Authors: Matthew Cody
Will pulled a chair over to the fire. He lingered near the sweet cream for just a second but left it, sadly, untouched.
Once he’d settled into his seat, his mother watched him for a bit, saying nothing. Will knew better than to interrupt whatever thought she was mulling over, but he did wish he had a nice plateful of cream and perhaps a honey roll to pass the quiet. Maybe this was a part of his punishment, this torture by pastry.
“You look like your father when you sulk,” she said, smiling slightly.
“What?” she said. “You think a great lord of men doesn’t know how to pout? Not when he’s holding court, to be sure. But you remember the year when he wasn’t allowed to journey to France to ride in my father’s jousting tourney?”
Will nodded. “He twisted his ankle, and Geoff rode in his place.”
“And Lord Rodric Shackley sat in that very same chair and grumbled for weeks. You have his frown.”
Will squirmed uncomfortably, adjusting the cushion beneath his bottom. He hadn’t been frowning, had he?
“But you have something else of your father, too. You have his instinct. His sense of justice and fairness. It’s lordly and you wear it well. I’m proud of you for standing up for your friends, Will. You should know that.”
He kept his eyes on the fire. He hadn’t been expecting praise and wasn’t sure what to do with it. Was this part of her interrogation?
“But you haven’t been caught stealing from Nan’s larder this time,” she said. “Sir Guy is a favorite of the prince, and while he was enjoying the hospitality of our castle, his man was wounded. By the Shackley heir himself.”
“But I’ve already told you I was protecting Milo and Jenny. That man would’ve whipped Milo to shreds!”
“Yes, but Guy refutes your story. He claims that his sword went missing in the night and that he sent his man out to search for it in the morning. And that his man found the three of you
with it in the stables. When the man tried to retrieve his master’s sword, you turned on him. He defended himself with his horsewhip, and you cut him down.”
“That’s not true!” said Will.
“Can you prove it?”
“I have witnesses!”
“Co-conspirators, Guy calls them.”
“Mother! I’m innocent!” Will found himself shouting, while all the while his mother sat calmly before him, her voice level and her stare hard. Did she really not believe her own son?
His mother took a deep breath as a sad, small smile cracked her otherwise stony expression.
“Oh, my son,” she said. “Of course you are. No one believes Sir Guy or his repulsive bribes master. But innocence and guilt have nothing to do with this now. Sir Guy wants to take you to Westminster. To be tried by the royal court there.”
“Westminster? Why, Mother?” asked Will. “Couldn’t we summon the sheriff instead? Why must I travel to London?”
“You won’t,” she said. “Geoff won’t allow it. He’ll let Guy shout himself blue, but he won’t give you over to Prince John.”
Prince John? What does the prince have to do with a brawl in Shackley Castle?
His mother must’ve seen the look of sudden understanding dawn upon her son’s face, because she nodded. “England is plots within plots,” she said.
This wasn’t about a wounded servant at all.
“The prince wants me in London so that Geoff will be forced to support him,” said Will. “The prince wants a hostage.”
“Yes,” said his mother. “He’ll lock you up in the Tower while he delays the trial for weeks—months, if need be. Just long enough to pressure your uncle to back his bid for the throne.”
Will felt his legs go wobbly. If he hadn’t already been sitting, he might have fallen over. There were stories of lordlings who went into the Tower of London and never came out. How had this all happened so fast?
“He’ll lock you up in a room befitting your station, of course,” said his mother. “A well-furnished prison, but a prison nonetheless.”
His mother rested her hand upon Will’s arm. “But Sir Guy and the prince miscalculated. The royal court is not a place to try a lord for brawling with a servant, no matter how favored that servant may be. No crime has been committed worthy of Westminster, and the rest of the lords would see through the prince’s ploy easily.”
Will looked into his mother’s eyes. “So I don’t have to go?”
“No, my son. Geoff has already sent for the sheriff, and Mark Brewer will ask that we pay Sir Guy a fine for his troubles
and offer up an apology. Such an apology will stick in your uncle’s throat like a chicken bone, but he’ll do it. Then we’ll send the Horse Knight on his way and pray he never darkens our door again!”
Will let his head fall into his hands. He was relieved beyond words not to have to make the journey to London, but at the same time he felt his cheeks burning a bright red with the shame that his uncle would have to formally apologize to Sir Guy for a crime that Will was not even guilty of. It made Will so sick that even the sweets laid out before him lost their appeal.
“How are you sleeping?” his mother asked after a moment.
“I’m your mother.”
Will sighed. “I have bad dreams. Ever since the wolves.”
“Your father never sleeps well, either. And he dreams of worse than wolves, I’m afraid.”
Will’s mother reached out and took him in her arms, hugging him close. “Oh, Will, how I wish you didn’t have to grow up yet. I’m not ready for it.”
“Honestly, I don’t know if I am, either,” said Will, his voice suddenly thick in his throat.
Lady Katherine released him. “But we don’t have a say in the matter, my young lord William. The time has come.”
Wiping at his eyes, Will stood and headed for the door. He was glad Geoff wasn’t here to see this.
He stopped at the door and turned to her. She was staring at the fire again, her back to him, the embroidery forgotten on her stool.
“Bad things are happening in England right now, and we both miss your father terribly, but we must not lose faith. We must never, never lose faith.”
“Yes, Mother,” Will said as he tried to find a smile to comfort her with, but it was difficult. As he shut the door behind him, he thought he could hear his mother crying.
That night exhaustion and worry finally overtook him. He slept fitfully, and it was late the next morning when he was woken by Hugo banging on his chamber door.
Groggily, Will opened up.
“Geoffrey has asked for you to come at once, my lord.”
“Why? Has something happened?”
The thin steward swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing along his throat like fish in a stream.
“The sheriff arrived this morning with soldiers.”
“Well, good,” answered Will. “They can escort Sir Guy from the castle.”
“My lord, the man you wounded, Sir Guy’s bribes master … he’s dead.”
Will felt the floor shift beneath his feet, threatening to drop away. Somewhere on the edge of last night’s sleep, the wolves howled.
Shall I fetch his corpse?
Will followed Hugo through the halls of Shackley House as panicked servants bustled back and forth. Everyone seemed to want something to do, but there wasn’t anything. The gates had already been opened to permit the sheriff’s entrance before the news of the bribes master’s death had spread. And now the sheriff was inside the castle with a score of armed men.
As Hugo led him past a window overlooking the courtyard, Will spotted Geoff, Osbert, and the rest of the castle guards assembling before the sheriff and his men. Luckily, no swords were drawn. Yet.
Hugo led Will to a door that he recognized. To most of the house staff, it was an old unused storage room, but Will knew the family secret. At the back of the closet was a hidden passage that led down to a tunnel. That tunnel would take you beyond the castle walls to a secluded copse of trees and safety. An escape tunnel for the lord’s family.
“Come,” said Hugo. “I’m to escort you and Lady Katherine to safety. She’s out there already, waiting for you.”
“Leave?” said Will. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Mother wants me to run away?”
“My lord, these are your
Geoff. For all his talk of making a man out of him, here he was treating Will like a boy. Hiding him away with his mother until the danger had passed.
But this danger was Will’s fault, and he would face it with the men of his house. He hadn’t run from the wolves; he wouldn’t run from the sheriff.
He would, however, run from Hugo. He knew the family’s steward wasn’t above dragging Will into that passage by the ear if that’s what it took to follow Geoff’s order, and though the man was skinny, he was still a good deal stronger than Will.
Will made a show of peering into the dark storage room.
“How will I see inside that passage?” he asked.
“There’s a lantern on the wall there.”
“Where? I don’t see it.”
“Here,” said Hugo, stepping past Will and into the room.
And that’s when Will slammed the door shut behind him. Then he turned and sprinted back down the hall, even as he heard Hugo shouting and fumbling for the latch in the dark. It wouldn’t keep him long, but it gave Will a head start.
Past the worried servants he bolted, the groups gathered at the windows and near the doors, round to the front doors and straight out into the courtyard.
When Geoff saw him appear, he shot Will a look that promised daggers, but Osbert gave Will an approving nod. Will tried to catch his breath and walk calmly to join his uncle, as a true lord of Shackley would.
The sheriff watched Will approach and smiled. Sir Guy stood off to one side, watching as well. He was unarmed, which Will took for a good sign, at least.
“My lord William,” said the sheriff. “I am glad that you’ve joined us. And I hope that you can talk some sense into your uncle.”
“I am regent here,” said Geoff. “The boy’s protector. And I have said my piece. He isn’t going anywhere.”
The sheriff’s smile faded. “Geoff, be sensible!”
? Are we dispensing with titles now? You come into my castle with armed men and suddenly I’m your friend again, is that it? And who are these men? They wear your colors, but I don’t recognize their faces.”
“This is no longer about a fight. A man is dead,” said the sheriff. “A trusted servant of Sir Guy’s, but I cannot officiate a murder trial against Lord Rodric’s only heir. I don’t have the authority. Westminster is the only choice.”
“I didn’t kill him,” said Will. “I only wounded him!”
“He bled out in the night,” said Guy, frowning. “Seems your sword arm is stronger than it looks, Wolfslayer.”
“Our physician examined his wound,” said Geoff. “He said it was a flesh wound, nothing more.”
“Then you need a better surgeon!” shouted Guy. “My man’s dead. Shall I fetch his corpse?”
“No, but perhaps you could fetch the blade you used to kill him?”
“How dare …” If Guy had had a sword on him, he would’ve drawn it then and there. And Geoff was ready to match him.
But the sheriff stepped between the two of them.
“Enough! You can hurl all the accusations you like at Westminster. This is now a matter for the royal court, and it is my duty to escort Sir Guy and William there.”
He stepped in close to Geoff, and his words were soft enough that only those closest could make them out.
“I give you my word, Geoff. Will won’t come to harm. He’ll be treated according to his station and title.”
“He’ll be a prisoner!” answered Geoff. “John’s hostage.”
“He’ll be alive! Don’t you see what’s happening here?” The sheriff gestured to the men squaring off, their hands on their weapons. “I tried to warn you.”
“You are not the prince!” said Geoff. “Your word means nothing in Westminster. I will not let you take my brother’s only son from his own house!”
There was an excruciating moment when neither man said anything. Will didn’t know what to do. He didn’t want to go to London, but he couldn’t let men fight and die on his behalf. He’d have to trust the sheriff.
“I’ll go with him,” he said.
“Will,” said Geoff.
“It’s my choice. Either I’m a man or I’m not, Uncle. And I’m allowed to make my own decisions.”
The sheriff let out a sigh of relief and, turning to Will, said, “Lord William, indeed.”
But then Will looked over at Sir Guy, if for no other reason than to show him that he was unafraid. As he did, he saw Guy give a quick nod to one of the sheriff’s soldiers.
Two men stepped forward, and one of them grabbed Will and threw him to the ground while the other pulled a pair of irons from his belt. It was unexpected, and Will hit the earth with a painful thud.
The sheriff shouted at the men to stop, and they paused but didn’t back off. One man placed his foot on Will’s back as he looked to Guy for what to do next.
It became clear at this moment whose men these soldiers really were.
Geoff was in the sheriff’s face, shouting again even as the sheriff barked orders at the soldiers to stand down. The sound of several swords being drawn at once rang out through the courtyard. A battle cry, a bearlike roar that seemed improbable for his age, came out of Osbert’s mouth, and he swung a heavy fist at the soldier standing on Will. Osbert caught the man along the jaw, knocking him to the ground.
Then the courtyard erupted into chaos.
Will rolled away to avoid being trampled by a stampede of booted feet as the soldiers descended on the castle guards. He barely dodged a pair of men who’d dropped their weapons and were now pummeling each other with their armored fists while they wrestled on the ground.
Will reached for his side but realized he hadn’t bothered to buckle on a weapon. The courtyard was filled with fighting men, and here was Will unarmed and unarmored. He searched for his uncle’s face among the crowd, but there were more soldiers than Shackley men. Already the line of castle guards had broken. Fists and booted feet, clubs and the flats of swords—Will was in the middle of a free-for-all castle brawl.