His Lordship the Marquis Grimgaunt was not in good humour. His name aside - and while ‘jovial’ wouldn’t be the first term a bard would reach for in some composition in his honour – he wasn’t commonly a man of dark demeanour. However...
There was, in fact, particular reason for the clenched frown on his noble brow, the twitch of lip, the jaw ache from gritted teeth.
It had been many scores of years since the last ‘dark lord’ had been thwarted, smote, and generally and comprehensively had an end put to them in heroic fashion by some motley band of over-skilled bravados, their armies crushed by those of the right, their fortress blown apart by the cataclysmic puissance of some erupting thaumaturgic something at the climax. Such a personage, then, was not the cause.
And no, it wasn’t specifically because his favourite hunting hound had barked his last.
He’d loved the hound dearly of course, couldn’t bring himself to replace him in the hunt – or go hunting therefore. The mighty Cerberus, once a mirror of the vigour the now not-so-young Marquis fancied he retained, had snuffled to his last, mostly deaf, slightly lame and crapping more than he ate (or so it seemed to all concerned).
So no, it wasn’t specifically because his beloved companion had snuffled off the mortal coil. It was, however, related.
The counsel of the Marquis’ closest advisors was that the fief was long overdue a visit by The King on his tour of the Kingdom, and a hunt would certainly be expected. So, given that he’d failed to choose a replacement, the Marquis had sent a number of said counsellors along with his Master of Hounds on a trip to do the job for him, before the expected rains came. And it was a trip to which they were all looking forward, and all would have worked out fine; had Lady Grimgaunt not decided that she fancied a day or so out as well and that she would join the excursion.
To Lord Grimgaunt it had seemed the perfect situation: he would be spared a troublesome choice, he’d have a few days without his wife and – as a complete bonus (Thank you good Lord!) - that gossiping gaggle of harridans that were her ladies reeve were going to boot.
And a lovely few days he’d had!
He’d stayed up late with his court magician, his chaplain, Ser Gavin, and a bunch of the other boys who weren’t on the tour, and they’d had that special ale he’d been saving that the Abbott had sent. He’d had curried goat followed by curried partridge followed by curried guinea fowl - and there was no one to complain about the results other than the Master of Wardrobe who bore the smell of his master’s bedroom the next morning with the straightest face he could muster; and, having thus curried favour, he’d got a well deserved rest of day off because of it.
In fact, Lord Grimgaunt thought, he’d rather come through the grieving process. Yes, it was all working out fine.
There was just one thing. Lady Grimgaunt had decided to get involved in the choosing of the Marquis next hound (well no one had told her not to and, when it came to it, no one was going to). So rather than another alaunt, a mastiff or a greyhound, the rather sheepish men returned with Lady Grimgaunt, her ladies reeve, and...
...a yapping rat.
‘Look at what we brought you!’ said the Marchioness, ‘Isn’t he adorable? Don’t you think he’s adorable?’
Lord Grimgaunt did not.
‘YapYapYapYapYap!’ went the yapping rat. In fact it hadn’t stopped. It would be wrong to say it was not a sweet faced creature mind, just at it would be wrong to say Lady Brigit of Merrivale wasn’t a sweet faced creature - less so that she wasn’t a meddling trollop who’d benefit from a good turn in the stocks.
They actually looked quite similar now Lord Grimgaunt thought on it, observing said trollop simpering behind his wife; when he looked he found himself slightly surprised that there wasn’t a rotten cabbage in his clenched hand.
‘Is it really a dog?’ he asked finally.
‘Of course he’s really a dog!’ Lady Grimgaunt exclaimed, ‘He’s called Colin. Aren’t you? Aren’t you? Yes you are...’
If Lord Grimgaunt had been surprised as to what he’d actually received (or that it was indeed a dog) he was no less surprised to hear it was male. Even so, dogs weren’t called Colin; many men for that matter.
Men were called Richard or Henry... or Edward. Or John.
Lord Grimgaunt was called John. So were a few kings for that matter. Not great ones in all honesty, but still. John was a proper name for a man. And you called hounds things like ‘Lion’ and ‘Gerald’ and ‘Cerberus’, even ‘Gelert’ depending on where you were from; you didn’t call a hound Colin.
The Marquis sighed. He could have done a lot worse than her, and he did love his wife. She was far from unappealing to look on even now, sported a pleasingly expansive bosom (or, as the peasants commented, ‘had a great rack and not the kind that helps you reach whatever minimum height requirements are needed for the role of confessor’), had given him enough sons to more or less secure his line, and if she was one of those scheming power-behind-the-throne types she’d hidden it so incredibly well as to more than deserve whatever she’d achieved as a result. This latter possibility was highly unlikely however; she was demonstrably too impulsive for such intrigues, as evidenced by the thing in front of him.
‘Dear,’ he began, ‘I can not go hunting with the King with that.’
‘Well that’s just as well! You’d just get all mucky wouldn’t you?’ she questioned it, ‘Wouldn’t you? Yes, and probably be gobbled up by some horrible old boar! And we wouldn’t want that would we? Would we?’
On this Lord Grimgaunt kept his counsel, and the advisors who’d accompanied the Marchioness, and singularly failed to provide theirs in any useful manner, knew that they were due an immediate return. And a return trip come shine or rain of the kind associated with disgruntled sanctified bishops working posthumous miracles when their preference of burial had not been honoured.
The Marquis didn’t remonstrate with his wife however, now heading inside with the ridiculous thing, correctly assuming that she’d already taken ownership of it, but incorrectly that he wouldn’t have to have anything further to do with... Colin.
So it was that the next day the Marquis found himself on a tour of the castle (overdue due to digestive complications from the particular alchemy of diversified curries and monastic ale) carrying his wife’s new pet; the better, as she put it, to get to know one other. She would brook no argument and walked off to make someone else’s life bothersome, this, at least, being a relief.
The Marquis’ subjects were respectfully wary.
One of the things about being a noble was that you needed to know how to keep your subjects in line. In no sense was the Marquis a tyrant however; he was, in fact, rather well liked by the lowborn folk. He didn’t generally bother them, didn’t impose punitive taxes, and secretly bunged them collectively a good return if they brought in a decent harvest... and usually if they didn’t. Every peasant he passed, not to mention the guards, knew a good thing when they had it, knew also from the nuances of their lord’s expression that this amicable state of affairs was entirely in the balance: not one of them would blab about their noble lord carrying whatever it was around the castle grounds.
The Marquis was accompanied by his chaplain and court magician, two persons that might reasonably be assumed to be less than compatible, even given the restraint expected of two senior courtiers. And, in fairness, both took care to periodically display due antagonism, for show if nothing else.
‘Godless heathen... hellfire, damnation and all that,’ muttered the cleric dutifully, having spotted a sundial that seemed to indicate it was probably time for another tirade.
‘Credulous simpleton, ignorant peasant etcetera etcetera,’ the wizard riposted with equal vehemence while picking a small bone he’d just discovered in his occupational length beard. ‘Ooh, perhaps I shouldn’t have had that last curried partridge.’
‘Still feeling it? You’re not the only one, I can tell you.’
The castle inspection continued and shortly they came to the siege engines. More commonly used to gain entry to a castle in a ‘you didn’t answer so I kept knocking and the wall came down’ kind of way, there seemed no particular reason not to have some to hand to reply ‘I heard you knocking and seem to have broken your hand with my war engine’. Also it was a chance for the engineer to show off the latest style and fashion of remote larger scale destruction, ready the unlikely event that someone was both so supremely stupid and sufficiently capable enough to threaten the land with strife once again.
‘And the additional tension this Ingenium - ballista if you’d rather Your Lordship - can now take should mean that the bolts can pierce up to four enemies at a time.’
Thwunk! went the ballista, the bolt making a not dissimilar noise as it punctured the first three of five grain-stuffed dummies (who hadn’t been doing anything particularly treasonous) to prod the fourth in the chest.
‘Very good, very good,’ the Marquis noted having the grace not to point out that it hadn’t quite achieved the promised levels of personal violence, but added, ‘Just have to ask the enemy to stand in a column then.’
‘Oh very good, Your Lordship, very droll,’ the chagrined engineer forced with an unconvincing chuckle. He was still new and yet to cotton on that the latest Lord Grimgaunt wasn’t one for grovelling, fawning, fakery or yes-men; the new lad wouldn’t be included in a round of the Abbott’s special ale any time soon, whether or not he might regret it the morning after.
‘Moving on,’ said Lord Grimgaunt. The young engineer detailed a few of the more recent insights into the application of battering rams, showed his new plans for a siege tower and was unable not to share his excitement at the idea of placing a ballista atop one, with horses reined beneath. He was keen to keep it secret, however, and had labelled the rough schematic as a ‘water carrier’ just to be sure. He seemed typical of a newer generation of young freemen, fired up and ambitious, yet perhaps lacking context: say, for example, the fact that no one had wanted a war of any kind for a good long while.
‘Very good, very good.’
The Marquis felt something land on his foot as he noted his approval, only to find something that he couldn’t approve of less on one article of his favourite footwear.
‘YapYapYapYapYap!’ said Colin.
‘Now Your Grace,’ the engineer continued, ‘I’m particularly pleased with the trebuchet. I confess I don’t know quite what happened with the ballista. But I think you’ll find that the increased dimensions won’t compromise the engine’s stability or integrity, and will launch your preferred payload a good deal further than the last design. Shall I?’
The Marquis nodded, words echoing through his head. A good deal further... good deal further...
The engineer had his assistants set the horse plodding against the enormous counterweights, then, when it was in place load a substantial piece of masonry on the engines arm.
‘Three!’ began the engineer.
‘Two!’ the engineer continued.
‘YapYapYapYapYeeeeeeeewwwwlllp!’ said Lady Grimgaunt’s dog.
The creature described a graceful arc into the air and, with the stone for company, disappeared over the outer walls that encircled Grimgaunt Castle.
They stood in silence for a moment, Lord Grimgaunt working through what had just happened in his head. He salved a twinge of conscience with the fact that he’d barely been conscious of what he’d just done while he was doing it.
‘I don’t suppose,’ Lord Grimgaunt began, ‘it might have been able to chew the ropes...’
‘While our backs were turned,’ added the Cleric.
‘Having jumped down and onto the sling,’ the Wizard completed the picture.
The Marquis nodded to himself, rubbed his neck in a fashion that those close to him might recognise as a feeling of awkwardness and possibly guilt.
‘Would you like me to dig into the psalms and find something appropriately absolving Your Grace?’ the Cleric asked. ‘Or I could just put a little extra into the prayer fund if it would make you feel better...’
‘No, no,’ said Lord Grimgaunt, ‘You know I make my own peace with the Lord; I will pray myself.’
‘That Lady Grimgaunt doesn’t find out?’ the Wizard enquired.
‘For one thing.’ He turned to the Chaplain, confusion writ across his noble brow. ‘I’m troubled... by the fact that I don’t feel so troubled.’
‘The Lord knows our hearts, Your Grace, and I have no doubt that if the scales of judgement have in any respect tipped, it will be to the most inconsequential degree: nothing next to the weights of righteousness my lord has placed opposite already through his good works.’
The Cleric indicated the trebuchets counterweights as an example of the latter, having already described a small size with his hands on the former, about the size of...
Well about the size of Colin.
‘In any case, I’m fairly certain I once heard the High Pontiff himself note that God created things that yap to test his own boundless patience, not that of us flawed mortals.’
‘And no-one’s going to say anything to her Ladyship,’ said the Wizard waggling his fingers in a mystical sort of way, regarding everyone present: not a veiled threat of any variety, of course, just to emphasise that this was a particularly useful idea that would be highly, perhaps mortally, beneficial to keep in mind.
Her Ladyship was distraught at the creatures absence, more so when the body was finally found. More again when she saw it.
The projectile boulder hadn’t landed on and squished its canine companion as it turned out, though the impact of landing had rather done the job itself. Lord Grimgaunt did find himself massaging his neck rather a lot and asked his chaplain for a special service to commemorate the (succinct) life of his wife’s beloved rodent.
It was an auspicious day for it. The heavens opened with at least the approximate level of precipitous miracle-working of some narked minor saint, lending a solemnity to the funerary proceedings. The ceremony was conducted by the cleric with due gusto, and the Marquis was as supportive as he felt he could be to his wife throughout the event. By the time they settled for post-service cake (with handled goblets of that tea stuff from the orient) and condolences were being given, Lord Grimgaunt was pretty satisfied that the matter was at an end and that he could look forward to being introduced to his new hound who he was, now, actually rather keen to meet.
The next, and much dryer and brighter day, the Marquis was continuing the castle inspection with his closer retinue when the hound-hunting party returned. He wasn’t, however, the first to see the new arrival.
In retrospect he should probably have guessed something was up when her Ladyship’s greasy little favourite Ser Percy shot off a-horseback after her first throes of grief – and returned just ahead of his party. The alarum bells might well have starting ringing more loudly when Her Ladyship’s ladies scuttled across the courtyard toward the barbican that morning, squawk-whispering demurely behind their hands as they passed.
It wasn’t long after that that the Marquis, perambulating the bailey and observing the guards huffing through their training drill, spotted his wife coming from the gatehouse, cradling something in her arms, and heard the first sounds that sent his good mood crashing back into the regions of despair.
Her Ladyship waved brightly. ‘Isn’t he adorable?’ she cooed over, ‘He’s called Colin the Second!’
It was perhaps fortunate that the Marquis default expression was, like his name and that of his immediate fief if not, again, his actual demeanour, a little grim; he was able to glower with impunity back and forth between, well, pretty much everyone involved.
His returned courtiers looked, aside from rather damp, even more red-faced than after their previous return. Lord Grimgaunt suspected, rightly as it turned out, that they’d received a sealed decree from her Ladyship to ‘assist Ser Percy in procuring His Grace’s next hound’, which was ‘to be of similar breed and demeanour as dear Colin’. Later he would have some sympathy for the men, but for now they correctly took their Lord’s glower as news that they would shortly, very shortly, be subjected to another return trip, on which he sincerely hoped for the kind of miraculous weather a hacked off papal-league saint might posthumously bring to bear.
He looked next to her Ladyship’s more immediate entourage, in particular to the two that fussed on the new rat with her, trying to discern which had nudged her hand to quill and quill to parchment. Ser Percy himself was neither genuinely soppy enough to urge her to seek a replacement, or sufficiently boneheaded to fail to recognise that he was not yet secure enough in her favour to risk openly acting against her husband’s preferences... or what those preferences would be. No, the Marquis looked between the Ladies Brigit and Penelope.
He’d be wrong to think of Brigit as a trollop - next to the other at least. Lady Penelope was, outwardly, the model of virtue. She had volunteered the undergarment accessory of a chastity belt to put her noble husband’s mind at ease that her wifely purity would remain intact during his prolonged absences. Of course amongst the many members of the Earl’s retinue through whom she’d diligently worked in a purely carnal sense was the locksmith who’d made it - and both his apprentices for good measure - from whom she’d acquired enough spare keys for themselves and, allegedly, the rest of the court. Yet, aside from her clandestine brazenness, Lady Penelope was not a bad sort. And while she fussed over the Marquis’ hounds’ replacement-replacement it occurred to him that it was far less likely for her to be sufficiently mawkish over the departed creature as to convince his wife what a good idea it would be to replace it with another.
No, that was more the calculated sort of mischief that could be expected from Lady Brigit.
‘I don’t suppose,’ said the Wizard to the Cleric, ‘that the Good Lord might cast such lenience were some... trajectorial accident of the manner that lost the court its previous beloved hound to tragically befall a certain personage of Merrivale.’
‘The Lord’s mercy is without limit,’ replied the Cleric, similarly noting his more earthly lords gaze moving from Lady Brigit back to the engineers new catapult, ‘yet on the scales of judgement, and with regard to the lessons of...’ he trailed off. ‘Urm, no basically.’
‘And no one would believe a similar mishap to be the accident it surely would be,’ queried Ser Gavin, ‘were it to befall the same breed of animal as before?’
They shook their heads sadly.
‘Unless...’ heads turned to the new voice that had added itself, somewhat nervously, to the conversation. It belonged to the young engineer.
‘Unless?’ queried the Marquis.
‘Rope, Your Grace,’ the lad continued, emboldened. ‘Why, I wouldn’t presume – with the many more important matters which must occupy My Lord’s thoughts – that you would have had the time or inclination to learn the details of such trifling matters as rope.’
The Marquis expression indicated him to go on...
‘Well My Lord, as I’m sure these learned gentlemen could substantiate, the best rope – in fact the only rope that could stand the strain of the forces exerted by the engine that so sadly caused the demise of Her Ladyship’s first pet, the type of rope required for the protection of the fief, if not the country – is, by rare chance, possessed of the curious property as to be irresistible to dogs of many, though not all, breeds.’
Yappy-type breeds no-one needed to clarify.
‘Indeed, I believe I have read of this particular trait of certain fibres,’ mused the cleric, adding, ‘though only in very recent correspondence.’
‘Well of course,’ the wizard agreed, ‘these are the latest innovations in tactical capability: these quirks of substance would only recently have come to light.’
‘And though there is no strife which requires such capabilities...’ the Marquis posited, pre-empting a potential flaw in otherwise sage reasoning.
‘I apologise for contradicting My Lord,’ said the engineer, ‘but it is exactly by having such capabilities that such strife is avoided. A frozen war as I’ve heard it – everyone has it so nobody tries it.’
The Marquis gaze turned back to Lady Brigit.
‘Of course,’ said the knight Ser Gavin, ‘We could always just poison the bastard.’
‘No, no,’ said the Marquis. ‘No, Her Ladyship does look rather happy, which in itself can be a reprieve from strife. That we might become aware of such interesting properties of rope at some later stage, should some misfortune happen to occur, is quite fortuitous enough. No, I think I’d rather look to other things... such as the not too distant visit of the King.
‘Thank you,’ he nodded to the engineer, ‘please continue with your most important work in the defence of our lands.’
The Wizard, Cleric and Knight looked to each other, knowing they’d got the lad a little wrong, and that he might just be sampling the Abbott’s special ale sooner than they thought. The Marquis looked instead to the beleaguered party of procurers who were shame-facedly approaching, ready for their lord’s wrath. His anger had abated however, and he did feel some degree of sympathy for them. Still, his hound wasn’t going to fetch itself.
And he was the Lord round here after all.
Over on the other side of the bailey, under the engineer’s instruction, the sling arm of the trebuchet was being hauled down, pivoting on the fulcrum, ready for use.