The year is 1140. England is ravaged by civil war. Matilda, the only daughter of King Henry I, is locked in a bitter struggle with her cousin Stephen, who has taken the crown. The land is torn apart by rebellions in the south, while the north is besieged by the Scots. Matilda has invaded with a French army, and set up a stronghold in Bristol. To the west, the Welsh take advantage of England’s turmoil, starting skirmishes in the border country.
In the east, a small, fortified castle sleeps quietly in the dead of the night. The only sign of life is a dim glow of candle light from a tower window. Shadows move behind the leaded window pane, which creaks softly as it opens. A rope tumbles down silently, and a small hooded figure descends. When it reaches the ramparts, the rope is quickly drawn back up.
“God go with you, my lady,” a voice whispers from the window.
The hooded figure raises a hand in farewell. “Fare you well, Dorothea.”
The figure hurries down the castle walls, with practiced ease. When she reaches the gate, she hesitates. This is the most vulnerable moment in her plan.
The night watchman at the gate is familiar to her, though they have rarely spoken. Like so many of her father’s men, he is gruff and silent, though his blue eyes betray a shrewd intelligence and an unexpected kindness.
He senses her presence. “Who goes there?” he demands, quietly but firmly. “Show yourself.”
The figure steps forward, removing her hood.
“My lady!” He bows his head, startled. “What are—“ he begins to ask, then stops himself. “May I be of service?”
She approaches him, with a gentle smile. “Albert, is not?”
The man nods.
“How long has it been since my father has paid your fee, Albert?”
The man shifts his weight, uneasy. She knows it has been many months since her father, the Baron, has paid his soldiers. Most of them are mercenaries, whose loyalty has been bought, not earned. She is counting on that fact, for her plan to succeed.
“Too long, beggin’ your pardon, m’lady,” he mutters.
“I will give you this,” she holds out a leather purse, heavy with coin, “if you unlock the gate, and tell no one you saw me.”
Albert takes the purse easily, with a wry grin, and a muttered, “Good luck, m’lady.”
A few moments later she stands outside the gate. The eastern horizon fades to pale blue as dawn approaches. She draws her hood up and sets out quickly, hoping to be gone before the farmers rise to tend their animals. She slips past the silent cottages, heading for the forest. She doesn’t look back.
In a village nearby, Sir John Robinson steps out of the mid-morning sun and enters the local inn. He scans the room, half-empty but for the innkeeper and a few local labourers. The innkeeper beckons him over with a gesture. “She’s waiting for you upstairs,” he says quietly, out of the hearing of the other men. Sir John nods and ascends the stairs, thinking about his mysterious summoner. She is wealthy, that much is obvious, wealthy enough to pay for privacy and discretion. The question is, who is she connected to, and what does she want from him?
Honoured with his rank by the old king, Sir John has avoided declaring his loyalty to either side in the civil war. He was once considered a knight of good reputation; but he has long since forfeited that role. Stephen has dismissed him from court for his association with the old regime; but as he has neither lands nor family, he is not considered a threat. A shrewd man would have seized the opportunity in the conflict to advance himself. But Sir John has declared that his time in Palestine had cured him of any desire to make war. Instead, he has turned his attentions to keeping the peace among the common folk, and is well-known to be useful to those in need of his services. Most of his former comrades think him a fool.
In the upper room, Phryne avoids the window, waiting. Though it was unlikely she would be seen from the street, she keeps her face veiled. She wants to avoid any possibility of discovery. Her father will certainly be looking for her by now. Her marriage to one of Stephen’s retainers had been arranged only last month. It would be a lucrative match for her father, and her family. But Phryne is appalled by the thought of allying herself with the usurper; her protests fell on deaf ears. Even her mother, though sympathetic, tried to reconcile her to the marriage. Rather than submit, or shut herself in a nunnery, she has decided on open rebellion. She hopes to trade her knowledge of Stephen’s military resources in exchange for Matilda’s protection when she reaches Bristol. At the very least, her disobedience might put her betrothed off the idea of marrying her altogether.
She misses her loyal handmaid, Dorothea. She tried to ensure the girl would not be implicated in her mistress’ escape; she wishes Dorothea was by her side, for companionship.
Phryne turns when the door opens. She keeps her veil in place. The less Sir John knows, the safer they will all be.
“Madam,” he says, making a respectful salute.
“Sir John.” They both remain standing, the room’s large table between them. A chill breeze stirs the cold ashes in the hearth. Her first impression of him is reassuring: he has a quiet, calm manner she likes. But she is not ready to trust him, just yet.
“You sent for me. How may I be of assistance?”
“I need an escort for a journey; I was told you are reliable, and discreet.”
“I see.” He pauses. “And may I know who is buying my services?”
“My name is unimportant. I can pay you in gold.” She puts a purse on the table; it rattles heavily. She places a coin before him as proof. He doesn’t move to take it.
“If we’re to discuss this matter any further, madam,” he replied, “I need to at least see your face. I may be for hire, but I don’t deal in subterfuge.”
Phryne considers him carefully. If she can get to Bristol, her aunt, the Lady Prudence (no friend of the Baron’s), will give her refuge. The problem is getting there, quickly, without discovery. She has money enough for a horse of her own, but a noblewoman riding a fine horse alone will attract too much attention. Yet secrecy is vital, and the fewer confederates she has, the better.
Sir John waits patiently. Then he tilts his head, saying, “If you’re in danger, be assured I’ll do everything in my power to help.”
The evident sincerity in his voice persuades her. Phryne lowers her veil.
Sir John’s eyes widen. “Lady Phryne!” He bows his head in respect. Baron Fisher’s daughter is well-known in the county for her headstrong, willful nature. She has thus far remained unmarried, though she is an heiress, and her behaviour has inspired many sermons on the sinful nature of women from local priests. Sir John feels his pulse beat with a mix of trepidation and, yes, excitement at the prospect of involving himself in her plot.
“As I said, Sir John, discretion is of the upmost importance. I hope you meant your words just now.”
“I did. What is it you require, my lady?”
“Safe passage to Bristol. I need to get there quickly, and unnoticed.”
So she is in some measure of danger, then. “That can be done, but you would not be able to travel in a manner that befits your station, my lady.”
Phryne nods. “I am aware of that. Perhaps we could pass for a merchant and his wife, travelling on business. A cart full of wool is a common enough sight.”
Sir John clears his throat. The idea of referring to the Lady Phryne as his wife is not a comfortable thought.
“I think brother and sister might be more plausible.”
Her mouth twists with amusement. “As you wish, Sir John.”
“My lady,” he says, “If this is to succeed, you may as well call me Jack.” He shrugs. “Everyone else does.”
Her smile is like the sun breaking through rain clouds. He wonders, suddenly, what kind of difficulty he has got himself into. “And you may call me Phryne,” she replies, “though hardly anyone else does.”