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A tidbit of 16th-century scandal centered in the court of James IV of Scotland, here tricked out handily in an amusing approximation of Tudorian English. This is a tale of lusty love, jealousy, and gruesome murder that swings from ribald to reeking gore without a droop in the pitch. In 1506, maid Elizabeth Manners, 14, brought from England by Queen Margaret, wife of James IV, is a dowryless orphan, but her charms have caught the hitherto sluggish eye of Norman Hunter of Polmood, the King's chief forester, a man of great courage and vast physique, or, as seen by Elizabeth, a ""hairy old monster with a deep gruffly voice."" The King, a canny monarch with a virtuoso's vocabulary to hail or damn (""What a niftering plowter of polecat shite!""), gives Polmood the go-ahead, contingent on the suitor's kindly regard for maidenly feelings. The maiden's feelings are centered on the thrill of a fine wedding and property. The route to the wedding is thorny, however, marked by a grunting series of muscular contests between Polmood and Sir John Carmichael, who's determined to have Elizabeth for his own. But Carmichael will be exiled after a night of revelry, drunken sword swings, to-ing and fro-ing among bedchambers, and every male, including the King, sozzled to the ears. Elizabeth is still virginal after the wedding (Polmood had promised King James that he'd ""wait""). But misunderstandings grow and Polmood's uneasiness blooms into full flower when he discovers, thanks to the King's lout of a brother, Alexander, that Polmood's delightful gardener is none other than Carmichael in disguise. There's a royal visit, during which the King elevates a humble shepherd (the future poet William Moray) after he had pretended to send him to the gallows (ho-ho); and there's that fateful hunting excursion--after which Elizabeth is a widow and three headless corpses are found. The widow Elizabeth, in days to come, is attended by ogling Alexander and a reluctant Moray (who's not that reluctant to expiate Polmood's sin of omission). And stirring about the house--a ""stinking"" friar and a very real ghost. It all ends with a garden blood-bath, a rescue and a king's pardon. Still, a first novel that's a riveting tale centuries later-raucous, gusty and clever in the 16th-century vein.

Pub Date: May 19th, 1986
Publisher: St. Martin's