A Trivial Affair (by Aigneis)

Summary:
Category:  Covington Cross
Genre:  Medieval
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  13,089


 

“I believe she’s looking at me,” Cedric said with a self-assured grin. As he stepped slightly in front of his brothers, he cocked his head to the side, striking a manly pose, and nodded in her direction.

“Of course, she is,” Richard teased, “she’s never seen anything so revolting before.”

Without breaking his form, Cedric jabbed an elbow into his brother’s ribs, causing him to gasp slightly before he began laughing again. Even Armus could not help but chuckle at the spectacle his younger brother was putting on. Arms folded, head titled, that silly grin upon his face, he was sure any woman in her right mind would think him the court jester.

“Like a peacock strutting his feathers,” Armus whispered, causing Richard to cackle even harder.

“We’ll just see,” Cedric snapped.

Without another word, he crossed the room and took the young lady’s hand in his, bending over to kiss her velvet skin. A soft pink blush rose to her cheeks, and she smiled at him adoringly. Cedric could not help but cast a victorious glance in the direction of his brothers. The look of utter disbelief on their faces made his smile grow even larger.

“Well, I suppose he is growing up,” Richard commented as he brushed back the tawny curls that had fallen down across his forehead.

“Yes, I suppose he is,” Armus agreed, “though I have to say I don’t know when that happened.”

“At least you’ve been away,” Richard noted, “but I’ve been right here, and . . . I never noticed. What do you suppose they find attractive about him?”

Still smaller than his older brothers, he was none-the-less a handsome boy, relatively tall and thin, though not yet having achieved the sculptured body of a full grown man. He looked nothing like his siblings, but there was no doubt he was a Grey, for he carried the deep blue eyes and black hair of his grandfather, and the milk white skin of his grandmother, still barely marred by the pubescent stubble that would grow with age.

“Do you think we should stop calling him wee one now,” Richard asked as they watched Cedric take the young lady’s arm and begin to walk out onto the dance floor.

They thought for a moment and then answered in unison. “No!”

Richard laughed and slapped his older brother on the shoulder. “I have to make use of the facilities. Keep an eye on him for me, would you.”

With that Richard headed out of the Great Hall, stopping to greet a few ladies along the way and then preceding down the long narrow corridor that led to the nearest privy. He had been to Huntington Hall many times before and knew its layout quite well. An annual event, his family had been coming there to the Summer Solstice celebration every year for as long as he could remember, and he never failed to enjoy himself.

He was contemplating another pleasant visit when he heard a muffled yell coming from the robing room off to the side. Thinking it was probably just be a pair of star-crossed lovers, he continued on his way, remembering the many ecstatic hours he had spent so occupied. He had not gone far, however, before deciding he would be remiss in his knightly duty if he did not at least check to make sure it was nothing more. Besides, he mused with a mischievous grin, it just might be Cedric.

Trying not to make a sound, he pushed open the chamber door and stuck his head around its heavy wooden planks. What he saw, however, caused his blood to run red hot. A young lady lay pinned to the floor by a scraggly haired boy, his open mouth pressed against her quivering lips even as she screamed out for help. Drawing his sword, Richard held it against the youth’s rigid back. “Remove yourself from the lady, fiend!” he commanded.

For a moment the boy did not move, then giving a quick shove against Richard’s shin, he knocked him off balance enough to slide from beneath his sword and scurry out of the room. Richard turned to follow him but knew his first duty was to the maiden that lay quivering with fear upon a tapestry that had been carelessly thrown on the floor.

“Are you all right, m’lady?” Richard asked as he bent down to her side, wrapping his arm around her trembling form. “What is your name?”

“Margaret,” she whimpered.

Just then the door was flung wide open and three men filled its frame, each face more furious then the next. Richard did not even have a chance to speak before they had drawn their swords and aimed them directly at his throat.

“I’ll have your head if you’ve hurt her,” Sir Murdoch bellowed. “Now get off your knees and face me, so I can see who it is who has tried to defile my daughter.”

“Defile her!” Richard snarled as he stood up and brushed himself off. “I’ve just saved her bloody virtue.”

“Richard Grey!” Murdoch scowled. “I’ve always known you were lecherous scoundrel, but I never thought you would force yourself upon a lady.”

“Force myself!” Richard bellowed. “I rescued her. All you need do is ask the lady.”

“Very well,” Baron Mullens sniffed as he stepped into the room, the tone of his voice betraying the arrogance that lay within. “Has this knave tried to harm you, niece?”

“He told me he wanted to show me the gardens,” the girl sobbed, “and then he pulled me in here and . . . and . . . “

“It’s all right, child. You’re safe now.”

Richard could not believe his ears. “Tell him the truth!” he growled, causing the girl to shrink from him even more. “This is insane. She was attacked, but it was not by me. I drove her assailant off. Tell him!” he pleaded once more, but the girl just clung to her father, sobbing hysterically.

“Guard!” Mullens called to the third man. “Seize him!”

With that, Miles Greene took hold of Richard’s arm, forcing him out into the stone lined hall. He was a big man, nearly the size of Armus. Richard could feel his fingers going numb as the man squeezed his right arm with an iron grip. As he did, Mullens unsheathed Richard’s sword and came to stand in front of the tawny haired youth.

“You’ve done it this time, Grey,” he said with contempt. “I’ll see you stripped of your title, and there is nothing your father can do to help you squirm out of this one.”

Richard looked back to Margaret, desperation and disbelief in his eyes. “Why are you doing this? Tell him the truth.”

Richard could still hear her sobbing as the guard dragged him through the halls to the dungeon. It was only after he’d descended the steps to the lower quarters that the muffled cries evaporated. The door shut behind him with a great metallic clang that echoed through the bowels of the castle. Still dazed, he sat down on the thin wooden slab that hung by chains from the wall. What had just happened, he thought.

Upstairs, Baron Mullens was about to perform a task he had looked forward to for as long as he could remember. Sauntering across the room, he came to stand in front of Thomas, waiting while he conversed with the sheriff and Lord Downey, the current occupant of Huntington Hall. A devious smile crossed his lips and his fingers danced impatiently across the hilt of his sword.

Finally Lord Downey could take no more. “What is it Baron Mullens?” he uttered with annoyance.

“Oh, nothing of importance, Henry,” Mullens nearly chirped. “I just need to speak to the sheriff for a moment.”

“Gideon!” Henry Downey exclaimed, somewhat amused. “What on earth for? Did someone steal a compliment from you?”

“No, “Mullens remarked, his eyes virtually dancing with pleasure, “but someone did try to steal my niece’s virtue. Richard Grey as a matter of fact.”

“Richard!” Thomas roared. “That’s absurd!”

“Is it?” Mullens sneered. “Ask my niece if you like, or better yet, Lord Downey’s own dungeon guard. We heard a scream in the robing room, and on entering . . . well, your son has overstepped his bounds this time, Sir Thomas.”

Thomas’ eyes darted around the hall, searching frantically for a glimpse of his son. He had been there not moments before. He was sure of it. Richard was no saint, to say the least, but he would never steal a lady’s favor. In truth, he did not need to. They lavished them on him most willingly it seemed.

“I refuse to believe such slander!” Thomas declared. “Where is my son? I would hear Richard’s side of the story, if you don’t mind, Baron Mullens. I’m sure it is nothing more than a misunderstanding.”

“Oh, there was misunderstanding, Sir Thomas,” Mullens gloated, “but it was on the part of your son. He failed to understand the consequences of his actions. The arrogant little popinjay thought your favor with the king was his license to take whomever he pleased. Unfortunately for him, he is about to learn a very hard lesson.”

*****

The door to the dungeon cell opened and Richard stood up, hopeful that Margaret had at last told her father the truth. He was about to be disappointed, however, for it was his own father who entered the chamber, his face grave and sullen. Before Richard could open his mouth, Thomas spoke. “Tell me what they are saying is not true, Richard!” he grumbled. “Did you seduce this maid against her will?”

Richard was horrified that his father would even ask such a question. “No, Father! How could you even think . . . ”

Thomas sighed in relief. “Well, you have been known to . . .”

“To what!!!” Richard exclaimed on the verge of utter indignation. “I never thought my own father would suspect me of such crude behavior.”

“You have been known to bestow your affections quite . . . readily from time to time, Richard,” Thomas explained, choosing his words carefully. “It’s not as if you’ve never been caught with your . . . well, in a compromising position before.”

“Perhaps,” Richard exclaimed, deeply hurt by what he perceived as his father’s low opinion of him, “but never have I forced my attentions on any maid who had not first offered her favors willingly.

“That is not the issue, Richard,” Thomas declared. He placed his hand to his chin, deep in thought, and began to pace back and forth across the narrow cell. “The question is whether she, at any time, withdrew that favor.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Richard shouted, “because I never laid a hand on her! She’s a child, for god sake!”

“A very pretty child,” Thomas noted, his voice dark and solemn, “and not so young at that.”

“I don’t believe this!” Richard barked. “Not even my own father believes me innocent.”

“I did not say that, Richard,” Thomas scowled. “I only wanted to hear the truth from your lips. Now stop your confounded moping and tell me exactly what happened.”

Richard emitted a disgruntle moan, his features molded by the childish pout that had transformed his angelic face. Why couldn’t he just say that in the first place, he thought, though he still retained the sinking feeling that his father might indeed think him capable of such an act. He gave an exasperated sigh, and then looked up to his father.

“I needed to use the facilities and heard a scream coming from the robing room. I thought it might be Cedric,” he admitted, a pink tinge coloring his cheeks, “but when I looked in, I found the lady was being accosted by the scrawniest, most ragged looking assailant I have ever seen.”

“What exactly did he look like, this scrawny assailant?” Thomas asked.

“You think I’m making him up!” Richard exclaimed. “I should have known!”

“Richard!” Thomas scolded his son. “I’m only asking because in order to clear your name, we may need to find the one responsible. It would help if we knew what he looked like.”

“And you think he’s just going to magically appear?” Richard replied, a touch of sarcasm in his voice.

“Richard,” Thomas groaned, his tone on the edge of anger. “Why must you be so argumentative? Just tell me what the lad looked like, for god sake, before I go against my better judgment and take the whip to you myself.”

“All right,” Richard grumbled, recognizing his father’s solemn tones. “Do you remember the lad who wanted to be Eleanor’s protector last fall?”

“What lad?” Thomas exclaimed in confusion. “Her protector? Not likely! Have you lost touch with reality, boy?”

“Ask Eleanor or Armus,” Richard replied, his voice revealing the frustration he felt with the entire situation, “they’ll know who I’m talking about. His name was Luther . . . or Lucas . . . or something like that.”

“What of him . . . whatever his name is?” Thomas asked, curious why his son should bring up an event from the previous fall.

“The rogue I saw looked something like him,” Richard replied. “It was the robing room, Father. There was hardly any light. How close a look do you think I was able to get?”

“And after you found him,” Thomas queried, “this villain just strolled out of the room?”

“No, not exactly,” Richard mumbled, embarrassed at having been caught off guard. “He . . . kicked me.”

Thomas stared at his son, trying to comprehend his latest statement. “Am I to understand that you let an unarmed slip of a boy get away simply because he kicked you? Have you lost hold of your senses, boy! Do you truly believe the magistrate is going to give any credence to such an absurd tale? For god sake, Richard, at least have something better than that!

“I’m telling the truth!” Richard yelled, almost at the end of his wits. If his father found the story questionable, to say the least, how much more would the magistrate doubt his account? “What would you have me do, Father?” he uttered as he flopped down upon the hard wooden bed. “Concoct a story that sounded more plausible, even if it wasn’t true.”

“You’re serious,” Thomas declared. “Oh dear, we do have a problem.”

“What will they do to me?” Richard asked. He closed his eyes and sighed as if the verdict had already been rendered.

“If the magistrate believes Mullens’ story,” Thomas confided, “he’ll strip you of your land and title at the very least.”

“And what will be the worst?” Richard asked, a wave of nausea brewing in his stomach even as he spoke the words.

“They won’t hang you,” Thomas replied, as if that would in someway comfort his son, “but they will probably demand a public whipping.”

Richard moaned. “I’ll be disgraced.”

“I think that would be the idea, Richard,” Thomas answered, somewhat distracted. “Are you sure you didn’t just steal a kiss or two? Perhaps if that’s all it is . . .”

“I didn’t touch her!” Richard shouted, so loud that his voice echoed throughout the dungeons. He jumped up, staring deeply into his father’s azure eyes. “Why won’t you believe me?”

“I do, son,” Thomas said, placing a calming hand on his son’s shoulder, “but you have to admit, it all sounds a bit far fetched, given your prowess with the sword . . . and the ladies. We’ll do our best, Richard, but you haven’t given us very much to work with.”

“It’s all I have,” Richard said as he sat back down upon the wooden pallet, too exhausted to fight anymore.

Thomas nodded his head and left his son to contemplate his fate. In the darkness of his cell, cold and alone, Richard ran through the events over and over again in his mind. His father was right, he thought as he lay back on the wooden plank that served as his bed, his arm beneath his head to cushion it against the bare wood. It was a pretty incredible story. If he did not know better, he would wonder about it himself. What he could not comprehend though, what he could not get through his head, was why the girl had lied. Had it all been planned, hatched in the devious mind of Baron Mullens? But how could he know that Richard would walk past the robing room at just that moment? No, he concluded, they had been there to catch someone, but it was not him in particular. Than who? Richard wondered as he closed his eyes and drifted off to an uneasy sleep.

*****

“What is the case against this young man?” the magistrate inquired and Baron Mullens immediately stepped to the fore. He had been looking forward to this day and planned on no other verdict than utter disgrace for Richard.

“My lord, Magistrate!” he muttered with an exaggerated graciousness.

“Yes, John,” the official moaned, “let’s just get to this unpleasantness, shall we?”

“Yes, of course, my lord,” Mullens replied with a snake like grin. “In short, my niece was brutally molested by Sir Richard Grey last night during the Summer Solstice celebration held here at Huntington Hall.”

“Brutally molested?” the judge repeated, his eyebrow raised slightly. “She looks none the worse for wear.”

“Fortunately, m’lord, my brother and I happened to be passing the robing room he had forced her into and heard her delicate cries for help before he was able to inflict any real damage upon her person.”

“And you saw this as well, Sir Murdoch?” the magistrate queried.

“Yes, m’lord,” the knight answered, his eyes filled with mock tears, “and I am sorry that I did not tear his heart out there and then. If not for my brother’s restraint, I might have. Death is too good for him! He should have to live in disgrace.”

“You have no fear then,” the official said skeptically, “for I do not see how death could be warranted here. You said there was another witness in this affront to your niece.”

“Yes, m’lord,” Mullens spoke up again, the smirk growing as the evidence condemning Richard mounted, “Lord Downey’s own castle guard, Miles Greene.”

“Speak true, Miles,” the magistrate instructed the guard. “No one can hold the truth against you. Did you see Richard Grey defiling the young lady in question?”

“I can only tell you what I saw, m’lord,” Miles mumbled, almost as if he hated himself for what he was about to say. “We heard Lady Margaret scream, and when we pushed open the robing room door, Sir Richard was on his knees with his arms around her.”

“Did you see anyone else leave the room just prior to your entry?”

“No, m’lord, but I suppose someone could of ducked around the corner just before we got there,” he said hopefully.

“Yes, I suppose so,” the magistrate mumbled, though neither of them truly believed it.

“I would speak to the young lady now,” the official declared. He put his hand out to the trembling girl that came before him. “There now, child, I want you to tell me what happened between you and Sir Richard last night as best you can in your own words.”

Margaret bowed her head, tears running down her cheeks. She heaved a great sigh and then began. “I wanted to see the gardens and Sir Richard said he would show me. I knew I probably shouldn’t go with him, unchaperoned and all, but he is very handsome, you know.”

“And you liked the attention he was giving you,” the magistrate smiled.

Margaret just nodded, sobbing a few times before continuing her story. “But he didn’t take me to the gardens. He shoved me in the robing room and pushed me down on the floor. He wouldn’t let me go.” She started crying full force again and her father came to her rescue.

“Please, m’lord,” he implored the official, “hasn’t she been through enough.”

“Yes, I believe she has!” the magistrate replied sternly. “Do you have any other evidence before I speak with the accused?”

“No, m’lord,” Sir Murdoch replied, his daughter clinging to his side.

“Very well! Sir Richard Grey of Covington Cross,” the magistrate bellowed as the tawny haired knight came to stand before him. “You have been charged with forcing your attentions upon a young lady, thus breaking your knightly vows of honor and courtesy. How do you plead, sir?”

“Not guilty, my lord,” Richard answered, his voice bold as brass.

“Were you present in the robing room of Huntington Hall at the hour designated?” the official continued.

“Yes, my lord, I was present, but it was to rescue the damsel, not accost her.”

“Yet the young lady tells another tale,” the magistrate noted. “How do you account for this discrepancy in your testimonies?

“I cannot, my lord, only to say that the young maiden was so traumatized by her ordeal, that she has confused my efforts to save her with those of her assailant.”

“What brought you to the robing room?” the magistrate queried, the creases in his forehead growing deeper.

“I heard Lady Margaret scream, m’lord, and on entering found her being attacked.”

“Then you can describe her assailant to me,” the judge went on.

“He was a bit shorter than myself, slight of build, with tousled brown hair,” Richard replied, a feeling of dread coming over him even as he spoke the words for he could see where these questions were going.

“Did you have your sword, Sir Richard,” the official inquired, “and did you not draw it?”

“I did, m’lord,” Richard mumbled, his voice somehow failing him, “but he was able to escape.”

“And how is that,” the magistrate asked, surprised by his answer. “I’ve heard you are an excellent swordsman, surely no match for a rather scrawny young man.”

Richard hesitated, he could feel the walls closing in around him, yet he had no other answer. “He took me by surprise, m’lord.”

“And how is that?” the official inquired, leaning forward as if to hear an incredible story.

Richard closed his eyes, knowing then his case was hopeless. “He . . . kicked me, m’lord.”

“Kicked you?” the official exclaimed, a look of disbelief on his face. “Surely you can come up with something better than that, Sir!”

“It is the truth, m’lord,” Richard stated with an urgency in his voice that sounded more like desperation.

“Good god, man, there are three witnesses to your lewd behavior,” the magistrate charged. “You were found kneeling over the girl, your arms holding her even as her tears begged you to release her.”

“I was attempting to comfort her, my lord,” Richard maintained, though his heart had begun to beat frantically. If they charged him with perjury, if the magistrate found his alleged crimes too reprehensible, he could choose to have him hanged as well as humiliated.

“I’ve heard enough!” the official declared, the veins in his forehead becoming far too pronounced to be natural.

Richard stood quietly while the magistrate deliberated. It seemed as if he had been standing there for hours, though in truth it was no more than a few moments. Finally the official returned to pass his verdict.

“Sir Richard Grey,” the official proclaimed, “you have been found guilty of the crimes so cited.”

Richard felt incredibly ill and had to fight to keep his knees from collapsing beneath him. Dark spots were forming in front of his eyes, and he fumbled to grip the table that stood at his side. Still the magistrate continued, and Richard held his breath, dreading the sentence he knew must come.

“You shall, therefore, be immediately clothed in your knightly garb,” the magistrate went on, “and returned here within the hour, from whence you shall be brought to the town square and stripped of your title and your land, the latter of which will be delivered into the hands of the family you have so maligned by your discourteous behavior. You will then be given forty stripes and carried to the church upon a litter, where you shall be declared dead to all who know you. From this day forward, your name shall be stricken from the rolls of honored knights as if you had never existed. Take him away!” the magistrate shouted, the veins in his neck now strained to bursting.

It was a nightmare! The guards brought his breast plate, greaves, gauntlets and spurs, dressing him as if for battle. They girded on his sword and handed him his shield. All the time Richard stood there passively, opening and closing his eyes to fight back the tears. His family would be disgraced, forced to disown him in order to retain any semblance of their own honor. His father would have no alternative but to turn him out of his home, for he had his other children to think of. He wished they had condemned him to death, for what lie ahead would be worse by far.

“I’m sorry, m’lord,” Miles Greene mumbled as he tightened the straps on his gauntlets, “but I had to say what I saw.”

“Of course, you did,” Richard mumbled, “but you did not see what you thought. I don’t blame you, though. I would not have you lie.”

Miles nodded, and then bent down to tighten the straps on Richard’s greaves. On standing up, he nodded firmly and opened the door of the robing room. How ironic, he thought, that this was the very place the whole ordeal had begun.

“We should be going m’lord.” Miles said, his voice cracking as he extended his arm, indicating that Richard should go first.

Richard complied and was taken by cart to the village, where he was made to stand on a wooden platform before the entire town. He searched the crowd for his family and found them off to the side, in the shadows of an old maple, looks of shame and humiliation marring their expressions. Miles Green had come up to stand on one side, while a herald positioned himself on the other, ready to read the charges for which he had been found guilty.

“Let it be known that by decree of his royal majesty, King Edward, Sir Richard Grey of Covington Cross, shall immediately be stripped of his knighthood and from this day forth be declared dead to all within this land, for a knight without honor no longer lives.”

Then turning to face him, the two men proceeded to strip him of his armor, throwing it on a dunghill off to the side. Richard clenched his teeth, praying that he would not disgrace his family even more by collapsing into a heap of tears. He stared straight ahead, avoiding eye contact with anyone in the crowd, but particularly with those members of his own family. His hands were shaking as Miles drew his sword from its scabbard and broke it over his knee, tossing it aside as if it were just another piece of useless metal. The guard then went to take his shield and for a moment Richard clenched it tight in his fist.

“Please, m’lord,” Miles whispered, “don’t make it any harder on yourself.”

Richard knew he was right, and slowly released the heavy metal plate, watching in horror as the guards hung it upside down from the tavern roof. The crowd laughed as they did, and someone shouted out of the crowd.

“Here’s ta you, m’lord. Perhaps we should rename the place Richard’s Folly!”

The crowd cheered all the more, and Richard could feel the heat rising in his face. The veins in his temples were pounding so that it felt as if the top of his head had been sliced open. He wanted to die, would have surrendered willingly to the axe, but it was not to be. He was to face the rest of his life in shame and degradation. Finally, two guards took his surcoat, emblazoned with his coat of arms, and set it afire. This was too much for Richard to take. Tears streamed down his face as he watched his identity virtually go up in smoke. All that he’d worked for, all that he’d been was no more. Though he had the urge to retch violently, he refused to give in, swallowing one gulp of air after another to quell the desire. His stomach ached as continuous waves of nausea enveloped one another, causing his muscles to contract and tighten with an almost rhythmic regularity. Still, the ordeal was not over.

The magistrate nodded to Miles Greene, and once more the large man apologized. “Your jerkin and tunics, m’lord. You don’t want to have them ruined?”

“No,” Richard replied, shaking his head hypnotically, for in truth, he did not really care anymore one way or the other. His hands trembled as they unlaced his jerkin and slipped his tunics over his head. It was almost a relief when Miles tied them to the rough hewn whipping post, for at least, it held them steady. A moment later, he felt the first stripe crack across his bare back, and he gasped for air. No sword had ever caused more pain then these thin strips of leather, he thought. He tried counting the stripes at first, but soon the black dots had begun to appear before his eyes again and the sounds around him became muffled and hollow.

He fell limply into Miles’ arms as they cut him down and replaced his linen under tunic, his legs and arms numb and weak as if they no longer held any structure, his back burning relentlessly. He could feel himself being thrown across a litter of some kind and wrapped in a winding cloth before being carried to the church as if dead. He lay motionless through it all, unable to move even if he had wanted to, barely able to retain consciousness. Through slitted eyes, he watched as his shield was rehung, on the church this time, still upside down as a symbol of his failure. A priest stood over him, chanting a funeral dirge, a psalm he thought, though he could not think clearly, having to fight to retain what little alertness he possessed. Finally, the ceremony ended, and as far as all were concerned, Sir Richard Grey was dead and laid to rest. Only the shell of the man remained. Richard drifted off, unable to stay the shame and exhaustion any longer.

*****

Richard woke to the early morning sun filtering through his window, groggy and disoriented. Had it all been a bad dream he wondered as he lay there quietly? He would have remained that way for hours, but for a yawn that overcame him, causing him to stretch in an effort to shake the stiffness from his bones. All too soon, he realized it had been no dream, for his back stung where the leather strips had cut into his tender skin. Someone had administered a salve of some kind and tried to bandage it, but here and there the wrappings had slipped, and he found himself sticking to the sheets below. In an effort to steady himself, he sat up on the edge of his bed and surveyed the room around him.

The sword King Edward had given him hung on the wall as it always had. Two or three others lay on his desk where he had left them, intending to polish them after he returned from the Summer Solstice. Everything else was in its proper place, but the real test would be in the armory. Trying not to rub the rough cloth against his back, Richard removed his nightshirt and pulled on a clean linen tunic. He covered it with a forest green over tunic, which he topped off with a russet jerkin and britches. Then carefully, stealthily, so as not to cause detection, he walked down to the armory.

Tears filled his eyes as he gazed around the sunlit room. Not a thing of his was there. It was as if his memory had been eradicated from the face of the earth. He moved to the window, starting out at the courtyard below him and let the tears flow down his cheeks. His father had not disowned him, not turned him out into the cold, and yet he knew he could not stay. He had brought enough shame upon this house, he thought, as he stole back to his bedroom and gathered a few pieces of clothing together.

Hastily, he crafted a note to his father, thanking him for letting him return, but acknowledging the hardship such an action, if continued, would bring upon them. He would wait until night to leave, he thought, and so at the sound of someone’s footfall along the stone corridor, he took the note, jamming it under his pillow and returned to his bed, feigning sleep once more. By the sound of his step, Richard could tell it was his father.

Thomas sat down on the end of his bed, brushing back the stray hair that fell in gentle waves across his son’s forehead. “This is all my fault,” he whispered. “I should have taken a firmer hand to you. If you had not been so wild to begin with, perhaps the magistrate would not have dealt with you so harshly.” Richard heard the soft sobbing of a man whose heart was breaking. “Forgive me, Anne,” he whispered as if in a prayer. “I have failed you . . . and our son.”

Richard wanted to turn around, to open his eyes and reach out to him, to tell him he had been a good father and that none of this was his fault, but he knew it was best that he remain still. The words were better spoken on paper, and so he remained motionless as his father pulled the thin blanket up around his shoulders and bent over to kiss him on the forehead. He had not touched him that way since he was a child and the act let loose a sea of memories. Richard had felt safe and secure then, believed that his father could protect him from anything, and he was willing to grant him that power. Yet, even then, there were times when he had caused Thomas to take a stern tone with him. He would consistently challenge his father’s commands; push them to their limits, so much so that on occasion his father would have no recourse but to take the strap to him. He had been eight the last time he had felt the sting of his father’s belt. Even now, he remembered it vividly. He vowed that day never to give his father reason to resort to the strap again, for he had witnessed his mother crying softly in the garden as he ran to his chambers, his pride more bruised than his bottom. Certain he had been the reason for her tears, he made a pledge to himself to become the model son. He smiled sadly now, realizing how far short he had fallen from that goal. Though Thomas never did use the strap on him again, Richard knew it was because he too had seen his wife’s tears, not because his son had magically achieved sainthood. Now, he had brought his father to tears as well. I really am a wretched human being, he thought as he rolled over, bringing his knees up to his chest and burying his head in his arms. He could only pray the night would come quickly.

*****

The castle lay quiet as Richard stole through the hallway with his meager bedroll. He would not need more than the clothes on his back and an extra tunic or two where he was going. Even the sword he had girded on was slipped into the plainest scabbard he owned, for he was no more than a commoner now, devoid of his station and noble birth. He would travel as far away as possible, somewhere his name and face were unknown. There he would start his new life as a peasant, forgetting Covington Cross and all that he had loved and cherished.

He spent most of his time walking through the forests and off the main roads. No chance that anyone could recognize him if he encountered no one, he thought as he plod along, eating wild berries and fish. From time to time, he would manage to snare a rabbit and roast it over the fire, but generally, he did not take too much time to eat. It would be better if he did not look too well fed, he thought. Sleep rarely came peacefully, but in broken streams of distorted nightmares, each ending the same, with him bringing disgrace and mortification to his family as if he were some form of gangrene that needed to be cut away to preserve that which was good.

As the days went by, he did venture into a village, working here or there for a small wage, just enough to keep him supplied with cheap ale, but then someone would cast a familiar glance his way, and he would be on his way. At other times, he would resolve to spend the night, but become so inebriated that the innkeeper would throw him out, and he would end up sleeping with the cattle. Still, the drink seemed to numb the pain, and it was not long before he took to drinking even while on the road.

Finally, about two weeks after he had left Covington Cross, he woke to find himself lying in a field, not far from a stream. His stomach ached almost as much as his head, and he had all he could do to hold himself erect while he retched soured ale and bile into the tall grass. Barely managing to pull himself to the water’s edge, he heaved once more before laying flat on his stomach and dipping his face into the cool current. He went to take a drink, but finding his flask empty, he threw it to the side and ruffled through his pouch until he came up with a dry oatcake.

“What have you become, Richard Grey,” he asked himself as he sat hunched over on the rich fertile soil. “Never do anything half way, do you.”

Almost reluctantly, he dragged the empty flask over to himself, lifting it to his mouth and draining the last vestige of ale from its cavernous innards. Then closing his eyes and savoring the drops that ran out upon his lips, he submerged the vessel into the water and filled it with the sparkling liquid. He had felt sorry for himself long enough. This was new country, a place where no one knew his name. It was here that he would start his life anew, though never again would he associate himself with the name of Grey.

*****

“Have ye ever worked in a tavern before,” the scruffy haired innkeeper asked as he surveyed the miserable creature that stood before him.

Richard thought quickly. “Over at Allerton for a while, an inn called the Dragon’s Head.” He was not lying, he told himself, for as a child the owners had let him help from time to time when he would accompany his father on his sojourns there.

“Why’d ye leave then?” the man inquired suspiciously.

“The climate didn’t suit me, and then there was this lass,” he muttered, trying to muster up a bit of the old sparkle in his eyes. That was not a lie either, he told himself. In truth, the reason for his leaving had indeed involved a lady.

“I don’t know, lad; ye talk awful fine for a place like this,” the innkeeper stated. “Ye sure ye’r not one of them nobles’ sons, looking to see how the other half lives?”

“No, sir,” Richard replied miserably, for that was no longer a lie either. “I was once befriended by a knight, but he’s passed on now, and I have nowhere to go. I assure you, sir, I am a hard worker.”

“What of your family then?” then man asked, still not sure what to make of the ragged boy that stood before him.”

“I’m orphaned, sir.” Richard replied, and in a sense, he was, or so he told himself.

“All right then, but I hope ye got some clean clothes,” the innkeeper grumbled. “I’ve got a reputation to uphold.”

“Yes, sir, I do,” Richard said with a smile, though it was far from the exuberant smile that once graced his angelic face. The sparkle and effervescence were gone, replaced by an unidentifiable melancholy that seemed to affect his entire being in much the same way the old one had. “When am I to start?” he asked.

“Soon as ye can get yerself cleaned up,” the man called as he went to clean off one of the tables. “Ye can have the room in back, next ta the storeroom.”

*****

 

Back at Covington Cross, things had been in turmoil since the morning they had discovered Richard missing. Concerned that his son had not yet awaken, Thomas had summoned the physician and taken him up to Richard’s room. He did not notice the note at first, and thought that perhaps the boy had awaken and found he needed to make use of the privy or even decided to take a walk in the gardens. Its flowered path was one of Richard’s favorite spots, and as a child, he had hidden there whenever he was hurt or upset. Thomas was certain he had retreated there once more and that they would find him laying among the rose bushes his mother had so tenderly cared for. Feeling a bit elated that his son had finally come to, Thomas had ordered a large breakfast prepared and brought to his room. It was only as the servants went to lay the tray on Richard’s desk that the note was discovered.

Thomas felt a heaviness in his chest, an empty void pervading his stomach, as he read Richard’s words. With tear-filled eyes he called his children together, his hands shaking, not out of anger, but out of sorrow and dread, as he relayed Richard’s heartfelt words to his siblings.

“I’ve discovered a letter from your brother,” he began, the words somehow sticking in his throat. “It seems he felt it necessary to leave Covington Cross, to ‘save us from anymore shame’, he says. Dear God, where will he go?” Thomas asked as he collapsed down into his chair by the fire.

“Perhaps he’s gone to join William in the Crusades,” Cedric offered hopefully.

“He can’t,” Armus replied dismally. “Word will reach them of his degradation. No one would let him do so much as clean up after their horses.”

“Where then?” Eleanor asked, looking desperately around the room. He was her big brother, her hero, the one she had always looked up to, though she would never openly admit it. She loved Armus, there was no doubt about that, but she had barely been ten when he left for the Crusades. It was Richard who had been there for her, Richard who had taught her how to hunt and fish, Richard who had cared for her and wiped her tears when she would wake up screaming in the night scared to death she too was going to die. Now he needed her, and she was helpless to do anything for him.

Thomas could see his daughter’s despair, and he put his arm around her shoulders, drawing her to himself. “We will find him, child, and bring him home where he belongs. I’ll leave at first light.”

Armus had not seen such fear in his father’s eyes since his mother had fallen ill, and he was afraid to have him wandering the countryside. “Father, you should stay here. What if Richard were to send word? Let Cedric and I go search for him.”

“And me!” Eleanor added, her tone strained and anxious.

Armus smiled taking his sister off to the side. “I know how much you want to find Richard, but Father will need you here. Look at him, Eleanor. I don’t want to leave him here alone. Lady Elizabeth can only do so much. He’s needs at least one of his children near.”

“Then why not Cedric?” she pleaded.

“He needs his daughter,” Armus argued. “Just this once, Eleanor, forget your independence, and be the woman you were born to be.”

Eleanor bowed her head, tears streaming down her face. “You bring him home to us, Armus Grey, or I’ll never forgive you.” With that, she hugged her brother and went to sit by her father.

After much deliberation, Thomas finally agreed, and the two boys set out the following morning to find their brother. “Will this nightmare never end?” Thomas muttered as his sons rode out across the bailey, but no one answered, for both Eleanor and Lady Elizabeth feared that Richard might be lost to them forever.

At first, Armus and Cedric had no luck. No one had even seen any strangers in the villages they passed through within the past two or three weeks. Once in a while someone would say they remembered Richard, but it would be from a visit he had made to their village weeks before on business. They sat by the campfire the fourth night, not really sure if they were even going in the right direction.

“What will we do if we can’t find him?” Cedric asked as he warmed his hands by the fire.

“It’s not a question of if, wee one, but when,” Armus stated firmly, refusing to even entertain any other alternative.

Cedric nodded his head, but Armus could see the doubt that lingered in his dark blue eyes. He could see the sadness there as well, for in spite of all the teasing he received, Cedric cared a great deal for his brothers, especially Richard, for some reason, though Armus was never really privy to why. He decided now was as good a time as any to find out, though he knew he would have to tread lightly, for whatever bond his brothers shared, they had preferred to keep it to themselves.

“You look up to him a great deal, don’t you, Cedric?” Armus ventured with a grave caution.

But Cedric no longer felt the need to conceal his feelings. “He was there for us, Eleanor and I, after mother died. You, Father and William, locked yourselves up in your rooms and left Eleanor and I to the nurses.”

“What do you mean?” Armus asked not out of anger or indignation, but out of confusion. “Father spent an enormous amount of time with you and Eleanor after . . .”

“During the day, yes,” Cedric continued, “but it was the nights that were the worst. Richard was there. The night after it happened, I was so frightened and upset, I couldn’t sleep, so I went into Eleanor’s room, but we were little help to one another. We missed mother dreadfully, and we were both afraid we were going to die as well. Richard must have heard us on his way to his chambers, because he came in and crawled up on the bed between us. He let us rest our heads against him and told us stories about mother, wonderful stories, until we fell asleep.”

Cedric stopped for a moment, a tear running down his cheek. “I don’t think he ever slept. I remember waking up one night, afraid that he’d gone, but he was still there. I never told him this, Armus, and if you ever do, I’ll . . . I’ll never speak to you again.”

“Is that a promise?” Armus said with a tender grin.

“Yes,” Cedric replied, a slight grin touching his lips as well before falling away again. “This night, I could feel him sobbing, not hear him, just feel him. Then every once in a while he’d put his hand up and wipe his nose, maybe sniffle a bit. I pretended I was asleep because I didn’t want to embarrass him. I knew how important it was for him to seem grown up, and I was afraid he’d leave if he found out I knew.”

“How long did this go on?” Armus asked.

“Till he went back to Uncle Stephen’s,” Cedric replied. “He said we should never tell anyone, because it would upset Father, so we never did . . . until now that is. We’ve got to find him, Armus,” Cedric said, almost pleading.

“We will, wee one,” Armus promised. “You have my word on that.”

“Armus,” Cedric asked, feeling suddenly very sentimental, “why did you leave for the Crusades?”

“I had to sooner or later,” Armus replied, quite casually. “As the eldest son, it was my duty.”

“But why then?” Cedric persisted. “You were only a squire, and Uncle Stephen wasn’t going.”

“I suppose part of me wanted to die along with Mother,” Armus answered, his voice somehow distant and yet at the same time intimate. “Maybe ever make someone else suffer. But then I realized taking another life would never bring her back, that it would only distort her memory. Then I guess I just kept running, much the same as Richard has done now.”

“Not exactly,” Cedric noted. “You were going toward glory; Richard’s running away from humiliation.”

“There’s no glory in battle, Cedric,” Armus replied, his tone stern and serious.

“I didn’t mean that,” Cedric answered. “I only meant . . . He must feel like it’s Mother dying all over again. Richard could never do what they said he did.”

“I know that,” Armus replied with a conviction that was unmistakable, “but it’s not over yet.”

*****

The next few days were more of the same however, until finally, they came to a village about eight days out, where someone claimed to remember Richard.

“He was in here all right,” the innkeeper snorted. “Threw him out I did, drunker than a crusader home from the wars. Don’t need none o that in here.”

“Do you know where he was heading?” Armus asked.

“How would I know,” the man replied. “Just as long as he stayed out o my place.”

In village after village, they encountered much the same account, until the day that they walked into the Crow’s Eye in a small hamlet called Chelvingeholm. Armus quickly pushed Cedric back out the door after spying Richard carrying an arm full of tankards to a table nestled against the wall. A great smile crossed his face, tinged with a combination of relief and humor. Never did he think he would ever see Richard on the other side of the goblet as it were. They waited until his back was turned, then slipped in and settled at a small table off in the corner. Due to the grayness of the day, the tavern was unusually dark, and it took a moment for Armus to catch the innkeeper’s eye and motion for some service. As expected, the man instantly grabbed Richard by the sleeve and sent him over to get their order.

Richard stopped short about three feet from the table, his face growing considerably paler than Armus had ever seen it. He turned to look at the innkeeper, whose eyes had already begun to question why his servant was not doing his job. Reluctantly, Richard approached the table. “What are you doing here,” he mumbled defensively. “You’re going to get me discharged.”

“It really doesn’t matter because you’re coming home with us, brother,” Armus said, his voice calm and firm.

“Leave me alone, Armus,” Richard snapped, visibly shaken by the sudden appearance of his brothers. “I’ve made a life for myself here. Started over.”

“So, it matters not what you’ve done to your father, your sister, your family,” Armus growled, clearly aggravated by his brother’s failure to recognize that he had done anything wrong in leaving without so much as a goodbye. “None of that’s important as long as Richard’s feelings are spared. Mercy, I never realized just how selfish you really were.”

“Selfish!” Richard spat. “I sacrificed everything I’ve ever loved to spare you any more shame.”

“I don’t recall anyone asking you to leave, brother,” Armus growled. “Perhaps we should have been consulted before you decided what was best for us.”

“Is there anything wrong here?” the innkeeper asked as he came over to the table, his brow creased.

“No, Sir,” Richard replied. “These gentlemen are just lost, that’s all. They were asking directions.” Then looking back at his brother, he added, “I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more help, m’lord.” With that, he turned and went to clean off another table.

“Thank you anyway,” Armus said as he rose, dropping a few coins on the table. “Good day to you.” He grabbed Cedric by the arm and quickly yanked him outside before he could blurt anything out.

“What are you doing?” the younger man finally exclaimed when they were a safe distance from the inn. “You’re not just going to leave him there?”

“There’s no sense making a scene in front of all those people,” Armus replied, his patience running thin. “Knowing Richard, he’d accuse us of trying to kidnap him or something.”

“What are we going to do then?” Cedric inquired, not certain it was a good idea to let their brother out of their sight.

“We’ll go back tonight, just as the inn is closing, and ask to see him,” Armus explained. “It will just be the three of us then.”

They waited a few minutes after the last guest had left before going up to knock on the large oak door of the inn. Much to their surprise it was the innkeeper, and not Richard, who answered their summons.

“Still here,” the man declared as he yawned and scratched his head. “What can I do for ye? We’re closed now ye know.”

“Yes, we know,” Armus replied, trying his best to sound like a lost traveler. “I wonder if we might talk to the young man we were speaking to earlier. He mentioned a town my brother here seems to remember.”

“Richard,” the man said, yawning again. “I suppose, though I don’t know what good it’ll do ye. He’s sure ta be drunk as a Lord by now. None o my affair, mind ye, as long as he sobers up in time for the afternoon crowd. Ye can see him if ye like though. He’s a room out back, next ta the storeroom.”

Armus thanked the man and then pulled Cedric back around the side of the house. “I need you to do exactly as I tell you, brother.”

”What are you up to?” Cedric exclaimed, a mischievous glint in his eye.

“We’re taking Richard home tonight, whether he likes it or not!” Armus declared. “I’ll engage him in a heated argument. That shouldn’t be too hard to do, given Richard’s volatile nature. As I’m speaking to him, I want you to slip up behind him and knock him over the head with the hilt of your sword.”

“You – want – me to hit him over the head?” Cedric queried, certain he had heard Armus wrong.

“Yes, just enough to knock him out mind you,” Armus cautioned. “Don’t look so stunned. It’s not something you haven’t considered on a number of occasions.”

“Yes,” Cedric stammered, “but considering and doing are two different things. He is my brother after all.”

“Come now, Cedric,” Armus chuckled. “Love him as we do, he can get on one’s nerves now and then. I’ve often felt like hitting him on the side of the head to knock some sense into him. No, brother,” he taunted, “I think you’re more worried about how angry he’s going to be once he wakes up.”

“Well I’m not as big as you are!” Cedric confessed. “And he can have a fearsome temper.”

“He may be angry at first,” Armus said, trying to assuage his brother’s fears, “but he’ll thank you once he realizes the favor you did him.”

“Why can’t you hit him then?” Cedric suggested, still not completely convinced.

“Because I can get him angrier then you,” Armus maintained. “Just do as I say, and we’ll have Richard home in no time.”

“No time, we’re two weeks ride from home,” Cedric exclaimed. “How do you propose to keep him from running away again?”

“With these,” Armus grinned, as he held up two sets of shackles, and a letter from Gideon Thompson, their local sheriff, stating that Richard was wanted for questioning in a series of thefts in their shire.

“What thefts?” Cedric said innocently.

“Sometimes I do despair of you, wee one,” Armus noted, shaking his head in disbelief. “Just do as I ask, Cedric. I’ll explain it all later.”

Cedric sighed audibly, and then followed his brother to Richard’s door. Armus did not even bother to knock, but pushed the door open and entered, taking Richard completely by surprise.

“Nothing’s changed, I see!” Armus remarked on seeing Richard half naked, his body entwined around that of a buxom young red-head. “I’ll wait outside so that the lady can compose herself.

“We have nothing more to say, brother,” Richard shouted, clearly annoyed at having been disturbed.

Armus and Cedric stood outside the closed door, listening to the hushed comments being bantered back and forth and the sound of bodies being pulled to and fro, until finally, the door opened and a very disheveled young lady exited, a look caught somewhere between embarrassment and disgust etched upon her face. She nodded uncomfortably to Armus, and then hurried around the corner of the inn.

“Are you happy now?” Richard asked, slurring his words considerably as he poured himself another tankard of dark ale.

“I think you’ve had enough of that,” Armus stated as he crossed the room and took the large mug from his brother’s hand.

Richard stared at him defiantly before picking up the entire pitcher and gulping down half its contents.

“Enough, Richard!” Armus shouted. He slapped the entire vessel out of his brother’s hands, sending it crashing across the floor.

Richard immediately turned on him, his eyes glaring, red and unfocused though they may have been. He wavered slightly, grabbing onto the small table that sat in the middle of the room to steady himself, but there was no mistaking the fact that he could still have been a formidable enemy. Suddenly, his eyes crossed, his knees buckling beneath him as he sank to the ground. Cedric stood behind him, his eyes closed and his face squashed up like a rotting apple.

“Is he out?” Cedric inquired, opening one eye, then the other.

“Yes,” Armus grinned, “though I think it might have been as much the ale as the hilt of your sword. Now let’s get him shackled and on his horse. I want to be well away from here by the time he awakes.”

The sun was just beginning to rise as Richard opened his eyes. He moaned groggily, the pounding in his head causing almost as much discomfort as the nausea mounting in his stomach. He tried to focus, to familiarize himself with his surroundings, but what he saw made no sense at all. The ground passed in front of him, as did his horses legs, and he brought his hand up to rub the fog from his eyes. As he did, he noticed the shackles around his wrists and his memory came rushing back in a torrent of anger.

“Armus!” he shouted realizing he had been tied and thrown over a horse like a sack of flour. “I know you’re there, brother! So help me, when I get free, they’ll really have something to imprison me for. I’ll use my sword to gut you like a fish!”

“Calm down, brother,” Armus warned. “You’ll give yourself a headache.”

“I already have one, thanks to . . . where is that little weasel anyway?” Richard demanded, his temper flaring as he tried to squirm his way off the saddle.”

“That won’t work, Richard,” Armus noted, a slight grin crossing his lips. “I didn’t want you to fall off, so I’ve made sure to tie you there rather tightly.”

“Your concern touches my heart, brother,” Richard scowled. Just then, he heard hoof beats approaching, and he began to yell. “Help me! They’ve taken me prisoner.”

Armus shook his head in utter amusement. “Really, Richard, do you not think I’ve made arrangements for just such a contingency.

“Hold there,” the head rider shouted, and Armus complied immediately.

“Can I be of some assistance, m’lord,” Armus said, innocently as if he were a new born babe.

“I heard a cry for help,” the man noted warily. “May I ask why you have this man shackled in such a fashion?”

“They’re trying to kidnap me,” Richard shouted.

“Quiet, fiend,” Armus warned, and then turning back to the horsemen, he continued. “I am about the business of my sheriff, Gideon Thompson. This man is wanted for thievery. I have the warrant right here.”

The man looked at the unrolled parchment, and then nodded his head in approval. “You’re a ways from home. Would you like us to accompany you?”

“No, thank you,” Armus replied. “He’s nought more than a petty thief, not worth the trouble really.”

“As you wish, m’lord,” the rider replied, “but if I were you I’d cut out that tongue of his. It would save you a considerable amount of trouble.”

“I will take it under consideration,” Armus nodded as the riders rode away.

“You so much as try to put a knife near my mouth, Armus Grey, and I’ll chew your hand off,” Richard snorted.

“I believe he would,” Cedric chuckled as he followed his brother down the path.

Richard continued to use a series of vivid expletives as they road along, doing more to entertain his brothers than actually anger them, until his voice seemed suddenly more urgent than irate. “Please Armus,” he begged, “I think I’m going to be ill.”

“I’m sure you are, little brother,” Armus proclaimed, rolling his eyes at his brother’s latest attempt to escape.

“Really, Armus, I don’t feel very well at all,” Richard pleaded.

“Don’t worry, there’s no place for it to go but down,” Armus replied unsympathetically. Before he could finish speaking, however, Richard began to gag, throwing up chunks of mutton and cheese, followed by the nastiest smelling mead Armus had ever encountered.

“Get him down,” the older boy called to Cedric.

Within moments, Richard was kneeling on the ground, grasping his stomach and depositing its contents in the patch of tall grass before him. Both Arums and Cedric made a face as wave after wave of foul smelling liquid spewed forth from their brother’s lips. Finally, completely exhausted, Richard sat back upon the ground, wrapping his arms around his knees and burying his face in them.

“Good Lord, Richard, how much did you have to drink?” Armus asked out of concern.

“I believe it’s been a cumulative thing,” Richard said, “brought to fruition as a result of the constant flow of blood rushing to my head” Richard laid back in the grass and smiled, a touch of the old sparkle returning, if only momentarily. “Please Armus, I won’t try to run; just don’t throw me over that saddle like a sack of grain again. I may not have much pride left, but I do have a bit.”

“If you make me lather up my horse,” Armus warned, “you’ll spend the rest of the ride bound, gagged and being dragged behind that horse. Is that understood?” he said in all seriousness.

Richard could only nod. He just wanted to lay there in the lush green grass and sleep for the rest of his life, and he never wanted to see another glass of mead or ale again, for as long as he lived . . . or at least for the next few days, he thought as he drifted off to sleep.

*****

Richard had no sooner entered the Great Hall than Lady Elizabeth and Eleanor showered him with kisses. Even his father had tears in his eyes as he patted him on the back and sat him down in his high backed chair by the fire. Though he was glad to be home, and had not given Armus and Cedric any further trouble on their journey there, Richard still had no intention of remaining. His head was clear now, free of the haze that weeks of continual inebriation had caused, and he knew it was best that he leave. This time he would go to France, he thought. It may hurt at first, but eventually they would forget him. It would be as if he were dead, the way the magistrate had intended it.

Five nights later, while everyone slept, Richard slipped down the staircase once more, intent on riding to Calais and boarding a ship, where he would work for his passage. He sighed sadly as he reached the bottom of the stairs and walked across the Great Hall. Almost to the door, a deep voice bellowed his name, and caused him to drop the thin bedroll he was carrying.

“Father!” Richard uttered in surprise. “I couldn’t sleep. I was just going for a little ride.”

“At this time of night?” Thomas queried from his chair by the fire. “How adventurous of you. Were you thinking of taking a nap while you were out as well?” He nodded toward the blanket and clothing now spread out across the floor.

“I can’t stay here,” Richard tried to explain. “You don’t know what it’s like. There are too many memories. Too many things I have to forget. I’m not the person who lived here anymore.”

Thomas would hear nothing of it. “You have two choices, Richard,” he stated firmly. “You can either go to your chambers under your own power, or you can be dragged there by your brothers, kicking and screaming. Either way, it is where you will end up, and where you will stay until you have come to your senses.”

Richard looked to the top of the stairs and saw his brothers standing there, ready to follow their father’s directive. “You’re holding me prisoner!” Richard exclaimed.

“Call it what you will,” Thomas replied, a sense of satisfaction in his eyes, “but I will not chance losing you again, not over something so trivial.” The word had not left his lips when Thomas realized how callous it had sounded. It was not what he meant, he had only hoped to let his son see how important he was to him, but somehow it came out all wrong. Richard, however, gave him no time to explain.

“Trivial!” Richard bellowed “I’ve lost my life, my identity, and you call it trivial. Have it as you will. What difference where my prison is. I shall never be free again until I join my mother.”

“Richard!” Thomas exclaimed, fearful of what his son might do. “To take your own life would be a mortal sin. Your soul would be damned.”

“Have no fear, Father,” Richard replied, with an eerie calmness. “I have no intention of condemning myself in the afterlife as well. I will, however, take myself to my prison cell. I need no jailers to help me along.”

With that, Richard stormed up the stairs, pushing his brother’s aside. Then stopping a moment, he turned around, his voice full of scorn. “Which one of you has the key?” he snapped. Then he turned and entered his room, slamming the door behind him.

Armus and Cedric looked first to each other and then down to there Father. “Lock it!” Thomas said with a heavy heart. “We all need a good night’s sleep.”

*****

Two days later, Armus and Cedric decided it was time the set about finding out exactly what had happened that night at Huntington Hall. It was just three hours ride to the home of Lady Margaret Mullens, and they decided perhaps the damsel in distress needed to be paid a little visit, so early the next morning they set out on the precept that they were going to do a little hunting. They rode as rapidly as they could, so they would be home before anyone became suspicious and had just rounded a curve not half a mile from Sir Murdoch’s castle, when they spied two figures lying in the grass, obviously having a romantic interlude.

Cedric blushed a bit at first, but his brother’s face turned scarlet, not from embarrassment, but from anger. He recognized immediately that the two figures were none other than Lady Margaret and her scraggly haired companion. Startling the couple, he rode up beside them and jumped off his horse with an agility that seemed oddly out of place for a man his size. Then, without thinking, he grabbed the lad by the collar and held him inches off the ground.

“Would you like to tell me exactly what’s going on here?” he bellowed in Margaret’s direction, “or perhaps you’d like to claim I’ve been seducing you as well. There’s only one difference here. I’m a little quicker than Richard, and it seems I’ve collared your friend.”

Margaret started to run, but Cedric stepped in front of her. “I’m not a knight yet, so the show won’t be quite as spectacular if you claim I’ve been molesting you as well.”

With that, Margaret fell down in the grass, tears streaming down her face. “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I just wanted to save Stephen.”

“At my brother’s expense, it would seem,” Armus snapped. “Your going to go home this minute and tell your father what happened. Then we will all ride to Covington Cross and tell Richard and my Father, and finally, we will go to the Sheriff.”

“Yes, whatever you want,” Margaret sniffled, “only please don’t hurt Stephen. It was all my fault.”

Armus made a face then placed the youth back down on the ground. Together they walked up the castle and asked to speak with Sir Murdoch.

“You!” he roared on seeing Armus and Cedric. “How dare you come to my home and upset my daughter.” He could see Margaret had been crying and opened his arms to her. She began to run toward him, but the look in Armus’ eyes told her she had better not play any games.

“No Father,” she mumbled, staring down at the crack in the slate floor. “I have something to tell you. Please don’t be angry with me.”

“I could never be angry with you, Margaret,” Murdoch assured his trembling daughter.

“Oh, I think you might!” Armus snarled, quite uncharacteristically.

“Sir Richard never touched me, Father,” the girl whimpered.

“How dare you come here and try to threaten my daughter!” Murdoch howled. “I shall have you both thrown in prison for this.”

“No, Father,” the girl pleaded, placing her hand upon her father’s arm as he went to draw his sword. “They didn’t do anything. Neither did Sir Richard, except try to save me someone he thought was hurting me.”

“But we saw his arms . . .” Murdoch argued.

“He truly was trying to comfort me, Father,” she assured him.

After explaining everything to her father, Murdoch reluctantly agreed that they all ride to Covington Cross, though he insisted on waiting outside while the young couple went in to speak with Sir Thomas. Whether it was from awkwardness or a strong dislike for his father, Armus did not know, nor did he care as long as the truth was told by Margaret.

*****

It had been a week since Richard had returned home and he was still refusing to join the family for meals or anything else for that matter. Occasionally, he’d call down to one of his siblings, or jailers as he liked to refer to them, and ask if he could be let out of his cage so he could take a walk around the garden, but other than that, he sequestered himself in his room, barely speaking to anyone. Thomas was at his wits ends, when Lady Margaret and her extremely disheveled looking young man appeared at his door.

“We would speak to you, Sir Thomas,” Margaret mumbled, “about the incident at the Summer Solstice celebration a few weeks ago.”

A few weeks ago, Thomas muttered beneath his breath, it was six weeks to the day his son’s name had been so maligned. Still, gathering every bit of reserve he could, he welcomed the two into his study. For a moment, they sat staring at each other, and then finally Thomas spoke. “You did say you had something to speak to me about, did you not?”

“Yes, Sir,” Margaret began, but she had hardly breathed two words before she broke down into tears.

 “It was my fault,” the boy uttered, suddenly jumping up. “I couldn’t stop, and Margaret didn’t want to get me in trouble. We really do love each other, you see, and she thought she wanted to, but then she didn’t, and I couldn’t stop, and Sir Richard thought that I was . . .” Out of breath, his voice trailed off.

Further information was not really necessary, however, for Thomas saw the picture all too clearly, and decided it were best if he tried to recount the series of events for them. He handed Margaret a handkerchief. Though he knew he should be furious, the sight of these two pathetic creatures before him broke his heart. Besides, if he were correct in his appraisal of the situation, Richard’s name would be cleared, and he would have his son back.

“Please, lad, sit down and calm yourself,” Thomas stated, breathing deeply before beginning. “If I am to understand you correctly, Lady Margaret, you and this young man here . . .”

“Stephen!” she whimpered.

“You and Stephen,” Thomas continued, “snuck off to the robing room, intending to . . . engage in an intimate act, but once you were so engaged, you had second thoughts. Stephen, however, got caught up in the moment and didn’t stop. You screamed, my son heard your cries, and on entering, scared Stephen away.

“Yes, sir,” Margaret sobbed.

“What I don’t understand,” Thomas queried, trying desperately to control the rage that was now seeping into his emotions, “is why you told your everyone that Richard had accosted you!”

“I was afraid they’d never let me see Stephen again,” she stammered through the tears, “that he’d be locked up, and so . . .”

“And so you threw me to the wolves instead!” Richard growled. He had been on his way to the gardens with Armus when he heard Margaret’s voice and decided to see what she was up to.

He just stood there, glaring at the young couple, his face cold and unflinching. Margaret could do nothing but cry.

Stephen, however, stood up to face Richard. “We know what we did was wrong, Sir, and we’ve come to make it right,” the young squire exclaimed, his voice quivering as he spoke. “We’re going to go to the sheriff and turn ourselves in. Margaret can’t live with herself. She cries every time she sees me. I can’t bear it either, and how can I ever kneel to become a knight when I know in my heart I’ve already broken the code of chivalry. I’ll tell them what I did and face the disgrace I’ve brought upon myself.”

For a moment, no one spoke. Then finally, Richard heaved a great sigh, rolling his eyes as he did. “You can’t do that,” he declared. “I would see no man put through that torture for something so trivial.” He gazed over at his father, and Thomas’ heart was lifted, for he could see a touch of the old Richard’s arrogance in his eyes. “I’ve a better idea, but first I must know that you will never again loose control of your desires.”

“Never, Sir, but what else can I do now that the deed is done?” the boy inquired, a look of hope lightning his eyes.

“No deed was done, you foolish child,” Richard argued, his voice strong and determined. “Margaret, I will need your help in this as well, and it will mean admitting your indiscretion.”

“If it will help free Stephen from this terrible burden I’ve put upon him,” Margaret stated, “I will gladly admit it.”

“Burden you’ve put upon him?” Richard repeated in disbelief.

“Oh, of course, the trial I have put you through is far worse, Sir Richard,” the girl replied in haste.

Richard sighed again, deeply. “All right, we will go to the sheriff first, then to your father.”

“We’ve already spoken to Father,” the girl interrupted.

“Very well then, we will go to the sheriff and you will tell him that you and Stephen were . . . in love, and that I inadvertently walked in on you. Thinking he was attacking you, I reacting hastily, and not wanting to admit your little tryst, you accused me of attempting to defile you. Nothing need be said of Stephen’s loss of self-restraint.”

“Oh Sir Richard, you truly are a noble knight,” Margaret said as she ran over throwing her arms around the tawny haired man. Richard quickly removed her from himself, a look of utter horror on his face that Thomas and Armus somehow found quite amusing.

By the next afternoon, Richard’s title and lands were restored, and he stood in the armory admiring his new surcoat and sword. “I think I like these much better than the old ones,” he grinned. “They must have cost Murdoch a pretty penny. Did you see Mullens’ face when the edict was read publicly? I thought he would pass out.”

“It’s good to have you home again, Richard,” Thomas said as he hung his son’s shield back in its proper place. “I mean really home.”

“About that, Father,” Richard said, turning serious for a moment. “I never wanted to leave Covington Cross. I just felt as if I didn’t belong here anymore. I don’t think I really knew where I belonged.”

“You will always belong here, Richard Grey,” Thomas replied, pride beaming from his eyes as he looked down at his son. “You did a noble thing for that young couple, son.”

“He’s very young, and the lady is willing to forgive. His life should not end before it has a chance to begin . . . not for something so trivial,” Richard said, smiling broadly, the old sparkle returned.

“You are never going to let me forget those words, are you, Richard,” Thomas exclaimed, a mock scowl crossing his face.

“Not likely,” Richard replied, with the combination of innocence and arrogance that had become so expected from him, “at least not very soon.”

***End***

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