An excerpt from Fair Border Bride by Jen Black, available now on
Set in 1543 on the English-Scottish Border, Alina falls for Harry and keeps him safe when he is injured on their land. Unfortunately, her small brothers give away the secret...
“Come, daughter, let us go into the hall.’ Mama tucked her arm through Alina’s as they left the solar. “I am so happy now they’re both safe home, though I’m very much afraid we may never stop Lionel talking about the Trod.” She cast a critical glance at Alina’s gown. “Why did you not wear the amber pendant I gave you? It would match so well to that gown.”
Alina’s hand went to her bosom. At dinner it was customary to wear a lighter chemise under a gown, which usually left an expanse of exposed skin on view. “I forgot it, Mama. Should I go back?” Alina summoned a smile. At least one of them was happy.
Her mother shook her head. “No time now. You know how your father hates to be kept waiting.”
Long boards on trestles ran alongside both north and south walls of Aydon hall, and servants not engaged in serving were already seated. Logs blazed in the large fire basket on the raised stone hearth in the centre, and the scent of pine and smoke mixed with the honey scent of thick beeswax candles. Candle stands as high as a man, each bearing a dozen candles, stood by each end of the cross table, for Cuthbert Carnaby liked to see what he was eating. Two round pottery bowls on the table held short, fat candles to give additional light. The red and blue wall hangings behind his tall carved chair, enhanced by so much light, brightened the otherwise bare stone of the walls.
Carnaby stalked in, sat down and glared around the hall. His wife took her place at his side without a word, and Alina slid onto the stool next to her mother’s chair. Lionel sat on his father’s right while the younger boys sat at the head of one of the two side tables, wedged on the bench between the boys’ sword-master and their grey-haired tutor. Servants brought in food and everyone smiled, chattered quietly and kept a wary eye on their master.
Carnaby ate a few mouthfuls of mutton, and glared around the room. “It was a run-about raid,” he said to the room at large. He swallowed half a cup of rich red Bordeaux wine in one gulp. “Tynedale men, and the ragtag and bobtail of the Borders hanging on for whatever they could get.”
Men sipped ale, and smiled cautiously.
“You got most of the cattle back, dear, and everyone is safe.” His wife’s warm tone showed her relief. Cuthbert’s dark head swung round to her. Candlelight caught the tight, frizzled curls and dark eyes that betrayed his Norman origins. “Robert Cooper might take issue with you on that. He got a nasty slash across his arm.” His harsh tone softened. “His woman will take care of it.”
“Was it a sword?” Cuddy’s piping voice caught everyone’s attention.
“Indeed it was, son.”
“How big was the cut?”
“From there to there.” Carnaby touched his elbow and midway along his lower arm.
“Is this boy going to be a warrior or a weakling?” Carnaby grinned at his wife, and turned back to Cuddy. “Am I going to have to hand you over to Father John for the Church, boy?”
“No, thir.” Cuddy’s eyes became huge with worry.
“He is but a few days beyond his sixth year, husband. Time enough for him to become a warrior.”
“Cuddy doesn’t like the sight of blood, sir.” Lance stuck up for his brother. “But he’s good with a sword for his age. Even Harry says so.”
Alina stopped chewing and stared across the open space between the two tables. Lance didn’t realise what he’d said. There was a sudden lull in the conversation as everyone tried to remember who Harry might be, and she saw comprehension dawn in her brother’s eyes. In sudden frightened realisation of what he’d said, he swung round and met her wide frozen gaze.
Carnaby frowned. “Oh, well if Harry says so, then Cuddy must be good indeed.”
Enjoying his own sarcasm, he looked around the hall. “Who is this Harry?”
The lump of half-chewed, tasteless meat stuck in Alina’s throat. She spat it quietly into her palm, and fed it to one of the dogs nosing beneath the tables. The boys must have visited Harry without her. How else could he know of their prowess with a sword?
Lance squirmed on his bench. “Just a lad who lives in the village, Father. He’s older than us.”
“Then we’ll take no notice of what he says, eh? You have a sword master and I pay him a good deal of money for his services.” The sword master opened his mouth, but Carnaby cut him off. “I’ll listen to what he tells me of young Cuddy’s progress in the morning.”
“I’m sure you’ll hear a good report, sir.” Margery Carnaby smiled at her sons. “The boys work hard at their lessons. I hear them at practice every morning.”
Alina knew that was a lie, for the simple reason that the stonemason’s work drowned out the sound of the boys’ sword play these days. She shot a glance at her mother, and sent up a prayer of thanks that her parents enjoyed a warm relationship. Would Mama’s defence sway Father? Carnaby grunted, speared a slice of mutton and ate it with relish.
Lance stopped squirming and let out a soundless whistle of relief. The incident seemed to be over. Alina stared down at her platter and wondered where her appetite had gone.
“Harry doesn’t live in the village, Lance. He sleepth in the stable with Dragon.” Cuddy’s piercing treble filled the small silence.
Alina’s heart leapt against her breastbone. Oh, Cuddy. Her skin turned cold and her mind went blank. Disaster was upon them. Everyone looked at the boys and then, because Lance stared at her, at Alina. Always one to voice her thoughts, tonight she could not think of a single thing to say that might avert what was about to happen.
“We have a stranger living in that wreck of a stable, Alina?” Father’s voice was quiet, but she was not fooled. His anger was merely contained. He looked from Cuddy and Lance to Alina.
She smiled, but could not stop her mouth trembling. Blood prickled as it flowed into her face, and out of sight, beneath the table, she gripped the heavy cloth of her skirts and scrunched it into a ball. She looked at Lance and nodded towards the door, hoping desperately that he would have enough sense to slip out unnoticed and warn Harry he’d better leave at once if he hadn’t gone already.
“Alina!” She jumped and met her father’s hot brown glare.
“Yes, sir?” From the corner of her eye she saw Lance push up from his bench. Good, he was going to warn Harry.
“Don’t play silly games with me, girl. Who lives in the stable with that old horse of yours?” He saw Lance stepping over the bench. “Sit down, and finish your dinner, boy.”
Lance looked uncertainly at Alina.
“Sit, boy!” Carnaby roared.
Lance’s eyes flickered as if he considered mutiny. Red faced and sulky, he slouched back onto his bench and stared at the table.
“I don’t know what Cuddy means, Father.” Her voice sounded shaky, and she cleared her throat. “Perhaps this is another of his imaginary friends. You know—”
Cuddy shook his head. “Harry’s my friend, and he’s real. You like him, too.” He looked at her as if she betrayed him.
Cuthbert Carnaby flung down his knife and bellowed to his Steward, stationed at the hall door. “Send down to the old stable. Bring anyone you find here immediately.” He glared around. “We’ll soon see if any one threatens the hall tonight. I refuse to be surprised by raiders twice in the same week.”
Alina touched her fingertips to her brow and found her hairline damp with sweat. Pray God that Harry had gone. Everyone waited and cast anxious glances around the hall. People went on eating, for food was too hard bought to waste, but Alina surreptitiously fed the remains of her meal to the hounds. Her mother noticed, and shook her head in rebuke. “Why, Alina, I thought you liked roast mutton?” “It’s only a lump of gristle, Mama.”
She clutched her hands so hard the small bones rubbed together. She had exchanged farewells with Harry that morning, but he spoke of waiting till dark before leaving. A hurried glance at the window told her the sun was still in the western sky. She could hardly blame Father for taking no risks with their security. If only Aydon had not suffered a raid this week, if Harry’s surname had been anything but Scott, and if these wretched Border lands would settle down into some kind of civilised life.
Oh, dear Lord, she could hear footsteps pounding along the passageway, and every head in the hall turned in anticipation. Alina sat motionless, expecting the worst. The Steward appeared. Behind him two guards jostled a tall man into the hall. Harry’s face was scarlet. The white cloth of his shirt showed through the tears in his doublet, and his black hair hung untidily over his brow. They pushed him forward, and she saw that his wrists were tied together behind his back. Oh, Harry. Alina felt sick, but filled with pride in him, for he did not cower. Lance sat white-faced and still. Cuddy ran to his mother, who held him in her arms and made soothing noises. The sentries marched Harry towards the high table. He stared grimly ahead. No doubt he thought she had betrayed him.