The gray stallion snorted vigorously and I patted his powerful, arched neck. "I perfectly agree, Saladin," I said, looking around me. "This does not look like a main coaching road."
It was, in fact, the main coaching road from London to Richmond and it was quite clear to me why Mr. Speight, whose book of maps I carried, had described it as a "bonecruncher.'' All around there stretched grass-covered hills and wild open moors. Before me was a narrow, steep, precipitous track that led down into the pass of Cover-dale. Offering up a silent prayer of gratitude that I was on the back of a horse and not riding in a coach behind one, I touched my heels to Saladin's sides and we started forward again.
In spite of the empty bleakness of the landscape I was actually quite close to my destination. "Carlton Castle," I said out loud, and Saladin's ears pricked forward at the sound of my voice. I felt a little shiver run down my backbone and grinned at my own susceptibility. Still, there isn't a schoolchild in England who wouldn't have had the same reaction. Carlton Castle was a legend, the seat of the Fitzallans, the lords of Yorkshire and for seven hundred years the greatest uncrowned family in England. Fitzallan exploits filled the history books and ran throughout chronicle, story, and ballad. The present lord was Richard Fitzallan, Earl of Leyburn, and it was toward his home of Carlton that I was journeying.
I was not, unfortunately, going in the capacity of a guest. I was, in fact, delivering a horse. Saladin, to be precise.
Saladin had come into my life at a very convenient moment. You might say he fitted my needs as neatly as I fitted his.
He was a splendid horse, strong and powerful and fast. He belonged to the Marquis of Rayleigh, owner of a famous racing stable at Newmarket, and he had the potential for greatness. Saladin had only one flaw: he would not let anyone ride him.
This presented a distinct problem for the Marquis, who had not bred the horse himself but had bought him as a three-year-old. He had paid quite a pretty penny for him, but Saladin, as he was at present, was useless. The marquis couldn't even sell him--the story of the horse's vicious temper was too well known in racing circles.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the marquis was stuck with the goods. And then one day the Earl of Leyburn had come to Newmarket for the race meeting and seen Saladin. The earl offered to buy him for a handsome price--if the marquis could deliver him to Carlton Castle. It is a long way from Newmarket to the moors of north-western Yorkshire and this is where I entered the picture.
My father had been killed in Sir John Moore's retreat to Corunna a few months previously, and after three years in Portugal, I was home in England. Amid the confusion of the evacuated army, I had managed to escape the friends of my father whom I knew were filled with unwelcome plans for my future, and I headed, like a magnet to metal, to Newmarket.
If there was one thing I knew in this world it was horses. My father had been in the cavalry and I had passed the greater part of my childhood in Ireland. Papa was stationed in Kildare and I had years and years of experience galloping horses over the Curragh, that great open grassy plain that all good horses go to when they die.
I needed a job and I thought I might find one in Newmarket. I have few ordinary talents, but I can do just about anything with a horse.
I rode Saladin. He had clearly been abused as a youngster, and he was terrified of people, but we understood each other. And the marquis offered me fifty guineas to deliver him safely to Carlton.
The money was certainly attractive, especially since I had only twenty pounds between myself and starvation. And, for reasons of my own, I thought it might be a good idea to bury myself in the country for a while. I accepted the job.
The ride north had been extremely pleasant. The marquis was generous with traveling money, and Saladin and I stayed only at the best inns. I ate hearty, well-cooked meals, slept in soft comfortable beds, and best of all, had a hot bath every night. I was almost sorry to see the end of my journey in sight. I was quite certain my accommodations at Carlton Castle wouldn't be nearly as luxurious as the inns I had lately been frequenting.
I was hoping very much that I would get a position at Carlton Castle. If they hoped to do anything at all with Saladin, I thought, they would have to hire me. He would scarcely let anyone else near him.
We were deep into the pass of Coverdale by now and I looked around me with something approaching awe. On one side of me towered the enormous grassy bulk of a hillside and from all sides of me wafted the sweet smell of moorland grass and damp earth. Far in the distance I could hear the bleating of a sheep--the only sound in all that vast emptiness. I had enjoyed Portugal, its warmth, its sea; but it hadn't smelled. Too arid, I suppose. But here ... I inhaled deeply. It was marvelous. It brought back something of my childhood in Ireland--the smell of damp, of earth and grass and bog. I hadn't realized how much I had missed it.
I followed the road toward the dale foot, through Wooddale, Bradley, and Horsehouse, where the coach horses were fed and rested. I didn't stop, however, but pushed on through the barren ramparts of grass and rock toward Carlton.
The castle was visible from quite a distance, a huge, imposing, distinctly Norman-looking bulk built to command an excellent view of the dale from all sides. I felt once again that shiver down my back. It was exactly as it should be: enormous, forbidding, feudal. Isolated. I looked around me once again. It didn't seem possible, I thought, that this quiet corner of distant Yorkshire had once been the scene of princely magnificence, of great occasions of state. Kings had visited Carlton, I knew, and most of the great names of medieval England had come and gone with steady regularity.
The Fitzallans had long since ceased to play an active role in the government of Great Britain, but the Earl of Leyburn had remained over the centuries an undisputed power in the north. The earl might make only a rare appearance in London, but no one had any doubt as to who controlled Yorkshire's vote in the Commons.
I had learned quite a bit about the Fitzallans from a young lieutenant in my father's regiment who had been stationed with us in Ireland. He was himself from Richmond and he had often joined me for a long gallop over the Curragh. It was his first posting. He was homesick and I was a good listener. And now here I was, at the very scene of Miles' many stories.
I went, not to the castle itself, but to the stables. It was late afternoon and the grooms were busy feeding. I explained who I was and who Saladin was, and the head groom told me that Lord Leyburn wasn't at home but that I had better see Mr. Fitzallan, who was his lordship's steward. I walked Saladin over to a trim grassy border and let him graze while I leaned against a neat white-railed fence and looked about me with satisfaction. The stable yard was immaculate. The stable itself was composed of two large blocks of stalls. Clearly Lord Leyburn kept quite a number of horses, which was good news for me.
"I understand you've brought Rayleigh's stallion," a calm voice said, and I pulled away from the fence and stood up straight.
"Yes, sir. This is Saladin." The stallion had stopped grazing at the man's approach, and was standing next to me. I put my hand on his shoulder and could feel how the great muscles had tensed.
"He's a beautiful animal," the man said, and looked at Saladin admiringly. I took the opportunity to study Mr. Fitzallan.
He was about thirty years of age, an enormous man at least six feet, four inches, with the widest shoulders I had ever seen. His hair was dark brown, and his eyes, when they turned to me, were very clear and blue. They were the sort of eyes you could see right into, direct, honest, and kind.
"I am Lord Leyburn's cousin and his steward," the man told me pleasantly. "His lordship wrote to me about the arrangement he made with Lord Rayleigh. I rather gathered he didn't expect Saladin to be delivered."
"I am the only one who has been able to ride him," I said earnestly. I wanted very much to impress that fact upon him. I took a deep breath. "I was hoping you would let me stay and look after him," I went on before I lost my nerve. "I'm sure I can gentle him for you. It will just take a little time."
He looked at me speculatively and I looked bravely back, hoping he would see exactly what I wanted him to. My clothes were well worn, the breeches and jacket a little big, but otherwise they were unexceptional. They fitted my part. My hair, which is very thick and straight, I had cut in a circular fashion around my head. It was clean and shining, for I had washed it only last night. My father used to say that nature hadn't been able to make up her mind about my hair-it wasn't brown, it wasn't blond, it wasn't red, but a strange mixture of all three.
"You're rather small to be riding such a big horse," the man said.
I was five feet, five inches, and had always thought myself a rather decent height. Next to this man I felt like a midget.
"What is your age?" he went remorselessly on.
I knew I did not look like an eighteen-year-old boy. "Fifteen," I said.
"And your name?"
"Valentine Brown," I answered. The first name at least was my own.
He nodded. "Well, Valentine, I thought you were employed by the Marquis of Rayleigh."
"Oh, no, sir. That is, I never worked in his stable. He employed me only to bring Saladin north, you see."
"And now you have done that, you are out of a job."
He nodded. "All right, I expect we can take you on. I'll speak to Hutchins."
"Ah, there is one more thing, sir," I said rather breathlessly.
He raised an eyebrow. He was a very good-looking man. "Yes?" he said. He was also a very patient man.
"I require my own room to sleep in. You see, I'm a dreadfully light sleeper and it is impossible for me to share with anyone. I'm awake the whole time."
The blue eyes narrowed and regarded me with distinctly uncomfortable shrewdness. I kept my face still, my eyes expressionless. He took a step closer to me and Saladin threw back his head and backed away. He tried to rear, but I had him firmly by the reins and began to talk to him soothingly.
"Move back," I said over my shoulder to the man, and continued to talk to the horse. After a few minutes he rubbed his face against my chest and I scratched his ears. Then I turned to look at Mr. Fitzallan.
He was standing a good ten feet away from us, and when I met his eyes, he smiled.
"I see," was all he said.
"Do I have a job?"
"You have a job. Bring the brute along to the stable and I'll give instructions to Hutchins and to Mrs. Emerson, the housekeeper up at the castle. You will have to sleep there. There are no single rooms available in the stable quarters."
I grinned in delight. I had done it! "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." And I took Saladin off to the stable.