Taming the Thorn of Blackwell – Fanny Finch

Joshua stretched his back as he climbed out of the coach. The cushioned seat had seemed so comfortable when he first sat on it, hours previously, but now it felt hard like stone and he was relieved to be on his feet. Behind him, the horses whinnied and snorted, steam rising from their flanks as they were untethered and walked cool by the footman. And in front of him, there was the warmth and comfort he had been craving, the windows lit orange from firelight and candles, the glass misted with condensation. “At last,” he muttered to himself, as he pushed open the heavy oak door. The noise in the tavern hit him first, followed quickly by the blast of heat from the fire roaring in the grate. Someone played piano in the far corner, although Joshua couldn’t see them through the crowd, and the melody was accompanied by the laughter of many. Joshua stood by the door for a moment, breathing in the atmosphere and the earthy scent of wood smoke, sweat, and alcohol. This was where he wanted to be, amongst men of good cheer where he could rest happily awhile. With a satisfied smile, he strode to the bar. “A pint of your finest ale, please,” he said with a booming smile. “Coming right up, m’lord,” the innkeeper said as he flipped a glass from the shelf and slid it under the tap with practiced ease. “Busy tonight,” Joshua said. “Aye.” The innkeeper pulled on the heavy handle, slugs of ale foaming and filling the glass.

“Always like this at night-time. The men want a little merriment after a hard day’s work. Don’t think I’ve seen you around here afore.” “Traveling through,” Joshua replied with a smile. “Although not much further to go, thank the Lord. I’ve been on the road for far too long thanks to business, and I shall be glad to return to my own bed.” The innkeeper put the drink on the bar, a trickle of ale running down the side of the glass, and Joshua licked his lips in anticipation. Admittedly, it was not the fine wine or brandy he was used to, but he had a thirst that had followed him for the last twenty miles, and besides, ale fit the circumstance. “Enjoy, m’lord.” Joshua nodded his thanks, turned to lean against the bar, and took a long, satisfying gulp.

There was a pleasant mix of people, from noblemen to servants, and it was this that made Joshua like the place so much. It felt welcoming, diverse. “What’s wrong with him?” Joshua asked the innkeeper over his shoulder, nodding to a young nobleman in the corner. His face had turned the color of alabaster and his movements were as stiff as stone, too. He was staring at the floor, eyes wide, and his chin juddering as though he had seen a ghost. “Young William?” The innkeeper chuckled. He rested one arm over the beer taps and leant closer to Joshua’s ear. “He’s just had a run-in with the Thorn of Blackwell. Right tongue-lashing, he had.” “Harsher than a real-life whip, that’s for sure,” the gentleman standing next to Joshua said.

“Comes to us all, in the end.” “What does?” Joshua turned to the man in question, curious at his words. “A lashing from the green-eyed witch, of course. Don’t tell me you’ve escaped it thus far?” “Not from these parts, then, are you?” a third man asked, twisting in his seat to look at Joshua. Joshua couldn’t stop himself from chortling. “She can’t be that bad, can she?” “You don’t know the half of it,” the innkeeper said. “Go on, Fudge, tell ‘im what happened to you.” The man beside Joshua—Fudge, apparently—put his glass down on the bar with aplomb and rubbed his hands together, reveling in his chance to tell his tale. “She gave me such a lashing that she might as well put stripes across my back,” he said—with glee, now that the embarrassment had long faded. “All I did was brush past her.

We were at a ball, and there were a lot of people. There wasn’t enough room to pass with space. My arm touched hers and, well, let me tell you, she left me quivering in my boots.” Joshua snorted with laughter. “You sure you weren’t just being a coward?” “No way,” Fudge said, shaking his head firmly. “The things she said to me would have any man cowering like a good ‘un.” “Who exactly is she?” Joshua asked, intrigued now. “Duchess of Blackwell,” said Reginald—which, it appeared, was the name of the man in the seat in front of them. “Oh.” Joshua furrowed his brow as he tried to remember where he had heard that name before.

He knew it, he was sure of it. “I believe… I may have attended her wedding—on some business pretext of course. We didn’t talk, really, but she certainly didn’t seem like some shrew.” “Aye,” the innkeeper said, raising his eyebrows. “That was before.” “Before?” “Before she was widowed. Lovely lass before then, but now… Well, I’d stay well clear if I were you.” “Husband died from a lashing, no doubt,” Fudge said, and the three broke into cackling laughter. “Seriously, though,” Reginald continued. “She’s got a young son—five or six or some such age —and she’s holding the fort until he comes of age.

” “You mean, she’s…” “Yes,” Fudge said, nodding. “That’s exactly what he means. Running the Duchy like a man. Wonders will never cease.” Joshua was shocked, but undeniably impressed. He had no doubt that she would experience difficulties, doing what she was trying to do. No wonder she had developed such a sharp tongue. “A friend of mine—handsome chap—he tried to court her, once,” Reginald said. “Not long after the Duke died.” “Bet she loved that,” the innkeeper said, sniggering as he did so.

“He was always such a confident lad,” Reg said, his wistful tone matching the manner in which he gazed at the ceiling. “So much potential, so much hope.” “What happened?” Joshua asked. “She left him a quivering wreck,” Reg said, turning to look Joshua dead in the eyes. “Hasn’t dared court a woman since. She all but stripped him bare and spanked him in front of a room full of people. Was the talk of the town for weeks afterwards.” “And young William, over there,” Joshua said, once again nodding in the lad’s direction. “What did he do to end up in such a state?” “The worst of them all,” Fudge said, widening his eyes. “Poor thing.

Was an accident, really,” the innkeeper continued. “But it was enough for her to set the snakes upon him.” “She was walking by,” Reg explained. “And William was telling this anecdote to his friend— don’t know what it was about, but it was very animated. And just as she passed him, he knocked his glass.” “Went flying, it did,” the innkeeper said. “All over her gown,” Fudge added. “Everything stopped,” Reg said. “And I mean everything. We all went silent, and poor William looked horrified.

Think he was close to passing out.” “She can’t possibly be that bad,” Joshua repeated, unable to quash his laughter. “You’ve all built her up to be this dragon, but I’m sure she’s quite soft underneath and this is just your imaginations running wild. She’s a lady, after all, isn’t she?” Fudge visibly shivered. “Not sure lady is the right word to describe her. Witch, maybe.” “Harpy,” the innkeeper offered. “Harridan,” Reg said. “Well, well,” Joshua said, a half-smile growing up one side of his face. He cradled his now almost depleted pint against his chest and looked into the distance.

“I shall look forward to meeting her.” And he did. As much as he didn’t want a lashing, this lady intrigued him. The thought of drawing her out of herself… well, it set his stomach aflutter with curiosity and perhaps a touch of excitement. “Don’t look forward to it,” Reginal said. “Really, believe me; don’t.” “You may as well wish to be six feet under,” Fudge added. “Or worse,” the innkeeper said, nodding over to William. “I don’t know,” Joshua said with a shrug. “I kind of like a challenge.


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