The Falcon Throne, first book in my new series The Tarnished Crown, will be released in Australia/New Zealand on August 28th, and in the US and UK on September 9th. It’s available for pre-order now via various online and bricks-and-mortar bookshops. Check the Where to Buy links for your best option, no matter where you live.
To get you in the mood, I’d like to share an excerpt from Chapter One …
Brassy-sweet, a single wavering trumpet blast rent the cold air. The destriers reared, ears flattened, nostrils flaring, then charged each other with the ferocity of war.
‘Huzzah!’ the joust’s excited onlookers shouted, throwing handfuls of barley and rye into the pale blue sky. The dry seeds fell to strike their heads and shoulders and the trampled, snow-burned grass beneath their feet. Blackbirds, bold as pirates, shrieked and squabbled over the feast as children released from the working day’s drudgery shook rattles, clanged handbells, blew whistles and laughed.
Oblivious to all save sweat and fear and the thunder of hooves, the two battling nobles dropped their reins and lowered their blunted lances. A great double crash as both men found their marks. Armour buckled, bodies swayed, clods of turf flew. Their destriers charged on despite each brutal strike.
With a muffled cry, his undamaged lance falling, abandoned, Ennis of Larkwood lurched half out of his saddle, clawed for his dropped reins, lost his balance and fell. For three strides his horse dragged him, both arms and his untrapped leg flailing wildly, helmeted head bouncing on the tussocked dirt. Then the stirrup-leather broke and he was free. Squires burst from the sidelines like startled pheasants, two making for the snorting horse, three rushing to their fallen lord.
Heedless of the vanquished, the crowd cheered victorious Black Hughe, youngest son of old Lord Herewart. Hughe let slip his ruined lance, pushed up his visor and raised a clenched, triumphant fist as his roan stallion plunged and shied. The mid-afternoon sun shimmered on his black-painted breastplate, thickly chased with silver-inlaid etchings.
‘Fuck,’ Balfre muttered, wishing he could reach beneath his own armour and scratch his ribs. ‘Did a more rampant coxcomb ever draw breath?’
Standing beside him, sadly plain in undecorated doublet and hose, his brother sighed. ‘I wish you wouldn’t do this.’
‘Someone must,’ he said. ‘And since you refuse, Grefin, who else is there? Or are you saying our dear friend Hughe isn’t ripe for a little plucking?’
Grefin frowned. ‘I’m saying the duke will be ripe to toss you into the dankest dungeon he can find once he hears what you’ve done. You know he’s got no love for—’
‘Aimery clap his heir in irons?’ Balfre laughed. ‘Don’t be an arse, Gref. His pride would never let him.’
‘And your pride will get you broken to pieces, or worse!’
Hughe had pranced his destrier to the far end of the makeshift tourney ground, so his gaggle of squires could prepare him for the next joust. Ennis was on his feet at last, battered helmet unbuckled and tugged off to reveal a wash of blood coating the left side of his face. Much of his close-cropped flaxen hair was dyed scarlet with it. He needed a squire’s help to limp off the field. When the shouting for Hughe died down there came a scattering of applause for him, no more than polite recognition. Harcia’s rustics had little patience for defeat.
Balfre shook his head. ‘You know, if Hughe’s a coxcomb then Ennis is a pickled dullard. Any donkey-riding peasant with a barley-stalk could push him off a horse.’
Turning, he looked down at the eager young squire who’d run the short distance from their rough and ready tourney-stall and halted at his elbow.
The squire flinched. ‘Master Ambrose says it be time for your bout, and to come, my lord. If it please you.’
‘Tell Ambrose to polish my stirrups. Fuck. Does he think the joust will start without me?’
‘No, my lord,’ said the squire, backing away. ‘I’ll tell him to wait, my lord.’
Balfre watched the youth scuttle to Master Armsman Ambrose. ‘Speaking of pickled dullards . . .’ He grimaced. ‘I swear, Grefin, that turnip-head must’ve snuck into Harcia from Clemen. He’s witless enough to be one of scabrous Harald’s subjects. Don’t you think?’
But his brother wasn’t listening. Instead, Grefin was raking his troubled gaze across Ennis being tended by a tourney leech; and the nearby jostling villagers; and the small, untidy knot of lesser men who’d come to test their armoured mettle and now stood defeated; and the heavily hoof-scarred tilt-run, to at length settle on Hughe and his squires. The chuffer had climbed off his destrier and was exchanging his dented black-and-silver breastplate for one unmarked but just as gaudy. It would be a vaunted pleasure, surely, to dent that one for him too.
If this weren’t such a public place, be cursed if he wouldn’t hook his brother’s legs out from under him and put his arse in the dirt where it belonged.
‘Hold your tongue, Grefin. Or better yet, since you’ve no stomach for sport, trot back to the Croft and lift your lance there, instead. Plant another son in your precious wife. After all, you’ve only sired one so far. You must be good for at least one more.’
‘I mean it,’ he said, keeping harsh. Refusing to see the shadow of hurt in Grefin’s eyes. ‘If all you can do is carp then you’re no good to me. In truth, it havocs me why you came in the first place.’
‘To keep you from breaking your neck, I hope,’ said Grefin, still frowning. ‘What havocs me is why you came! Look around, Balfre. We stand in an open field, far from any great house, and those who cheer and groan your efforts are villagers, herdsmen, peddlers and potboys.’
‘So you’d deny the local churls an hour or two of entertainment? You’re turning mean-spirited, Grefin.’
Grefin hissed air between his teeth. ‘It’s a question of dignity. Aside from you, and Hughe, and Ennis, who of any note came today to break his lance? Not our cousin. Not even Waymon, and he’s a man who’ll wrestle two drunk wild boars in a mire.’
‘Come on,’ he said, grinning despite his temper. ‘Even you have to admit that was funny.’
‘Side-splitting, yes,’ Grefin retorted. ‘And I’m sure the squires who broke themselves to save him from being ripped wide from throat to cock laughed all the way to the bone-setter!’
‘No, Balfre. You’ll listen,’ his brother said, and took his elbow. ‘You’re Harcia’s heir. You owe its duke more than this joust against a gaggle of mudder knights fit only to ride the Marches.’
Wrenching his arm free, Balfre looked to where Ambrose and his squires stood waiting. His stallion was there, his unbroken lances and his helmet. Catching his eye, Ambrose raised a hand and beckoned, agitated.
He looked again at his niggling brother. ‘Where and how I choose to romp is my concern. Not yours. Not Aimery’s.’
‘Of course it’s Aimery’s concern. He has enough to fret him without you risking yourself here. Those bastard lords of the Green Isle—’
Familiar resentment pricked, sharper than any spur. ‘You can throw down that cudgel, Grefin. When it comes to the Green Isle, Aimery has his remedy.’
‘Balfre . . .’ Grefin sighed. ‘He needs more time.’
‘He’s had nearly two years!’
‘It’s been that long since Malcolm died. But Mother died in autumn, and here we are scant in spring.’
‘What’s Mother to do with it? She wasn’t his Steward!’
‘No,’ Grefin said gently. ‘She was his beating heart. He still weeps for her, Balfre. And for Malcolm. Both griefs are still raw. And now you’d have him weeping for you, too?’
The chilly air stank of churned mud and horse shit. A troupe of acrobats was amusing the crowd as it waited for the last joust. Motley-painted canvas balls and striped wooden clubs danced hand-to-hand and man-to-man through the air, the jugglers’ skill so great they never dropped even one. From time to time they snatched a cap from a villager’s head and juggled that too. The field echoed with delighted laughter.
Balfre glared at them, unamused. Aimery weep for him? That would be the fucking day. ‘I never knew you had such a poor opinion of my lance-skills.’
‘This has nothing to do with jousting,’ Grefin retorted. ‘Please, Balfre. Just . . . let it go. Who cares what a sophead like Hughe mutters under his breath?’
‘I care!’ Blood leaping, he shoved his brother with both hands, hard enough to mar Grefin’s dark green doublet. ‘When what he mutters is heard by a dozen men? I care. And if you cared for me, you’d care.’
‘I do!’ Grefin protested. ‘But Balfre, you can’t—’
‘Oh, fuck off, Grefin! Before I forget myself and give those gaping churls reason enough to gossip for a week!’
Grefin folded his arms, mule-stubborn. ‘I don’t want to.’
‘And I don’t care what you want.’
Holding his brother’s resentful stare, unflinching, Balfre waited. Grefin would relent. He always did. There was a softness at the core of him that made sure of it. A good thing for Harcia he wasn’t Aimery’s heir. Such a softness would leave the duchy’s throat bared to faithless men like Harald of Clemen.
At last Grefin huffed out a frustrated breath. ‘Fine. But never say I didn’t warn you,’ he said, and retreated.
Still simmering, Balfre returned to Ambrose. The Master Armsman near cracked his skull in two, shoving his gold-chased helmet onto his head.
‘For shame, my lord,’ Ambrose said in his rasping voice, come from a sword-hilt to the neck in the desperate, long-ago battle that had made Aimery duke. ‘Dallying like a maid. This might be a rumptiony shigshag we be at but still you should be setting a timely example.’
He bore with the reprimand. The armsman had served two dukes of Harcia already, thereby earning for himself a small measure of insolence. With a nod, Balfre held out his hands so the turnip-head squire could gauntlet him. The burnished steel slid on cleanly, cold and heavy.
Ambrose started his final armour inspection. ‘You been watching that rump Hughe?’
‘I have,’ he said, twisting his torso to be certain of no sticking points in his breastplate, which was gold-chased like his helmet and worth more than Hughe’s horse. ‘Nothing’s changed since the last time we bouted. He still drops his lance a stride too soon, and sits harder on his right seatbone.’
‘True enough.’ Ambrose slapped his pupil’s steel-clad shoulder. ‘And shame be on his tiltmaster. But for all that, he be a brutey jouster. You’ll be kissing dirt, my lord, if you don’t have a care.’
‘Then shame be on my tiltmaster,’ Balfre said, flashing Ambrose a swift smirk. ‘If I do kiss the dirt, I’ll have to find myself a new one.’
Because this was no formal tourney they lacked judges to keep time or award points and penalties. There was the lone hornblower, though, for the sake of the ragged crowd. As Hughe remounted his restive stallion, one of his squires ran to the man and gave an order. Obedient, the appointed villager blew his horn to warn the crowd a joust was coming.
Balfre nodded at Ambrose, then crossed to the wooden mounting block where his destrier was held fast by two squires. As he approached, one of them was doltish enough to shift too far sideways. The stallion lashed out its foreleg and caught the man on his thigh with an iron-shod hoof. Squealing, the squire crumpled.
‘Maggot-brain!’ said Ambrose, hurrying to drag him clear. Then he gestured at turnip-head. ‘Don’t stand there gawping, you peascod. Hold the cursed horse!’
The excited villagers set up another din of handbells and rattles and whistles. Stood at a distance in their second-rate armour, Ennis and the vanquished mudder knights cast envious looks at the stallion. Quivering with nerves, eager for the joust, the horse tossed its head and swished its thick black tail. As Balfre reached the mounting block it bared its teeth and snapped, strong enough to rip fingers from an unprotected hand.
‘Bah!’ he said, and punched the stallion’s dish-round cheek. ‘Stand still!’
Walking to and fro, the hornblower sounded another rallying blast, coaxing more raucous cheers from the crowd. On the far side of the tourney ground Hughe kicked his roan destrier forward, scattering his squires like beetles. One tottered behind him, awkwardly carrying his lance.
Rolling his eyes, Balfre picked up his reins, shoved his left foot into his stirrup and swung his right leg up and over his jousting saddle’s high cantle. The moment he settled on his destrier’s back he felt the animal tense beneath him, its breath coming in angry grunts. Not even his heaviest gauntlets muffled its throttled energy, tingling from the curbed bit to his fingers. Through the steel and mail protecting his thighs and lower legs he could feel the barrel ribs expand and contract, and the pent-up furious power in the muscular body beneath him. This was his best horse, and they were well-matched in both temper and skill. Only for Black Hughe would he risk the beast here. But Hughe was owed a mighty drubbing, and to be sure of it he’d chance even this animal.
With a decided thud he closed his helmet’s visor then held out his hand. ‘Lance!’
The weight of the carved, painted timber woke old bruises and strains. Stifling an oath, he couched the lance in its proper place, pricked spurs to his horse’s flanks, then softened the bit’s sharp bite.
The destrier leapt like a flycatcher, snorting. White foam flew from its mouth. Prisoned within his gold-chased helm, his vision narrowed to a slit and the crowd’s roaring a hollow boom, Balfre laughed aloud. Aside from a writhing woman pinned on his cock, was there anything better in the world than a lance in his hand, a grand horse between his legs, and a man before him a handful of heartbeats from defeat?
No. There wasn’t.
Snorting, ears pricked, the destrier settled into a stately, knee-snapping prance. He sat the dance with ease, guiding the stallion to the start of the tilt-run with nothing more than his shifting weight and the touch of his long-shanked, elaborate spurs. There he halted, and paid no heed to the crowd’s wild cheering or the stallion’s threatening half-rears.
‘Black Hughe!’ he called, loud enough to be heard through his helmet. ‘You stand ready?’
‘I indeed stand ready, Balfre!’ Hughe shouted back. ‘Do I have your pardon now, for the unseating of you later?’
‘You’ll have my pardon once you answer for your slur.’
‘My lord,’ said Hughe, defiant, then closed his own visor and demanded his lance.
As the hornblowing villager took his place midway along the rough tilt-run, horn ready at his lips, the watching villagers and mudder knights fell silent. Only the blackbirds kept up their squabbling, seeking the last grains of seed.
The horn sounded again, a single trembling note. Balfre threw his weight forward as he felt his stallion’s quarters sink beneath him, felt its forehand lift, saw its noble head and great, crested neck rise towards his face. It bellowed, a roaring challenge, then stood on its strong hindlegs. Night-black forelegs raked the air. He loosened the reins, gripped the lance and spurred the stallion’s flanks. The horse plunged groundwards, bellowing again . . . and charged.
Blurred, breathless speed. Pounding heart. Heaving lungs. Nothing before him but Black Hughe on his horse and the memory of his hateful taunt, dagger-sharp and unforgivable.
Seven thundering strides. Six. Five.
He tucked the lance tight to his side, closed his thighs, dropped the reins. Blinked his eyes free of sweat . . . and took aim . . . and struck.
A double shout of pain, as his lance-head impacted Hughe’s armoured body and shattered, as Hughe’s undamaged lance struck then glanced harmlessly aside. Pain thrummed through him like the ringing of a great bell, like the clashing of a hammer against the anvil of the world. His fingers opened, releasing the splintered remains of his lance. Then they closed again, on his dropped reins. He hauled on them, unkindly, and his destrier shuddered to a head-shaking halt. A tug and a spurring, and he was turned back to look for Hughe.
Herewart’s youngest son was sprawled on the tilt-run’s dirt like a starfish, his fancy breastplate dented, his helmet scratched, his eyes staring blindly at the sky.
‘My lord! My lord!’
And that was Ambrose, the old, scarred man, running hoppy and hamstrung towards him. Turnip-head and another squire scurried at his heels. Hughe’s squires were running too, the ones that weren’t
‘A doughty strike, my lord, doughty! The best from you I’ve surely seen! Lord Grefin will bite his thumb, for certain, when he’s told what he missed.’
Grefin. A curse on Grefin and his milksop mimbling. Balfre shoved up his helmet’s visor, then kicked his feet free of the stirrups and twisted out of his saddle. The jar in his bones as he landed on the hoof-scarred ground made him wince. Ambrose saw it, but nobody else. He held out his hands for the squires to pull off his gauntlets, and when they were free unbuckled and tugged off his helmet for himself.
‘Take the horse,’ he commanded. ‘I would speak to Black Hughe.’
‘My lord,’ said Ambrose, holding stallion and helmet now. ‘We’ll ready all to depart.’
The villagers and mudder knights were still cheering, the ragtag children shaking their rattles and handbells and blowing their whistles. He waved once, since it was expected, then turned from them to consider old Herewart’s son. The lingering pains in his body were as nothing, drowned in the joy of seeing his enemy thrown down.
‘Lord Balfre,’ Hughe greeted him, his voice thin as watered wine. His squires had freed him from his helmet and thrust a folded tunic beneath his head. ‘Your joust, I think.’
With a look, Balfre scattered the squires who hovered to render their lord aid. Then he dropped to one knee, with care, and braced an aching forearm across his thigh.
Black Hughe was sweating, his normally swarthy face pale beneath the blood seeping from a split along his dark hairline. More blood trickled from one nostril, and from the corner of his mouth. He looked like a knifed hog.
‘I’m not dying, Balfre,’ Hughe said, slowly. ‘I bit my tongue. That’s all.’
‘And to think, Hughe, if you’d bitten it the sooner you’d not be lying here now in a welter of your gore, unhorsed and roundly defeated,’ he said kindly, and smiled.
Hughe coughed, then gasped in pain. ‘My lord—’
‘Hughe, Hughe . . .’ Leaning forward, Balfre patted Black Hughe’s bruised cheek. Mingled sweat and blood stained his fingers. He didn’t mind. They were his prize. ‘I’m going now. Without your horse and armour. I didn’t joust you for them.’
‘My lord,’ said Hughe, and swallowed painfully. ‘Thank you.’
‘Not at all. And Hughe, let me leave you with this small piece of advice. Remember this moment. Engrave it on your heart. So the next time you think to slight my prowess with my lance? You think again – and stay silent.’
Hughe stared at him, struck dumb. Balfre smiled again, not kindly. Pushed to his feet, spurning assistance, gave Hughe his armoured back and walked away.