The Poisoner's Enemy
From Wall Street Journal bestselling author Jeff Wheeler:
Before she befriended a frightened young boy in the palace of Kingfountain, Ankarette Tryneowy grew up during the shattering civil war that raged between members of the Argentine family. This is the story of how the only daughter of a lawyer and a midwife became the famed Queen’s Poisoner.
Recruited by King Eredur’s ambitious uncle, Ankarette is thrown into a world of double dealing, deception, and tangled loyalties. With the help of her mentor and friend, Sir Thomas, she must learn to trust her instincts and remember that others will not always be loyal, even when they are of the same blood. But involving herself in the machinations of the realm draws the eye of an enemy more dangerous than kings or dukes. How will she navigate the politics of the realm and the desires of her heart to become the woman she needs to become?
Release date: February 27, 2023
Publisher: Oliver Heber Books
Print pages: 332
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The Poisoner's Enemy
The Kingmaker’s Summons
Ankarette had been up all night and had seen a babe safely delivered into a bloody world. The healthy cries had been a relief, both to the mother and father and to Ankarette. She had often attended her mother in deliveries, but she was only a girl of twelve. This was one of the first birthings she’d handled alone. From her experiences with her mother, she’d learned birth was an ordeal of pain and suffering that could bring exquisite joy or crushing grief, and she was grateful this difficult night had ended in joy. She was exhausted, relieved, and excited to share her success with her mother.
The streets of Yuork were bustling with life. The air was filled with the noises of squawking chickens, the panting and yapping of dogs, the rattling of cart wheels, and the grumbling of voices thick with the accent of the North—all melodies she had listened to her entire life. Something jarred within the normal chorus, however—the heavy bootfalls and the slight jangle of spurs of someone walking behind her. It was those spurs that had pricked her attention, making the noise memorable and out of place.
Ankarette was wrapped in a thin cloak and the morning air was just chilly enough to make her breath come out in a puff. The dress beneath her cloak was begrimed from the birthing process. She needed to wash the dress before she slept so that the bloodstains wouldn’t linger. She turned the corner, heading toward her mother’s small home, and the sound of the spurs followed her.
She had noticed the noise before, but it hadn’t alarmed her. There were plenty of people on the street, and there’d been no reason to believe the footsteps were following her. Now, it was undeniable. The clink of the spurs continued at a steady rate, and the man—for it was a man, the tread was heavy enough—did not attempt to pass her. He was deliberately keeping his pace to match hers.
A spike of unease pierced her chest, but she attempted to ignore it. She was near her home and there were others on the street. No one would accost her in daylight. In fact, most of the people of Yuork recognized the midwife’s daughter and would come to her aid if she called for help.
Ankarette risked a backward glance, just a brief one, and saw that her pursuer was a soldier wearing a badge. The man carried a sword and made no attempt to hide his martial insignia: a lumpy tree with a muzzled bear. The Bear and Ragged Staff. That was the emblem of the Duke of Warrewik, the richest lord in all of Ceredigion. What would one of his soldiers be doing in Yuork?
She quickened her stride, her fatigue from the long night melting away with the threat. Her mind began to work furiously, trying to decide on a strategy. In the horrible years of civil war, she had grown accustomed to dangers and threats. As the kingdom tottered between the control of various nobles, the citizens had borne much grief and heartache. Her own city, Yuork, had played a decisive role in the success of Eredur’s kingship.
And her father’s murder.
The jangle of the spurs didn’t increase with her new pace, and she felt a spurt of relief. Perhaps it had been foolish to assume the worst. She turned the corner of the crowded street and her mother’s dwelling came into sight—a narrow two-story home wedged in between the apothecary shop and Mickle the Barber. Her mother had cleverly chosen to move next to the apothecary to save time in fetching the various herbs used for remedies during childbirth. And Mickle had come because he sought to woo Ankarette’s mother, who was still a handsome woman. His attentions were treated with kindness, but the midwife had no intention of remarrying.
Through the crowd, Ankarette noticed there were horses tied up in front of all three stores and soldiers were milling around. Soldiers who also wore the badge of the Bear and Ragged Staff.
Ankarette’s stomach squeezed in on itself and she stopped in her tracks. Why were Warrewik’s soldiers there? It was possible they had come to see Mickle the Barber, but Ankarette felt a queer sensation that they had come instead for her.
But why? She was twelve years old, a girl of significance to no one apart from the families she helped . . .
There was no time to think. The subtle clink of the spurs came up behind her. The beat of her pulse in her temples was deafening. Her mouth was so dry she was afraid she’d choke. Her eyes were fixed on the guards stationed outside her home. One of them had already noticed her, and she watched as he leaned in and said something to the others. All their heads turned toward her as one.
“It’s all right, lass,” said a voice in a Northern brogue behind her. “Don’t be alarmed. You should feel honored to have gained the notice of such a powerful lord. Your mother awaits you at home and can tell you the news first, as is proper.”
She turned fully around, getting a good look at him for the first time. He had eyes that were gray or green—she wasn’t sure which—a knight’s swagger, and a precocious smile. His thumbs hooked in a broad leather belt that boasted the nicked and scarred sheath of a sword that had clearly seen battle. His knuckles had been battered, there was a scar on his brow, and the little flat part on his nose indicated a healed break. His hair was dark brown, thick around his ears and shorn above his collar. There was a ring on his finger—not a wedding band, for it was on his littlest finger. He wore a chain hauberk beneath his tunic. If she were to guess, the man was five or six years her senior.
“Who are you?” she asked him, staring at his face. He was handsome, despite his scars.
“Sir Thomas,” he answered with a courteous nod. “Do you recognize my badge, lass?”
She nodded, her throat slowly unloosing as she tried to force her thoughts to be calm. “You serve the Duke of Warrewik.”
“Aye, lass. I do. You look weary. You’ve been up all night.”
She noticed his eyes were bleary. He did not look well rested either.
“Go,” he bid her. “My men will wait out here while you speak to your mother. I came to fetch you, lass. I don’t like to keep my master waiting.”
* * *
Ankarette shut the door behind her. Her mother was pacing the small space anxiously, and as soon as the door thumped shut, her gaze snapped to Ankarette.
“Did you see the soldiers?” she asked, striding quickly to the door.
Ankarette trembled. “They are Warrewik’s men. Is this about Father?”
Her mother shook her head no. “It’s about you.”
Ankarette tried to unhook the clasp of her cloak, but her fingers were trembling too much. Her mother, so swift with her fingers, did it for her. “You must change. You can’t go to Dundrennan like this.”
“Dundrennan?” Ankarette gasped.
Her mother looked worried, anxious. “Yes, child. You’ve been summoned by the duke.”
“But why?” She was completely baffled.
Her mother stroked her golden brown hair—a feature they shared—and hugged her close, squeezing her hard enough to hurt. Then she pulled back, shaking her head. “Listen to me, Daughter. Neither of us have any say in this. Not really. Powerful men like the duke must be obeyed.” She bit her lip and shook her head. “Too soon, too soon. You must grow up too soon.” She hugged her again, tears falling down her cheeks. Ankarette started to cry softly, hugging her mother close.
“Tell me, please!”
“Daughter.” Her mother stepped back and knelt, gripping her shoulders. “The duke seeks a companion for his eldest daughter, Isybelle. A friend. He’s chosen you.” She cupped Ankarette’s chin. “Only the Fountain knows why you were chosen. I had hoped to train you more, to prepare you to serve a noble household someday.” She shook her head. “I haven’t had enough time. You’ll be taken from me. And somehow I must bear being alone.”
Ankarette hugged her mother tightly, her mind whirling with the new information. Dundrennan was the chief castle in the North. Part of her thrilled at the sudden opportunity, but she felt guilty for the corresponding excitement. She didn’t wish to leave her mother.
“There is much I still need to learn,” Ankarette said, shaking her head.
“Aye, and you will!” her mother said tearfully. “The duke can afford the best of schools. He is always thinking ahead, that one. He’s a cunning, ambitious man. You remember what Father used to call him?”
That was her mother’s way—she’d never participated in Ankarette’s father’s conversations about politics, but she’d listened and learned.
“The kingmaker,” Ankarette said softly, realizing that she would be part of the duke’s household. The magnitude of it overwhelmed her.
“Aye,” her mother whispered. “The most powerful man in the kingdom. Even more powerful than the king himself. Be obedient to him, Daughter. He rewards those who serve him faithfully.”
“I will, Mother,” Ankarette promised, wiping tears from her cheeks.
The door was jostled open and Sir Thomas barged into the space, his bulk instantly making the room feel smaller. “Daylight is wasting, lass,” he said. “I need to get you to Dundrennan before nightfall. I don’t think you would feel comfortable bedding down for the night in the heath surrounded by soldiers. No one would harm you, lass, so no need to fear that. But I’d rather avoid the temptation altogether since some of these men are rough. Now, kiss your mother’s cheek and we’ll be off.”
Ankarette blinked quickly, realizing she hadn’t yet changed out of her bloody dress. “Can I put on a new dress first?”
He sighed and stamped his boot, jangling the spur. “I don’t see what difference a new one will make,” he complained. “You’ll be wearing one of the duke’s gowns ere you see him. The faster we get there, the better. On our way, then.”
She felt a gentle pinch on her arm. Turning, she saw her mother’s insistent look. Obey the duke . . . obey his men. Ankarette hesitated, unsure of what to do. She had no idea what her future held and how this moment would affect her. Looking back at Sir Thomas, she saw the impatient look in his eyes. He was impatient, yes, but was he trustworthy?
A little ripple came into her heart as she continued to stare at him. A calming feeling. It was there one moment, gone the next, but it was enough to guide her.
Ankarette kissed her mother’s cheek. “The babe was a son. All went well.”
“I’ll check on the mother later today. Good-bye, child. Go with all my love.” She returned Ankarette’s kiss.
Ankarette turned and followed the knight out of the house.
The other soldiers were all mounted now, and the beasts snorted and groaned, anxious to be on their way. One of the horses was in the act of plopping a steaming pile of manure on the street when they emerged, and the soldiers guffawed and booed at the horse’s sense of timing.
Sir Thomas wrinkled his nose. There were just enough horses for the number of soldiers. There wasn’t one for her, and she stood in the street, confused and astonished by this sudden reversal in her fortune. Her companion, exuding confidence, sauntered up to his horse and dug his boot into the stirrup before hoisting himself up onto the back of the broad mount. The horse nickered and stamped and he led it around in a short circle as Ankarette stared up at him. What next?
He reached his hand down to her. “You’ll be riding with me, lass.” He smiled in a comforting way, as if realizing that she was unsure of herself.
She reached up to grip his hand, but he caught her by the forearm instead and, leaning out of the saddle, pulled her up behind him. The horse’s rump was so big it felt like straddling an over-large barrel. She had never ridden horseback before and instantly felt like she was going to fall off.
“Hold on to me tightly, lass,” he said over his shoulder. “It’ll get a bit bouncy, but you’ll get the feeling of it soon enough. Lady Isybelle loves to ride. She enjoys falconry too. You will do things you’ve never done before and bless the Fountain for the good fortune. Now, be of good courage, Angarad.”
She felt strange wrapping her arms around his waist. He was a soldier, as hard as stone. “My name is Ankarette,” she corrected softly, deferentially.
“Aye, but if this were Atabyrion, it would be pronounced the proper way. It’s your family stock. Tryneowy isn’t a name you find in Kingfountain. But whatever suits you. I’ll not object. My name is Sir Thomas, as I told you. Sir Thomas Mortimer.”
The Earl’s Second Son
It was midday when Sir Thomas finally called a halt so they could rest and feed their mounts. Ankarette was so saddle sore she could hardly stand. Her arms felt like stretched-out ropes from clutching the soldier for so long. She hadn’t slackened her grip once, fearful that she would tumble out of the saddle and get trampled by the other riders.
She had never traveled so far before, and the vastness of the land around them was astounding. The mountains were capped in snow and the air was brisk and chill. She stumbled around, wincing from the pain in her legs, and listened to the rough language of the soldiers. One of whom was relieving himself noisily against a tree.
“Oy!” Sir Thomas snapped as he secured a bag of provender to the bridle of their shared steed. “Go in the trees over yonder. You’re making the poor lass blush. Seethin’ idiot, mind the company.”
The soldier, chagrined, obeyed, and the others snorted and chuckled and tamed their rough language. Sir Thomas shook his head in disbelief, then stroked his horse’s neck and coddled it with clucks. “Good old Pent. You’ve ridden well so far. She’s barely a burden, eh? Good beast.” He quickly patted down the horse’s withers, followed by the legs, and then inspected the horseshoes for pebbles and stones. Finding one, he produced his dagger, which earned him a grumbling snort from the horse. “Oh, shush . . . I’ll not prick ya.”
Ankarette needed to relieve herself, but she wouldn’t dare mention it now, after seeing how the other man had been shamed. She certainly didn’t wish to say anything in front of all the soldiers. Her hair had tugged loose from its braid during the windy ride and she debated trying to tame it again. Her dress smelled awful, which embarrassed her, but Sir Thomas had not commented on it.
“Lass,” he said with a grunt, after loosing the stone from his horse’s shoe. “I have some bread and cheese in the saddlebag.” He nodded with his head.
“Any ale, my lord?” one of the soldiers asked.
“Just river water,” he countered. “You’ll not be addling your wits on this journey. But I’ll buy you each a flagon if we make good time.”
There was a chorus of assent. The soldiers were all expert animal handlers and Ankarette watched them care for their horses first before meeting their own needs. She went to the saddlebag and opened it. On top was a letter, sealed with red wax, and it tumbled out when she tried to reach for the loaf. Guiltily, she reached down to snatch it and put it back, but Sir Thomas seized it first. Their hands touched, and she flinched and drew back, frightened.
“Don’t be skittish,” he said with a chuckle. “You have nothing to fear from any of us, lass. The duke of the North is a fair master and doesn’t punish his underlings for trifles. You can judge a man by the way he treats those beneath him.” He tapped his nose with the folded letter. “Ask any servant in Dundrennan. Now, where is that loaf? My stomach is complaining.”
She reached into the saddlebag, pulled out the loaf, and handed it to him. He took it and wrenched it in half with a quick motion. She saw he was about to offer the larger portion to her, but she reached for the smaller. “I’m not that hungry, but thank you.”
He shrugged and took a big mouthful, walking around the horse once again and continuing his inspection. “Old Pent isn’t the fastest or the meanest, but he’s seen me through my troubles well enough. A gift from my father, may the Fountain bless him.”
“Your father,” Ankarette said, teasing a bit of bread loose with her fingers. “The Earl of Sur?”
“Aye, he was the Earl of Sur.” He checked the girth straps next. “He died at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross.”
Ankarette flinched, biting her lip. “I’m . . . I’m sorry.” She had also lost her father after that battle, just six months previously. Her father had advocated for young Eredur’s right to be their king—and he’d died for it.
The knight shrugged, his countenance altering slightly, but his tone remained easygoing. “Many died at that battle. He fought bravely; that’s what matters. My brother was made earl to take his place, and I was knighted and sent to serve the duke of the North. There are worse posts, I can assure you. Keep walking around while you eat, lass. Else your legs will freeze up and you won’t be able to move for days. You will be an expert rider in a fortnight.” He patted old Pent one more time and chewed on his bread.
Ankarette took his advice and kept walking, looking covertly at the other soldiers, who were mumbling amongst themselves.
“My lord!” one of them called. Another tried to shush him, but the man shoved the other fellow back. “Is it true the mad king wears his wife’s dresses?” Some snickers and guffaws broke out at the question, and she saw that Sir Thomas’s eyes turned as gray as steel. His face hardened with anger at the impertinence. She watched him chew on a piece of bread, slowly, deliberately, calming himself down.
“No, Bradford,” he said at last, his kindly smile belying the cooling anger in his eyes. “You can’t believe all the rumors you hear, man.”
“Yates was the one that said it,” the man chuffed.
“Yates believes that pigs can fly,” Sir Thomas quipped. “Speak no ill of the mad king. Let him alone.”
Interesting . . . he had fought for King Eredur, but he was not without sympathy for the other side. Ankarette listened to their talk and nibbled on the bread the knight had given her. Since her father’s death, there hadn’t been anyone to explain the politics to her anymore. It occurred to her that she was traveling with an earl’s son to a duke’s castle. Suddenly, she wasn’t hungry for the bread, but for information.
Sir Thomas paced around with restless energy, examining the crooked roots of the nearby trees, checking the saddlebags again. She watched him slip the note back into the bag before fetching the cheese. With his dagger, which he wiped quickly on his leg, he sliced it in half evenly and gave her a portion.
“Thank you,” she said as she took it, feeling self-conscious.
“You’ve been ill fed in Yuork,” he said with a half smile. “You’re nothing but sticks and skin, lass. There is plenty to eat in the duke’s household. Mind his butler, Berwick. He has a nasty temper when he’s feeling the gout.”
“What can you tell me about Lady Isybelle?” Ankarette asked, feeling shy, but determined to overcome it.
Sir Thomas tore off a hunk of bread with his teeth and walked around the road, kicking some dry grass. “She has a pleasant disposition. All the virtues that a nobleman’s daughter should possess.” He frowned. “She has an . . . instinct to please, you could say.”
Though it seemed there was more he was not saying, she didn’t press.
Sir Thomas whistled through his teeth—a loud, surprisingly harsh sound that roused the other soldiers. “Mount up. We don’t want to arrive at Dundrennan in the dark.” His command brought the other soldiers to their feet with a bit of grumbling.
Turning back to Ankarette, the knight gave her an arch look. “The king has secured our borders from threats these last two years. He’s managed to keep his enemy confined in a powerless kingdom that can only bark at us but not bite. Do you know the game of Wizr? Can you play?”
“M-my father taught me,” she stuttered, feeling her cheeks flush.
“There is still a queen piece on the board,” he said, his voice serious. “Even though the game has ended, she’s still playing. The former queen has a son, you see. Why, he’s only a little younger than you, lass. The mother and her cub are skulking in Occitania presently, looking for a way to rejoin her husband in Edonburick. Lewis claims they are prisoners, so as not to default on the treaty he signed with Eredur.” He clucked his tongue. “So the game isn’t over yet after all. What does our king need? A queen. And who has he commissioned to secure one for him? Your new master, Duke Warrewik.”
There was some hidden knowledge behind his words. Some secret that he didn’t plan to share.
Ankarette wanted to know what it was.
* * *
Shadows had begun to shroud them by the time they reached the mountain valley where Dundrennan lay. Sir Thomas reined in and turned the horse so that Ankarette faced the breathtaking view. The giant stone cliffs were dotted with bright splotches of snow that looked purple in the fading light, and the woods beneath them bristled with ancient pines. She could see the castle nestled in the valley and the town gathered without it, the small cottages as bright as a swarm of fireflies. An enormous waterfall tumbled from the cliffs behind the castle, and even from a distance, she could hear the distant rumble of it, which awakened a strange, giddy murmuring in her heart. She’d never seen anything quite so splendid.
“It’s quite a view, lass,” Sir Thomas said. “We’ll be down there ere long. Hold on tighter. The road can be bumpy.”
She’d relaxed her death grip, she realized, and pressed her palms against his muscular chest. Cheeks flushed, she gripped her wrists again, joints aching, as the company rode down into the valley. The chill air was sweetened with the fragrant scent of the pines, but the glorious view became dark as the sun disappeared. It would be a while yet before the moon made its presence known, and she found her cheek bumping on the knight’s shoulder blades as she blinked and tried, unsuccessfully, to stave off sleep.
When Ankarette awoke, they were already inside the castle bailey. Bright torches flared against her tender eyes and she felt herself falling from the saddle. In a panic, she gripped Sir Thomas’s cloak.
“It’s all right, lass,” he said. “Let go. They’ve got you.”
She realized that some of the grooms had been trying to pull her down from the saddle. Disoriented, she hearkened to his voice and released her white-knuckled grip. Soon she was on her feet, swaying as the soldiers—Sir Thomas, included—dismounted around her. Dogs from the interior of the castle snuffled around her shoes and skirts.
“Go on, get away,” Sir Thomas said, gripping her arm with one hand and waving the dogs away with the other. He marched her to the massive doors of the fortress and she craned her neck to look at the tower that seemed high enough to conquer the sky. She could see a few stars glimmering amidst the haze of chimney smoke. Her legs felt like they belonged to a puppet with broken strings, but she forced herself to walk against the pain, digging her nails into her palms.
A man stood in the open doorway of the castle. He was an older fellow with silver in his hair and a goatee. He wore the badge of the Bear and Ragged Staff as well and looked stern and somber, almost like the cliffs outside the castle. Was this the duke?
“Here she is, Lord Horwath,” Sir Thomas said. “Lady Isybelle’s maid.”
“You’re late,” the man responded in a stiff brogue. “Did you drag her here behind the horse? Look at all that blood.”
Sir Thomas scowled. “She needs a bath and a lady’s gown. This one’s fit to be burned. Can you see to it? I’ve a message for the duke.”
Horwath frowned. “The duke wanted to see her right away. He must away to Occitania tomorrow.”
Not like this, Ankarette thought in a panic.
Sir Thomas uttered a curse. “Already? Did an answer come from King Lewis’s court?”
“How should I know?” Horwath answered. “I’m not Espion like you.”
“Shut it!” Sir Thomas said angrily, glaring at the older man. Ankarette had no idea what the word meant—Espion—but the knight was obviously furious if he would speak thus to an earl. His cheek twitched and she could see he wished to give Lord Horwath another rebuke.
Instead, Sir Thomas ground his jaw, waited a moment, and then turned to Ankarette. “You were not supposed to hear that part, lass,” he said with seething patience. “I beg you to keep that knowledge to yourself.”
She blinked up at him. “I will,” she said sincerely, looking into his steely eyes. She’d keep his secret, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t try to find out what it meant.
Her promise mollified him. “Good, lass. My lord, the lass was up all night helping with the birthing of a babe and then in the saddle all day from Yuork. That’s why she is as you see her. I promised her a change in gowns when we got here. Can you see that she is brought to the duke when she is suitable?”
“Aye, lad,” the earl said with a grunt. “My daughter will help her get ready.”
“Thank you,” Sir Thomas said, suddenly agitated. “How is . . . never mind. It seems I may be going to Occitania with the duke. Have a care with the lass, my lord.” He turned to Ankarette and bowed stiffly.
But as he straightened and she curtsied, she saw a flash in his eyes. They looked very green in that moment, in the wavering light from the wall torches. “You notice things. People.” He paused, hesitating. “That will serve you well here. Watch and learn, Angarad Tryneowy.”
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