Authors: Rue Allyn
The Ravensmere postern guard eyed her suspiciously. “I gots me orders, and I don’t open the gate to no one who ain’t expected. Since my captain ain’t told me to expect you, I can’t let you in.”
She could understand why the man regarded with suspicion a lone and rather bedraggled woman riding a smallish, dirty, white horse. Jessamyn couldn’t blame him for having doubts about her claim of noble status and connection to Baron Ravensmere. Neither could she let that stop her.
“Can you not see that I am exhausted? I’ve been riding for days in the rain to see your master about a most urgent matter. I am alone. I’ve no weapons. I’m starving and soaked to the bone. I could not harm a flea, especially with so dedicated a guard to watch my every move. Have pity, and at least let me shelter in the guardhouse while you send for your captain, so I may appeal to him. You would do as much for any beggar.”
“Would be my hide if I let Christ himself inside without orders from the baron or my captain.”
Jessamyn set her teeth. “Then by all means, send for your captain, so I may appeal to him.”
The guard stared at her long enough for her to wonder if he’d forgotten she was there. At long last he nodded. “Aye, I’ll get the captain.”
Then he turned on his heel and marched away.
“Could you at least let me shelter in the guardhouse while I wait?” She raised her voice, but the departing guardsman either did not hear or chose to ignore her request.
Left shivering in the drizzle outside the castle walls, she couldn’t help but compare the present to the last time she’d stood in the rain and demanded entrance to a closed keep. Nothing could be like that tumultuous experience.
Where was Raeb now? Did he curse her for her broken promises? Or was he glad to be rid of her? Was he even now courting some well-born Scottish lady who could help him achieve his dreams? Or did he spend all his time preparing for a battle with Edward’s men? If Edward received her missive, more than a few men would be on those ships, and Raeb would find himself severely outnumbered.
The lifting of the portcullis drew Jessamyn from her thoughts. The gate guard waved her through, and she found herself in the bailey confronting a slim, good-looking man in leather armor with a chain mail surcoat. Under one arm he carried a short helmet with a nose guard. At his side hung a sheathed sword with a long, two-handed grip. A metal leopard crouched atop the pommel. The creature looked ready to leap and destroy any who might threaten the blade’s bearer.
Clearly this was no ordinary guardsman.
Brows raised haughtily, the fellow looked her over in a way that made her distinctly uncomfortable, as if he could see beneath her rain-dampened clothing. “Lady Jessamyn Du Grace?”
“Yes.” She straightened and looked down her nose at him.
He bowed his head slightly. “I am Sir Felwick Dawson, Captain of Baron Ravensmere’s guard and castle steward in his absence. The baron and his wife are away on the king’s business. How may I serve you?” As if her answer were of little import, the man’s eyes continued to peruse her. The way his gaze lingered on her breasts told her exactly how he’d like to serve her.
She resisted the temptation to chew on her lower lip. She’d counted on being able to speak with the baron directly. The fewer people who had any notion of her purpose here, the better. Much though she’d like to put the leering knight in his place, she needed his help, and therefore his goodwill. Cutting him down to size would have to wait for another time.
“I need shelter for a day or so. Long enough to get a message to my maid, who awaits my arrival near the king’s current lodging.”
“Edward sits a few leagues away at Castle Aln, a meager distance compared with that which you’ve obviously already traversed.” Dawson indicated her garb with a sneer. “Why not continue your journey and find your maid where you expect her?”
Jessamyn put on her most lofty expression and indicated her sodden attire. “I would not appear before my godfather, the king, in this travel-worn state.”
Dawson curled a lip and nodded once. “Very wise. I see you are an astute woman.” He ordered the guard to assist her to dismount and care for her horse.
“Thank you,” she told the man-at-arms. “Her name is Persia. I’ll come to check on her before sunset.”
To the guard Dawson said, “Inform the housekeeper to prepare the east chamber, fresh raiment, and a bath for our guest with all possible speed. Then escort Lady Du Grace to the room and have quill, ink, and vellum brought to her immediately. You may wait for me outside her chamber door to see that she is not disturbed.”
The knight then turned to Jessamyn. “Follow this guard. You may pen your message to your maid while the bath is being heated. Then I will have the missive delivered. What is your maid’s name and direction?”
While he awaited her answer, he settled his helmet on his head and pulled on leather gauntlets.
“My maid awaits me at the sign of the Bull in—”
Before she could finish, a group of mounted men rode through the still open portcullis into the bailey. There were six horses, but only five had visible riders. The sixth, a chestnut destrier of enormous size, was surrounded by the other mounts.
Dawson turned aside to speak with the leader of the group.
Jessamyn craned her neck, as did everyone else within the bailey, to see what was so special about a horse guarded so carefully by five men.
“So you found this man lurking the forests near the stream that borders Clarwyn lands?”
“Yes, Sir Dawson. He was giving his horse a drink and looking at the ground as if treasure was to be found there.”
Knowing she was momentarily forgotten, Jessamyn moved slowly toward the mounted group.
“And did you confront him for an explanation of what he was doing?”
She angled her direction to bring her in line with a gap between the horses.
“No, sir. We had approached from downwind, and the noise of the stream running over the rocks must have masked the sound. We was on him before he knew we was there. He went for his blade, and Simpson here”—one of the mounted men nodded at Sir Dawson—“knocked the brute on the head with the pommel of his sword. That was all it took. Dropped like a stone he did—the Scot, not Simpson.”
A Scot? Raeb? No, he could not possibly have caught up to me.
With his courser still recovering, he had no horse in his stable equal to the surrounded destrier.
“What makes you think your captive is a Scot?”
“His clothes, sir, that and the gibberish he was muttering to himself when we rode up.”
At that moment the men dismounted, and the circle of horses broke apart.
Jessamyn restrained a gasp. Slung across the huge steed’s saddle lay Raeb’s unconscious body. She couldn’t see his face, but that inky black hair and those broad shoulders were unmistakable. Blood stained his temple, and his clothing was torn.
Oh, Raeb, what have they done to you
What have I gotten you into
Dawson nodded and, removing his gauntlets, handed a ring of keys from his belt to the man. “Very well. Take the prisoner to the dungeon and put him in chains. As soon as I see to Lady Du Grace’s comfort, I’ll interrogate him and retrieve the keys. We can wait until tomorrow to hang him.”
The knight took off his helmet as he turned to Jessamyn and surveyed her body once more. “Not a pretty sight, my lady. These Scots are crude people at best. Now where did you say your maid could be reached?”
Jessamyn fluttered her lashes at him. Perhaps she could use Dawson’s prurient interests to gain enough information to help Raeb.
“My maid is at the Sign of the Bull in Alnwick, but now that I think of it, I’d best write to Baron Ravensmere as well.”
The man studied her before replying. “To what purpose?”
She laid a hand on Dawson’s arm. “Well, the baron may be able to get a message to King Edward that I need to meet with him privately. Instead of waiting several days, I could be with my godfather tomorrow. Since you know the baron far better than I, could you help me choose the right words to persuade him to lend his aid?”
Dawson grinned. His chest puffed out, and he laid a hand over hers. “I would be most happy to be of assistance, but I’m afraid I’ll be occupied until supper.” He tilted his head toward the dungeon entrance through which men were dragging Raeb’s limp form.
Fear for Raeb clogged her throat. What if they hanged him while he was defenseless? She was his only recourse. She had to rescue him, but if she failed … She would not fail.
“Oh, ah, yes. I wouldn’t want to take you from important business. And I doubt I will feel up to dining in the main hall. Perhaps you will join me for supper in my chamber, and we can discuss how to phrase my plea while we eat. That way, my messages can be delivered tonight.”
The knight’s grin turned sly. “I would not wish to damage the reputation of so lovely a lady by being alone with her.”
Heat flooded her face. She cast her eyes down to appear modest and hide the loathing she was quickly developing for this man. “No one other than you, a few guards, and the servants here know me or my family. I doubt any of the servants will remember me or ever have an opportunity to speak of my presence here. You, of course, will control your guards.”
You walking dungheap
. She tilted her head to the side and glanced up at him with all the maidenly coyness she could muster. “I’m certain I can trust your discretion, can I not?”
“Without doubt, my lady.” The grin returned, and he lifted her hand to his lips, brushing his mouth in a lingering stroke across her knuckles. “I can be most, er, discreet, given proper motivation.”
His meaning was more than clear.
Not for my hope of heaven would I lay with an ogre like you.
But she wasn’t about to tell him that. For now she’d set her lure, and he seemed to be taking the bait. She smiled. If her plan worked, Dawson would get everything he deserved.
Jessamyn bowed her head and gave him that coy glance again. “Your generosity overwhelms me, Sir Dawson. I shall be ready to sup with you after compline.”
That should give her time enough to bathe and make all the necessary preparations to carry out her plan. She lifted her skirt and set off to follow the guard escorting her into the castle.
• • •
Once in a private chamber Jessamyn penned her messages as quickly as possible then hurried through her bath. When she finished, she dressed in the clean gown and surcoat provided for her.
“I would like to take a walk. Could you show me to the herb garden?” She addressed the maid who assisted her to dress.
“Why yes, my lady, please follow me.”
In the garden, Jessamyn dismissed the maid then wandered the pathways until she found what she needed. Using the small eating knife sheathed at her waist, she cut a branch from the bottom of the soapwort plant. On her way back to her chamber, she’d have to borrow a mortar and pestle from the cook. She’d also make certain the castle’s heaviest ale was served for her supper with Dawson. But first she needed to check on Persia.
Sheathing her knife and placing the small branch carefully inside her belt pouch, she passed through the walled garden’s gate and strolled casually toward the stables.
The doors were closed, and no one was in sight. She entered the dim space then paused to get her bearings. As her eyes grew accustomed, the shapes of stalls, horses, tack, and tools emerged from the gloom. So, too, did a low sound, like someone crooning or moaning, she couldn’t be sure which. Keeping to the shadows and moving as quietly as she could, she eased down the wide center aisle. As she approached the far end she saw a boy patting Persia’s muzzle and crooning to the mare. Jessamyn could count on one hand the number of times Persia had easily tolerated anyone but her owner. What was more surprising was that the mare took no notice of Jess. Not a whinny or a toss of the head in greeting.
“Aye, ye’re a beauty, ye are,” said the boy. “Them other lads say they can’t be bothered with such a small excuse for a horse, but I know better. Me ma taught me about all kinds of horses. The ones she talked about most was them from her homeland. Persia, she called it, an’ thas yer name, too. But I’d no need to know your name to know yer faster than the wind and love nothing more than t’ run all day.”
The horse butted the boy’s forehead gently.
“Is it oats ye’re wantin’?”
The mare’s head swung up then down twice.
“Well, then, I’ll have t’ get ye some.”
The lad stepped back, turned, and then froze in place before dropping to one knee and bowing his head. “Yer ladyship, I’m sorry. I din’t know ye was there. I was just talking to yer horse. I din’t mean anything by it. I wasn’ hurtin’ her or causin’ any harm. I would niver … ”
Jessamyn walked up to the boy and lifted his chin so he could see she meant what she was about to say. “I do not think anything of the kind. I thank you for taking care of Persia. She is very precious to me, and to have someone else recognize her worth is a delight. Please stand up and tell me how she fares.”
“Y—ye’re not angry?” The boy stood.
“Not at all.” She studied the youth. He was dark, with black hair and a slight build that already showed some muscle from hard work. He could be anywhere from eight to twelve years old. She suspected that like Persia, most people would underestimate this child.
“I checked her hooves an’ brushed her till her coat shines. I’ve given her plenty of water. I was about to feed her when ye surprised me.”
Jessamyn clasped her hands before her. “I’m very sorry if I startled you.”
The boy tugged the hair at his forehead, almost as if doffing a cap. “That ye did, yer ladyship, an’ no mistake. But I don’ mind, since ye was comin’ t’ check on Persia here. Not many men care so much for their horses as ye seem to.”
She bent bringing herself to eye level with him. “Hmm. What’s your name?”
“Gillam, my lady.”
“And your surname? I’d like to thank your family and tell them what a fine lad you are.”
The boy pressed his lips together and looked away. When he looked back he squared his shoulders then blurted, “Gillam’s the only name I got, yer ladyship, an’ I ain’t got no family. Me ma is dead.”