen||The wife of the castle steward she was always the manager of 'below-stairs' activities. Unfortunatly her husband is disgraced and she's promoted to his place. (He's bitter and doesn't make the best of what face-saving role he's been given eventually leading to him betraying Minda a second time and his death.) All four of her children died within a week but now she's got Minda instead. Competent to start with, trusted and with much more cooperative staff and tradesmen than when the old Duke wa in charge she does an excellent job of managing the domestic affairs of the castle. She's also invaluable as a substitute mother for lonely Minda. Minda's trust and positive attitude allows Doreen to become a person of status as everyone recognises she's good at getting things done and a good person to consult about anything. Ironically her husband dies a few days after she decides there are too many single men in the castle who were old enough to meet some widows. She doesn't want to be single — but she doesn't want another husband like the last one.||2,3|
|Paul||A well-trained clerk from the Abbey who has been brought up with their iron discipline and limited horizons since a small child. He becomes the Abbot's secretary and Minda is attracted to him. He is sent to poison her but cannot face it having been seduced by the loving family atmosphere Minda has set up deliberatly. As a 'failed assassin' he knows too much and has to take Minda's protection. He confesses freely and soon becomes a much-needed personal secretary to Minda. having dabbled in secret things for the Abbey he becomes a link in the King's intelligence network and eventually a political advisor to Minda. He is one of the batchelors forced to consider marriage by Doreen.||2,3|
|Little Arthur||Discovered in the castle kitchens at age ten Arthur (though few people know it, not him) is the bastard son of the Abbot. He is irrepressible and full of energy though capable of observation and is naturally funny. He is adopted as a mascot by Minda because (so she says) he represents the new spirit of Bartonbry and its smiling face. He charms and cheeks through the town and castle and brings smiles at his and Minda's happy foibles. As a satire on the Abbot Arthur is paraded through the town dressed in the stolen regalia of the Abbot, with Lucky in drag as 'the Abbot's tart' while spouting parodies of blessings and appeals for money. His next moment of glory is when Minda is presented to the King: As a page in his finery, after careful rehersal, he provides a charming distraction to derail the ceremony so Minda can take charge and 'ambush the king by charm'. He does this so well he is given an incredibly valuable gold and jewelled dagger by the King. He is soon adopted by the Black team perhaps because he hasn't got a care in the world while they're beginning to find life 'the Minda way' is hard work. He is good at learning quickly and mimicking and has a comical world-weary way of sympathising and claiming sympathy. A legend in his own lifetime. In book 5 he is made Minda's heir.||2,3,4,5|
|Allesandro||A street performer, magician and seller of cures, he is well known to Silks having originally come from Italy. When it is known that Minda wants him as semi-permanent servant Silks introduces him to the King's intelligence organisation. This is good because his role immediately becomes taking the Black Team away to teach them deception as a precursor to 'black-ops'. His many years of travelling and 'honest' cheating by conjuring make him an ideal choice. His survival skill is clever deception not fighting so when he's with the Black Team they know they have to protect him in an ambush. By book five he is 'headmaster' of the cadet school.||2,3,5|
|Xavier||The Kings chief intelligencer and Silk's superior he practically lives in his office collecting and questioning. He is well aware of the two years of training at Trowstead and clever successes since then. By being brought up in obscurity there was no opportunity for her to develop side-loyalties except to the King. He had occasionally wished for Minda to succeed to the Dukedom but hadn't the ruthlessness or convenient agent who could do what she had done. Metaphorically she was the King's sword able to threaten and attack where he was too weak or ham-strung by vested interests at court to do so himself. He was shocked when Cadet Jed Poolens the suddenly a powerful man instead of his father's puppet uses Minda's attitudes to interrogate him rather than the other way around. In the same brash youthfulness of youth Jed arranges a social meeting with the ambassadors of Italy and Lanconia together and himself! Minda was definitely going to be useful to the Kingdom and need his guidance.||2,3,5|
|Cadets(1)||There are twenty 15 to 16 year-old cadets given to Minda to train in a rather vague way. Mostly they come from very high status families in Melbun. (But see Black team below.) Minda's country fighting and self-defence are combined with the three Rs and estate accounts and investment decisions and monitoring and self-discipline and self-reliance in the field. Out of necessity their training becomes diverted into officering a 'Little Army' which is interesting to see teenagers commanding old or green common soldiers. Some cadets blossom at this first training stage which worries their fathers as they see their carefully laid plans for their sons being derailed by Minda giving them their own ideas and independence. This causes a brief power struggle in Melbun. Now much better educated and confident in their own abilities some have no qualms about travelling to Italy and Lanconia so that they may be better placed to trade or learn better ways of doing things. As time goes by Minda has many well-connected men she can rely on. The first batch of cadets re-enrol for more intensive training and education. Some are beginning to stand out as individuals. All are given responsibilities in a crisis.||2,3,5|
A noble girl by permission, two run-away daughters of merchants and two orphan labourers from the docks make up the Black Team. They are eager, strong, fearless and use their imagination as a team. Minda's favourites of course, they are given plenty of scope to get up to mischief — so long as they do it well. The girls help the boys with their school-work and the boys supply brute strength to start with then other talents develop. Jane, from the nobility, is a natural leader but it is a team of equals where who-does-what is based on suitability. Their mischief is tamed by directing it towards espionage, being taught Italian and deception by Allesandro separately from the others.
|Foreign cadets||With the success of the first tranche the Black Team realise the school could be repeated with cadets from Lanconia and Italy as a way to cement good relations between untrusting kingdoms. This is put into practise in book 5 with a broadened curriculum. Some of them bring interesting ideas with them. Following the success of the Taylors four orphans from the Arlesene docks are included. One day they will be powerful men.||5|
|Important characters introduced in book 4|
|Duke of Orefleur||Powerful duke controlling one of the Lanconian ports of most use to Briton trade. Being friendly to Briton makes him very powerful. In book 4 he realises the importance of making the King's favourite teenagers welcome. Although he's in his 50s Jane takes a liking to him and at then end of book 4 wants to marry him for love. This happens in book 5 and we see Jane following in Minda's footsteps as an energetic player in the upper echelons of Lanconian politics.||4,5|
|Johnas||The Duke of Orfleur's son. Dilletante and "wet as a bucket of piss" as the King says. Jane teaches him leadership and he dries out.||4|
|Tomkit||The King of Lanconia's eldest son.(25) (Tomkit is the Black Team's 'battle name' for him which he likes.) The Black Team show the King a specific target for military action and how they'd deal with it in Briton (so they say!) which is an ideal 'prove yourself' task for him. He becomes a friend of Briton and without realising it is interacting with all levels of Lanconian society in a way that bodes well for being king himself one day.||4,5|
|Louis and Tallya||Louis is the criminal 'king of the Arlesene docks'. In a lawless society he keeps order. John (orphan from Melbun docks) has a lot in common and wins his heart. He and his wife Tallya have never been more than ten miles from the docks in their lives but get the opportunity to do so with the Black Team. In book 5 Louis and Tallya visit Briton in the company of merchants for a trade fair and Jane helps him start businesses in Arlesene to improve the docks.||4,5|
|Important characters introduced in book 5|
|Abbot Andrew||Newly installed abbot of Bartonbry, Minda forces him to choose between expulsion and leading the Abbey to perform useful service to the community. By clever teamwork and luck he becomes 'the people's abbot' to the fury of the established church. He is an instant legend and financial success. Some clever PR by the Black Team emphasises the gulf between Christian service and the Pope's greedy churchmen. One of his pet projects is improving roads.||5|
|Spin-off series||Idea scrapped The Black Team are five mixed teenagers being given 'secret agent' tasks. The ideal treatment is a TV adventure series with books as a by-product. This was my intention with Black team keep out of trouble but I've discovered I can't write compartmentalised episodes.|
|Film?||Woah! The series would make a horrible film. But the 'legend of the star-iron girl' could be adapted to make an interesting and emotional film framed by 21st century smithing.|
|TV adaptation||Minda lends itself quite nicely to 'TV saga' treatment. There are a few core characters, there's tension, plot twists, close drama and a different environment. The premise of a really strong teenage girl who we all want to succeed for her personal charm is compelling viewing. The Black Team and international events expand the potential for plot strands and background issues.|
|Self help||Minda is good at (a)self control and personal development (b)making relationships productive (c)manipulating face-to-face situations and (d)management and staff development. There must be a healthy market for 'XXX the Minda way'.|
Catching the writing bug
In June 2011 a couple of short sketches for a friend's comedy double-act were written but the characters demanded to be explored further, ending up as a dialogue of over sixty thousand words exploring many aspects of friendship as the two young friends develop and suffer relationships. This book came to a end in a couple of paragraphs!
That had been so much fun to write that another project was needed to fill the evenings. As I've discovered, my style of writing is to have a lot of ideas and key moments then set-off and see what happens. Minda was going to be a single book adventure with Minda as a spy-mistress... But then it turned out much more interesting! For example I'd expected the massacre in Lostnock cathedral to be an orderly surrender but it went sour on the spur of the moment which on reflection flowed and had really interesting and long-lasting repercussions.
As well as stumbling across new ideas to develop by being relaxed about allowing 'intruders' and unexpected twists into the plot (ie. Lots of things happen); when I've 'finished' I find themes, key motivators and story structures that I hadn't consciously recognised during the head-down writing phase. This gives me confidence that there is a 'layer of truth' in the characters and a perfectly valid story-arc — despite what some 'how to write' books say. Girls do it differently! Download Heroism for Girls essay. PDF
Minda is a privileged high-status girl growing up in a farming village. She's strong, bright and cheerful but ugly and has a bad foot and hand. She's unable to do the pastimes of high-class mediaeval ladies but makes friends, and soon knives, in the village forge. (Unlike a boy!) she keeps on practising archery until she can beat the whole village. Everyone recognises the girl with the eyepatch.
According to some her aggressive outlook and status make her ideal as a candidate for standing-up against rebels and outlaws. She moves to another village to be coached on 'country-fighting' and team work and has more (contrasting) female company. From the start we see her guts, determination, cleverness and humility.
Actually there are no signs of breakdown of law and order except for smuggling that everyone knows about. She is trained to observe and collect information surreptitiously using her social status to visit surrounding lords and hear gossip. In parallel she is the darling of the lonely smiths, taking messages and helping their relationships. Her extrovert antics and instantly recognisable eye patch are deliberately used to create stories about her. Later many wonder how much witchcraft is involved. (This gets her into trouble later Any weapon against a powerful woman.)
An unexpected pre-dawn encounter with smugglers where Minda shows courage and discipline signals the end of 'learning in the woods' and she is sent to a busy town(!) as assistant to the tax collector. She soon discovers fraud in the tax office and lets the criminal classes know she means business even if the collector himself is a bit feeble. Town life is strange but they adapt, and she quickly becomes recognised and talked about. Her 'family' of three smiths is mended beautifully during the course of which the Coroner and his adulterous mistress try to frame her for murder. She shows again how opponents can be defeated or won-over without violence. There are unexpected consequences during an anti-smuggling raid on her home village. We see she can give and take orders and quickly build complete trust among her servants.
After a horrible episode where she is involved with catching and executing a rapist/ child murderer, Minda volunteers to take the body back to its mother. (There is a beautiful and significant twist here.) Back in town she finds the Duke's son, her only brother, is holding a ball; but he is dissolute and debt-dodging so she decides he must die so she can inherit. (Which she does, against deadly opposition, in the next book.) The whole town knows she did it but there's no evidence.
In total there is about one page of brutal violence in three short episodes. Minda isn't a tom-boy fighter with flashing swords but a determined woman who will use weapons if she has to. By developing loyal relationships she does what no man could do.
The Duke of Avel received the news stoically. He had really wanted a second son, still, a girl could be married-off to advantage. The news about the mother was worrying. He really liked Juliana and was almost moved to return to the castle but reasoned there was nothing he could do to help her. They would continue the hunt. "Collins! Ride to Lord Humbrigg's. Tell him we'll be stopping for the night. Messenger! Return to Bartonbry with this proclamation. 'The Duke is delighted at the birth of his daughter. In seven days there will be a feast-day to celebrate.' " Ha ha. It would be interesting to see what the leading citizens brought as presents. Gold, perhaps something sparkly for a daughter. The messenger hesitated but then turned and departed through the silent shrouds of mist.
Minda wasn't expected to live much longer than her mother. With a claw foot, deformed hand and messed-up face it was presumed she would weaken fast. The Duke thought of using Juliana's death as an excuse to cancel his proclamation but then with his rogue's insight realised that a brave face would make his people generously sympathetic. The child wouldn't be around long so that would take care of itself. It was all very sad but he couldn't help that. Ellery of Worton had a nice unmarried daughter, or there was Lord Radley's widow with lots of money. Ho hum. Plenty of possibilities, but first he must work on his martyr's face.
In time the Duke remarried and Minda grew into the most cheerful infant anyone could wish for. As an embarrassment she was sent to his furthest estate to be forgotten. For the next fifteen years Minda enjoyed a carefree life combining the privilege that comes with high birth with the simplicity of being brought up in a village. While she was happy and growing strong, the dukedom was decaying and ragged patches of lawlessness spoiled the kingdom.
This is the first part of the story of how Minda fought many things to become the most powerful woman in Europe. Loved by all but without a husband. Trusted and caring but brutally ruthless. Strong in so many ways but suffering bouts of depression. Brilliantly successful but always threatened. A magical legend made from a lonely girl.
The Duke's agent, Mister Hesquery, looked after the productivity of the estate while his wife cleverly managed the accounts to ensure there was never a surplus shown in them. Baby Minda was accepted by the childless Hesquerys because they had no choice but she soon stole their hearts. Appalling ugly and destined to be a cripple she became the focus of their love. Everyone got used to Mister Hesquery harking-on about Minda's abilities at reading and sums. Mrs Hesquery would give daily progress reports on walking and screaming with pleasure when drawn round the yard in a dog cart. Enthusiasm and love is contagious, so a shoemaker's wife soon drew her husband's attention to the matter of Minda's club foot. Boot and shoe makers are prone to err on the solid and heavy side so it was fortunate that a basket weaver was instructed by his wife to try something lighter and springier. Minda's squashed face soon had an almost permanent, if lopsided, smile and her big brown eyes and blunt nose weren't that bad really.
Occasionally the special boot chaffed but with attention from the combined forces of the shoemaker, basket maker and harness maker she could roam all day. She tried to count the trees in the wood of soft smells and sighing tops that she dreamed of owning when she was a real duchess. Lying in a nest of the heath-land heather she wondered if the tiny sounds of the shoals of jumping grasshoppers was chattering like the birds to tell the news. What about the wind? He was a messenger you must feel and watch his clouds if you wanted to stay dry. She made up conversations between the nodding bank-side flowers and the ears and mouths of the river's whorls. 'I'm going away. Where are you going? To the sea and then the ocean Come back! No I can't come back Take my petals with you to Araby. Farewell.'
Her boot wasn't good enough for chasing running and skipping so Minda didn't play ordinary games with the other children. Ghostly family ties gave her the privilege of being excused the constant chores of her contemporaries. Her claw hand and clumsy foot made her abandon the pastimes of young ladies such as dancing, embroidery and playing an instrument. Instead Minda would smile and ask questions and take herself wherever she wanted. She would be welcomed, given a glass of milk and allowed to stay and watch or try her hand, as far as limited dexterity allowed, at whatever craft was being done. Spinning, dyeing, weaving. Ploughing and harrowing was boring, wet and hard on her leg. Harvest was itchy. She physically couldn't tie sheaf-knots or pole-fork but she was allowed to ride the horses between the fields and the stack yard. After harvest comes the gleaning when the women and children pick up loose ears of corn from the fields. When she found out about this back-breaking work she kept away. It says a lot about the simple wisdom of these folk that a duke's daughter, destined to be a nobleman's wife, should be strengthening her muscles, making friends with peasants and happily discovering simple labour as one of them. Being hearty, curious and privileged she could investigate the activities of the farms as a spectator and pester the craftsmen and women at their work. She took a dislike to animals, they could crush you against a wall or knock you over. Boskew the head horseman was a funny chap, he taught her horse-riding by telling the horse! "When she pull together you better slow down Stefan." The dust of the mills made her choke. Steady grumbling thunder of the gears and stones shaking the floor signified a power she didn't trust. The millers were queer people too: The windmiller was always in a hurry and angry if she held up his work for a second. The water miller was more kindly but seemed to start every sentence with a 'Don't'. "Don't ever go near the weir", "Don't touch a sack it might fall on you", and the ones that didn't begin with "Don't" started with 'Ask me'. "Ask me if I ground more barley that day than anyone before" or "Ask me if I know the answer to that one." She decided mills and millers were best left alone.
The smithy was different, it became her favourite spot. It was a busy gossip-house where news was discussed and rumour spread. Shoeing horses was the main entertainment for onlookers but Minda was entranced by the magic of making many other things out of sun-bright iron. The urgent sound of the bellows' breath putting life into the roaring coals, the heartbeat thumps of rough billeting then the musical smack-clang of shaping and finally the sizzle of the quench told a story. She could listen to that story all day. Dunstin the smith would let her work the bellows to turn the fire's blood-red bed into gasping claws of transparent flame. She was allowed to swing the grindstone wheel to give sheaves of red and gold shooting stars as he ground moon-silver edges onto black blades.
Blacksmiths are generally easy-going. The first thing they learn is that a bit of metal doesn't care how angry you are. They deal with many customers in different circumstances all of whom respect his immediate application even if they can't pay today. Everyone knows not to fall-out with a smith. From Minda's point of view Dunstin had another special qualification, an eye-patch. The hearth-light turned his features orange with shifting shadows giving him a special power to make things with one constant eye, one force of mind, one storm of blows turning a billet into a knife or a coulter or, and this she thought was a special revelation of magical arts, a springy and sharp wool shears from a single piece in front of her very eyes! She desperately wanted a patch like Dunstin's for her squinty eye but was worried that you couldn't just give yourself an eyepatch, there must be something official that adults whispered about. Nevertheless when nobody was looking she'd hold her hand across her face in front of the mirror and imagine the power she'd have.
Even though Minda was growing up strong, the sort of strength you need to hammer iron is beyond most men let alone a ten-year old girl. Dunstin let her blow the bellows, fetch the coals and do the reckoning for each job. Her deformed hand wasn't good at gripping the smooth iron handle of the quench tongs but Dunstin's eye for detail and exact knowledge of how much strength to use in every situation covered her hand with his enough to give that little extra force to hold them without making Minda feel a failure. Later he said to her. "I wonder if a little glove would give you more grip? You could ask Karel the harness-maker what he thinks." For him, like the Hesquerys, Minda was the son he didn't have.
Children's games follow each other as the different flowers of the spring and summer have followed each other for as long as time. Arm-wrestling took its turn to be the game of the moment. Naturally the boys were fighting cocks. Minda stood back and watched with an air of superiority calculated to annoy the young Herculeses. When this sport was nearing the natural end of its popularity she called-out Constanz the generally acknowledged champion.
"Are boys stronger than girls Constanz?"
"Well prove it!"
"Easy George you show her."
"Why not you Constanz? Are you afraid of being beaten by a girl?" She carefully rolled up her sleeves to show her smithing muscles.
"No Err I don't want to hurt you with my strength."
"But I insist Constanz."
"Alright miss but if you get hurt I can't help it."
"Right you are. And if I hurt you? No hard feelings eh?"
"Pah! Come on."
On the first grip Constanz yelped. "Ow! Let go of my hand."
"Oh sorry am I hurting you?"
"You're not supposed to crush it."
"Oh dear I don't seem to know the rules." she said innocently as Constanz nursed his hand. "So it's just gentle Like lovers holding hands is it Constanz?" He blushed and the boys sizzled at his embarrassment. "Be quiet! It's not Constanz's fault he has lover's hands Is it Constanz?"
"I don't have lover's hands!"
"Let's look at them Constanz Come on show me." He held out his hands. "Ohh yes. Lovely lover's hands" she said stroking them. "To think I nearly hurt your pretty hand!"
"Come on." he said "I've let you have your girly chit-chat now I'll put you in your place."
"Oh you won't hurt me will you Constanz?" She resumed the classic arm-wrestling pose, clasped his hand, gave it a wiggle and smiled at the spectators. On the word Go' she smashed his arm back.
"I wasn't ready!"
"That's your fault lover boy."
When she'd gone Minda removed her boots and placed her bad foot still wrapped in binding into a pail of cold water. Sitting alone with the deadening chill spreading up her leg she tried to ignore the sparkling daggers of irritation. She had never screamed with frustration before but wanted to now. There was a commotion as mistress Marline dragged a silent Delphia into the wash house. Minda didn't look up.
"Minda. We don't usually threaten people with knives."
"I'm sorry mistress. I'm not used to being plagued by gabble-mouths 'Specially when I need silence to draw out the pain. Every day I have to make an effort to live my life and today I've made more effort than ever before. You like riddles Delphia. 'If you have nothing to say say it'. Mistress can I ask a favour? Would Delphia please undo the bindings on my foot. It is very tender and needs two soft hands."
Mistress Marline was silent for a moment. "Yes of course. No I'll do it. Delphia go and get my balm."
"Goose fat will be fine."
"Come on Minda, let's patch you up and feed you up." Unwrapping the blood-soaked linen from Minda's foot was a trial. Delphia was horrified as the bleeding pink deformity was revealed. "Are you watching daughter? See how gentle you have to be."
Mistress Marline rebound it according to instructions from Minda with new linen and balm that smelled of sharp herbs. "Your other boots came from Selenden today. Shall we fetch those and give these ones a good clean?"
"Yes please mistress."
"I don't think you'll be out riding with this tomorrow Minda."
"It looks like drenching wet anyway. Brand says they had only meant to go as far as the river-meet but you lead them as far the other side again. Normally a nod is all the praise anyone gets from Brand but with my own ears I heard him say you reminded him of the best general in the army. 'Took him back to his young days'. You've won an old soldier's heart there Minda. That's something to ask him about "
But Minda was asleep.
As they start we see Minda has an efficient, friendly, loyal, sociable and flexible retinue of friends and servants. The intention is that the dying duke should be reconciled to the daughter he rejected as a baby. When news comes of the duke's imminent death Minda sends her servants ahead while she waits half a day away so as not to be accused of his murder like [as everyone knows she must have been] that of her brother. While she waits in limbo, it's a race between death and the snow, two very nasty characters are caught. They're definitely up to no good but although there must be some connection to Minda their purpose remains a mystery. She helps the village smith for healthy country exercise and finds the 'star-iron girl legend song' has evolved even to the extent of making her day making luck-shoes at the forge a few hours ago into a legend. A beautiful carol of peace and togetherness has been added that catches the mood of the village with 'her' star watching over them.
Bartonbry is a dying town dominated by the Duke's castle and Abbey. Both are hostile. With the friendship of the Sheriff she gets a foothold and defeats the gloom, unfriendliness and corruption of the castle by decisive actions. Assassination attempts by the Abbey are uncovered and dealt with. Minda very cleverly turns her enemies into useful servants. Until the Abbey is dealt with she can't go over the snow-covered hills to the King. She manages to turn opinion of the town against the Abbey by an outrageous satire to the extent of it almost being ransacked and so defeats the Abbot.
We meet Little Arthur, a ten year-old kitchen boy, who Minda adopts as a symbol of the new, energetic castle with a future. Whether she knows it or not Minda is making real and pretend families as compensation for her personal past and future isolation.
It takes her party of a dozen four days over snowy hills to get to the capital, Melbun. The Christmas feast season is in full swing. Completely ignorant of courtly politics she 'ambushes the King with devious charm and novelty' using Little Arthur as a cute distraction and emphasising her power of command. Later she shows the nobles her superb deer hunting skills admitting that this was the first time she'd killed a deer lawfully showing her 'practical' approach to the King's law and reminding them that until now she had no status whatsoever. Not satisfied with this she scandalises the most important feast by showing off her combat skills in a 'gipsy dance'. Nobody is left in any doubt about this eighteen year old's electrifying power and the Kings favour.
Minda had agreed to take the wastrel teenage son of her friend the King's spy-master away from bad influences in Melbun and teach him a bit of the 'country fighting' skills she'd been trained in. Without her agreement the King decides it would be useful to get rid of the plague of teenage nuisances from the leading families for 'boot camp'. Minda stipulates it must also be open to girls. A selection day and night where high-status teens are put through basic fitness tests then team-initiative tests is arranged. One team consists of two run-away girls from merchant backgrounds, another girl from a leading family and two semi-criminal boys from the docks recruited by one of her servants. This team show cleverness, imagination and bravery They are obviously going to have an exciting future...
Mr. Bob's special role in Minda's life and survival in Lostnock had caused him considerable personal trouble but even though she'd arranged the murder of the Duke's son, Humfrey, and made him an accomplice to it, he knew however much he tried he would always support her in his slow way. Now they were about to leave Lostnock together for Bartonbry to see the ailing Duke. He wanted to be present when his old friend saw his daughter for the first time in eighteen years. That would be a moment to remember. Then he wanted to catch the lightning in the air as Minda innocently admitted to breaking her brother's wrist less than half an hour before an unknown assailant, presumed to be a merchant denied long-overdue payment, shot him in the head. Of course she knew very well who did the deed. When he discovered she'd even subverted his chief secret informant to vouch for Henry Trentchard under his nose he guessed too. That was her business, his job was to help the Duke in a man-to-man way recognise Minda as his daughter that mustn't be denied
The convoy out of Lostnock that morning was strange because it left by three separate gates and met up half an hour later. Early morning exercise rides were a habit of this bunch of youngsters so nothing unusual was noticed. Delphia and Henry rode out eastwards. Minda had asked Delphia to keep a close sisterly eye on him in case guilt should make him crumble. Flor and Lucky took the north gate while Minda and Mr. Bob took the West gate towards Bartonbry.
Innocence is no armour against suspicion. The whole town knew that it must have been Minda that personally killed Humfrey or organised it but all the suspects had been accounted for. Now, as with anything Minda did, there was discussion about whether witchcraft had been used and this time the general consensus was that it was a good deed so perhaps give her the benefit of the doubt. Everyone knew Minda could wind men round her little finger in a way which the women, and most of the men loved as well. The thugs paid a halfpenny to carry a strange unexpected unthreatening threatening message to one of her enemies assumed that the lion lady was up to tricks and good luck to her. The many merchants she'd made a point of befriending looked upon the preying Humfrey's demise as a bit of luck and if Minda really had been involved it was no business of theirs. The Coroner and Steela, Mr. Bob's adulterous wife, lost a lot of sleep trying to pin the crime on her but without being able to find any solid ground. The bishop was working hard to protect his smuggling operation.
The arrangement was Flor [Personal servant/bodyguard] and Henry [Pseudo-elder brother/geek] in front, Minda and
Delphia [Pseudo sister] in the middle and Lucky
with Mr. Bob behind in the classic anti-ambush pattern. Nobody was
expecting to be ambushed by force but everyone knew their innocence was
a charade. Apart from Mr. Bob they were all used to early morning rides.
Mr. Bob felt twenty five years younger and was delighted to be treated
as one of them. He smiled and smiled again inside and then beamed. The
weather claimed their immediate emotion as four of them would have a
long day's suffering from this heartless wind and they could feel it
full on their faces. Minda's first duty was to Henry and Delphia.
"How is he Delphia?"
"Pretending it wasn't him."
"Oh dear. He's done a murder we will all benefit from. We must support him. If you have to get him to talk to Smith Jiller just him not his wife I as good as murdered Jiller's brother and at first he was in shock then he saw it was a bad deed to do a better one. Um. I should do that anyway. At least suggest it to Henry as an option we don't have Lewin [Head horseman/Healer] in Lostnock."
"Shouldn't he go to confession? There's dozens of priests to choose from."
"No! sorry Delphia I meant 'that would be a bad idea'. No priest is trustworthy but I can vouch for every smith. Better still say to Henry to show an interest in something to do with smithing with Jiller and build trust for himself."
"It just does. Sorry Delphia I have to talk to Henry himself. I'll explain when I get back. All my love to Pod and Denise and of course Tom tell him I love him give him a kiss from me... ...and stop a moment and give me a kiss... ...Here's to your happy family I can see marriage and children on your face."
"How can you see that! Cain only asked me to marry him last night." Minda called behind "Go on men we'll catch up in a minute". To Delphia: "Jump down." They both dismounted and Minda picked up Delphia in the most enveloping hug. "Do you remember that first day at Trowstead when I threatened to pick you up and throw you into the midden?"
"I'll never forget it."
"I'm sorry. I love you."
"I love you. You're easy to love Minda."
"Bless you Delphia. You're the first friend I've ever had."
"You have lots of friends"
"First girlfriend only girlfriend."
"You don't expect me to be as clever as you will you?"
"No // Err You're the one with the husband."
"Am I? Did I accept Cain's proposal?"
Delphia paused for a fraction of mischief before admitting "Yes I of course did." A confusion of smiles in reflecting waves followed by a long kiss the most solid follow-on hug ignored the spattering elements. Minda had never been held so tight before.
The men had waited just around the bend for them.
Somehow the girls were shameful and proud at the same time. So what if
the men waited for them so they should! At last Minda found her
commander's voice, "Flor and Mr. Bob at the front. Lucky and Delphia in
the middle. I'll take the back look-out with Henry."
"Have you heard the news about Delphia Henry?"
"Ask her on the way back. Good news. Now how are you Henry?"
"I'm not sure Minda. I know all my training was worth it when I shot him but but just because I could doesn't mean I should have."
"You did well Henry. Don't forget I'm a murderer too I killed Butcher."
"I know. Everything you do turns out right even if it doesn't seem so at the time, but you're you and I'm me. I can't sleep."
"Neither can I sometimes. Even though we both know it was the right thing to kill the rat Humfrey I still lie awake thinking of all the accomplices all of us here today and some others we all added a stitch to Humfrey's shroud."
"I'm pleased it was so easy in the end."
"Remember Henry that you were going to be the one that looked after this part of the nation when lawlessness came that's what you were being brought up for by your father so now you've proved that you could have done it. He will be satisfied."
"Could I have led Brand and Flor on expeditions? I mean I could have I suppose um but not like you do."
"You have a big role yet to play Henry. I'm soon going to be a duchess and that means I can bully the King pay for mercenaries and information and direct forces to stamp out whatever I think needs stamping out. I can't do that in a fog can I?"
"You've lost me."
"I need people to tell me what's actually happening so I can take action. Where defences are weak, where there is corruption, where my troops can get food supplies. I need people to tell my generals how much bread the army will need while they lay siege to a particular castle. You can see these figures in your head Henry. You'll be doing twice what your father wanted and once in a while slitting the throat of the odd outlaw in the dark just to keep in practice." Henry was silent. "Trust Delphia while I'm away. I've asked her to look after you for me."
"Do I need looking after?"
"Of course you do. You're very precious to me and Delphia and lots of other people... ...One day Henry I hope you'll find a lady to marry. I know you're a bit shy but hey! I thought I couldn't dance until harvest-home and now I practice twice a week. Don't fall for the first one that flashes her lashes at you but you could easily make a wealthy and happy marriage."
"I don't want to be commanded by women!" Minda chuckled. "One day your mind will be changed for you by a woman. Watch out Henry!".
At the gatehouse they were greeted by a company of ten guards with polished helmets and breastplates over deep chestnut velvet mimicking leather. They made a big show of shouting orders and rearranging their pikes. Minda whispered to Arthur who then hailed the commander. "Do you not smile when you see a young woman?"
"Just doing my duty." Harumphed the commander.
"When I do my duty I smile Don't I miss."
"Yes you do Little Arthur. And you make us all smile. Come on commander. You can spare me a little grin."
"Guuaarrd! Smile!" He shouted.
"He also shouts, grazes his knees and throws stones at crows on duty but there's no need for that today commander. Shall we go?"
In a couple of minutes they were inside the keep's courtyard and dismounting. Arthur was picked off by Bob and Minda carefully slid onto the mounting block. Minda thanked the guard and winked at the commander. Arthur took hold of the hem of Minda's gown and they set off to the throne room, being met by their friend the under-chamberlain who made sure everyone was prepared.
"Now then boys you must hand your weapons to the door warden for safe keeping." said Minda.
"Please warden do you want mine too? It's only wood. She won't let me have a proper one."
"Go on Arthur. Let him have it then you won't trip over it." She smiled at the warden, checked her long sword was loose and nodded to the under-chamberlain. While they were waiting in the ante-chamber she played the spelling game with Arthur. They had done K-I-N-G and P-A-G(-E) and unwisely started on 'court' when the moment came for them to enter. She looked round at her troops. "Smile!" (Their code for 'attack!') and led the way in.
The King and Queen were seated on thrones raised on a dais under an
awning at the far end of a hall. Richly dressed people lined the sides
of the room which curved above in golden decoration. Her boots clicked
on the decorated stone floor. She knew by the wave of amused looks that
Arthur was grinning with pride as ordered. She stopped three paces from
the king and made a gentle curtsey to the Queen and a bow to the King.
Already she was doing things her own way.
"Welcome to our court Duchess."
"It is my honour and my duty My Lord."
"We are pleased to see the line of Avel is now represented by such a strong and determined woman. A charming young woman who is stealing out hearts as we speak." Although she couldn't see she guessed by the murmurs behind her and the growing smile on the King and Queen's faces that Arthur was doing his carefully rehearsed nodding-in-approval routine.
"I came as quickly as I could to swear my allegiance to the crown Your Highness."
"I am told you have already shown dedication to our cause. In particular by curtailing the smuggling activities of nobles."
"I have only managed to trap five of your officials and seize a thousand pounds of contraband. I hope to do a lot better."
"In only four months! You are an exemplar for us all. You hunt, shoot, fight with sword and knife there are many men who should go to your class."
"And I can dance and make a shoe and a knife and a needle." Minda wanted to see if Silks [King's spy chief and Minda's friend] had briefed him about smithing.
"Where would we be without horseshoes and nails?" Minda leant down, hitched up her hem and extracted her knife. [Carried in a boot-pocket] "Here is my knife. I beat it, quenched it, tempered it and ground it myself." She tossed spinning in the air, caught it, twisted it so the handle pointed to the king and offered it to him. "Feel it Your Highness." She reached up her open sleeve and pulled out a nest of spring knives. "These are nasty jumping traps." Minda signalled to the chamberlain to hold them. "Or " from her other sleeve came a vicious pontil with a cork handle. " I hate these things but thought I ought to make one. Then there's this... ...She reached to the nape of her neck and drew out a rapier sword whose hilt had been disguised as a headpiece. Arthur performed his disbelief act on cue. Minda crouched down to talk to him. "Arthur. I think you better ask the door warden to come take these away." He swerved off across the polished floor. "Sorry Your Highness I'm a bit terrible aren't I. In case you were wondering I know how to use all those weapons."
"What about a needle? Do you know how to use that asked the queen." Minda took off her special glove and showed her deformed hand. "I am not very patient at sewing Your Highness." Arthur returned tugging the door ward to come faster. "I am sorry door warden. Next time you will have to feel me all round with a hug like this!" She clasped him then picked him right off the floor, swung him round in a dignified full circle then let him go.
"Yes well. Thank you Duchess for that impressive display of strength and disobedience. I ought to lock you in a dungeon for your sauce but I haven't got one that would hold you." He smiled and everyone smiled. "You seem to have offered me your sword already but shall we do it the usual way miss?"
"Yes Your Highness. I give you my sword and you give me a kiss I believe." She carefully pulled her long sword from it's scabbard. There was nothing pretty about this beast. Elphe had done a lovely job of blackening it all except a quarter of an inch of fresh-ground edge showing silver. She knelt on the cushion. "Here is my sword your Highness." She offered it carefully to him. "The Avel sword is yours My Lord. Black for the hammer and anvil and silver for the cutting edge."
"This is a mighty weapon for a mighty purpose." He held it up in both hands for all to see. "There is no better servant than you to wear it for us."
"I will wear it by your leave Lord." He handed it back to her then she stood up and sheathed it. "And you shall have your kiss you terrible girl." Smiling he stood up and made the mistake of stepping down off the dias so Minda was a good foot taller than he was. She simply picked him up like the door warden, placed him back on the dias and kissed him. Applause and cheers filled the room. Unscripted, Arthur looked at the queen forlornly and she signalled he could come up and have a kiss from her. Everyone smiled. The chamberlain held a whispered conference with the King who nodded. "Please wait a moment Duchess. Let us talk to this young man." Minda moved aside. Arthur made his bizarre salute then bowed right down to the floor. "Stand up. That's better. Somebody my own height at last." Lots of laughter. "What is your name?"
"Arthur Gridds Your King."
"I understand the door warden took your sword away."
"Yes Your Sire. It's only wood. She won't let me have a proper one." He looked at Minda accusingly.
"Dear dear. I tell you what. Just between you and me. How would you like a real sword?"
"Yes please!" The king waved and a bundle was brought to him. The chamberlain opened it up to reveal a curved gold knife. Precious stones and pearls in the handle and wrought silver patterns covering the scabbard. He held it up to show everyone. Arthur was stunned. He looked at Minda who's jaw was open with amazement. She caught up with the moment and nodded to Arthur. "Can I wear it?"
"Yes. That's what it's for." Minda lifted Arthur onto the dias then took the belt from the king to put it on Arthur. It was inlaid with stones as well. She showed it to the audience. Crouching down she carefully buckled the belt and added the knife. When she'd finished she showed him off to the room, stood up and gave the King a mighty kiss. Everyone in the audience was applauding and cheering.
Three months on from the end of volume 2 Minda inherits Minda's hard work is visible everywhere. The castle and town of Bartonbry are happy and prosperous, the noble boys sent to her by the King are relishing outdoors team work and see how school work will lead to interesting and profitable careers. There are plenty of day to day problems to be sorted out and Minda has a breakdown as a result of hard work and 'teenage loneliness'.
Her staff confidently deal with outstanding issues while Minda is in bed. An end is put to bad management of the King's army of 200 soldiers and used for training the cadets in leadership. The irrepressible Black Team (three girls and two street-boys) start being trained in deceit and deception and Italian.
Thanks to a visit by her sweet-heart, a blacksmith she could never marry, she gets over the worst of her depression and 'takes a holiday to Lostnock'... ...Where she narrowly escapes capture by her old enemy the Bishop who is defying the King. She takes on the challenge but he has unknown support outside the town which turns into a (premature as it turns out) rebellion against the King. Minda is trapped in the town which has put trade before defence and it is up to her to organise the protection of the town and try to dismay the lords of the country by terror. The raw cadets and soldiers hastily rush to help her. What should have been an orderly surrender of the cathedral turns into a bloodbath. None of this is known at the capital, Melbun, when Jed, the first cadet to go home, arrives. He is immediately dismissed by his father the archbishop, becomes friendly with both the Italian and Lanconian ambassadors (and with their wives who compete to seduce him!) as an example of the Bartonbry's overflowing spirit of friendliness. The King recognises he has potential and in the space of a couple of days makes him an earl and rather hastily commands him to kill his father. (Other cadet fathers who were worried Duchess Minda was diverting their sons from carefully prepared careers are now very alarmed!) When news of the stand-off between Minda and the Church arrives a number think this might be an opportunity to cut her down to size and replace the King. Jed is a bold figurehead for King-friendly forces to support with money and men while the King is dithering. Two of the girls from the Black Team cleverly ambush twenty rustic soldiers and lead them back to their homes after making sure the rebel lord pays them. The girls surprise themselves with how easy it is to kill people far too easy they realise later after shooting three and stabbing five. Unknown to them their savagery plays an important part in worrying rebel lords into waiting for somebody else to take a lead which never happens.
Still hoping to get some support from the King the Black Team are sent on a PR mission to the capital which is successful with all of Minda's 'spirit of family' being present at a banquet for royalty. As the rebellion quickly fades away everyone except Minda has something to look forward to in the immediate future. Many have romantic attachments. Minda and her staff all feel a loss of happy-go-lucky youthfulness though they have all excelled. Minda is still lonely.
Five minutes later Lucky emerged from the Sun inn, staggered then slumped drunk against the wall opposite. He tried to untangle his feet and roll along the wall in jerks. Two shadows closed in on him. Two shadows gasped and groaned then slid into the gutter. Lucky blessed his dagger teacher for making him use both hands. Now to X's agent in Chipping street.
Inside the basket-maker's house Lucky drew his finger across his throat then held up two fingers.
"What? Assassins outside now?"
"They are outside the Sun and they are dead. I wasn't followed and we will know who they were in due course but now what is your business?"
"Did you kill them?"
"Yes! What do you expect? If I can deal with blank paper I can deal with them. Now get to business I am a very busy man. Darkness holds many secrets for me to find."
"I was told to help the Duchess however I could if she needed it Mr. Lucky."
"Good. And what help have you brought?"
"Eh? I don't understand."
"How do you propose to help her?"
"By being helpful."
"Good. That makes it clear. For a moment I thought you were going to help her by being unhelpful."
"I'm only trying to help!"
"Look, you were really clever with your piece of paper trick tonight and I think you know I'm one of the best, but I haven't got time to play around with clever people who aren't actually helping."
"Don't you want intelligence."
"Yes of course. Have you got any?"
"No. But I will put out feelers if you want."
"Brilliant! Feelers! Just what we need." Lucky grabbed the agent by his neck. "Take a two minute walk to see those bodies opposite the Sun then come back and you can tell me who they are and who they worked for and who claims the bodies. Go!" Lucky opened the door and pushed the agent into the night.
After five minutes Lucky decided he had more important business outside the Bishop's palace where the second easy escape and entrance was. Something had probably happened by now as it was at least an hour after dark. He opened the door carefully and looked into the lane. He forgot to check at foot level and tripped over a body. It was the agent. SHIT! He stepped back into the basket-maker's and wedged the door to have a think. Who was out there with a dagger? Somebody from the Bishop's or an outsider brought in? Whoever it was knew the clerk was an agent. That pointed to good intelligence the agent wasn't stupid. He must get to Minda's side. She must be the main target. Minda's house was less than two minutes away but it seemed to take ten minutes for Lucky to dash from one corner to the next.
Flor and Lucky were another happy couple. As they ostentatiously asked at the Crown, Mitre and Castle inns looking for the Steward they were tempted to stay for ale but realised this was the first time they had planned and executed a raid on their own. Yellow whiskers on the ground came from ill-fitting doors which might open to give a mouth of light and a black tongue when somebody stood on the threshold. Flor had remembered, and Minda had checked, that they were not armed except for a small hand knife each. Now, having made sure they were not being followed, they half closed the lantern and waited hidden by the Abbey field hedge.
They smeared sooty grease on their faces. "You look like a little black sheep Lucky. With pink ears."
"You look like a chimney sweep. Phth this tastes horrible." They grinned making unintentional faces. "Shsh!" Then the giggling started. Then the crying with careful gasps, irresistible because they were trying to bottle their laughter. When the tears were wiped away white streaks made their faces funnier and it started again with aching ribs. "Those brothers are in for a shock when they see us. Two devils sent by Minda." More snorting hysterics.
"Shut up." Kfntt
"Was that you pulling my tail."
The Abbey clock started striking. They tried to sober up. "Shut up you idiot. I won't look at you if you don't look at me."
It was no use they couldn't go on. Flor gave in. "We'll come back in an hour. Jog back to the castle gatehouse with me. Come on." It was three minutes or so and they caught Minda and Mr. Bob mounted and ready to leave. "Stop! Delay." Flor explained their failure. It seemed funnier now to everyone in the gatehouse than Flor and Lucky. "I'm sorry Minda my ribs still hurt from laughing. We haven't had even a smell of ale!"
"Quick! One of you guards get two pints of beer for these worthy warriors. And one for me. Run! Will What do you think? Should we hire them for the Christmas feast entertainment."
"Oh miss. I'm not sure. That monkey on the left might be a man. There's something not quite right about him. And the other one is too big to be a chimney sweep. It is my opinion miss that they may be Turks."
"Turks! How do we tell?"
"The Saracens don't drink alcohol miss."
"Well we'll soon see. Ha! you monkey. Let's see you drink this ale." Lucky sniffed it, puckered his lips then tried a sip. In surprise he rolled his eyes. The play-acting was amusing to everyone except ... His swaying eyes unleashed Flor's hysteria again... which caused Lucky to spray a mouthful of beer which caused Minda and Bob to lean against the nearest thing with tears running down their faces. The others laughed but were not sure if these Lostnockians [ie. four friends from a strange town] had something wrong with them.
Eventually Minda called them to order. "Right! No blacking. Everyone go and wash their faces. Be back here in half an hour and we'll try again at eleven. And Lucky " she touched her ears "that means wash your ears als" but she was gasping for breath.
Flor soon knew of the capture on the heath above and Karvin was sent to retrieve Geort while he, Minda, Lucky and the captain walked on. They discussed strengths, weaknesses and possibilities.
Ferris said "Flor said you'd never wait the promised five minutes"
"No of course I didn't."
"What's the point of giving orders if they're not obeyed?"
Flor winced at the repetition. The sign of a congested or empty brain. Minda didn't like that when she was weary or run out of niceness.
"Staying alive." Flor smiled. Minda could give as little as she was given.
"Er what I meant was if I give an order I expect it to be obeyed."
"Which order was that?"
"I asked you–"
"No you didn't captain" said Flor "Minda volunteered five minutes and you accepted. You tell me the enemy that doesn't take every advantage."
After a moment's pause Minda continued "Ferris, we fight for our lives not for somebody else's money."
Lucky added "Sir. I have known these two for a day or so. In that time they have killed a strong man, saved me from possible death, exposed adultery and a corrupt official. Just now Flor let a virtual stranger ambush his most prized possession and taught you a lesson."
"The sleepy guard lesson. The one you never wake from."
Minda intervened: "Ferris. What these men are trying to tell you is that when you're with me don't go looking for trouble as it will find you."
"I don't want trouble."
"Why did Mr. Bob send you then? To learn what trouble looks like I expect. This is a practise mission. There is probably nothing real for you and your troop to guard."
Flor added. "My mission is to look after Minda. Above all else."
Lucky added. "I've been around many countries captain and these men are real steel."
"What do you want me to do? Lord Levendale warned me this trip might be a bit exciting."
"Work with me Ferris." said Minda. "I have a job to do which might involve–"
"Ahead right skyline!" called Lucky.
"Captain? Lucky? I'll wait for the troopers in the open here. Flor would you round them up?"
Lucky rode off and after a hesitation Ferris followed. Flor had hardly started back before returning. "They are lurking."
"I can't blame them. They know they're only horseshoes."
"Not our way is it miss."
"I will try to fix it Flor. I will ask you later how you got Lucky on the heath. That's something I owe you. I want my servants to be clever than me, that means they might be cleverer than the enemy."
Flor turned. "You two are the rear guard. Stay thirty paces behind. Lucky and the captain are investigating a suspicious man on the heath. Show me your swords!" They drew their swords to Flor's command. He had already learned the voice of command! Minda was thrilled.
"Who is the enemy miss?"
"I don't know. But we have made some recently."
"No Minda — You have made some and I killed one for you."
"I can't believe this is going to get worse."
"Worse? Sorry Minda."
"If Mr. Trentchard is right the forces of banditry are about to be unleashed and it's you and me against them."
"And Mr. Trentchard. And the Smiths and most of everyone else. I know where we are. There is a smithy a mile ahead. Smith Aken of Rodwell. Nearly home Flor! What's happened to Lucky and Ferris?"
"I can't believe they are in real trouble but we should find out. It could be playing games or a cast shoe." He turned "Geort! Karvin! Here!" "I want you two to ride twenty paces apart to that tree on the skyline. See what's happened to the captain and Lucky. If you need us wave both arms else we'll see you at the next village. Go!" They galloped off having completely forgotten the 'twenty paces apart' command. Flor and Minda felt their responsibilities growing. The two horsemen going up the hill to an unknown fate were not important but if there was really trouble they'd have to do something. In Flor's case it was 'get Minda safe'. In Minda's case it was tell their families they died doing their duty. Sour thoughts coughed over positive action.
"Let's get to that smithy." said Minda.
"Go!" shouted Flor. Neither knew of any danger but the oppression of unseen enemies of the town was beginning to haunt them along the skylines of the country.
They reached the village, raced up to the smithy, rolled off their horses and hurried to the safety of a wall where they could face whatever danger came. They both felt nervous for no reason. When Minda had checked there was no immediate danger she crept inside to see the smith. At last a proper village forge with all the right sounds, smells and signs of efficient industry. The smith was working a grindstone and stopped to greet his visitor.
"Oh you're the star-iron girl. Welcome."
She gave the friendship sign. "Greetings Smith Dick Aken. I'm on my way from Lostnock to Trowstead."
"Can I help you Miss? Please tie up your lovely hair." She began to scowl. "It could catch the fire or tangle in the wheel."
She realised the sense of this. "My fault smith. Sorry I should have realised." While twisting it together, it would need a lot of combing later, she was touched by his manner. "That was nice of you to say my hair was lovely Dick. Thank you." It was a shame to spoil this moment of pleasure. "If I needed armed men how soon could you rouse some?"
"Whoa! What's happened miss?"
"I don't know but there may be bad people about." The rolling thunder of hooves sent a wave of chill through her. A bow would be better than a knife. If necessary the smithy had missiles that could hurt but not cut. Had Flor got a safe post? What were her strengths. A friendly smithy to retreat into. That should keep them out for a while. As she came out Flor gave the high-low 'safe' whistle. Round the corner came Lucky, Ferris and his men.
What was going on? Ambush exercises were one thing but messing about in the rain...
Smith Jiller played the fiddle and his wife plucked the gittern. The truth of the old saying 'You can't have two fiddlers and one tune' was demonstrated each evening as Thredvald and Jiller competed in good spirit. Thredvald had found a daughter to suit and it didn't take much to see that he was happier here than at Trowstead. Minda made it clear that it was up to the men to organise their futures from now on. Thredvald and Jiller had concocted their own song about Minda. They insisted on performing it at the Watts' house on the eve of Thredvald's return to Trowstead. Mrs Jiller sang the parts of Minda and smiths wives while Thredvald took the parts of smiths she'd met and helped. At the end of the story she sadly but beautifully returns to the sky as the North Star and the last verse was about her looking down on the smiths while they tapped out the rhythm of the song on mid-winter's night to remember her. Minda patiently put up with words being put into her mouth and deeds being invented — until the last bit where she felt herself becoming — how? — Transparent. A ghost.
Delphia [Minda's pseudo sister from Trowstead she'd introduced to the Watts] couldn't keep away the tears at the glorious ending. Mrs Watts overflowed with admiration. The sons were gripped with the life force special to smiths and their luck to behold the lady herself. Pod was all of these things. Not knowing what to say, he stood up, indicated his family to do likewise then bowed most deeply to the musicians.
"Johnny, Thorese and Thredvald that was the most magical song I have ever heard."
Minda realised it was her turn to say something. She began by growling: "I shall murder you all in your beds for the outrageous things you have said about me..." then finished with a normal "...but will you do it again?"
Delphia's "The end was beautiful." was echoed by everyone. Edwin tapped out the ending rhythm with a knife on a candlestick.
Minda saw the 'meeting' smith's sign from Pod to Johnny and Thredvald. She caught his eye ready to join them but he smiled and signed her to remain.
Minda suddenly wanted to be held by the sons. She didn't know why. With nothing better to do she put thought into action. "Let me sit on you knee Cain. ...Which bit of the song did you like best?" Like all the stocky Watts family Cain would have been better-off sitting on Minda's knee. He was embarrassed of course. Especially when Minda tousled his hair and holding his chin up kissed him on the brow then hugged his head into her chest. "Are you the one to marry Delphia?"
"Ah well that's a 'mumpf' she said as releasing him and fixing the next son. "How about you little Edwin?" She was more elegant but just as strong this time.
"Another 'mumpf'. What do you reckon Delphia? Only two left. Let me tickle your lovely side-whiskers Tom." She sat on his knees and stroked his curly whiskers. As she did so the game got out of control. She looked at his simple round face, carefully combed dark curly hair and was shocked. A coat of sparks covered her and then set her alight. This was a man she wanted. Tom was ready for his 'mumpf' but Minda called to Delphi "This one's mine." as she tickled his chin to distract him while getting up and then picking him up to kiss him in a bear hug. Nobody rushed to Tom's aid. They all knew 'Don't get between a smith and his anvil'. Tom wondered what he had done to deserve this. His dreams of a dainty milkmaid smashed into sparks by the Star-iron girl. However clever and strong she might be she had the body of a rusty anvil and horse's-foot face. He looked around for support but could see he was going to be sacrificed for all of them.
Delphia caught the mood. "Minda. Can I have Cain?"
"Have whoever you like. Cain! Are you agreeable?"
"Yes mistress Star-iron girl."
Minda winced at this oafish form of words and showed her expression to Delphia who shrugged carelessly and smiled outrageously. So that was fixed.
Mrs Jiller and Mrs Watts held hands and whispered while watching Minda's honest gale of sorting out the sexes. Mrs Watts had sons and Mrs Jiller daughters and they sort-of understood each other's type was a worry in a different way. It was accepted that as they were now as good as a family by virtue of being welded by Minda, perhaps the daughters should bake cakes for the sons and the sons try to woo the daughters. Each realised that some of their anxieties were being washed away as a result of Minda's antics.
Layers of black then slate then brown then rose then white mist stretched like blankets being pulled off a sleeping river by the rising copper sun with golden streamers announcing his arrival. The two barges tied together were pulled by four men against the slow flow. Henry asked why they didn't use a horse. Because the tow path would be cut-up by hooves, it was sometimes hardly passable as it was. Where the path was too bad they poled or rowed. A horse would have to be put off and on then carried as dead weight. Men were much more flexible. The two men of facts asked about cargoes. The main one was freestone from the quarries at Willows to Lostnock. Upstream they carried an increasing amount of glass-making sand, raw iron pigs and general goods.
Henry sat with his notebook on his knees making notes of landmarks and river features. There is little space on a boat but a huge space in a landscape. He tried sketching a vista but as soon as he started on the details it became dishonest. Hmm. The geometric nesting of a wicker-hooped fish trap was much easier.
Mintern sat beside Henry enjoying a day of travel that didn't punish in so many ways. He drew Henry's attention to the illusion that objects further away appeared to be moving with them as the trees right on the banks slid behind. They discussed the real colour of the sky and how it was reflected in the water. Mintern suggested Henry should draw the V-shape of ripples following a water rat swimming to its burrow under the bank. Henry tried but all he could do was get the angle of the ripples right, the rest was lines and blobs. Mintern asked if he could borrow Henry's note case and drew a single large ripple and showed Henry that it was the way the light curved round the shoulders of the little wave that described it best. Henry could see illusion as Mintern drew it but couldn't grasp how what he thought were black ripples were actually scoops of light. Mintern drew the men pulling at the rope. It was only a sketch but he caught the strain through their posture. Henry was impressed and envious. "That's wonderful. I can measure these boats but you'd get their curves and strength and weight. I can draw geometry but not natural life."
"Practise looking at tiny details Henry. Start with the fingers of your hand. Compare mine and yours. Yours are smaller and younger than mine but how are they really different? You can always practice hands. Another good subject is geese. There's the curves to study of course but every goose has some purpose in its eye. Draw the muscles under the skin. What are they looking at and defending or attacking."
"I will try each day. You've just shown me what drawing really is."
They studied the operation of the flushing locks, how barge traffic and eel traps had to cope with each other, the way the waterway would be single between banks then break up into side branches and shoals where the barge had to be poled. Before dusk they tied-up in a little bay and walked a mile across the water meadows to a village that had the sense to be out of the river's reach on higher ground. Henry and Christopher were very satisfied. Tomorrow was Sunday but the boatmen would be on the move again. When challenged by priests about this neglectful policy the boatmen said it was the church that wanted stone for its churches, abbeys and minsters so they were only doing God's work. They emphasised that sailors depended on the weather and couldn't afford a rest day when the next week might be against them. Some of this was true, but mostly it was because they got paid by the trip not the day so sitting in church was a drain on their profits.
A low-high whistle from Minda! [They use whistle codes. In this case danger.] Brand disappeared back into the wood and crashed off away into the deep darkness. Minda was about to follow but remembered her 'stay put' order. A trotting horse could be heard coming along the track in the same direction as the pack train had come from.
Nat called as the horse came clear. "Mr. Yorrel! I've been ambushed." The horse stopped, the rider dismounted and walked his horse away from the place where Minda was hidden. Even though the sky was getting lighter she couldn't see his features under his hood, but he unsheathed his sword and was carefully searching the track and the wood edge. "It's alright he's gone."
"There were a whole gang to start with Mr. Yorrel."
"A whole gang of one man! Do you think I'm a fool Nat?"
"No sir. The string stopped and as John started again I was knocked off my horse and bound."
"Shut up! I pay you to protect my valuables not sit like a sack waiting to be carefully tied up. Thanks to your lazy stupidity I've lost a small fortune. I don't like the smell of this. And I don't like the look on your face. Innocent."
"Sam betrayed us. He just told me."
"Who told you?"
"The man who just untied me."
"Very convenient. Some nice men gently tie you up and an even nicer man unties you and shows you the way home I expect." Yorrel punched Nat in the stomach. Nat folded up, then Yorrel kicked him in the face. Minda was horrified and reached for her knife in case it became murder Six paces Nat groaned on the floor. "I've lost hundreds. Were you asleep?"
Nat groaned. "No sir. Sam betrayed us."
"You betrayed me. I don't like that Nat. Getting your cut were you from the nice man? Or are you going to tell me it was that foxy Minda that bewitched you."
"Sir! John said it was a girl."
"So John is in this plot too." Another kick at Nat kneeling on the track.
"No sir. Please sir. It was Sam."
"So there is a plot. You kick and Sam and John. You won't betray me again will you Nat?"
"No sir. Never. Nooo..." The sword smashed into Nat's head with a horrible crunch. Minda had never been this angry before. It took her a moment to force herself to focus on the shadowy face of Yorrel and calculate the best throwing position. He kicked the body of Nat with all the force he could find then wiped the blood from his sword on a tussock just four and a half paces from her. She had a perfect shot. Straight to the top of the head. She reached back half expecting Brand to grasp her wrist again. The surge of anger was over and now this was target practice. She hesitated, there were some moments to spare and this was death. Orders! Brand had stopped her killing earlier. Yorrel remounted his horse, still only eight paces. Before she could decide a bow shot twanged from her right and Yorrel clutched his throat. A second later Minda's knife sliced into his hood where she judged the ear would be. Slowly, with a sighing groan he toppled off the horse with a grunt onto the ground. Minda didn't know what to do.
"Come on miss. Let's clear up this mess and go. Get your weapon and then jump on his horse ready." She was energised with relief at having orders to obey. Shaking her knife to unwedge it from a dead man's head is unpleasant, seeing gobbits of brain in the red light of dawn is worse, but being ordered to do it makes it bearable. Brand searched him by ripping his cape for purse and anything else then jumped up behind. "Straight to the high road. Go!"
For some teams cooking took the full attention of five boys. In the Black team Arthur, Rachel and John took the role of cooks while the others fed the horses and collected firewood. Maggie asked if they should see if they had any musical instruments at the hall they could borrow. Why not? James volunteered so he jogged towards the lights of the hall and asked. There was a long wait which he put to good use by stealing a kitchen knife and persuading the butler that the King had promised them a gallon of ale as reward for being first to erect their tent. He returned with the beer, a recorder and a viol. The latter turned out to be without a bow so they experimented with plucking it and managed a couple of tunes. The recorder was fine and Maggie could soon play it fluently. Their supper of roast meat and greens in fat was enjoyed by all because it had turned out a lot better than they'd expected with the single pan provided. Arthur had seen cooking in the castle's kitchens for years so had a lot more knowledge than he knew. Afterwards they used their firewood to warm them as the Girls played. The boys sang, having trouble keeping to the clean version of the words. When it came to Arthur's turn he told them unbelievable stories and blessed them. Every one of the Black team had their arm round Arthur that evening.
Only a score of paces away Minda was happy in the dark with her arm round Lucky.
The teams were of course woken in the middle of night to help find a child-murderer known to be in the area an order that was soon cancelled as he had been found and executed. They were woken again before dawn and told their breakfast would be ready for them until nine at Slaten, a village about three miles away, but be sure not to be picked up by the patrols which were on the roads and lanes or they would go hungry. The Black team debated their strategy.
Arthur said "If I get caught then you can each save a little bit for me. Why don't I go on the road in front then wave you on if it is clear?"
James remembered Lucky's deception earlier. "I could go with Arthur disguised."
"What as? "Asked Maggie.
"I don't know. It was just a thought."
Jane said. "A good thought. Hey! Should we take the horses. They are expecting us to sneak through the woods. Why don't we just ride fast on the high road? Then they have to catch us."
"I can't ride Jane." said James.
"Nor Me." Said John.
"Yes you can!"
"If you say so but I haven't got a horse."
"Steal one said Maggie." They giggled but in a moment John had gone into the dark.
"So do we out-face them?" Asked Jane.
"Yes. It's only breakfast if we can't make it." Said Rachel.
"If we get there in style we show we are brave and not creepers through the woods." Said Maggie.
Jane said. "James. What do you think. Could you manage to sit on a horse?"
John whispered from the dark. "I have two horses."
They destroyed the fire's embers and left. Arthur sat with Jane fifty paces at the front. They found the gates open and un-manned. Arthur stopped Jane to look into the gatehouse. Nobody who had been near Minda for a week would take an empty gatehouse at face value. He jumped down and pushed the not quite shut door open. Inside it was dark but he said into where he assumed anybody would be "I know you're here." He wagged his finger in disapproval. "We're just going to breakfast."
"Oh well I tried!" Arthur turned and left feeling cheated. (He was! By three experts in the dark desperately trying not to laugh.)
Some of the teams found ways to climb the walls and others used the variously unguarded gates. By simply riding at full speed past the sentry on the road the Black team arrived at Slaten and found the inn an hour before any others. Those that made it were muddy and scratched. The Black team debated their next move. Should they hunt the others or the guards or help the guards or jeer the late-comers? Maggie asked "What would Her Grace want us to do?" This set the tone for their discussion. Every girl had a boy close and every boy felt he was being tolerated in a loving sense. Breakfast in Slaten was one of the moments they would wrap up warm and share in their memories. Apart from Arthur who took each hour as it came the Black team were swelling with astonishment at their nerve.
Arthur pointed out to John that as a horse stealer he could get hung... "But not to worry — he knew a good lawyer!" The previous time he'd used this joke everyone laughed but strangely it didn't work now. Maggie sitting next to John gave him a worried look. He held her hand a little more firmly.
It is difficult to give a fear extract because intense fear is the tip of a long spear. Just about the only thing Minda is afraid of is Owls which explains the above. Lurking situations develop insidiously over time but for Minda that's when she must be strong and deal with it. Looming crisis plays a big part in volume II.
Mr. Bob added "We protect her so she can protect us. When we sleep safely she will be drawing evil things that whisper and plot in the dark to her and away from us."
"No. Wake up smith! When smugglers child-killers rapists outlaws do their deeds in daylight then she will do the same. If the mole comes up at night the owl must wait in the moonlit tree."
"The end words of her song say that Minda watches over us in the night as the North Star does. And that's why all smiths look after her. They want to be watched-over especially in the lonely night."
"Hello gentlemen." Silks [Trusted spy known to all except Elphe.] stood in the door gap. "I'm sorry to interrupt but I wondered if Lord Levendale [Formal name for Mr. Bob.] had any news of the Duchess?"
"Who are you?" asked Mr. Bob.
"Ripetto. Chapman. Sir. Seller of fine silks cloth ribbon lace and all sorts of accoutrements for ladies. Combs, pins, baubles, purses stockings and gloves. Would her grace wish for anything then I will be happy to oblige immediately or on order for a small deposit."
"I believe she is preparing herself here due to the kindness of Smith Elphe."
"And his lovely wife and daughter who have purchased from me for years." added Silks.
Mr. Bob said "Smith Elphe. Would you enquire for this gentleman if Minda would like to see him now or at the Castle inn in a while?"
As soon as Elphe had gone Flor whispered. "They had false letters. Some code letters. I've given them to Mr. Bob. It's more than getting at Minda."
Silks replied "I know it is bigger but not what. I'll see you later at the Castle inn."
Elphe returned. "She will be with us in a minute." They silently shared the ageless resignation to the 'woman's-getting-ready-minute'. Flor had time to teach them the new carol. Ripetto listened then stood up and sang experimentally in a strange language. Then he sang with his whole body conjuring emotions into physical existence, painting hope and peace on his face. Minda, who had been patiently waiting for them to finish their choir practice from behind the unclosed door was fixed by his one-ness with the message of the carol. Ripetto saw her in the doorway and waved her to join him. She hesitated then, waving wife and daughter to follow, strode across the smithy making slow sword fighting moves with her bare hands as all she could think of to show her gracious strength in the same way as Silks had sung. Her bias-cut white gown swirled and showed her changing shapes of power: Arched, braced forward, a two handed head stab, a swinging upper cut, a sidestep and neck slash, feint and close stab, turn and step back then a flowing knot of knee-slash, twist and rise to a crushing downward shoulder blow. No swordsman could have met her without throwing his weapon away and joining her in a dance. When it ended Elphe jumped up and hammered out the song ending rhythm as Silks disappeared in a hulking embrace and demolishing kiss. Mr. Bob knew that everything he'd done for Minda, including those never-ending bone-chilling hours in the castle, was paid a hundred times over in this simple display of — er — witchcraft. Flor sighed: He'd never be able to hold a sword like Minda. Silks didn't have any say. He was picked up and stood on the anvil. Elphe just stood silently perplexed with hands on hips looking at the mayhem so Minda picked up his wife and carried her to him, kissed each in turn then left them face to face to sort it out on their own.
Daughter Juliana aged thirteen was frightened silent white. She'd never seen anyone taken by invisible devils. Minda had stretched and contorted with her eye focussed on something she couldn't see. The anticipation of preparation alternating with a visceral claw bursting from a sleeve to slash open something unseen in the red gloom. She was sure it was real. Minda who had been asking them about the eligible men in Bartonbry was now fighting their spirits. Horrible! Each man broken and discarded by something invisible — magic — evil magic! When Minda came to pick her up and kiss her she screamed to make the horrible face of the witch go away.
Even Minda took a long fraction of a second to come out of the dream world to match the source of the noise with Juliana. It took her a lot longer to let her go while trying to sooth her in a loving embrace. Juliana's hits and kicks meant nothing to Minda. Eventually she let her go and Juliana ran out through the connecting door. Everyone asked themselves 'what had just happened'. Blank looks everywhere. Minda looked helplessly and shrugged at Mrs. Elphe who hurried to find out what was wrong. They all knew Minda's 'innocent' look but this was genuine perplexion. There was silence, all their dreams had been pulled off them like children's sheets in the morning. No matter how much they wished they couldn't return to that moment. Those moments.
It was Minda's day, she had to lead. "Welcome to another brotherhood Smith Elphe. We are strange, have no name, and live our lives in this world and the next world at the same time. One day we will no longer be here and you will have to deputise and tell people how hard we looked after them. Will you do that Smith Elphe?" She didn't know what she was talking about but it felt right.
"I will miss."
"Your entrance fee is two hugs and two kisses. First me." She found he was stronger than he looked! "And now your wife." He hurried off. "Mr. Bob your fee is ... different. Sit on my knee then give me a hug and a kiss." She looked into his eyes. "You naughty man! I will find you a new wife to obey. Is that understood?"
"Will a rich widow do?"
"I just want a peaceful life."
"Well what you'll get is strength! Give me another kiss... " She gently turfed him off her lap. "Now Ripetto. You have been a member for longest but one day you will retire and I will be there to give you all I have which is just a kiss. Come and have a down payment on your pension." He submitted. "Flor. Sad and happy Flor. We are all sad and happy for a thousand reasons. You must stay the pure spirit of the present — not the past — not the possible, but this very hour. Our lives depend on every momentary breath. Your entry fee is to be beside me tomorrow." Flor couldn't think of anything to say.
"And for me? I am the spirit of the possible. My fee is so tiny it is invisible and my sorrow infinite. Somebody stop me! Stop me! I am living my own legend!"
Flor reacted by training to a threat to Minda. He wasn't sure what to do but it was his job to do it. He spoke to her face to face a foot apart. "If I kill you then you will still be a legend that lives so you're just going to have to start a new Duchess legend that makes the crops grow or something. You are the spirit of the possible. Keep going."
"Here here! Keep going Minda." shouted Mr. Bob.
Silks jumped down from his anvil pedestal and kissed her gently. "If you have trouble keeping going come to me."
"I'm having trouble keeping going this minute. I don't know where I'm going."
"The castle Minda. Let your people see you. Are you ready?"
"Hello. I am Minda the Duke's daughter. Will somebody fetch some candles and warm some cakes." Silence. "NOW!" The faces scattered like surprised mice. "The fire will keep us company if these people won't. Find some seats Flor." He dragged a bench in front of the fire and they sat on it together in silence. Noises in the gloom began to organise themselves into cake-warming and candle fixing.
Two candles! Flor got up slowly and addressed the nearest shadow softly. "That will be ten candles please. And enough warm cakes for everybody in this room. And what else can you give your mistress after her five hour journey in the snow?" He resumed his silent companionship next to Minda. Mr. Bob was tingling with excitement as Minda drove a nail through life's wood with her presence. Minda hoped getting these servants to sort themselves out was the best thing. What were they afraid of? She'd often asked this question of her enemies when probing for their weaknesses but now she had the opposite problem. Exactly eight more candles were brought and lit in silence. Flor stood up again. "Would the smallest, youngest or cheekiest servant please step forward." There was a lot of whispering but as the hiding areas in deep shadow had been reduced one frightened ten-year old boy was eventually sent into the light. Flor was trying to deal with this Minda's way. "Now then young man. Are you the smallest, the youngest or the cheekiest?" A titter came from behind the oven but the boy didn't speak.
"Flor would you be so good as to remind the oven-keeper not to burn the cakes."
"Yes miss and what's your name young man?"
"Arthur, would you do me a service?"
"Good. Would you introduce each of these servants to the Duchess for me?" Arthur was confused. "Let me show you." Flor bowed to Minda and announced Arthur. "Duchess Minda I would like to present Arthur the kitchen-boy." Turning to Arthur "See?"
Arthur disappeared, then returned pulling another small boy. He began as Flor had shown him "Duchess Minda I ... "
"Would like to present." added Flor.
"Would like to present John." Flor mimed bowing and the boys bowed.
Minda said "Thank you Arthur that was very nicely done. What do you do John?" "Please Your Grace I clean and carry."
"I'm sure you will grow up strong. You can call me 'miss'."
"Yes miss. Can I go now?"
"Could you eat a warm cake?"
"See if there are any ready and enjoy it." He raced off. Arthur looked at Flor who nodded encouragement and the next victim was brought forward. So it continued with each being sent to get their warm cake. Despite trying not to look hard into the shadows for fear of frightening the servants Minda thought she saw the cook cross herself before being introduced. Why would she do that?
Pod said "Ahem. Min. Solitary star-iron girl. Can I take you myself? I'd like to give him a piece of my mind."
"I can deal with anyone on my own Pod. It is my rule." Pod was flattened by this refusal. "It's the power of star-iron Pod."
"Yes I suppose so. Sorry Min. Star-iron. Your path is alone through the heavens."
"I am a messenger not a hammer."
Pod paused, his heart and mind swept over by this accurate finishing blow. "Daughter of all the smiths." Pod hugged Minda. "I've always been pleased that I've had four sons. But now perhaps I think different." After extracting herself from Pod's happy embrace Minda promised to join them for Sunday dinner but insisted she would meet Smith Jiller by herself. Smith Watts now knew from personal experience how star-iron was harder than the hardest and smoother than the smoothest.
Flor [trusted bodyguard] was waiting inconspicuously in the street and they walked on. He had observed Minda and Watts from a distance without concern. Seeing the sweep of her stride and happy expression — the innocent glowing happiness of a child, nobody ever saw an adult with that split and squashed face, he wanted to be a father himself.
"Let's go to young Jiller. They call him Toggy."
"Yes miss. Less than five minutes. There is a man following us in a blue coat."
"Oh good. Shall we catch him?"
"We mustn't hurt him if we do."
"Good practice eh?"
"If you say so."
"Have you a plan?"
"Yes. You see that corner? Turn right and one hundred and twenty paces brings you to Jiller's."
"Can we bring him to the smithy?"
"I'll try miss. Can I have your knife."
"Yes. Now or round the corner?"
"Round the corner." In a natural movement invisible to all but a focussed observer Minda reached into her boot scabbard, removed the knife and passed it to Flor and carried on walking as if he had never been close beside her.
"Toggy Jiller?" The smithy looked closed to ordinary business but not quite locked. A smithy unlocked by half an inch of door sticking out raised the same sort of questions as a deliberate leak in a roof. She reminded herself that this was a smith who she must treat with respect. She would have to make up her own mind not rely on jealousy and gossip. Prising the door open with her good hand she made a point of folding both doors fully back to give maximum light inside as there was nobody inside. Memories of that awful abandoned smithy at Trowstead made her cautious. Although it was obviously a smithy there were lots of things that weren't right. The floor was littered with hoop-iron. The forge was stone cold. Tools were in all orders. The anvil was covered with rusty chains. Unbelievable! She shouted "Smith Jiller! Fire! Iron! Shear and Punch!" There was no answer. Empty bottles filled the quench trough where water should be. Food bones lay in every corner. Disgusting. "Smith Jiller! White is my heat and black is my strength!" Still no answer. Scratches and blood-stains blotched the floor inside a chalked circle. "Smith Jiller! Show your strength. Show your skill. Show yourself!" Dunstin had told her that if God was angry he'd hit the world three times with his hammer. She found a long-handled four pounder hammer and smashed it with bitter rage into the chimney bricks three times each time with more disgust and venom. She arranged three hammers in a triangle on the floor each one's head lying on the haft of another then strode out still boiling with disgust.
She'd completely forgotten about Flor and the shadow. There they were watching in silence as this girl had a fit of madness, she met them. "Hello shadow. Don't be strange. We know you're following us so you might as well come along. We have nothing to hide. I think we're done here."
"He was armed miss."
"You weren't going to attack us shadow?"
"No Mistress Minda."
"Well give the shadow his weapon back."
"Yes miss". Flor handed over a dagger, a knife and a thin sword."
"A walking ironmonger! Leave the dagger at home tomorrow. Do you know how to use that sword?"
"Well we need practise don't we Flor. I usually practise once a week but I've been busy lately."
"Now you know my name is Minda. This is Flor. Shake hands Flor."
"Yes miss." An awkward moment was resolved by glances from Minda.
"Now shadow. Come with us to our final place of call the elder Jiller. Where does he trade?"
"Dumpy street miss."
"Thank you shadow. You're quite a nice shadow. Flor would you be a dear and run back to Watts to tell him I've 'Struck three' for Toggy. Then meet us at Dumpy street."
"You've 'struck three' for Toggy — Yes miss." He held out her knife, paused then tossed it spinning in the air towards Minda who caught it easily.
As Flor ran off Minda asked "Please hold my arm shadow as I'm a bit unsteady on my wooden foot. I hope you don't mind." The shadow hesitated. "Come on! I'm not going to eat you."
"Sorry miss everything is unexpected."
"Yes it is isn't it. Still we'll just have to do what they do in Araby."
"What's that miss?"
"Put up with it. Now let's get going."
"I've been here less than a week shadow — how long have you lived in the town?"
"Where did you come from?"
"What's that like shadow?"
"Just a village miss. With—"
"I would rather your hands are in sight Shadow. The veins in your neck could be slashed open in oh I don't know half a second."
"Sorry miss I wanted a handkerchief."
"You are forgiven shadow."
The shadow withdrew his handkerchief and sneezed twice into it then looked rheumy-eyed at Minda. "Sorry Miss."
"Bless you! Shadow. Let's hope it's only a cold."
"Please miss why do you care about me and my cold. I'm your enemy."
"No you're not. Someone has sent you to spy on me. That doesn't make you my enemy. You are just a servant of somebody who is afraid. They want a disposable body to make sure I'm not getting too close to their crimes." Silence. "You can come and spy on me any time you like."
"But miss that's not fair."
"What isn't?" Silence. She stopped. "In this town everyone will be my servant. If I say you will spy on me then that's what I expect you to do. Do you understand?"
"No miss. Achoo!"
"Bless you! Now this looks like a smithy. Is this Jiller's"
"Thank you shadow. Now I have private business inside. When Flor arrives make friends with him as I wouldn't like him as an enemy."
"Yes miss I'll wait."
She lowered her voice "And keep watch! Didn't you see the man with the wooden leg following us?"
The beaters and their dogs began arriving at the lane. They had maintained discipline and taken their time to be sure. They all saw Butcher and word soon spread who had performed the atrocity. Mr. Trentchard [Lord of the manor and organiser of the capture.] took the details from Brand then stood on a bank a hundred paces from the awful sight of Butcher dying in agony with his guts spread around his feet.
"Men I would like to thank you all. Each one played their part and justice has been done. Has anyone seen a burnt oak this morning?"
"Yes sir." came from at least two voices.
"Will those men please stay. The rest of you may return to your homes knowing you have done well and there will be a reward... ...But despite all our efforts the child has been killed. None of you could have prevented it. Tickling from Speal all you did was bring a dog and walk through the woods — You have done all that was asked and nobody expects more. Durrant of Westlington you came with a stick and reaping hook and walked peacefully through the woods — You have done all that was asked and nobody expects more. All of you go home and tell your families that even when all men do their best there will still be times when evil wins a round. Go home. Thank you."
Minda climbed up on the bank beside Mr. Trentchard. "Butcher is a bastard! All men are bastards! Brand is a bastard! Mr. Trentchard is a bastard! Why didn't they leave it to somebody else? We could have slept tonight and shrugged when another rape or murder happens to someone else. And you bastards — ALL OF YOU! — Who is going to take the body back to the mother?... ...I am. Now GO!"
Minda couldn't face a horrible half hour searching by the burnt oak (where the dead child is burried) . She sat outside the wood and cried in empty rage. Flor and Lucky [bodyguards] kept watch with their own thoughts. After a while Flor suggested they should go down to the Barrington road and then a wash in the river would do them good. Minda accepted — it was better than sitting here. Flor took Minda's arm while Lucky led the horses behind. She stopped.
"Come on Lucky. Take my other arm. Three is a lucky number." A tiny bit of her cloud cleared. "There is a tomorrow and we are all in it but there is worse yet today. We are going to spread bad news in the kindest way we know how. I'm going to be very angry and very tired. I'm going to need some of Lewin's special herbs when we get back and I don't want to go back to Lostnock tomorrow."
Clean cold water was good medicine for red eyes. She could see with one but cry with both. Flor took a turn to privately cleanse what could be cleansed on this dirty day. Lucky's turn came and Minda and Flor were startled by his splashing and screaming "Bastards! You're all bastards and going to die!" Then he began the most pure church singing. Neither Minda or Flor understood the words but the gentle rising and cascades of his clear voice filled their emptiness. In his cupped hands he brought stream water and splashed it on Minda's face and then Flor's. Still singing he gently made the sign of the cross directly at Minda as he would to the Virgin. Flor was nervous as Minda had a habit of sleeping on his shoulder at church in Lostnock. If she was angry Lucky would have a knife in him.
"See the virgin's tears" she said with yet more tears flowing down her face. "That was beautifully sad."
Flor chose his moment. "Minda, will I keep your knife for you today?" She was confused. "Perhaps the virgin shouldn't be carrying a bloody knife just now?"
Gradually knives, virgins, jobs to do and trust in Flor arranged themselves in a clear picture. "Here it is" She handed it over carefully. "But I need something to hold onto."
Lucky suggested a wreath of leaves. "There are plenty of berries and it could be — oh — It was fitting for the — err — occasion."
Minda's resilience showed: "Lucky, I appoint you my spiritual advisor. Go and make a wreath."
The child was brought down from the wood by a muddy and silent party. Mr. Trentchard spoke. "This body is to go back to it's Speal. Minda do you still want to come?"
"Yes. I will do my duty."
"The rest of you may come and go where you will. You have done your duty."
"Geort and Karvin! [Troopers with poor records] Will you escort the body for me?" asked Minda.
"Come here then." She spoke very quietly to them. "I want you two to clean the little girl with the water from this stream so she is presentable to her mother. I will do the same for you if you are killed in my service." They hesitated but moved off to obey. "Brand. Would you see Geort and Karvin get assistance."
"Henry. Your work has been done, you have discovered the places none of us knew exactly. Please don't come with us this time. There is no glory in unnecessary pain." He was uncertain but she'd lit the straw of his uselessness at other people's grief so he gratefully used the excuse to be the leader of cowards. Mr. Trentchard was silent. Lucky had taken Brand's place at the water's edge as the little body with her gaping neck was carefully washed.
Brand told Minda of the wound but made sure she didn't see the brutal slash. "It might be an idea to bind it with clean linen." he said.
"Good idea. Get some."
"Err — I was wondering if you had any?"
"Of course not you idiot! Men think all women go round with yards of spare cloth. Of course we don't. Go and ask your mother!"
"Sorry Minda. Just asking. I'll — err — find some somehow. Sorry."
Mr. Trentchard intervened "Will my shirt do?"
This contains the key message of volume I
It was obvious to Minda from the green that Smith Brawter was a man of energy and commerce. He had painted the smithy and hung examples of his work above the door. A coulter, ploughshare, bolts of various sizes, horseshoes of course and a knife that looked quite a bit like hers. The usual smithy-crowd were gossiping away as the smith got round to their jobs and quite while after he'd finished as well. When two well-dressed young ladies rode into this arena the loafers stood back.
"Excuse me Delphia I have to say hello to my brother."
"All smiths are 'brothers'. I'm a brother."
"You are as daft as a bag of down Minda." They dismounted into the throng of curious labourers, servants and old men who could just about be trusted to take a horse to be shoed or some tools to be sharpened and hardened. Delphia took her confidence from Minda's outrageous lead. "We are the red-hot rivets from Trowstead smith Brawter ordered." He heard the jest and passed Minda and Delphia over to his wife in the cottage next door. The pleasure was mutual "Katey!" "Minda!" Delphia was introduced to a smiling Katey There was no doubt things were turning out alright for the Brawter family. They were soon enjoying warmed cakes, there was always a place to warm cakes or ale in a working smithy. Delphia explained they had come on a chance before the winter made the roads difficult.
Minda described Lostnock and then spoke about the smiths. "I have bad news and good news. Toggy Jiller was struck three times and then in a rage tried to kill me. He died."
Smith Brawter asked. "Who struck him?"
"Me. It was horrible." There was a sudden silence. She looked at the ground.
"You have done right for us and I'm sure you had good reason. Brave girl."
"And the good news is that now the poison is removed the smiths are true brothers again. Smith Jiller has three daughters and Smith Watts four sons. Jiller is very very skilled but Watts has most of the business with three hearths and a cast furnace and is rising in society. I'm going to take Delphia to stay with them."
Katey said "You are the smith's marriage fairy Minda."
Delphia added "Not only smiths."
Good news travels fast among urchins and it wasn't long before Minda and Delphia saw the amazing sight of half a dozen barefoot girls with eye-patches and wooden swords fighting barefoot boy lions with charcoal whiskers in tatty, disgracefully shaggy discarded coats. Delphia was delighted. Minda was unsettled by a phenomenon getting out of control. Katey told them that the children had given the lion the name 'Ilon'. Half 'Iron' and half 'Lion' perhaps. The slower of the loafers had the spectacle explained to them.
A little boy in a huge brown coat dragging on the ground and sleeves that hid his hands came up to Minda and with a coy smile roared provocatively. His attempt to frighten Minda with his squeaky voiced didn't sound very fierce but by convention Minda had to react accordingly. Only Delphia knew Minda had never been closer to a lion than a picture in a book, and the lion in it looked like a dirty yellow sheep with a funny tail. Some of the Ilons were barking and spitting and some meowing and growling. With a shock Toggy Jiller's roar as he attacked her came back. He would serve her now. She strode over to the men waiting for Smith Brawter to resume work. "Does anyone know what a real lion's roar is like?" Nobody volunteered. "What does a groaning mill wheel sound like? Come on my girl's voice can't do a good roar. You! Go on have a go." Her victim made a weedy groan and the others smirked. "Right we'll take it in turn. Start with you on the left." Everyone had a go and began to put an effort into it. "Good. Now again with a laden waggon rumbling over ruts. Lots of rumbling." Finally she commanded them to add some rage. This was only partially successful. She was about to thank them and pick one to show the children when Smith Brawter made her jump as he stood right behind her and bellowed and gargled and rumbled in a tempest of rage. This time she really was scared. The village stopped for a moment, two horses reared and the others needed calming down. "Now we all know what a lion sounds like."
After the tradition of rides for the children Minda said farewell. "You really made me shake with that roar Smith Brawter. Shall I call you Ilon?"
He gave a quiet growl. "I will be proud to have a name given by the Star-iron girl herself."
At the top of the hall by the dias Jane and Rachel appeared together in road clothes with their hair pinned-up. They shaded their eyes to look at the other end of the hall to draw attention to the Taylor brothers now in expensive finery standing arm in arm and miming a discussion. Maggie started a gentle tremolo on a cello that soon quietened the audience and filled the hall with expectation. All attention focussed on the arena.
The boys slowly walked towards the girls completely engrossed between themselves in arm strokes, hand emphasis and other body language about something. The girls, full of high spirits, mimed picking the boys out for themselves, then most amusingly arguing about who should have which boy. Suddenly they decided to go on the offensive and deal face to face with the boys who by now were innocently only seven paces away before they realised. Maggie's tremolo stopped with a sting. The situation turned from an afternoon walk into a battle of the sexes. Now Maggie resumed by bowing more urgently as two boys and two girls eyed each other up and checked amongst themselves. Maggie drew a sharp alarm. All four had their Avel knives pulled from their Avel boots. Each of the dancers took it in turns to show-off their weapon as an extension of themselves to the audience with enough flowing body language to tell of a thousand muscles and a single aim. The girls tossed their knives with one loop. The boys answered in kind. The girls tossed with two loops. After looking at each other to check they were still in the game, the boys answered with a two-loop toss. The girls looked at the audience for inspiration then, in complete silence, undid their pins and shook their long hair free. Now with smiles, the sort that brought and sold empires, they agreed and tossed their knives with four! yes four! turns. Mighty applause!
John was very proud of the next bit. The boys had sheathed their knives in their boots while all eyes had been on the girls. When it was the boy's turn to do four-turn tosses they held their empty hands up in despair. While the audience's attention was fixed on the empty-handed boys, wondering where their knives had gone, the girl's knives vanished back into their boots also. Now the girls advanced with deliberate menace, miming two-handed sword fighting. At Bartonbry they had wondered at the miming of sword fighting and found it fun and um something more. The excitement of a boy and a girl trying a stab, getting a fraction of a second embrace before being thrown away was was something only those that have done it could say. Foe leading you into a dance. Absolute concentration to see she wasn't hurt. Careful signalling so he wasn't surprised. Maximum balance so her trajectory was smooth. Minimum distraction so he didn't panic. Tissues of grace cloaking determination.
The girls slashed together. The boys received by evasion. The girls swerved to slash across the back shoulder but the boys blocked. At each blow Al beat a drum. Maggie bowed according to the strokes but nobody was consciously listening. Sometimes the couples would sway together, sometimes in a mirror, emphasising their reach or need for contortion ready for the next wave. They went through all their repertoire of sword fighting moves with the addition of a humourous 'kiss my hand', cleverly signalled to the audience by the girls, before returning to the sword-school routines turned into ballet.
The boys pushed the girls away, agreed between them that death was better than surrender. They mimed stabbing themselves in the heart then slowly sank to their knees. Aghast the girls raced to catch them and cradle them in their laps. In their dying moments the boys tried to present the girls with battered paper roses. The girls sank over them in a final kiss.
The stillness that filled the hall was recalled for years but never lived again. Maggie strummed a handful of romantic chords on a lute. The audience took more than a second to realise the dream was over and reconnect with their now-selves. They applauded and cheered from their hearts. In the middle the girls remained still crouched over the boys as statues in the candle-light. Something unexpected unmoving in the middle of the hall. A rock for the uproar to break on. Something waiting for a spell to be released. The noise died down in expectation. Maggie gave the spell with three 'finish' chords on the lute that faded away into renewed silence. John and James stood up with their arms round Rachel and Jane then bowed to the Duke then the two sides of the audience. They were heroes. Heroes in the wars of love. At this moment of triumph Al started by putting an arm around a silent shaking Maggie but ended lifting her off the ground and crying "How do you do it!" He kissed her.
"Make your announcement Al!"
"Oh yes. Sorry Maggie."
Flor rode beside Minda "I'm sorry to make
you suffer just now. It was only after we'd set the plan I remembered
last New year's eve ended in tragedy."
"I'd forgotten too. Then I was chasing butterflies. Now everyone is chasing me. I'm the star they're following."
"I remember your New year's wish as we rode back like this last year. You didn't want to grow up."
"And you wanted me to stay alive so I could grow up."
"It's only eleven o'clock. You don't have to wish yet."
"I know when you're hinting Flor. As I trust you with my life so I must follow your hints. Thank you Flor. We have grown up haven't we."
"It's too soon to judge yet. Here we are. We have to wait a minute."
"Why?" Little Arthur was there to meet them. "Oh my goodness I feel faint! My slapzooles are shook up and I think I'm going down with the Blue dib-dabs."
"I shall cure your Dib-dabs red blue or yellow whatever colour with a few spanks on your behind!"
"Have mercy Your Grace on a poor kitchen boy with strangulated knees!"
"Aha! Strangulated knees I know the cure for that young man."
"Bless you lady. You're a saint."
"Chop your legs off and they won't bother you again." Arthur said "Please Minda it's good to see you being clever and patient. May I welcome you to your lovely town house. See the ribbons hung over the doors."
"Oh yes. Can I come in to my own house now?" Minda knew when to relent from a fierce facade.
"Only if you're blindfolded. It's orders miss!"
"That would be telling." Flor added "You've got an hour left not to grow up. Let's play Blind Man's buff." Minda had no option but to leave her hard-won business-woman self at the door and join the game her servants had prepared. It was new year's eve so why not!
Inside Minda could hear lots of little bells tinkling and
rattling. Arthur must have led her into the main hall. There was
deliberate whsh-whis-whsh whispering of what sounded like at least a
dozen people to go with the bells. What were they going to present her
with. Why the bells? Now there was only one little tinkling. She had no
choice but to head towards it. Someone took her outstretched hand. Low
down... A woman or child? Arthur said "Who is this Minda?" Minda didn't
know so she felt. A woman definitely. Who? None of the black team girls.
Not Doreen. "Speak! Where do you come from?" According to the rules a
voice could be disguised and although the answer had to be true it
didn't have to be lucid. "By the river" said a woman's voice trying to
be gruff." It was a common Lanconian voice which gave the game away.
"Tallya!" Tallya was picked up and kissed. "You've come to mother your Ravens. My joy!" She turned round to where she supposed Flor and lucky and her other scheming servants were. "What a lovely surprise." Another bell started ringing. "Oh Louis! How brave of you to come in the winter." She found the ringer of the bell and felt him. It was a man with a beard !
"You've grown a beard Louis! A girlish voice replied "I had this beard when you met me." Unmistakably a high-class accent despite the disguise.
"You're not Louis?"
"No." She felt all round him but was still lost. "Speak in your true voice."
"May I have the second dance."
"Tomkit! What Tomkit! I'm so honoured. You want to dance with me! She held him and tried a twirl but nearly overbalanced by being blindfolded. He held her up. "Is your wife with you?"
"That would be telling." Another bell clinked very precisely. This must be Tomkit's wife. Or Louis? Anyway the game must go on. She approached the bell cautiously. Strange! It was high up. She reached up for the bell and found two hairy wrists she knew instantly. From arms to face in a fraction of a second. Lips together. White pleasure flame. Oh oh oh it was too much pleasure. Him! Her scheming servants. A white sky packed full of stars. Flying! It was better being blindfolded, she was so happy with no distractions. Eventually she whispered to him "I'm the ugly one. You can have my blindfold if you need it. Will you undo it for me?" After Arthur mimed the action and the Duke of Troctenburg understood.
Minda had her arm round Luvien. Blinking in the light she saw this end of the room full of people. Tallya and Louis holding hands. Tomkit was in a threesome with Al and Jed. No queen? There was an old lady hovering behind Luvien who she didn't recognise. "My mother" said Luvien. Minda greeted her in British but felt mis-trust. The Ravens in their immaculate grey suits stood respectfully behind Louis and Tallya. Her close household servants were in the light with Arthur properly restrained by Lizzie. In the shadows were many more faces... all happy servants, guards and cooks and servers. Nothing had been said for some time. Minda didn't know if she should speak for herself or prompt Luvien for both of them. She compromised by stroking his back while trying to remember the names of the servants in the shadows. The fact they had been invited to this marriage was significant even if she hadn't got time to get to the bottom of it. "It's soon the new year. I have the wish I dare not make come true already. I will come and kiss you all as you make yours. This is Luvien Duke of Troctenburg from Lanconia. He will give you ladies a kiss too. You are to trust him as you do me but woe betide any hussy who smiles with her eyelashes! He's mine!"
Despite Mister Hasty saying it would be alright, they dare not ask at a manor for help as they needed to be mounted and ready to escape if there was a general reward for their capture. The stealing of horses, even if payment was left, was still stealing. John and James were the acknowledged thieves of the Black Team but for the first time in their lives they found the act of stealing criminal rather than clever. Stealing six horses would not remain secret for more than a few minutes. They calculated that they must stay ahead of pursuit by an hour to be safe. That meant the news of the first theft mustn't get about before an hour and then when they changed horses in the next suitable town they needed to be half an hour away from any unsuspecting enemies. They would just have to risk it. Luckily they knew that there was a legend of the Black Team floating about and a few knife-throws would convince the victims to keep quiet for an hour. James handed a small gold coin over as well, but he suspected that any such payment would be denied. The cool scents of the dewy dawn captured James. This was lovely quiet productive country just a day's ride from Arlesene. He could settle here with Helen.
The Black Team were on a lovely training exercise full of problems requiring coordination and cooperation. Maggie passed on Jane's warning and they took it in turns to watch Hasty. They had three opportunities to re-hire horses without a minute's delay while the others collected supplies and falsely answered the inevitable questions. They had clear summer roads with speed to help them keep out of trouble. They had their training to spot dangerous places and deal with ambushes. Mister Hasty complained of tiredness and couldn't they rest? Maggie insisted they continued and he seemed to manage. They would arrive at the gates of Arlesene before dusk to camp at the Duke's town house or why not the King's castle? As everyone would hear rumour of their arrival anyway there was no point in making a secret of it. John had an idea. He and Maggie raced to the Duke's castle and recruited four youngsters and four older servants to appear as something other than servants and join them on horses as if they were the full party that had left yesterday. Maggie was seduced by the magic of Arlesene. Hadn't Jane and Rachel invited themselves into the Briton King's castle! She would try the same.
At the town gate when the escapees from Saules joined the false members from the Duke's castle Maggie instructed them to gallop as fast as they could straight to the King's castle instead of the Duke's townhouse. James and Al knew the way so follow them. She and Rachel would bring up the rear. Hasty would start the negotiations at the gate. Everyone would smile!
They didn't have much delay at the gatehouse but the guards were alert. Maggie instructed everyone to dismount and lay every weapon on the ground. The dust of the road vouched for their story of a day's riding. At the inner gate Maggie instructed everyone to sit down with back against the castle wall and rest. She demanded water or wine from the guard while Hasty was being dealt with by official challenges. Hasty called to James and left the others outside. Strangely Maggie still had her knife! But her smile was more powerful and it was less than five minutes before wine was brought and two minutes later iced water! Either somebody had learned lessons of hospitality from Bartonbry or they were being made to wait for a properly respectful reception.
During the next half hour Rachel
stood up to stay awake and the others who had done the whole distance
fell asleep leaning against the stone walls warmed by the setting sun.
The Queen herself came out to see the sleeping army from Briton.
"Servant. Fetch my minstrels! I want them to see this. Who is protecting
my kingdom best? These stone walls or the sleepers laid against them."
Rachel replied "Your highness your walls never sleep."
"But my walls don't fight!" Rachel walked slowly towards the Queen and without the slightest ceremony in the most natural way they embraced. In her tiredness half of Rachel was playing a game and the other half was following the easiest course. Rachel whispered "Our commander is asleep over there at the end."
"She's a worthy commander and you are a worthy guard. Is that Jane?"
"No my lady. Jane has continued with Johnas and Helen to Orfleur to rouse the Duke. I hope they're alright as our enemies know that route. Oh! Please that's a secret."
"Your Jane is doing the brave things a general must do A fine example to our other Earls."
At the top of the hall by the dias Jane and Rachel appeared together in road clothes with their hair pinned-up. They shaded their eyes to look at the other end of the hall to draw attention to the Taylor brothers now in expensive finery standing arm in arm and miming a discussion. Maggie started a gentle tremolo on a cello that soon quietened the audience and filled the hall with expectation. All attention focussed on the arena.
The boys slowly walked towards the girls completely engrossed between themselves in arm strokes, nodding heads, hand emphasis and other body language about something. The girls, full of high spirits, mimed picking the boys out for themselves, then most amusingly arguing about who should have which boy. Suddenly they decided to go on the offensive and deal face to face with the boys who by now were innocently only seven paces away before they realised. Maggie's tremolo stopped with a sting. The situation turned from an afternoon walk into a battle of the sexes. Now Maggie resumed by bowing more urgently as two boys and two girls eyed each other up and checked amongst themselves. Maggie drew a sharp alarm. All four had their Avel swords pulled from their Avel boots. Each of the dancers took a turn to show-off their weapon as an extension of themselves to the audience with enough flowing body language to tell of a thousand muscles and a single aim. The girls tossed their knives with one loop. The boys answered in kind. The girls tossed with two loops. After looking at each other to check they were still in the game, the boys answered with a two-loop toss. The girls looked at the audience for inspiration then, in complete silence, undid their pins and shook their long hair free. Now with smiles, the sort that brought and sold empires, they agreed and tossed their knives with four! yes four! turns. Mighty applause!
John was very proud of the next bit. The boys had hidden their knives back in their boots while all eyes had been on the girls. When it was the boy's turn to do toss they held their empty hands up in despair. While the audience's attention was fixed on the suddenly empty-handed boys sharing their defeat with the audience, the girl's knives vanished back into their boots also. Now the girls advanced with deliberate menace, miming two-handed sword fighting. At Bartonbry they had wondered at the pretend sword fighting and found it fun and more. The excitement of a boy and a girl trying a stab, getting a fraction of a second embrace before being thrown away was something only those that have done it could say. Foe leading you into a dance. Absolute concentration to see she wasn't hurt. Careful signalling so he wasn't surprised. Maximum balance so her trajectory was smooth. Minimum distraction so he didn't panic. Tissues of grace cloaking determination.
The girls slashed together. The boys received by evasion. The girls swerved to slash across the back shoulder but the boys blocked. At each blow Al beat a drum. Maggie bowed according to the strokes but nobody was consciously listening. Sometimes the couples would sway together, sometimes in a mirror, emphasising their reach or need for contortion ready for the next wave. They went through all their repertoire of sword fighting moves with the addition of a humourous 'kiss my hand', cleverly signalled to the audience by the girls, before returning to the sword-school routines turned into ballet.
The boys pushed the girls away, agreed between them that death was better than surrender. They mimed stabbing themselves in the heart then slowly sank to their knees. Aghast the girls raced to catch them and cradle them in their laps. In their dying moments the boys tried to present the girls with battered paper roses. The girls sank over them in a final kiss.
The stillness that filled the hall was recalled for years but never lived again. Maggie strummed a handful of romantic chords on a lute. The audience took more than a second to realise the dream was over and reconnect with their now-selves. They applauded and cheered from their hearts. In the middle the girls remained still crouched over the boys as statues in the candle-light. Something unexpected unmoving in the middle of the hall. A rock for the uproar to break on. Something waiting for a spell to be released. The noise died down in expectation. Maggie gave the spell with three 'finish' chords on the lute that faded away into renewed silence. John and James stood up with their arms round Rachel and Jane then bowed to the Duke then the two sides of the audience. They were heroes. Heroes in the wars of love.
At this moment of triumph Al started by putting an arm around a silent shaking Maggie but ended lifting her off the ground and crying "How do you do it!" He kissed her.
"Make your announcement Al!"
"Oh yes. Sorry Maggie." Al strode into the arena of confusion as he'd practised in his mind. Confusion was good! You stood a much better chance of deceiving people so the team had told him. He launched into his prepared speech, but this time he was overflowing with the arm gestures and empathy with the audience that marks a brilliant speaker. "Duke, ladies and gentlemen. Was that not a moment to remember?" He paused. "The Black Team thank you for your patience in their games. People tell us we are too young for war and too young for love. We bring you neither. We bring peace and trust and I lied " he had practised this pause a score of times "We bring the love of us, our Lady the Duchess of Avel and our kingdom to you." The team bowed to the audience, to get a chorus of approval and applause, finishing up with the Duke. The hall was filled with more magical silence.
Hundreds of years ago, before Christ walked on God's earth, and hundreds of years before that, the king of the northern gods Votain had a one-eyed daughter who made music by hammering on an anvil, spun thread from sparks, embroidered chain mail and wove with strands of red-hot iron. Can you guess her name children mine? It was Minden. All the brave young gods brought her gifts hoping to win her heart and she would kiss them and thank them and wish them a safe journey home. They were sad to be sent away after meeting such a strong girl with golden hair and between ourselves children she was saucy! Just what every young god likes. She too was sad but she knew it was her doom to turn them away or her forge would vanish into a pile of grey ashes and be blown away on the wind. The lives of the gods are not all wine and sweet-cakes children.
One day Minden was wandering in melancholy solitude beside a big lake called Urdarbran and found a basket with three baby girls in it. "Hurrah"' she cried. "At last I have children." She ran home with them and kept them in a warm cradle next to her forge. They were magic children so they soon grew strong and healthy. She called them Janet, Ranet and Manet. In no time at all they had grown into young women so fair I can hardly describe them without weeping. There was black-haired Janet who was always watching for strangers from the forge entrance. There was chestnut-haired Ranet who teased the servants, and there was straw-haired Manet who watched the other two and hardly said anything. When the girls had grown into women Minden said "You cannot stay pining with me, you must go out into the world. I will give each of you a piece of magic iron to watch over men for me." Long and hard Minden worked to make three wondrous tools each made from a whole piece of star-iron. "Janet I will send you to watch from the highest mountains. You are to travel far to see the doings of all men and find the bravest and the strongest and bring them to me. I have forged you a horseshoe which will take you fifty leagues in a day." Dutifully Janet put up her black hair and left with many a little tear. "Ranet here is a knife. Each time you use it the edge will get sharper. If you see men squabbling you are to show them their reflections in the blade while they dream and they will see slaughter and maybe also see sense. Go now my wise Ranet and defend us all from the butchers." Dutifully Ranet put up her chestnut hair and left with many a little tear. "Manet take this needle. It has three powers. Firstly if floated on water it will point the way home to a mother's arms. Secondly, looking through a teardrop placed in the needle's eye will show the smallest sorrow that it may be dealt with. Thirdly it is a needle for sewing with any thread even the threads of men's lives." Dutifully Manet put up her straw hair and left with many a little tear.
So now my dears Janet, Ranet and Manet were wandering the world looking for brave, wayward and needy men as they had been told and poor Minden was all alone again. One day Minden climbed the lonely peak of Vallenberd, so high its top is always covered in clouds. There she found three baby boys wrapped warm in eagle feathers.
"Hurrah"' she cried. "I have children again." She ran home with them and kept them in the warm cradle by her forge. They were magic children so they soon grew strong and healthy. She called them Reven, Korpen and Fisken. In no time at all they had grown into young men wanting to leave and see the world for themselves. But unlike the girls, Reven, Korpen and Fisken were as ordinary and unthinking as any peasant. They were strong and dutiful but knew nothing. Minden was at a loss what to do. She could make girls into women of the world but these boys were oxen whatever she tried. They could blow her bellows, lift the trip-hammer and swing her grindstone but knowledge was morning mist under the sun's fire for these boys What do you think she did my children?
She went to see the King of the imps. Now this king was always joking and teasing and laughing. He could turn the world upside down and make it seem the right way up. He could point at a man so that everyone would laugh at him. My children, if you saw him going to battle he would be in his silk suit and fop-hat waving a wooden sword that had conquered the King of Briton. Have you guessed the name of this magical fellow yet children?
"Arthur!" called the Black Team. "Est sσlo uno!"
Mister Jim knew he had reached that moment story-tellers dream of, second only to 'tell it again'. "Shall we say goodnight? Or do you want me to continue?"
"Carry on!" Came the insistent reply from them all.
Jane said "Please carry on Mister Jim. I want to know what happens to Janet I hope it's something nice." "It was a long long time ago Jane. When wolves the size of thunderstorms were drowned in rivers flowing with knives. Blood-red cloud wrack rained arrows. Witches and warriors fought inside egg-shells. Ants built roads in a night for the ghosts of animals to pass along to their spirit-moots. The world was in turmoil as the spite of gods left nothing that wasn't torn, battered or burnt." A nudge and mime from Jane to Joe and more wine was brought.
Mister Jim continued. So as I have said, Minden went to see this imp Arthur he waited for the usual response then continued in his magnificent palace of a pig sty."
She told him her problem. "My three boys have no spirit. What shall I do?"
"Minden" he said "If you will read a story with me tonight then I will tell you the first one." The bargain was agreed so Minden and Arthur read a story together about a deserted castle full of ghosts that men and women came to and drove the ghosts out. In return Arthur gave Minden a walnut shell with the spirit of a fox inside it.
"Forge this into a ring and when Reven wears it he will be quick, clever and devious."
"Thank you King of the imps. Then I shall send him to help Ranet." So it came to pass. Reven kissed Minden then strode into the dawn without looking back.
The second bargain was the same as the first but Minden had to let him have a golden dagger also. They read a story together of an old king with two heads that argued with each other. None of the noble courtiers would volunteer to cut off one or the other heads so the arguing continued and the kingdom decayed. One day a blacksmith came over the mountains and got the King to put both his heads on the anvil and beat them together. Arthur gave her a purse of thistledown with the spirit of a raven in it.
"Forge this into a ring and when Korpen wears it he will be a messenger who spies the land and is known everywhere."
"Thank you King of the imps. Then I shall send him to help Janet." So it came to pass. Korpen kissed Minden then strode into the dawn without looking back.
The third bargain was different. "Now we have read two stories we must write one. Each year at mid-winter we will write a story about Janet, Ranet, Manet, Reven, Korpen and Fisken. We will get our three chamberlains to help us. Mister Bob to check the facts. Mister Chris to draw the pictures and Mister Jim to see we have told the story as stories must be told. The third bargain was agreed. Minden added a kiss from her and in honour of this kiss Arthur gave her his immortality.
"Wasn't that a strange side-bargain children mine? Minden's kiss in exchange for Arthur's immortality! Shall I tell you?"
"Yes!" they called.
"For her, a kiss was the only valuable thing she had. For him, he'd never had to confront death. What difference would being mortal make? If it meant he died so what then? Another day would no doubt come tomorrow."
Arthur gave her a blank sheet of paper with the spirit of a cuttlefish in it (Interrupted, Mister Jim explained what a cuttlefish was to the Britons and how it would change colour to suit the different colours of the seabed and confuse its enemies or sneak up on its prey.) "Forge this into a ring and when Fisken wears it he will be able to vanish or appear, deceive or confuse. "Thank you King of the imps. Then I shall send him to help Manet." So it came to pass. Fisken kissed Minden then strode into the dawn without looking back.
Now do you see children mine that these magic children had gone out into the world and again Minden was all alone. She and Arthur often wondered together where the three boys and three girls had got to. Even though Minden knew she was now immortal she wondered if she would ever see these precious children again. Even though he was now mortal Little Arthur, the King of the imps who had 'there is only one' on his banner knew he would play games with them all again. "And for now that is as far as the story goes children mine. There will be more."
They applauded Mister Jim. There were many compliments and questions. Jane collected them all together. "Mister Jim, you have a little bit of Arthur's spirit in you. Enough to make us love you forever. Enough to wish you peace wherever you go. Enough to weave for us what we can't weave ourselves. You told of Mister Bob and Mister Chris. They served gently and steadily. You deserve to be with them."
Without prompting by Jane, Joe said "Mister Jim. I am the luckiest person alive tonight. One day I will be in your legend as the wooden carving that comes alive with a spirit brought by these Britons. If the three boys in your story can be given a spirit then so can I."
For the next two hour of situation reports and rumours Rachel never changed her chin-on-hands pose. This was aggravating to the men. Her eyes and sometimes smile followed them but this was unnatural. Minda was thrilled by this innocent taunting. 'I am the winter you won't live through and I have put you on my special list to play with whips of hot ice!' Further thought led Minda to the conclusion that Rachel didn't have a particular objective and was just doing her best to be a lioness looking over the deer ready to catch any weakling.
Minda gave her speech to the effect that there were still so many threats to peace. Even the King's son and daughter-in-law were still being held for ransom by pirates. She had cried these threats aloud but few seemed able to render real assistance. The few that had, she named Lord Weston, and Lord Callabarne as examples had spent say a couple of months hard at work and didn't seem to have suffered. She knew many were at court doing useful things but a really efficient Melbun was no use if bad things she wouldn't name but others at the council knew, should happen. "We must have men out where it matters. Business can't thrive if there is piracy, outlawry, invasion and smuggling. War costs a fortune. We must spend a much smaller fortune on seeing that war doesn't happen. Is the church willing to support the kingdom? I don't like the idea of murderous leeches Especially when we need to be defending our borders."
The Archbishop rose straight to bait. "The church is not poisonous and we don't go murdering! That's a grave insult."
Rachel said "Xavier has the true account of the Bishop of Fischester's murdering."
Xavier realised he was supposed to fill in. "A great deal of roguery, unlawfulness and in a particular case a good agent of mine found he was directly complicit in murder. He was swiftly executed by the King's servants."
Rachel said "Have you any reason to defend rogue Bishops like him?" The Archbishop hesitated. "Think carefully for Xavier's agent who risked his life to do the King's justice was a good friend of mine."
"I have heard a different story." The Archbishop foolishly paused.
"Oh that's alright then. For a minute I thought you might be trying to shelter criminals. Please carry on." By the look on her face Rachel had lost interest in the matter. The spectators were thrilled at this war of blatant untruths. The King grinned down at the Archbishop.
"I object! It's not fair. The church is against murder but there are proper procedures and limits. You can't walk into any church and murder a bishop without a legal trial."
"Do you recall what happened to your predecessor Thomas?"
"You ordered his son to murder him at your table."
"What lesson might you learn from that?"
"Um. You're threatening me."
"Yes I am. You will give a public reward of fifty pounds to my servants who saved you from a great deal of embarrassment. And there will be no more nonsense of Minda being anathema. Show me the letter you'll be sending to the Pope confirming that he is no longer your lord by dusk tonight. If you don't it will be written tomorrow by the next archbishop of Melbun. What do you think of Abbot Andrew?"
"I will have to have a council. I am a spokesman of brother bishops not a ruler of them."
"And what do you think of Abbot Andrew? Bare feet That's a good touch don't you think." The whole council knew the archbishop was being harried for sport. It was good sport.
Rachel sounded bored. "Your Highness I need money for troops and forts. I think he can find money easily and if it pleases you Sir I will undertake to burn any Abbey or cathedral that won't acknowledge you as lord before the Pope. I haven't got time for politics and excuses. I need money. The Kingdom needs that money." This was more sport. "I have rested two days of idleness. Two more days the Kingdom is left undefended. Tomorrow I will be heading east and north but I won't be ready. What can one girl do Archbishop?" Another impossible to answer question to delight the onlookers! "How much can you give Archbishop?"
In the thrilling moment of shared victory only Minda, James and Brand knew the pattern of bullying a victim to trap the crowd. Rachel sat up as if waking from sleep and let her hands lay flat on the table. "And how much can each one of you give?" Waves of disbelief flooded the room. The chill of suddenly being the quarry. The warm wave of admiration for luring everyone into her trap. The chill of being caught. The chill crashing wave of wondering what the cost would be. The warmth of being in the same net as all the others. The foam of confusion of being asked one of her questions with no right answer. Minda and Brand held hands. James smiled across at Rachel but she was intent on smiling at, and making eye-contact with, the gaps between the councillors. John had taught them that. Everyone assumes you're smiling at them specially without having to accept their gaze.
Maggie sat her men down, got everyone to give their names and tell what weapon they preferred. Then she went round again with what non-fighting role they preferred cook, carter, scout, horse-man, intelligencer, general labourer and so on. After this round she asked everyone who knew what an intelligencer was to put their hand up. No response. "I know how to use all those weapons. You five stand up and face the others. Now Dick The first man I shot the arrow went in here." She touched him just behind the eye. "The second went in through his left eye Hal. Next Will! No armour, no mail I went for his heart Here. Simon you stand in for Lord Ruswell." Maggie stepped back three paces then took her Avel knife from her boot and showed how it flew into Simon's forehead. "Kenton you stand in for Lady Ruswell who had used a crossbow to injure Rachel." She swept her knife slowly up into Kenton's belly then faced the men." my arm went right in up to the elbow. Now I also know how to cook, swear, gamble, ride, and a hundred things you need to know before I will be happy. While you're with me I will have absolute obedience. I fight to win. I train to fight. Two weeks ago I was dining with the King and Queen. Two weeks before that with the King and Queen of Lanconia a day after murdering a courtier after I cut his balls off to hear him scream. Here is the deal. I will forgive stupidity once. I will always forgive mistakes and ignorance but I will never forgive laziness or pretending. If you've made a mistake then own up if you don't then I may be tired and need some chopping-up-men practice. Do you all understand?" There were nods and murmurs of agreement. "So who would like to own up to not knowing what an intelligencer is?" Everyone put their hand up. "Good. Now listen as this is very important. If you don't understand something I say or you think it is wrong then you must speak up there and then. When it comes to battle there is no time for second thoughts."
Al had practised gentlemanly combat at Melbun. Being son of the Ambassador-at-home he was used to tournaments for young nobles. Mostly it was the art and show of hand-to-hand fighting rather than the brute force and knock-out blows that counted. His weeks with the Black Team in Lanconia had shown him a more practical side to being ready to fight and training others to protect you. He knew the expert was Rachel so asked her for advice.
"They must want to do what you want them to do. That is the secret."
"First tell them what you want them to do. Do you know?"
"So make a list Keep it really simple. More simple than simple."
"Tell them who you are and you were dining with the King of Lanconia last month."
"And our King of course."
"You can let them know you take that for granted. Ted! You're on familiar first name terms!"
"But I'm not Oh I see. Very clever."
"You can lie to them but they must never lie or 'forget' or be lazy to you. All I want you to do Al is keep them out of trouble. I'll try to keep an eye on you and them. Er Would you mind if I was to catch them one day and blame you for all their faults? It may not be needed but you saw at Arlesene what I expect of guards. You did well on the road to Arlesene too but this will be tougher."
"Why will it be tougher Rachel?"
"Because it's meant to be tough so we learn more. For us being good isn't good enough. We have to be better than the best."
assassin had been easily proved to be carrying two assassin's tools.
Harzel hadn't learned the lesson from his interrogation by Rachel that
the prisoner needs some hope. Bullying didn't work but when Jane pointed
out that if she was to order his release onto the streets of Arlesene his
life expectancy would be measured in minutes he gradually understood
there were some options that might be less fatal than others. Someone
who knew too much was worth a small gold coin. She knew the street
rates. She asked mechanical things like how old he was, had he heard she
was Earl of Arlesene, was he married, did he have children, how much was
the contract and how much up-front? Guilt was obvious and after the
first few admissions truth was the only way out. Jane would do the
simple thing of congratulating or endorsing every trivial admission with
an encouraging smile. Gradually the target, motive and sponsor were
revealed. After the interview Jane said
"I want a battle-sword Tess. Then we're going back on the bridge to cut that man's head off. You can do the cutting. I don't want my dress covered in blood. Are you ready?"
"You must do this thing. Do it here in secret if you like but if you shy from death then you can't be an intelligencer. If you do it in public you will earn respect as a hard man who is no longer the dog of others."
"It is not the intelligencer's job to deliver justice."
"Who trusts you Tess? Who respects you? You need those things that money can't buy to do your job. How will you do it? Do you want your enemies to have to pay ten times what they paid him because the last one that tried something stupid was dead within a couple of hours. They will have to try other ways which will cost more, take longer and hopefully implicate more weak servants by bribery."
"I don't know how to do it."
"Then ask the expert. The king has an executioner. Talk with him. I'm going to see the captain of the guards now, then when you've executed your man I expect you to have a plan to exploit the information we've just found. I'll help you but you must make a start."
The mercenary at the front realised he should be supporting Maggie and crouched by the door with weapons drawn. The mercenary at the back had no idea what to do. Rachel told him to get the rear troops moving, then shouted "No more killing. The Duchess hates killing!" Now they had to be ready to escape. Rachel leapt down and collared a pikeman who was trying to follow events so she could get the local geography. Alex was making himself invisible behind the cart. Something hit Rachel hard enough to spin her round and then the pain came in her side. Alex shouted "Crossbow window upstairs on the right." By now Maggie had managed to wrench her knife from the head of Lord Ruswell. It was bloody and horrible and bloody and horrible and bloody and horrible! Rachel's cry woke her up to an unfinished job. God she felt tired. Her mercenary saw Maggie trying to formulate an order to get upstairs and get lethal revenge. He could understand lethal revenge and raced carefully up the stairs in bursts to see what he could do. Maggie followed him in elastic dream-time without knowing why. In the corridor at the top of the stairs there was screaming and a struggle. An old lady entangled with a crossbow was trying to beat the mercenary with it. Maggie saw the target, and went for it with the knife in her hand. Punch into the stomach then dig upwards. Her knife vanished. The mercenary's face and the lady's face merged in horror and disbelief.
Five minutes later Maggie had recovered some thinking faculties but didn't realise that she was covered with blood front and back. Rachel was bruised and scuffed just under her left breast but being an armourer's daughter she was wearing chain mail which turned a penetrating bolt into a glancing bruise and possibly a broken rib. It very soon went from annoying to a grinding distraction.
Alex took charge of the
gathering in the hall. He used every bit of his experience of capturing
crowds. "We came in peace but were offered war. We should burn this
manor down to teach others a lesson. You sir! Shall we burn this house?"
"What a wise man ladies and gentlemen."
"What's your name sir?"
"Tom of Trickell"
"Well wise Tom Trickell I shall not burn this house. Burning things is not a way to live our lives is it sir?" Alex pointed to another random person.
"Right. This manor is forfeit to the King by treachery. You all are to write to the King and tell him what has happened and now you seek a wiser lord. Do you all understand?" Murmurs came back. "Now I want three unpaid volunteers to see us on our road. We have more business to do. Who will be the first volunteer? You sir. You look like you know the roads. Pick two others and we will meet outside in one minute. Come on girls!"
Trexton was easy to find. After a mile they stood on the edge of a broad and fertile valley. They thanked their guides as if they weren't hostages and as if Maggie hadn't brutally killed five people they knew. Maggie said "This is a nice place. I wish I lived here. I am sorry to bring death to it. Spread the word that nobody had to die today but they chose to defy the King's servants. We will be meeting the rest of our force in Trexton. The sooner lords come there to swear allegiance to the King the sooner we can sheathe our swords."