The Baron

The Baron

Virginia Brown

December 2017 $15.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-844-8

There’s a new Sheriff in Nottingham . . .


 
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There’s a new Sheriff in Nottingham . . .

A baron trapped by honor, a lady bound by loyalty, both caught in a trap set by a ruthless king . . .

Stripped of his lands and title for another man’s lie, Tré Devaux, Third Baron of Brayeton, is given a chance to win it all back if he accepts the post as High Sheriff of Nottingham. King John decrees his lands will be returned if Tré captures the Saxon outlaws haunting Sherwood Forest. Determined to regain his ancestral home, Tré vows to let no one thwart him, but he had not anticipated Lady Jane Neville, a captivating widow intent upon protecting the very outlaws he pursues.

Jane may be the widow of a Norman, but she is Saxon by birth and loyalty—and niece to the famed outlaw, Robin Hood. While her uncle may be gone, she cannot bear to see harm fall upon innocent Saxon villagers or the men Robin left behind. Jane didn’t expect to find honor in the new sheriff, nor did she dream she would lose her heart to him.

Passion flares between the baron and the lady, sweeping them into danger where they must choose between love and life . . .

Virginia Brown has written more than fifty historical and contemporary romance novels. Many of her books have been nominated for Romantic Times’ Reviewer’s Choice Award, Career Achievement Award for Love and Laughter, and Career Achievement Award for Adventure. She is also the author of the bestselling Dixie Diva mystery series and the acclaimed mainstream Southern drama/mystery, Dark River Road, which won the national Epic e-Book Award.

Reviews

"History and romance perfectly blended.” – Kathe Robin, RT Book Reviews

Excerpt

1

DARK EYES REGARDED Tré steadily; rings flashed in torch and can­dlelight as the king waved him forward. The chamber was near empty, save for a scribe and the king’s steward.

Tré approached the dais where John sat in an unkingly sprawl; he did not bow his head or bend the knee, but stood silent and still while the king spoke to his steward. Heavy tapestries covered the chamber’s walls, richly embroidered, a blur of red and gold behind the dais.

It was cold; Tré’s boots were muddy, but he had taken no time to don clean garments when summoned by King John. In truth, be had been given no time to do more than accompany the guard sent to escort him to Windsor, a dire omen that set his jaw and his temper.

King John, Pell Ewing—two men of the same ilk. Greedy, ruthless warlords. Nothing mattered to them but their own goals. Not even the life of small child—whose loss he blamed on king and earl as well as Saxon outlaws.

Over two years since Aimée died—not so long ago. Yet a lifetime...

"Lord Devaux,Baron of Brayeton.”

The scribe’s gruff announcement jerked him from harsh memory to the present. Tré looked up, met the king’s gaze with a steady stare. John’s eyes narrowed slightly; thin lips twisted at the blatant refusal to bend knee or head.

"You took overlong to answer our summons, Brayeton.”

Petulance marked the royal face and tone; one hand came to rest languidly upon the carved chair arm. Tré stood silent. Tension thumped in his belly.

John’s expression eased into a mocking smile. Jewels winked as he chewed a fingernail, halted to say abruptly, "The Earl of Welburn has been deseisened of his lands and title.”

Savage exultation flared, but Tré did not allow it to show in his face or words. "Indeed, sire.”

"Yea, indeed, my lord of Brayeton.” The king leaned forward in his bolstered chair. "What say you to that?”

"It is a grave misfortune, sire.”

"A misfortune?” John gave a bark of laughter that held no humor. "Misfortune for Ewing, or for yourself?”

"I am not allied with Pell Ewing, sire.”

"No, you are not. Yet it has come to our attention of late that you have withdrawn from our service. You paid knights’ fees and shield tax, but did not answer our summons to Nottingham. Explain your reasons to our satisfaction.”

"My lands require much of my time, sire.” Salvation lay in half-truths; survival prompted him to remind the king, "I have just returned from your campaign against the Welsh.”

It was waved away as inconsequential. "We need more assurance of your loyalty. You have no family, no hostages to offer us, only an oath of fealty that you have not yet sworn.”

Tré held his tongue; not even to avoid censure would he swear an oath he was not certain he could keep. It would be treason should he break it. More danger lay in perjury than in refusal.

The king’s steward stepped forward, murmured in John’s ear, then stepped away. Tension prickled down Tré’s spine; the new wound in his side throbbed, raw and unhealed, a constant ache, compliments of a Welsh sword.

John turned back, mouth curled in a nasty smile. "We have seized Welburn lands for the crown. Ewing is your overlord, a proven traitor, alive only because he has fled to Ireland. He named you as conspirator. Show me good cause to allow you to remain free, my lord Brayeton.”

Anger sparked, was swiftly tamped. "Sire, you are aware of my long feud with the Earl of Welburn. Would you accuse me of treachery on his word alone?”

"Can you prove your innocence?”

"I have not heard specific charges, sire. If I am to be accused, I demand my rights as baron to a trial before the Council of Barons.”

John regarded him through hooded eyes; mockery tucked the corners of his mouth. "The council meets at Nottingham Castle. As we just met in September, you will remain in our custody until the next council meeting.”

A clank of weapons and armor from the guards entering bespoke the king’s intent; Tré tensed. Few men left Windsor’s dungeons alive.

Coolly, he said, "Sire, the Barons of Brayeton have served England’s kings since the time of the Conqueror. Imprison me without trial, and you will earn the enmity of even your allies. Do you court more enemies when you are beset on all sides?”

King John frowned, glanced toward his steward again, and chewed his fingernail for a moment. Then he sat back, narrow shoulders pressed against wood and gilt.

"Your lands are forfeit until charges against you are put before the Council of Barons. Unless you prefer prison, you may be of some use, my lord Brayeton. We are in need of a high sheriff of Nottingham.”

Surprise and outrage rendered Tré silent for a moment. Wily John—if he could not extract one oath, he would secure another. An appointment to sheriff would bind him to uphold the very laws he hated. A refusal would result in his imprisonment. He sucked in a deep breath.

"I thought the position occupied, sire.”

"Not,” the king said harshly, "for long. Eustace de Lowdham has misjudged me. His greedy hand plunders my taxes. He fails to catch the outlaws who poach Sherwood preserves and steal from royal coffers. You have proven your worth in pursuit of the Welsh—prove your worth as sheriff, and lands and title will be returned to you in time.”

Tré’s eyes narrowed; dust motes danced in gray bars of light filtering through the open window. It was a subtle trap. Far easier for John to be rid of an appointed official than to risk alienating all his baronsby eliminating one of their own without proven cause.

Disaster loomed. Until this moment he had not known how complete was Welburn’s hatred of him. Cunning earl, to destroy an enemy with a simple accusation—tempting a king who coveted rich lands for his war against Philip of France and the pope.

Far better to compromise than lose all....

Silence stretched, grew heavy and dense. Impatient, John snapped, "Decide, my lord Brayeton.”

Bitter words burned his tongue: "If I am not trusted to be baron, am I trusted to be sheriff?”

"A landless baron wields little enough power. You will be a warning to those who consider treason—evidence of our resolve, and our generosity in allowing you life and liberty.”

The king beckoned to his scribe, looked back at Tré. "Arrive in Nottingham before the first Sunday of Lent. Serve us well, Devaux, and we shall reward thee well. Fail us, and lose all.”

Devaux—I am already stripped of title and rank.... He swallowed rage and unwise comment, held his tongue when John’s eyes glittered with malicious satisfaction.

Brayeton Keep, gone in the blink of an eye, seized for a false accusation. Now they belonged to King John: the stone keep where he had been born, and a hillside where two small graves lay beneath an old oak.

Aimée...

Memory veered from the sharp pain, barricaded itself behind familiar grayness: hollow, empty of soft emotion, a vast desolation where it was safe. Where the anguish of loss could not reach him.

Ad noctum—Into the darkness.


 

 

2

Nottingham Castle—February 25, 1213

RAIN GLISTENED on the domed helmets and chainmail of Norman soldiers entering Nottingham Castle beneath the jagged iron teeth of the outer gate. Hooves pounded like brittle thunder. Vapor rose from steaming hides of muscular coursers near as fierce as their riders. The clatter of sheathed weapons was muffled but ominous. It was suddenly loud in the outer bailey, a warning to those within that the unknown would soon be upon them.

Jane, widow of Hugh de Neville, drew the edges of her fur-trimmed mantle more closely around her. Nervous fingers tugged at the hood to cover her hair. There had not been time enough to don a wimple when word came that the new sheriff was near Nottingham at last. It had taken too long to coax her cousin into readiness, leaving her just enough time to club her own light brown hair into a plait and tuck it beneath her hood as they hastened from nearby Gedling to the castle. Rain misted her lashes. She blinked it away as she peered through the drizzle and jostling crowd toward the approaching Normans.

A contingent separated from the others to enter the middle bailey. A banner flew damply in the wind, snapping like the crack of a whip above mailed heads to announce the sheriff’s arrival. Tension knotted in her stomach, twisting. So close now.

Beside her, Lissa made a sound of impatience and shoved roughly at the man in front of them. "Oaf! Be’ware of where thou trod!”

"’Ere now!” the man protested, but moved from her path. It opened up a hole in the throng, so the cousins had a much better view.

It was more crowded than Jane had anticipated; barons, freedmen, and merchants were allowed into the middle bailey to greet—or confront—the new sheriff. Saxon English and Norman French commingled in wanton intercourse of language, one ancient, the other the speech of the Conqueror. All of Nottingham had turned out. Now narrow streets held little more than cold wind and dread as citizens packed into the castle bailey; their collective support or resistance would be determined by the actions of the new sheriff.

Shivering as much from anticipation as the icy gusts that tugged at warm wool and skirts, Jane craned to see as the Normans drew close enough for her to pick out individual men instead of a blur of steel and arrogance.

Which one is the high sheriff?

There was no mace of office to identify him, no gold-linked chain of office worn around the neck to mark him as the king’s man.

But as the column of horsemen garbed in black and gold tunics slowed their mounts to a walk, she knew. He was there, flanked by other Normans, yet distinctly separate.

At her side, Lissa heaved a long, appreciative sigh. "It has been a long time since I have ridden something that big and magnificent...”

Jane shifted her gaze from the Normans to her cousin. "I assume you mean the horse,” she murmured, and Lissa laughed.

"I could be speaking of the steed, of course—both are fine, muscular animals, sleek and dark and dangerous.”

"Mind your clacking tongue. Would you have others here remark upon your vulgar wit?”

A serene smile and shrug were ample evidence of Lissa’s indifference to the warning. Her silk wimple fluttered in damp folds against her lovely face as her gaze returned to the line of Normans. "Do you think he is Devaux?”

Jane knew which man she meant without asking. Iron-shod hooves struck sparks on the uneven wet stones as a splendid black steed pranced arrogantly forward. The Norman in the saddle was even more impressive.

A negligent hand curbed the restive gait of the courser before it trod upon eager citizens; there was steel in the light grip that even the willful nature of the huge beast recognized. Snorting, nostrils flared in dangerous crimson flowers, the stallion obeyed the unspoken command and halted only a few feet from Jane. Her gaze moved in wary fasci­nation from courser to master.

An eloquent centaur, spare of motion and expression, features devoid of all but regard for the animal, he seemed not to see those crowded among the barracks and stone walls of the bailey. The only sounds were the brisk rattle of military accoutrements. Fraught with suspense, the abrupt absence of conversation paid homage more to the bearing of the sheriff than to the apprehension of the people.

She understood completely.

Unencumbered by heavy mail, broad shoulders and a thick chest were encased in a flowing surcoat of ebony wool. Fine gilt tracery formed a stark pattern on the front, emblem of his rank and heritage. Soot-black hair was neatly trimmed in Norman fashion; rain-dampened strands fell forward over eyebrows that slashed across his forehead. He had a strong face, angular as most Normans’, with high carved cheek­bones and a chiseled mouth that looked as if it had never known a smile.

Jane stirred uneasily. Unexpected appreciation of his masculine features fluttered briefly before she thrust it firmly aside. Pray, let him be different from the last high sheriff....

She slipped one hand beneath her mantle, skimmed the rose-colored velvet of her cotte until her searching fingers found and curled tightly around a length of finely wrought gold chain. She drew the small gold cross at the chain’s end into her palm and rubbed her thumb over the carved surface.

Since de Lowdham’s departure, the undersheriff left to mete out justice in the Saxon borough had been just as harsh. It did not bode well for Nottinghamshire if this man proved to be as merciless as had been his predecessors.

The crowd shifted, closed ranks to block her view of him; Jane rose to her toes to peer over the heads in front of her. The tang of fresh horse droppings was on the rising wind; spurs jangled, and curb chains clinked in brittle song. Servants’ rouncies snorted, pawed stone, backed into sumpters loaded with baggage. The horseboys came running to take charge of the animals.

The spell that had briefly gripped the crowd was broken, melded into chaotic babble. Anticipation rose sharply as the high sheriff lifted his head to survey the bailey with a raking glance. Arrogance was evident in every sharp angle and line of his powerful frame. He looked competent—and ruthless.

Jane sucked in a sharp, disappointed breath.

A horseboy held on to the reins of the fractious courser as the sheriff dismounted, betraying a slight stiffness of movement where she had expected more agility. Yet when he turned to face the barons lined up like wet crows on a hedge row, he exhibited no infirmity.

Slowly drawing off his leather gauntlets, he surveyed them all with a lifted brow. "I did not foresee such a welcome, my lords. To what do I owe this unexpected reception?”

The pretty consonants and vowels of Norman French were more of a growl on his tongue, the fluid language of the Conqueror bludgeoned into blunt inflection. Jane pushed forward to stand behind a baron she had known since childhood. A silent glance of disapproval was eloquent with his belief that females should remain in their place. She ignored it, her attention on the sheriff.

His breath formed frost clouds as Devaux waited for a reply. A brow angled sharply upward when no one came forward to answer him.

"Is there no spokesman?”

The drizzling rain made a soft hissing sound. Norman knights shifted, weapons clanking. When no Saxon summoned the courage to step forward or speak out, coarse laughter rippled through the Norman ranks.

Devaux’s lip curled in undisguised contempt. "So I thought. Get you home before the rains reduce you to naught but sodden curs.”

It was the shaming laughter from Norman ranks as much as the sheriff’s contempt that prompted her; Jane elbowed past Gilbert of Oxton. Her voice rose to be heard above the clank and clatter of the guards:

"My lord High Sheriff, we come to ask that you listen to our concerns and give us redress.”

Rising wind muffled the words so that they sounded strangely distorted. Lord Oxton turned to look at her. Chagrin was evident on pale, sharp features, his Saxon English roughly familiar:

"Lady Neville, ’tis not necessary for you—”

"No, what you mean is that it is not proper for a lady to speak out thusly.” Impatient, she shrugged off the restraining hand he put on her arm. "Yet who else will have the courage to speak if I do not? ’Tis certain none of these brave barons can summon nerve enough.”

Her stinging barbs found accurate marks. Several Saxon barons suffused with angry color, but it was the sheriff who commanded her instant attention:

"Step forward, my lady, so that I may view this Saxon with enough courage to demand amends.”

His Saxon English was fluent, a warning to any baron who might think Norman scorn of the language gave them an advantage.

Jane tensed. Dread coiled in her belly. It would be impossible to walk without stumbling; sudden realization of the notice she had brought upon herself rendered her immobile. Her tongue cleaved to the roof of her mouth, uncooperative and clumsy.

But I am the daughter of a valiant Saxon knight, widow of a Norman baron, and no man can shame me unless I allow it—

Her chin rose with a determined tilt. "Indeed, sir, ’tis not courage that prompts me to speak, but justice.”

"Justice?” A straight brow winged upward; the mouth she had thought too harsh to smile tucked inward with wry humor. "A strange word to find on English lips.”

"Not so strange, my lord, but certainly a word found too infrequently in Norman hearts.”

For an instant, their gazes locked. Distracted, taut with uncertainty, Jane had a brief impression of eyes as hard and green as emeralds; the wary gaze of a cat lurked beneath a brush of wet black lashes.

"I find your assertions intriguing, my lady.” The words were smooth, the voice a low rasp. Rain hissed on stones and bare heads. "Such a mettlesome adherent of justice requires an introduction. What is your family name?”

Hunting eyes, keen and watchful, waiting for an answer and a misstep.... "My late husband was Hugh de Neville, the king’s Baron of Ravenshed. My father was Rolf of Ashfield, loyal knight to the Lionheart.”

"Neville was your husband?” He paused, finally adding, "I knew him, Lady Neville. He was a fine man and valiant knight in his day.”

"Yea, so he was, sir. His death is most grievous.”

The words were steady enough, though there was a curious crumbling inside as she said them. Hugh’s loss had been painful but not unexpected. It was the desolation she had not foreseen. There were times she felt so alone....

A low rumble of thunder sounded in the distance. The rain began to worsen. It struck the bailey with increasing force, pinging loudly against metal helmets and shields.

Devaux gave a terse order for the barons to accompany him into the hall, then turned to Jane and held out his arm.

"You will do me the honor of being my guest, milady.”

It was not a request but a demand. Though she bridled at his arrogance, she placed her hand on his arm. Eyes followed her: Oxton’s angry, others’ shocked, Lissa’s round with awe. Trapped, Jane did not betray her own dread.

Her slight stature was dwarfed by the towering Norman. She had never felt more keenly vulnerable than she did at that moment. Her fingers lay lightly on his sleeve; beneath rich wool was ample evidence of taut muscles and strength. It was daunting, a suddenly inescapable feeling of walking into a lion’s lair—no less daunting than Nottingham Castle itself.

High curtain walls of buff-colored sandstone fifteen feet thick rose in concentric circles to protect a castle studded with gates and turrets. In daylight, crenelated stone battlements resembled jagged teeth gnawing at the sky; at night, some said ’twas the devil’s backbone.

A massive precipice of sandstone provided the natural advantage of unscalable height. Forbidding rock cliffs and the River Leen bounded the south side. Between the River Leen and the River Trent in the distance lay only vast meadows, now browned by winter sear and thin traces of snow—a bare expanse with no tree or structure to obscure the view of possible enemy approach. The fortress was intimidating, brooding over town and countryside like a great, hulking bird of prey, slitted eyes keeping watch from high towers.

Tense, cold, blinded by icy rain, Jane was grateful to see the great hall loom ahead. She stumbled slightly on the bottom step. An arm immediately went around her waist to steady her, then lingered. Imposing, silent beside her, Devaux’s strides were lithe and sure as they ascended the steep, rain-slick stone steps and moved into the stark shelter of the guard room.

Blinking rain from her lashes, Jane dropped her hand from his arm and stood shivering. Her rich mantle was sodden, clinging to her body in heavy folds. She pushed back the hood, scraped a hand over wet, curling strands of hair fraying from her plait, discomfited that she had not taken the time to garb herself properly. She no doubt resembled an alewife, hardly a recommendation for her status as a baron’s widow. Only a thin coronet of twisted gold wound with blue ribbons to match her eyes held back wet hair from her forehead.

The guard room was gloomy, close, smelling of rain and mud and dank stone. Lifting a hand, Devaux beckoned. A steward rushed forwardto remove the damp mantle from her shoulders as her cold fingers fumbled to unfasten the clasp.

"Allow me, milady,” the steward murmured and slid it from her shoulders before he turned back to the sheriff. "My lord Sheriff, Sir Gervaise sends word that he awaits your immediate presence in the antechamber.”

Brittle silence was followed by a soft reply that did not disguise the steel beneath it: "Does he. He will wait longer ere I heel like a hound. I will escort the lady to the hall. Take her mantle to dry by the fire.”

Devaux turned, his shadowed gaze studying Jane’s upturned face so intently that she had to smother an inexplicable urge to smooth her hair. He unnerves me....

"It is warmer by the fire, milady. Come. I will hear more of your complaints.”

Silent, she inclined her head in an agreement she did not feel; disquiet stirred within her at this separation from the barons.

"My mantle,” she said, reaching for it when the steward turned to go; he held tight to it, gave her a quick smile of apology.

"It will be safe, milady. I shall not lay it too close to the flames.”

He was gone before she could halt him, weaving swiftly through the throng of damp barons and Norman guards now crowded inside. Devaux waited, an unsettling presence, a solid wall of Norman hostility at its finest; she could not think how to disentangle herself without insulting him, to her future detriment.

"Are you contemplating ways to escape me, milady?”

Startled at his astute observation, her head jerked up. Heated embarrassment burned her cheeks. "Yes,” she said bluntly and was rewarded with a faint suggestion of a smile at the corners of his hard mouth. His brow rose.

"Am I so hated, then?”

"Only what you represent, perhaps.”

"Which is law and order. Would that Saxons could perceive the necessity for it.”

His sarcasm stung; she drew in an angry breath. "It is not law and order which is so detestable, but the arbitrary manner in which it is measured. Outlaws visit devastation, yet roam free while honest citizens are gathered up and threatened with imprisonment for life if they do not fight for a king who cares nothing for them.”

"You do not bandy words idly, I see.” Though sarcasm still tinged the remark, it was diluted. He looked at her thoughtfully, then after a moment took her by the arm again to move beyond the heavy curtain separating the guard room from the great hall.

Cavernous, with high ceilings and hazy light, the hall was crowded with barons and noise; double doors were thrown wide to allow easy access. Trestle tables stacked against the walls were being taken down and put into place by beleaguered servants. She was cold without her mantle, the rose velvet cotte scant protection against the chill. Her feet were wet, squelching on muddied rushes and stone as she walked beside him.

At a gesture from the sheriff, those by the fire abandoned a low bench; he waited until she was seated before he sat beside her. It was warmer there, the pool of heat welcome. Acutely aware of him beside her, she tugged the hem of her cotte up to her ankles, wiggling her feet as the delicious warmth from the fire spread under her skirts.

He adjusted his sword, then stretched out long legs clad in tight-woven black chausses. Supple calfskin boots rose to his knees. Tiny splinters of light caught in the gilt emblem on a tunic shortened for riding; the embroidered shape of a raven was recognizable now.

A raven—Celtic symbol of darkness and despair...

The pleasant smell of wind and leather mingled with the scent of wet wool as he turned to look at her. Unexpectedly, her pulse began to race in a most unseemly manner at his steady regard. The knot in her stomach tightened. Her lungs grew starved of air, so that she had to breathe in deeply to fill them....He was most disconcerting.

"Who is your escort today, milady?”

"My cousin. Lady Dunham of Gedling.”

"Then you have no protector.”

Danger loomed, couched in the simple statement. "I was not aware I needed a protector here, my lord Sheriff.”

A straight brow rose. "Have you no mirror?”

There was subtle mockery in the question, and to hide her sudden confusion she looked away from him to survey her surroundings.

The hall had changed little since last she had been there. Banners and huge iron rings of candles were suspended from the high ceilings, which were buttressed by stone columns. No woven hangings softened the walls; only shields and battle-axes were displayed against stone. Thin, polished hides stretched over the high windows allowed in ribbons of gray light, but torches set into a dozen metal sconces provided the most illumination; their indiscriminate sparks singed the skin, hair, and garments of those too near them. Servants bustled down wide aisles, vanishing behind latticed wood screens, only to reappear with platters of food for the long trestle tables set at right angles to the dais. Somewhere a lute player coaxed bawdy ballads from his instrument.

Clearly a fortress and not a home; yet, if not for the uncertain hazards of the new high sheriff, it might have been festive in those last days before Lent commenced.

Beside her, Devaux shifted position. His strong hands were splayed on his knees. He was brusque now, the mask of courtesy dropped. "You have grown suddenly timid, milady. A Saxon trait. It is expected, but I thought better of you.”

Stung, she swung her gaze to his face, openly stared at him. "I am not responsible for what you expected, my lord Sheriff.”

"No.” The hard line of his mouth eased. "You are not.”

He baited her. She had risen to it far too easily, but would not give him the satisfaction of looking away, of yielding to the demand for a submission she knew he required. She would not be as the others, cowering under Norman rule. As he had said, It is expected.

But it was more difficult than she had imagined not to look away, to hold his gaze while he willed her to yield ground. Silent struggle was freighted with determination and something else, some small spark deep inside that ignited a mute appreciation of masculine symmetry: wide-spacedeyes, a straight nose, well-formed lips, and clean-shaven angle of jaw that projected stubborn determination. Ancient Northern forebears of his race had left him the legacy of height and muscle.

Daunting, daunting man—fearsome in his pride, more dangerous in his silence....

Still holding her gaze, he said, "By Sunday next, the king has commanded that all English ships return to their home ports. I am bade summon all who have done homage and fealty to the king to meet with horses and arms at Dover by the close of Easter. It is my duty to ensure that those within this sheriffdom join the king or suffer reprisal.”

Her brow rose. "Indeed, it should pain you greatly to visit new woes upon the land, my lord High Sheriff—though I think it does not.”

After a short, sizzling silence, Devaux said, "You intrigue me, Lady Neville.”

Her hands clenched in rose velvet.

"Why? Because I say what I think? Or is it because I spoke up when others would not?”

"Both. You should be at home weaving cloth or governing servants, not meddling in the affairs of men.”

His ridicule stung, and she stiffened "The few servants I have left to me after the conscriptions into royal service can weave without my supervision, but you are right, my lord—I should be at home. It is evident I have wasted my time and yours by coming here to plead for succor.”

"Not necessarily.” There was an intensity to his gaze that took her breath away. "I will weigh your pleas most carefully, milady. But do not mistake contemplation for weakness. I tell you plainly that I am the king’s man, here to mete out justice in his name and restore order to the shire.”

"That is all any man or woman could require—justice. I pray that you are what you claim to be, my lord Sheriff.”

"I claim to be nothing.” His tone was flat and rough, his eyes narrowed slightly. "I was appointed sheriff. I will do my duty as bade to by King John. It would behoove these barons to believe that the king wishes them to be content. Should you have occasion to relay that information to the unhappy barons with you, it would be better for all.”

"I am not a messenger, my lord.” Anger overrode caution as the first brief flare of hope was quickly extinguished. Does he think me so naïve as to believe that he has only the best interests of Saxons in mind? Tartly: "I do not presume to tell others what to think, but expect them to make their own judgments, just as I have done.”

Tense silence lay between them, while in the hall, music rose from lute and harp; men laughed and hounds barked. A log popped in the fire, sparks like tiny shooting stars forming a glowing arc. She was aware of it all, as she was aware of her thudding heart and slowly warming feet; paramount was the man before her, who held in his hands the power of life, death, and freedom.

He rose to his feet. A faint, ironic smile pressed at the corners of his mouth. "No, milady, I see that you are not a messenger. A pity. It would save so much time and trouble.”

"Perhaps, but I doubt it would be to my advantage.”

This time his smile was genuine. "You are as sharp-tongued as you are sharp-willed, Lady Neville. I commend you for your spirit, if not your civility.”

She would have answered sharply again but took a deep breath instead. Prudence now seemed the wisest course.

"My lord Sheriff.” The steward appeared, his cough a polite interruption. "Sir Gervaise grows most anxious to meet with you as soon as possible.”

"No doubt. Lady Neville will wait here for my return, Giles. See to her needs.” With that unceremonious farewell, he was gone, stalking across the great hall with his long, loose stride while she stared after him.

Another polite cough snared her attention, and she heard Giles ask if she needed a cup of wine.

"No. Bring my mantle.”

A pause, then, smoothly: "It will be brought to you upon my lord’s request. Shall I bring the wine?”

"Yes. Bring the wine.”

Uncertain, angry, Jane sat with her feet still to the fire’s heat, torn between flight and compliance. Any other time, she would have abandoned the hall despite his order. Yet now she hesitated.

Conversation ebbed and flowed in the crowded hall like sea tides, washing over her in anonymous waves. Occasional laughter sounded sharp and strained. Only Normans were at ease here in this hall barren of English pride.

Rich scents of roasted meat teased the air and empty bellies; Jane gazed resentfully at long tables set with lavish food and silver nefs shaped like ships. They thrived at Ravenshed because she husbanded their food supply carefully; a meager harvest could be ruinous. She always had enough food, and coin to buy more, yet the freedmen who owed her rents would suffer grievously if she forced them to pay. Taxes were too high, too frequent, on everything from bread to water to wood. Her coffers were slowly draining of coin.

Across the hall, Saxon barons stood uneasily in a loose group. Lords Oxton and Creighton looked tense; there was no sign of her cousin, who had undoubtedly been sensible enough to go home to Gedling. The sheriff’s men milled about with casual deliberation. There was no overt threat, yet the air reeked of intimidation, evidenced by mailed guards bearing heavy weapons, discreetly stationed by the doors.

It was suddenly overwhelming. Giles was gone to fetch her wine; no one seemed to notice her now that the sheriff was absent. Jane rose from her seat before the fire with unhurried grace. Her shoes were almost dry; her cloak could be forsaken. Rushes crackled beneath her feet as she crossed the hall and left through iron-fortified double doors.

Icy rain had turned to snow, frosting stones and walls in white lace caps. The middle bailey was filled with the sheriff’s men, black and gold livery stark against the paler sandstone and snowy curtain. Intent upon warmth, food, and rest, none gave her more than a second glance as she moved from the middle bailey through the gatehouse, then across the expanse of outer bailey and high barbican that guarded the outer moat and portcullis gate. She was free.

Nottingham closed around her when she quit the castle. Vendors had begun to close their stalls in Market Square. Her feet slid a bit on the steep grade leading from castle rock. Dark alleys staggered between the half-timbered buildings that hunched over streets softened by falling snow. The cold masked the strong stench of offal, human and animal, that usually clogged the air. She heard the Watch marching, boots crunching on icy mud as they patrolled the streets.

Shivering, she waited in the shadows behind a leaning alehouse until they passed, then made her way toward Goose Gate. In resonant tones, the bells in St. Mary’s tower tolled, marking Nones. Winter light was sparse and weak, disappearing rapidly in the waning of day.

She blew on her hands to warm them, regretting the loss of her mantle. Gedling was less than a mile past the town walls, but it would be a frigid walk once night fell. Her darkening mood suffered as much from bitter realization as from the cold.

Nothing had changed. Only drastic measures would save England from the king’s rapacious demands... and from the new sheriff.




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