Trowchester Blues by Alex Beecroft





Michael May is losing it. Long ago, he joined the Metropolitan Police to escape his father’s tyranny and protect people like himself. Now his father is dead, and he’s been fired for punching a suspect. Afraid of his own rage, he returns to Trowchester—and to his childhood home, with all its old fears and memories. When he meets a charming, bohemian bookshop owner who seems to like him, he clings tight.

Fintan Hulme is an honest man now. Five years ago, he retired from his work as a high class London fence and opened a bookshop. Then an old client brings him a stolen book too precious to turn away, and suddenly he’s dealing with arson and kidnapping, to say nothing of all the lies he has to tell his friends. Falling in love with an ex-cop with anger amanagement issues is the last thing he should be doing.

Finn thinks Michael is incredibly sexy. Michael knows Finn is the only thing that still makes him smile. But in a relationship where cops and robbers are natural enemies, that might not be enough to save them.


Chapter One

Thirty seconds after Smith knocked at the front door, the suspect threw open the back and charged out. Michael May, standing to one side waiting, kicked the guy’s knees out from under him, and moved in to try to seize an arm, get the bastard in a half nelson, under control.

But this guy—Watkins—was tougher than these white-collar city boys usually came. He took the fall like a pro, used the momentum to roll, and came up running. He was a wiry git, taller than May—most men were—with long legs. That damn kung fu fall set off all kinds of alarms in May’s head, but at this stage it was fight or lose him, and he was not going to let the bastard get away.

A wheelie bin in the narrow passage between the back of the house and the street slowed the perp up enough so May could throw himself at those long legs and rugby tackle him to the ground. Watkins went down, but he squirmed like an eel. May took a heel to the balls, and blessed his own foresight in wearing rugby protection down there. He held on tight, not wanting to walk his hold up the guy’s body and potentially give him a better angle to use his fists. Pinned by May’s considerable weight, facedown on the pavement, there wasn’t a lot the guy could do to him. May could lie here just fine until Reed or Smith got round to coming to help.

The perp tried rolling. No luck. He pushed himself up on his arms, trying with better leverage. Failed again. In terms of sheer physical force, May outclassed him easily.

“Nigel Howard Watkins”—this was an unusual position from which to make an arrest, but May wasn’t going to turn down anything that worked—“you are under arrest for—”

Watkins flopped flat. One of his long, flailing arms went to the back of his designer suit trousers. His jacket shifted, and there was the bulge of a gun stuffed down the back of his waistband.

May’s heart kicked up beneath his ribs. Fuck, every villain had a gun these days, and they hadn’t brought any armed officers with them. His mind went white and clear even as his lips tingled with cold adrenaline. Don’t let him draw it.

He punched Watkins in the kidney with his left hand, reached up with the right to try to grab for the gun. The moment his hold loosened, Watkins squirmed again, got one leg out from under him and kneed May in the ribs with it. May body-slammed the guy back to the pavement, swarmed up him, got his hand on Watkins’s hand just as it grasped the gun, and kept it pressed down hard against the guy’s back, so if he did pull the trigger, he’d shoot his own arse.

“May?” Acting Detective Constable Reed called from the exit to the road.

“Here! I could use a little help.”

The yard gate swung open. Reed—a tall, skinny kid who lived up to his name—ran through, pushed past the wheelie bin, and got his knees on Watkins’s shoulders.

“You’re not going anywhere, sir.” May managed to get his thumb on the pressure point of Watkins’s wrist. Watkins jerked like he knew exactly what May was doing, knew that as soon as May dug in there, his hand would go numb, he would let go of the gun, and it would be all over.

If the man was going to shoot at all, it would be now. And yes, the bullet would go through his own buttock on the way to tearing into May’s belly, lodging itself in his pelvis or his spine, but May would still be dead, and he’d be alive. Could he be tough enough for that? Tough enough to get another shot off afterwards, take Reed down too, and escape?

“You’re not going anywhere,” May said again, digging in to the pressure point with his fingers, pushing with his own resolve against Watkins’s determination. “Nigel Howard Watkins, you are under arrest for kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment of a minor.”

Watkins struggled against May’s hold, but his fingers opened involuntarily, and May wrenched the gun out of his hand, threw it out of reach. The high, shrill edge to May’s mood quietened down into a more familiar wariness. Okay, okay. Thank God, we’re all fine.

He breathed out hard, pushing the panic aside, and drew on the comforting blanket of routine. “You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention, when questioned, something you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”

Reed passed him handcuffs. He snapped them on, breathed again two, three times before giving the ADC a smile. “Good work. Let’s get him up.”

The fight had gone out of their prisoner. He rose easily enough, stood between them meekly with his smart white shirt black all over with the exhaust residue and smut of London’s streets. Jermyn Street tailoring, gold watch, this season’s spiky City cut on his muddy-blond hair, manicured hands. Maybe with blood under the nails, they’d have to check.

“You can’t touch me,” he said, obviously trying for suave and not quite making it.

“You got him?” Smith appeared at the yard door, wiping her hands over and over against her jeans. Jenny Smith, May’s longtime partner, was hard and clear as diamond. His already queasy stomach—roiling with the comedown of that sudden flood of fight or flight—sank at the sight of her. Mouth pale, skin greenish, creases of strain between her eyebrows. It was bad.

“Bag the gun,” he replied, nodding to it.

She knelt down to do it, not looking at him, not looking at Watkins. “Is he going to be secure in the car? You should see inside.”

May could almost feel the confidence coming back to his prisoner, as if he were a vase being filled under a tap of it. Being physically overwhelmed and disarmed tended to knock even the most egotistical down a peg, but this guy was bouncing back from it with all the arrogance of his suit. He wasn’t going to sit still and be a good boy while he waited for the police to gather evidence.

“We’ll bring him.”

Inside the man’s house, it was glossy. A whole Victorian terrace house, not even split into flats. The ground floor was open plan, finished in pale wood, with a floating staircase up to the second and third floors. The bannisters were wrought iron. Nice and sturdy, so May used his own cuffs in addition to Reed’s and secured Walker there, each wrist cuffed to a different spoke.

Smith passed the bagged gun to Reed. “Stay here. Make sure he stays too.”

May caught Smith’s gaze and raised his eyebrows. Reed’s staying here?

She shoved a tendril of barley-sugar-coloured hair back into her plait and gave him a twist of the lips that said, ADC Reed is twenty-one. Too young for this. “I’ve already called for forensics, but you should see, so you can corroborate my evidence.”

The smell began halfway down the stairs to the cellar. Very clean stairs. They ended in a small stone room full of racks of wine. Not a speck of dust on the floor, probably because if there had been, the place where the far wall swung out to reveal a hidden room would have been obvious at a glance. May drew on gloves, though he didn’t intend to touch anything.

His educated nose picked up the bouquet of blood and burned flesh, layered with the fainter and yet more disturbing scents of semen and corpse. The energy of the fight had well and truly worn off now. His hands in his pockets shook no matter how hard he clenched them. He stopped where the false wall, cheerful with green bottles, still blocked his view, and closed his eyes for good measure.

“Jenny, I . . .”

But she was a woman and a mother. She’d seen everything he’d seen over their shared career. If she could take it, what kind of a pathetic excuse for a man did it make him that he could not?

Smith looked at him with a kind of cold fury that meant, You are not leaving this all to me. Pull yourself together, but what she said was, “No, you know, on second thoughts, why don’t you and Reed just take him in? I’ll wait for forensics.” And see, he was letting down his partner with his weakness. She’d have to go home at night and know she was the only one with this stuff in her head. She’d have no one to talk to about it, no one to understand the pain that came out as morbid jokes and obsessive hand washing and one too many beers on a Friday night, if you were lucky.

No one needed to tell him he’d been flaky lately. He knew he’d been unravelling for the better part of the last year. That didn’t mean he had to give in to it. He could try acting like a man and suck it up.

“Let me see,” he said. Didn’t miss her look of relief and guilt. No matter how concerned she might be about him, she didn’t want to be alone with this.

The victim was a fourteen-year-old girl. Quite dead. By the look of her, she’d been dead for a couple of days. Her wrists, where she’d been chained to the radiator, had melted into the metal. Stacey Merriweather: ran away from home after a family argument over her grades at school, failed to return.

Cameras on Platform 3 of Piccadilly Station had seen her sitting with her back to the wall, crying. A disconsolate little package of short skirt and Hello Kitty hairband. Had seen the camel-coated back of the kind gentleman who’d comforted her, and a flash of his pocket watch as he’d reached down to help her to her feet.

They’d traced that watch to waterfront properties, a high-powered job in the City, every luxury money could buy and then some. A slew of false names, this house belonging to one of them. And then they’d followed the trail down and down again to this room with its operating table and its instruments and its chains. To this corpse with its internal organs removed and placed in labelled jars. With its lips sewn shut and its eyes sewn open and a Hello Kitty hairband in its hair.

May thought he said something. Pretty sure the strangled noise was his voice. But he’d mostly lost himself, not quite following who was striding back up the stairs with Smith’s shouts chasing him and a head full of such rage that the skull had shattered under the pressure and the fury was smoking behind him in a tail like a dark comet.

Footsteps came running behind him, but he was in the living room now, looking at white furniture, deep white carpets like clouds. Looking at polish and varnish and golden autumn light slanting through high windows onto a monster in an Armani suit.

“Sir!” Reed squeaked as May reached out a lazy hand and shoved him aside.

Fingers tried to grab hold of his jacket from the back. “May! May! Michael! Listen to me.”

He twitched them aside, drew back, and punched Watkins straight in the gut, the satisfying impact reverberating through his knuckles into every bone of his body. How about he show the bastard what it was like when his internal organs were pulped?

Watkins tried to double over, still cuffed to the stair rods like a crucifixion. It brought his smug mouth down perfectly to the level of May’s fists, and May hit him twice more, splitting his lip, bloodying his nose, making spittle and blood fly. He grinned, fierce, righteous, because this was just what the guy deserved. No. He deserved more, so much more. May drew back his hand to strike again.

But something was stopping him from swinging. He tried his hardest, succeeded in unbalancing Smith and dragging her forwards, but she kept right on clinging to his arm as Reed’s long grasp locked around his waist and the ADC fought to pull him away.

May could have shaken them both off without much effort, but the contact, their grip, their concerned voices, started to wake up something human in him again. He was coming to after having been unconscious, all the madness that had been spiralling around his head contracting into a little black hole that he swallowed back down.

Just because the guy deserved this didn’t mean May could go around beating up defenceless citizens. He was not fucking Batman. He was better than this.

“Shit,” he said, appalled, and stepped away from the prisoner. “Shit. Jenny, Mark. I’m sorry.”

They let him go. Stood, looking at him with shocked and unsettled eyes, Jenny with that guilt back, all over her face like she somehow thought any of this was her fault.

Silence while it all sank in, and then Watkins raised his head and smiled. “I have friends in places so high you don’t even know they exist. I’m going to be fine. But you? I’m going to see you broken for police brutality at the least. At the very least.”


Book of the Day: Too Many Fairy Princes


Happily ever after doesn’t always come quietly. Sometimes it puts up a fight.

Kjartan’s family is royally dysfunctional. He’d prefer to ignore the lot of them, but can’t since his father has set him and his brothers on a quest to win a throne Kjartan doesn’t even want. Worse, his younger brother resorts to murder and forces Kjartan to teleport—without looking where he’s going.

Art gallery worker Joel Wilson’s day has gone from hopeless, to hopeful, then straight to hell. One minute he’s sure his boss has found a way to save the floundering business, the next he’s scrambling to sell everything to pay off a loan shark. If anyone needs a fairy godmother right now, it’s Joel. What he gets is a fugitive elven prince in a trash bin.

They’ll both have to make the best of it, because fairy tales run roughshod over reluctant heroes. Particularly when there aren’t enough happy endings to go around.


He reached out to the nearest bin and grabbed the handle, paused before lifting it. There was still time to walk away. Hadn’t he got enough trouble of his own already?

Well yes, he did. A moment of sharp joy surprised him with its cutting edge. Did he really have anything left to lose? No. That meant a certain freedom. Wherever he went from here, it could hardly get worse. He grabbed the bin with the other hand too, lifted it away, and stood for a long time looking down, sucker-punched into silence, even his mind shutting down in the face of the impossible.

Because he was far too much of a Tolkien fan not to recognise what he saw. He was just not enough of a dreamer to believe it. Oh yes, he’d told himself, “You never know.” The folklore had always been there, surprisingly consistent from country to country. People in Iceland believed enough to still leave sacrifices for the creatures, but…

But Joel hadn’t realised how firmly he disbelieved until this moment, when he found himself looking down on what was unmistakably an elf.

Of themselves, his hands came up to cover his nose and mouth. He rebreathed his own air, warm and reassuring, for a while, as his already queasy stomach curled and turned over.

It was white, the creature. Whiter than paper, its face and outstretched hands gleaming like snow under moonlight, and its hair behind it like a comet’s trail, silver as a falling star. The tunic and trousers it wore must once have been equally white—even now they glimmered with threads of silver. Its moonstone belt and baldric gleamed and flickered as it breathed.

But the knees of the trousers were torn out, and spatters of blood showed stark around them. Rips and long scuffs of dark London dirt cratered the radiance of the tunic, and everywhere it touched the ground it had soaked up the decomposed brown liquid from the bottom of the bins, sticky and stinking and wrong.

“Nhn,” said Joel at last and lurched closer as if tugged. He bent down, caught—in the middle of the reek—a faint scent like primroses after spring rain. Saw the long, twisting burn, raised and livid on the skin of the creature’s hand and arm, and his face with the brows still creased in pain and lashes like silver wire and lips as white as clouds. “Oh…”

It didn’t require belief to reach down and carefully, carefully in case his skin stung it, or his strength crushed its spun-glass delicacy, to brush his fingertips along its cheek. A little colder than human skin, a little sleeker, but the firmness was the same, as though bones and muscles still filled it out from within. He curved his hand around the half-open mouth and felt its breath like a cool breeze against his palm.

“All right, this is…this is officially not happening,” he told it as he knelt down and got a hand under one of its shoulders. Oh, not good. Where he couldn’t see, his fingers sunk into a wet mess of blood. He almost dropped it, shifted his grip clumsily, and hauled the torso into his arms. “I want you to know I don’t believe any of this, but you’re hurt and I guess I can’t take you to the hospital. And I can’t leave you here. So…”

With one arm around the creature’s back, he wormed the other under its long, slender legs, firmly told his trembling body to shape up, and lurched to his feet. It weighed more than he’d expected from something so ethereal—less than a healthy young man, but about the same as a slender young woman. At the jerk of the lift, its brows pinched in further. It gave a little musical gasp of protest or pain.

“Ssh,” Joel murmured, almost involuntarily protective. Something that beautiful ought not to look so distressed. It violated the moral code of the universe. “It’s all right. I’ve got you. You’re safe now.”

A few burdened steps to the archway, and he paused as he made sure no one was around to watch him bridal-carry this white and alien thing into his home. Then out into the street, a struggle and fumble with his keys as he tried to open the door without dropping his burden. Another quick look around and he made it into his flat unobserved, kicking the door to behind him, snapping on the lights with his chin.

“All right,” he said again, lowering the long form of his guest to lie sprawled and filthy over his faded yellow duvet. “Everything’s going to be—”

The moment the wounded shoulder touched the bed, the creature gave a raw, gasping whine of pain. Its eyes flew open, wide, gold—gold like the eyes of lions and just as pitiless—and it shoved him hard in the chest with its uninjured hand. He flew across the room as though a horse had kicked him, slamming into the sink and falling winded to the floor, nothing but vacuum inside him for a moment until the paralysis of shock wore off and he could whoop in a bitter, resentful breath.

A faint footfall and light on his downcast eyes. He looked up, found the creature standing disdainfully over him, a knife of glass in its left hand, the right still cradled against its chest. “You touched me! You touched me! You filthy, sacrilegious…”

The knife glittered white shards of light into Joel’s aching head. He should force himself up. He’d defeated one knife fighter today already. Why not another? He should…

Inexplicably, suicidally, and desperately badly for his badass image, he put his head in his hands and started to cry.


Kjartan’s knife whispered to him. Just there, where the ear stood above the jawbone, there he could push in the point and a single curving cut would all but sever the impious creature’s head from its backbone. The blade’s voice sang under his fingers with a sweet, thin tone that rang around his aching head and seemed to boil his eyes in their sockets.

But for all the stories about humans, for all the warnings about their treacherous nature, their uncanny abilities, not even he could persuade himself that this one—crouched in a huddle on its knees before him with tears leaking out from behind its sheltering fingers—was honestly a danger to him.

The knife whined with disappointment as he slid it back into the sheath strapped to his arm, and that was hard enough. But when it fell silent, all his pains gave tongue, and the knowledge of agony went over him like a sheet of lightning. He staggered backwards and his knees collided with a soft sleeping platform. Sinking down to sit on it, he saw the stains where he’d lain, and the stench of human on the bedding was the same stink as that of the man before him.

He let you rest on his bed.

Kjartan groped for his knife again, fingers hard against the reassuring bump beneath his sleeve. There were two explanations for that, and one of them he liked very little. “What do you want from me, human? I warn you, I am a prince of my people. If you touch me again, uninvited, I will skin you and write satirical verses on the leather.”

The man choked on his tears and coughed the water out. Then the cough became a laugh, and the laugh became a spasm, his brown face flushing purple, his eyes shining out with a kind of fear. It persisted so long Kjartan became afraid that he was under some sort of paralytic spell. So painful to watch was it that he drew back his uninjured hand and slapped the man hard on his cheek.

Oh, how strange. He looked at his hand—the skin had felt rough as though it was covered all over with fine bristles. The laughing fit having stopped, the human now knelt, breathing hard, blinking its reddened eyes and watching him. Kjartan deemed it safe enough to shuffle forward and indulge his curiosity by peering at its face. It did! It had little black spikes all over its jaw that caught the light and glinted like jet. He reached out and touched them with exploratory fingertips. They were not made of stone, but apparently of coarse hair. They had a grain, like a dog’s hair, smooth if he stroked one way, resisting him if he pulled the other.

The creature looked up at him with a new kind of fear in its muddy brown eyes and a curiosity that matched his own. How strange to think that just as it was wondrous to him, so he was wondrous to it. A delightful thought.

He smiled, and it echoed the expression. It had not yet tried to kill him, or imprison him and put him on display, or overpower and ravish him, one of these three things having been what he expected when he woke to find it leaning over him. Now he wanted to know what it would do. If given its will and choice.

“Um…” it said, rubbing the heel of its hand across its eyes to dash away the tears. “So you speak English. That’s going to make things easier.”


How historical is your fairy tale? by Alex Beecroft

This may seem like a ridiculous question. Of course there’s a difference between stuff that actually happened and stuff that some author made up out of their own imagination. I wouldn’t dream of arguing that the events in The Lord of the Rings actually happened, for example, even though much of Tolkien’s background work created to support that story has the very texture of history. It’s an invented history, I know that.


But I’ve always maintained that I like historicals and I like fantasies for the same reason – that to me they feel like very similar things. When I write both, it’s the strangeness of the other world which appeals to me. I enjoy having my mind be expanded by meeting people and encountering cultures who do not think or act like our own.

And I think it’s at that level of belief – of the world-view of the characters – where Historical Fantasy and History bleed together at the edges.

Even in modern times, there are people who believe that the world is inhabited by other intelligences than mankind. As a Christian, I believe myself that there is an invisible world around us in which angels and devils are doing whatever it is they do. I don’t personally interact with this world much because, as a Protestant, I’ve been taught to skip the intermediaries and go straight to God for all my supernatural needs. But I believe they exist. And I believe that God hears and talks to me, and that I hear Him.

To an atheist, I already live in a Fantasy world.

Even in modern times, there are people who sense ghosts, who claim to talk to the dead, who talk to gods other than mine. I wouldn’t dream of telling those people they didn’t really have the experiences they had. How should I know?

Even in modern times, there are people who have encountered elves – Iceland considers the needs of the elves when deciding on the route of a new road, for example.

Go back a hundred years and all of that multiplies. Go back 300 years, and the atheists and skeptics are suddenly in a minority. Because, much though we moderns might like to believe the past was just like the present but in nicer clothes, it wasn’t.

Once you’re sufficiently far back in history, the chances are that your characters all believe in a world of spirits, magic, angels and devils, active saints, holy wells, ghost ships and Divine intervention that would put most works of Fantasy to shame.

And if your characters believe in this stuff, this stuff is going to affect how they behave. They will go on pilgrimages, they will think they hear the voice of God/the gods, they will bury nails in the walls of their houses to keep witches from bringing them bad luck – they will suspect any run of bad luck to be the result of witches and go looking for a suspicious woman to blame. And your story will start looking more like a fantasy than a historical.

From there it’s very easy to slip between ‘the characters believe this is happening but it’s all in their heads’ to ‘this is actually happening.’ That’s the slip where Historical becomes Historical Fantasy.

The place where that slip happens is quite subjective. It depends on your own beliefs. I’m perfectly willing to accept a narrative wherein the character hears God’s voice and obeys it, with miracles and temptations along the way, as a pure historical, because I believe that sort of thing happens in real life all the time. You may not be. In which case, where is the line?

I think it’s a grey area, and I like it that way, because that’s the kind of twilight place where most of my inspiration comes from. I’ve always liked my maps to have grey areas around the outside with “Here be dragons,” marked on them. Too much certainty is a terrible thing for the creative mind. If everything is known, what else is there to wonder about?

This is all especially true in my latest novella, The Crimson Outlaw, because when I began to research historical Romania, I discovered it was a country straight out of fairy tales. There really were peasants living in cottages in the middle of vast forests prowled by wolves and bandits. People really did go to witches to curse their neighbours or cure their ailments. Troops of gypsies really did travel from village to village in covered wagons, their musicians in great demand to play for weddings and funerals and dancing. There really were stern and selfish and sometimes insane lords in castles…

All of which means that though The Crimson Outlaw is a historical, you could read it as a fairy tale just as easily, I hope. It’s an embodiment of my feeling that the two genres meet in the middle more often than not.


Alex Beecroft was born in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and grew up in the wild countryside of the English Peak District. She studied English and Philosophy before accepting employment with the Crown Court where she worked for a number of years. Now a stay-at-home mum and full time author, Alex lives with her husband and two children in a little village near Cambridge and tries to avoid being mistaken for a tourist.

Alex is only intermittently present in the real world. She has lead a Saxon shield wall into battle, toiled as a Georgian kitchen maid, and recently taken up an 800 year old form of English folk dance, but she still hasn’t learned to operate a mobile phone.

You can find her on her own blog here.

The Crimson Outlaw is published by Riptide

Love is the greatest outlaw of all.

Vali Florescu, heir to a powerful local boyar, flees his father’s cruelty to seek his fortune in the untamed Carpathian forests. There he expects to fight ferocious bandits and woo fair maidens to prove himself worthy of returning to depose his tyrannical father. But when he is ambushed by Mihai Roscat, the fearsome Crimson Outlaw, he discovers that he’s surprisingly happy to be captured and debauched instead.

Mihai, once an honoured knight, has long sought revenge against Vali’s father, Wadim, who killed his lord and forced him into a life of banditry. Expecting his hostage to be a resentful, spoiled brat, Mihai is unprepared for the boy to switch loyalties, saving the lives of villagers and of Mihai himself during one of Wadim’s raids. Mihai is equally unprepared for the attraction between them to deepen into love.

Vali soon learns that life outside the castle is not the fairy tale he thought, and happy endings must be earned. To free themselves and their people from Wadim’s oppression, Vali and Mihai must forge their love into the spear-point of a revolution and fight for a better world for all.


Chapter One

1720 – Harghita County, Transylvania

It was the grimmest of weddings. Even the weather agreed, rain lashing down from a glowering sky, turning the red tiles of the turrets the colour of blood, gushing over all the balconies, and churning the moat to a froth.

Vali, with a sodden sheepskin clutched around his silken hat, escaped his father’s scrutiny long enough to dash through the puddles of the courtyard and catch up with his sister and her maidens before she entered the castle church. The girls gave him sour looks for stopping them outside in this downpour, but he didn’t care overmuch that the spun-sugar delicacy of their headdresses were drooping and darkening with the wet, and that their heavy gold-and-silver-laced bodices, their globes of shimmering skirts were sopping up water with every second.

They were uncomfortable. Well, so they should be, since his sister’s face was anguished and her eyes red with weeping. She had met her husband-to-be for the very first time yesterday, at a feast thrown for that purpose, and although she had concealed her horror fairly successfully at the time, it was clear to see she had not spent a peaceful night. Even encased as she was in so many layers of cloth-of-gold she might be a martyr’s mummy, he could see her shaking, and he was furious to know she was as frightened as she was miserable. Her voice was as raw as her eyes. “You shouldn’t be here. If Father sees you . . . Go back to the men’s side before you’re missed.”

“I will.” He leaned close, while four of Stela’s attendants struggled to hold a tarpaulin over her head to protect the cobweb of her veil. In the water running down her face, it was now impossible to guess at fresh tears. “But you don’t have to do this.”

Her shoulders sank as if in sudden despair, only illustrating how tightly wound they had been before. “I don’t think either of us wants to see what Father will do if I refuse.”

“I have a plan,” Vali insisted, because there were things that could not be borne and this was one of them—that his sister should be given out like a chest of gold to ensure the loyalty of a neighbouring boyar. One, moreover, the same age as their father, hideous and maimed to boot. “There’ll be a horse waiting for you, and all the gates open—”

Her look of despair only deepened. “Vali—”

From the cloisters behind them came the singing of the menfolk, deep and primal and disturbing. Stela’s chief maiden pulled at her arm, and she went, casting Vali a look of resignation, almost of apology, as she was swallowed up in the dim gilding of the church.

“You’ll know when to act,” he shouted after her, his voice all but overwhelmed by the pound of water on paving. “I’ll distract them, and you run!”

The men came out from beneath the colonnade, in glowing high spirits, fortified by plum brandy, pink about the cheeks with self-satisfaction and liquor. Vali made sure his father had seen him, knew from his father’s narrowed grey eyes that he was being watched, and slipped into a place behind the viteji—his father’s knights. Slim, capable men, raised to fight from horseback, deadly with a bow. Any one of them could shoot the eye of a hawk as it dived, even if he was galloping flat out and the bird was a hundred yards behind him.

Some of them were even kind. Vali had trained with them all since he was old enough to pick up a practice bow. At nineteen years of age, he could hold his own against most of them with a sabre, drive a lance through a wall with his charge, and sit a horse as though he were a centaur, command it as though it were his own flesh. All of this he owed to them. Now the two he liked the best, old Grigore and young Eugen, drew apart to let him join them. Eugen clapped him on the back, and Grigore handed him a flask of tuica so he could catch up on the general inebriation.

“Soon be over,” Eugen offered in reply to Vali’s long face.

“Not for her.”

A patch of rainless cloud blew briefly over their heads, bringing silence with it. And then as if from under their feet came the long, pitiful wail of an infant and the choking sobs of a woman without hope. Grigore crossed himself to ward off evil. “She gets away,” Grigore said roughly. “From this place. I fought beside Ionescu against the Russians. He is not a terrible man.”

Eugen offered his own reassurance. “And he’s old too. He may drop dead within the year, leaving her mistress of all his lands. No, this is not such a bad thing for her. She is lucky to go.”

Vali took the consolation as well-intentioned and irrelevant. He would not resign himself to this. He would not resign himself to losing the one person to whom he could turn, to whom he could speak honestly, the sister who had been always just a step or two ahead of him as they grew, ready to reach back a hand and haul him up next to her. The protector, who, following their mother’s death, was the only person in his father’s fief with both the rank and the inclination to defend Vali.

If this were what she wanted, then he would have let her go and kept his self-pity as invisible as he could, so as not to shadow her day. He hoped he was capable of being glad she could get out, even if he was to be left behind. But only if she was happy about it. And she wasn’t.

They entered the church, and at once the bitter cold and grey wet of the outdoors gave way to an ochre haze of candlelight seen through misty tendrils of incense. Smoke, pungent with resin, perfumed a vaulted ceiling on which golden angels leaned. The windows, even on such a dim day, gleamed sharp, the very tips of lances of pale light that made the gilded carvings of the iconostasis glitter. All the walls were painted bright with Byzantine scenes of warfare and miracles in colours like scattered jewels.

Vali coughed loudly as he came in, so that again his father looked back and saw him present, squeezed between two trusted retainers. Not going anywhere, not causing any trouble. The bridegroom turned his face toward him too, its right side stern but pleased, weathered skin brown beneath a short white beard, its left side a ruin of red flesh, the eyelid fixed permanently half-closed and the eye beneath it white with cataract. Vali had been told many stories about how it had gotten that way—Ionescu had fought a dragon; his rifle had burst; a jealous woman had thrown vitriol in his face. What did it matter which was true? Stela flinched when she looked at him. That was all Vali needed to know.

The ceremony began. The priest, in a chasuble so high at the shoulders it made him look hunchbacked, pressed the rings three times to Stela’s forehead as she wiped fresh tears with her veil.

Vali waited until his father’s gaze was firmly forward, pressed like a dagger into Stela’s side. Then he took a step back and wriggled away through the crowd. Eugen gave him a reproachful look, but then Eugen always looked reproachful—for a young man, he had a bloodhound countenance, inclined to droop. Vali grinned in return, eeled all the way to the entrance of the church, cracked open the door, and slid through.

Wind plucked at him and water hit him in the face as he ran across the inner courtyard, down servants’ stairs, through the cold, unornamented stone of the passage between the kitchens and the pantry. There he picked up a set of saddlebags and the oozing package he had concealed beneath a stone earlier in the morning. Then it was out into the greater courtyard, where the stables and the kennels were steaming in a fug of animal warmth.

The dogs went wild as they saw him, leaping up against the wattle walls of their enclosure, barking and howling and throwing themselves at him, their muzzles smiling and their tails thumping. “In a moment,” he told them. Opening his packet, he threw over the pen wall a handful of offal—sweetbreads of an ox, two pigs’ ears, and the gizzard of a goose, just to get them warmed up.

Passing by the now horribly excited animals, he swiftly tacked up his sister’s palfrey, affixed the saddlebags, and smiled with what he hoped was his usual devil-may-care grin at the grooms who tried—with proper deference, of course—to ask him what he was up to and to suggest that perhaps it was not a good idea.

The horse prepared, he returned to paroxysms of joy amongst the dogs, who only grew wilder when he began to work the latch of their pen free.

“You can’t do that, sir,” the kennel master protested, his hand outstretched as if to hold Vali back by force. The thought!

Insolent man. Indignantly, Vali drew the bolt with a flourish and let the dogs boil out into the courtyard. “It’s not up to you to tell me what I can do.”

But perhaps he had a point—the dogs smelled the extra meat on him. They were bright and friendly creatures, but not too gentle. He couldn’t fault them for getting carried away—there was no malice in them—but their teeth were worrying as the pack closed in on him.

“Come on then, lads!” He fled, and they chased after him, up the pantry snicket, up the servants’ steps, out into the fountain court.

Perhaps it was a bad idea to run, for they were baying now, their dutiful dog thoughts warring with the instincts of wolves. But oh, what a relief it was to be in immediate peril, not to have to think, nor worry, nor behave. Vali was laughing when he threw the church doors open and bolted inside, pursued by the pack.

Howling all around him. He loosened the ties on the parcel of meat and threw it high into the air, where it broke apart. Gobbets of flesh scattered into the crowd, a gizzard landing on a matron’s bare shoulder, a boar’s eye splatting on the priest’s hat just as he was lowering crowns of flowers onto the bride’s and bridegroom’s heads.

Single-mindedly, almost foaming at the mouth with their enthusiasm, the dogs sped into the crowd, knocking women over and licking their faces, getting their dirty paws all over silver satin wedding finery, tearing at headdresses and coats spotted with blood. The women screamed and scrambled. The men cursed, knocking into one another as they jostled for elbow room to draw swords.

Vali, prepared for all of this, went leaping through the chaos up to the altar, where he could grab and yank at the loose knot in the embroidered cloth that tied Stela’s right hand to the right hand of her groom.

He pulled it off and threw it on the floor, trampling it. “Go!” he urged her in the breathing space bought for him by Ionescu’s shock. But she seemed as dumbfounded as everyone else. “There’s food packed,” he elaborated. “Your horse is saddled and waiting, the drawbridge is down. Just run, this lot won’t be following you anytime soon!”

The chaos seemed to be growing. Having found and eaten the meat, the dogs had decided to search all the guests to be sure they were not hiding any more. Tripped men lay prostrate with affectionate hounds standing on their puffed up breasts. The lamps swayed above them as plaster saints were dislodged from their pillars and fell with a smash. Vali had never imagined the plan could turn out so well. Such a rumpus as he’d only dreamed of. He burst out laughing again.

But then Wadim came at him like a thunderbolt, pushing the panicked guests aside. “What the . . .?” His father’s fist lashed out, caught him in the nose. He thought he felt something break. Certainly his head rang like a struck bell and blood began to pour over his searching fingers.

Wadim got him by the hair, hit him again, more deliberately, in exactly the same place. This time there was no surprise to cushion the blow. Tears came to Vali’s eyes, hot shameful tears, but it was worth it. It would be worth it.

Stela had stepped away from her future jailer and from her father alike. She was looking on, appalled and helpless. It would all be worth it if only she won free.

“Go,” he yelled, his words wet with blood. “Run!”

# # #

Vali spent the wedding feast with a slave collar hard around his neck, its chain bolted to one of the Great Hall’s torch brackets, so that unless he somehow popped his head off and on again, he could not sit down.

Wadim was a bold, ferocious, quick-acting, quick-tempered man, and it had not taken him long to get everyone outside, task half a dozen of his viteji with rounding up the dogs, and ushering all the other guests back inside to complete the ceremony. A shaky and outraged priest had suggested perhaps allowing a break of a few hours for everyone to regather themselves and fortify their nerves with sleep or spirits as it suited them.

Wadim had found that suggestion preposterous. He had picked up the fallen cloth and shaken it out, tied it back around Stela and Ionescu’s wrists himself, Ionescu looking down on the crown of his head as he did so with a perplexed and wondering expression. The groom’s earlier satisfaction seemed to have shifted into something more complicated, but he fell back easily into the responses of the ceremony and made no protest.

Vali didn’t blame Ionescu for allowing the wedding to proceed apace as though nothing had happened. He didn’t even blame his father, accustomed as he was to the man’s ruthless efficiency.

He did, however, blame Stela. Stela, who had looked at him with a mixture of tender pity and exasperation, as though he were some sort of child. Stela, who had been offered an escape route and chosen to go meekly ahead into a life she didn’t want. Vali, with one of his father’s belts tying his wrists tight behind his back, his head full of jangle and creeping grey stars, had been pinned by the most burly of his father’s retainers and forced to watch it all. There was a little pool of blood on the floor where he had stood in the church, his face striped and dripping with gore.

Wadim had not allowed him to wash himself or shift into clean clothes, but had simply sent a servant to bring the collar, untying his hands but leashing him against the wall of the Great Hall, simultaneously on display for all the guests at the wedding feast and kept out of harm’s way.

“Ten months of negotiations that you almost ruined. Don’t think this is all the punishment you will receive, boy. I have not even begun.”

Vali’s head hurt. His legs hurt, and his back too. If he bent his legs to take some of the strain of standing for so long off his bowed back, his thighs began to shudder and cramp. If he locked his knees, his whole torso up to the shoulders protested. He felt sullen, savage, Stela’s ingratitude a worse bruise than the blows.

“Does he do that often?”

Vali snapped out of an attempt to relieve his aching back by arching like a cat, and saw Ionescu close by him, holding a plum-centred brioche and a goblet of wine in his one hand. His left sleeve was sewn together at the shoulder and capped with a strip of azure embroidery.

“Does who do what?”

Ionescu held out the cake and the wine for Vali to take. As much as Vali didn’t want to receive anything from the cause of all his woe, as much as his victim mocked him now with this kindness, he had not managed to choke down breakfast and by now he was very hungry. Accept a gesture of peace, or—for he had no doubt he would get nothing else today—go to bed ravenous?

The older man waited out his thought process patiently and smiled when he took the food. “Does your father often hit you?”

What business was it of his? Vali found himself overcome by a kind of furious embarrassment. “I don’t often let him catch me. But don’t they say ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’? If he disciplines us, it is for our own good.”

Ionescu’s expression grew threatening, his eye like a storm cloud. Vali stepped as far away as he could without choking himself, convinced the wildest stories were true—that Ionescu had lost his arm and half his face by reaching down a dragon’s throat while it flamed him to strangle it from the inside.

“Us? He has done this to your sister too?”

“Sometimes.” Vali drained the cup and let it drop. When he had swallowed the cake too, he curled both hands around the collar and took some of his weight on his arms instead. It made shrugging tricky. “But discipline is—”

“Judging from that fiasco, I don’t think anyone in your family knows what discipline is.” Ionescu sneered—it was not a pretty sight on that scarred face. “I came here to drink with the man who sacrificed his own well-being for my bride’s happiness. I know that to you young things I must not seem like much of a catch. But now I find you tried to keep her in a place where she is ill-treated? Because if she goes, you will be alone? I thought you were a man, but I see you are just a boy after all.”

Vali turned his face to the wall. He wasn’t upset, and he wasn’t on the verge of tears. He didn’t care about Ionescu’s opinion. He was just closing his eyes because it calmed the throb behind them, and it shut off the nauseating sight of all those gorgeously dressed idiots, filling up the flower-bedecked main hall beyond him, braying with laughter, tossing back drink and staggering. Also it meant he couldn’t see his father. He could allow himself to forget, for a while, that this wasn’t over yet.

“Oh, Vali.” Stela’s voice. Her sky-blue dress made her cheeks look sallow. Her eyes were still red, but they were dry now, and there was a new calmness about her, as if she were glad to leave choice behind and settle down with endurance. “I was never going to run. Thank you for trying to save me, but I wish you had not tried. The last thing I wanted for my wedding present was to see you in pain.”

So apparently it wasn’t enough to simply fail to get her away; he’d actively made it worse for her. “I’m sorry.”

“No,” she said and smiled the day’s first smile. “You were there for me as I’ve always known you would be. And this is not good-bye for us. I’m not going for a quite a while, and even when I do, I won’t be far away. You’ll visit and so will I.” Her fingers curled over his, under the thick iron that pressed on his collarbones. “I’ll always be there for you, too.”

But even before the night was over, this proved to be a lie. Stela and her new husband had barely retired to the room prepared for them before Wadim was pushing all the other guests out.

He shut the doors to the Great Hall, and there, amidst the detritus of feasting—the spilled carcass of a roast pig, arrangements of fruit now lopsided from the grazing of indiscriminate eaters, sticky pools of strongly hopped beer, bitter to the nose, discarded hairpins and pipes and a sugar diorama of siege warfare with gold leaf flags—he snapped his belt between his fists, and set the buckle flying at Vali’s ribs.

Vali tried to catch it, got the heavy metal buckle on the back of his hand. The tongue of it punched a hole in the web between his fingers. When the buckle flew a second time, he flinched away, and it landed on his ribs with a kick like a horse. This was something different for his father. A half-dozen punches, a few kicks, this was normal. Public humiliation was normal. Being confined to his room without food for a week was normal—all of it accompanied by incessant lecturing. But this—this silent violence, his father’s face set and not even angry, this was . . .

He had twisted, trying to get out of the way. All that meant was the buckle hit him on the buttocks, three times. But that wasn’t so bad. He got his shocked flutter of breathing under control, blinked away the tears that were clouding his eyes, and tried to provoke a tirade of words, a sign of reason. “Father, I was doing it for Stela. He’s not worthy of her. You must know that; she’s your daughter, she’s worth more—argh!”

He had swung back, still clinging on with both hands to the collar. Every time a blow landed, every time he recoiled, its hard iron was driven into his throat. The flesh was growing tender, bruised, gathering hot red grazes on top and aching bones beneath, going from painful to unbearable.

As he hung on, trying to protect his neck, the buckle slapped into his belly, drove up under his sternum, hammered the breath out of his lungs and squeezed every particle of space out of his body. Instinctively, he bowed forwards over it, choking himself on the collar. It felt like he was trying to saw his own head off. Breathing was impossible, his throat closed, his lungs glued together. He opened his mouth wide, looked up at his father, imploring, shocked, appealing silently for help from one whom he still trusted, deep down, not to betray him, not to be too harsh, not to push beyond what he could bear.


But his father was as silent and unwavering as an automaton. The next strike was to his throat, bursting against the bruises. Pain whited out the world and any awareness of who he was for long, long seconds. When he next knew joined-up time, his knees had buckled and he was clawing at the collar, still unable to breathe, still jangling and shattering with panic and disbelief.

His father was going to kill him. Impossible. Unthinkable. But he still couldn’t breathe, his lungs burning, his heart labouring, and his legs still refusing to stand up.

Father, please!

The far door partially opened. A woman he didn’t know looked inside. Her hat was laced with pearls twelve rows deep and they each looked like a little moon. A woman with the moon on her hat was looking at him, and he tried to free his voice, get breath to call, “Help me please!” But it had been too long. His body had forgotten what to do with air. Maybe . . . maybe he had died before, and this was him back from the dead, trying to clamber back into his living family.

That would explain it all. His father could do this to a dead son who wouldn’t lie down, someone who had peeked out from his grave and thought life was sweeter and tried to take it back. If he was trespassing out of his tomb, it was only his father’s duty to put him back in it.

That must be it indeed. The pain had blurred into a volcanic cloud, a settle of hot ash all over him and he had time to think it was quite right to bury the revenant and stake it down with spindles to make sure it never came back. He was dying, but it was all right—the second time hardly counted, after all.

He was almost content by the time the blackness came down.

Your Favourite Books based in the UK, Part 1

This is the first of a series of posts based on your favourite books based in the UK. The first selection comes from Twitter, using #UKGayRomance and the blog.

Some authors were mentioned multiple times so more of their books will appear in later posts.