Authors: Sharan Newman
Tags: #Historical Romance
Praise for The Chessboard Queen
“Newman’s mischievous sense of the comic never degrades the old myths; they seem honored, in fact, with compassion, wit and affection.” —Kirkus
“Fresh viewpoint, excellent writing and delightful humor.”
Sharan Newman reprints from Bella Rosa Books
The Guinevere Trilogy
THE CHESSBOARD QUEEN
Catherine LeVendeur Mysteries
STRONG AS DEATH
CURSED IN THE BLOOD
TO WEAR THE WHITE CLOAK
THE DIFFICULT SAINT
THE CHESSBOARD QUEEN
Also available from Bella Rosa Books in Trade paperback:
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014935714
Copyright © 1983 by Sharan Newman
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For more information contact Bella Rosa Books, P.O. Box 4251 CRS, Rock Hill, SC 29732. Or online at
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Previously Published in the U.S.A. by St. Martin’s Press.
First hardback edition: 1983, ISBN 0312131763.
Tor Books mass market edition: 1997, ISBN 0312863918.
Cover illustration by Stanley Martucci.
BellaRosaBooks and logo are trademarks of Bella Rosa Books
To Cathy, Kimiko, and Bev
who know what friends are for
The misty, mysterious coast of Britain had been visible for hours, but to the man who peered at it through a blur of nausea, it did not appear to be getting any nearer. He stumbled back amidship, where his horses, even more ill than he, were hobbled and blindfolded so they could not tell what was happening to them. On his way, the man fell against one of the sailors and mumbled his worry that the island was receding constantly before them. The sailor pushed him away with a sneer.
“Don’t be an ass! We’ve been skirting the coastline to land in Cornwall. It may take us as much as another day with the winds running against us. We’ll be tacking all the way there.”
“But why can’t we land
?” the poor passenger moaned, pointing to the tantalizing shore.
“Fine with me, if you want your throat cut by the Saxons. They control the whole southeastern part of Britain now and no ships but their own dare come near it. Now, why don’t you stop lurching about in our way and take care of those animals you brought? Phew! What a stink! I’d like to know what you paid the captain to let you bring them aboard. Of all the fool ideas!”
The passenger was small, a full foot shorter than the sailor, and had to listen to his harangue for several more minutes before he could get away. At last he escaped and made it to the small shelter on deck that had been set up for the horses. He entered it and immediately slumped against the flank of the nearest one. He breathed deeply of its familiar odor and felt better, strengthened by the musky scent.
Caet Pretani had not been in Britain for almost six years, not since he had run away from Leodegrance, his master, and begged passage on a trading ship bound for Armorica. Then he had been a boy, frightened, lovesick, and driven by a need to become something great. Now he was a man. He had attached himself to one of the grand families there and worked his way into a position of trust and honor. He had proven himself a dozen times in battles against the Franks and other northmen and made many friends among the British exiles, even the lords, who admired his riding skill and knowledge of horses.
His dark good looks and taciturn manner had also intrigued the women of the lord’s house. The fact that he never made any advances to them was fascinating and his shy surprise at their interest very touching. Since he was never such a fool as to offend a lady with rejection, he had learned a great deal about life as well as love from the kind and often lonely women.
Certainly his life had been as successful as his most ambitious dreams. So why was he returning to Britain, to a place that offered him nothing, where he had been born only one generation out of slavery? His friends had tried to keep him. His own lord had offered to make him master of the horse, but he had refused. He had never meant to stay away so long.
“They won’t know me, anyway,” he reassured himself. “I’ve changed a lot, broadened in the shoulders if I’m no taller, and the beard should disguise me well enough. Who will remember me as I was then? They hardly looked at me. And I must go back. It is my land much more than theirs and I know things that Arthur doesn’t. And she . . . she may need me.”
He clutched at the small leather bag around his neck. In it was an amulet, made and blessed for him by his greatgrandmother, Flora, and around the amulet were woven five long strands that shone pure gold when he allowed them to lie in the sun. But they were softer than metal and finer than any goldsmith could work. He would not admit that these were the real reason for his return. Whatever happened to him, even to Britain, he had to see her again. Someday there might come a time when she would. . . . He thrust the bag back under his robe. There was no point in thinking it. There were some things that Caet Pretani did not even dare to dream.
At last the ship reached land, anchoring in the lee side of a cove on the Cornish coast. There was no town there, not even a villa, but the ship’s master knew that there were traders waiting for him not far inland. The goods he had brought were lowered into boats and rowed ashore. One man stayed to guard them while the others returned for the difficult job of getting the horses back to land.
Caet had assured the captain that this would pose no difficulty. “I’ve made them each a canvas sling with a hook on the top. They can simply be lowered over the side as you do the other cargo.”
With the animals standing placidly at the dock, it had seemed logical. As they were hoisted into the air on the long wooden crane, he wasn’t so sure. The nostrils of the first one lowered were flared in terror. As it landed in the rowboat, it snorted and reared. The sailors, who were waiting to row them in, leaped overboard out of the way of the hooves, leaving Caet in the boat alone. He managed to quiet it and released the sling.
The second horse was even more frightened than the first and it had to be carefully placed next to the other to keep the balance even. Caet heard the comments from the men hanging on the side. He tried to ignore them. These animals were precious to him and he was not about to take their suggestions seriously.
When the second horse touched the rocking boat, both of them seemed to go mad. They stamped and plunged in terror and one of them leaped into the sea, kicking a large hole in the side of the boat as it did. Caet jumped in beside it as it floundered and removed the blindfold, allowing the animal to see and swim for the shore. Caet then shouted for someone to unseal the eyes of the remaining horse. One man managed to pull the cloth away as the second animal entered the water, capsizing the boat.
The captain stood in the prow of the ship, shaking his fist in fury and telling Caet in no uncertain terms what his fate would be when he was caught. Caet could not make out the words above the wash of the waves, but he knew that it would be well if he and his mounts were far away by the time the sailors managed to land.
They came ashore somewhat west of the place where the trading goods had been left and so avoided the guards. Caet hurried the horses away from the coast, up a narrow rocky trail. A few hundred yards away, the forest began. Even within its shelter, Caet feared discovery. He led the animals farther into the woods, avoiding the traveled paths for several hours, although he knew they were exhausted from the swim and dangerously cold and wet. Finally, he realized that they could go no farther. He had begun to search for some form of shelter when he smelled a campfire nearby. The thought of warmth drove him to risk investigating it.
He saw only one man, sitting on a log near the fire. His dinner of freshly caught rabbit was sizzling on a spit made of his short sword. Caet peered around, looking for evidence of companions, but there seemed to be no one else. The aroma of the meat reminded him that he hadn’t been able to eat anything in the whole three days of the channel crossing. He studied the man. He was big, well muscled, and held himself as if he were used to sudden action. But he was whistling merrily and that decided Caet. He stepped into the clearing, faced the man, and raised his hand in the old salute.
“Hail, friend,” he called and his voice sounded as waterlogged as his boots. “I am a fellow traveler, in need of company and a warm fire. Will you share yours?”
The stranger looked up at him and smiled broadly. “Surely, friend, you appear to have waded a river up to your neck. Come and dry yourself. I’ve a spare cloak in my pack. Wrap yourself in that and lay your things by the fire. There is meat enough for two. I shall be glad of company, but I would be grateful if you would give me your word that you will not entertain me with song. I have journeyed for the last month with one who never stops singing and I am willing to do almost anything else to pass the time.”
Caet grinned and began settling his horses and himself. “You needn’t fear. I have been told that my voice is preferable only to that of a toad; therefore, I take the hint and only play the part of audience to music.”
“An important part and highly underrated. We should get on well. Those are fine animals you have with you. Are you planning to sell them? I know where you could get a fair price.”
Caet was busily rubbing down the horses and covering them. Their harnesses and the packs he had tied to them had not been lost. The leather bags had protected the blankets and they were wet only in places. His careful attention displayed how much he loved them.
“They are excellently bred. They will look even better when they are rested and combed. But, no, I had not thought to sell them to anyone. This one, Cheo, is mine. I helped him into the world, set him on his legs, trained him. I could not part with him. The other, Nera, I raised as carefully. She is intended for a lady to ride. I had thought to use them both, perhaps to catch the attention of Arthur the King. I would make Nera a gift to him if he would consider hiring me as part of his court.”
The man regarded him with interest. “So, are you one of those who hopes to join Arthur’s mysterious Knights of the Round Table? He hasn’t officially started it yet, you know, though hundreds of men have come to him in hopes of being selected. It is said that he is waiting until his new city of Camelot is built, at which time Master Merlin will somehow cause the table to appear from its hiding place and this society will commence. I don’t know about that part, but I do know that most of those who come to Arthur are not kept on, but told to search for abandoned homes in towns and villas and rebuild them, to reclaim the lands that have been lost. Nera is beautiful, but I don’t think she would be accepted as a bribe. Arthur does not even consider them.”
Caet finished covering the horses and stood between them, his arms resting upon their necks. He frowned.
“‘Bribe’ is a cruel word, and untrue. I would not shame myself with such a deed. But every man needs something which will help him to stand apart from others and, when one is as small as I, it is not a bad idea to be seen astride a horse of great strength and beauty.”
The man shrugged. “Perhaps Arthur will agree with you. What name will you give him when you ride up?”
Caet puzzled for a moment. The man seemed to be giving him a chance to hide his identity. Why? He studied his companion: dirty, with torn trews and scuffed boots. Probably a wanderer of no account. Still. . . .