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Authors: The Baron

Juliana Garnett (27 page)

BOOK: Juliana Garnett
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Anger ignited, pounded against his temples. He swore softly. Giles did not move. Tré glanced at the lists, already filling with the first combatants. “Send Oliver to me. Find the guard who saw them leave.”

Too late … the sun is long up.

When Oliver came, he brought the guard, who confirmed that the lady Jane had quit the castle with her retinue.

“Go after them, Oliver.” He sat in a high-backed chair under the gallery canopy, hands spread on his knees, and chafed at the duty that bound him to stay there.

Oliver nodded. “They travel with a cart, my lord. We should overtake them swiftly.”

“See that you do. Nothing is to interfere with our other arrangements.”

Understanding shone in the captain’s eyes; he was capable, efficient, staunch. “I will do what must be done.”

“Keep the lady secure.”

Oliver bowed his head. “That is my first priority.”

The captain left the gallery with a clink of sword and mail. Tré propped his elbow on the arm of his chair, appearing indolent. More spectators were filling the wood galleries; laughter rose, silk-clad ladies found seats. Gaudet sat in scarlet solitude; watchful.

A loud cry went up; Tré forced his attention to the lists. Inexperienced knights fought first; bloodshed was frequent, clumsy attempts to batter opponents with lances more common than skillful passes. Impatience surged, tamped down by grim determination. He could not sit there the entire day. Yet to leave would be to invite Gaudet to follow. If Jane’s departure was not yet discovered, Oliver would have a better chance to reach her first.

Every move was suspect, every defense inadequate. He chafed, shoved his fist under his jaw, kept his gaze on the field. Lord Creighton arrived, trailed by Gilbert of Oxton. Pleasantries were exchanged. More barons began to fill the galleries. Tension knotted Tré’s muscles and his belly. This was not a game he played well; he preferred action to idle waiting. The palm of his hand itched to hold a sword.
I envy Guy his combat.

At last the first wave of combatants relinquished the field. Impartial judges were stationed at intervals along the grassy swale already littered with the flotsam of the preceding contest. Bits of splintered lances and scraps of bloodied silk testified to bruising encounters as varlets scurried to remove the debris.

Caparisoned destriers pranced down the field; silks and tassels gleamed richly under the benevolent eye of the sun. Riders garbed in mail and heraldic colors held their lances high. The procession was met with thunderous acclaim by the crowds behind the guarded barricades; these were the champions they had come to watch risk all for the prizes.

The ceremonial procession of knights rode along the decorated stands before approaching the silk-draped gallery with solemn ceremony; sunlight glinted on helms and shields.

Garbed in green and gold—the
vert
and
or
of his family colors—Guy drew his destrier to a halt before the gallery. A ripple of excitement ran through the ranks of ladies seated there as he held out the blunted end of his lance. His face was expressionless beneath the curved flange of his helmet, the protective visor lifted. The point of his lance did not waver as he waited.

It was no surprise when the lady tied a length of silk to the lance’s end, accompanied by soft squeals of delight from her companions. Few refused; Tré had never known a lady to reject a request for her favor in a tourney.

He raised a brow at Guy’s choice. Lady Dunham fumbled with the knot of silk, a wisp of scarlet. No husband was in sight; but Walter of Gedling was rarely near.

Defiantly, Lady Dunham finished tying the silk with a flourish. Guy saluted her with the silk-tipped lance, then backed his steed up to rejoin the procession.

Knights returned to the niches where squires waited to properly arm them for the contests. Pennons fluttered above silk pavilions; shields bore painted bars, chevrons, and fesses in heraldic colors of
azure, gules, vert
; a rainbow. Devices pranced or grinned on curved metal and crested helmets; on some, cadency marks designated order of birth.

Guy de Beaufort’s shield bore a star beneath the gold-painted chevron on a field of green, the mark of a third son. No crest adorned his helmet, too likely to snare the edge of lance or sword; armor and accoutrements were kept to a minimum, lethal but not elaborate.

A breeze blew, warmer now: Ladies covered their noses
with scented squares of cloth to block the pungent scent from butchers’ stalls and moat. Bright sunlight announced the noon hour. Beside him, Lord Creighton tilted a pewter goblet; light flashed on a ruby ring.

“A decent group of champions, my lord sheriff.” The Saxon baron smiled, gestured to the field. “ ’Tis said your man has won tourneys the length and breadth of England.”

“Yea. Beaufort is formidable.”

“Do you care to place a private wager on his abilities against Sir Alfric, the Saxon champion?”

Tré gave him a cool glance, lifted his brow, allowed one side of his mouth to curl up. “I am not in the habit of wagering against Saxons. I find it unpredictable at best, dangerous at the worst.”

Pleased, Creighton smacked a hand against his knee, laughed. “Yea, you are more wise than some, my lord sheriff. It is folly to underestimate an opponent, be he peasant or king.”

“Or Norman.” Tré smiled when Lord Oxton’s head jerked around, saw resentment in blue eyes before he looked away.

Seated on Creighton’s other side, Gilbert of Oxton wore a surly countenance; Tré remembered his attempt to silence Jane near four months ago, hot chagrin in the baron’s face at her tart reply. Enmity hid behind his veiled eyes, but not for the lady. Rumors flew swiftly in a crowded castle; word would fly of a hated sheriff’s interest in Hugh de Neville’s widow. Servants were a most efficient form of communication, able to see much, and to guess at what they didn’t see.

Cheers rose from behind the barricades; a resounding crack of lances and shields came from the field.

He turned his attention to the tourney, restless, impatient to have it over. Still in the recess at one end of the field, Guy waited, mailed gauntlets clenched in a fist, helm tucked under his arm. It would be hot beneath the steel, even with cloth mantling meant to prevent sunstroke in the Holy Land; unnecessary here. Sweat beaded on Guy’s forehead and temples, dampened blond hair to a muddy brown. He wiped the sweat away with a cloth given him by his squire, grimaced, looked up, and chanced to meet Tré’s gaze.

A grin flashed briefly, acknowledgment and assurance. Guy
intended to defeat Sir Alfric and recoup Norman pride, battered lately by outlaws and royal domination. Redemption would taste sweet—if it was served.

Despite careful plans, precautions taken, a premonition nagged. Jane’s unexpected flight from Nottingham bespoke trouble. He felt it, breathed it, dreaded it. All he could do was wait.

21
 

The King’s Great Way cut through the ancient trees of Sherwood Forest, roughly following the banks of the River Leen as it scythed northward around Nottingham Castle. Huge boughs the span of a man’s waist thrust over the road to lock leafy branches with other trees, forming a vaulted ceiling of green. Sound was muffled, hoofbeats and cart wheels cushioned by forest debris and mud.

“Milady.…”

Jane heard strain in the summons, tugged at her palfrey’s reins to glance back at the cart wobbling on the rutted tracks. Dena’s face was pale; she clung to the side of the cart with both hands, mouth open and gasping for air.

Alarmed, Jane signaled a halt. Fiskin dutifully drew back on the long leather reins; the rouncy stopped, blew a wet stream of relief from flared nostrils. Tied to the cart’s tail, a sumpter loaded with the smaller trunks taken to Nottingham blew an answer.

Wailing, Enid fluttered about her mother like a wounded bird.

“Be quiet,” Jane said sharply, and the girl subsided to low moans.

“Dena, what ails you?” Jane leaned from her palfrey to
touch the older woman’s sweat-dewed brow. Her skin was clammy to the touch, as cold as a cheese. Gently: “Ah, I should not have hurried you so this morn. Fiskin, aid me in getting her down from the cart.”

Between them, they managed to hand down Dena’s bulky form and ease her to the verge to rest atop a tussock of long grass. Jane loosened the linen wimple Dena wore while Enid bunched a mantle under her mother’s head and gave her a sip of water.

“Pray, forgive me, m’lady,” Dena got out. Gray lips quivered; her color was that of cold ashes.

Jane smiled, pressed a palm against her old nurse’s cheek. “There is nothing to forgive, Dena. Do not fret. We are here with you.”

Outwardly calm and reassuring, Jane acknowledged a pang of uneasiness. With Lord Creighton still at the castle, they were alone on the road, easy prey for outlaws drawn to Nottingham by the lure of the fair and tourney. A cart and baggage guarded only by servants were a great temptation.

“Milady … prithee, allow me to rest but a moment and we shall go on.”

“Hush now, Dena. Rest.” She smoothed hair back from the pallid brow, noted many gray strands among the dark ones. When had she aged so greatly? It seemed only the day before that Dena had been a young mother with broad hips and legs as sturdy as barrel staves; now she looked so frail and old, with new lines in her familiar face, and fleshy jowls that sagged beneath her wimple. She touched Dena’s brow. “I shall send Fiskin for aid.”

Gnarled fingers curled into the loose wool of her mantle and clung. “Nay, m’lady, do not. This shall soon pass, as it has before.”

“Yea, it will pass, but you should be eased and I have no herbs with me.”

Gently, she disentangled the old woman’s fingers and rose to her feet. When summoned, Fiskin presented himself in front of her, expectation on his features.

“Take the sumpter. We may need the rouncy to pull the
cart. Go swiftly to Ravenshed for Edwin. Here.” A fumble at the neck of her kirtle, a deft twist pulled paternoster beads over her head. She pressed them into his hands. “If any man should question you, show him these and say your name and estate plainly. Fly swiftly now.”

“Yea, milady.” He slid the beads over his head, tucked them beneath his tunic. When the sumpter was unloaded, small trunks stowed in the narrow rear of the cart and on the verge, he mounted nimbly, flashed a reassuring smile, and was gone, kicking the reluctant horse into a brisk trot.

Brief despair eroded her calm; she inhaled sharply. It was one more disaster atop all the rest. One more dilemma to gnaw at her. She hunched her shoulders, curled her fingers into the edges of her mantle. Enid gazed up at her with a complete trust that was dismaying.

She wanted to shout at her: she could neither cure Dena nor save them from calamity.

I cannot even save myself
.…

Danger lay in that direction, memory stark and painful, too devastating to bear. Shattered hope, lost dreams; truth instead of foolish illusions.

“Enid, go into the wood. Find a hawthorn tree. If there are any, bring berries. Bring me as many as you can.”

A distraction, as much for Enid as for herself. She moved to the cart, led the gentle rouncy to a stand of birch. Pale silvery gray bark, black patched and cracked into squares on the trunk; Lady of the Wood with graceful draping branches, a delicate mantle of leaves that drifted in the slight breeze around her.

Perhaps Enid’s search would be successful. Hawthorn berries had medicinal properties to ease palpitations of the heart. She sat beside Dena, drew up her legs, and wrapped her arms around her knees. She offered an occasional soothing word as Dena drifted in and out of sleep.

When Enid returned, she brought a few hard berries that were small and not yet fully red. Holding out her hand with a look of hope: “These were all I found, milady. Will they not do?”

Reassurance in her smile, her words were light as she rose to her feet and took the small berries. “We shall pray they do, Enid. Bring the water pouch from the cart.”

Whether it was the potion or time, Dena’s face began to regain color and her lips took on a normal hue; within a few minutes she was sitting up, albeit shakily.

“I am ready, m’lady.” Slurred words, eyelids slightly drooping, certain indication that she was still ill.

Jane hesitated. They were so close … Papplewick was not far ahead. Did she dare continue? The palfrey snorted, pricked white ears forward and stomped the grass with its hooves.

Disquiet arose; the forest beyond the road was still and hushed. Not even a bird could be heard in the dense silence. A foreboding filled her, gained strength, as she helped the older woman to the cart. It swayed, tilted, creaked protest as Dena was ensconced on the narrow seat with Enid beside her.

“Milady—” Enid licked her lips, glanced uncertainly at the placid rouncy buckled into the traces. “I have never driven a cart without aid.…”

“Take up the reins firmly. The rouncy knows what to do better than you or I. Do not be timid or we will never get back to Ravenshed.”

Irritation edged the last words, coupled with a growing urgency to be gone. Jane mounted her palfrey again, nudged it forward. The rouncy took the initiative. The cart lurched forward, the horse following the palfrey like a pet dog.

BOOK: Juliana Garnett
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