Novel Extract from Prize-winning Debut Turn of the Tide
I hope you enjoy the read, and please do feedback – I’m always interested in reader’s impressions.
*** The opening chapter ends with an historic massacre and would probably be rated a 12 if this was a film (I wish…)
The dying sun held no heat and little colour, nevertheless it dazzled both mare and rider as they crested the rise.
“Easy, lass, easy.” Munro slid his hand from the reins to gentle Sweet Briar, his palm, as he stroked her neck, dragging against the salt sweat. Stifling his disquiet, he pressed again with his heels and, his thoughts focused on the task ahead, allowed the mare to pull away, trusting her instinct to carry them safe over the uneven ground. They flowed swift and smooth across the grassy, pock-marked hillside, flushing a scattering of partridge as they went. Had anyone watched their passing, they would have found it hard to distinguish where man finished and mare began, for both were dun coloured – from the top of Munro’s soft bonnet, devoid of decoration, to the mare’s fetlocks – the only flashes of contrast the dark hooves and the pale oblong of Munro’s face in the fading light.
Another mile, another crest, and Langshaw’s towers ahead of them, drowsing, half in, half out of the shadows. The mare faltered again, her ears flattening.
“Come on lass,” Munro’s hand strayed to the letter tucked into his jerkin, “I haven’t a choice, and the sooner it’s done the sooner food and rest for us both.” He leaned forward to flick at her ear and she snorted back at him, accepting his pressing.
As they came through the arched gateway, a stable lad tumbled from the hayloft, his legs spindle-thin.
Munro slipped from the saddle. “I’ll not be long. Walk her, and find a blanket and some hay, but no oats mind.”
The lad took the reins without enthusiasm or any mark of respect and Munro felt a flash of irritation. He flicked a glance at his clothes, then back to the lad. “It isn’t always politic to draw attention.” He thought it an unmanly thing to take much stock of looks and so, despite his wife’s best efforts, wore his clothing almost to extinction: his leather jerkin polished to a shine around the buttons and his boots heavily scarred along their length. He injected an extra edge of impatience into his voice, “Look sharp. We have travelled a distance and have a way to go yet, and I don’t wish for her to be chilled nor to stiffen.” Behind him the sun slid below the west tower, the last rays, fractured by the battlements, casting a gap-toothed grimace on the cobbles. Munro shivered, turned towards the tower entrance, and pausing at the top of the wooden steps, caught the smell of baking bread, which settled on his stomach like an ache.
As he entered the solar Lady Margaret Langshaw rose from her seat by the inglenook, one cheek flushed, the draught from the door rippling the tapestry on the wall behind her. She came towards him: a figure come to life. He bent over her hand, her skin, buttermilk-white, unblemished, drifting with the scent of almonds as they touched.
“A request, Lady – from Glencairn.”
“My husband is from home. Can this wait?”
Munro proffered the letter. “It’s for you. Glencairn expects a reply tonight.”
Frowning, she slid her forefinger under the wax seal, her grip on the parchment tightening as she read. She pressed one hand against the bulge of her stomach. “To betray a guest…a kinsman…and to such an end…Glencairn presumes much.”
Slate eyes met blue. Munro made his voice flat. “The Montgomeries are kin in marriage only. You are a Cunninghame.”
She bent to pick up the small shift, fallen to the floor as she rose to greet him, her fingers teasing at the edge of the unfinished smocking. “And for that I must risk my peace and that of my children?”
He dragged his eyes away, focused on the fire flaring in the hearth, on the basket of split logs calloused with moss, stifled the unbidden thought – her bairn is likely ages with my own. Blocking the anguish in her voice and hating his own tone, he said, “We are none of us at peace. Our cousin Waterstone’s lady lies cold in bed at night and his bairns they say still cry out in their sleep.”
“And am I to bring trouble to my lord too?”
“No trouble. Glencairn asks a signal only – the real work is elsewhere.”
“And if it goes awry? The sound of the rout will rebound to my door.”
“Am I to take your refusal to Glencairn?”
She spoke so soft that he had to bend his head to hear her. “I am a Cunninghame, God help me.” A hesitation… “I expect the Montgomeries tomorrow, some ten or twelve only. Braidstane is bid meet Eglintoun to sup here, and make for court thereafter. You may tell Glencairn to look to the battlement, on the west side. And they arrive as arranged, there will be a white napkin hanging.” She was looking past him to the square of window framing the darkening sky. “Beyond that I cannot do more.”
He bowed over her hand. “Glencairn is grateful, lady.”
She dismissed him with the smallest of nods. “Good-day Munro.”
He bowed again and escaped, clattering down the stair. Outside, glad of the sting of the air on his face, he wheeled through the gateway, closing his ears to the sound of children’s laughter floating over the barmkin wall.
* * *
Aside from the violence towards the end of this chapter, the remainder of the book isn’t violent – though there are a couple of minor sword fights. There is also no explicit sex or strong language, so that it is suitable for any reader from 12 to 112.