Saturday, February 11, 2017

Savvy Saturday: Skirmish by Keith Willis

“All’s Fair In Love and War” -- John Lyly's, "Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit"

Clarise Rochford plucked at the strings of her lyre. It produced a series of discordant, almost haunting minor-key notes. Mournful and jarring, they echoed her feelings perfectly. She glared resentfully at the instrument as if it had been mocking her. Carefully and precisely, she placed it on the table. It was either that, or throw the blasted thing against the wall.

Clarise smiled at her audience, a brittle, apologetic smile. “I’m sorry,” she said, swallowing to relieve the catch in her throat. “I fear my mind must be elsewhere this evening. Will you excuse me?”

There were enthusiastic murmurs and nods of encouragement. Though the ladies of the queen’s retinue normally enjoyed hearing her play, tonight’s entertainment had been nothing short of torture by stringed instrument. Clarise busied herself with packing the lyre back into its case, trying to conceal a face hot with shame and frustration. Closing the case with a loud snap, she made her escape.

“Clarise, wait.”

It was the queen. Clarise stopped mid-stride, the weight of the instrument dragging her arm down like the weight of her embarrassment. She turned to face her pursuer, sketching a quick curtsy. “Your Majesty.”

“What on earth is wrong?” asked Gwyndolyn Gwynfallis, Queen of Kilbourne. “I’ve never heard you play…” she swallowed hard and continued hoarsely, “Like that.”

Clarise bowed her head. “My apologies, Your Majesty,” she muttered. “I suppose I was just a bit, um, distracted.”

The queen eyed her speculatively. “Distracted, eh? I see. Is there anything I can do?”

Clarise shook her head in fierce negation, sending her hair flying. “Thank you, Your Majesty, but no. It’s a--a personal matter.”

“I see,” said the queen again. She obviously didn’t. “Well, as you wish.” She smiled encouragingly. “I’m sure you’ll be fine next time.”

It was all Clarise could do not to burst into tears. Would there even be a next time? She smiled weakly, nodded, and dipped another hasty curtsy. Gwyndolyn turned back to the music room, from which emerged the faints sounds of voices and laughter.

Laughter directed at her, Clarise was certain. She hefted her instrument, clutching it in front of herself like a shield, and fled the field.

“Blast,” she muttered, closing and bolting the door. Setting the lyre down, she threw herself into a chair, buried her head in her hands, and gave a moan like a soul in torment. Her long blond hair, compared to spun gold by some long-forgotten swain with a misbegotten poetic streak, cascaded about her face. She pulled it back fiercely, tying it into a severe knot. Then she went in search of the bottle of wine she knew was lurking about.

She found the bottle lying drunkenly on its side next to the settee. It was empty except for a couple of wayward drops which hit her tongue with the sour tang of a memory of lost love.

She had, Clarise recalled with no little rancor, finished it the night before. Actually, she was a bit startled she could remember anything. The bottle had been almost full when she’d started on it.

“Curse the man!” she exclaimed aloud. Speaking of lost loves. Although could one lose a love one had never really had? Clarise wasn’t sure, but she was sure of one thing. Somehow, this was all Byron Darby’s fault.

“Mrow!” came a reproachful answer.

Clarise whirled to find a sleek black cat with enormous green eyes staring at her. Francesca by name, the cat normally ruled over Marissa duBerry’s townhouse. Clarise had agreed to keep her and provide meals whilst Marissa was off visiting her parents in Bremaine. With a guilty start, she realized she hadn’t put out any food today. Had she yesterday? It seemed doubtful. And she’d told Mrs. Higgins not to trouble herself, that she would take care of the cat.

“Sorry, sorry,” she muttered, looking about in desperation as if expecting a fish to magically appear. Francesca sat back on her haunches, regarding Clarise with slitted eyes and a supremely dubious expression. When it was apparent there was no fish in the offing she disappeared under the settee. She soon reappeared, bearing a limp mouse which had obviously been stored up in anticipation of just such a feline tragedy.

“Ewww!” said Clarise. Francesca ignored this commentary on her choice of snacks. Clarise retreated into her bedchamber and closed the door, leaving the field to the cat.

The things one did for friends. She staggered to the window and leaned out, breathing deeply. Night birds trilled their tunes and crickets chirruped counterpoint. A light breeze wafted the sweet scent of lilacs from the garden below. Then a rustling within those lilacs drew her attention, and she saw the lurking form.

As lurking forms went, this one was of the large or over-sized variety. A cloud had momentarily covered the moon, so there wasn't enough light available to make out any of its features clearly. But from the general size and shape, Clarise was certain she had a pretty good idea of its identity. She drew back with a sharp hiss, then cautiously peered out from behind the diaphanous shelter of a light curtain.

Yes, there it was, still lurking away like anything. The moon provided a brief moment of illumination before darting back behind its cloud again. But the glimmer had been enough to see the upturned face and the shock of red hair.

So! What was Captain Byron Darby doing in the bushes beneath her window? He certainly wasn’t on maneuvers with the Legion. After he’d escorted her to the king’s banquet two weeks prior, he appeared to have disappeared. Clarise had neither seen nor heard from him since.

Which was decidedly vexing. She had thought, based on things he had said--murmured into her ear, actually--and things he had done, like try and kiss her, that Sir Byron wasn’t the type to dash off and hide. She had pictured him as the type who would try, if a bit awkwardly, to sling her across his shoulder and whisk her away to a secluded bower somewhere.

She had actually pictured this scene in vivid detail over the course of several sleepless nights: her struggling (although not too much) as he carried her off in his manly arms; his declarations of undying devotion as they rode off into the sunset; her hair (perfectly coiffed, of course) shimmering in the moonlight as he ran his fingers through it; his lips, pressed to her own, as his fingers moved from her hair to the shoulder of her gown, inching ever lower…

“Blast!” Clarise rubbed her head where she’d bumped it on the window. Pleasant daydreams forgotten, she peeked out again. Yes, he was still there. Should she call down to him? Or would she just put him to flight?

But as she weighed this decision, it was made for her. The lurking form moved away, swiftly and silently. Well, almost silently; it tripped over a low hedgerow, went sprawling headlong to the ground, and cursed soundly.

Clarise looked after Byron with a mixture of exasperation and amused affection. She watched until his large form vanished into the darkness, then turned away from the window in a bout of deep contemplation.

What did this all mean? She needed to think. And for Clarise, thinking required music. She glanced at the lute which had been so recently unaccommodating, decided against it, and left her room. She strode down the corridor to her music room, where a piano-forte resided. She needed to allow her mind to wander free. If her hands and the small part of her conscious needed to play were thus occupied, it would leave the rest free for contemplation.

Sitting down at the piano-forte, Clarise allowed her fingers to run the scales a few times. Soon she moved smoothly into the first movement of Cabril’s Pastorale. The soft, mellow music flowed throughout the room, and Clarise began to think.

If Sir Byron was standing beneath her window, then he must have a reason for it. Men didn’t just idly stroll by and gaze up at a girl’s window at random, did they? And then vanish again, she reminded herself with some asperity.

Yes, he had, she acknowledged. But what was he supposed to have done? Toss pebbles at her window until she came out to investigate? Call out her name, and arouse half the street? Swarm up to the balcony, fling open the window, and take her into his embrace? This notion had definite possibilities, and Clarise spent the last bit of the first movement contemplating this pleasant fantasy.

She slipped into the second part of the Cabril, the music more compelling and urgent now, mirroring her emotions. If Byron was still interested in her, as his presence beneath her window would seem to indicate, why was he being so blasted evasive? Elusive? Whatever…

The point was, he wasn’t around. Clarise had asked about, quite discretely. She was fairly certain he didn’t have another girl, either here in Caerfaen or back in Dunstanshire, with whom he had an understanding.

Was it possible, she wondered, that he was just a roué like Sir Aartis, flitting from flower to flower but never staying for long? It didn’t seem likely. When he spoke to her, his words weren’t those of a rake. Then there were his kisses. He had been hesitant, almost clumsy in his first attempts to kiss her. Definitely not the kisses of a hardened rake.

So could it be he was afraid of her? Or afraid of his feelings for her? Possible, she supposed, moving into the third section of the Pastorale. The music softened again, the mood now one of peace and tranquility. Very well, Clarise decided, if such was the case, she would have to let him know he had nothing to fear from her. But how?

She would have to arrange to see him, to reassure him. To encourage him. Her hands danced over the keys, as she had imagined Byron’s hands dancing… No! Such does not bear thinking about, she scolded.

Well, since Sir Byron was not communicating with her, Clarise would have to take the initiative. Send him a note, requesting a meeting. He couldn’t well refuse a direct invitation, could he?

Her fingers flew over the keys now, moving into the final crescendo. As the last notes rang out there was a sound like thunder. Startled, Clarise looked up to see Jeanette, her maid, and Mrs. Higgins, the cook, standing in the doorway applauding wildly.

“My lady!” cried Jeanette. “That was so wonderful!”

“Th-thank you,” Clarise stammered, a blush spreading crimson from her neck to the top of her head. “I didn’t know-- I didn’t realize anyone was listening.”

“My lady, how could we not? Your sweet melodies rang out through the halls, just calling to us. Will you play some more?”

“Not right now. I only came in here to be alone and to think. Now I have an urgent errand I must attend to.” Still blushing, she returned to her bedchamber.


Byron Darby stared with rapidly growing dread at the object in his hand.

It was innocuous enough, nothing to cause such an extreme reaction. A simple piece of parchment, folded and sealed, with his own name written in a neat, precise hand on the exterior.

If he didn’t recognize the sender’s writing style, the seal provided him with all the information he required to make him tremble down to the soles of his sizable boots. Although he had fought fearlessly in the recent conflicts with the Rhuddlani invaders, Byron now found himself in the peculiar position of being afraid. Afraid to open this simple, sealed message.

He placed it unopened on the nearby desk and called for his valet. Once the requested tankard of ale had been produced and Byron had taken a sustaining gulp--and then a couple more for good measure--he returned his attention to the note. Steeling himself to the task, he cracked the wax and unfolded the parchment. As he processed the words written there, he realized it was even worse than he had feared.

“My Dear Sir Byron,” it began. “I wanted to thank you again for a most enjoyable evening at the king’s banquet. I had thought you might call upon me again, but you seem to have been most occupied of late, no doubt with urgent Legion affairs.”

Byron detected a certain tone of sarcasm in this. Not undeserved, admittedly, but it stung none the less. With a scowl he read on. As he did, his eyes widened in surprise.

“Yet you seem to have found time to stand outside my window late last evening.”

“Damnation!’ Byron swore aloud. “She saw me. I knew going there was a mistake!”

He read further, his gaze glued to the parchment in fascinated horror, rather as a cornered mouse regards the cat. “I would be most interested,” the note continued, “in discussing this penchant for window-gazing. A most unusual hobby. Do you recommend it? I shall be at The Black Swan Inn at eight bells tonight, should you care to join me there. Yours, Lady Clarise Rochford.”

Byron put his head in his hands. “Curse it!” he declared. “If only I’d stayed away!’”

A little part of him that knew better gave an evil chuckle and retorted “Could you have?”

To answer this question honestly heralded disaster. Byron knew he was incapable of keeping away from Lady Clarise. God knew he’d tried.

For weeks, before he’d seized the chance to ask her to the king’s banquet, he’d haunted the courtyard outside her window. Like a moth drawn to a flame, he had been unable to resist doing so. Although he’d observed her on only three occasions--each was marked well in his memory--it hadn’t prevented him from pursuing his obsession. He knew just as well he wouldn’t be able to refuse to meet her at The Black Swan.

The locale of this rendezvous held ominous portents in and of itself. Byron had heard interesting reports of the Swan from Aartis Poldane, that most notorious of rakes. Aartis had always affirmed there was no better spot in Caerfaen for a tryst. With its candle-lit and curtained tables, a couple might dine in the utmost secluded intimacy. The wines were exceptionally potent, and the menu consisted of dainty morsels: braised squab legs, oysters and the like which could be fed to one’s companion in a most suggestive manner.

If Lady Clarise was planning to upbraid him for his many faults--failing to call upon her again after the banquet; gazing up at her window--she likely would have done so in her note. No, this smacked almost of a subtle form of blackmail. It he failed to appear at the Black Swan, his habit of window-gazing would no doubt become public knowledge. He’d be subject to ridicule. Worse, he would earn Clarise’s scorn, and this didn’t bear thinking about.

Well, meet her he would, and to the devil with the consequences. After all, how bad could it end up?


At two minutes before eight bells, Sir Byron Darby, Captain of the King’s Legion, prepared to engage the enemy in hostile territory.

A liveried servant opened the door and ushered him into The Black Swan. Byron squared his broad shoulders and marched forward to meet his doom.

His doom sat demurely at a table in a secluded alcove. The dusky blue silk of her gown, rippling like ocean swells, complemented the startlingly intense blue of her eyes. The creamy expanse of skin revealed by her décolletage, which defied both gravity and propriety, beckoned enticingly.

True to reconnaissance reports, candles flickered invitingly upon the table and a curtain waited to be drawn closed, leaving the table’s occupants in complete seclusion. Lady Clarise smiled up at him from under lowered lashes, with the look of a bird which had just stalked and cornered its first cat.

“Welcome, Sir Byron,” she purred when Byron had dismissed his guide. “Please, sit.” She indicated the empty spot on the banquette next to her. “It will be ever so much more comfortable and cozy, eh?”

Cozy, Byron didn’t doubt. Comfort, he thought as he pulled at his suddenly tight cravat, was no doubt in the eye of the beholder. He slid his massive form into the space indicated, acutely aware of the nearness of her. Her scent--musky and enticing--engaged his senses almost as much as her appearance. Her face--arched brows, huge blue eyes, pert nose, and cupid’s-bow lips; her white throat, smooth and almost begging to be kissed--all served to entice and arouse.

Byron took up the offered glass of wine, brought it to his lips, and drained it. Then, carefully setting it back on the table, he turned to his--what? Companion? No, definitely not. Temptress. That was the word.

Well aware the most tenable position in battle was an offensive one, he decided to begin the fray. “M’lady,” he said, “your note was most…”

She cut him off in mid-sentence. “I fear it was more a summons than an invitation, wasn’t it?” He nodded and opened his mouth to continue, but she went on, almost as if he weren’t even there. “Well, good sir, what did you expect? You invite me to the king’s banquet; you say such sweet things to me; you kiss me, and then you vanish, seemingly from the face of the earth.”

“But I…”

“But me no buts,” she chided, wagging a finger. “It seems to me you have led me on in a most ungentlemanly manner. Then left me cold. A casual plaything, just tossed aside. No doubt you have taken lessons from Sir Aartis.”

“But m’lady, I never…”

“And then! Just when I think you must have been sent on some secret mission for the king, or off foiling some dastardly Rhuddlani plot, I find you practically camping beneath my window.”

“Yes, m’lady, I…”

“And when I go to call to you from my window, you vanish yet again. That poor hedge,” she mused, “may never be the same. But no matter. The issue is my balcony, and your lurking beneath it. Whatever is a girl to think?”

M’lady!” Sir Byron’s exasperation finally got the best of his manners. “May I be allowed to speak now?”

Clarise looked at him, an expression of serene innocence spreading over her countenance. “Of course, of course. Was I preventing you from speaking? Say on, Sir Byron, say on!”

“Thank you! Now, m’lady…” A serving girl approached, bearing platters which she placed upon the table. Byron sighed. He thought he detected a stifled giggle from next to him. He studiously ignored it.

“Now, m’lady…”

“Should we not partake of these delicacies before they become cold? As cold as a roue’s heart?” she added with an arch of one delicately shaped brow.

Driving home her point with all the subtlety of a cavalry charge. Byron regarded the platters with suspicion. “I suppose so, m’lady,” he said resignedly. “My attempts at discourse appear to be missing their mark.” He filled both their plates with an assortment of delicacies ranging from peeled grapes and pomegranate seeds to truffles and oysters, and bits of squab in a fragrant sauce.

They ate in silence, each apparently lost in their own thoughts. Byron glanced surreptitiously at Clarise from time to time, finding her expression now called to mind a cat which has been given charge of guarding the cream pitcher.

Curse it, what was it with him and cats today? He didn’t even particularly like cats. He pushed his plate away and regarded his empty wineglass. He didn’t normally drink wine; give him a good homely ale any day. But he found to his surprise that while the wine went down smoothly enough, it exhibited a remarkable potency. In this case, he reckoned, this might not be such a bad thing.

The glass mysteriously refilled itself with dark red wine, courtesy of his hostess. Byron took a healthy sip. A good fortification was a boon to any battle plan.

“Now, before any further interruptions.” Clarise opened her mouth, but Byron held up a warning hand. “Nay, m’lady, no interruptions.” He glowered repressively, and she closed her Cupid ’s bow lips.

“My actions may have seemed t’ ye those of a cad. On the contrary, they were acts of a gentleman. Had I allowed myself to follow my instincts in the matter, I shouldn’t have wished to answer for the consequences. For the depths of my feelings, nay, my passion, would nae doubt have led me to act in such a way as to compromise your reputation. And I could nae conscience such.”

He knew the tension of the situation was forcing his accent back into the highland burr he tried so hard to control. When he got really excited, his sergeant had told him on more than one occasion, no one could understand a word in ten of what he said. He took a steadying breath and marshaled himself.

He could feel her eyes upon him, but he refused to meet her gaze. He couldn’t trust himself, not right now. As if sensing this, she asked “So, you stayed away because you felt you couldn’t trust yourself in my company?”


“And your standing beneath my window?”

“Been doin’ it for weeks now. I kept hopin’ to see you, but you were never at your window. Only three times..”

“I see.” Her blue eyes sparkled in the light of the candle. “And now?”

“And now, m’lady… Nay, Clarise. Now, I’m afraid ye shall just have to take yer chances with yer reputation.” He looked up to see a satisfied smile brush her lips.

“My reputation,” she breathed, “can go hang!”

About the Author

Keith W. Willis is a semi-professional word-wrangler and author of the award-winning fantasy/romance Traitor Knight. He lives in upstate NY with his loving, lovely, and extraordinarily patient wife, Patty, who is gracious enough to encourage his writing habit, and even to read (and proofread) his words, despite the fact that she doesn't really like fantasy. That's love. Keith does not drink coffee, but does consume copious quantities of tea. He neither owns nor is owned by any cats. Keith's second novel in the Knights of Kilbourne series, Desperate Knight, is currently in editing, and is slated for a summer 2017 release.



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