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Authors: Matthew Cody

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BOOK: Will in Scarlet
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“Well done, lad,” he said. “You may have just spared us some bloodshed tonight.”

As men wandered back to their dice games and their songs, Will lost himself among the crowds and the noise. He ended up staring down at the pile of wrapped presents. The smell of decayed meat wafted up as the spoiled present festered and ruined the rest. There were plenty of drunks standing well within pushing distance now. He could still follow through with his plan and save Christmas.

But what was that the sheriff had said?

You may have just spared us some bloodshed tonight …

Will left the presents where they were.


I won’t start a war. Much as I’d like to


It was easy to find his uncle the next morning: all Will had to do was follow the shouting. He’d woken early from the kind of restless half sleep that only makes you more tired the more you get of it. This was two nights in a row of poor sleep, and it was beginning to punish him. Will’s eyes were sticky and red, and he felt sick to his stomach.

It was too early for breakfast—a red sun had just cracked above the trees in the east—so Will found himself outside Geoff’s rooms, listening to his uncle arguing with someone. He could’ve eavesdropped, but something in him this morning made him bolder, or perhaps reckless. He knocked instead.

He was surprised to find the room full of adults. Mother and Geoff were inside, seated with the sheriff at a table. Osbert sat near the fire. Everyone was in the same clothing they’d worn the night before. Not a one of them had slept.

Something was wrong.

“Will,” his mother said. “What are you doing up? It’s late!”

“Mother,” said Will. “It’s not late, it’s early. It’s past dawn.”

His mother glanced out the window and rubbed her eyes.

“So it is. Then why don’t you go down to the kitchens and have some breakfast. There’s cheese and fruit left from last night’s feast. We’ll join you later.”

“He should stay,” said the sheriff. “Perhaps he can talk some sense into you all.”

“He’s a boy,” Will’s mother said.

“He’s Rodric’s heir,” said Geoff. “He should have been here from the start.”

“Well said,” added Osbert.

“Close the door behind you, Will,” said Geoff.

“Is this about last night?” asked Will as he stepped inside the room. “Is this about that knight, Sir Guy?”

“Sir Guy arrived yesterday with news,” said Geoff.

“Rumors!” said Osbert. “Nothing more!”

“Will,” said his mother, taking a deep breath. “King Richard’s ship hit a storm near Greece, and he was captured.”

“By whom?”

“The Duke of Austria. He’s holding him for ransom.”

“What about Father? Is he with him? Was he captured, too?”

His mother opened her mouth to answer, but she seemed unable to speak. The sheriff answered for her.

“The king’s companions have all been imprisoned with him,” he said. “That’s all we know.”

Will looked at the faces of his family. His father wouldn’t be home by Christmas, if he made it home at all.

“I’m afraid it’s true, Will,” said Geoff. “We know the king was taken. I sent riders out yesterday and had it confirmed by reliable men. Soon the whole kingdom will know. But the prince sent Sir Guy to deliver another message meant for the
barons and lords only. He’s spreading lies that King Richard is already dead.”

Will’s mind was whirling. King Richard the Lionheart dead? He was a legend, a hero that every boy idolized. He couldn’t die.

“If that’s true—”

“It’s not,” said Osbert.

“But if it is, then what does that mean for Father? Why would they keep Father alive if the king is already dead?”

“Listen to me, Will, and listen well,” said the sheriff. He put his arms on Will’s shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. “This is about money. King Richard is being held for ransom by the Duke of Austria, and he’s not worth anything unless he’s alive and well. The same goes for his companions, the same goes for your father.”

“There’s only one person who would benefit from rumors of the king’s death, and that’s his brother,” said Osbert.

“I don’t understand,” said Will.

“That snake in the grass Prince John has been sniffing around the throne for a long while now, and he’s hoping that by spreading rumors of the king’s death, he’ll gain support for his own claim to the throne. The king’s most loyal lords, like your father, sailed with him on his crusade. There’s no better time than now for the prince to make his move.”

Will swallowed hard. He wouldn’t cry in front of these men. He would be strong, for his father.

Geoff picked at a loose splinter in the table. He looked like he’d tear the whole table apart if he could.

“The prince is sending out his dogs to sniff out the loyalties of the lords and barons,” said Geoff. “Guy was testing us last night to see who we’d stand with—John or Richard.”

“And between Geoff’s sulking and Osbert’s
, he got a very clear answer, I’d say,” said the sheriff. “The only one of you who performed with anything near diplomacy was the Wolfslayer here.”

Now Geoff got to his feet. “What place does diplomacy have in this? Richard’s the rightful king, and the barons must send a clear message to Lackland! If he tries for the throne, we will rise up against him. United! Prince John doesn’t have half the courage Richard does. He’ll never go through with it.”

“Only you aren’t united,” said the sheriff. “And John may not be brave, but he has the one advantage Richard does not.”

“Which is?” asked Geoff.

“He’s here and Richard’s there. Prince John doesn’t have to take what’s already his.”

A loud sigh escaped Osbert as he pulled himself to his feet. “Then we’ll shove the prince out kicking and screaming. We’ll give the whelp the whipping he deserves and send him crying for his nursemaid and his brother’s forgiveness!

“Now,” the old man continued, “I’m going to excuse myself so that I may vomit in peace. You learned men and ladies can keep talking of

The last word he practically spat at the sheriff as he stalked out.

“For the royal record, it’s not last night’s wine that has sickened me this day.”

There was a strained silence in the room as they watched him leave and listened to him stomp down the hall.

After he was gone, Geoff turned to the sheriff.

“Mark, I can’t believe you, of all people, would have us side with Prince John!”

“I’m not saying you should swear allegiance to the prince,” the sheriff said. “But until King Richard is freed and Will’s father comes back safe and sound, there is no dishonor in looking out for your people and keeping these lands free of bloodshed and civil war.”

The sheriff put his hand on Geoff’s shoulder. “Lords weather the passing storms, Geoff, and the best way to do that is to stay neutral. Don’t come out for Prince John, but don’t come out against him, either. Tell Osbert no more foolish toasts, and leave kingly politics to kings.”

The sheriff gathered up his cloak and bowed to Will’s mother.

“Sir Guy will doubtless be gone by midday, off to report his chilly reception to the prince. Meanwhile, send an official invitation to John to spend Christmas here at Shackley Castle. I’ll deliver the message myself, if need be, including assurances of your neutrality. Prince John will likely refuse, now that he knows you won’t be the ally he’d hoped for, but he won’t make life difficult for you.

“You are right about one thing—the prince is weaker than his brother. If someday he ends up on the throne, he’ll be fearful of his claim to it. Easily swayed. John may not be the king we want, but we can make him the king England needs!”

As the sheriff was leaving, he winked at Will. “I hope you were taking notes, Lord Will. This’ll all be your problem one day. Heaven help you.”

After the sheriff was gone, Geoff turned to Will. “There’s one thing I agree with the sheriff on, Will. Your father is alive.”

“Do you really think so, Uncle?”

“I do.”

Will looked to his mother, standing there so still. Her face was stern, expressionless, but she gripped her arms around her
stomach as if she might be sick at any moment. She nodded in agreement with Geoff and somehow managed a smile for Will.

Geoff rubbed his tired eyes. “Will, this is your first taste of how power really works in England. What do you think?”

Will thought for a minute. Should he muster up some false bravado and curse John’s name as Osbert would’ve? Or should he try to put on the sheriff’s calm demeanor and argue for something that made logical sense but just felt wrong somehow? In the end, he decided honesty would be the best policy.

“I think … I think the wolves were easier,” he said. “At least then I knew who the enemy was.”

Geoff nodded with a small smile. “Well said, lad. Well said.”

“Lady Katherine,” said Geoff. “It seems we are losing friends. Osbert will abandon us if we don’t openly support Richard. The sheriff will abandon us if we do.”

“The sheriff will not put his head on the chopping block for you, Geoffrey, but he won’t oppose you, either. Mark Brewer has been our friend for years.”

“Yes,” said Geoff. “He’s also ambitious, and he’s the prince’s own appointed sheriff now.”

“He doesn’t love John, and he came here to warn you,” she said. “That counts for something.”

“My brother left me the care of his people until his return. I won’t start a war. Much as I’d like to.”

“It’s because of that the prince has his eye on us, Geoffrey,” said Mother. “You are the loyal brother to Rodric. You are steadfast in your devotion to him, and it reflects poorly on Prince John by comparison. He knows the other lords would rally to your cause if you declared against him. The sheriff thinks you can stay neutral, but I don’t know if that will be enough.”

Geoff slammed his fist on the table. “I will not throw my lot
in with Sir Guy of Gisborne and his kind! Brutes and robber-knights, that’s the sort of lord that’ll support John.”

Suddenly and without warning, Geoff sank into his chair. He looked deflated, like an empty wineskin. Will had never seen his uncle look so tired, or so small.

“How I wish Rodric had stayed put, and not run off to fight in Richard’s bloody war.”

“I wish that every day. And every night,” said Mother softly. “Every lonely wife and mother in England wishes that.”

Geoff waved them away. “I need sleep. We’ll talk more on this later.”

He plucked distractedly at the table, tearing at a fresh splinter. “John won’t become king in a day.”

Will was wandering the halls looking for a place to take his troubled thoughts when he heard his name. He turned to see Mark Brewer, the sheriff, coming toward him. He was wearing his riding gear and a set of warm furs.

“Leaving already?” Will asked.

The sheriff nodded. “I’d rather be going to bed, believe me, but I have duties to attend to back in Nottingham. The peace doesn’t keep itself.”

Will walked with the sheriff a ways, past servants going about their morning chores. Despite the early hour, the castle around him was already alive with its regular morning routine. Most would be breaking their fast on leftover bread and cheese, but the kitchens would already be working on the midday meal, and the smells of roasting mutton and honeyed pork would soon start wafting through the halls. Outside, wood was being chopped for the never-ending fires, the horses rubbed
down, and stable stalls cleaned. The servants went about their work, ignorant of the problems of their lords, or of England as a whole.

The sheriff stopped in front of one of the shuttered windows that overlooked the courtyard. The latch was stuck closed with frost, but after a moment’s fumbling he managed to pry it open. It swung outward and let in a blast of frigid morning air. The sheriff leaned his head out and breathed deep.

Will pulled his cloak tighter around him, but the wind still found its way past his clothes.

“Are you trying to freeze me to death?” he asked.

“It’s invigorating,” answered the sheriff.

“Says you. You’ve got your traveling furs on!”

The sheriff smiled but didn’t make any move to close the shutter. “When I was young, I spent so much time here. Geoff and I used to play knights and castles down there in that very courtyard. Just as you and that stableboy do—blast, what’s his name?”

“Milo,” Will said.

“Yes, Milo. I should’ve known that. He always takes such good care of my horse.…”

The sheriff turned and looked at Will.

“I’ve been away from this place too long, but that’s what happens when you grow up. I used to dream of having a manor house like this, of being an important man like your father, like your uncle. So I worked hard, I bowed and smiled at the right people, and when the prince appointed me sheriff, well … I learned there’s a point when you stop doing the things you want to do and you start doing the things you have to do. I don’t think your uncle understands that yet.”

“What do you mean?”

The sheriff didn’t answer right away. Instead, he reached out a hand and tousled Will’s hair, something he hadn’t done since Will was a young boy.

“Stop it,” said Will. “It gets all tangled as it is. And it’ll be your fault if Nan comes chasing after me with a comb!”

The sheriff laughed. “The Wolfslayer is afraid of Nan’s comb! God, that’s rich. You know, Will, you mustn’t tell your uncle this, but you really are my favorite person in this stubborn little house. Fools that you all are.”

“Is that supposed to be a compliment?”

“It is what it is,” he said.

Then the sheriff bowed and walked down the hall toward the front doors. He didn’t bother closing the shutters, so Will watched him enter the courtyard below. Milo was already waiting for him there with the sheriff’s horse. Even from up in his window, Will could hear the sheriff thank Milo by name as he slipped him a coin.

Then Will closed the shutters (his teeth were chattering by now) and wandered off in search of something to take his mind off his troubles.

BOOK: Will in Scarlet
5.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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