::Acquired Taste

The Website of Tim Stretton


The novel will soon be available to buy.


The Zael Inheritance


The Dog of the North

The Storm and the Cave

The Betrayal

Granny Gaes Car Booting

Setting the Standard




About Acquired Taste

:: The Dog of the North: excerpts


Here are some tasters from the novel:


Under the Walls of Croad

“Ryllce!” called Beauceron. “Kindly set up the tables. We shall be dining al fresco tonight.”
    Ryllce, a knarled veteran of many previous campaigns, gave an uncertain smile and bustled off to carry out his errand.
    Beauceron smiled at Isola. “Sit down. What better prospect could we have for our meal?” He gestured with a sweep of his arm to take in the city of Croad immediately before them.
    “Are we not in some danger?” asked Isola. “This close to the walls, might we not be killed by arrows, or fall victim to a sortie?”
    Beauceron shook his head indulgently as Ryllce positioned the table and spread a heavy cloth. “Oricien will not dare to sally forth again: he has already taken one bloody nose. And if he did choose, the watch on the North Gate would alert us in high time. As to arrows, my experience allows me to calculate their range with exactitude.” He pointed to a spot some fifty yards towards the walls. “That is their maximum extent. You can relax. Tonight we will have a memorable meal.”
    Lady Isola looked unconvinced. Camp fires burned all around against the chill of the twilight. Behind them stood one of Beauceron’s two trebuchets, eerily reminiscent of a giant grasshopper, and now quiescent for the night. The walls of Croad before them represented not the homecoming she might have expected, but the target of the thousand or so troops around them.
    “The occasion is unconventional,” said Beauceron with a smile, “but all the more noteworthy for that. You will be able to tell your grandchildren you dined before the walls of Croad, immediately prior to their destruction.”
    Isola grimaced. “Grandchildren presupposes a husband. You have made your intention to kill mine clear.”
    Beauceron waved the point away with an airy gesture. “You are not yet married, and many other prospects await you. But this is not the time for such talk. Look at the sun setting behind the walls, feel the warmth of the burgeoning spring. All over Mondia, folk toil for their meagre bread: behind the walls, they wonder how long they will be able to eat at all. And look! Ryllce approaches bearing a noble roasted capon, and that is merely the start of our repast. Rejoice in the privileges that you enjoy: do not repine imaginary woes.”
    Isola gave him a steady look. “You lack empathy for the suffering of others.”
    Beauceron acknowledged the point with a nod. “It is a necessary quality for a man in my profession.”
    “Do you refer to your calling as soldier or monomaniac?”
    Beauceron poured two goblets of wine from the flask Ryllce had set before them. “You shall not provoke me, Isola. And you mistake me if you think feasting before the walls of a starving city denotes a lack of feeling. The opposite is true: my effect is precisely calculated. All along the walls Oricien's soldiers will see us eating the finest viands: their bellies will grumble, their spirits will be sapped. Word will reach Oricien; the capacity of the city to resist will be correspondingly diminished.”
    “I imagined you had invited me to dine for the charm of my company,” said Isola.
    “And so I have. My illustration to the people of Croad could have been carried out as well on a table laid for one.”
    Isola picked at the food before her. “I am not sure that I have a great appetite this evening.”
    “As you will,” said Beauceron. “The lesson for Oricien may be even more compelling if I feed the leftovers to my dogs.”
    “Does Prince Brissio countenance your behaviour?”
    “We have arrived at an arrangement of sorts,” said Beauceron. “He allows me free range with the siege engines to the north of the river. He retains the bulk of the troops to the south, shuts himself away in the Patient Suitor and sends daily challenges to Oricien.”
    “How so?”
    “He characterises my siege tactics as ‘throwing stones’. He disdains anything so base: he wishes to win his victory on the field of battle, and demands that Oricien brings his army out to fight like a man. Oricien, of course, has more sense. He is outnumbered and he would not be able to choose his terrain. So he stays where he is, and gambles that a relief force will reach him before his food runs out. In his position I would do the same.”
“Brissio does not see the siege as real battle?”
“Exactly. He wants to fight a second Jehan’s Steppe, before the walls of Croad. In this he is surely destined for disappointment.”
    “What if your trebuchets breach the walls?”
    “Then we shall have our battle, but it will be in the streets of Croad. A dirty, bloody business, taking a city by storm. There is little honour, and much bloodshed. Brissio would not enjoy it.”
    “And you?”
    Beauceron shrugged. “It is effective. Once we are in the city, we will win. That is enough for me.”
    Isola sipped reflectively at her goblet. “If the city surrendered, the garrison would be allowed to march out, would it not?”
    “That is the normal way of war.”
    “Oricien would be able to negotiate a safe-conduct with Brissio. He would escape your vengeance.”
    “I would have his city. My ‘vengeance’ need not encompass his death.”
    “You would still be unsatisfied.”
    “Perhaps. But I do not think he will surrender. He will fight before he concedes his city.”
    “Why then does he not do so now, while he has food and strong soldiers?”
    Beauceron laughed. “You have the makings of a strategist, to ask the question. A battle can only end in defeat, either glorious or inglorious. It can be seen as ‘dynamic surrender’. His best, his only, hope is the arrival of Trevarre or Enguerran. He will cling to that to the point of starvation, and even beyond.”
    “Will you excuse me?” asked Isola, rising stiffly. “I find this chilly calculation enervating. I will be in my pavilion if you wish to see me later.”
    Beauceron raised his goblet and helped himself to a another portion of ragout.

On Trial

    “I have taken the liberty of engaging a lawyer, one Mongrissore. Neither you nor I has the necessary knowledge to mount your defence. He is outside, if you wish to see him,” said Dimonetto.
    “What kind of man is he?” asked Beauceron.
    Dimonetto grimaced. “He knows his business; and he puts a high value on his services. Meet him for yourself, reach your own judgement.”
    Beauceron nodded. “Fetch him.”
    Master Mongrissore was a man of late middle-age, scanty white hair flying in all directions. Commanding as his fees might have been, they were not spent on his wardrobe, which consisted of a threadbare black suit; nor did they appear to finance gourmandising, for Mongrissore was rake-thin. Beauceron’s initial impression was not favourable, and he looked askance at Dimonetto.
    Mongrissore shook hands with greater firmness than his appearance might have implied. “Gratified to meet you, sir. We have much to cover, since Davanzato is pressing for an immediate trial. I must assess your own state: what of your bowels?”
    Mongrissore clucked. “Regularity, man! Are you a five-a-day man, or once a week? You have a costive look.”
    “I fail to see the relevance of this line of inquiry.”
    “A skilled observer can learn more of man from his bowels than his eyes. I admit I am no coprognostic, but a little knowledge may go a long way.”
    “If you must know, my bowels move with daily regularity.”
    “And has this changed during your incarceration?”
    “No. Is this germane to my defence?”
    Mongrissore scratched his chin, which appeared not to have been shaved for several days.
    “I dislike explaining my reasonings, but I sense you are a man who will be satisfied with nothing less. The regularity of your movements, even under such difficult circumstances, argues for a phlegmatic constitution. You are unlikely to panic under questioning, and I can plan my defence on the basis that you can testify if needs be. I learn also that you are impatient, truculent, untrusting.”
    “All this from negligible information as to my digestion?”
    “The latter inferences I have drawn from your demeanour. Let me say at the outset that your situation is unpromising. Davanzato is a keen opponent, and his evidence is strong. You will have to show a far greater faith in my judgement if you are to escape the noose.”
    “The ‘strong’ evidence you refer to is fabricated.”
    “You must rapidly disabuse yourself of the notion that truth has any part to play in these proceedings. A treason trial is about what can be proved, not what is true: there is often considerable divergence between the two. What is true, of course, cannot always be proved; but in law, that which is proved may not always be true.”
    “I have not employed you for a lecture on jurisprudence, nor for commonplace epigrams. Your role is simple: to secure my acquittal.”
    Mongrissore nodded. “Are you guilty?”
    Beauceron raised his eyebrows.
    “I have no scruples of any sort,” said Mongrissore. “I do not care one way or the other; however, my job is easier if I know whether I am obscuring the truth or revealing it.”
    “In a very limited, technical sense, I imagine I am guilty. I had allowed Sir Goccio to believe that I supported his proposal to raise an army against Croad, and that I would lead it.”
    “And to whom did you communicate this knowledge?”
    “Other than yourself and Dimonetto, only Sir Goccio himself.”
    Mongrissore nodded. “Davanzato has depositions not just from Sir Goccio but also fourteen of his men, who claim a detailed plan was worked out at the Ill-Favoured Loon tavern; and from Lady Isola, who deposes that you had expressed your dissatisfaction with King Fanrolio and your consequent intention to change your allegiance to King Tardolio.”
    Beauceron poured himself a beaker of water. “These allegations are uniformly false. I may be guilty of the treason described but there is no evidence.”
    “Good, very good.”
    Beauceron frowned. “I fail to see how the prospect of my being convicted on false testimony is ‘very good’.”
    “That is why I am the legulier and you the hapless accused. We can now spend our time undermining the witnesses involved. Any information you can provide me which will call into question the motives of Sir Goccio, Lady Isola and most importantly Under-Secretary Davanzato will help us all.”
    “Dimonetto has a wealth of such facts to hand.”
    Dimonetto gave a quiet smile. “The only difficulties will come in marshalling them,” he said.


The City of Glount

    Glount had been the seat of the Dukes of Lynnoc for a thousand years. One of the oldest cities of Mondia, squeezed between the Penitent Hills and the sea, it had long been a centre of commerce. If Croad was a poor cousin to Emmen, Glount was an older uncle, steeped in every vice and abomination concealed under a veneer of urbanity. The Dukes of Lynnoc embodied the essence of their city, and could trace their lineage back to its foundation with only a minimum of creative genealogy. A powerful independent city for six centuries until its fall to the first King Jehan, it had taken its absorption into the Emmenrule with scarcely a blink. Things went on as they had always done, and while the king away in Emmen might wield a nominal authority, to the folk and rulers of Glount, matters went on as they had always done.
    These matters included the homage of the Lords of Croad, for Lynnoc had long held sway to the north. The Duke of Lynnoc’s claim to be the overlord of Croad was recognised in Emmen, and at irregular intervals the Lord of Croad must present himself in the city to swear fealty for his lands.
    It was this which brought Lord Thaume south only weeks after his victory at Jehan’s Steppe. Duke Panarre had learned that Thaume intended to exact ransoms from the captured nobility of Mettingloom, and summoned him south that a suitable tribute to himself might be negotiated. Thaume, who would normally have ignored such a demand, felt bound to accede on this occasion as the price of introducing his children into the court at Glount. The time approached when a marriage would need to be arranged for Siedra: ideally to Panarre’s eldest son Trevarre, although realistically other expedients might be necessary. Panarre would be likely to raise the question of uniting his lackwitted daughter Klaera with Oricien, a prospect which could only be resisted most strongly. It was not out of the question that Guigot could be offered in this context, although Thaume could already hear the likely imprecations from his nephew should he raise the topic.

    Arren had heard much of Glount, and expected anti-climax, but he was impressed in spite of himself at his first sight of the city. It was hidden away behind three hills, each topped by a castle – La Bastia, Castella, and Fortessa – and appeared almost cramped against the shore from the high perspective of the traveller looking down. Ships teemed in the sheltered horseshoe of the bay, some the distinctive cogs of the north, more galleys from Garganet and Gammerling. Even from this distance, the place teemed with an almost visible vitality. Away to the east, the River Lynnoc bustled down to the sea, with the palace of Duke Panarre set against it.
    Coppercake was riding alongside Arren. “Glount. I hope you are prepared.”
    “How could it be otherwise, Master Coppercake? All I have heard for the past week are your tales of how the citizens spend their days mulcting each other of coin, and their nights engaged in debauchery of every dye.”
    Coppercake chuckled. “I may have exaggerated a little, or at least glossed over the mundanities. But if you wonder at my facility with mathematics, it is because you learn it early in Glount, or you are rooked.”
    “We will not be visiting the city, at least not immediately,” said Lady Cerisa. “Lord Thaume intends us to proceed directly to the palace.”
    “Perhaps for the best,” said Arren. “I do not care to be rooked on my first day.”
“I am keen to visit the Spedanga,” said Lady Cerisa. “It is where The Masque of Louison and Eleanora reaches its tragic conclusion.”
    Arren had found The Masque, a tale of lovers thwarted by destiny, improbable coincidence and a large measure of their own stupidity, a vapid experience, but Lady Cerisa had insisted they spend a tedious two weeks watching and discussing the play. He had no desire to explore the matter further during his sojourn in Glount. Conceivably Siedra could be persuaded to accompany Lady Cerisa on her visit to the Spedanga.
    Master Guiles rode back from the head of the column. “We are approaching the gate. Full decorum is in order. You may find the folk of Glount somewhat haughty. Do not bridle at their inspection; they will take it as a sign of low breeding, and mock you the more. At the palace matters should proceed with greater punctilio.”
    “I would add my own advice,” said Coppercake. “Do not part with coin under any circumstances. You can be assured that the seeming bargain is not. If you are offered a house for a single florin, you may guarantee it is haunted, cursed, or worse. You should not undertake any transaction without my guidance. My commission will be moderate, and will save you from embarrassment and vexation.”

Treasons, Stratagems and Spoils


        They stepped inside the inn to be met by a fug of heat from the hearth. Winter was long in Mettingloom, and cold. Beauceron held up his hand for two glasses of langensnap as Davanzato seated himself..
        “How are Isola and Cosetta?” asked Beauceron as they waited for the drinks to arrive.
        “I cannot imagine this is why you diverted me from state business.”
        “It takes time to savour a glass of langensnap. A little conversation does not go amiss.”
        “Frankly, the ladies are the bane of my existence. Cosetta has moved out of the palace altogether, taking expensive apartments on the Fins. Isola plagues me every day for news of her ransom, and holds me responsible for its delay – as if I could influence her father. You may have observed that for all her graceful carriage she nurtures a shrewish disposition.”
        “Cosetta’s apartment is no burden to you; I understand Prince Brissio pays the lease.”
        “How do you know that?”
        “She told me herself. Do not try and invoke sympathy for your expenses, at least as far as Cosetta goes.”
        Davanzato inhaled the vapours of his langensnap. “I may inadvertently have misled you. My real vexation is that Brissio becomes involved in my affairs at all, since he now takes an interest in Cosetta. I would not have expected a lady of Sey to be such a trollop.”
        “Cosetta assures me nothing improper has occurred.”
        “And you believe her?” said Davanzato with a raised eyebrow. “I took you for a man of sceptical temperament.”
        “I found her reasoning compelling, although I will not share it with you, since you are so oppressed by business. I have more sympathy with you in the matter of Lady Isola.”
        “I begin to doubt that her ransom will be forthcoming. Fanrolio will not dicker with Sprang or Oricien, so she remains in my charge, at my expense, indefinitely. This gift from you has not proved bountiful.”
        “It was well-intentioned. However, since the favour I expected has not been forthcoming, I see a certain justice in the situation.”
        Davanzato said nothing as he sipped his langensnap. “I thought you were not going to press me for news of my progress. It is not simply a matter of arranging an audience with His Puissance, which would be the work of minutes. The delicacy lies ensuring the King takes an appropriate view of your proposals.” he said. “I anticipate that an audience ending a rejection of your scheme would not spell the end of your importunities.”
        “I do not intend to press you,” said Beauceron cheerfully. “You will tell me whatever you see fit. I will merely outline my views. I spent an afternoon with Nissac yesterday, for reasons you understand. I was inconvenienced and irritated by the matter; and the episode justifiably led me to question your motives and intentions with regard to myself. When I consider that no audience, nor even a hint of one, with King Fanrolio has been forthcoming, can you wonder why I question whether my approach has been the correct one? I have treated you with good faith and generosity, but my seeds have not borne fruit. Perhaps it is time for me to consider another method.”
        “You interest me. Perhaps you intend to storm the palace with your band of brigands; maybe you will make smoke signals from a wherry; conceivably you will take the risk of approaching King Tardolio. Maybe you will even set up an outcry at the Midwinter Ball. Please keep me apprised of any progress you may make.”
        “None of these tactics was in my mind. I thought rather to convince you that the balance of advantage to yourself lay in facilitating the audience. The farmer who owns a recalcitrant gallumpher first tries to persuade it with a carrot; if the beast is still intractable, he belabours it with a stick. Both farmer and gallumpher prefer the carrot, but on occasion the stick remains necessary.”
        “I hope you are not characterising me as a farm gallumpher.”
        “I merely used a metaphor which from a certain angle bears some resemblance to our own transaction. You are no more a farm animal than I am a farmer.”
        “In that case your meaning escapes me.”
        “It is simply this. I have expended effort and money in securing your goodwill. To date both appear to have been wasted. I am known as ‘the Dog of the North’ for a reason: I have a justified reputation for harsh and bloody violence. I would not wish you to learn why, but equally I do not wish to forego my audience with the King.”
        Davanzato calmly finished his langensnap and stood up. “I am disappointed that you think me not only a coward but a fool. I would only be cowed by your threats if I were of a nervous disposition and brainless enough to think you would carry them out. Since my only use to you is as a live and functioning Under-Secretary, I may yet sleep easily in my bed. Good afternoon to you, Beauceron.”
        Wrapping his cloak around his shoulders he pushed open the tavern door to allow entry to a gust of icy air. Beauceron looked after him. Davanzato would not crack so easily. The matter would need closer attention.


At the King's Soiree

        Beauceron turned away with a smile on his face, looking around for Lady Letteria. His attention distracted, he bumped into the man beside him.
        “Excuse me, sir.”
        “I shall not,” said the man. “Do you not recognise me?”
        Beauceron looked into his face, a thin resentful countenance. “Albizzo.”
        “Just so, and your offences exceed a moment of clumsiness. We must discuss my sister.”
        Beauceron frowned. This was an encounter he would have preferred to avoid. Already he could see only one conclusion.
        “How is Etheria?” he asked with resignation.
        “Well might you ask, sir,” said Albizzo with an expression simultaneously sneering and self-pitying. You might have displayed similar concern for her welfare before you debauched her.”
        “Albizzo, you only demean yourself ranting so, and before the King too.”
        “I demand satisfaction of you, sir. You must apologise – as you observe, before the King – or face my wrath.”
        “Your wrath?”
        “Do not provoke me. Our family has held land in this city for generations. Etheria could have hoped for a good marriage before you defiled her.” Spots of colour stood out on Albizzo’s cheeks.
        “Must you really transact this business in this way? I did not force your sister; she was, in fact, all too willing. If your family commands the respect you suggest, I cannot imagine her marriage prospects materially blighted.”
        “Dog! Who would want a woman with a character compromised by a natural child?”
        Beauceron raised his eyebrows. “A child?”
        “Yes, sir. You left her with a bastard and not a thought for her welfare. It is late now to affect concern.”
        “You mistake me, Albizzo. I care nothing for Etheria and less for her brat. She assured me with some babble of phases of the moon that the event you describe could not occur; more, it seems, to comfort herself than me, for I was indifferent throughout.”
        “You are despicable. I can tell you now the child did not survive his birth one hour; and I intend that you should meet your son within the same period. You will fight me now, and may you find Harmony.”
        “Do not be a fool, Albizzo. If you declare a duel to the death, it can only be you who complies. Let us leave the matter aside.”
        “Not just a seducer but a coward too? I should have know that boasts of ‘Dog of the North’ were as hollow as the rest. I am glad the King has seen you for what you are.” He turned away.
        “Enough, Albizzo. If you challenge me, I must respond. That is why I give you a chance to withdraw.”
        Albizzo stepped so close that their noses almost touched. Beauceron could see that he was in trim condition, and he had a good reputation as a swordsman. There was clearly no other way.
        “Then I challenge you, Beauceron. We will fight this very night with the weapon of your choosing: the rapier, the broadsword, the knife, or hands. And it shall be to the death.”
        Beauceron shook his head. “As you wish. I choose the rapier. If this is how you wish to achieve Harmony, I am on hand to help you.”
        King Fanrolio rose from his seat. “Come now, gentlemen, can you not be reconciled,” he said in a wavering voice.
        Albizzo and Beauceron turned to the king and bent the knee. “Your Puissance,” said Albizzo, “if you command it, I shall of course withdraw my challenge, but the insult to my sister remains grave. I beg you will not command me to forswear my honour.”
        Fanrolio turned to Beauceron with rheumy eye. “Beauceron, your conduct does not appear beyond reproach on this occasion.”
        “Your Puissance, events happened as they did. It is futile to wish them otherwise. The good Albizzo has arraigned my honour and my courage before this august group. If he challenges me I must respond.”
        Fanrolio thought for a moment. Davanzato whispered in his ear. Beauceron did not expect it to be anything constructive.
        “Very well,” said Fanrolio. “Albizzo is clearly within his rights to demand satisfaction, and I will not tarnish his honour by demanding he withdraws his challenge. You may fight, but outside. It is forbidden to draw steel in my presence. Bring their arms and escort them to the courtyard. Name your seconds.”

Market Day

    It was easy to slip out of the city on market-day. The South Gate was open more often than not as traders bought their wares in, either from the local countryside or farther afield. Arren walked out with some fishermen who had sold their catch early, always expecting the call of the Guards. But nobody noticed the slight lad as he stepped softly across the bridge. Soon he found himself in front of the Patient Suitor Inn, a venue he had previously visited only with his father.
    The sign above the inn depicted a dejected-looking suitor staring into the middle-distance at a fine lady on a fine horse. Arren thought he looked sullen rather than patient; he wouldn’t like to be the lady once she’d agreed to marry him. Arren set himself to be equally patient until Eilla should arrive – providing she wasn’t caught. Or did she intend to leave him there on his own and then get into trouble trying to sneak back into the city? He wouldn’t put it past Eilla’s sense of mischief.
    But on this occasion Arren had misjudged her. Precisely on the moment that the Patient Suitor’s bell chimed for midday, Eilla appeared on the cobbles of the courtyard. He could see that she had been successful in securing her third item of plunder: it would have been hard to miss it, since the final item of booty proved to be a live cow strolling peacefully at the end of a long rope.
    “Eilla! What have you got?” said Arren, in mingled awe, bafflement and suspicion.
    “What does it look like to you? In my house we call this a ‘cow’. I have three items. I am Queen of the Raiders. My items are better than yours, because they’re bigger.”
    “Where did you get the cow?”
    “I thought the King of the Raiders had to be intelligent. It was in the cattle pen at the market. I opened the gate, took hold of the rope and walked out. No-one stopped me.”
Eilla led the cow over to the table in the corner of the courtyard where Arren had been sitting.     

“Now we can have our feast,” she said. “Look, an apple, a nice cheese, and a cow.”
    Arren folded his arms. “The cow doesn’t count. You can’t eat it.”
    Eilla screwed her face up. “Of course you can eat a cow. It’s called beef.”
    “You can’t eat it now, stupid. It’s alive.”
    “Well then, what about milk? Find me a pail, and I’ll milk it. Anyway, what have you got?”
    Arren bought his items out and laid them on the table beside Eilla’s. “First, a lemon. Rare and very tasty! Next, a crisp fresh loaf. Feel, it’s still warm. Last, a special necklace, with red and blue beads.”
    “Ha! If you can’t eat a cow, you surely can’t eat a necklace. Although I’ll have it anyway: it should go on the neck of the Raider Queen.”
    Arren handed it over. At ten years old he had no sweetheart in mind to give it to. The only girls worth playing with were the ones who thought they were boys, like Eilla.
Eilla nonetheless displayed a feminine delicacy in arranging the trophy around her neck. “Have you ever eaten a lemon, Arren?” she asked slyly.
    “Of course! My father is always bringing home titbits from Lord Thaume’s palace. We’ve had oranges, lemons and limes, redders, all the fruits you could imagine.”
    “And how do lemons and oranges differ?”
    “You really are a stupid girl, Eilla. A lemon is yellow, an orange is orange. And redders are red.”
    “I don’t believe I’ve ever eaten a lemon. Will you show me how?”
    “Of course.” Arren pulled out his pocket-knife and swiftly removed the peel. A little knowledge could go a long way, and the lemon appeared identical in every respect except colour to the oranges Darrien often bought home. He carefully split the lemon into two equal portions, offering one to Eilla. “Here, you just eat it now.”
    Eilla weighed the lemon in her hand and looked at Arren. “Do you eat it all in one? Or cut it into little pieces?”
    “Oh! Some raider queen you are! Look! One mouthful – like this! Uuurgh! Ohhhh! Pah!”
    “Arren! Dear me! Here, have mine too…”

 ::last modified: 6 March 2007
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