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BOOK: Juliana Garnett
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He drew a deep breath, said merely, “My lady,” and turned on his heel.

Long strides took him to his horse, and he mounted while his men scrambled hastily to their steeds. In a loud clatter of iron-shod hooves on stone, they left Ravenshed Manor, passing Lady Neville where she still stood motionless and wide-eyed in the courtyard.

Once through the arched gate and over the wooden bridge that stretched across a narrow moat, he turned his mount toward Nottingham with grim resignation. He had come to chasten, and returned chastened. It was a moment he did not care to repeat.

8
 

When they reached the wider road of the King’s Great Way, they settled into a steady pace that would quickly traverse the near twelve miles to Nottingham. For a time they rode in silence, broken only by the muffled smack of hooves on still-wet ground.

Guy nudged his bay mount into a less jarring gait that brought him alongside Tré’s huge black. “Ravenshed is a fine manor. Prosperous, I would think.”

A negligent shrug and disinterested reply: “True. The tariffs are ample.”

Gnawed by curiosity, Guy cast about for another topic that might draw an explanation of the day’s work. “There was no sign of outlaws. We searched so well, I was near done in by a furious rooster and an irate sow. Even poked haycocks with our swords, to no avail. What did you learn from the lady?”

“I did not go there to learn anything from her. It was a warning.”

Guy fell silent again. He waited until they had drawn ahead of the others to say, “Can you be certain it was Lady Neville who held you at arrow point? She does not look to have strength to draw a hundred-weight, though I do not doubt she has the mettle.”

“The lady,” said Tré with a quirk of his mouth, “can be deceptive.” He paused. “Perhaps a sixty-weight bow would be more suited to her.”

Guy laughed softly. It was difficult to envision the elegant lady drawing a bow of any kind. A good bowman drew a hundred-weight easily, but only after years of practice. Could a slender woman manage it?

But he said none of that. It would avail him nothing but an ironic arch of brow or a caustic comment, and he could do without both. It was a pleasant day, with rare sunshine pushing back the gray that usually washed the English skies. He would have preferred a leisurely perusal of female charms to a fruitless ride.

Yet, he had seen Tré Devaux kiss Lady Neville’s hand, and that was worth something. If he pondered for hours, he would not be able to recall the last time he had seen the Baron of Brayeton be so politic as to kiss a lady’s hand. Any lady’s hand. It was not a gesture that came easily to Devaux.

Most of his dealings with women were conducted with impatience or disdain or both; Tré took a woman when he needed one, but it was casual. Gone were laughter and any hint of softness, melded now into a nature that took necessary risks with his life—and none with his emotions. It was hard to equate the man he had known with the man he knew now: a man who would not name his horse or dog because he might lose them. Tré Devaux closed himself in—and everyone else out.

They paused near Papplewick when one of the soldiers complained that his horse was lame, halting by a decent-size cottage planted by the roadside. A small grove of trees beckoned with shade and respite. While a rock was dislodged from an iron-shod hoof, others dismounted to dip a ladle into a bucket of water. Beyond the simple dwelling, cattle grazed or chewed the cud in a broad field; a dog barked lazily for a moment, then wandered away in disappointment when they paid it no attention.

The yeoman owner of the house came out to greet them respectfully, if a bit nervously.

“I have fresh milk, my lord sheriff,” he offered in Saxon English, “if you are so inclined.”

While Tré declined, Guy accepted eagerly and followed the farmer to a small shed. Chickens pecked the dirt clean of insects, clucking irritation when they were interrupted by the intruders. A young maid with a grain pan in her arms stood in barefoot silence among the fowl, staring at the Normans with as much awe as fright.

It was a household scene similar to that at Lady Neville’s, but on a smaller scale. No sprawling demesne with moat and walls, but a small parcel with thatch-roofed huts strung in a haphazard circle like broken paternoster beads.

Guy took his time, sipping sweet milk from a wooden cup, idly reflecting on the country charms of the blushing maid with flaxen curls and a fresh face. A soft breeze blew, carrying a blend of strong scents on the currents: cattle, grass, sweetly cloying blossoms scattered on apple branches. Smoke from the house lent a sharper tang to the air.

Childish voices broke into his reverie, and he glanced up.

Two young boys played nearby, clad in rough tunics and smeared dirt, whacking at each other with sticks obviously meant to be swords. Guy smiled. He recalled doing the same when he was young, before he reached seven and was sent to foster in the same castle where Tré Devaux had been sent. It could have been they, twenty-five years before, when life had still been new and England enjoying relative peace under Henry II.

“No,” one of the lads was complaining, “I always have to be Norman! ’Tis my turn to—”

“Ye do not know the bow well enough, Wat,” the other interrupted. He held up a small, crude bow and slender sticks that Guy supposed were meant as arrows. “Ye have to be the best to be Robin Hood.”

“But I weary of being the sheriff!” Truculent, hands on hips and wooden sword still clutched in his fist, the lad stuck out his jaw. “Robin always slays him. I want to be Robin Hood this time. Robin is noble and brave, the most famous outlaw ever. All know the Sheriff of Nottingham is treacherous, no braver than a mouse.…”

In tandem, the maid and her father turned to the boys, both voices urgently bidding them quiet. The lads glanced up,
round faces reflecting their sudden fear when they saw Guy. The boys dropped their wooden swords. Guy looked around, though he knew who was behind him.

“I will have a cup of milk, yeoman,” Tré said calmly. When it was held out to him with a trembling hand that spilled creamy white over fingers, he lifted a brow. “Your sons play at interesting games.”

“My lord sheriff … they are children who know no better than to repeat such false tales.”

“So it seems. I stand here very much alive.”

“Before God, my lord sheriff, it was not you they meant but a former sheriff. ’Twas years ago, when King John was still prince … only a legend, after all. A tale—”

“A tale of a famous outlaw who slays the sheriff?”

Tré angled a brow skeptically; Guy recognized the glint in his eyes.

“Famous, yet I have never heard of him. Unless—would he be a large man, taller than any other? Broad of chest and light of hair, and handy with a quarterstaff?”

“Nay, my lord sheriff, that would be Little John. He is—or was—one of Robin’s men. But only tales, my lord. Do not blame my lads for being children. They play, ’tis all, a simple game.”

Tré sipped milk from the cup. “A simple game for children, yes, but there are those who would play it in a more dangerous fashion. A coin for your milk, yeoman.”

A shaky hand accepted the coin, but a look of strain marked the creased face that watched them turn to leave. Guy felt it, saw fear in the maid’s eyes as well, and was bemused.

“A child’s game,” he said to Tré as they returned to the horses, “What manner of game boasts an outlaw victor over a sheriff?”

Tré turned to one of the guards. “Oliver, have you heard of an outlaw named Robin Hood? Or one called Little John?”

George Oliver, captain of the guard, nodded. “Aye, my lord, that I have. Heard of both of them, though it has been a while since any have seen Robin Hood. Some say he is dead, and others—”

“Others say what?” Tré prompted when Oliver fell abruptly silent.

“Others,” Oliver finished, “say that he is only biding his time until it is right to return.”

“Return … as an outlaw?”

“My lord, it is a tale. I heard it as a youth, though I never saw Robin Hood, nor even Little John.” He paused. Doubt shadowed the honest face and intelligent eyes. “I will say that if ever I was to mark a man as Little John, it would be the giant we took prisoner at the Cockpen Oak.”

When they were mounted, Oliver rode close again. “My lord, it came to me that the one to ask would be Lady Neville.”

“Lady Neville?”

“Aye, my lord sheriff. She would know the truth.”

“What
truths
would those be if these are just tales for the credulous, Captain Oliver?”

Guy recognized conflict in Oliver’s face before he said bluntly, “It was not mere tales that slew Guy of Gisbourne, and Hugh Bardulf, who was then high sheriff, my lord. ’Twas fifteen years ago or more, but I can remember other tales as well. Lady Neville knows the truth.”

“Why would Lady Neville know the truth?”

“She is Robin Hood’s niece.”

Ominous silence descended; opaque eyes regarded Oliver impassively. “Then I shall ask the truth of her.”

Captain Oliver nodded and turned his mount back to ride with the guard. A muscle leaped in Tré’s jaw, betraying tension. Guy studied him cautiously.

“The lady may know the truth, but will she tell us?”

“She will tell it.” Tré nudged his steed to a faster pace; hooves sent soft dirt spraying behind him in a wide arc. “She dare not refuse me.”

As they neared Nottingham, they passed several off-duty soldiers gathered in Rock Yard at the foot of the castle rock, drinking new March ale from the brewhouse and tossing dice. Most wore the livery of the high sheriff, but sprinkled among them were the scarlet and yellow surcoats of Gaudet’s livery. This was neutral ground; though the land belonged to the castle, land rights belonged to the Priory of Lenton.

Out of habit, Guy swept an assessing glance over those gathered in front of the inn built into the rock. A monk in the
company of one of Gaudet’s men exited beneath the sign proclaiming it to be The Pilgrim. Wary resentment flashed at the mounted Normans; hardly a surprise coming from a Saxon, or from the monk, in light of the king’s persecution of the church.

When they had scrabbled up the steep hill that led to the castle and passed through the gatehouse, Guy broke the long silence. “Do you mean to send for the Lady Neville?”

“I mean to send her a message.” An oblique glance warned of listening ears, and Guy lapsed into silence.

They dismounted in the middle bailey as horseboys came running for their mounts. Tumult reigned briefly, left behind as they entered Tré’s quarters. The heavy door shut out light and noise, enclosing them in welcome gloom lit by candles.

Guy poured wine for both of them, held out a cup to Tré. “What message will you send the lady?”

“A message she cannot misinterpret.” He took the cup, drank, lowered it to say softly, “She will tell me all I want to know about her uncle.”

9
 

A ragged half-moon hung low in the darkening sky, shedding a hazy glow over the fields. Insects hummed; the sleepy cooing of a turtledove drifted uphill from a hedgerow thick with new growth. An erratic breeze wafted the sweet, heady scent of May trees up the grassy slope to curl around the garden bench where Jane sat with abandoned needlework in her lap.

Nottingham lay in the distance, castle lights eclipsed now by summer leaves that hid the brooding fortress. On a clear night in winter, it was easily visible from Ravenshed Manor. A chief advantage of the manor was its position on a hill; it was high enough to give ample warning of riders approaching along the road. At night, manor torches promised safety behind the stone walls.

But safety was a rare commodity of late. Her hands tightened on the half-mended garment in her lap; she drew in a heavy breath that tasted of wood smoke and night air. In the week since Devaux had come to Ravenshed, the pursuit of the escaped outlaws had escalated.

No word from them since the Cockpen Oak.… Are they well and safe?

It was increasingly difficult not to fret for the fate of Little
John. For Will Scarlett and the others, blending in would be easy; for a man of John Lyttle’s size, it would be near impossible. She bitterly regretted having asked his aid. How much better it would have been if she had just quietly given coin for the weapons Will Scarlett needed, and not involved a man long removed from dissension.

BOOK: Juliana Garnett
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