By the Sword’s Edge – Chapter 1

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By The Sword’s Edge, Volume 1 of Stonehearted

Published: 16th March 2013
Words: c. 17,000
Pages: 74 (print)

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By The Sword’s Edge is the first volume of Stonehearted, a serialized novel.

Chapter 1

“He’s an arrogant prick!” shouted Eolande from underneath the hedgerow. Her hand clenched into a fist as she said it.

“He may well be, but aren’t they all, these men,” Joan, her maid called back. “Now will you come out of there?”

“I will not, not until he says sorry to me.”

“And how am I to get a sorry out of Richard Stone for you?” asked Joan.

“By squeezing him by the stones perhaps?” said Eolande in a sly voice. She rubbed the thumb of her hand against her palm and enjoyed the feel of dry skin rubbing against skin.

“You are wicked!” said Joan and with that a stick appeared in front of where Eolande lay and pushed back the leaves of the hedge until Eolande could see Joan’s hitched up skirts and her knobbly knees.

Joan prodded Eolande with her stick. “Look at the dust on you. I’m going to have to beat it off.”

“Can’t you wash it?” said Eolande. She dragged herself from the dusty earth underneath the hedge and rolled giggling onto the lawn, or what there was left of it. It had been a very dry May and June was following suit. Already they had to use the well instead of the rain-barrels for their water.

“Wash it?” Joan poked Eolande again. “Up with you girl, don’t make it worse. And what would you wear while it dried?”

“The red dress, of course,” said Eolande. She raised herself on her haunches and rocked herself to her feet.

“Put that on,” said Joan passing her hood to her. “The red dress you grew out of last year. You’re about done growing I hope, but there’s no more clothes to wear. A full suit of clothes for a lady like you, well that would cost forty shillings to make you look presentable.”

“Why do I need to look presentable? It’s not as if mother is about to take me to court,” Eolande said. Her mouth turned from a grin to a bitter frown. “We don’t even make it to Lynn because of the cost of the inns.”

“What’s in Lynn!” said Joan, huffing.

“You’re right, just the Stones and their kind selling salt fish and wool. I don’t want to go to Lynn. But what I’m trying to say is that we don’t go anywhere ever.”

Joan laid a hand on Eolande’s shoulder. “And you know why, my dear.”

Eolande knocked Joan’s hand aside and the old lady stumbled a moment and then caught her balance by planting the end of her stick in the dusty turf.

“I’m sorry … I …” and then Eolande turned and ran across the grass past the dried up herb beds and skipped, lifting her skirts, over the broken bricks of the garden wall towards the stables. “I’ll leave my dress for you to wash,” she shouted back, feeling guilty for leaving the old woman more work, but she couldn’t face it anymore. She had to be out of the confines of Sarbrook castle.

Behind her in the garden she heard Joan shout. Something about a feast. More nagging. She was best out of there now before steam boiled out of her ears. If it wasn’t her mother, it was Joan getting at her. Got to be presentable? What was that? Some veiled accusation to her to marry?

She lifted the gown and the heavy mantle over her head until she was just wearing a linen shift. Thank Mary the bleeding had stopped a few days ago, or she would never have thought about riding today. She left the dress where it fell and reached up to move a loose stone out of the stable wall. Behind she extracted riding breeches, a shirt, a leather jerkin, boots and cap which she could bunch her long blonde under.

The horses, all three of them, were restless in the stable. Old Jacquin had not fed them yet and they were low on water. Eolande quickly filled their buckets and promised them each oats when she came back. She then took Guin out of her stall, saddled her and whispered in her ear that they would be going to the stream. “Nice cool water there, my beauty.”

She rode through the castle yard of Sarbrook and through the open gate. There was no gatekeeper, nor any guard to see her go. There was no money for such luxuries. The only servants her mother could afford were Joan and Jacquin, and a cook who came every other day from Bottermouth. On the off days they ate leftovers and bread, and perhaps pottage that Joan cooked up for them. She was still a girl when things had been different. Before her father had left for Castile and been captured. Years of part-payments on his ransom had crippled his already struggling estate. And now there was not even a letter from him to prove that he was still alive. But demands came for more money. Eolande had seen them arrive, but her mother had snatched them from Joan’s hands as soon as she took delivery from the messenger and then scampered away to her tower room. A puff of grey smoke from the chimney would follow soon after. She could feel her face burning as she remembered when even those messages stopped, and she plucked off a glove to wipe a tear from her cheek.

But it was a bright and sunny day and she didn’t need to think such sad thoughts. Better to think angry thoughts. Thoughts about Richard Stone and images of his arrogant smile came to her and helped her remember why she was going to the woods. If she killed anything with her arrows it would be like killing Stone. That’s what he deserved; an arrow through his heart. Although she doubted that he had one of those.

Once the fields between the castle and the vill of Sarbrook had been her family’s, but now the fields on the low broad slope reaching down to the scatter  of houses in the vill were all sold off and farmed by the peasants, men and women who used to be the d’Aubray’s serfs. Most of them now paid rent instead of service, and they paid it to the Stone family for the most part. There were two richer yeoman families who owned their own land, but after her mother had sold them a few shilling packets of fields, William Stone had taken her aside and, according to her mother, made her an offer for them she couldn’t refuse. And now they lived on that money, on the kindness of the Stones.

When her father had lived with them he had taken her sometimes to the manor court in the vill. She had learnt about the disputes between the peasants and she would pass all the gossip back to Joan afterwards. Joan had been glad to take an interest, but her mother had scolded her father for taking her. She thought it was not for a lady to know such things, while her father called it part of her “wider learning”. She didn’t go into the vill anymore though, and thankfully the lane split in a Y shape, one arm going down to the vill and the other to the woods by the stream and the mill-house. The woods were still wide enough to get lost in. But near enough home to be safe.

She pressed her heels against Guin’s flanks and trotted down the lane to the woods, already imagining an arrow flying from her bow to hit Richard Stone (or any animal or tree that got in her way) right between the eyes.

In her tower room in Sarbrook castle, Eolande’s mother, Maud d’Aubray held a piece of parchment in her thin, once delicate, but now crooked, fingers. That piece of parchment represented the last will and testament of her husband, and as she read it Maud d’Aubray’s hands shook with rage.

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