Margaret Skea 2019

From By Sword and Storm  The third book in the Munro Scottish series. 

The horse was in a lather, the rider leaning low over his neck as they galloped along the track. Munro was in a line of men stretched across the outfield, prising loose stones that every year worked their way towards the surface of the soil. In the four weeks he’d been at Cayeux he had found himself relaxing into the life of the farm, despite its unfamiliarity. At Broomelaw the rhythm of the year had been determined by the needs of the stock: the timely servicing of the cattle and sheep, a successful over-wintering, and the lambing and calving to follow. Here, the cycle of seedtime and harvest dominated. John Montgomerie was to his left, Sigurd and Robbie to his right; all pressed into service for fear the weather might break and the late sowing be delayed. Different problems, Munro thought, but the same satisfaction to be gained from a successful outcome. He straightened, flexing his back, and glanced back at the farmhand coming along with the horse and cart, the children scurrying around him gathering the piles of stones studding the ground – a tedious task, no doubt the lad was happy to have extra hands to share it. He was aware of an ache at the base of his spine, a counterpoint to the pain in his shoulder, which continued to trouble him, unwelcome signs he was neither as young nor as fit as he once had been, despite the new babe in the cradle. 
The thrumming of the horse’s hooves intruded into his thoughts, and he raised his hand to shade his eyes and saw Robbie also straighten, radiating tension – he is hiding something. Munro put aside his unease as he headed for the farm gate – there would be time to quiz Robbie later, and like it or not he would winkle the problem from him. In passing, he noted that Robbie relaxed as the rider’s speed became apparent, for it was only a King’s man, who had the right to ride on the road at such a speed – at least whatever troubled him was unlikely to be related to his role in the Gardes; another debt perhaps? Maybe there would be advantages in being to hand in Paris for a time, and with Kate there also; surely between them they could sort Robbie out? 
He reached the yard gate in time to open it for the rider, who brought the horse to a quivering halt and slid from the saddle. Dust coated him from head to toe, muting the colours of the King’s livery, and as he raised his gauntleted hand to wipe away the beads of sweat glistening on his forehead, he left a pale smear, which served only to emphasise the grime. 
He bowed and, with a questioning glance at Munro’s working attire, queried, ‘Sir Adam Munro?’ 
Munro nodded, looking down at the mud clagging his boots, and smothered a smile – no wonder the messenger had doubts. ‘You have a message from His Grace the King?’
He fished in his doublet for the letter. ‘I am to wait for your reply.’ 
Munro recognised his weariness and gestured him towards the house. ‘A bite to eat, then, while you wait, and a chance to refresh yourself.’
‘Thank you. I won’t say no to either.’
	*	*	*
He found Kate. It was not the way Adam had intended to reopen the matter of the King’s request, hoping instead to allow time for her to get used to the principle of the thing before they discussed the practicalities, but it seemed the King had other ideas. He read the letter again, hearing Henri’s voice in every syllable. There was little preamble and no subtlety, which, allied to the haste with which it had been dispatched, was disquieting – another attempt on the King’s life perhaps, or the rumour of one? 
It seems I have a greater need to surround myself with those I can trust than I had at first thought. Your wife is no doubt safely delivered of her child, and though I do not expect she will wish to take the arduous journey to Paris for a week or two yet, I wish you to return without delay. The messenger has been instructed to bring a reply. Let the reply be you. 
Kate handed the letter back, took a deep breath. ‘Of course I will come now, but I had thought we would have longer, that proper preparations could be made…’
‘No.’ Adam spoke more sharply than he had intended. ‘The King does not expect it and nor do I.’ He made an attempt to soften his tone. ‘You must wait until you are stronger. When the time is right I will send a carriage, that you may travel in more comfort.’ It was an open acknowledgement of the toll the pregnancy and birth had taken on Kate, and they came together, the kiss gentle, undemanding, their breath mingling, though there was a fierceness in the way Adam tangled his fingers in the hair at the nape of her neck, and in the tightening of his good arm around her waist.
She drew back a fraction to reach up and run her hand along the roughness of his chin. ‘These last years, we were too much apart. Paris will not be so bad.’
Through the open shutters, Munro could see a patchwork of colour, the rich brown of the newly ploughed field, where the others still worked, contrasting with the soft green of fresh grass in the pasturelands beyond. On the breeze the scent of the sea mingled with wild garlic. The younger children, perhaps distracted by his departure, had returned to the farmyard, Ellie and Isabella sitting on the gate, their legs swinging. There was a high-pitched squeal, followed by a lower protest and then a babble of voices all shouting at once in a mix of Scots and French and Norwegian. Ellie stalked off towards the barn, head held high. He thought of the noise and the stench and the airlessness of the city, and, lest Kate should divine his thoughts, moved to the cradle and slipped his finger onto the sleeping baby’s curved palm, felt it clutched tight. He knew it was but reflex action but nonetheless moving. 
Her eyes were luminous, damp with unshed tears, but her voice was steady. ‘I will be bravely soon, and once arrangements are in place for the running of the farm we will follow you.’ She came to stand beside him, leant her head against his shoulder, the touch, though light, sending a spasm of pain down his arm, so that he had to steel himself not to flinch. She was speaking again, but quietly, as if to herself. ‘I do not know if Madame Picarde can be persuaded, for her whole life has been here or hereabouts, but with or without her we will come. And perhaps it is as well for us to be absent for a while. The unpleasantness with Tomas’ father … I had thought it was just that I was a stranger which made folk wary, that in time they would accept me, but for all that St Valery is Huguenot, much of the countryside around Cayeux still favours the old religion, and it is a short step from that to superstition.’
Ignoring the discomfort, Munro placed both arms around her. ‘Warring over religion has been a way of life here for so long it has crept into the bones, of some folk at least. In time it will be different, and if a while spent at court means you come back as one of the King’s apothecars, for most that will be sufficient.’
He had the sense she wasn’t really listening, his efforts at comfort wasted, confirmed as she said, ‘If we are in Paris, I may be able to sniff out whatever troubles Robbie. And Maggie will, I think, relish the opportunities it may give her…’ 
She was looking down at the worn edge of her slippers. ‘Will we be forced to bide at the Louvre?’
He rested his chin on her head, squeezed her arm. ‘I have money saved. There will be ample to ensure you do not disgrace me.’
She burrowed deeper into his chest, changed tack. ‘I fear for Ellie. She is so settled here.’
He had a vision of the court, of the hierarchy among the children, of Ellie’s gregarious character, and sought to be encouraging. ‘She will make friends anywhere. It is her nature.’ 
Kate sighed. ‘That’s what I’m afraid of.’

Margaret Skea 
    The above is a 1400 word extract from By Sword and Storm  
    (The third Munro book.)  
    Available in both e format and PB.