Authors: Matthew Cody
Tonight’s feast turned out to be an exception. Tonight, embarrassment was heaped atop the boredom. Osbert and his drunken companions shouted “Wolfslayer!” repeatedly as they used Will’s newfound fame as an excuse to toast to his health—in excess. Although Will had been allowed watered wine since he was young, he avoided it. Wine made men loud and gave Will headaches.
But while Osbert carried on, Geoff was unusually quiet. Not that he was ever the garrulous sort, but tonight he was as quiet as a ghost. Will wondered if it had anything to do with
the strangers seated at the end of the table, a fat lord and his man, who’d arrived at the castle earlier that day. The lord had an ugly smile, and he used it to leer at the serving girls. His man was hard-faced and had a strange accent when he spoke, which was rarely. He’d ridden into the castle wearing a gruesome suit of armor fashioned from horsehide rather than chain. The other lords at Geoff’s table gave him a wide berth.
The newcomers provided a bit of mystery, but even they couldn’t hold Will’s attention for long. He was too worried about the presents. Stacked at the far side of the chamber, they were precisely where Will had discovered them, unwrapped them, and carefully wrapped them up again. There were fine silks for Mother sent from her family across the sea. There were history and philosophy books and—his favorite—a fat book of tales. A fine ornamental dagger from the neighboring lords of Tumley and an exquisitely carved hunting horn decorated with grinning goblins.
But beneath all that treasure was another present. A parcel wrapped in blue and silver cloth. Will had been excited to open this particular one, as it had come all the way from Scotland, from his faraway cousins. What he’d discovered was a carefully wrapped package of salted venison, which normally would have been a treat fit for the king himself. But the meat hadn’t been properly cured, and it had spoiled during the long journey. The instant the wrappings came off, Will was assaulted by the smell of rotting meat—he’d nearly lost his breakfast. And no matter how he tried, he could not rewrap the stinking thing well enough to contain the smell again. It was as if the English air had wakened the foul Scots odor, and no craft of man could put it to rest again.
But whom could he tell? If he told, he’d reveal that he’d been at the presents, that he’d snuck a peek. He’d been warned
before that if he was caught peeking at even one present, he’d risk losing all of them. Nan would find particular pleasure in such a punishment, as she was always going on about the pagan wreaths and the coarse custom of giving presents on such a holy day. If she had it her way, Will would spend the whole of Christmas in prayer or, worse, singing those terrible songs.
But the longer he went without telling, the worse the smell got. Even now, men and women in the hall were wrinkling their noses at an unidentifiable stench. The waves of freshly cooked food masked the source, but not for long. And soon Mother’s silks and Will’s books would all smell of rot. One hunk of sour deer meat might ruin Christmas for them all.
Resolved to save Christmas without also earning himself a swat from Nan’s spoon, Will told his mother that he needed to stretch his legs and took a turn around the hall. By this time, the men were on their feet. Some sang bawdy songs, while others huddled together throwing dice. The point was, no one was paying any attention to Will. His plan was simple—if he could get close enough, he could
bump one of the drunker men into the presents. After several profuse apologies, the servants would be brought in to rearrange the mess, and certainly one of them would discover the stink. If someone else reported it, no one could possibly trace it back to—
“Will Scarlet!” said a voice over his shoulder. “Or I should say Lord William now. Wolf’s Bane!”
He turned to see the new sheriff, Mark Brewer, smiling at him over his cup of wine. Besides being the king’s authority in Nottinghamshire (and, unhappily for him, nearby Sherwood), the sheriff had once been Geoff’s hunting partner and a friend of the family. He’d been present at Shackley House enough times to have heard Geoff’s teasing, though he often came to Will’s defense.
Stay strong and live up to your name, willful Will,
Mark had said once after his uncle made up a particularly nasty joke about Will’s height—Geoff had offered to build the small boy a stepladder to reach his chamber pot.
Will Shackley had grown taller in the years since then, and Mark Brewer had gone on to become the king’s sheriff, in service to Prince John. An ironic achievement for a man who so disdained the prince. But though his appointment was royal, he still walked and dressed like a soldier, and he kept his hair cut short in a military style. He looked out of place in this hall, and yet he possessed a kind of strength that Will admired. It was as if he were daring them all, rubbing his own lowborn status in their faces. It was why he and Geoff had been such good friends growing up, both disdainful of the puff and pageantry of royalty. But Geoff had been forced to take on the role of regent, and Mark was John’s sheriff now. Life had strained the two men’s friendship in unforeseeable ways.
,” said Will, sticking his chest out.
The sheriff tilted his cup at Will and nodded. “So it is. My apologies. All these hero’s titles … A mere king’s servant such as myself is likely to forget.”
“I’m sure you’ll earn yours soon enough.”
The sheriff smiled and tapped the gold chain of office hanging about his neck. “Ah, yes. Sheriff Mark Brewer, Tax Collector! Or perhaps Solver of Land Disputes! Very heroic.”
Will laughed and allowed himself to relax a bit. Brewer was still good company, despite his new title. Still, he watched the man carefully, in case he might prove drunk enough to shove into the presents.
“How’s the face?” asked the sheriff, gesturing to the cut on Will’s cheek.
“I’d forgotten all about it. An evening of lordly talk has bored me numb.”
The sheriff laughed. “Bored? You’re just not paying close enough attention, my young lord. There’s nothing boring about tonight’s talk, I assure you.”
He put his arm around Will’s shoulders. “Look there,” he said, pointing to the two strangers at the end of the table. “Do you know who those new faces are?”
“Some lord and his man,” answered Will. “Arrived today.”
“That lord is named Sir Guy of Gisborne, the Horse Knight. A name that in certain parts of the kingdom inspires worry. In the rest, fear.”
Will watched the soft-faced lord wink and pinch at the passing girls—poor Jenny was serving that end of the table and was getting the worst of it. Anger suddenly welled up inside Will, surprising him, as he watched the obscene fat man grin at Jenny’s retreating backside. He could tell from the stern set of Geoff’s jaw that his uncle was barely tolerating the man’s presence. Barely.
“Geoff is afraid of
?” asked Will.
“Your uncle? Oh no. Geoff’s not afraid of any man, even when he ought to be.” The sheriff took a long drink of his wine. “More’s the pity.”
“Well, Geoff’s not going to fear a fat lord who brings an armed thug with him to a royal feast.”
The sheriff raised an eyebrow. “Armed thug? My, you
been listening tonight, have you? The brooding one in the horsehide armor isn’t a thug,
Will stared at the sullen, armored knight in open amazement. He’d assumed that the man with the rich clothes and soft flesh, the man making an ass of himself, was Sir Guy. But his quiet companion, the one who’d dressed for dinner as if he were dressing for battle, was the real lord. Will began to understand why people might fear such a man.
“Then who’s the other one?” asked Will.
“His manservant. That’s his official title, but he’s well known to be Guy’s bribes master.”
Now it was Will’s turn to raise an eyebrow.
“There’s all sorts of unsavory talk associated with Sir Guy,” said the sheriff. “He’s a landless knight, a mercenary captain who sells his swords-for-hire to the highest bidder. And there’s no higher bidder than Prince John at the moment.”
“Why would Geoff welcome such a man into court? Father wouldn’t have stood for it.”
“Yes, he would’ve,” answered the sheriff. “He would’ve done just as Geoff is doing now, because Guy is Prince John’s man. And the prince, it seems, has taken an interest in Shackley House.”
“The prince? Really?”
Brewer took another drink from his cup. “Good Prince Lackland himself. Happy Christmas.”
The sheriff called King Richard’s brother Prince Lackland because when Richard returned, the prince would find himself lacking any lands of his own. It wasn’t a name anyone used to the prince’s face. Will had overheard his uncle and the neighboring barons grumble plenty about the prince’s rule ever since King Richard had ridden off on his crusade. They said John wanted to be king himself, but that was all about to change now that the rightful king was returning home. The barons’ petty complaints seemed rather boring anyway.
The way the sheriff made fun of the prince, on the other hand, well, that
entertaining. Will was about to ask if the sheriff had any nicknames for the King of France when he heard the banging of someone’s cup on the table and shouts for quiet.
“Ah,” said the sheriff, smiling. “Evening’s entertainment is about to begin, I think.”
Osbert had walked to the middle of the room. He opened his mouth to say something, but a loud belch came out instead.
“Oh, pardon, my lord,” he said. “It’s the sausages. Play havoc on an old man’s stomach.”
Geoff waved away the old man’s apology amidst the lords’ snickers and said, “You have something you’d like to say to the hall?”
“Indeed,” said Osbert. “I’d like to ask the hall to join me in raising a cup—Heavens! Is my cup empty? What does an old man need to do to wet his lips in this castle? I’ll die of thirst before age can take me!”
There was more laughter as Osbert chuckled at his own little joke.
“Let’s raise a cup to our young lord William Shackley!” he said. “When we rode out together last night, he was still a pimply-faced boy who’d soil his bedclothes at the thought of drawing his sword! A milk-fat mother’s boy—no offense, milady—more interested in straw dolls than strapping on a suit of mail! A …”
The laughter grew louder throughout the hall. Several lords were twisting their necks around to get a look at Will. He tried to melt away into the wall, but the sheriff put a hand on his shoulder, keeping him put. The evening’s entertainment indeed.
Thankfully, Geoff interrupted the old man with a raise of his hand. “Perhaps we could move along to the toast, Sir Osbert?”
“Hmm? Oh, of course,” said Osbert. “He rode out a boy, but he found his strength! While the rest of us more
warriors were riding down the runts of that terrible wolf pack, Lord William was facing down four of the beasts alone!”
, thought Will.
“To William!” he cried. “Wolfslayer!”
The hall raised their cups and shouted “Wolfslayer!” together. The men gave him respectful nods. A few even bowed.
Had Osbert ended there, it would have been a fine toast, despite the teasing. But the old man did not know when to stop.
“I’ve not seen such born-and-bred bravery since King Richard!” he continued. “It’s a God-given strength that does not grow on every branch of the tree, does it?”
Will felt the sheriff stiffen next to him. There were a few murmurs of agreement from the hall, but just as many were suddenly silent.
“Will’s father possesses it! His brother, Geoffrey, possesses it! The wisdom to know how to hold a lord’s chair for him till his return! Not growing too comfortable in a borrowed throne …”
Now no one cheered. An awkward quiet had fallen over the hall, and the only sound was the crackle of the hearth fire.
“Old fool,” the sheriff whispered.
Again, Geoff interceded. He stood and held his cup high. “To William!”
Relieved, the men drank.
“Now, good old Osbert,” said Geoff. “Enough talk. Won’t you join us up here for some dessert?”
“If I could beg your lord’s indulgence,” called a voice from the end of the table, “I’d like to propose another toast.”
At his full height, Sir Guy stood at least a head taller than Osbert.
wine cup, Will noticed, had barely been touched.
“To John,” said Guy. “Long may he reign.”
Up until now, Will had felt a step behind. He’d felt the room hush as Osbert went on with his toast, though he hadn’t quite understood why. He’d suspected it had something to do with Prince John.
But Sir Guy’s toast was something else, and there was no mistaking it. The prince shared power with a council, and he was only a temporary regent—he ruled in King Richard’s stead until he returned from the crusade, much like Geoff was doing for Will’s father. And the customary toast would be to wish John good health and for
Richard’s speedy return
To wish anything else was to challenge Richard’s claim to his own throne. Men were frozen. Their cups halfway to their lips, eyes glued to Geoff. They were waiting for their lord’s signal.
But Geoff had grown quiet. His own wine untouched. His eyes angry as he glared at the Horse Knight.
Sir Guy didn’t relent.
“No? I’m sure the hero of the evening will join me in my toast,” he said, pointing to Will in the crowd. “What say you, Wolfslayer? Will you toast Prince John’s benevolent rule?”
“Carefully, Will,” whispered the sheriff. “Carefully.”
All eyes were on Will. Geoff couldn’t or wouldn’t step in to save him this time. His mother looked ready to leap from her seat, her face full of fear.
“I’ll … I’ll raise my cup,” said Will. “To England. To Prince John, King Richard, and the house of Plantagenet! And to my own father, Rodric Shackley, and his safe return from foreign lands.”
This last got a round of “Hear, hears” from the gathered lords, and Will felt the tension in the room lessen slightly.
Even Guy took a drink at this, but his eyes never left Will. The sheriff whispered again in his ear.