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Aime qui vouldra

Chapter Text

Ha! Amors! ce sont li guerredon de vos servir; car qui del tout a vos s'otroie, il n'en puet eschaper sanz mort, et tel loier rendez vos de loiaument amer.


 

You don’t know what love is, either of you. And God help us and you, if you ever find out.

“Pray enlighten us, then. And what would you say love is, Mr Blyth?”

The voice in his head sparkled lazily, like dappled summer sunlight, and its words were spoken by a mouth that curved sardonically, cradled by the one shallow line of mirth granted him. It was the voice that always spoke back, needling and prompting him. A voice that he had, on occasion, tried to drown in rich, imported wine.

The words spoken by this voice had never been said to him, and they would never be said to him. Jerott Blyth felt them reverberate in his head all through the long winter nonetheless. He heard that interrogatory phrase whenever he looked at the cool, matriarchal smile Mariotta bestowed on her husband Richard and their children; at Sybilla’s collected pleasure, with the softening of the newly sunk lines around her eyes; at Adam Blacklock’s wordless exchanges with Kate Somerville. But the voice in his mind was loudest when the other couple were present, joining the family when kind weather might entice them from their refuge together at the stronghold of St Mary’s. Then, Jerott was unable to keep his dour scrutiny away from them. He watched the way they leaned towards each other, even when engaged in conversation with third parties. The pure, tight thread that linked their thoughts so that, poetry or prose, quotation or invention, their bubbling, joyous speech overlapped and wove together an intricate, fine-wrought pattern. The warmth of their happiness in each other touched everyone around them, setting off a glow in the faces of friends and family who had seldom hoped for such a resolution, and raising a deeper colour on the skin of Jerott’s cheeks and throat.

God help us.

Love was devotion and loyalty. It was honouring the memory of the girl who had pledged herself to you. It was imagining that one could come close to what was no more by prostrating oneself on the cool flags of a church floor, or by gripping the sun-warmed hilt of a heavy sword, waiting for the noise and adrenaline of battle. It was service: to an idea, a faith, a person. It was gathering up one’s bitterness — that life had taken something away, had closed the only door one had imagined oneself walking through — gathering up one’s bitterness and moulding it into a new purpose. Finding a new door, and honing oneself each day, each moment, perfecting oneself so that this time, the door could not fail to open. Making oneself into the right key.

The face of the woman he had, in the end, married, was not to be seen again before the earth covered her over. The shots that had killed her had obliterated her own weaponry: the mouth from which she had fired all the barbs that struck him, always, precisely as she intended. Gone the fine, long nose, the low-drooping eyelids, heavy with golden lashes. Gone the neat outline of that feather-fine hair, light as dandelion seed, golden as the flower. Strands had come free from her fastening and the cap she wore over it. They clung, matted, hard and dark on her shoulders, too long to have been her brother’s hair.

No. She was not quite all gone. Whenever he brought his eyes up, burning with unspoken things, to survey the visitors from St Mary’s, her face was whole, before him again. Just for a moment: the fine-boned profile, the glitter of blue as Francis Crawford swept a lazy gaze from one speaker to the next, a perfectly tuned and kindly measured reproach to a foolish response on his lips. And that was when the vision broke down: Jerott recognised the restraint in it, the hint of softness around the eyes that had never been shown by the leader of St Mary’s mercenaries, or by the Voevoda Bolshoia, the Marshal of France, or by Jerott’s own wife, whose features had been so similar.

The kind pinch that tucked the edge of Lymond’s piercing eye made Jerott wince. Philippa’s hazel stare delivered a follow-up blow, steady and dark and unreadably calm, with the sunlight resting on her shoulders, cast from the tall windows behind her and Lymond. The lemony winter sun made his hair glow, its brushed and silken waves like a halo to match the jewelled band on Philippa’s own head. Jerott faced the sudden, uneasy recollection of an altarpiece in Nantes, and, as ever, failed to cover his response, a moment of open-mouthed astonishment and a wine-dark flush on his skin.

God help us.

Love was hoping, against all better judgement and evidence to the contrary, that you were wrong. Trying to serve what you had given yourself over to, doggedly, passionately, competently. Until you knew that your service could not change what was.

But love endured through failure, sleepless and dust-parched outside the walls of a fallen city. With aching wrists and sand-grazed skin and recent burns that crackled with white heat under the North African sun. It held firm, even when one was too well rested, cheeks puffy with wine: with aching head, and a mouth like splintered wood, and the sweet, rotten smell of stale alcohol on one’s face and clothes, and the echo of things that should not have been said in the back of one’s mind.

There at the table in Midculter’s great hall, he turned his delicate crystal glass around in its pool of spilt liquid. His rough, callused fingers worried at the soft bulbs along the vessel’s stem. When he looked down at it, bitter ruefulness showed on his face: he had no spoken response to Francis’ cleverness, even when the edge was blunted. Jerott knew that all eyes around the table rested on him momentarily, many of them trying to assess the likely state of the wine stores at the end of the winter. He was not certain he could provide an answer to that yet, either.

 

Chapter Text

Trahe me post te curremus introduxit me rex in cellaria sua exultabimus et laetabimur in te memores uberum tuorum super vinum recti diligunt te.


 

The decision seemed to be taken out of his control when news arrived from France, brought, inevitably, during one of Francis and Philippa’s stays. The packet was addressed to M. le Comte de Sevigny, but Jerott did not immediately recognise the hand or the seal as he handed it over. Francis read it by the light of the window in the warm, well-furnished parlour, with Philippa at his shoulder, betraying neither surprise nor satisfaction at the contents. He looked up and met Jerott’s eyes without a word and extended his arm to offer him the document. The lowering sun threw the tracks of ink into relief against the translucent paper, like veins or bruises on its skin.

It was from Nostradamus, but Jerott’s mind could not quite reach the source of the distant familiarity of the handwriting, not as he deciphered the sense contained in its loose and looping letters. The message was written on behalf of another, whose healing arm did not allow him to hold a pen easily, but Danny Hislop had still managed a shaky postscript and signature. By the time he got to it, Jerott had little capacity for taking in its apologetic words. Why was Danny apologising for having been stabbed by Jerott’s bitch of a wife?

If an anguished croak escaped his throat as Jerott sighed, then no one reacted to it. He rubbed one hand over his face, fury mingling with a return of the startled horror he had felt as soon as he had realised whose death he had so smartly avenged in the fields beyond Flaw Valleys.

“Danny tried to stop her,” Philippa murmured, the gentleness in her eyes directed at him even as she swayed to bring herself slightly closer to her husband.

The paper trembled once or twice, a small animal shiver, and then Jerott returned it to Francis, with no shake in his hand and a grim mask on his face. “Lucky he didn’t, isn’t it?” He left them, taking with him the anger that was the only thing that had ever given him the illusion of composure.

Jerott found his way to the rooftop and let the chill blast of air shock the colour from his skin. He leaned on gritty, uneven stone and watched the sky, waiting for its colour to deepen, soaking blood red cloud in golden light. The countryside below him was mist-bleached as the evening swept across its dells and divots, blurring shadow and gorse-bush together. In the near distance, the swells of land on the horizon began to answer the blushing sky with a coy sparkle of heavy frost. Wherever he looked, the weight of day’s end settled itself around the shoulders of hills and trees, soothing the world into silence. Yet around the castle — or around him, he felt — there remained an invisible barrier against the peace drawn smooth across the land, like silk on skin. It was held back by the irritable holler of a colony of rooks, whose complaints vied with the sounds of servants coming and going in the stable yard below. Standing alone, it seemed to Jerott that even his own heavy breath was an assault on the quiet that stood sentinel just beyond the building and its yards.

Sybilla had suggested that Marthe had ridden so far north, with such purpose, for him. In the depths of shock, too exhausted not to grieve her as though she had loved him like she did in his brightest dreams, Jerott had let himself wear the dressing of belief. Comforting, soothing belief: he had drained that lie to the last drop, hoping he might finally slake the thirst of love, of loving with no return. But, like sweet Spanish wine, the comfort it brought was temporary; illusory. He knew Francis well enough that he could also see through his mother’s well-meaning lie.

If Marthe had not come — driven by spite, or the same misguided expectation that had taken her to Sevigny, or, as Nostradamus suggested, by the last guiding movements of La Dame de Doubtance’s distant hand — if Marthe had not come, Jerott knew what might have happened.

He had seen it so clearly, as the arrogant golden hair flashed in the mossy green of an autumn afternoon; Austin Grey’s smooth movement, the upward sweep of his guns, replying to the steady canter of approaching hooves. In Amiens, Sybilla had denied her son the death he had craved for so long now, and Jerott’s regret at pulling him one last time from fire and debris and river water had been compounded, leaving guilt as an overwhelming force, like a wave of nausea pulling at him bodily. And here, easy as war, was the solution that would free Francis in the way he had wanted freeing, without the shame and the stigma and the peril for the soul that came through suicide.

The motivation had not been consciously selfish. It was a moment of problem solving, his mind and body together opening up a series of events, like he would open the defences of a man in battle, or perceive the best way to approach a fortified town with an army. As he saw how to give Francis the escape he so seemed to want his arm was already moving, a hard hand embedding itself in the plush velvet of Richard’s doublet, another seizing the other man’s reins. He knew the shots would not miss, and he knew just as certainly that when they hit, he would be the man to take vengeance for Francis Crawford’s life.

In the moments afterwards, Jerott had known peace. He had not needed to rush to reach Austin, and Austin had not tried to run, but Jerott’s breath still came heavy and fast as he stood over the young, lithe form, his lungs grasping at air weighted with gunpowder and smoke and hot blood, and, distantly, the sweet, woody taste of autumn leaves building up on the ground. He did not think of Francis’ brother, who quietly covered the mangled bodies of man and horse, nor of Francis’ wife, who struggled against the grip of Francis’ man Archie, while Archie justified what had just happened. He thought only of that tired, hurting face cradled in his lap in a room panelled in dark wood in Amiens, the blue eyes pale and fixed, raised in supplication to Sybilla’s hard, loving expression.

The memory blurred behind tears that filled up his eyes: those fine features smudged beneath the clear water at Zuara; the muddled, shrapnel-filled water at Dourlans; the interrupted sunlight below the trees by the Luce; the cool mist of spray from a Parisian fountain. But after all these moments, Jerott had managed to give him peace, in the only way left to him.

He had been free of Marthe and he had freed himself from Lymond, placing all his guilt at the end of the single shot he fired. He could grieve. But then, like the world reflected in the mirrors of a rickety house in Lyons, existence rippled and darkened: from its edges, Francis returned from the dead. Now, he was bound tighter than ever to Philippa, their every motion, glance and word defying Jerott’s gloomy predictions. And he could no longer say he was free of Marthe. She was returned in permanent absence. Gone, but in a way more present than he had imagined she would ever again be after he left Amiens without her.

Since then, he had caught Richard Crawford’s glances occasionally, the wide grey eyes so open with their feelings, so unlike Francis’. Wondering whether he might have saved Marthe if Jerott had not stopped him and wondering at his own feelings in those moments they thought Lymond had been dead.

Richard’s concern grated, like salt sea on grazed skin. The guilt Jerott might have been free of had blown up in his face, settling on him slowly like the heavy yellow smoke after a battle. Guilt, coiling inside him, to see what he might have denied Francis and Philippa, fearing that their marriage could have been anything like his and Marthe’s — deep down, maybe Jerott thought, or hoped, that they would see the truth of it one day, that this happiness could not last, that he was not the only one who failed to live up to the expectations of his love. Guilt, hard and heavy, to know that his actions might have denied Francis this sweet coda to all his life’s troubles, and guilt that prickled and stung his skin, to know that what he had done had also led to the death of the woman Jerott had loved with such determination.

In the confusion of his culpability, he had been clinging wearily, doggedly, to a scattering of memories. But as the weeks drew on, the earth over Marthe’s grave down at Culter kirk was changing texture below winter’s frosts. The freshness of new soil had been lost: brown powdered earth turned to black and blue clods. The late, sparse forget-me-nots he had lain at the head of the grave were now thin brown twists, like exposed roots.

Botrus cypri dilectus meus mihi in vineis Engaddi.

Darkness embraced the blue horizon, and with a shiver, Jerott recognised the shade. His throat dry, he turned and stumbled unseeingly down the narrow stairs, following them below the warm, inhabited floors that still murmured with the activity of the castle’s other residents.

Then he was through the heavy door, into the cold, dark cellar, his hand ruffling the neck of an earthenware decanter, gripping too tight like it was the silken throat of a wild bird. Before him his breath chilled, misting the air as he strove to concentrate on a point just beyond that which he’d come upon.

He poured swiftly and a little messily, flinching at the cool drops that splashed his hand. The idea of taking the drink back to his own rooms did not cross his mind, and he stood at the low wooden trestle, staring into the damp black corner of the cellar and trying not to think as he drained his cup again and again. It felt like a familiar race, the object of which was to obliterate a moment of realisation before it could fully take shape. Faster, he poured and drank, his knees locked against the effects of the wine as he willed it to fill his head and to drown the images there.

When Jerott finally stumbled his way back to his rooms, one chilled hand scuffing walls and door posts in the three-limbed journey, he thought he had caught himself in time. Lying back on the soft feather mattress, he thought of Marthe.

Dilectus meus.

With a start, like falling, Jerott tried to sit up. Only those words floated, a body on the wine-dark, blood-dark sea, lit by flame and noise. He was too drunk, too weary to prepare himself, and lost his hold on consciousness with a face that was not quite Marthe’s behind his eyelids.

 

Chapter Text

 

Mult gentement li emperere chevalchet:
Desur sa bronie fors ad mise sa barbe.  
Pur sue amor altretel funt li altre:
Cent milie Francs en sunt reconoisable.


 

Culter kirk lay swaddled by green hills, a dour collection of stone geometry whose edges multiplied under bright sun, shadows cast criss-crossways over the solid grey surfaces of wall and tower and sloping rooves. It gave the illusion of holding a vantage point within the surrounding countryside, although the gentle mound that held the kirk was dwarfed by the land’s rises and ridges, watchful hills standing respectfully at a distance. Further beyond them the country rolled at a familiar angle, meeting the managed heaths of low mountains: a stubborn grey-brown beyond the defiant colour of winter grass beneath the bright sky.

At the feet of a single mourner, a low grave was bisected by the shadow of the kirk, sharp and black below a clear, high sky. Pink granite erupted from the earth, sparkling with rough edges. It was the only new stone in the small, walled yard, and under the Earl’s Calvinist leanings it would be the only new one for some time. Jerott preferred to conduct his prayers privately, outside the service attended by Richard and his family in the austere, squat little building.

His head was bowed, the distant creamy sun striking mercilessly on the splendid black hair. His unadorned hands were clasped before him in what appeared to be the pose of a penitent man. Too tight, his fingers pressed against each other though: his knuckles were too white, and his hooded dark eyes did not focus either on the burial place before him, or on the memories of the woman it enclosed.

Jerott bore the familiar headache that came from too much wine with little outward affect, though the dim recollection of a comfortable dream gave an uneven tension to his shoulders. Still he came to Marthe’s graveside in a performance of grief that made his hosts feel as though he had found a way to cope with what had happened last autumn. Until recently, it was a performance that had worked on himself, too: concentrating hard on the memory of Marthe, summoning the unwieldy, desperate emotions of that day in Northumberland until he felt his chest constrict and sweat break on his palms. Today, though, he tried to remember Elizabeth.

Jerott thought of each time something had recalled to him the colour of her hair. His grip on the soft, polished wood of a pew, sticky varnish puckering in the heat, candlelight bringing out the shades of blonde and red within the wood grain. The shine of treated leather, a horse’s harness and the soft resistance of the reins as he threaded them between his fingers, rubbing thumbs over their smooth flats. Orchids in the hospital herb garden, fuzzy brown tongues framed by their coy yellow cowls, trembling as his wandering hand passed over them. But it was the memory of a memory: he knew what he associated her with, but he could not be certain he knew what Elizabeth had been. He could not see her face.

Thinking of Elizabeth took him only to Malta now, and Sicily. To the comfort of routine that he had bound himself up in. To faith, to the constant reassurance that he had done something for her — he had done this for her, because her hair had been the same brown as the polished, worried grip of his sword, untanned hide and black wood, marked to his hold by the oils of his skin.

It was different now. He had said so to Sibylla, and the realisation of the truth of it made him grim. When he returned to Malta he would not be pledging himself as he had done before, to the preservation of a sacred ideal, to an addiction to what could have been.

A steady existence with Elizabeth, either in Scotland or France, was the life of another man. Jerott wondered if it would have been like the life of Richard Crawford and Mariotta — and he chose not to examine the guilty stab of impatience that the thought of Richard produced, a good man who faded into staid conservatism next to his younger brother. That life was not for Jerott; not any longer. He had preserved the ideal and then he had pursued it, convinced that his love could bring Marthe around to the cultivation of the potential he saw. Now it seemed perhaps that there was no such ideal. Had never been such a thing. Or, if it existed, like so many things, it only existed for Francis Crawford.

The high tone of the bell in the kirk tower began to rain down, and Jerott gave the building a savage glare, still bewildered and angry, longing still for something unavailable. The congregation was filtering out, their finery covered over in expensive black cloaks whose subtle weave was revealed by the uncompromising January sun. Jerott met Francis’s eyes over the heads of Philippa and Sibylla and others milling in the church entranceway and resisted the urge to flinch.

They had not spoken together since that rushed, expectant day in Northumberland: the day that smelled of hot iron and gunpowder, of meat and mulch. Jerott had returned to Flaw Valleys in a daze, walking beside his horse, the wrapped body of his wife weighted across his saddle. Francis, physically weak and caught in the intoxicating atmosphere of Philippa’s unleashed affections, rode beside his own bride, with Archie on his other flank, braced and ready to catch him should faintness overcome that formidable self-control.

Jerott remembered the land go by below foot: cropped, blunt spears of yellow cut grass crunching under his boots; dust rising between the stubborn protrusions of late nettle seedlings and other weeds. He walked steadily to the stable yard at Flaw Valleys and barely heard Kate and Sibylla’s cascade of questions. He relied on his body to remember what must be done: unload the saddle, gently, as though she were in a heavy sleep. Seat the body on some dry, clean-swept area. Return to routine: lift the side of the saddle, inhaling the strong, heady smell of sweat and leather and horse. Clench the straps to loosen the girth, feel the animal sigh and shift its weight as the buckles jangled free. Now, here is some stable lad insistently taking the saddle and cloths from him. Jerott’s arms had felt the early winter cold once the damp weight was lifted from his embrace. Turn, one hand finding its way up the horse’s neck, tickling strands of mane aside, fingers rubbing just behind the jaw and ear, trying to find warmth in the greasy, short fur. The smaller buckles on the bridle took longer to loosen, with hands now shaking. He could see what was happening, but as though he were standing at a distance, watching another man succumb to shock: a man who long ago thought the condition had been trained out of him.

Sibylla had taken the brunt of his despair when it had finally broken free. He had been at his most certain then: he would go to Malta. He would take Danny Hislop and show him what purpose there was to be had in warfare. Midculter was where Marthe had always felt she should have been, and Midculter was where he would leave her.

Francis needed to recover from Margaret Lennox’s hospitality and Jerott needed to bury his wife. There was no opportunity to explain, to hope for guilt to be absolved once more, to see if the gently knowing amusement that Jerott half expected would hurt more or less than the outrage he knew he deserved, and already turned on himself. So he went north, thinking of a swift interment and a late sailing, if Danny would just hurry up and get to Scotland.

Danny’s excuse came only weeks later. By then, Jerott’s determination had strayed.

He would go back to Malta. He knew he would. But not before next spring. Not before some invisible sign: something that told him Francis knew the truth of that moment when he had stopped Richard from tackling Austin Grey.

Under winter light, he dazzled. Face like the pale centre of the sun, hair a yellow corona above the high-necked, stark black of expensive tailoring. His features bore little sign of the trials of the year past. Shadows had filled out to smooth contours, and the fine lines around the eyes seemed to soften that steady gaze in a way they had not previously. Jerott waited stiffly as Francis regarded him across the graveyard, longing for some cutting comment to bridge the distance, for some easy put-down that would at once vex Jerott and reassure him that nothing had changed.

He had not realised he had been holding his breath until Francis put a hand on his wife’s shoulder to turn her gently so that he could move past her. Philippa glanced up at him then over at Jerott. She touched his arm with a familiarity that seemed more natural than anything that could have grown up in only a matter of months. Francis took a step away from the paved path and Jerott gathered himself, trying to summon a measured statement from the roiling mist that his thoughts became under apprehension of how to respond to whatever Francis might say.

Between them, oblivious, strode their good host, catching Francis half-way between the dewy grass and the dry stone. “I thought to take a ride across the estates. There’s a man I’ve been meaning to see about the wall at the north end of Clydeslonin. Will you join me?”

Francis showed no emotion at having been interrupted in his course and inclined his head to the Earl, his brother. “Thank you, Richard, but not today. Perhaps Jerott will go with you. He’s evidently in need of the fresh air this morning. Philippa and I will return to St Mary’s. We are expecting Kate and Adam shortly and preparation must be made.”

Philippa returned to his side, smiling sweetly up at Richard. “Yes. There is butter to be rubbed on skirts and berries to be trod into the carpets.” She increased the pressure of her grip on his arm momentarily, looking up at Francis with some silent meaning, and he responded with a smile beyond the translation of onlookers.

Staring over at Jerott again, who had felt a spike of familiar, happy impatience at being talked about as though he were not present, Francis addressed his next words not entirely to Richard. “And while Kate and Adam are here, we expect to be joined by Fergie Hoddim and Alec Guthrie. Philippa thought it might alleviate the idleness of the season to host some outdoor entertainments. And if Jerott will attend, you may find your wine cellars more able to last out the winter.”

Richard baulked a little at the directness, his jaw tightening momentarily. “You said you had abandoned that idea.”

“Richard, I am not raising an army. I am merely hosting some friends. We shall reminisce about our great achievements and make fools of ourselves in a muddy field. Granz sunt les oz e les escheles beles it will not be.”

Establishing these terms, Francis turned and walked with Philippa away from the kirk. Richard looked uneasily up at Jerott, who glowered back, finding that the impression that nothing had changed between him and Francis had not, in fact been what he needed. The two casual remarks, speaking for him and of him in the way that Francis and Marthe had so often done, did not sting because of their edge of judgement. He was beginning to recognise that this was a way of keeping him distant: tangling him in clever or cutting words so that he would be too occupied with the insult of having been talked over to focus on the matter he had really wanted to discuss.

Richard was watching him as they walked together to the horses, apparently reading some of Jerott’s thoughts clearly through the frown he wore.

“Why do you let him talk for you like that? Return to Midculter if you prefer. You need not come because you have been volunteered by Francis.”

Reaching up to his horse’s saddle, Jerott avoided the grey eyes that thought they knew Francis so well, full of concern and exasperation. What could he say? Some trite response about how he was a soldier, and used to taking the orders given to him? How there was always truth in what Francis said, and that fighting it would have been fruitless, only serving to underscore the accuracy of those words? Jerott did not try to hide his pale, clammy skin in the morning; he did not avoid rubbing his aching temples in case someone guessed the amount of wine consumed the night before. Francis could see it in him, so why should he expect Francis not to mention it?

Like an ambush, the memory of a dark, musty barrack at Compiegne seized him. It was not much of a memory: all sound and taste, raised voices and blows that reverberated in his aching head, light from the doorway flashing behind swinging elbows, a flood of cold water and the roughness of his breath, stale alcohol on his lips mingling with sweat and gritty water.

“I could do with the fresh air,” he finally answered through clenched teeth. “And I’d like to see Adam and Fergie and Alec again.”

Richard looked doubtfully across at him as Jerott mounted. “And then?”

“When Danny Hislop gets here, I’ll go. I’ll return to the Order.”

Richard’s silence was enough for Jerott to gather what the older man wanted to say: what sort of a monk do you think you are? Drunken, heartbroken over a woman whose reputation told only of bitterness and cruelty, who had stabbed Danny Hislop and caused some unknown upset to Philippa. So much for chastity and obedience.

Jerott was too angry to let this man’s judgement lie between them. “But I will find other lodgings in the meantime. I don’t want to impose on your hospitality. After all, Marthe will be doing so for some time to come.”

He was met with a troubled scowl. “And stay with my brother instead?”

Richard had sailed past the issue of hospitality, uninterested in discussing the stocks of his wine cellar, or the finer mysteries of his relation to Marthe. Instead, as dogged in his own way as Francis was, he studied Jerott for his response.

Unable to hide the red on his neck or cheekbones, Jerott grimaced at the hedgerow. “Not at all. I’ll go to see the others, and then to Edinburgh. I have my own estates to manage.”

Looking ahead now, Richard grunted. His eyes were narrowed against the sun, whose light made his chestnut hair glisten, hiding the threads of grey in it. “You don’t have to. You’re welcome at Midculter, Jerott.”

Jerott’s mouth twisted without mirth as he mentally added: after all, you’re family. He decided to say nothing though, and to defer his decision until after whatever Lymond had planned at St Mary’s. Was that what Lymond had been about to tell him of, as he began his approach across the graveyard? Jerott found himself homing in on this possibility with a measure of relief. The explanation he had wanted to give, the forgiveness or blame he had wanted to receive, had grown suddenly daunting as Francis had stepped towards him. He knew that he would not have the right words to reply with: he never did.

The two men rode steadily along the muddy road, their horses’ hooves crunching on gravel and churned soil, as blackbirds and robins chirruped mild irritation at their passing. Each thought of the strange weight that came from proximity to distinction, and of the levity that a moment of misunderstood violence had brought. Love was trying to understand the impossible, to fathom the depths from which sprang an endless fountain of knowledge and wit, a generous but closely guarded source. To support, in whatever way one could, the ever-hidden desires of another who seemed to need no support, but who earned the loyalty of men wherever he went. To know that, whatever the terms on which one grew close to this miraculous fount, confidence would be fickle, affection returned would be opaque, and the absence of these things would be a dull, unquenchable ache.

 

Chapter Text

 

And ance it fell upon a day
A cauld day and a snell,
When we were frae the hunting come,
That frae my horse I fell,
The Queen o' Fairies she caught me,
In yon green hill do dwell.
And pleasant is the fairy land,
But, an eerie tale to tell,
Ay at the end of seven years,
We pay a tiend to hell,
I am sae fair and fu o flesh,
I'm feard it be mysel.


 

February was cold. The sky slammed shut over the mountains, enclosing the days in hard, grey cloud. It did not snow at Midculter, and the ground remained damp below a clinging fog that beaded bare branches with spider-web jewels. As the rivers raged with yellow foam, ditches and standing water took on a hazy, sluggish appearance. Birds fought over blackened haws and hips, heedless of people or predators passing by.

Jerott accompanied Richard on his duties about the Culter estate. He rode, and he performed drills in the stable yard, and he exchanged correspondence with bankers in far-off cities, arranging his affairs and Marthe’s, and recalling one day without surprise that Nostradamus’ writing had been familiar because his letters had come to the house at Lyons. He thought of Danny Hislop, walking into whatever scene he had happened upon at Blois, and did not dwell long on the piquant cocktail of indignance, resentment and fury the imagined moment awoke in him.

But mostly, he waited for the allotted day when he would ride south to St Mary’s for whatever entertainments Francis Crawford had in mind. In waiting, Jerott’s mood was like the weather: glowering and grimly expectant. He mulled darkly over the details, wondering why they had waited so long. The glorious sunshine of a fortnight past was lost, an aberrant chink in winter’s armour. Now, whatever was planned would have to take place in six inches of churned topsoil. Or, Jerott thought with apprehension, the event might have mutated into a different type of entertainment entirely: music and revelry in the great hall, perhaps.

The fog dropped onto the land as a thick, brittle frost on the morning that Jerott set out for St Mary’s, wearing an expression like a man attending his own execution. He journeyed through the landscape with a small party, magnificent in an indigo cloak with black fur trim; his tack and weapons meticulously polished by his own hands; the metal buckles and fixtures gleaming in answer to the ground’s crisp white glow.

As the countryside warped, rising into familiar ridges and hills, each with its own name and lore to it, the season seemed to deepen. Snow crept lower down the bodies of the rigs, offering camouflage to large, grey-white hares. Deeper valleys that had clearly not felt the sky’s warmth for several months chilled the small group as they passed through, sound and breath growing harsher, more tangible in the stillness.

When they came upon the glassy expanse of St Mary’s Loch the light had nearly gone. The water reflected the hills as black voids that had been chipped away from the edges of a polished lapis heaven. Visible at the end of a last, short ride along the waterside, the buildings of St Mary’s promised warmth, their lights ablaze; a challenge to the night that called out to the whole of the wide valley. Jerott’s insides coiled at the sight of the square tower and its outbuildings, recalling the events of his last time there: the endless frustration as he tried to uncover some humanity in Gabriel’s pristine act, the recollection of what heartbreak did to you as denial weakened and lost faith.

A struggling flame, then, that new hope that he had protectively raised in its stead. An uncertain, untrusting thing, that made him eager to strike out first, to guard against repeated hurt. But he always fell. His feelings ran too deep and too loyally to be anything but half-measures, and it was only a matter of months before he found himself trailing a new sun across the continent, telling himself it was only curiosity, and soothing bruised hope with enough wine to make up for nine years’ self-denial in the name of nothing.

Jerott dismounted and followed his page up to the door of St Mary’s, his steps sluggish and his mind heavy with the outraged expression on a dying girl’s face. If Francis and Gabriel were utterly unalike, was the same true of Marthe and Joleta?

The door opened above him, and his legs shivered, his body ready to resort to prayer as radiant lamplight brushed the night away and the cold odourlessness of winter fled the warmth of peat smoke, dried herbs and flowers. Lymond’s man beckoned him in, and Jerott stumbled up the final steps, handing over his cloak with numb hands and swiftly taking in the interior of the building without seeing much of anything.

He found himself ushered inside the parlour faster than he had wanted to be, unprepared for the jumble of welcoming words: Fergie’s big hand shaking his, Alec’s hard palm thudding on his shoulder, Adam Blacklock’s quiet, murmured greeting. And Danny Hislop, his full lips holding a crooked grin, stiffly extending his own palm to grasp Jerott’s hand with a determined show of strength. Across the room, Jerott saw Archie Abernethy’s reassuring face in an awkward corner of shadow and nodded a greeting.

Then the men parted easily, and Philippa stepped forwards beaming at him, enclosing rough knuckles in her small, cool hands, stretching with more grace than ever to kiss his cheek. Her grip tightened and seemed to speak words of understanding. Her mother smiled at him from behind her, lips pressed together in a warm, worried curve.

Leaving him in a haze of jasmine, she moved away and let Francis approach, a kind smirk pulling his long mouth up, his hair neatly cut and the gold thread on his clothing reflecting every light in the room. The touch of the tips of his fingers on Jerott’s arms was as good as a full embrace, accompanied by the gaze that always made him feel like he’d said something absurd. But then Francis took another half-step nearer and wrapped his hands gently around the velvet that covered Jerott’s biceps, his smile widening and his eyes unrelenting. “I said there was no need for guilt, did I not?”

It was cruel, delivering the reminder in a room full of their friends, yet so softly that the others were not meant to hear.

Et ego auctoritate ipsius te absolvo ab omni vinculo suspensionis et interdicti in quantum possum et tu indiges.

Jerott swallowed, but Francis had already moved aside, announcing the evening’s schedule to the room, now that they were all there.

Soon seated between Philippa and Alec Guthrie, Jerott relaxed. Philippa and Alec talked of the current exploits of Anthony Jenkinson and the Muscovy Company: Alec’s knowledge of the snow and its great expanses, combined with Philippa’s clear interest in the subject swept Jerott along, and he pursued Alec for stories he had not heard from adventures he had not been present for. Such was the atmosphere that his own activities from the same period did not cross his mind, nor did Philippa once dwell on the strange circumstances of her own marriage at the time.

They did not use the great hall for the meal, but a more intimate room adjoining it. Far from staining the place with butter and berries, the hosts had been busy in a number of more constructive ways (and Kate would have been appalled to hear of Flaw Valleys alluded to like this: it was only ever her own clothing, and not the manor house itself, that was dishevelled in this way).

The small, square room was swaddled in tapestries and thick, patterned rugs. Along one wall, below the heavy-curtained windows, guests were watched over by a fresh row of plants that jostled with one another above the antique stone of their containers: winter jasmine and basil, verbena and anthurium, colours and scents. The other wall that bracketed the fashionably round table held trestles of wine and food, with their gleaming terrines and carafes that, like the plants, showed off the reach of the household’s tastes and expenses. At the table, which was just small enough to allow conversations across its diameter, the hosts avoided the politics of the dais, bringing all their guests close in a conspiratorial huddle without rank or command.

The comfort of friends and food and good wine and talk worked beyond even the intentions of Francis and Philippa, causing the hostess’ mother to continually look about her with eyebrows raised. Kate felt as though she had been put under some fairy enchantment, projected into the other world whence a changeling had come to replace her gawky, drab-brown daughter. But having gone in search of the original child through the fairy portal, Kate discovered that she could now no longer tell one from the other, and changeling and daughter had merged. Now Kate Somerville surveyed the room, clad in its shimmer of light and draped in air warm and thick with scent and sound, and she wondered whether the enchantment had gone too far.

Kate’s brown eyes met Archie Abernethy’s across the table and saw a similar, weary anticipation in them. Their hosts had recreated a pocket of time that had never really been, where the outside world was kept at bay, and talk was only of happy memories and casual interests. Words were polite and carefully chosen: open wounds were not acknowledged, and many, many names were not mentioned. It could not last like this, Kate thought determinedly. With a flush of guilt, she looked to Jerott Blyth, wondering whether he would be the first to break the facade of well-mannered pleasantries. Jerott, however, was not drinking any more or any less than his companions. He wore a curious half-smile as Philippa described something to him, and then laughed at her conclusion and shared a glance of appreciation with Alec Guthrie, who nodded in confirmation of whatever Philippa had said.

Archie shook his head minutely at her, then disguised the gesture by rubbing fingers over his moustache. Kate saw that Francis’ gaze had fallen on him, and herself, and she simply smiled back. He could control the setting as far as was possible, but the inconvenient emotions of recent events would out, eventually. Noting a lull in the discussion to her left, Kate turned to Fergie Hoddim and Danny Hislop. “Danny, how’s your arm healing?”

Danny, who only knew Kate through the talk of Adam and Philippa, smiled sweetly, as he would to a benevolent aunt. “Hm? Oh, just fine thank you, Mistress Somerville, ah, Blacklock, that is to say.”

“Kate,” she told him, and Fergie Hoddim, who had an equally passing familiarity with the mistress of Flaw Valleys, but who also had the nose of a lawyer for leading conversations, cleared his throat.

“Tell me, Kate, did ye have much trouble crossing the Border?”

Anticipating a further legalistic turn to proceedings, Danny shifted his attention to Archie, and Kate found herself ensnared by Fergie Hoddim, who worked extremely hard to ensure that there would be no natural point at which to bring up the return of Willie Grey and the question of certain recent acts of violence that might be expected to be discussed at the next March day.

The enchantment thus endured through both courses and the following pastries, its magic wafting the group through again to the parlour, where sweeter, spiced wine followed, and music and games waited patiently for the gathering to turn its attention to them. These entertainments would have to bide their time a little longer, however, as the seating arrangements were not preserved in the journey, and Kate noticed with both relief and trepidation that a few long-overdue interactions now seemed likelier to occur. There were still no signs of excessive consumption in any of the guests, but all were suitably relaxed, and guards had come down. A certain nonchalance crept into the discussion, which Kate decided would be greatly aided if her daughter would kindly show her back into the room in which they had dined, to tell her some more about how they had got the jasmine flowering so well.

Unconsciously, the men responded to the new absence of a female presence in the room. Talk took on a more military nature, and Jerott realised mildly that he had not yet had the opportunity to confirm with Danny Hislop the details of their onward journey to Malta and the Order of the Cross of St. John.

Archie was the first one to notice the significant, chilly pauses in conversation; the hard-edged replies of two people trying to establish boundaries, one pushing forwards, the other setting up a defence. Jerott’s voice began to rise noticeably above the others in the room, demanding “and what, exactly, were you doing there?” of a gently smiling Danny Hislop.

Slinking between guests and furniture, and sharing a brief look with Lymond, Archie circled the pair. Jerott looked furious, whilst Danny’s expression was one of querulous innocence. Closing in, Archie paid no attention to whatever Danny’s glib reply was, concentrating instead on intercepting Jerott’s arm as it rose inevitably towards the other man’s face.

Danny blinked rapidly, but his grin remained.

Jerott did not need to look to know it was Archie’s grip, tight as a sailor’s knot on his forearm. He flexed his muscles against it once and then relaxed his shoulder, glowering at Danny until Archie released him.

Danny shrugged. “Oh the shame! To know only the tender touch of the wife and not the husband...”

This time, despite his proximity, Archie could do nothing. Jerott’s arm snaked past any attempt to hold it and his fist landed with a resounding crack. Prepared, Danny rolled with it, catching his balance against a chair back and letting out a cackle even before Jerott had fully turned away.

“For God’s sake, Danny,” Adam Blacklock muttered, adding his support to that of the chair as Danny rubbed at his reddening jaw.

“Now why’d you let him do that?” Archie tutted at Jerott, placing himself between his back and the clear path to Danny in case it occurred to Mr Blyth to turn around again and continue the conversation.

Jerott kept walking away though, his eyes down and a raging colour showing at the back of his neck. Archie followed him to the trestle where the wine stood and observed Jerott’s determination not to look up at anyone — especially not anyone standing where Francis had been standing — as he poured.

Adam was asking a very similar question when Lymond joined him and the party that had clustered about Danny. The blue eyes were pale, and hard enough to make Danny squirm with a hint of embarrassment.

“Oh, come now. He looked like he needed to hit something.”

“That's just Jerott,” Adam reminded him.

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t provoke the other guests, Danny,” said the former Voevoda Bolshoia.

Danny rolled his chin so that his sandy curls flopped across his brow, and he managed a suitably chastened look for Lymond’s benefit. “I didn't say anything, I just made it clear that I wouldn’t be going to Malta with him,” he raised a shoulder and pushed himself away from the chair, testing his legs’ resilience and finding that the blow still seemed to tingle through the nerves of his limbs.

Francis Crawford watched him shake his legs out uncertainly and, to Danny, the carefully controlled expression indicated that Francis felt Danny had gotten what he’d deserved. “You discussed what happened at Blois?”

Danny sighed, the mischief finally dissipating from his eyes a little. “I just said that if I’d known what she was planning when I went, I’d have worn my pauldrons too...”

Archie, meanwhile, was hoping to get a word in edgeways in the new and scintillating discussion Jerott was having with the Spanish tenture.

“You know he means nae harm of it. He went to Blois in case Marthe turned up anything that might’ve been used against Francis.”

Jerott seemed to ask, “and did she?” more of the glass in his hand than Archie, so Archie prudently decided to ignore the question.

“Danny’s all maw, but you ken he still looks up to you, don’t you?”

Archie maintained stillness and carefully avoided eye-contact, as he knew was best. The glass paused on its way to Jerott’s mouth, and he fixed Archie with a wide-pupiled stare, his lips twisted into a half-hearted sneer whose feeling wasn’t really matched by the rest of his expression.

The beetly brows were lowered, making Archie’s lined, wind-worn forehead look larger than usual. In the sharp shadows cast by wavering candles his eyes somehow seemed brighter than they had under a wide Mediterranean sky. He had never been a man to take lightly, but now Jerott’s knuckles throbbed and he felt the uneasiness of the room on his shoulders. With a dramatic sigh. He put the glass down hard enough to splash liquid across the back of his hand, picked up a second glass and began to fill it.

“He shouldn’t have gone. He must have provoked her…”

“Aye,” said Archie softly. “And we know what would have happened had she not been provoked.”

Jerott looked sickened, a glass in each hand, his skin pallid between dark hair and dark doublet. Archie wondered for a moment if he would raise each glass to his mouth, one after the other.

Meanwhile, Lymond had left Danny chastened, his eyes speaking a reminder of the strict assertion that, despite what Danny claimed, he had neither seen nor heard anything of truth at Blois. Now he interrupted Jerott as the shorter man returned to Danny, a liquid peace offering in his hand. The commander of St Mary’s was returned in Lymond’s marble-pale face, in his stiff spine, straight as a whipping post, and the serious lines around his mouth. Lymond lifted his chin and Jerott waited, defiant under the familiar change of aspect.

“If Mr Hislop insists on being provocative I trust you to recognise it and ignore it.” Lymond’s glance flickered down to the glasses in Jerott’s hands. “St Mary’s is no longer a barracks.”

Jerott managed a grim nod, and then the two men moved past each other with relief.

“Why did you nae just talk to him at Midculter?” Archie muttered, facing the wall as Lymond poured wine into his own vessel.

A slight element of impatience creeping into his gestures, the host snorted silently and pinned Archie with those mutable blue eyes. “Let Jerott decide for himself which error of judgement he most regrets. He has been absolved, I can do no more.”

Archie’s mouth was open to respond, but Francis turned away as Philippa and Kate re-entered the room, the tension gone from his shoulders as he offered his wife an easy smile. Philippa beamed back, but Kate’s brow creased a little at the sight of Danny’s purpling jaw. Still, his own lips curved happily as he gave Jerott a candid look over the rim of his glass.

“I think she surprised herself, even,” Danny had been saying.

Jerott looked down into the drink clasped between his two hands, searching for elusive meaning in its honey-shimmered surface. He had never intended to go back to her. Had never intended to have any further contact or think of her again more than was inevitable with Francis around. Why was the pain so different now that he could not go back?

Sluggishly, he realised he should respond, or Danny would never stop looking at him. “She surprised everyone.”

They both glanced across the room as Francis’ voice carried in uplifted tones. Philippa, sitting at the virginal, grinned up at her husband: an expanse of white neck broken only by an elaborate network of freshwater pearls. Her long fingers scampered across the keys, and the instrument made its own delighted sound to match Francis’ laughter.

“It wasn’t curiosity,” Danny said abruptly, not turning away from the merry pair.

“What?”

“You said we were all coming to Scotland out of curiosity. In Amiens. It’s what Guthrie said he was going for.”

Jerott gaped at Danny and willed him to stop talking, a cold shiver crossing his shoulders.

“It’s not belief either, though I suppose I can see why the two would be confused.” Danny winced as he took a sip of wine and gingerly touched his fingertips to his jaw. Jerott knew how to punch in a way to cause maximum damage to the other person, and minimum pain to himself. The fact that his fist had landed on the hard bone of Danny’s jaw, bringing up a seething bruise in no time at all and leaving Jerott’s own hand aching, must also have been a deliberate choice.

When Danny added: “it’s love. Pure and simple and no use denying it,” Jerott’s head was thrown back as he drained his glass.

Looking at the pattern on the carpet, Jerott fought through the haze of inexplicably summoned anger. “In the next weeks, I will be returning to Malta. If that’s your reason for staying, then stay.” He stood and stalked back to the wine.

Once, he had made a promise about love, and it had seemed such a simple promise to keep. But then Elizabeth had died, and there was no one to hold him to his promise. He had put it into safekeeping with the Order of the Cross of St John, or at least with a man who wore their garb. And then he had been careful to make no such promises in Lyons, in his first time in that grand old house. He had thought he was there to hold Francis’ feelings to account, not his own.

Behind him, the virginal picked up a tune and trilled its notes soothingly over them all, and Jerott composed himself over the trestle of drink, turning to offer a tight smile and a raised glass to Adam Blacklock’s querulous look. He took his seat and listened to Philippa play, before Lymond himself picked up the lute and began to sing a tune in Russian that made Guthrie and Hoddim, Blacklock and Hislop bawl with laughter. Francis started to work in translations as he went, and despite himself, Jerott allowed the corner of his mouth to be pulled up.

Love was something that could be used against you. The knife that your wife would take and work between your ribs or hold to your throat. Something to be slipped, bitter as poison, into your drink. The thing that made you doubt you were really reading the situation correctly. Better to turn to wine and be certain of why your senses could not be trusted. Love made one try to defy impossible odds, ignore the very real warning signs, clutch needily at the moments where life seemed to look at one directly and recognise one’s motives, and to reward one rather than punish. Love split you wide open, like sword to flesh.

 

Chapter Text

His hede maye be harde, but feble is his brayne.
Yet have I knowen suche er this;
But of reproche surely he maye not mys
That clymmeth hyer than he may fotynge have;
What and he slyde downe, who shall hym save?


 

When the royal and noble houses of Europe and her neighbours have had their use of one, their pursuits and pastimes become soiled. Hunting — with and for any animal one would care to name — displays of horsemanship, archery contests and wrestling all rather lost their courtly sheen when all had been used as a weapon against one. With determination, one might resolve to pry music back from their oozing grasp, but what else was left for the young landholder to use as entertainment for his guests? There should be no need to concern oneself with impressing the men who have seen one blind with pain, raving in the sickness of withdrawal, wasted by sword, fire, beast and water. But one would not want to disappoint, either. As the youngest son, heir only in the eyes of his mother, it might be with irony that a gentleman should turn to the sports of the commoners. Irony, however, soon withered in the presence of a honed intellect and fiercely competitive nature.

Nestled in the arms of the Tweedsmuir hills was a small, flat tarn, whose edges had been cleared of sedge and reeds before winter took hold of it. The rigs surrounding the still depths kept them blanketed in cold shadow, and the ice covering the tarn’s surface had grown thick and even. Now swept out from under a recent snowfall, smoothed and tested by Archie Abernethy and some men of knowledge from the surrounding farms, the tarn was ready for the activity of a short winter’s day. To the gleaming, slick expanse were brought flattened globes of granite with iron handles protruding, and the surface of the ice was scored and marked with targets and lines. The sight was a familiar one to all the men present at St Mary’s, though the Englishwomen wondered a little, laughing at the set-up that greeted them after a crisp ride through grassy lanes that twisted up the hillside.

“The roaring game!” Fergie Hoddim announced, startling a nearby pheasant from the dreamy, frozen silence. Horses side-stepped at the crash of wings, bridles and spurs jangled, and murmurs of interest filled the air. Francis Crawford, who had dismounted ahead of the others and stood at the lakeside with Archie Abernethy, smiled at his guests.

“Most of you, I expect, have seen curling played on the ponds and pools hereabouts, but have never joined in. In actual fact, it is not so different from boules. Today we will prove that sport can be had without the need for arrows to fly or blood to be spilled.”

Jerott Blyth winced at the certain provocation of Francis’ last words but dismounted along with the others and tramped obediently across the short distance to the tarn.

The rules were simple, and the teams divided evenly (with Archie insisting that a neutral judge remained necessary for scoring purposes). The grizzled elephant trainer, tidy in clean-cut and fine cloth, had no stake in the drive to win just to be able to claim victory. He positioned himself at the head of the tarn and surveyed the action along a long central line.

Despite lingering doubts about the entertainment value of something usually played by peasants on ponds, the other men — soldiers and raconteurs, academics, lawyers, mercenaries — soon found themselves caught by the need to dominate. Philippa was not immune either, her brown eyes large and glittering against the pale landscape, her cheeks red with stubborn excitement. Kate let herself take matters just as seriously as they warranted, but she was damned if she would let her daughter show her up in every aspect of life.

Following demonstrations by Lymond, with assistance from Fergie, who remembered the game best from his youth, they divided into two teams. Danny gesticulated awkwardly with his recovering arm as Fergie, Kate and Adam scrambled to follow his instructions, though he was clearly infuriated that his injury prevented him from picking up one of the granites himself. In turn, Jerott shouted instructions for Lymond, Philippa and Alec, trying not to question the reasons Francis has chosen him to be the other caller along with Danny. The morning sped by with no time for the players to consider the cold: stones were launched at a painted target on the ice, and brushes made of dry reeds were switched across the path of the sliding missiles, with the aim of affecting their course. One after the other, the stones growled over the icy pebbling that covered the tarn, pursued by Philippa’s high shout, Adam’s muttered invective, or the slow hiss of determination that escaped from Alec Guthrie’s gritted teeth. The goal of getting all eight of a team’s stones as close as possible to the target — and, ideally, of knocking the opposing team’s stones clear — was enough to encourage spiteful play, and more than once Archie had to skip delicately to prevent a rogue stone from colliding with his chilled toes.

At the brightest point of the day, under a sky that was the same buffed white as the wild hares, a handful of Lymond’s men arrived from St Mary’s with gently steaming casks of warm spiced beer, fresh bread that was not long out of the ovens, and cheeses and meats. The party gathered at a trestle set up by the tarn, stamping feet and cradling drinking vessels to stay warm.

The scores were not far from even, though a last, fervently aggressive shot by Kate Somerville had knocked one of the other team’s stones far off the zone around the target. Since the shot, and throughout the lunch, Adam Blacklock looked at her with a dazed and wondering expression, his cheeks and nose a somewhat luminous pink in the cold, the colour making the long scar across his features a pale blaze. Fergie and Alec speculated on the likely popularity of such a game at the Russian court, considering the ways in which the game might be altered to suit foreign tastes.

“There’s nae enough bloodshed to satisfy yon boylars...”

“They’d take a condemned man, strap him to the ice, and make his head the button.”

“Hum! Punishment for a more successful hunt than the Tsar? Age quod agis.”

Jerott pinned the two scholars with an unreadable look. “You miss it, don't you? Though it is such a barbarous place?”

Guthrie glanced over at Lymond. “It’s a hard country not to miss. Hard to be in, but so singular in its people and its land. I’ll never be in a place like that again.”

“You could return? Join Jenkinson? He’d have use of men versed in the language and customs of his trading partners.”

“No, I expect our acquaintance with yon formally esteemed Voevoda would make that a tough prospect,” Fergie responded softly.

“So he has closed that path to you as well as to himself?”

The older men exchanged a look, and Guthrie sighed. “And no harm in that. Russia’s an exciting prospect, to be sure, but only when handled the right way. There’ll be near as much scope for our expertise here at home, with Knox agitating the way he is.”

“And no doubt yon new queen in London will want to have her say on the marches as well as other matters,” Fergie added.

“I’d say that’s more than enough excitement,” said Guthrie with finality, which Jerott accepted with a stiff nod. He turned to find conversation elsewhere but was arrested by Fergie’s swift hand, which gripped his sleeve.

“Ye’ll have heard about Willie Grey.” At his lack of response, Fergie dropped his hold and lowered his tone to conspiratorial levels, while Alec Guthrie circumspectly moved away to find himself another helping of cured meats. “He’s been back a few weeks now. Asking questions about the events of last autumn.”

Jerott’s shoulders tensed, his face hard. “I have nothing to answer for.”

“No indeed. The law’s with ye, and witnesses to back ye up. But when march day comes around the whole sordid mess will have to be explained to the Wardens.”

“Then you may explain it to them on my behalf. I will be in Malta by then.”

Fergie’s grey eyes scanned Jerott’s face, flickering across that unreadable scowl as though he were trying to work out a knotty sentence of Latin, or assess the value of an uncertain testimony. “Is that so?” He leaned back at last, his wiry beard jutting out as he worked his jaw over unspoken words. “Aye. Well then, Grey will be dealt with. Though, if ye did happen to be here, I’d be honoured to speak for ye.”

Jerott managed a grunt of thanks that was not entirely begrudging and returned to the frozen tarn vexed and distracted for the afternoon's play. It did not show in his orders though, and the lead gained by Danny’s team was soon reduced by Jerott’s grim, humourless determination.

In the final end of the match, weariness and winter’s bite beginning to take their toll, the encouragement on both sides grew more fractious, and when either team’s stone was knocked off course the complaints were more heartfelt. Sensing the waning mood, Lymond made an extravagant effort with the brush on Philippa’s final throw, scrubbing the surface of the ice so that his elbows reared wildly, and his shining golden hair danced in absurd patterns about his face. He let his feet slip and slide on the slick surface of the tarn, adding in a colourful array of language that soon had his bride and most of the party doubled over, their laughter ringing around the hilltop. Jerott continued his directions through this, sure that Francis’ tomfoolery would lose them the match as the stone scored its lazy arc across the ice, wheeling gently, coquettishly around the line he intended Francis to aim for.

He did not see the granite complete its journey, clicking into place against a stone thrown earlier by Guthrie and nestling itself on top of the painted button. At this point, when Francis raised the brush from the ice, the broad grin on his features was obscured by a cascade of glittering white powder. To the men who had seen that versatile body felled suddenly before, there was a moment of horror, but Philippa’s accusatory shout was not fearful. Kate Somerville stood with her hands covering her mouth, astonished by her own pluck, and soon found herself needing to duck her daughter’s retaliatory shot.

It did not take much to persuade the others that the game of curling had been lost and won, and that only snowballs might even the score (or extend the victory). As the group scattered to the edges of the lake, reaching for the piled-up snow that had been swept from the area of play, Jerott offered a superfluous hand to Francis Crawford. The leader of men, Comte and Marshal of the Order, groaned good-naturedly from where he lay on his back, the glitter of winter marring the stylish cut of his dyed jerkin. Regarding the chill-pale, bare fingers extended to him, Lymond smiled, and for a moment it was as though the sky had cleared to a bright, piercing blue that was reflected in his eyes. He accepted Jerott’s hand and got up from the ice lightly as Kate trotted over with skirts swaying, a laugh and an apology on her lips.

“Now, Kate, don’t be disingenuous,” Francis admonished. “I can see you preparing the mortal blow to finish me off.” Without warning, he ducked behind Jerott, who took the brunt of Kate’s second shot on his chin.

The snow was the ephemeral, fine stuff that was produced by a clenched sky, too cold to release much moisture: Kate’s shot exploded with a hiss, fizzing on his skin and getting in eyes and nose and hair. The widow of Flaw Valleys uttered a squeak and skidded away again, weaving and failing to avoid Lymond’s longer shot from the edge of the tarn, a shooting star that had lost much of its volume before it even hit her.

Jerott shook the powder from his hair, blinking to catch up and sidling around Danny Hislop’s shot more successfully as he, too, made for the deposits of cleared snow. Danny took a vicious joy in the opportunity to line up targets with weaponry whose use was not impeded by his weaker arm, and he did not care whether he hit his own teammates, his opponents, or Archie Abernethy, who wearily conceded that the only way to beat them would inevitably be to join them.

Soon the teams disintegrated, and numb toes were forgotten in a scramble of glee. Expensive Hexham tans darkened and stained with melted snow, fur trim matted into damp spikes like those on the blackthorn bushes, and feathered caps clung precariously to heads that ducked and wove as hair came loose from fine silk nets and jewelled pins.

Breathing heavily with the effort of staying upright on the well-trodden ice, Jerott followed tactics he would not have known how to avoid using: he knew roughly where all the others were at any given point, he used oblivious bodies as cover when he saw someone beyond them target him, and he had no qualms about hitting the same person twice in a row with a loosely wadded handful of icy powder.

There was not always much distance to be had from shots with the fine snow, and, with little enough strength in his throwing arm anyway, Danny determinedly pressed handfuls of the crystals together, accepting Jerott’s bombardment in the meantime and deciding that vengeance would be sweeter when taken with the missile he was still fashioning. Finally, as his assailant decided the provocation had not worked and turned to find a new victim, Danny hefted the icy lump and hurled it at the dark, flushed cheek half-turned from him. Disappointingly, almost lazily, Jerott leaned out of the way of the shot without turning, and its momentum took it past his face to land on Philippa’s smooth skin. She gave a yelp, one hand jumping to her cheek even as she turned to fire back. Her aim found Jerott, who was still between her and Danny, and even as he moved to grab a new handful of snow to return fire, she made a loud tut of surprise, drawing her gloved fingers from her face to see drops of thin-looking blood on the leather.

“Philippa!” Jerott stopped, releasing the handful of glitter he had been gathering.

She tossed her head and smudged fingers over the tiny pink graze, leaving a streak of marigold blood across her cheekbone. “It’s nothing,” she told him, returning her attention to the snowball she was forming and fixing the stricken-looking Danny with a narrow-eyed, vengeful glare. “Daniel Hislop, you'll be picking ice out of your curls for months if this scars,” she darted at him, and Danny, too taken with self-preservation to let her have an easy shot, made a dash across the ice, skidding and steadying himself with a touch of fingers to its surface as he folded forwards in his hurry.

Jerott also pursued him as Danny managed to evade Philippa’s next shots, and, nearing the edge of the tarn, he launched himself unsteadily at one of Danny’s trailing feet, tapping it with the longest reach he could manage so that the two of them tumbled to the ice, rolling, swearing and laughing until Danny came to a stop against Lymond’s shins. With ease, Lymond grabbed fistfuls of clothing and flipped his captive onto his back against the ice as Philippa ran to catch up, her skirts held high before her and a collection of unevenly packed snowballs jostling in the velvet cradle formed by the material. Danny saw what was coming and squirmed with exaggerated pleas for mercy until Jerott flopped his weight over the other man’s feet, holding him down so that Philippa could dish out the disintegrating clutches of dry crystals over his face and head.

Francis encouraged her, bent over Danny’s pink face and peachy hair, snow caught in his own fine lashes and the blood high in his cheeks. The contrast in expression, vitality and sheer vividness of colour could not have been greater with the man who had lain passive in Jerott’s hold on the floor of a hostel in Amiens.

“Justice! Justice! Where is my justice, Fergie?” Danny laughed from beneath the damp, snowy cascade of his hair.

The others had gathered around behind Philippa to watch, and Fergie stroked his beard thoughtfully to respond “Qui sine peccato est vestrum...” he looked meaningfully at Philippa, who grinned back in a way that made Jerott suddenly notice the cold of the lake’s surface under his knees. With the kind of premonition that had saved his life many times before, Jerott glanced uneasily up at Francis, who returned his gaze, serious in all but his sparkling blue eyes.

“Get them!” Philippa ordered, even as Jerott was disentangling himself from Danny’s legs and scrambling to stand. Helping themselves to a gathering of snowballs held in Kate’s skirts, the rest of the group turned their fire on Jerott and Lymond, who abandoned their hold on Danny and retreated under a bombardment of sparkling white fire.

“The horses,” Francis gasped through laughter and exertion, nodding his head in the direction of their mounts, who had been left blanketed and pawing in a desultory fashion at the frosty grass since lunch.

They threw the woven cloth off their saddles and hunched shoulders against their mounts, pulling girths tight as their pursuers stumbled across the ground after them.

The day’s entertainment thus ended in emergency decampment, as Lymond and Jerott urged their animals into a hasty canter over the top of the rig and down the steeper paths towards the loch. The others mounted more slowly, accepting that the snowball fight was over and that a quick, hot ride would keep them from thinking about heaviness of dampening clothes that chilled one beneath a purpling sky.

Far ahead of them, no longer riding as though driven, but loosening their reigns on the flattening slopes and maintained paths, Jerott and Lymond kept pace with one another. In the dusk, as Jerott’s black hair seemed to sap light from its surroundings, so Lymond’s drew all available brightness to it, a guttering candle against the grey winter countryside.

 

Chapter Text

 

Dulcis amica dei,
Rosa vernans, Stella decora,
tu memor esto mei
dum mortis venerit hora.


 

It could not have been said that they raced one another, vying for victory, nor that one simply followed the other's lead. Francis turned over his shoulder with a smile, his white teeth glinting dangerously, and Jerott’s corresponding expression was just as feral. Shoulder to shoulder, Jerott brought his horse in line as they clattered around a sharp corner, balance shifting minutely, legs lengthening and hips shifting so that they sat steady as their horses’ hooves found sure footing on the cold ground. Gorse bushes extended jealous arms into the path, narrowing the way so that the parallel riders’ knees and elbows bumped and jostled one another.

The deepening darkness was heralded by a wind that numbed the skin of their cheeks, as at last Jerott and Francis slowed their horses on their approach to the icier paths by the loch shore. St Mary’s Loch was as smooth as Italian glass, the sky a baleful green reflected on its shimmering surface. The laughter that broke from their mouths seemed to come from other people, returning unfamiliar and loud as the landscape bounced it back to them in the crisp dusk air. The drum and crackle of the other horses’ hooves was still some distance behind them, clearing its way only gradually through the hush of evening.

Coming to an easy pace by Francis' side, Jerott felt a coil of despair tighten in his chest, though the smile on his lips had not yet fully faded. He looked into the darkening path and thought wildly of continuing to race onwards: of the two of them speeding their horses on again, riding faster and faster, a clatter over the hard stones that would fade as they pushed right through into the night, leaving even the surface of the earth behind. It was a thought unfamiliar in its fancy, something unanchored that made him feel dizzy and drop a hand to his saddle pommel to make sure he did not drift bodily away, dissolving into the darkness that he had imagined himself and the other rider disappearing into.

He glanced over at Lymond uneasily and saw in those pale features the lake’s fey light reflected. Francis looked ahead, and Jerott wondered whether he, too, thought of their display at the Aga Morat's horse show. Whether he, too, could find joy in that memory, even knowing what it led to; what had led them there. Strange to think that he would have picked that parched afternoon, of all the events of his life, as one that seemed to him among the happiest. Maybe because of the contrasting horrors that came before and after — maybe despite them. But looking back, Jerott recognised that he had affixed something to their friendship that day, and though it was a cord that had been stretched and pulled taut, tangled around Aleppo, Volos, Moscow, Lyons, it had remained firm.

Lymond had sent him to Aleppo with Marthe; Lymond had left Volos alone. But now it was Jerott who strained against the attachment, driven to renew the distance between them by shame and grief. To leave behind the consequences and bury himself in the familiar insularity of his Langue and his prayers and the maintenance of his armour.

They rode in silence for a few moments, through which Jerott’s mind struggled between imagining the life he thought he could return to, and the life he supposed Lymond must now pick up here at St Mary's. It was only a few months past that Francis had been ushered back to his homeland, hollowed-out, fragile, skin thin as parchment. His eyes had seemed to see only an unattainable horizon: something well beyond his reach that he just could not give up on, the image of which gave him just enough reason to hold himself together.

He had Philippa now, but what else did his future here in Scotland hold? The queen and her mother would expect unstinting, obsequious loyalty after the many misunderstandings, rejections and defections that had occurred since he had tried to establish an army at St Mary’s. The choice not to serve them, regent and queen, might not be his to make; and even had it been, the process of learning anew how to live in a state of peaceful housekeeping would be a long one, with no respect guaranteed for either the peace or the house if Scotland’s religions did turn openly against one another.

Both men looked in front of them as their horses walked gaily towards the source of shelter and hay and a welcome rub down. Even as Jerott resolved to speak it was Francis who got his words out first. “You are determined still to return to Malta.”

“I am.”

“For Christ’s sake, Jerott, why?” Jerott blinked at the change of tone, looking up to see the quirk of amusement at Francis’ mouth vie with a frown of genuine impatience.

In answer to the question a monstrous jumble of reasons presented themselves, thorny and tangled and tough as the old brambles coiling by the side of the path they followed. It’s different this time. These words had been enough for Sibylla, but they shrivelled weakly before Lymond’s scrutiny. Blandly, Jerott shrugged, surprise at Francis’ response outweighing his more defensive reasoning. “The Ottoman hold in Abyssinia is tightening, and there is still so much to be rebuilt.”

Francis let out an exasperated breath. “How will an extra mouth to feed help when the people are already starving? I’ve seen your mill-craft, Jerott, and it leaves something to be desired.”

Despite the cold breeze against snow-damp knees and cuffs, Jerott’s cheeks warmed instantly at the reminder of the mission at Dieppe. It was a simple distraction: since the tornado of 1556, Malta’s mills had been rebuilt under de la Sengle’s direction. Malta’s need now was for its fortifications to be replenished. And yet — Francis knew just what to say to drive Jerott’s reason off course. His temper rose at the levity in the other man’s voice when he referred to a night on which he had become enfolded in fire and shrapnel, water and timber roiling together, gunpowder pressing air and heat below the surface of water, casting spume and slime into the night sky.

Slowly, in the dark, Jerott raised a finger to stroke at a purple, recent scar on the back of his own hand. It might have been from that night, from casting aside debris as he plunged again and again below the waterline, his throat hoarse from holding his breath and then gasping, shouting one name over and over in the acrid, sooty atmosphere. It might not have been from then. It might have been from any affray conducted between Lyons and La Mer de France. But he had saved the body of Francis Crawford that night, despite its host’s best attempts otherwise. The memory, and those that followed it, poured the fuel of guilt onto his chagrin.

Finally, feeling like he should have a response, though Francis rode in inscrutable silence in the darkness nearby, Jerott asked moodily “well, what alternative do I have?”

“Do you even need to ask? France is spoiling for trouble, Knox is rumoured to be on his way back, and no country has barred you from its lands. Make war, by all means, but don’t go back to that rock of antiquated hypocrites.”

“You would prefer it if I stayed here, and took up arms against Knox? Or should I support you and your brother in overturning the faith of this land? ”

Jerott flinched at his own tone, like he had touched an open wound, diagnostic fingers probing the edges too hard. Yet, once more, it was Francis’ easy reply that supplied a worse hurt: “Don’t be obtuse, Jerott. Scotland needs cool heads to guide her past both Scylla and Charybdis, but you have skills that are in demand across Europe and beyond it. Don’t place yourself in the yoke of the Order once more, not for the sake of the radiant Marthe.”

“It’s not like that,” he snapped.

“No? No,” Francis’ voice softened abruptly, and he kept his gaze on the buildings they drew near to.

Fuming, Jerott observed his knuckles whiten as his hands tightened into fists on the reigns. His mare twitched her ears and jerked her head questioningly, but no further command came, so she walked on with a skittish flourish to her steps.

What was love but the loyalty of service, and devotion to something that no one else would maintain? He was aware that people had spoken about him as some sort of heir apparent to Lymond over the years, but he had never needed ambition beyond the desire to serve. Love was catching a glimpse of a world that lacked something — someone — and refusing to accept its reality. Seeing only the despair of loss for so long, until, belatedly, one realised that the other despair was greater, and that all one had done was prolong an unknowable, untouchable agony. A hasty retraction, an apology of grief and guilt. A last, desperate bid for a controlling stake in that other life. Now, all out, it was better to return to a simpler kind of service: confined, constrained, conservative.

Jerott almost spoke then, almost tried to explain. The breath he let out through flared nostrils, his glare firmly on the now blackly camouflaged lake, was, however, interrupted by the jangle of bridles nearby, and he realised that the rest of the party had caught up. He ground his teeth together and remained silent.

 

Chapter Text

 

Âşık imiş her ne var ‘âlem
‘İlm bir kîl ü kâl imiş ancak


 

“Oh, your hand!”

Philippa’s gloves were still damp when her strong, small fingers closed on his wrist. In truth, he had not noticed the blood that had welled and already dried in the cleft between thumb and forefinger. The cold had bitten hard, chapping and cracking the tough skin of a callus there, and now his hand was freckled with the blood that had spread and dried in the lines and creases of his body’s structure.

Jerott shrugged. “It’s nothing.”

“Let me bind it,” she was striding through the hallways of her and Lymond’s home, certainly not strong enough to move him if he did not choose to be moved, but with that authoritative Somerville hold that made it seem futile to challenge.

Philippa led them to a room annexed from the kitchens: low stone arches and wooden shelves covered in glass jars and drying bundles of plants. She plucked off her gloves and laid them on a table with a hard slap, bustling at pots and containers while Jerott struggled not to seem impatient. When she finally turned to him, the expression she wore made him pause.

“He will miss it, won’t he?”

Jerott blinked, his hand held dumbly between them as Philippa scrutinised him. “What?”

She bit her lip, crisply shaped brows drawn together. “Francis. He will miss what he had in France. In Russia. The campaigns, the army. This … peace … what if it doesn’t last?”

“Philippa! What you have — both of you — don’t waste it worrying about things that will never happen.” He was surprised at the sudden heat that spread across his chest; colour, visible feeling, clawing its way up to his neck. Speech that had been lost out in the darkness, scattered by the cool, certain tones of Lymond’s voice, suddenly came back in a rush, although with words that still seemed inadequate for conveying what he felt. “Why on earth would he miss France when you are here?”

She blushed too at that, and looked down, finally taking his hand and rubbing the brown speckle of dried blood away. “I’m just afraid that Scotland will not always be enough,” she spoke to his palm.

“You will be enough,” he said it feelingly, and she glanced up, warm brown eyes — so many more colours in them than he remembered there being in Elizabeth’s — flickering perceptively over his features. He felt the tiredness of his muscles after the day’s exertions: a subtle, unexpected weariness in the full body, lulled now by the warmth of indoors. He thought of a long ride west, and a conversation he had pursued recklessly. “All that he wants is here. Music.”

Philippa, who had now been dabbing some yellowish ointment on the tiny rift in his skin, waited, quizzical when he did not add more. Jerott shook his head. “He told me once. Music. With you he has that. He will not miss war.”

He did not know how to say anything further, and Philippa seemed to understand. She smiled and squeezed his hand gently, finishing the knot on the scrap of linen she had wound around his palm.

“Do you think I need the same?” she indicated the graze on her cheek with the tip of one long finger, the merry glint in her eye renewed.

Jerott shook his head with a laugh he could not suppress, and Philippa took his arm and led them back to the upper floor. The guests had dispersed to change out of wet clothes, stretching aching limbs before replenished fireplaces, and the parlour waited empty and expectant.

When Jerott entered it again he thought at first it was unoccupied. He felt warm, revived, as though he had been scrubbed clean by the cold and the light of the winter sky reflected by snow and ice. The parlour was a room that could appear large or small depending upon the needs of the hosts, and at present, as he walked across its patterned carpets, it seemed vast: the dark wood of the furniture retreated to its edges, the fireplace cast deep shadows. But as he crossed the hearth, Jerott heard a string call out a low note, a sound that wove unobtrusively around the crackling flames. Adam Blacklock sat in a tall-backed chair in a pocket of the room beyond the reach of the fire’s light. His dark hair hung across his brow as he lent over the lute, engaged in some private conversation with it, its sounds not meant to travel beyond the immediate space surrounding him.

He glanced up as Jerott moved silently in front of him, taking a chair nearby with a brief nod. Adam’s brows lifted in recognition, then he turned back to the instrument, caressing further notes from it as the room settled into a more intimate size, suitable for two old friends to sit in easy company.

Leaning his head back against the upholstery, Jerott closed his eyes and listened to Adam play, but he was unable to recognise the tune. Adam did not perform now that he had company: he merely continued to make sound, honestly and without pretentions. Pleasantly tired, bathed in the warmth of fire and soft strings sounding, shuttered behind his closed eyelids, Jerott could not say when he first noticed the chill of dampness on his lashes. He had been thinking of the fact that he had never heard Marthe play like Adam was now playing: unselfconsciously, for nothing other than the pleasure of making music. He would hear the notes drifting through the dusty corridors and cluttered rooms at Lyons, and once, he had thought to find their source, to sit and bask in the talents of the extraordinary person who could coax such feeling from dumb wood and the innards of some unfortunate animal. That had gone poorly. The details of their disagreement had blended with those of all the others, but it had been made clear that her music was not for him to enjoy. What could his unrefined admiration tell her of her own skills?

Jerott considered the bond Adam had formed with Kate Somerville, and the way in which music had knitted Francis and Philippa closer together. He did not feel deficient or resentful of the fact that he did not create like Adam and Francis and Philippa and Kate did. Like Marthe had. Music was a pleasant enough part of his surroundings, like fine cloth and good wine and scenic countryside. But those who produced it, well, they might attract stronger feelings. It would not be music for the sake of itself that he would miss in Malta.

A breath of cool air from the corridor announced another presence in the room, and Jerott swiped a hand across his eyes, looking across at Adam defensively. Adam’s attention remained on the lute, though the heightened sparkle in Jerott’s eyes did not escape the attention of the figure who stood on the threshold. Francis’ pause was minute, just enough for Philippa’s guiding hand to bring him into the room, while his expression shifted subtly, quickly, between possibilities. His decision to say nothing was visible, and elicited both relief, swift, and, again, a bruised, dull hurt in its aftermath. Still, Jerott gathered himself, blinking and shifting in the chair, ready for events to sweep him up again, to distract and soothe and make him forget all of the reasons he had come here, all of the things that had brought him here and would soon make him restless to leave. He should have abandoned Midculter for a port long ago, not waited for some scrap of sunshine or flash of Damascene realisation. Life did not provide in such ways. Such things had to be worked at, knowingly or unknowingly, by all involved.

Nevertheless, by that evening, and in his own way, it appeared that Francis had engineered an easier atmosphere. The day’s games, following the excruciating politeness of much of the night before, left them all too tired to pretend the past could be entirely forgotten. The enchantment that had troubled Kate had faded to something benevolent, a sense of relief that those who were present had managed to be present despite it all. It did not make for a merrier gathering than the previous night, but perhaps for a more honest one. Absent figures were invited at last to the table: Pierre Gilles, whose hard-won notes had never reached publication before his death; Piero Strozzi, whose laugh could cut through any volume of raucous festivities; and others whose memory could be celebrated, who were easy to miss. Some were known to all who were there; others only to a few; and if loyalty to Francis Crawford remained the uniting feature then that, at least, was a detail carefully avoided. And even if there was laughter to be had in the recollection of a morning selling apples, a caper through the Tushielaw Pass, catharsis would not appear only for the debased coin of unrepentant merriment. Edges must fray, and Philippa clenched one fist tight below the table, and with the other she squeezed Francis’ hand to see the tension tug at the lines around his eyes. Adam rubbed at his scar and smiled at Kate, whose hands toyed with the table covering anxiously because she could not manage to tell Archie in any great detail how Kuzum was doing, and Danny replenished Jerott’s wine without comment.

His mind was on a document, written in meticulous, small script with a thin-nibbed pen. A document that really had not looked very much like a forgery at all. Danny Hislop watched his lord, the host, the Voevoda Bolshoia and rightful holder of the seat of Culter. A fake, he had said.

A fake, Maeve! One that turned the marvellous, murderous Marthe pale as antique marble. Now, Maeve, we know that the Lord and Master is a clever bastard indeed, but so was Dear Sister. And though it pains my ego to say it, magnificent Marthe would not try to kill me for a mere fake.

Danny eyed Jerott through lowered lashes, surreptitious and sly, but with a soft curve to his lips. The other man was already showing colour from the drink, the cheek that was turned to Danny punctuated by a red flush deepened by the day’s cold winds and the room’s high fire. Jerott could not know what Marthe had been carrying when Austin Grey had fired his pistols on her. Had Lymond told him anything? Not of the contents of the documents, surely. Danny raised a hand, exploring the bruising on his jaw again, cool fingertips against swollen, hot skin.

No one mentioned Marthe around the table, of course. What could they possibly have to say about Lymond’s bastard sister, Jerott’s bitch of a wife? She had been a woman so singularly herself that even now Danny could not be certain that any person in that room had truly known what she was. Marthe remained elusive, a point on which unspoken questions settled. She could not be missed, not as someone whose company they would have wanted to share that evening, though Danny supposed Jerott now mourned the idea of her living on in Blois. The possibility that she might have become as content as she had ever been, finding wealth and security in the property left to her by La Dame, but finally released of whatever cruel plot she had been raised to play a role in. Danny could not see it, but perhaps with enough wine he might make the vision real enough for Jerott.

He knew that Lymond’s eyes swept over him with regularity, noticing every word that passed from Danny to Jerott, every drop of wine poured by Danny’s hand. But Danny just smiled sweetly at the growing slur to Jerott’s words, his own voice gently prompting whatever seemed to be appropriate reminiscences from the previous summer’s campaigns. Oh no, Maeve, it’s no good telling him. Brother Blyth needed to hear enough to let him defend the good lady’s honour, and that bruise will fade soon enough. Let him remember now what helps him, and forget what he needs to.

Jerott tossed his black hair back as he set down an empty glass, casting over a smirk that made Danny gasp and raise his own drink swiftly, coughing as the liquid hit the back of his throat with velocity. By the time he had settled himself, the conversation was fixed upon some element of the celebrations that had followed the liberation of Calais. Danny remembered little of those days, but that he could live very happily to a ripe old age without ever hearing Jerott sing again. Nonetheless, he braved a grin and decided the only way to recall events properly would be to endeavour to get just as drunk as they had been then.

 

Chapter Text

 

And wilt thou leave me thus,
That hath loved thee so long
In wealth and woe among?
And is thy heart so strong
As for to leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!


 

Never for to depart, Nother for pain nor smart.” The step had been too soft to hear over the low murmur of the fire, but wood creaked as a graceful form lowered itself into the chair opposite him.

Jerott blinked heavy eyelids and rolled his head against the chair back. One hand rested on a smooth wooden arm, its grip on an emptying glass more secure than it appeared. His other hand lolled over the side of the furniture, fingers close to the neck of a near-finished decanter. The bottle’s contents had been warmed by the dying fire, and his hand felt sticky from the sweetened liquid that had dripped down its surface. With mild surprise, his gaze found Lymond’s: eyes dark with wide pupils, and expression Protean in the half-light.

When Lymond saw that Jerott’s focus had sharpened he allowed a minuscule movement of his lips, a smile hidden by the room’s deep and ever-shifting shadows. He leaned forward and claimed the decanter from Jerott’s close guard, pouring himself a serving in a glass produced as though from thin air.

And wilt thou leave me thus? Say nay, say nay!” his voice a lilting singsong tone that danced around the sound of the fire as Adam’s lute had earlier, Francis gazed into his glass without drinking from it.

Jerott, too tired for poetry, made no reply. In the orange light Francis’ hair looked more like Marthe’s than ever, his fine-boned features fixed in their essential form: the same cheekbones and nose as Marthe; her lashes sparkling in the fire’s glow; her brows troubled with concentration. Jerott shut his eyes again, pressure closing on his throat. How could it be possible to miss someone so intensely even as they sat so close?

“I have no peace from her either, if that consoles you at all,” Francis murmured.

Stung by the fact that, as ever, his thoughts were so transparent to Francis, Jerott drained his glass. Struggling through a tangle of superfluous justifications, he finally said with determination: “I don’t regret leaving her at Amiens.”

“She would have come anyway,” replied Francis. The relief that this apparent sanction evoked was embarrassingly immediate, and Jerott could not meet Francis’ eyes now. “And if it had been you who tried to stop her rather than Danny, there would have been no friendly steel between you.”

A new wave of nausea rolled over Jerott. In battle, you did not think of near-misses, or might-have-beens. You did not stop to regret your actions, to shudder at how close that bullet had been, how you had managed that manoeuvre with your guard as tired and sloppy as it had been. And yet it seemed to be all he could do since the bewilderingly short day last autumn: a part of his mind had been transfixed by the horror of what had happened, a feeling of helpless guilt that was trapped, cornered against the horror of what he had intended.

He looked up quickly, wondering whether Francis could read this, too, on his expression. Now, however, the other man’s eyes were on the embers at the front of the fireplace. He looked peaceful, his shoulders rolled inwards to let his elbows rest on his knees, long-fingered hands cradling his glass like an offering.

Whatever it was that Jerott missed so deeply seemed to lie so close. It was in the memory of moments blown all out of proportion, where Marthe had smiled and said nothing cruel; where she had willingly folded herself against his chest on her retreat from a stale little room in Volos; where money and goods had flowed freely through Lyons and they had been busy, with no time to worry about the feelings that filled the gaps between business. It was a part of the memory of a memory of Elizabeth, nothing more than the sense of someone sweet, and kind; devoted and uncomplicated. It was there, too, in the purity of sensation he could still summon when he thought of two stolen horses, weaving patterns in the North African sand: of having his skills exquisitely tested and matched, of accepting an invitation and following it through as far as he could. The relief he had felt, treading water with aching limbs, his wrist full of fire as the other person he struggled to support grew cool, but breathed at long last, a stable rhythm he could feel passed from body to body below the waters’ unpredictable buffeting.

Where had that relief been on the banks of the thick, sluggish river at Dieppe? All he remembered was the mud and soot on everything, transferred from his hand to Lymond’s hair and back again as Jerott had moved the clinging, wet strands of sullied gold aside, searching for wounds at the hairline; searching for a sign that the eyes were about to open once more.

Jerott looked again at Francis, his face shaded, a near-perfect profile against the firelight. He wondered how it was that someone could wish themselves unmade, could seek to wrench the controls of life from God’s hands and plunge willingly into nothing. And how was it that Jerott himself had been taken in by this impulse, so that he thought the only way to bring peace was to join this conspiracy against the Creator?

“My God,” he groaned, dipping his head to one hand as the words were pulled from his lips. After drink, after cold and heat and food and Danny’s efforts to help him forget everything but the victories, Jerott was worn down to necessity. Subtlety, in any case, always felt like a joke he only recognised belatedly, and one that was inevitably at his expense. “I almost killed you. I thought I had killed you.”

“You did no such thing. Austin Grey thought he had killed me.”

“You don’t understand! I stopped Richard. He could have...”

“He could have gotten himself killed too, and then I’d be wholly without siblings, which would make the homecoming even more miserable, wouldn’t you say?”

Jerott looked with despair at the spot in the fire that had previously held Francis’ attentions and swallowed thirstily. There was an ironic twinge to Lymond’s voice that he could not account for.

“I thought it was kinder. I’m sorry.”

Now Francis stirred, sitting back and surveying him. “So did I, Jerott. How else do you suppose one comes to such a place?”

Finally, Jerott made himself meet Lymond’s eyes again. His expression was open, though not entirely comfortable, it seemed. What good did it do, dredging up memories of a time when he had seen no way forward? Was this conversation just another sacrifice to soothe Jerott’s uneasy conscience? After all, the place of which he spoke must be far behind him: only joy for him and Philippa now, surely.

God help us.

Impulsively, from the dark edge of the fireplace, he thrust a hand out, catching bone and sinew, fingers roughly grazing the edge of starched lace. Francis tensed slightly in anticipation of his grasp, but, like he had on a star-sprinkled night in Djerba, he remained still. Jerott’s hold had not weakened since then, and it was bruising with its soldier’s surety. Both of them looked at that point of contact as Jerott turned Francis’ arm so that the inside of his wrist faced upwards: again, there was neither passivity nor resistance in Francis’ acquiescence to the movement.

There in the warm light of the yellow flames, Jerott saw his hand shake under the urgency of his grip. The delicate fringe of decoration on Francis’ sleeve trembled because of it, even as he shifted his digits to view the contours where blue veins rose to press against thin white skin.

Where the normal landscape of the body should have been there stood a great ridge of scar tissue. A long line that had probably looked steady and certain when new, but now smiled lopsidedly, mockingly at Jerott.

His breath held, his lips open in silent protest, Jerott watched his own thumb move delicately across that scar, his touch light enough to feel the different textures of flesh. The scar itself was smooth as imported silk, edged by unnatural creases where healthy skin puckered against the offense done to it. Coloured by a tongue of pink flame in the fireplace, it looked to him like Marthe’s mouth when she knew she no longer needed words to confound him.

Mesmerised by the sight, by the thought that someone like Francis Crawford could have inflicted this upon his own skin, Jerott could not prevent a thought, elusive as a scrap of ash playing in the hot air of the fire, from fluttering into his mind. His thumb crossed the scar again, and he caught himself with the idea of placing his own mouth over the wound, too. Of trying to find the right mixture of softness and pressure to unlock a response.

Jerott flinched, tightening his hold again before releasing it. He withdrew his hand to the arm of his chair, squeezing fingers against wood and upholstery, his eyes tightly closed.

Lymond watched all of this in stillness, his eyes wide and lips pressed in a tight line. He controlled his breathing carefully, but the rapid rise and fall of his ribcage below his doublet could not be concealed when he watched the colour rise to Jerott’s face, the other man’s expression a taut grimace.

“Do you remember the first time that you saved my life, Jerott?” he tried to make voice as soft as that thumb smoothing over his wrist had been, though his tone, like Jerott’s hand, was a little less than steady.

Jerott drew a breath, his mind rushing gratefully towards the distraction. “Tripoli, I expect.”

“I had been thinking of earlier,” was the response. “At Solway. I was about to embark upon what, in hindsight, would have been a futile task. I saw the men heading back to the river and thought I could stop them, but then I noticed you, bellowing like a bull, unhorsed and trying to pull some fool Scott from the mud as the English approached.”

“Robbie. He’d got his leg stuck under the gun trying to drag it through the mire,” Jerott added, trying not to notice the tingle of heat he felt under Francis’ smile.

“Yes. I came back to help you, and was not drowned in the Esk alongside the others.”

Jerott shook his head and looked at his knees, his black hair falling about his face. They had got Robbie out, and Jerott had struggled with him to the ford, but Francis had slipped away again in the crowds of panicked Scotsmen, drawing the focus of those around him like the bright centre of a vortex, refusing to let the fight die while there were men to be rallied. But what could one boy do against such demoralisation, such heavy, clinging mud? Francis had been swept up with the other pledges, while Jerott had limped home from his first battle, the bewildered young recipient of his father's lands and goods.

If one could be said to have saved another, with no knowledge of having done so, by merely carrying on as one would have done anyway — unobserved, unsupported — and one could save a future by letting another die, was it so strange that one could love a person and yet be unable to look upon their face?

Love was too unwieldy a force for man to hold. It seemed to support all of his selfish needs, murmuring justifications in his ears: you are angry because you love, you fail because you love. And then it twisted in his arms and revealed its hidden face, betraying those sweet nothings, showing them for what they were: you are angry because you want and cannot have. You fail because love itself, your love, is not enough to hold the world together. Love picks its battles carefully, its sides indiscriminately.

Jerott stood and paused for a moment, his knees made liquid by drink and long hours brooding by the fire. He steadied himself on the arm of the chair and looked down at Lymond. Slowly, his gaze weighty on Jerott’s face, Francis extended an arm, reaching forward minutely to take his hand. Jerott was drawn forward on unsteady legs, stepping closer to Francis’ chair, his breath lost, thoughts scattered as he looked down into that pale face. Not Marthe’s face, but Francis’.

The thin, long fingers that looked like they should be so cold were bright with heat, soft in their journey across his palm. The unnecessary binding Philippa had wrapped around the hand was long gone, and Francis’ skin was surprisingly smooth against dry, rough calluses. The sticky traces of spilled wine bound their palms together when Francis pressed his close to Jerott’s. His touch was like a vine, sinuous, enveloping, fingers to his pulse, thumb pushed into the crook of his own digit, and Jerott could not make his own grip tighten for fear of strangling the life from the gesture.

“There is always a place for you here, Jerott.”

He swallowed. “I know. Francis,” the vines tightened on his hand, seemed to have extended their hold to his arm, reaching across his chest, baffling, encircling him. “Enjoy this. You and Philippa have what so few can hope for.”

It seemed for a moment that Lymond was going to reply, but a small movement of his head sufficed. Too much to say: of who was deserving and who was not, of a fear in this farewell that was unfamiliar, a loss he had not expected. Looking down into the cornflower fields opened wide to him, Jerott stiffly closed his fingers back against Francis’ hand, the gesture at last loosening the vines. He felt their hold retreat, fingers drawn just as gently back across his palm as they separated.

“Goodnight, Francis,” he stepped backwards awkwardly, had to gather himself with a breath before he moved carefully around the furniture, a heady rush not entirely from the wine making him choose his footing carefully.

Lymond remained by the embers.

 

Chapter Text

 

Everywhere the murmur of departure;
the stars, like candles
thrust at us from behind blue veils,
and as if to make the invisible plain,
a wondrous people have come forth.


 

The chill of February did not penetrate the candlelit chamber in which Philippa sat awake. It was a room made deliberately small, built up with rugs and tapestries and soft red woods that did not come from trees found in Scotland. The light from a tall white candle frolicked against the surfaces and hangings, entwined in a dance with the sultry glow of the fireplace, while Philippa sat at a thin-legged table, bent over the page of a small calfskin volume.

The bed had been warmed, and the covers turned back and then folded over again. She wore her hair in a thick, dark plait cast over the shoulder of her white shift, not cold enough to need other layers this close to the fire. Only her toes felt the true temperature of the night, and she flexed and curled them in the thick fur of the pelt below her chair. Her mind was fully on her book, with no expectation but that her husband would soon return — perhaps a little more drunk than he had been — with the happy news that Jerott would be staying in Scotland after all. Despite his talk of Malta, she had never known Jerott to leave Francis Crawford willingly. He just wanted some coaxing: a personal invitation.

Philippa closed the collection of verse she had been staring at when the light below the door changed. She shifted on her seat and watched the movement of the silhouette that greeted her. There was the briefest of pauses as he stood on the threshold, shoulders tightening in the way they still sometimes did when his body momentarily forgot that this was where she was meant to be now, that she had become a part of the familiar shape of his surroundings. He closed the door and smiled, and she could not see it, but knew that he did, just as she knew that his stance held the attitude of stunned disappointment.

This made her eyebrows raise. Of course, he was more accustomed to being the one who left. “Danny Hislop will be your second-in-command,” she guessed.

He swept a hand through dishevelled golden hair and tugged at the fastenings of his sleeves, stepping into the light of her candle. “I suppose he will be.” Lymond eyed the decanter that stood on the side table with an air of vexation but did not reach for it. Indeed, he seemed more sober, not less than he had been when they had finally ushered Danny from the parlour, singing and swaying on Adam Blacklock’s arm. He turned to scrutinise his wife, who was observing him with that quiet, owlish stillness she had, her expression serious but receptive.

“You did not try to persuade Jerott to stay,” Philippa’s round, dark eyes shone like gems beneath the waves of light cast by the tall flame. She spoke without accusation or question, but her confusion now troubled the smooth skin of her brow, and Francis strode to her, leaning forward in order to soothe the frown away with soft strokes of his thumbs and gentle touches from his lips.

“I did not.”

Philippa caught the hands that combed her hairline, leaning her head back and allowing a kiss to land on her mouth before she guided Francis’ palms together, held between hers in the aspect of prayer before her body. He looked down at her and tucked his chin knowingly: he saw that she recognised that this display of affection was not just for her, but for him, to deflect from the questions in her eyes. Behind the twinkle of acknowledgement in his expression she saw tiredness, and something raw and hurt that surprised her.

“Francis,” she kept his hands with hers, squeezing them a little tighter, asking to be allowed a share in whatever hurt he was hiding. “Why?”

Once this man had decided to take one into his confidence, wholly and honestly, one did not have to ask twice. It still left Philippa a little taken aback to see a clear decision at work in moments like this. His face tightened as though he was about to refuse her, or he looked like he might laugh and dismiss her concern. But he never did. Not any longer. Slowly, his eyes locked on her face, he came to his knees before her and moved his body between her legs, as close as the long skirt of her linen nightdress would allow. She still held his hands, and now raised them to her face, her own touch guiding his delicate fingers to her warm skin.

“I did not ask him to stay because I have never before done so. Because, if I had asked, he would have stayed. But only for the reason that I had asked.”

“Is that not preferable to him wasting his skills on Malta?” Philippa asked, though it was a dutiful question, not really one that betrayed her thought processes, which worked rapidly to re-evaluate the outcome of Jerott and Francis’ talk.

Earlier, seeing them move together in mock battle, riding down an icy hill like a two-man cavalry charge, Philippa had been reminded of all the wide strangeness of her husband’s life beyond even what she had experienced. As still happened now and then, she had been unable to completely shake off the fear that Francis Crawford would always need more. But when she had taken that fear to Jerott, on the pretext of treating a wound so small a soldier would not have noticed it, she knew full well that she was now qualified to see through any lies he was capable of telling. Although Philippa noted this part of her motivation without pride, she did not hesitate to scrutinise Jerott’s response when she pressed him. It had left no room for doubt.

He might once have been able to smuggle falsehoods past her, but no longer. The tone of his voice, the uncomprehending determination with which he offered her the only hope of music, and the inexorable colour that had clasped his neck and cheeks not only refuted her worries, but had answered a question she had not even asked. Well, she reminded herself, she had not been the only one who had followed Francis on that journey from a bloodied church in Edinburgh to the checkered floor of the Sultana’s palace.

Francis smiled, not taken in for a moment by her guileless words. “It would not be fair, no.”

“Oh Francis, I hope you were kind,” Philippa murmured, leaning her cheek into one of his palms.

This time, she saw the hurt fully exposed in his eyes, saw his throat close a moment, and was doubly surprised to realise that there had also been more feeling on Francis’ part than she had appreciated. Without hesitation, Philippa’s generous heart enfolded this revelation about her husband and found no jealousy, only further love. She supposed that ultimately none of them had returned unscathed from Stamboul, and those who had bullied their way into Francis’ trust by refusing to be left behind had exacted their price from him. This was something she could share with Jerott, and it was unlike the bittersweet concoction that she would pragmatically suppress when aspects of her husband’s previous career came up in that prickly milieu known as polite society. When some primped and perfumed courtier tittered about Lymond’s experience with the charms of Comte de This and Madame de That, Philippa still succumbed to a spike of fearful, cold comparison between herself and these unknowns. But now, away from pallid sunset and the cold echo of hoof beats against the edge of the loch, the thought of his history with Jerott made her feel only a warm recognition. Like her, Jerott had been there for Francis time and again, and had somehow come through it all only to baulk at the final hurdle.

“He has been promised kindness before and been disappointed.”

Philippa kissed the thumbs that traced the edges of her lips, scanning Francis’ face with a worried frown. “I don’t like it. It feels like leaving someone behind,” she murmured.

His brows rose, releasing the deep line that had been between them, and his long mouth revealed another new smile to her. “It does rather, doesn’t it? Yunitsa, if only we had never left anybody behind before.”

She took up the sun in her own hands, leaning forward to touch her forehead to his. That the hard won happiness she shared with Francis must mean some other rending was a cruelty she supposed she must eventually get used to. It alarmed and saddened her to see Francis’ own resignation to the fact though, and it awoke the strong vein of Somerville stubbornness within her. “But we will write to him. Not just for information on the Order. We will not let him think it is easier for us this way, though it may be easier for him.”

His lips curved as he surveyed her, his expression wondering. He picked his way through her words and their implications: professional, partial and personal. She had not only allowed his regret at this loss, but enveloped it as her own also. No more would the selfishness of his sacrifices be tolerated, but still she soothed affronted pride by offering first the practical reasons to stop Jerott from drifting too far from them. Of course he would write for information, as he had from Russia. But not only for that. We would write. She would not maintain fences for him.

Would he ever grow accustomed to this easy way she had with problems that had seemed entirely his own? He stretched to kiss her and she held back only for a moment, to check that the weariness had lifted somewhat from his eyes.

In another room at St Mary’s, as different in its comfort as was possible from the sparse barracks he had first occupied there, Jerott Blyth leaned against the cold stone of the windowsill. The heavy curtains he had pushed aside lay against his back, and the frozen air from the lake pried its way through the joins between lead and glass with bitter, sharp fingers. Under a clear sky, split by a bright sweep of stars, the lake was now the deep blue of devotion.

Words he had learnt in order to honour other oaths, promises made to other people, other lives, pursued themselves in Jerott’s mind: a chant describing a completely different landscape to the one he looked out on. Donec adspiret dies et inclinentur umbrae revertere. Water and shadow blended, and he did not want to let himself sleep, though his eyes and shoulders ached and the wine in the vessel he still held grew warm in his grip despite the cold.

The colour of the lake made him seethe with an unfocused loneliness, leaving open an empty shrine in his chest. From that shrine he had been accustomed to draw forth memories that were handled so often their edges had softened, their colour faded. These did not seem to fit there anymore. New ones waited to move in, with time and distance, when they too had been worn a little, scuffed and frayed into familiarity.

Finally, he placed the drink down on the stone sill. The window pane was beading with condensation and there was a murmur of light beyond the hills, and Jerott did not want to leave and yet wanted to be gone already. He closed his right hand on itself, settled under covers damp with cold, and let himself dream of another outcome. Of battles that were not lost, separations that never became necessary.

 

Chapter Text

 

We mixed the days into loves
and vanished in the mortar
of that wall they call Time
maybe some infinite things would release
the flood of spring I lie down and wrap myself in


 

Maltese summers did not come any longer than the summer of 1565. Squeezed between blue sea and blue sky, beneath the relentless white sun and the unending fury of Ottoman cannon, Malta’s fortifications crumbled. Noise and smoke and dust engulfed each besieged settlement and fort, so that the island seemed to have been swept up to the thundering heights of Olympus, made into a throne from which Zeus voiced his displeasure at the petty wars of these new religions. Night became bright with orange fire; day was murky under sulphurous smoke. Time lost its meaning: day to night or night to day, time was not to be consulted when this wall needed bolstering, that evacuation needed organising, here came a fresh assault that needed countering.

For the knights, training dictated that if it had to be done then it could be done, and that summer they — and many distinctly untrained locals — tested this maxim to its fullest. Jerott Blyth always found himself to be where he was needed most, as he was certain that every person involved in the island’s defence was needed wherever they could be found. He rebuilt the walls of Fort St Elmo with the farmers whose land had been razed to deny the Ottoman encampments grain, and watched them fall again beneath the ceaseless bark of the cannon. He clambered over their rubbled surface to find the bodies of those who could be saved and he led charges into the gaping maws of shattered stone to ward off opportunistic advances. He spent half of his hours engaged in the business of war, and the other half in making tidy its consequences.

Boats still crossed the Grand Harbour regularly with provisions, returning to Birgu with the wounded, but those who could fight must endure. Hold Fort St Elmo: hold the invaders back from the southern outposts. As May drew on Jerott forgot the taste of anything but the chalky dust of ruined walls, the grit that had been the town’s defences coating his skin and hair, finding its way into clothes and armour, mouth and eyes. Sometimes the look in a farmer’s frightened face made him think of the smell of chickens, the coarse terror of men trapped in another failing fortress whose walls Jerott had not been able to save over a decade ago. He tried to be more patient with the men who were with him now, coaxing them to acts of endurance they had not thought themselves capable of.

But Jerott Blyth did not manage to celebrate the news of old Dragut’s death in some misunderstanding in a trench beyond the town. The anticlimactic end of one great leader was not enough to stymie the desperate, determined onslaught, and in any case, while the news spread through the Order’s ranks, Jerott himself floundered in his fever, laid out in the cool, dark rooms of the hospital at Birgu. St Elmo’s walls could no longer be repaired; those lucky enough to have been evacuated alongside him managed to joke that it was because the crucial parts had all been thrust by a blast into their comrade’s arm and shoulder. Even this weak levity was smothered though, as June brought its privations: a strangling heat, disease spreading through the overcrowded armies and citizens, and, finally, the fall of St Elmo.

Jerott emerged from his fever to find that all of May's work had been undone. The farmers who remained had been slaughtered when the wave of Turks poured at last into St Elmo's dry, depleted streets. The knights who had been left — just nine — had been captured, and no D'Aramon to bargain for their lives this time.

It was useless to wonder what might have been done had one still been with the forces left in Fort St Elmo. Perhaps, one might have been the only person to see what was necessary for them to hold out just that little bit longer. More likely, one’s head would have been taken along with those of the knights who had never been evacuated, one’s body stretched on splintered debris and launched into the water as the Turks’ way of promising martyrdom to all who resisted.

Another defeat, when those who had been captured at Djerba five years earlier had barely been returned to the Order. Hopelessness was not useful, but Jerott felt its unfamiliar clutch in the early days of recovery, watching the smoke clear on the north side of the harbour as St Elmo's rested in captivity, no longer a target for the Ottoman cannons, nor yet to be retaken by the embattled knights. In the brief gasp of clear air, he peered back across more than a decade's worth of battles and accepted that what he missed was not to be found in the to and fro' between Sultan and Grand Master. He longed, whatever the location, for the company of one whose restless, inventive mind filled all of the gaps in both war and peace. Who kept Jerott guessing, eager to match him, yet so always deliciously frustrated, left in awe. Without that, the struggles across the Mediterranean now seemed an interminable game, limited to despair followed by relief, followed by despair again.

Indeed, the first reinforcements from Spain soon arrived, and, with some measure of cynicism, Jerott observed hope return to the besieged knights. He fought on with them, allowing no stiffness in his injured arm and numbing his mind to the ache and pulse of weakened muscles. But by August, the joy of that earlier small relief force had been long since overwritten, and the Ottoman camp edged warily closer to Birgu's walls. The sun added weight to the layers of steel and leather that the knights carried: Jerott's robe, ever-stained and beyond a soldier’s patching, failed to cover the rust that now nibbled at plate armour which had been worn in near-daily battle since April. The stiff layers began to feel like a coffin, and he raged against the person who had taken the simple satisfaction of this life from him. This war had been all he had wanted, had it not? All that his training had prepared him for, in the name of a cause that could not disappoint in the same way that an individual could.

Birgu was cut off from the sea, shuddering fitfully under an endless hail of shot. It was no longer possible to imagine what it was to live without the continuous growl of cannon fire pummelling stone. Jerott forgot silence and clear skies and became one of those who were gradually merging with Malta’s foundations, features disappearing below the grey debris all around them. Even blood seemed to be mixed with the pale rock, emerging adulterated, sluggish with dust no matter how fresh the wound. The notion dogged him of being buried alive in the air itself, frozen in a moment, mingled bodily with the walls he had helped to rebuild again and again. He could not pinpoint the moment when his sullen resentfulness solidified into a deep, honeyed homesickness, but as the weeks grumbled by he found himself relating his every experience to Francis Crawford. What would he do if he were here? News of the siege must have reached Scotland months ago. What had been his response? Jerott licked chalk and blown sea salt from his dry lips, squinting at harbour waters busy with debris, and he longed to know already what Francis would say to him when he returned to Scotland.

That longing seemed a dangerous thing to cultivate. When life itself was reason enough to fight on, the body’s determination was an automatic response. If Jerott Blyth had been asked why he had once dragged himself from the poisonous, flaming wreckage of a silk farm, his answer would have been simple: so as not to die inside. Having other reasons complicated that aim. The heart filled with alarm when confronted with the possibility of some loss beyond its immediate control: in its frenzied determination to secure the future it distracted from the needs of the moment. Like the crumbling walls of Malta’s fortresses, Jerott struggled to repair the breach that had let loose this urgent hope of seeing Francis again.

One occasion in late August, with the sun already past its zenith and the day’s heat held trapped against the streets by thick black smoke, Jerott heard a cry go up from the walls of Birgu. He was in the Piazza with a reserve company and knew the enemy had been close to the town walls: the muffled shrieks of locals who spied the Ottoman flag seemingly held above their own homesteads had punctuated the thick air intermittently. The noise was now more regular though, a crescendo of alarm comprised of feet scuffing against dusty rock, gravel crunching, breath and prayer coming faster, louder, nearer. Above it a familiar voice of command rose to summon the knights to a breach in the wall: de Vallette was there already, his gruff voice not weakened a bit by the soot and smog.

They must join him. The old man seemed entirely undiminished by the siege; the only thing to which Malta’s powdery dust did not stick. He still slept in his private quarters, always had someone to hand ready to serve his frugal meals and to present him with his mended and polished robe and armour. He was immaculately groomed, firm-minded, and always looked and sounded sharp, present and aware. Jean Parisot de la Vallette had been devoted to the Order for a lifetime: he had never wavered or doubted because he had put his faith into his vows, not into the memory or hope of love, but into a divine certainty of it. And now he held the island’s defences together with that certainty.

Hearing that voice, his body already in motion and the small troop he was with following without hesitation, Jerott longed to believe in de Vallette and his certainty. Within him, the door to that room hung open on battered hinges, but inside there was nothing: he knew how he should believe, what it should make him feel, but he could no longer do it. In reserve, he lent on his soldier’s training, and resolved to fight because it was what he knew best.

When he came to the breach in the wall, Jerott, who could not have named the day he had last snatched more than two hours of sleep in a row, paused, light-headed, his mind swimming. The sun was low, so the men who washed over the ruined outer wall looked like figures of pure shadow though their eyes and teeth and weapons glinted. Now and then, one stumbled on the shattered defences, and Malta laid her touch on him: their dusty white knees and hands brought them back into the same reality as Birgu’s defenders.

De Vallette, seventy years old, furious only with his heathen foe and comparatively well-rested — as only the elderly and simultaneously powerful could hope to be in this carnage — bellowed for his men to rally.

His heart pounding, lungs full of the astringent powders on the air, Jerott tried to summon his faith in this bold veteran. De Vallette had his sword drawn, his robe appeared relatively clean, his eyes were ablaze: Jerott could have asked for no better inspiration. But a weight like a great hand pressing on his chest held him still as other men shoved past him, and at last Jerott realised he could no longer fight for the oaths he had sworn to twice in his life now.

Instead of leaping immediately to his leader's side, he bunched his fists into the tattered material of his own robe and hauled it from his body. His shoulder flushed with fire as he did so, but he was determined.

Is a knight not a knight without his hundred pounds of plate metal?

His fingers were sure with the knowledge of a lifetime as Jerott found buckles and threads and cast aside the bulk of the formal armour he wore. Some of the dust of Malta came away with it, and when he finally brought his dagger and sword to hand he wore little more than the breastplate and greaves that sufficed for Border families defending their homesteads. It was not de Vallette whose command he obeyed when he finally sprang over the rocky ground to find a pool of shadow in which to dip his blade; it was the primrose-headed enigma he had been vexed by since the battle that had first changed everything.

Accounts of the defence of Birgu remembered the charisma of the Grand Master, a leader who, none would argue, knew his men and his island far better than his recent predecessors had. Yet a good number of those who did not write their accounts down could have told of the tireless work of the short, dark Scot who moved unencumbered between his foes, a frenzy of imagination driving his movements. The Ottoman attack wavered in the face of the fearless commands De Vallette cried out to his men and his God — and faltered before the knight who led the defence out to meet them, his armour replaced by some faith they found they could not measure up to.

Not long after that the grand relief finally arrived. The island was cradled by Spanish galleons and the Ottoman fleet shrank back, its troops retreating in bewilderment.

It was September, and the hospital garden flourished late, making up for time lost below layers of ash and smog and cannon fumes. Against a wall that seemed to have no dust left to shed, Jerott Blyth sat among sweet-scented flowers, his eyes closed in the comfort of the shade, his aching legs stretched before him and a letter held in his lap. His thumb moved over the paper’s surface, feeling out the contours of the ink that covered it. A smile softened his features, so that his fellow survivors sometimes paused as they passed by, wondering whether this could be the grim-faced man they had fought alongside all summer.

The letter had waited patiently until the fighting calmed and it could make its way through the chaos surrounding Malta. Conscious of the fact that it came from a person of interest to many, and was directed into the centre of a battleground where that person’s motives had come under scrutiny before, it was scrupulously homely. In it, Francis Crawford of Lymond made small talk about the Scottish weather. He relayed commonplace anecdotes about the foibles of children, made naturally more fascinating and more comic because the children were his and Philippa’s. He discussed the renovations he had made to St Mary’s great hall, and the exotic new plants they tried to cultivate indoors; the poetry he had been reading and the cloth he had been buying. He wrote with bluff confidence of his certainty that Jerott would be reading his words before August was out, ‘self-satisfied and settled, sitting on the silken turbans of the vanquished enemy.’ The deadly seriousness with which he signed himself by the first name used by so few would be missed by any curious party who had managed to open the letter before it came to Jerott.

The words that Jerott felt below his thumb’s caress were a code for him to decipher, but one he knew the key to now. The careful details that brought an image of the loch and the Tweedsmuir hills to his mind; the laughing asides relayed as Philippa read over Francis’ shoulder; the sprinkling of poetry and song; it all combined to say one thing. Come home. You are welcome home.

Jerott thought of Marthe’s grave, tended by Crawfords, planted over with the blue stars of forget-me-nots placed there by the small hands of children she would have been aunt to. How he wanted to believe that this familial care would have pleased her in a way he could not: he drew deeply on the scent of lavender and sage in the air and prayed for her contentment.

He had believed that all love could do was bat him about like a cat with its prey, pricking and tumbling him this way and that until he would rather lie supine under the blows and wait to be consumed. That love could not be controlled, so he must endure drought, desert, a Flood, or drowning as and when love presented itself. He must accept love however it came to him.

Oh, but love might be anticipation: not of hurt, but of a meeting after many years apart. Love could be offered: a thing to share, a thing of hope. Love did not always have to be a loss. It was not always defined by death, deception, distrust. It was not what happened to one, but what one did.

He had feared for his friends, who were in love. Love had been bondage: to a belief, an idea, a person. Choose freedom and do not pledge yourself to that service again.

God help us.

But if it were not servitude, but collaboration? They were in love, and he was in love. Come home, the letter said, and at long last Jerott Blyth was ready to return to St Mary’s, to learn more of what love could be.

  

Aime qui vouldra
le mieulx qu'il pourra,
ce n'est que soussi;
car jamais sans sy
amours ne sera.

Qui plus amera,
plus se trouvera
subget a mercy,

aime qui vouldra
le mieulx qu'il pourra,
ce n'est que soussi.

Ou danger mourra,
ou tousiours sera
cela ou cecy;
la chose est ainsi,
d'amours ainsi va:

Aime qui vouldra
le mieulx qu'il pourra,
ce n'est que soussi;
car jamais sans sy
amours ne sera.

Chapter Text

Title and closing quote: Aime qui vouldra (Make love who wants to)

C15th anonymous French ballad, text and translation from here: http://chansonniers.pwch.dk/CH/CH128.html

Make love who wants to
as well as he can,
it is nothing but worry;
because without it
there will be no love.

Who will love more
soon find himself
completely at mercy,

make love who wants to
as well as he can,
it is nothing but worry.

In mortal danger
or living forever will
make no difference;
It is like this,
love works in this way:

Make love who wants to
as well as he can,
it is nothing but worry;
because without it
there will be no love.

 

Chapter 1: La mort le roi Artu/The Death of King Arthur

Ha! Amors! ce sont li guerredon de vos servir; car qui del tout a vos s'otroie, il n'en puet eschaper sanz mort, et tel loier rendez vos de loiaument amer.

(Ah, Love! those are the rewards for serving you; because a man who offers himself completely to you cannot escape with less than death, and such is the price you pay to someone who loves you faithfully.)

Ok this is Lancelot but if Jerott isn't a Gawain I don't know what he is. Damnit. Gawain was always my favourite.

Chapter 2: Song of Songs 1:3

Trahe me post te curremus introduxit me rex in cellaria sua exultabimus et laetabimur in te memores uberum tuorum super vinum recti diligunt te.

(Draw me: we will run after thee to the odour of thy ointments. The king hath brought me into his storerooms: we will be glad and rejoice in thee, remembering thy breasts more than wine: the rightous love thee.)

The other Latin in this chapter is just the line that Dorothy uses in PiF and Checkmate: 'My beloved is unto me...'. I think it's pretty interesting that this quote (from the scene in Djerba and Marthe's death) is from the woman's part of the Song of Songs. The Latin 'dilectus meus' is masculine, and being a Catholic monk Jerott Blyth is going to know his Song of Songs in Latin. So does he imagine Marthe saying these words to him? Maybe it's quoted again elsewhere in PiF and I've forgotten, but I like the ambiguity it adds to those two charged moments where Francis also features so prominently in his thinking.

Chapter 3: La Chanson de Roland/The Song of Roland

Mult gentement li emperere chevalchet:
Desur sa bronie fors ad mise sa barbe.
Pur sue amor altretel funt li altre:
Cent milie Francs en sunt reconoisable.

(That Emperour canters in noble array,
Over his sark all of his beard displays;
For love of him, all others do the same,
Five score thousand Franks are thereby made plain.)

http://www.orbilat.com/Languages/French/Texts/Period_02/Roland/200-249.htm

The bit that Francis quotes is also from La Chanson de Roland and means 'great are the hosts and all the columns fair'.

Chapter 4: Tam Lin (I can't remember which version, an early one though, and I think I convinced myself it was early C17th, so close enough, though all the versions I can find now seem to be early C18th...)

And ance it fell upon a day
A cauld day and a snell,
When we were frae the hunting come,
That frae my horse I fell,
The Queen o' Fairies she caught me,
In yon green hill do dwell.
And pleasant is the fairy land,
But, an eerie tale to tell,
Ay at the end of seven years,
We pay a tiend to hell,
I am sae fair and fu o flesh,
I'm feard it be mysel.

Chapter 5: John Skelton, The Bowge of Court

His hede maye be harde, but feble is his brayne.
Yet have I knowen suche er this;
But of reproche surely he maye not mys
That clymmeth hyer than he may fotynge have;
What and he slyde downe, who shall hym save?

http://www.skeltonproject.org/infobowge/

Also please forgive me for both the shoddy attempt at the Scots accents of Archie and Fergie, and for Fergie's thinly peppered Latin. Age quod agis means something like 'you do you', and the other bit of Latin is basically just 'let him who is without sin [cast the first stone]'. I have no Latin. I am a bad medievalist. My patience for finding appropriate legal Latin for Fergie to quote was not great.

Chapter 6: Dulcis amica dei, hymn by Prioris: http://chansonniers.pwch.dk/CH/CH230.html

Dulcis amica dei,
Rosa vernans, Stella decora,
tu memor esto mei
dum mortis venerit hora.

(Sweet friend of God
flowering rose, bright star,
you will remember me
when the hour of death arrives.)

Chapter 7: Kudret 20, by Fuzûlî: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuz%C3%BBl%C3%AE

‘Âşık imiş her ne var ‘âlem
‘İlm bir kîl ü kâl imiş ancak

(All that is in the world is love
And knowledge is nothing but gossip)

Chapter 8: And Wilt Thou Leave Me Thus?, Sir Thomas Wyatt

And wilt thou leave me thus,
That hath loved thee so long
In wealth and woe among?
And is thy heart so strong
As for to leave me thus?
Say nay, say nay!

Chapter 9: Lover's Poem by Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (Rumi)

I tried to find it in the original language, but my googling skills were not good enough :( It's gorgeous and I'd love to find it though. Sufi poetry is so perfect for Jerott with his religion and his drinking, and not least with that being Marthe's thing. It would be cool to play with this further another time.

Everywhere the murmur of departure;
the stars, like candles
thrust at us from behind blue veils,
and as if to make the invisible plain,
a wondrous people have come forth.

Chapter 10: Eşrefoğlu Abdullah Rûmî, again, shamefully just from the Wikipedia page, but it's also beautiful and I'd love to put in the original if I can find it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E%C5%9Frefo%C4%9Flu_R%C3%BBm%C3%AE

We mixed the days into loves
and vanished in the mortar
of that wall they call Time
maybe some infinite things would release
the flood of spring I lie down and wrap myself in