The Royal Companion

By: Tanya Bird

Prologue





They hanged the man outside of the church, in front of his family, his neighbours and a white-faced priest clutching the book of God. The body swung gently above the spectators, eyes bulging, head tilted at an unnatural angle. The only noise was the creak of the rope and the violent sobs of his widow.

Aldara wished she were back on the farm. She had never seen a man hanged to death. It was so rare in her village that the prince’s men had been forced to construct the simple gallows just for the occasion. Noblemen rarely ventured this far south, leaving matters of the law in the hands of the local church. But one man from Roysten had sold Prince Pandarus a filly with an abscess, so Pandarus had made the journey from Archdale Castle to make a display of his intolerance of crime, which was a thinly veiled intolerance of the poor.

When Prince Pandarus spoke, there was a collective flinch among the crowd.

‘Let us remember the kingdom that Syrasan is,’ he said, seated on his horse next to the creaking gallows. The silk lining of his cloak flashed as he raised an arm to gesture. ‘One of integrity. Crimes against the people who are risking their lives every day to keep you safe will not be tolerated. Let this man remain here as a reminder.’

Blank, hungry faces stared up at him. But not the widow, whose eyes would not open. A tortured noise rang from her as she clutched the head of her son against her dress, trying to shield his view. Aldara swallowed down the lump forming in her throat and used the hood of her cloak to shield her own sight.

‘We need to start moving,’ Dahlia whispered. ‘We cannot miss him.’ She took hold of Aldara’s laundered cloak and pulled her through the crowd as it began to disperse. The mud sucked at their boots as they moved out into the centre of the road, waiting for Pandarus to reach them. ‘My lord,’ she called, curtsying low as if standing on swept stone.

Aldara watched the hem of her mother’s dress soak up the stagnant water around her feet. Pandarus did not slow his pace.

‘I have nothing for you,’ he said, increasing the distance between them and his grey mare.

Dahlia stood upright. ‘I need nothing from you but a moment of your time, my lord. I wish to introduce you to my daughter before your departure.’

Pandarus reluctantly stopped his horse and looked at her. The two men flanking him stopped also, each with a hand on their sword. He pushed his thick cloak over his right shoulder, revealing a red ‘S’ on his arm, as though they needed reminding he was a member of the royal family. He turned his bored expression to Aldara. His hands loosened the reins a little.

Dahlia gestured for Aldara to step forwards. She did as she was told, dropping into a small curtsy. Once she was upright, she removed the hood of her cloak as her mother had instructed. The cold air made her ears ache. Dahlia had forced her unruly hair into a low bun, and sections of it were blowing about her face in protest. She reached up and tucked them behind her ears.

Pandarus looked at the mud-splattered hem of her once blue dress and then slowly moved his eyes up to her face. ‘What is your name?’

‘Aldara, my lord.’

‘And what is your age, Aldara?’

‘Fifteen, my lord.’

‘Ah, not yet of age.’

Dahlia stepped forwards. ‘She will be sixteen in the warm season, my lord. And she reads and writes.’

Aldara stared at her mother, not recognising the tone of her voice. It was laced with desperation. Dahlia’s pride usually kept her composed, even in the cold season when the food was gone. Having realised her own uncharacteristic behaviour, Dahlia collected herself, standing before Pandarus as though she was wearing something other than rags. Every hair was in place, released from its tight prison on wash days only. It was not even permitted time to dry.

Pandarus’s eyes remained on Aldara. ‘Have you seen a man hanged to his death before?’

She looked up at him and shook her head. ‘No, my lord.’

‘Was it difficult for you to watch?’

Aldara glanced down at his boots. She had never seen such clean boots, and wondered whether his horse had collected him from the front step of the castle. ‘The grief of his family was very difficult to watch.’