Authors: Matthew Cody
We mustn’t let lawlessness go unpunished
Will would’ve wandered down to the kitchens, but after all the talk of fighting and intrigue, he wasn’t in the mood for company. Avoiding people wasn’t difficult, as most were happy avoiding him in turn. The servants knew that trouble followed the young lord like thunder followed lightning, and many had been struck more than once.
But the trouble brewing inside Shackley House today was not of Will’s making. It was barely within his understanding. Richard was the rightful king of England, but while he was locked away in a foreign prison with Will’s father, the king’s younger brother John was scheming to steal the throne of England. And Will’s uncle was being asked to choose sides. No, not asked. He was being forced, as they all would be soon enough.
In truth, Will couldn’t care less about who wore the crown. All he wanted was his father back. These last two years had been hard on the family. Geoff did his best to look after his brother’s estate, but responsibility weighed heavily on him, and where he was once a joyful, laughing soul, now he scowled
more than he smiled. Will’s mother endured the lonely days by hugging Will even closer to her, smothering him one moment and scolding him the next.
And Will was just lost. He knew that his childhood was over, but he had no earthly idea how to be a man. He had tutors and combat masters, and he had Geoff and Osbert, but they were all poor substitutes for his father. They meant well, but Geoff would lecture him on the importance of responsibility in one breath while railing against it in the next. Osbert advised him to get into fights. The more the better.
In his most secret thoughts, Will almost resented his father. Why did he have to choose King Richard over his family? Why was royal duty more important than duty to his son? Will was angry that he’d been gone so long, and terrified that he wouldn’t come back at all.
Will wondered how many days he’d carelessly run through these halls, laughing and playing while his father carried some secret worry in his own heart. If this was a taste of what it was to be a man, Will wanted none of it.
Feeling shut in by the narrow hallways, Will bundled himself up in his thick winter woolens and took a stroll in the crisp morning air down to the stables. Perhaps giving Bellwether a nice brush down would take his mind off lordly troubles.
The mare was always excitable, but she settled some as Will hand-fed her thick-cut oats. Once she was calm, he checked the poultice on her injured back leg—even a small wound needed to be watched carefully when inflicted by a wild animal. They’d both been bitten, so perhaps they’d turn feral together and transform into beasts by moonlight. A wolf-boy riding a wolf-horse through the forests. That would earn a place in Osbert’s drinking stories.
Will turned to see Milo poking his head into Bellwether’s stall, his face barely recognizable beneath a ridiculous fur cap that had been sized for a grown man and kept sliding over the boy’s eyes. Milo had been Will’s playmate since he’d been able to walk. In that time, Will had dragged the poor boy into one spot of trouble after another.
“I was wondering when you’d show up here,” Milo said. “Haven’t seen you since you rode out on that wolf hunt. I heard you slew five of the devils and the rest changed back into men and ran all the way to Scotland!”
Will shook his head. The kitchen gossips had outdone themselves this time—not that Milo wasn’t easy prey.
“Don’t believe castle whispers, Milo,” Will said. “They were
, not Scots at all. And they didn’t run home, they swam.”
The young boy wrinkled his nose as he chewed over this new fact.
“Aww, you’re just having a go at me now, aren’t you?” he asked. “Why would they swim when they could hop a boat?”
Will laughed and Milo joined in, although he didn’t look entirely sure what they were laughing about. It felt good.
“She’s still spooked, poor Bellwether is,” said Milo. “But her wound will heal up nicely. I made that poultice myself. Vinegar and mint do the trick.”
Milo treated these horses better than most people treated their own families. “It’s fine work, Milo. I’m grateful.”
“Have you seen your presents?” asked Milo, his face lighting up. “I heard talk that they’re stacked up to the ceiling! Don’t think I could resist taking a peek myself. I love Christmas.”
“They’re not quite to the ceiling,” said Will, feeling suddenly self-conscious. “And most of them are for Mother and Geoff anyway.”
Milo rubbed his hands together. “Still, I bet there’s some
kingly gifts in there, hey? I peeked at my presents last year and found a fine woolen cape with a jeweled clasp—you remember the one? I called it my wizard’s cloak!”
Will did remember the cape, a gift from Milo’s mother. The clasp was inset with a gaudy glass bead, not a jewel at all. And he remembered that he had teased Milo mercilessly about it all last winter. He’d called it Milo’s ball gown, casually and callously insulting the one gift Milo really loved. His only gift, and Will had ruined it.
Will realized that Milo hadn’t worn it at all this season, despite the cold.
“It was a nice cape,” said Will. “Even if I didn’t say so.”
Milo shrugged beneath his too-big cap. Another gift from his mother, no doubt. “Doesn’t matter now. Still, I wouldn’t mind getting a look at those royal presents! If you’re up for a little sneaking.”
“Actually, I don’t know if today’s a good day. Maybe tomorrow …”
A cry interrupted him. A girl’s voice, from somewhere in the stables, shouting. Without waiting for his friend, Milo ran out of Bellwether’s stall toward the sound. He was the son of the head stable hand, and these were his horses—the stable was his domain.
Will followed swiftly behind, and as the two of them reached the far end, they found Jenny backed into an empty stall, cornered by a fat man wrapped up so tight in gaudy furs he looked like a stuffed hedgehog.
As Will got closer, he recognized the man as Sir Guy’s bribes master, the one with the wandering hands. They hadn’t left the castle yet after all. In one fist he held a horsewhip, and he seemed to be brandishing it at Jenny.
“What’s … what are you doing in here?” asked Milo.
“I found this wench sneaking through my saddlebags,” said the bribes master. “Looking to steal from her betters, she is.”
“That’s not true!” said Jenny. “I was just fetching some wood for the kitchen, and I stopped to pet the horses! I wasn’t anywhere near the saddlebags.”
“Well, you’re both spooking the other horses,” said Milo, eyeing the bribes master. Guy’s man was twice the stableboy’s size, and a head taller than Will.
“Jenny, why don’t you come with us,” said Will. “We’ll sort all this out inside.”
As she took a step toward them, the bribes master reached out and grabbed her by the wrist.
“I’ll let bygones be bygones,” he said. “For a kiss!”
Will started to protest, but Milo was quicker. The small stable hand rushed to Jenny’s defense, shoving the fat bribes master and freeing Jenny.
“Get away from her!” Milo said.
The fat man cursed as he stumbled backward, but he found his footing fast enough and swung his horsewhip at Milo, catching the boy across the ear with an ugly-sounding crack.
Jenny cried out as Milo cowered beneath the man’s whip. Will caught the strong scent of ale on the man’s breath—he was still drunk from the night before.
“You know who I am?” he asked. “I am William Shackley, nephew of Lord Geoffrey!”
The man licked his lips nervously. “Aye, I know you,” he said quietly. “And since I don’t care to whip lordlings, why don’t you run along now.”
Will could call out. He could call for help, and someone would come running. And then the bribes master would be hauled away to face Geoff’s justice. Eventually, help would come, but in the meantime the future lord of Shackley House
would have just stood by and watched as this beast beat on a poor stableboy.
Will imagined what Geoff would do in this situation, or Mark the sheriff. He looked around for some sort of weapon, a shoe iron, something, and found a scabbarded broadsword leaning against the opposite stall. How had that gotten there? No one left such weapons just lying about, but there wasn’t time to question his good fortune.
He drew the sword from its scabbard—the handle was well-worn leather—and put the bribes master on guard.
“I command you to stop!” he shouted.
And he did. For a moment, the bribes master was frozen, whip in hand and eyes on Will’s sword. He didn’t like the look of that blade; his fearful eyes betrayed that much.
But he didn’t yield. He let out a nasty laugh and swung the whip at Milo. And picturing wolves, Will swung his sword.
He aimed for the bribes master’s arm but missed. The fat man shifted and Will struck the man’s thick thigh instead. The blade connected with something hard beneath the man’s furs, armor perhaps, but it also cut into something softer.
With a cry, the bribes master dropped the whip and fell to the ground, clutching his wounded leg.
Will stepped past the bribes master without lowering his sword. He hoped the man couldn’t see his knees shaking.
“Milo, are you all right?”
The boy nodded. His face was wet with tears and snot, his hands were a pattern of red welts, yet he made far less noise than the whimpering fat man.
Jenny knelt next to Milo and pressed the hem of her dress against his bleeding ear.
“Do you all know who my master is?” said the man, as he held his bleeding leg.
“Do you know whose castle this is?” Will shouted. He suddenly wanted to hit him again.
“This is the castle of Lord Rodric Shackley,” answered a strangely accented voice from behind them. “And you are his only son and heir.”
Will turned to see Sir Guy standing there, watching them. He was dressed the same as he had been last night, in his hideous horsehide armor, but this time something was missing. His belt was empty.
“And that is my man you just wounded. With
The Horse Knight smiled and shook his head. How long had he been in the stable, watching? Will wondered. And why hadn’t he stopped it?
Something had happened here that Will wasn’t seeing. None of it made any sense. None of it.
Why was Sir Guy smiling?
“I think we should speak to your uncle about this,” said Sir Guy. “A stolen sword, a wounded servant … We mustn’t let lawlessness go unpunished, eh, Wolfslayer?”
England is plots within plots
Will arrived at his mother’s chamber just as Milo was leaving it. The stable hand practically ran over the young lord on his way out. Milo’s bandaged hands looked painful, and his ear was red and swollen where it’d been tacked back together. But the boy’s smiling face was sticky with honey.
At first Will wondered what business his mother would have with Milo, but when he saw his friend’s sugary face, he realized—Lady Katherine had been plying him with sweets.
His mother wanted answers; she wanted to hear Milo’s side of the story, away from the intimidating lords and the shouted accusations. A smart move. She’d probably interrogated Jenny as well. After a day of Sir Guy’s rather public hysterics and cries for justice, Lady Katherine was conducting her own investigation into the matter.
The day had been dizzying, dreamlike, ever since the fight in the stables. Though he’d been so calm and cool in the stables, when Guy went before Geoff to air his grievance, he transformed. His bribes master had been taken to Guy’s room, where the physician stitched up his leg, and Guy carried the
man there himself. When he returned to Geoff’s hall, he hadn’t even bothered to wash the blood from his hands. He was the perfect picture of a lord offended, and in front of everyone, he condemned the lawlessness of Geoff’s halls and Will’s thuggery. His man had been wronged, and therefore he had been wronged. Will hadn’t seen a better performance.
Geoff had endured Guy’s raving with a clenched jaw and barely concealed fury. On the thievery charge, Will knew he and Milo might be suspected—everyone in the castle knew their history of mischief making. But not a man or woman would believe that he and Milo had physically attacked the bribes master unprovoked or that Jenny was somehow involved. That lie went too far.
Will would’ve liked a moment alone now with Milo himself, but the door was open and he could glimpse his mother inside waiting for him.
“How are you feeling?” Will asked his friend.
“Hurts,” said Milo, holding up his fingers. “But your mother’s surgeon stitched me up properly. Says I’ll heal well enough.”
Will smiled, and as he brushed past his friend, Milo whispered, “Think we’ve really stepped into it this time, Will.”
The fire was roaring inside Lady Katherine’s chambers, and the air smelled of honey. Two chairs were set at the front table, and honey rolls and a bowl of sweet cream sat in between them.
Will’s mother ignored the desserts and pointedly did not invite Will to help himself, which was a shame because it was the first food he’d spied all day that set his stomach to rumbling. Instead, she sat on her cushioned stool near the fireplace and took up her embroidery.
Will was left to stand.
“Um, am I in trouble?” asked Will.
His mother did not look up from her stitching. “Will, you are the heir of Shackley House, and you are too old to be afraid of a scolding from your mother.”
Will let out a breath. “Oh, I thought that—”
“That being said, yes. You are in trouble.”
“What? Mother, that’s not fair!”
Finally, Lady Katherine looked up from her embroidery. Her face was full of exasperation and something else. Her blue eyes had made her worthy of many portraits in her youth, and she was still considered a great beauty. But tonight those eyes were bloodshot, puffy. Had she been crying?
“Sit down, my son. We need to talk.”