No Greater Love (by Aigneis)

Summary:  It’s been a while since I posted, but here goes. As always, there is no intent to infringe on the copyrights held by ABC, Gil Grant or any other holder of the Covington Cross copyrights. No profit is being made from the story in the version it now stands.
Category:  Covington Cross
Genre:  Medieval
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  26,195


Tears cascaded down Richard’s cheeks as he galloped toward the stately grey towers of Covington Cross. There was a time the sight of their quiet elegance filled his heart with familial warmth, but it was becoming harder and harder to revive those distant emotions. Memories haunted its halls like winsome spirits that danced invitingly just beyond his grasp, leaving him lost and empty in their wake. At times, he thought of not returning at all, of leaving England all together, never to walk upon its verdant fields again, but for a single promise made out of love, he would have. Strange how one small being, one tiny breath could alter every aspect of another’s life so completely. Nothing was the same anymore, not his home, not his life, in many ways, not even himself. For almost a year, he had endured the barren wasteland that had invaded his heart, and he did not know how much longer he could bear the emptiness. Not since the death of his beloved mother had he ever felt so alone.

A single hawk circled overhead, letting out a mournful cry that brought the melancholy knight back to his senses. Never one to wear his heart on his sleeve, he had no intention of starting to do so now and tugged at his scarf self-consciously, bringing it up to his face and wiping the dampened skin. He would not allow anyone to see the depth of the wound that pierced his heart, would keep his emotions buried deep within himself, just the way he always had. It was better that way for everyone involved.

The sun was just beginning to sink low in the western sky, tingeing it a soft pink as he reached the stables and jumped down from his chestnut mount. The horizon brought the promise of a beautiful tomorrow, but Richard could see no further than the present day’s agony. Taking a deep breath to steady his nerves, he headed for the castle, dreading what lie ahead, hoping that everyone was otherwise occupied, and he could slip up the stairs without anyone noticing that he had returned. There was not much chance of that he knew, and in a way, maybe it was for the best. Better to face his family all at once and get it over with, than have them come looking for him later. Steeling himself against whatever awaited, he placed his hand on the large metal door latch and pushed.

“Richard!” Thomas exclaimed as his son strode into the Great Hall with every intention of bidding his father a good day and heading straight for the stairs. “How was your visit?”

“Far too short,” Richard answered. He hoped this was not going to turn into one of those extended conversations that would be wrought with queries and inquiries about the child he had once believed was his own, the child that in his heart he still believed truly was, in spite of the evidence against it.

“And little William?” Thomas asked. “How is he? Are they treating him well?” He hesitated for a moment before continuing, almost nervous about what he was to ask. “I thought perhaps next time you made the journey, I might join you . . . if you wouldn’t mind, of course?

“No, of course not, Father,” Richard replied, trying to sound as nonchalant as was humanly possible under the circumstances. “I’m sure William would love to see you.”

In spite of his casual response, the thought of his father accompanying him on one of his numerous visits actually terrified him. How could he ever hope to keep the full extent of his emotions adequately guarded if his father was by his side, sure to be weighing his every reaction? Yet, at the same time, how could he deny Thomas the opportunity of seeing William again. In truth, just as Richard had come to love the small boy as his son, so Thomas had grown to care for him as only a doting grandfather could. He had loved the boy no less, had mourned Johanna’s passing as he would that of a daughter. It had mattered not that she had appeared at the castle gate only months before her death claiming Richard as the child’s father. Both had won his heart, not for a day, but for all eternity.

All had gone well at first. Richard had married Johanna, grown to love her and the child he had acknowledged as his own, knowing that it was only a matter of time before his new bride would leave this world. Even then, his devotion to William tempered his grief. Then, like a bitter wind from the north, a cruel twist of fate had risen up to pluck William from their care. Neither Richard nor his father believed the crumpled birth certificate naming Henry Goodall as the child’s real father or the letter supposedly signed by Johanna saying as much, but neither did either have any evidence to dispute the allegations. So it was that William was taken from them, whisked away to Exeter by his new father just over a year before. Henry and his wife, Penelope, had seemed to understand Richard’s attachment to the boy and allowed him to visit from time to time as the child’s godfather, but this position only served to emphasize just how much Richard had truly lost. Still, it was better than not seeing him at all, he reasoned, and so the knight would make routine trips to the city, to visit the home of the merchant and his wife and spend time with the child who continued to control such a large part of his heart.

Richard turned to start up the stairs, but as he had feared, Thomas was not yet finished with his gentle interrogation. Though he understood his father’s interest, perhaps should have even let it comfort him, his fear of revealing his emotions continued to hamper his ability to confide in anyone, least of all the man who he looked up to more than any other.

“He still remembers me then?” Thomas asked, a warm glow caressing his face. Richard could not help but feel his resolve evaporate. He turned slowly and walked over to the fire, sitting down on the small stool next to his father’s chair. There would be no easy escape this afternoon.

“Of course he remembers you,” Richard said, with a tenderness that pervaded his usually self-assured tones, but then a quiver broke through as he continued and before he could stop himself it was as if the flood gates had been opened.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do, Father. It breaks my heart to leave him there. He doesn’t want to stay. I have all I can do to convince him he must. Do you know he still calls me Father? They haven’t even tried to explain anything to him and have insisted I wait until he’s older, but won’t it be harder then? Not that it bothers me, mind you. I can pretend for a while, pretend he’s… It’s just William I’m thinking of. I want to make it as easy on him as possible…and on myself I suppose. It tears me apart, knowing what I was to him, what I still am in his mind, and yet knowing it can never be. I don’t know how much longer I can stand it, and yet what am I to do . . . to go without seeing him would be far worse.”

Richard put his head in his hands, heaving a great sigh before looking up at his father again. “I don’t care what that letter said, Father, or that fictitious birth certificate; Johanna would never have lied to me, especially whilst on her death bed. William is my son! Yet I am powerless to save him from the clutches of those charlatans.”

Thomas leaned forward, placing his hand upon his son’s shoulder. “We’re not finished with this, Richard. We will sort it out.”

“When!” Richard exclaimed, springing up from his seat and pacing restlessly before the fire. “It’s already been nearly a year and we’re no closer to disproving their claim . . .” He gave a weary sigh and sank down on the bench once more. “He asked for money again,” he added in exasperation as he ran his hands through his tousled curls. “He said William was in dire need of a new tunic.”

“You didn’t give it to him, did you?” Thomas inquired, his voice stern and disapproving.

“No,” Richard uttered defensively, “though I wish I had. What if he forbids me from seeing William? He has hinted at it on occasion. I don’t think I could stand it.”

“He’s just using your love for the boy to line his own pockets.”

“And what if he is,” Richard snapped. He rose once more and walked toward the fire, bending over to throw another log upon the charred wood that lay crackling in the hearth. “I’d give every penny I had to see William, and now I may have ruined my chances of ever seeing him again.”

“Why did you turn Henry down then?” Thomas asked.

Richard sighed, his eyes filled with a weariness that no sleep could cure. “Because I know you’re right,” he muttered. “And I let my temper get the better of me.” He remembered how he had exploded at the request and felt the need to somehow justify his response. “They told me he needed a new tunic last month, and as usual I gave them the money. Oddly enough, when I arrived this past Friday, Lady Penelope had managed to procure a new shawl, but William’s tunic was still patched.” He could feel the heat rising in his face, his voice shaking as he spoke, and he closed his eyes to calm himself. “They’re not taking care of him at all, Father.”

Thomas’ heart was breaking. He could see the pain in his son’s eyes, yet he could do no more to help him than Richard could do to help William. Never since his wife’s death had he felt so utterly helpless. Neither of them said another word, until finally, Richard just shook his head, smiling softly.

“I think I’ll go for a walk in the garden,” he said, then almost as an after thought he added, “I do believe my prayers will be answered. I only fear the answer will not be what I had hoped.”

With that, he walked back out the door, leaving Thomas speechless and with a great lump in his throat. Perhaps he could try petitioning the king himself. Show him how poorly William was being treated. He could not help but wonder why Goodall had even wanted the boy in the first place. Surely there was more here than met the eye.

*****

Richard walked along the rose lined paths, until he came to a stone bench that was nestled beneath a trellis of red and white. He could almost see Johanna, sitting there beside him with William in her arms. Three months later, almost to the day, she would be gone. She had brought William to him for protection, put her faith in him, and he had failed her, had failed William. What kind of knight was it that could not even protect his own son?

He looked around the peaceful garden and realized that his once safe haven no longer held its sanctuary, for though it had always brought him closer to his mother’s memory, helped him come to terms with her passing, it served only to heighten the pain caused by his son’s absence, an absence he blamed himself for. No longer finding serenity in its tranquil maze of roses and ivy, he returned to the castle through the postern. He had no desire to face his father again, or anyone else for that matter, for he was haunted by a guilt he could do nothing to ease. Bad enough he would have to sit through a meal that evening. He thought of feigning fatigue, but that would only give his family more cause for concern, and no doubt the lot of them would be at his door before the night was over with one excuse or another.

Right on cue, a knock came on the door and it swung open before him. So much for his privacy, he thought as Cedric and Eleanor clamored through, both vying for position.

“How is he?” Eleanor asked, having inched Cedric out by a hair. “I finished this stuffed horse for him. Lady Elizabeth says my stitching is getting better.”

“A stuffed horse!” Cedric exclaimed. “What kind of toy is that for a little boy? He can’t train to be a knight with that. What’s he going to do when he meets the enemy, cuddle them to death!”

“Maybe if more knights played with stuffed horses, the world would be a more peaceful place,” Eleanor snapped.

“Yes, that’s definitely the kind of knight I want by my side when I go into battle,” Cedric replied with sarcasm.

“What makes you think you’ll ever go into battle,” Eleanor retorted. “You’re going to be a cleric.

“Not anymore I’m not,” Cedric grumbled. “Father’s already agreed that I can train as a knight.”

“It’s a little late, isn’t it?

“No! Richard and Armus will teach me.”

“You don’t really they’re going waste their time with you, do you?” Eleanor replied with a touch of humor in her voice.

Richard sat listening, his eyes closed, trying to block out the constant bickering his two younger siblings seemed to be incessantly involved in. Finally, he could take no more.

“I’m sure William will enjoy both your gifts, now if you don’t mind, I would like to get a bit of rest. It was a long trip.”

Eleanor and Cedric threw each other an uncomfortable glance, then left their toys on the table and bid their brother a good day. Not until they reached the staircase did either of them speak.

“I never thought I’d say this,” Eleanor whispered, “but I wish we had the old Richard back. He may have been arrogant, self-centered and thoughtless at times, but at least he smiled once in a while.”

“I know,” Cedric agreed. “I don’t think I’ve seen him have a really good laugh since William left. He always used to laugh at our bickering. That’s not like him at all. It can’t be good.”

“Of course it’s not good,” Eleanor exclaimed. It never ceased to amaze her how Cedric could make such an obvious observation and act as though he had uttered some profound statement.

“I just wish there was something we could do.”

“So do I, but I don’t know what. The more we try to help, the more walls he puts up. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed.”

Perhaps we could talk to Father?”

“What good would that do?” Eleanor replied as she reached the foot of the staircase, once again marveling at how her brother could be so incredibly naïve. “They’d only end up arguing like they always do.”

“Well what can we do then?”

Eleanor began to speak, but couldn’t. There were no words to say, so she just shook her head and headed outside.

*****

 

Resigned to his fate, Richard sat down at his desk and opened the cloth bound journal that held the castle’s accounts. Perhaps if he compiled some figures to present to his father that evening it would take his mind off William and maybe even allow him to appear relatively content when he joined them at the dining table. No need for everyone to know how deeply troubled he truly was. Half-heartedly he pushed the two small toys aside and dipped his quill in the inkwell with the intention of adding up the latest column of figures. He had only been at it for a moment or two, however, when a knock came on his chamber door that was to drastically alter his plans.

“Yes, what is it,” he inquired, certain that one of his siblings had come to express their sympathies, but on opening the door, he was surprised to see that it was one of the pages, looking uncharacteristically winded.

“A letter for ye, m’lord,” the boy said respectfully. “The gentlemen said it was urgent, so I brought it as quickly as I could.”

Richard threw an apprehensive glance at the missive, his heart nearly stopping as he spied the waxen crest pressed upon the parchment. There was no mistaking what he saw. The seal, that of hardened wax embossed with a raven, was the seal he had seen used by Henry Goodall on a number of occasions. Richard closed his eyes and took a deep breath, dreading his worse fears had come to pass. Having refused the merchant’s request for additional funds, was he now to be punished by being forbidden to visit William ever again? But how could word have arrived so quickly? He himself had reached the castle walls only an hour or two before. It was obvious that Goodall had wasted no time in dispatching a messenger, probably on Richard’s heals. What had he expected, he thought as he stared at the unopened scroll. The golden haired boy coughed uneasily, and Richard raised his eyes to meet his.

“Who brought this?” he asked, though he was finding it hard to retain his composure.

“A young gentleman from the city, m’lord,” the page replied, “from a Master Goodall.”

“Where is this messenger?”

“He’s already gone on his way, Sir Richard. I asked him to wait, but he said there was no need, that no answer would be required. I thought it strange as he stressed how urgent it was, but he turned and rode off before I could stop him. He left this package for ye as well, m’lord.”

Richard took the parcel from the boy’s hand and swallowed hard. What on earth could it be? Trying not to show his alarm he smiled at the boy, nodding uncomfortably, then turned to place the small box on the table so as not to reveal that anything was amiss, for the trembling in his hands had become noticeably pronounced.

“Thank you, Simon. That will be all.”

The boy gave a broad grin and left the room, leaving Richard to face the task before him. He stood for a moment, just staring into space, then he swallowed hard and tried to control his shaking hands enough to open the scroll. He dreaded the words that would be scrawled upon it, the words he knew must be there, but never could he have imagined the pure wickedness of the revelation that awaited him.

*****

 Richard flopped back down in his chair, his mouth agape and his eyes wide and filled with tears as he read the finely written proposal. In part, it was an answer to his prayers, and yet, at what cost was this gift bestowed upon him. He blinked his eyes, trying to clear them, fearing that he had misread the script, and yet, almost hoping he had.

My dear Sir Richard,

Alas, my lord, it appears our little charade has come to an end. Your recent refusal to supplement my modest income can be construed in no other way, but do not blame yourself, my lord. It has always been my intention to ultimately attain this phase of my plan. It was simply a matter of how soon after acquiring the child I would implement it.

Now that the time has indeed come, it is of paramount importance that I begin by revealing William’s true identity, though I believe, in your heart, you already know the truth. Yes, my lord, the lad truly is, and always has been, your son. I have no doubt you will question the motives that have spurred me to such honesty, as well you might, but should you doubt the veracity of my claim, I suggest you embark on a small journey to St. Michael’s in Exeter. There amongst its records you will find the proof you desire. The certificate we presented to you less than one year ago is a forgery, for as you well know, Father Potts will sign anything for no more than a few pints of ale.

As for the letter dear Johanna placed her mark upon, I am sad to say the poor thing trusted her brother far more than she should have. She died believing the note had been intended for you, though her reluctance to send it nearly ruined our plans all together. As it was, fate stepped in and saw to it for us. Her illness truly was a fortuitous stroke of luck. Well, perhaps fate did get a little nudge on its way, but that is another matter. Now, to return to the issue at hand.

I will give you three days hence to visit Exeter, if you so choose. At the end of that time, you will receive further correspondence, instructing you what course you are to take next. Speak to no one of this arrangement, for I caution you, I have my agents watching your every move. Test me if you will, but bear in mind that your son’s life depends upon your cooperation. If you would be so kind as to open the small parcel I have sent along, you will see that this is not an idle threat.

Until my next correspondence,

I remain you humble servant,

Henry Goodall

Richard let the parchment drop from his hands. He felt as if he were suffocating, as if two massive hands were clasped around his throat. A solitary tear escaped and ran down his cheek as he reached for the small package and began to open it. Inside was a tiny bottle, labeled simply “FATE”.

“Poison!” Richard hissed. “I could have saved her,” and that revelation was enough to drive the knife that pierced his heart through to his very soul. “I’ll see the wretched scoundrel hang!” He reached inside his tunic and gently revealed a small miniature of Johanna. “Forgive me, my love . . . I have failed you and am powerless to do anything to change that, but I will not continue to fail our son. Goodall will pay for all his wickedness, though first I must see to William, go to Exeter and bring home the proof I need to retrieve him from the villain’s grasp.” He closed his eyes, a wave of nausea overcoming him as he thought of his tiny child, frightened and alone, in the clutches of this monster, a monster into whose hands he had delivered him.

The question was how to embark on such a trip so soon after his return without alerting his family that something was wrong. Though not sure how he would go about it, one thing was certain, he had to act quickly, for the fiend had given him little time. But why? What did he want in return for William’s life? He could not think about that now, not yet.

Taking a deep breath to quell the bile which fought to make its way up his throat, he leaned over the small ceramic basin in his chambers and splashed the cool water upon his face. There must be no sign of distress, no indication that anything was amiss. Then as if he had been kicked in the head by a mule and the thought jarred loose, it occurred to him. His father was sure to know of the message and make inquiries about it. For a moment, a wave of panic overcame him, but as he gripped the edges of the wash basin and starred out his window at the peaceful rose garden below, he began to take control once more. It was true his father would know of the message, but he would have no knowledge of its contents. He would tell his father that William had fallen and broken his arm. That would explain the worry he knew he would be unable to completely conceal, as well as give him a reason for heading back to Exeter. Closing his eyes to summon up at least a modicum of composure, he took another deep breath, and then headed for the door.

As expected, his father responded apprehensively, jumping to his feet as Richard bounded down the stairs. “What is it?” he asked, his brows compressed in concern.

“It’s William,” Richard replied, the concern in his voice all too genuine. “He’s fallen and broken his arm. I have to go. Henry says he keeps calling for me.”

“Yes, of course,” Thomas said, but then he added something Richard had not expected. “You shouldn’t go alone though.”

“What!” Richard exclaimed, coming to a dead stop at the foot of the stairs.

“I know how concerned you must be. Better not to ride alone in such a state. I’m sure Armus . . .”

“Really, Father,” Richard stammered. “I’ll be fine.” He did not know what else to do, so he simply bolted out the door and saddled his horse before his father could answer. He knew he would have to explain his rudeness eventually, but by then William would be safe at home and it would no longer matter, or so he hoped.

*****

It was mid afternoon the next day by the time Richard reached St. Michael’s church. A plump little priest answered his knock and greeted him with a pleasant smile. “How may I help you, my son?”

For a moment Richard did not know what to say, but then he decided to plunge ahead and simply ask to see his son’s birth certificate. “I was away in Scotland when he was born, and his mother has since passed away. It’s not that I doubt her word, Father; I just wanted to see that his christening was recorded properly. His dear mother – Johanna — it would have been about three years ago.”

“Yes, I remember the girl,” the priest smiled. “Her brother brought her as I recall, you being away at war and all. I must admit, my lord, I was a bit skeptical about it at first, but then she seemed so sincere.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, she didn’t exactly look like a lady of noble birth, yet there was an honesty in her face I could not ignore. I suppose I should have left it blank until you could come yourself, but . . . You’re not here to contest it, are you?” the priest remarked, suddenly sounding alarmed.

“No, Father,” Richard answered at once. “Johanna was my wife, and William is my son. I simply wanted to see the record . . . and perhaps have a copy of the document for our own archives.”

“Yes, William . . . that’s what she named him, after your brother, I believe.”

“Yes, he’s away at the Crusades.”

With that the priest opened the large book and there it was before him, the proof he had been searching for:

William Richard Bartholomew Gray

Son of Sir Richard Gray of Covington Cross and

his wife, Johanna of Windham

A large lump formed in Richard’s throat, and he ran his fingers across the writing as if to ingrain it in his memory for all time. He thought of Johanna and how frightened she must have been, coming to have the boy baptized so far from home.

“One thing I don’t understand, my lord,” the priest inquired, jarring Richard from his revelry. “Why is it she did not have the child baptized at your own parish?”

God forgive me, Richard thought as he answered the priest, praying that the good Lord did not strike him dead on the spot for his lie. “She was staying here with her brother while I was away. I thought it best with the child coming.”

“Yes, of course. I should have guessed as much. If you’ve a moment, I’ll copy the certificate for you this minute.”

“Yes, thank you, Father,” Richard replied as he watched the pleasant little priest gather his quill, inkwell and parchment. He was adept at his work, and but a moment later, was handing Richard the document he desired.

“Is there anything else I can help you with, my lord?”

“No, thank you, Father,” Richard replied as he headed for the door, but then he stopped and turned to face the priest. “Perhaps just one thing. Could you say a prayer for my wife? I know she must be in heaven, but I don’t think a prayer is ever wasted.”

“You’re right there, my lord. It would be my honor. If there is nothing more, God speed to you then, my son.”

“Thank you, Father.”

*****

 Richard’s heart was racing as he approached the home of the merchant, Henry Goodall. He would beat the life out of the vile creature, and then have him drawn and quartered, but not before plucking William from his clutches. He pounded against the door so hard the wood itself shook upon its hinges, almost bowing as his blows met its surface. At last, the door opened and a gray haired servant stood before him.

“May I help you, m’lord,” he said, a strain of curiosity in his voice.

“Where is your master?” Richard shouted. He glanced around the house, pushing his way across the threshold, but he could see no one.

“May I ask who is calling, m’lord?”

“You know very well who is calling,” Richard replied, but then he stopped short, realizing that he had never seen this man before. “Tell your master Sir Richard Gray is here on urgent business, and it would behoove him to answer the summons as quickly as is humanly possible.”

“As you wish, m’lord.” The man bowed, then exited the room, leaving Richard pacing the floor at a rate that far exceeded his usual clip. Moments later a man, not much older than himself returned, looking rather put out.

“How may I help you, my lord?” the man asked, his voice polite but marred by a tinge of annoyance.

 “Who are you?” Richard exclaimed. “I’m here to see Henry Goodall, and by God, I’ll have the sheriff upon you all if he does not come forth.”

The man looked anxiously to his servant, before turning back to Richard. “I am Henry Goodall, my lord. What have I done to bring about such wrath?”

“I beg your pardon, sir, but you are mistaken,” Richard replied with confidence. It took no more than a moment before he realized how ridiculous his accusation sounded. In the meantime, the young man just looked to his servant in disbelief and confusion.

“I assure you, my lord, I am who you seek.”

By then, the light had dawned. “No, I’m afraid you are not,” Richard replied, his voice taking on an apologetic note. “Who is it who has been living in this house for the past year?”

“I left it in the care of a servant while I was in France, my lord. I admit I knew little about him when I took him on, but he seemed trustworthy enough. After all, he did go to fetch his wife and child.”

“His child!” Richard turned and began to pace once more, his breath more rapid with each pass, his heart racing as he realized the extent of the treachery he was facing.

“Has his stolen anything from you, my lord? I will do my best to make reparations.”

“No,” Richard muttered, for though he was heartsick, he remembered clearly the warning he had received. “It was a minor offense. Think no more of it. I’m sorry to have bothered you.”

Richard rode out of town toward home, half dazed, his stomach aching and his head spinning. Now, he had no idea where William was. His only hope was that some clue would be revealed in the next letter he was to receive.

*****

 

“Back so soon?” Thomas asked as Richard burst into the Great Hall. “How is he?”

“He’s fine,” Richard replied, though it was obvious he was slightly preoccupied. “He just needed to see me. Has there been another message?”

“No, not that I know of,” Thomas said, his left eyebrow raised in curiosity. “Should there have been?”

“No . . . “ Richard answered. He tried his best to make light of the question, though he knew an explanation would be expected. “It’s just that I told Henry to send word if William needed me again.”

Thomas could see his son was still concerned and so smiled sympathetically. “It’s hardly likely that we would have heard anything so soon. Besides, I’m sure the boy will be fine.”

“Yes, I know you’re right,” Richard replied with a sigh. “If you don’t mind, I think I’d like to rest a bit though. I am exhausted.”

“Actually, I would prefer you stay and explain your hasty departure yesterday. We’re all worried about you, Richard.”

“I was just upset about William,” Richard replied. He could feel the sweat forming along his hairline and on the palms of his hands. “I wanted to get there as soon as possible.”

“And did you think it impossible that anyone else could be just as concerned, that your heart alone aches at the loss of him?” Thomas snapped, unable to conceal the edge in his tone. “Really, Richard! He is my grandson. I worry just as much, miss him just as keenly, but I don’t shut the rest of my family out of my life. Eleanor longs for word or him, Cedric asks about him incessantly, and as for Armus . . . he was hurt, Richard, deeply hurt.”

“I am sorry, but I don’t see what I did to make him feel that way.”

“You could have waited one moment, allowed him to go along with you, but you thought of no one but yourself.”

“My thoughts were only of William!” Richard could hear his voice growing sharp, and though he knew it was not out of anger but self preservation, he could do nothing to stop it.

“William would have been fine whether you left at that very moment or five minutes later.”

Hurtful words came to his lips, but before they could spew forth Armus entered the hall, stopping cold in his tracks at the solemn look upon his father’s face. Richard turned toward him, and his expression did nothing to calm his fears.

“Perhaps, I should return at a better time,” he lilted, hoping his jovial tone might break the tension that was so thick he would have needed his broad sword to cut through it.

“I was just trying to impress upon Richard the irresponsibility of his leaving so abruptly yesterday. A year ago I would have expected no less from him, but I thought the experience of having his own son, if only temporarily, would have given him more of an appreciation for the concern of others.”

“But he was not my son, was he?” Richard snapped, once more allowing his temper to get the better of him. “So all my concern was for naught.” He knew the words were far from the truth, but the truth was something he could not reveal for fear of losing William entirely, and so he set his chin firmly and took a solid, unwavering stance.

“Perhaps it is for the best!” Thomas replied, at times being just as stubborn as his second son. In truth, it was the extent of their similarities that so often put them at odds with one another. Armus, however, was wise enough to see through their feeble façades.

“Really!” he exclaimed. “Then William’s welfare, whether for good or bad, is a mute concern.” His brow began to crinkle a bit, and he rubbed his chin before going on. “But then, I’m not entirely certain I understand why Richard went running off so hurriedly at the news of William’s broken arm, or why you, Father, care one way or the other. What concern is it of ours?”

Richard’s eyes nearly popped out of his head, and his father’s lips exuded virtual steam. Armus waited just long enough before continuing. It seemed he was very good at judging the extent of his family’s tolerance.

“Oh, yes, I believe I understand now,” he chuckled. “You’re both bald faced, unadulterated liars.” The expressions of guilt on the faces of the two combatants confirmed his observation, and so he continued. “William is the first of the next generation to be born into this family, and not one of us believes he is anything but that. As such, he is loved beyond all reason, and no piece of paper can ever change that fact.”

Thomas and Richard could do nothing but glance at each other, ashamed of the spectacle they had just put on, though Richard was on the verge of storming out of the room angrily as he always did when a conversation had the possibility of veering toward the emotional.

“Stay, brother!” Armus bellowed, sensing Richard’s penchant for flight. “Look me in the eyes and tell me you have no feelings for William, that your heart does not break anew each time you must leave him behind in Exeter, that sheer panic did not wrack your soul when news arrived of his accident.”

Richard said nothing in reply, but jerked his gaze away from his brother’s intimidating stare. He stood firmly, his chest rising and falling rapidly as his breath quickened, but not once did his lips part to utter a single word in denial.

“I thought as much!” Armus noted. “And Father, do you truly think I believe you felt any different?”

“I don’t deny it!” Thomas responded, having had time to calm the anger and frustration he felt at his son’s apparent disregard for his family’s feelings. “What concerns me is Richard’s denial!”

“I don’t deny it either!” Richard snapped. “But what is the point? It changes nothing.”

“It changes everything!” Armus exclaimed. “No matter what happens, that child will always have a family who loves him, people who would die for him if need be, and he knows that. Words on a piece of paper are nothing when matched against that.”

“Those words, written on no more than a scrap of paper, keep me from being with him,” Richard hissed. “That matters.”

“Does it really!” Armus replied, so logically that Richard wanted to land a blow directly on his chin. “In a few years, he will be sent off to train as a knight. He will be in neither home then, or perhaps the Goodalls will allow him to come here for his training. Have you ever thought of that?”

Truthfully, Richard had never thought beyond the present, but it was all academic now. There was a far more pressing matter than where the child trained as a knight, for if Richard made the wrong move, the child would never survive to see that day. For the first time in his life, he wanted to share his concerns with his family, and yet he could say nothing of the danger that threatened his child, and so he uttered a reply that even he knew was completely ridiculous.

“He’s not of noble birth, the whole scenario is untenable.”

“You of all people know that is not the case, brother,” Armus argued. “If sponsored by a noble, even a peasant can become a knight. You just don’t want to find the good here, do you, Richard,” Armus declared in frustration. “You simply want to wallow in self-pity. Poor little Richard! How he must suffer!”

“What do you know of it?” Richard snorted. “Have you ever loved in your life?” Almost as soon as the words had passed his lips, he wished he could have taken them back. He closed his eyes, waiting for the blow to fall, but it did not.

“If you recall, brother,” Armus replied with an eerie calmness, “not only have I loved, but I have relinquished that love for you, and you simply tired of her. I will not let you deny me this love, Richard. You should have waited, allowed me to see for myself that William was well. We all miss him as do you, yet you selfishly keep him from us.”

“He’s not your son,” Richard muttered, not knowing what else to say.

“No, he is my nephew,” Armus replied calmly, “and the same panic ran through your soul at the thought of his small arm broken and bloody plagued us all. You should have waited, brother.”

This time Armus did not stop Richard as he made his usual escape, snorting angrily and storming for the stairs. He had finished what he had to say and thought it best to let Richard stew on it awhile. It seemed that was the only way to get through to his brother, for he hid his heart so incredibly well.

*****

As usual, Richard retreated to his chambers, but he did not rest. He paced the floor, walking to the window from time to time in search of an approaching rider. If only he could share this horror with them, he thought, truly this time he would have opened his heart for all to see. For William, he would bare his very soul, but for William, he must now conceal it more than he ever had. He gazed out the window once again and at last he saw him, a solitary rider approaching the castle gates. Richard stood frozen, facing the door, waiting for Simon to deliver the message, hoping it would tell him where William was, but knowing in his heart it would only make Goodall’s demands known to him. Whatever the cost, he would pay it to have William home with him again. He took out the newly written certificate from the drawer where he had placed it and read it once more, to convince himself that it was not all a dream. A single tear ran down his cheek as he read Johanna’s name. If he had only known, could he have saved her? If he had not lain with her, caused her to be with child, would she have still been alive today?

“Perhaps,” he felt a gentle whisper utter, “but William would not be.”

He turned abruptly, searching the shadows of his room, but he could see no one. Just then another knock came on the door.

“M’lord, I have another letter . . . “

“Yes, thank you, Simon,” Richard retorted hastily, taking the note from the boy’s hands. “You may go.”

“Thank you, m’lord,” the boy replied, stunned by the abruptness with which Richard spoke. He had always been so nice to him before; he wondered if the knight knew what he was about and bowed awkwardly before hurrying away down the corridor.

Richard closed the door behind him, hardly waiting for the boy to leave the room before he opened the note, his heart pounding like some frantic tympani.

My dear Sir Richard,

I trust your journey to Exeter was fruitful, though I dare say your visit to that fool Henry Goodall has lost you precious time and any further departure from my instructions will not be tolerated. I did warn that my agent would be keeping a watchful eye on you, and as such, it was to your benefit that you spoke naught of our business to Master Goodall.

Now, as to your first task, my lord. ‘Tis a simple one really. I believe you are scheduled to ride to London on the morrow to conclude the sale of a certain number of sheep. On returning, you shall put half of the money in your father’s treasury, but the other half you shall bring to me as a sign of good faith. You will come just after dark, to the large willow by the river, the one just downstream from where you and William used to moor your boat. If you are late, so too shall be your son. As to what you tell your father about the missing coins, I care not, but do not divulge the truth or William will not see another sunrise.

I remain, as always,

Your servant,

Henry Goodall

Richard flopped down in his chair. He could feel the oatcake he had consumed for lunch coming up in his throat. He was in essence to steal from his father. There was really no other way to look at it. Oh he could ask his father for the money, which he would surely be glad to give him, but he would demand an explanation first, one which Richard could not give. His instinct was to scour the countryside for his son, to find Goodall and run him through or hang him beneath the gibbet, but this time he had to control his impulsiveness. Before all else, he had to make sure William was safe. That meant giving in to Goodall’s demands, at least for the time being. There was no other alternative. He would have to lie and pray his father believed him, else William’s life was lost. After it was over, he would explain to his father, ask his forgiveness, but for now he had to put William’s welfare above all else.

*****

That night, sleep came in sporadic interludes, plagued by a myriad of distorted visions that coursed through his dreams with frightening clarity. Richard found himself tossing and turning as he fought to escape the intensity of their images, and then moments later praying for the touch of sweet Morpheus to embrace him once more. Each time he woke was a nightmare in and of itself, for he woke to find himself trembling, with so much sweat dripping from his brow that he felt as if he had been caught in a terrible downpour of freezing rain. To make matters worse, the phantom specters that stayed with him were much too close to reality, and thus the alternating pattern of restless sleep and troubled wakefulness continued unrelentingly. How would he ever function the next day, if even sleep granted him no peace? He pulled himself up, walking over to the basin by the window, and threw the cool water on his face and neck. Then grabbing the towel, he ran it over his dampened skin and gazed out the window, trying to clarify the blurred line between his dreams and reality.

All of a sudden, the towel dropped to the floor, his eyes straining to see into the darkness. There was something out there, just beyond the garden gate. A wisp of early morning mist, a midnight shadow, he was not sure what, but as a soft summer breeze blew the scent of lavender through his window, all doubt vanished.

“Mother!” he whispered as his eyes frantically searched the grounds below.

“Yes, Richard,” a soft voice answered from behind, and he spun around to face the woman who had once held him at her bosom, the woman to whom his heart would always belong.

“Am I dreaming?” he uttered, afraid that he would wake too soon.

“What do you think?” she said, her perfect lips turning slightly up at the corners.

“You’ve come to me before, haven’t you, when I was injured. Armus said he didn’t know how I had survived.”

“You’ve always been a survivor, Richard, always so strong for everyone else.”

“Is that so wrong, Mother?” he asked gently, almost afraid that he was being scolded. “To be strong for others, to be there for them?”

“No, of course not,” she said, her tone soft and comforting, “but sometimes you must let others be there for you.” She sat down on the bed and reached out her hand. “Come here, my darling.”

Richard hesitated only slightly before going to her side and sitting down next to her. He felt as if he were a child once more, about to be reprimanded for some small infraction.

“What am I to do, Mother? If I say anything, if I tell anyone, William could die.”

“You know the answer, Richard. You don’t need me to tell you that. What is it you truly want of me?”

“I want you to be here for me,” he replied. His voice cracked as he spoke, and she put her arm around him, brushing the hair from his eyes. “Why did you have to go?”

“I’m here now, Richard, maybe not the way you would like, but here nonetheless, here in your heart.”

“But why did you have to die? Why did Johanna have to die? Now William will be alone, just like I am”

Anne laughed softly. “You are not alone, my love, nor is William. I am with you both, always . . . as is Johanna.” She nodded gently to the corner of the room.

“Johanna?” Richard breathed in a hushed tone.

“I have faith in ye, Richard. Ye’ll do what’s best for William, o that I’ve no doubt.”

“But I failed you. He was killing you, here in our own home, and I never knew.”

“Hush m’love!” Johanna whispered. “Na even I knew his wickedness, but in truth he did us both a favor. He brought me ta ye, and so William will have his father ta care for him, and a good home ta be raised in. I could na have wished for more.”

“But you could have had both regardless your health.”

Johanna shook her head sadly. “I fear na, Richard, for I never would have come ta ye. I loved ye too much ta bring even a hint o disgrace upon ye.”

“There was no disgrace, only a precious gift. Please stay with me, Johanna. I need you.”

The young girl smiled sweetly as Anne took her hand, then there was a sudden, intense flash of light, and Richard bolted upright. The sun shone on his pillow, bright and warm against the crisp, white linen. He scanned the room, blinking in the bright sunlight, and then heaved a saddened sigh.

“It was naught but a dream,” he lamented, but even as the words passed his lips, the soft scent of lavender drifted in on a subtle breeze, and it somehow gave him the strength to do what he must.

*****

After a quick breakfast, Richard rode to London as was expected and concluded an excellent deal. On returning home the next day, however, the amount he gave his father was to be considerably less. He waited in silence while his father mulled over the transaction, his heart pounding nervously as he watched the sun begin to slip slowly below the horizon.

“I don’t understand?” Thomas bellowed. “I thought you had convinced Lord Basil you could not possibly sell for less then one hundred and fifty pounds?”

“As did I, Father, but it seems he had a counter offer and refused to pay more than seventy-five. In truth, he had offered only sixty.”

“Sixty! That’s preposterous! Perhaps I should have gone myself.”

Richard hung his head in humiliation. All the hard work he had done to convince his father that he was capable of handling his business seemed for naught. He would never again trust him with such an important transaction. Thomas could see the look of mortification on his son’s face, and his heart softened.

“Well, if you couldn’t convince him otherwise, I don’t suppose anyone could,” he said, a warm smile touching his lips. He rested his hand on his son’s shoulder in encouragement. “It’s less than what I expected, but we’ll make do. Well done, Richard.”

Somehow both men knew he did not really mean it, but Richard appreciated the gesture nonetheless. There was no time for sentimentality, however, for the sun could barely be seen and the shadows of twilight had begun to cover the countryside.

“Thank you, Father. I’m sure I’ll do better next time,” Richard assured the elder knight, then turning to gaze out the window he added, “You wouldn’t mind if I skipped tonight’s meal though, would you? I feel like a ride before it gets to dark.”

“No, I suppose not, but aren’t you a bit weary of riding?”

“Actually, I fell much better now that I . . . well, now that you know the deal didn’t go as well as I’d expected,” he grimaced. “I won’t be long.”

“Very well, I’ll have Cook keep something warm for you then,” Thomas smiled, feeling that his son’s mind was more than likely still on William. “Richard,” he added with a definite hesitation, “are you sure you’re all right?”

“Yes, Father,” the boy replied. He smiled broadly, and then turned to head out the door.

*****

It was almost completely dark when Richard arrived at the old willow tree. A pinkish tinge bled across the horizon as if painted there by some giant hand, thus providing the only patch of daylight in an otherwise darkened canvas. He felt ill as he looked around the peaceful glen, praying to God above he was not too late. Sweat was gathered on his brow, his breath deep and quick, a sense of panic overcoming him, when out from behind the enormous tree stepped the impostor, Henry Goodall.

Richard could not say a word. He stood staring at the man, a combination of fear for his son and utter contempt for Goodall etched indelibly upon his face. Henry snickered at the sight of him, and Richard was sure that if not for William, he could easily have throttled the man within an inch of his life and felt no remorse what-so-ever. At long last, Henry spoke, a callous pleasure still in his voice.

“So, did you bring it? Seventy-five pound, I believe. You are becoming quite a good liar, my friend.”

Richard still did not say a word. There was a burning rash rising in his cheeks, and he pressed his lips together, praying he could hold his temper. He threw the pouch of coins at the man’s feet, hoping against hope that he might actually break his toe or something while doing so. Henry jumped back, his lip curling in disgust.

“Better take care to watch what you’re doing, m’lord, lest you find the boy returned to you in a box.”

Richard could wait no longer. He reached out and pulled the little runt up by his collar. His green eyes piercing through the other man’s with such force it caused the villain to lean back away from his attacker. He was not frightened enough to give up William’s whereabouts, however.

“See that hill over there,” Henry shouted, his voice hoarse from being constrained in his tightened collar. “There’s a rider there. Do you see him? If you don’t take your hands off me, he’ll ride ahead, and your darling little boy will be dead before you can mount your horse.”

Richard gazed to the hilltop, and to his horror, found just what Henry had described. Without another thought, he let the man fall to the ground, his anger growing more intense by the moment.

“Where is William?” he shouted.

“Oh, not yet, m’lord. Did you think this measly bit of money was going to buy your son’s freedom? He is, after all, nobility, worth far more than this paltry some. No, you shall not get off so easy, my friend. For the next week, you shall bring me the wealth found in the homes of your family and friends, starting with your father’s of course. His shall be the first treasury you pilfer.”

“You’re insane if you think I’m going to rob my father,” Richard snapped, forgetting for the moment the consequences of his refusal. Henry, however, had every intention of reminding him, in no uncertain terms.

“He is such a tiny little thing! Pity if he should fall off a cliff!”

Richard wanted to rip the vile creature’s throat out, to silence him forever, but he knew he could not let his anger get the better of him. This was no trivial disagreement with one of Baron Mullen’s men, where the only concern was the level of his father’s fury. His son’s very life was at stake here, and he had to do all that was possible to preserve it. There was no other conceivable course of action.

“When?” Richard snarled, his emerald eyes still burning into the villain’s soul.

“Tomorrow! Leave but one coin in your father’s treasury. It will be your calling card. Come just after dark, as you’ve done tonight, though I must say, you did cut it a bit close.”

“It’s a difficult time to get away,” Richard exclaimed, “especially if you don’t want my father to know about it. He does expect me at the evening meal.”

“Very well then, just before dawn . . . Of course, that leaves you little time to pilfer your father’s treasury.”

“Tomorrow!” Richard cried. “That barely gives me time to . . .”

“You’re a resourceful sort, Sir Richard,” the man sneered. “I’m sure you’ll get it done.”

With that the man turned and disappeared into the evening mist, leaving Richard standing alone, empty handed. He hung his head, wondering why he had not ended the blaggard’s life right then and there. The answer was resounding. He loved William more than anything, more than he hated the man that had stood before him, more than his own life and reputation. He would do what needed to be done, regardless of the consequences.

So it was that he slipped down the stairs in the wee hours of the morning, but to his surprise, he found Armus sitting up, in front of the dwindling fire.

“What are you still doing up,” he asked, for lack of anything else to say.

“I might ask you the same, brother,” Armus replied, but then he sighed wearily. “I couldn’t sleep.”

“Dreams about the Crusades again?” Richard asked.

“No, they rarely bother me anymore,” he answered. “It’s you I’m worried about — you and William, though I do believe William will ultimately be fine. You however are another matter. It’s not good keeping everything so bottled up, Richard.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Armus.”

“Oh come now, Richard. William’s absence is tearing you apart, but instead of sharing it with those who care, you pretend it doesn’t affect you in the least. Yet William breaks his arm and you take off out of here as if his very life were in danger.

“A broken arm can be a serious affair,” Richard uttered in his defense.

“You broke your arm twice if I remember correctly,” Armus chided his brother, “and though Father and Mother were concerned, it was far from life threatening. In fact, if memory serves me, the second time Father was more angry about you falling through the stable roof than worried about your well-being.”

“That was different. I was home where they could care for me.”

“No you weren’t. You were in training. It was Uncle Robert’s stable, and you were trying to sneak away with Derek Maxwell, off to get into more mischief no doubt.”

“Yes, well William was not into mischief, and I was not there,” Richard grumbled.

“I know that, but perhaps it would help if you would just confide in us. We are here for you, brother.”

Richard was fighting hard to keep his eyes from filling with tears. “Yes, I do know that, but there is nothing to confide in you about.”

“Why are you roaming the halls this late at night then?”

“I didn’t know I needed a reason to walk about my own home,” Richard replied sarcastically. “I suppose I’d better get back to my chambers before the castle guard throws me in the dungeon.” With that he turned and bolted back up the stairs, leaving Armus clapping his hands to his side in frustration once again.

*****

Though it was only about an hour later before Richard heard Armus slip into his chambers, it seemed like hours. He had not slept at all, but kept glancing out the window, praying that the sun did not begin to rise before he was able to sneak downstairs to the treasury. Even after hearing Armus close his door, he waited for the gentle rhythm of his brother’s snoring to begin before venturing out into the hall once more. Then, in the wee hours of the morning, he slipped into his father’s treasury, leaving but a single coin set upon the table, and road out to meet the charlatan who was masquerading as Henry Goodall.

Richard was exhausted as he rode up to the old willow. He had managed little sleep and the whole experience was taking an enormous toll on him emotionally. The morning light was just beginning to seep its way onto the distant horizon, yet above, the moon still cast its silvery glow across the countryside. He had barely dismounted, however, than the imposture once more stepped out from behind the gnarled old tree.

“Good morning to you, m’lord,” he said with a cheerfulness that caused Richard’s blood to boil.

“Before I go any further,” the knight growled. “I want to know who it is I’m dealing with.”

“Really, m’lord, do you think I’m going to tell you me real name? Come now, even you must realize how foolish that would be on my part. Now, back to business. Did you bring the money?”

Richard lifted two large sacks from his saddle and carried them over to the tree, but as he did, the man began to laugh hysterically.

“Not there,” he managed to say through the snorts. “You don’t think I’m going to lift them do you? My horse is over there.”

Richard pressed his lips together, willing himself to keep quiet. He must think of William and nothing else. Yet how was he even sure his son was alive. Throwing the sacks at the horse’s feet, he turned on the rogue, his eyes flaring with a fire forged in anger.

“No! Not until I see William. For all I know you could have killed him already.”

“I thought you might think that, m’lord, so we’ve brought the little tyke along this morning. Over there, at the crest of the hill, do you see him?”

Richard turned, straining his eyes to see through the fading darkness, and there, held firmly by a cloaked rider, was William, sobbing softly. On spotting his father, he cried out softly, only to be whisked away in the next moment. His words echoed in Richard’s ears, and without another thought, almost hypnotically, he bent down, picking up the heavy sacks and tying them to the animal before him.

“Very good, Sir Richard, now as to your next assignment.”

“My what!” Richard exclaimed.

“Your next assignment, m’lord,” Goodall said with a wide grin. “Your neighbor, Lord Maxwell, he’s quite a hefty coffer, has he not? I want you to relieve him of it.”

“Lord Maxwell! I couldn’t . . .”

“Ah, but you will, m’lord,” Goodall continued, his grin turning sinister. “For you know the consequences all too well.”

”But how?” Richard protested. “Entering my father’s treasury was one thing, but that of another will not be so easy. There are bound to be guards, and if I am caught . . .”

“Ye’ll be hung, I suppose, but that’s really not my problem, is it? No one would ever believe you, now would they? Except maybe your own family, but then William would be long gone, as would we, and you’d have no proof of what you said. Of course, they might all just think you’ve gone insane.”

“How could you have so little feeling for the boy? He lived with you for nearly a year and yet you . . . “

“Lived with me!” Goodall cackled. “He was an annoying little brat we kept in an upper room, until you came that is.”

“You what!” Richard bellowed, his green eyes blazing a fiery emerald. “I shall have you drawn and quartered.”

“Will you now, m’lord. I think first you had best take care of the issue at hand, for if I do not have Lord Maxwell’s fortune in the morning, your little whelp won’t be a bother to either of us anymore.

“And how do you propose I get passed the guards?”

“As I’ve said, m’lord, I’ve always thought you were a rather resourceful young man. I’m sure you’ll find a way. Until tomorrow then.”

“One day! That’s all you’re giving me? You truly must be insane, for no man in possession of his sanity would expect such a thing. I’ll need to find a way to get in . . . and out, without being detected.”

“Insane or not, the deadline remains tomorrow, m’lord,” the villain said in all seriousness, “or the boy dies!”

“Dear God!” Richard exclaimed as he slumped to the ground and watched the slimy creature slither away. He combed his hands through his hair, trying to think clearly, but it was almost impossible. In the fog that invaded his mind, his thoughts drifted back to his childhood. He had trained with Lord Maxwell’s son, Derek, as a page and later a squire. Though Richard had been a few years younger than the boy, the two had become fast friends, until the latter had ridden off to the Crusades, where he had been killed. Almost as if a bolt of lightning had coursed out of the morning sky, a memory flashed through his mind. A hidden entrance, concealed by a century or more of vines and ivy, lay recessed along the castle wall. He and Derek had used it on many an occasion to sneak in and out when they were supposed to be at Robert Gray’s castle studying. It was Richard’s uncle Robert who they had been training under, but on warm summer days the two would sometimes slip away on an adventure or two. Now, the lessons learned on those outings would prove invaluable, for it was indeed a way into Lord Maxwell’s castle.

That night, as the moon rose high in the sky, Richard quietly saddled his chestnut mare and slipped away into the darkness. It was not the first time he had made the ride without the benefit of sunlight, but never before had he done so for such a treacherous reason. His hand shook as he reached for the rusted latch and pushed the stiffened wood. It smelled of mold and mildew, and vivid memories flooded his senses. What would Derek think, he thought to himself as he made his way along the disserted corridors to the floor above. He knew exactly where Lord Maxwell kept his key. He had seen him hide it there on many an occasion. Richard felt heartsick. The man had so trusted him that he never concealed its whereabouts from him, and now he was about to break that trust. He turned to leave, but as he did he thought of William. Nothing, not even his honor, was more important to him. Turning back toward the chest, he rushed across the room and removed the key from its hiding place, but he was unable to go any further. He closed his eyes, trying desperately to quell the guilt that was overpowering him, fighting to build up the courage to do what he knew he must. Then, just when he felt he could go no further, a familiar voice broke the silence, nearly causing his heart to stop.

“Go ahead,” the distant echo said, and he turned to see a smiling boy of about thirteen, with mud smeared across his slender nose. No not a boy, but a whisper of one. Richard gasped as he recognized his friend. “Father will understand,” the boy laughed.

“Derek?” Richard whispered.

“He will understand.” The boy’s broad smile dropped away to a sadder one as he spoke. “I understand, my friend. I did not expect you to come along. We each had our own duty. Mine was to serve the King in the Holy Land. Now this is yours.” He smiled cheerfully once more. “Do what you must, Richard. We are forever friends.” Then nodding approvingly, the image vanished.

Richard stood staring for a moment, a warm glow seemed to permeate the room and a peacefulness came over him. A tear broke through as he turned and opened the metal banded chest. He had always felt he had abandoned Derek, left him to face the Crusades alone, but how could he have gone with Armus away and his father depending on him so.

“Thank you, my friend,” he muttered. “I swear I shall somehow return it, if I need spend my entire life in doing so.”

Moments later, he was heading back toward Covington Cross to await his rendezvous with the villainous kidnapper. He slipped in through the postern once more and up the cold stone steps to his chambers. He could hear Armus snoring gently as he passed his room, and he stopped, wishing he could wake his brother and ask his advice, but knowing he could not. Instead, he carried on to his own chambers and slumped down exhausted on the bed.

“I mustn’t sleep,” he whispered to himself, but the thought was engulfed in a wave of unconsciousness.

*****

The first rays of sunlight strewn in across Richard’s handsome face, causing him to start from his slumber. A gasp of panic forced him to jump from the warmth of his bed, pulling his clothes on even as he wiped the sleep from his eyes. He would be too late. Goodall had warned him. Within moments he was out through the postern and heading for their usual spot, praying Goodall would be waiting as usual, annoyed at the delay no doubt, but there nonetheless.

His heart pounded and sweat dampened his tawny hair as he rode up to the twisted willow. Jumping from his horse, he searched the countryside for a sign of his nemesis, but he could see no one; not Goodall, not the horseman, not William. Panic overtook him as he rode up to the top of the hill and scanned the horizon, but still he could see nothing, save the occasional peasant going about his routine task. Then across a field, he saw William, standing all alone, crying softly as he sucked on his thumb.

“William!” Richard mumbled in relief. He spurred his chestnut mare and headed back down the hillside and across the open ground, planning to pluck the child up to himself without even allowing his pony to slow to a canter. He galloped along, pure instinct guiding him to the site where his son stood, but when he arrived, a young woman ran out in front of him, whisking her child out of the way of his charging steed. It was not William at all. The child’s mother looked up at him as if he were mad, but she said nothing, for she was merely a peasant woman, afraid to speak out in front of a noble. Instead, she simply clutched her child to her bosom and ran off toward her cottage.

Richard sat in stunned silence, looking after her. He was so certain it was William, or perhaps he simply wanted it to be so. Heaving a sigh of desperation, he turned his horse to head out across the valley and a soft whisper lilted across the land on a gentle breeze. He looked in the direction of the gentle cry, and he saw Goodall, sitting on his horse, with William in his grasp. He held the boy around the waist, letting him dangle off the side of his horse.

“I hope I don’t loose my grip, my lord,” he said as Richard rode slowly toward him. “For if I did, I fear the lad would surely be trampled to death.”

“I’ve brought your money, fiend!” Richard exclaimed. “What more do you want?”

“Your honor, my lord,” Goodall replied viciously. “I want to see you disgraced,” but suddenly, it was not the wicked merchant speaking but Johanna. “You swore to me that you would care for him, but you have betrayed me,” she said as she held out her son’s limp body. “See what you have done.”

“No!” Richard shouted as once more he bolted upright in his bed. Darkness surrounded him and within moments, his father was at his door.

“Are you all right, Richard?” he asked out of concern.

“Yes, Father,” the young knight replied shakily. “Just a nightmare, I guess. I’m fine, really.” He gave a feeble smile and laid back down amongst his tangled sheets. “Good night, Father.”

“Richard, we really must talk about this,” Thomas stated. Concern was written across his weary face and for the first time, Richard realized the toll his actions and William’s absence must be taking on his entire family. Yet what could he do about it? Even if he had wanted to speak of it, there was little chance of him doing it now. “Soon, Father,” he uttered, his breath still coming in short bursts. “I just need a little more time . . . Please, a week or so, no more. Then I promise we shall speak.”

“Very well,” Thomas said skeptically before returning to bed. “No more than a week or so. Good night, son.”

*****

The rest of the night passed relatively uneventful, and so it was that dawn was rapidly approaching as Richard stole down the stairs once more and darted out the postern door, the bag of treasure tucked securely under his cloak. Once more, Henry was waiting for him, a snide look of triumph upon his face.

“Well done, m’lord,” he grinned as he took the sack, weighing it thoughtfully. “Very well, indeed.”

“Where is William?” Richard asked, and the man nodded to the hilltop as he opened the bag and gazed inside, his eyes gleaming with greed.

“Lady Elizabeth’s tomorrow I think,” the villain snarled. “You should have no problem getting in there, considering you’ve already been invited. It’s almost like she’s opening the door for you.”

“Who else?” Richard demanded. “I want to know now.”

“All right, your lordship. Don’t get your britches in a twist. I’ll tell you so you’ll know when I’m done with you. After Lady Elizabeth, Lord Spencer’s, I think, then Lord Wyatt’s, Baron Mullens, and then, the coup de gras. You’re off to Arandale on Friday, are you not? I don’t expect the whole treasury, mind you, but surely you should be able to pilfer a sizeable sum while your father keeps the Duke occupied.”

“The Duke!” Richard exclaimed. “But the castle is heavily guarded. After what happened with the former Duke, the King’s not taking any chances.”

“That’s not my concern, m’lord, but yours. I will be here on Saturday morning to receive my prize. If you deliver it, you shall receive what you so desperately seek as well. Until the morrow then, m’lord.”

“And what if I’m caught at it? What will become of William?”

“I should be very careful if I were you, m’lord,” the man replied with a dark and sinister whisper, “the child’s very life depends upon you, for without your services, he is of little use to me . . . though I suppose your father might pay the price as well . . . to save the child of his dead son if for no other reason. Then again, if you are branded a thief, he may simply want nothing more to do with you, or you illegitimate spawn. It’s really not my concern though, is it?”

Richard moved close to the man, their chins nearly touching their breath mingling in midair. “You will pay for this, Goodall. If it costs me my fortune, my honor, my very life; you will pay, be assured of that.”

“Maybe so, m’lord,” Goodall replied with a calm indifference, “but at the moment, it is you who shall pay. Until the morrow then, Sir Richard.”

*****

They had indeed been invited to Lady Elizabeth’s that evening. It was her birthday, and Thomas had practically demanded that they all attend. Not that Richard would have minded, under ordinary circumstances. He liked Lady Elizabeth and actually enjoyed her company, though he would never admit it. These, however, were far from ordinary circumstances, and the repulsive task he had to perform that evening troubled him deeply.

All through dinner, he could think of nothing else. How was he to get into her treasury, secure its contents, and then exit with the goods without being discovered? Even if he succeeded at that, how could he ever face her again, knowing what he had done? Yet, he had no choice, not if he ever wanted to see his son alive again.

In a way, it seemed ironic. If it were merely an army attacking his castle, he would fight to the death without thought of the consequences. Had Goodall stolen his entire fortune, he would risk the outcome and go charging in to retrieve it, but the evil merchant held something he valued far more than any amount of money, far more than any stone and mortar castle. So it was that he did the man’s bidding, in spite of the vile taste it left in his mouth.

The meal was going as expected, but Richard’s unusual silence was putting a bit of a damper on the festivities. Fearing that his behavior was due to the command performance Thomas had demanded of him, Lady Elizabeth decided to speak to him directly.

“You’re awfully quiet tonight, Richard,” Lady Elizabeth noted, without receiving much of a response. Perhaps talk of William, she thought. That always seemed to lift his spirits. “Your father tells me William has broken his arm. I know how troubling that can be to a parent.”

“What!” Richard asked, his mind obviously having been on other things. “Oh, yes. He’s going to be fine, though. It was no more than a simple break. Nothing a few weeks won’t cure.”

“Yes,” Thomas chimed in, his son’s silence beginning to be a bit of an embarrassment. “I do believe the boy’s following in his father’s footsteps. Richard was about the same age when he broke his arm the first time.”

“Was he really?” Eleanor chirped. “I never thought Richard would have been so clumsy.”

“Yes, well it happens to us all,” Richard replied as he stood up. “If you’ll excuse me.”

“But dessert is about to be served,” Thomas scolded his son. “Lady Elizabeth’s birthday.”

“Really, Father, I won’t be long,” Richard said, then added hastily. “If it wasn’t an utter necessity . . .”

“Yes, of course, Richard,” Lady Elizabeth said with a smile.

Richard nodded apologetically, and then feigning need of the privy, he stole up the winding stone staircase that led to the treasury. From time to time, he was forced to dart back behind a wall so as not to be seen by approaching guards, but at last, he arrived at the treasury door, slipping inside undetected. It was not hard to find the key to the large chest that held most of Lady Elizabeth’s monetary assets. He knew well where it was kept, but how to make his escape and still avoid being accused of the crime was not going to be so easy. He filled a sack with gold and silver coins, not quite sure what he was going to do next, then headed toward the servants quarters, where a length of rope gave him an idea. Taking it and tying one end to the bag, he slipped it down amongst the bushes below the window, and then turned, heaving a great sigh. Just then, the chamber door opened and Molly, one of the kitchen maids appeared in the threshold.

A red flush burst out across her cheeks as she spoke. “Sir Richard!

He was no stranger to the young lady’s kiss and quickly grabbed her, pressing his lips passionately against her own. Then pulling back he spoke, his voice cracking so that the girl thought it was the fire of his passion that caused his palms to sweat and his heart to pound so furiously.

“I am sorry, mistress. I should not have come upon you like this. Forgive me.”

“’Tis all right, my lord; I understand how you feel. No one need ever know.”

As tempting as the proposition was, Richard had no intention of taking her up on it. His carnal needs would have to wait. Were it another day, another time, he might have thrown caution to the wind and jumped into her bed, but he did not want to arouse any suspicion this night. He had to get back to the Great Hall and rejoin his family. He needed no speeches about impropriety from his father, though on the other hand. A thought suddenly struck him. If he were discovered with the maid, all suspicion would be diverted from him when the money was discovered missing.

“Are you sure it’s what you want, lass?” he asked as a pang of guilt surged through his body. “You know it can never be more than an evening’s bliss.”

“Oh, yes, m’ lord,” the girl said, her hand trembling as it undid his jerkin. Moments later, however, their “evening’s bliss” was disturbed by a sharp voice calling from the doorway.

“Richard!” Thomas growled. “I believe you are expected in the Great Hall.”

“Yes, Father,” Richard mumbled, his cheeks turning the purple red of the tapestry that hung on the wall behind his father. He nodded respectfully to the young lady, whose face was equally red as she clasped her blouse closed across her chest, and then without another word, he exited the room.

“Really, Richard!” Thomas muttered as they walked back toward the hall. “Have you no discretion at all… At Lady Elizabeth’s birthday celebration, no less. You had everyone feeling sorry for you, thinking it was concern over young William, when all the while . . .”

“I’m sorry, Father,” Richard replied awkwardly. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“You weren’t as usual. I thought you had grown up over the last year, become more responsible, but I see now I was mistaken.” Then shaking his head in frustration and sighing wearily, he continued down the narrow hallways to the Great Hall with Richard in silent tow. A pang of pain pierced Richard’s heart at his father’s words. He had grown in this past year. Was this endeavor to cost him even his father’s respect?

*****

The sun was no more than a soft shadow along the horizon as Richard reached the pre-arranged rendezvous. As usual, the bogus Henry Goodall was waiting impatiently, pacing back and forth before the large willow tree, his hands clutched tightly at his sides.

“You’re late!” he barked, before grabbing the bag from Richard’s hands. “When I said dawn, I meant it. Next time, I won’t wait, and you’ll have no one to blame but yourself for the death of your precious little whelp.”

“The sun’s not even up yet,” Richard snapped back, irritated far beyond the point of patience. “You’re not incredibly bright, are you? If I’m caught following your instructions, you lose as well. You may have William, but he’ll be of no further use to you. I’ll hardly be able to fill your coffers from the gibbet.”

“Then your family will bear the shame, and little William will either be dead or a right little pick pocket,” Henry growled, a wicked smile curling his thin lips. “I’d wager you’d do just about anything to prevent either from happening, now wouldn’t you?”

Richard lunged forward, his hands locked around the man’s neck with a force even he did not think possible. He wanted to wring the life out of the vile creature, throw him to the ground and crush him like the disgusting little insect he was, but before he could carry out his threat, he heard a small cry from the distant hill. His hands froze on the man’s neck as he turned toward his son’s tiny form. A large man gripped the boy by the collar, holding him precariously over the edge of the cliff.

“No!” Richard cried. He turned back to the animal he still held firmly in his grasp and thrust him back against the tree. “As God is my witness, if you harm him, I’ll stake you to this tree and let you die a slow miserable death.”

Richard’s eyes blazed with fury, burning deep into those of the cold-hearted snake who squirmed anxiously beneath the force of his sword arm. A little more pressure and he could squeeze the life from him, send him to his maker and end the nightmare he had thrust upon them, but what of William. The rogue’s henchmen could shake the life from the boy just as easily before anything could be done to stop him. With Henry dead, William’s life might be used as a bargaining piece or simply tossed over the cliff as one would dispose of some unwanted possession. Richard could not take that chance with his son’s life, and so he eased his grip.

“Call off your hound,” he hissed through clenched teeth.

“Take the boy back to camp,” Henry shouted, his voice hoarse and raspy. “If I’m more than ten minutes behind you, slit his precious little throat.

*****

Richard could hear the commotion even before he rode across the drawbridge. The entire bailey was buzzing with gossip and activity. Broke right in, he heard one woman exclaim. Left only one coin behind, the local cooper added. Richard’s heart was swelling in his throat, and he felt sure it would choke him before he could even ask what had happened, as if he really needed to. He rode into the stable and dismounted, giving the care of his mount over to a young stable boy.

“What’s seems to be causing all the commotion?” he asked. He tried to chuckle lightly, as if not at all worried about the answer.

“’Tis your father’s treasury, m’lord,” the boy whispered, his blue eyes wide with horror. “Sir Thomas found it all but empty this mornin’, except for one silver piece.”

“What!” Richard exclaimed. He was trying his best to sound incredulous, but feared he sounded more like a croaking frog. Whatever the resulting sound, it appeared not to faze the boy in the least, for he went on to assure him that it was the truth.

“I am sorry, m’lord, but I heard it from Sir Armus, himself. He was looking for you, by the way. No one is to leave the castle until it has been well searched.”

“Surely, the thief is well on his way by now,” Richard stated.

“As ye say, me lord,” the boy muttered sheepishly, “but I wouldn’t want to be him when he’s caught.”

Richard nodded and tousled the boy’s hair before walking toward the Great Hall. He could not continue this. Soon the others would be discovering their treasuries had been sacked as well. It would be harder to get away with anything. Somehow he had to rescue his son, put an end to this madness, but how. If he could only speak to his father about it, perhaps together they could find a way, but he knew doing so would seal William’s fate long before they could ever thwart the villain’s treacherous plans. He shook the thoughts from his mind as he opened the heavy door and stepped into the hall, but no sooner had he done so than his heart sank even further into the depths of despair. He feared even now it was too late, for a number of lords and ladies had already assembled, obviously aware of the depletion of their own treasuries.

“Richard!” Thomas snapped. “Where have you been?”

“I couldn’t sleep and decided to go for an early ride,” he replied, feigning innocence. “I didn’t realize my presence would be required. Is it true what they’re saying, that the treasury has been robbed?”

“Not only ours, I fear, but Lord Maxwell’s and Lady Elizabeth’s as well,” Thomas replied.

The lump had returned to Richard’s throat with a vengeance, so that he was afraid whatever he said would only come out as that strange croaking noise. Still, he knew he must have some form of reaction. He slumped down on one of the benches by the long dining table, for his knees had suddenly turned to jelly, but the action had the desired effect and he managed to utter a few words of disbelief.

“Yes, I know,” Thomas continued. “Whoever this thief is, one thing is certain, he’s a bold rascal.”

“Yes, but how did he do it,” Lord Maxwell exclaimed. “One does not just walk into a man’s treasury and empty it without being noticed.”

“Unless it was someone who was not out of place in the vicinity of that treasury,” John Mullens added as a sinister smile crossed his lips.

Just what are you suggesting, John,” Lady Elizabeth inquired with the quiet irritation that befitted her elegance.

“That maybe we’re not all as innocent as we pretend,” he hissed with a decided glance in Richard’s direction. “Out riding indeed.”

Richard stood angrily, but Thomas held his hand up to quell any hasty retorts. As he did a horrible thought suddenly raced through Richard’s mind. What if the Baron was somehow involved in William’s kidnapping? What better way to strengthen his own power than to weaken those around him by depleting their treasuries? Having Richard do it for him would have just been a bonus, a way to do irreparable damage to the Gray’s good name as well as their fortune. Richard’s eyes flashed with fury, yet what could he do to stop him.

“I think that is quite enough,” Lord Maxwell stated calmly. “Throwing accusations about at one another can be of little use.”

“Robert is quite right,” Lady Elizabeth added. “What would it have profited any of us to rob our own treasuries?”

“To draw attention away from ourselves, of course,” Mullens grumbled.

“And where do you propose we would have deposited this great cache,” Richard queried, his tone seething with sarcasm. “Perhaps you should look to your own household, Baron Mullens. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time you’ve found yourself in questionable circumstances due to the actions of some unsavory family member or servant . . . through no fault of your own, of course,” he added with a decided note of sarcasm.

Mullins drew his sword, his eyes no more than slits as they burrowed deep into Richard’s own verdant gaze. “You would know better than I,” he hissed through gritted teeth as Richard followed suit, unsheathing his weapon and pointing it directly at his opponent’s heart. Only Thomas’ quick thinking prevented the sound of clashing swords from echoing throughout the Great Hall there and then.

“Enough!” he bellowed.

He had no sooner stepped between the two potential combatants than a sheepish page entered to announce the arrival of the sheriff. The man seemed preoccupied, not even noticing the impending duel for a moment, for the grave implications of the current crimes were weighing heavily upon his mind. He could find not a clue as to who the perpetrator might have been, and now to make matters worse, he was to find that his victims were bickering amongst themselves like children.

“Please, my lords, these accusations will solve nothing. I need speak to each of you to ascertain whether or not you have seen or heard anything of importance, something you may not even realize is relevant.”

Richard felt ill. What was he to do? If he did not meet Goodall in the morning with another installment, he might never see William again. His head was spinning. There had to be a way to confide in his family, enlist their help, without risking the boy’s life, but how? He said a silent prayer, and miraculously, even as he whispered his petition, he saw something that gave him hope.

A servant busying himself by the hearth seemed to being paying an undue amount of attention to the conversation. In fact, the more Richard thought about it, the more certain he was that he remembered seeing that same servant skulking around at many key moments, though he never recalled noticing him before Johanna’s arrival. At the time, he had assumed he was just a new servant, but perhaps it was more. Perhaps he was Goodall’s spy, or worse, for he now realized that it could have been that very servant who had been viciously poisoning Johanna. He had to be the one, but how could he be sure? There was only one way. He had to put his theory to the test.

After speaking to the sheriff and assuring him that he had seen nothing, he proceeded to feign a throbbing headache, excusing himself and heading up the stairs to his chambers. Before he could reach them, however, Armus overtook him.

“Tell me you did not do this, brother,” he said, his eyes reflecting the pain that was plaguing his heart.

“What!” Richard exclaimed, reacting as though the very suggestion was an insult. “Are you mad?”

“No, just concerned,” Armus replied. “You’ve been distracted lately, not your usual miserable self, and you’re mid-night and early morning wanderings are of concern to me.”

“Since when have you worried about my wanderings, brother,”

“Since they appear to coincide with the recent robberies.”

Down the hall a servant dropped a tray, the noise causing both brothers to start, but on turning to look for the source of the disturbance, Richard’s blood ran cold. Armus, however, took it in stride, for he suspected nothing of the man’s treachery.

“I am sorry, m’lords,” the flustered servant apologized.

“No harm done,” Armus replied, then turning back to his brother, he grabbed the younger knight gently by the arm. “Please Richard, whatever it is, we can help you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, brother,” Richard snapped in desperation. If Armus had suspicions, surely his father would as well. “Now if you don’t mind, I do have a splitting headache. With that, he pushed his brother aside and carried on to his room, much to his elder’s dismay.

Once there, he listened quietly, for Armus’ door to close, for the hallway to be quiet, and finally, for the near silent footfall of someone sneaking along the corridor. Footsteps too light for that of his brother, he thought as he heard them stop outside his door, measured footsteps that moved in stealth.

He said a silent prayer as he drew his sword and held it to his throat. The cut must be just right, else he would bleed to death before he could say his piece. His hand stuck to the hilt of the sword, sweat covering his palm, and he began to mutter to himself irrationally. He prayed that the filthy little mole that had burrowed his way into his life would realize what he was doing and bring the message to Goodall, allowing him the precious time he needed to get word to his father. All would soon know of his treachery, and though he realized his life would be forfeit, he took comfort in the fact that the actions he took now might at least bring about the rescue of his son.

Richard took a deep breath, wincing slightly as he let the sword scrape a narrow cut just below his chin. He was certain the treacherous servant was lurking just outside the door, and he needed just enough blood to convince him that he truly meant to take his own life. His voice quivered so as he spoke, he was afraid it would not hold enough resolve, but then he realized it only added credence to the act he was pretending to perform. In reality, it trembled because he knew his failure could mean William’s life, but he also knew his success would mean his child could be home with him within the day, and so he spoke out loud and clear. Under ordinary circumstances he would have felt like a fool, refusing to take part in such buffoonery, but to save his son’s life, he would have played the court jester before the entire shire.

“What am I to do?” he cried as he felt the rivulet of blood streamed down his neck. “If only I could get word to Goodall, beg that he give me a few days to sort this out, but it is hopeless. There is no other course for me,” he sobbed. “I must end my life, and pray that my sacrifice will save William’s. Once my father reads the message I have written, all the shire will be looking for the child . . . and the villains that perpetrated this wicked plan.”

Just as he was beginning to think the scoundrel was amazingly dim witted for a spy, a hand pounded on his chamber door, and the heavy wooden barrier swung open. The unexpected action nearly knocked Richard off his feet and caused him to curse fluently as his sword nicked the tip of his chin. The additional bit of blood served him well, however, for the man’s slit-like eyes nearly bulged out of his head.

“I beg ye pardon, m’lord,” the scrawny creature stuttered. “I just come ta bring some wood for the fire.” His beady little eyes narrowed on the cut upon Richard’s neck, causing him to stammer even more. “Are ye . . . all right, m’lord? Shall I get . . . the Friar?”

“Why on earth would I want the Friar?” Richard snapped, though he knew precisely what the man meant. To take one’s own life would be a serious sin, but the knight quickly replied. “No greater love hath a man, than to give his life for another.” Sadly, the entire sentiment was beyond the man’s comprehension, for he continued without even addressing Richard’s reply.

“As ye say, m’lord?” he uttered, obviously nervous that Richard would carry out his threat. “I’ll just dampen a few rags and clean up that nasty cut for ye,” he continued. He dashed to the basin and picked up a clean linen cloth.

“Never mind that,” Richard growled, “just get out of my sight!” Oddly enough, even this did not seem to deter the persistent servant.

“At least let me call for ye father, m’lord. Ye don’t look well at all,” he muttered as he continued to fumble with the cloth.

As he did, Richard had a terrible thought. Perhaps he had been wrong about the man? What if he was just another servant, more curious than most? But how was he to tell? In exasperation, he threw his sword across his bed, causing the already flustered Walter to jab him in the jaw.

“I’m fine,” Richard hissed as he grabbed the cloth from the man’s hands and wiped it across the hairline abrasions. “Just leave me.” He sat down at his desk, certain that he had been terribly wrong about this fragile looking little creature, but then the man himself breathed renewed life into Richard’s suspicions.

“As ye wish, m’lord,” he replied, his voice high with anxiety, “but if it’s all the same ta you, I’d feel better calling for yer father. Of course, ye wouldn’t want ta say anything that might . . . worry him unduly . . . or alert him ta what it is ye tried ta do here afternoon.” He seemed to have to search for the words, as if it were more of a warning than a statement made out of true concern.

His hope restored, Richard rose to his feet, chasing the man from his room with a loud bellow, cursing profusely as he stamped his foot and watched the revolting worm slither away down the hall. A few moments later, he looked out his window to see the scoundrel scurrying across the garden toward the woods. A smile touched his lips, but as he turned to head for the door, he was surprised to find his father already standing there.

“Richard!” he exclaimed. “What is all this about your putting a knife to your throat? You’ve scared that poor man to death. I’ve never seen him move so fast, and believe me under other circumstances I would have been only too pleased. He’s not the most efficient . . . “Thomas’ words came to an abrupt halt as he spied the faint trail of blood on his son’s chin and throat. “ Dear God, Richard, you have cut yourself. Please tell me you did not do this deliberately.”

“It’s not what you think, Father,” Richard began before launching into a very abbreviated explanation, “but I must ask that you not judge me until I have finished speaking. I have very little time. Henry Goodall is not what he appears. He is charlatan who has kidnapped my son and holds him ransom. “

“He what!” Thomas bellowed, but Richard cut him short, ignoring the stream of blood that was now staining his shirt.

“Please, Father, he has sent a man to watch my every move, and while I’ve managed to evade the fiend momentarily, I’m certain he will return shortly. If he finds I’ve spoken to anyone of this, William’s life will be forfeit.”

“Richard, I know how much you want to get William back,” Thomas cautioned, “but this is not the answer. Perhaps some time at away at Court . . .”

“I’ve not lost my mind, Father,” Richard protested. “I know exactly what I’m saying. Here read these,” he said as he handed his father the notes Goodall had delivered, “but do so quickly, for time is of the essence.”

Thomas obliged his son, though it was to do no more than humor him at first. As the full meaning of the words sunk through, however, his son’s sanity was no longer in doubt.

“Then we’ll pay whatever ransom he’s asking and deal with the scoundrel later. How much more does he want?”

“The price Goodall asks is more than money. He demands that I forfeit my honor as well. I am no more than a thief, worse than that, for I have robbed from my own family and friends.”

“You’re the thief!” Thomas exclaimed. “Richard, how could you? Do you realize what you’ve done?”

“Do you think it is what I chose, that I would have even considered it if not for William? He is my son. Johanna did not lie to me. I have seen his true baptismal certificate . . .” He turned abruptly and drew the small document from his drawer once more. “It’s from St. Michael’s in Exeter, but even if he weren’t my own, I could do nothing different. My honor is worth little if saving it costs William his life. Surely, you above all people can understand that, Father?”

Richard slumped down into the chair, hanging his head in shame, unable to face his father. For a moment, the older man sat staring at his son, trying to process all that the boy had told him. Finally, he walked over to the window, and after gazing out at the rose lined walk, turned to face the boy once more.

“How did you manage to break into . . .?”

“Please, Father, I’ll tell you all you want to know, but not now. Now, I must think only of William.”

“And the money you’ve taken?”

“Goodall has it all. I must turn it over to him each morning at dawn. We meet by the old willow, and he usually has an accomplice appear with William on the hill overlooking the spot. I fear what they’ll do to him if I don’t deliver Lord Spencer’s treasury tomorrow, but I am resolved it must end there. If someone could come from behind and rescue William . . . “

Thomas closed his eyes, sighing wearily. “We’ll have to inform the Sheriff…”

“Yes, of course, and I’ll take whatever punishment I am given, but please, not until we have William home here, safe and sound.”

“They could demand your sword, your land, even your freedom. My God, Richard,” Thomas breathed in horror. “They could demand your life.”

“As long as William is safe, nothing else matters.”

Thomas rested his hand on his son’s shoulder, the corner of his mouth turning up slightly. “You truly have become a man, Richard, and I will stand beside you no matter what the outcome. First, however, we must rescue William.”

Richard’s face had become drawn and pale as he moved over to the window and gazed out toward the heavily wooded forest. He only paused a moment before turning back to his father. “I can speak no more of this,” he exclaimed. “The wretched little weasel is back. I dare not risk William’s life.”

“It’s that servant, isn’t it,” Armus asked from behind his father’s shoulder, for he had been listening to the entire conversation.

“I believe so, brother, though I’ve no proof of it.”

“Leave him to me,” Armus growled.

“No!” Richard cried. “We’ve no way of knowing when Goodall expects him. If he’s not there when he should be . . .” The weary knight turned away, no longer able to speak.

“Say no more,” Thomas assured his son. “We will be there for William, even as this creature realizes there is no treasure. He will be safe in our arms. Trust us, Richard . . . the hill above the willow.” He rested his hand on his son’s shoulder once more. Then he and Armus left, closing the door behind them.

“Father,” Armus whispered as they continued down the deserted corridor. “I fear that Walter is not the only one to betray us. I have been curious about the behavior of still another, though it pains me to suggest it.”

“Your nephew’s life may be in danger, Armus,” Thomas noted emphatically. “If you are wrong, we will apologize to this servant, but if you are right . . .”

“Yes, Father . . .” Armus agreed. “I think I had best have a talk with the boy immediately.

*****

Richard waited impatiently for the devious servant to reappear, but when a knock finally came on the door, he was surprised to see it was once again, Simon, one of their young pages.

“A letter, m’lord,” the boy said.

“Who gave you this?” Richard demanded, wondering if he had been mistaken about Goodall’s hidden cohort.

“A tinker by the gate, m’lord. He called for me to come, then went his way.”

“Thank you, Simon,” Richard said. He tried to smile, but his lips felt dry and parched. Just as surely as the moon would rise that night, as surely as Goodall would be waiting by the willow in the morning, this ragged piece of parchment would reveal his future. Closing his eyes and drawing a quivering breath, he broke the waxen seal that concealed his fate.

There, scribbled across the page in a single sentence, lie the words he knew would come.

Take your own life, m’lord, and you take his as well! No more time!!!

Richard fought to control the fear and the anger that wracked his heart. So far, his plan had succeeded, but the task that lay ahead would be far more difficult. To begin with, his father had spoken as if he could just pretend to have stolen Lord Spencer’s treasury. Did he not understand that his son’s every move was being watched, that another act of treachery must yet be committed if they were to save his grandson’s life? Then there was Armus to consider. Richard feared he might pummel the unsuspecting servant or throw him into the dungeon bodily before his father could ever get to William. How could they not see that such an act would mean certain death for the child? Did they not believe that Goodall would be looking for his lackey’s reports on a regular basis? No, both his father and his brother were far too intelligent to fail to see such obvious dangers. On the other hand, they must also realize how risky it would be to attempt another robbery. The entire shire would be on guard now. Richard had just slumped down in the chair by his desk, a wave of hopelessness engulfing him, when a solid knock came at his door and it was swung wide.

“Really Richard!” Thomas exclaimed. “I don’t know what’s been on your mind of late, but these figures are all wrong. I need you to go over them immediately.”

“But Father . . .” Richard began to protest.

“Now, Richard!” Thomas bellowed, irritated by his son’s attempt to make excuses.

Thomas left and Richard threw the journal down on his desk, furious at his father. Had he just imagined speaking to him about William? Was it all no more than a joke to him? He wanted to toss the book into the fire, but instead he flopped down into his chair and flung the book open in frustration, determined to correct his mistakes before a single cord of wood was sold too cheaply. There on the page before him, his father had written a message that sparked new hope in Richard’s weary heart.

Have spoken to Lord Spencer privately. Through the postern tonight, whilst we are out following up a false lead. You will have your treasure. William will be ours.

 

 ******

While Thomas had been riding off to speak to Lord Spencer, Armus had made it his business to intercept the young page who had delivered the latest message to his brother’s chambers. On stopping him, he escorted the boy to the solar on the pretence of questioning him about the robberies, though he assured him that the other servants had been questioned as well . . . or would if his theory didn’t pan out. A small lie, true, but it was in a good cause, he told himself.

“Now, Simon, isn’t it?” Armus began. “Have you seen anyone lurking about the castle of late? Perhaps someone who has been passing you messages to give to Sir Richard?

The boy’s face went suddenly pale. “But I meant no harm, m’lord,” he answered. “’Twas Walter who told me what to do. He said he’d tell on me if I didn’t, and it seemed harmless enough. Just deliver a letter or two, he said, and let him know what Sir Richard was about, and he’d keep his mouth shut.”

“And what would he need to be keeping his mouth shut about?” Armus asked.

The boy seemed to hesitate, but Armus stood up, placing his hands on his hips and gazing down at the boy ominously. “About my pilfering a few things from the other servants,” he mumbled.

“I see,” said Armus, his voice calm and restrained. “And just before you delivered this last note, you told Walter that my brother had spoken to us?”

“No, my Lord,” the boy said. He scratched his head and crinkled his nose as if smelling something foul. “I was going to when he got back, but the strangest thing happened. A beautiful lady, like the one in the painting on the staircase, told me to go out and pick some lavender right away, but when I got back she was gone and the note was laying there on the table for me to deliver.”

“What lady on the staircase?” Armus asked, convinced the boy was starting to invent excuses.

“I swear I don’t know, m’lord. I’d never seen her before, except in that painting, though she was a noble lady, of that I’m certain. Please, Sir Armus, I won’t do it again.

Armus wanted desperately to pursue the comments about the painting on the staircase, but he knew it was a fool’s errand. The boy surely would have asked who it was at some point during his stay at Covington Cross and was obviously cagy enough to use that knowledge to concoct such a story, probably hoping it would draw attention from away from his deceitful behavior. Well, it was not going to work. Though he almost felt sorry for the trembling urchin, he felt he needed to put a good scare into the boy, if for nothing else than his own good.

“You do realize you could be hung for taking part in the kidnapping of Sir Richard’s son?” he said in a solemn tone.

“Kidnapping!” the boy gasped. I kidnapped no one, m’lord. “I swear, I knew nothing of such a treacherous act. Please, Sir, you must believe me. I did no more than deliver the letters. The man at the cottage said he was Sir Richard’s friend and that he wanted to play a joke on him. That’s all Walter told me as well. You can ask him if you like, m’lord.”

“And did you see anyone else at this cottage?” Armus continued, his tone remaining stern.

A few men and a women, m’lord, and oh yes, I did see a small boy once,” the boy continued on the verge of tears, “but on my honor, Sir, I didn’t know it was Sir Richard’s son.”

“Hmmm,” Armus grumbled, “and where was this cottage you went to then?

“A few miles west along the road that leads to Baron Mullen’s land,” the boy replied, all to willing to tell Armus anything that might save his own neck. “Walter said he had to travel to Exeter and asked if I’d go pick the letter up for him, with the orders that I was to give it to Sir Richard and say someone else had delivered it.”

“And the boy you saw there,” Armus asked, “was he well?”

“He was just sitting there whimpering, m’lord, and the lady was complaining about having to watch over him all the time. They weren’t beating him or anything, if that’s what you mean, Sir.” The boy stopped for a moment, biting his lip, then asked in a mouse-like voice. “Am I going to be hung now, m’lord?”

“No, I think not, Simon, but I fear your services will no longer be required here. My Father wants no servants around he cannot trust with his life.”

“Oh, but I wouldn’t betray any of you, m’lord.”

“You already have!” Armus said, dismissing the boy with a solemn nod. “Even if you were unaware of the true nation of the messages you delivered, there is the question of your theft. To steal from those under our protection is to steal from us. You will stay in your chambers until this matter is concluded and then return home to your family.”

Armus felt like a terrible ogre. Perhaps he would think differently about it later, but for now, he thought it a good idea to let the little rogue dwell on his fate for awhile.

*****

That night, the hours seemed to drag by. Not even the scent from his mother’s rose garden could calm Richard’s frazzled nerves. Then at last, the moon began to rise high over the east tower, and he made his way to Calverton Hall to empty its treasury. As promised, there was no one about to contest his entry, and so, just as the first rays of light were beginning to streak across the summer sky, Richard headed for his rendezvous with Henry Goodall. The fiend was waiting by the willow tree as usual, but to Richard’s utter horror, no one stood on the hill to his north. His heart stood still as he scanned the countryside, his deep green eyes reflecting the anguish that rang throughout his soul.

“What have you done with him, blackguard?”

“Who?” Goodall queried, feigning ignorance, but the slight snicker in his voice gave away his true meaning. “Oh, you mean the boy. You didn’t really think I was going to bring him every time now did you? It might give you ideas – ideas that would not be healthy for the lad.”

Richard’s mind was racing. Was he wrong about the sniveling little servant being involved in the conspiracy, or perhaps there was more than one of them? Could Goodall have possibly been advised as to what they planned? What must his father and Armus think of him, coming out to retrieve William and finding no one? They would judge him a liar and a thief, but worse of all, their doubt would virtually abandon his son to the wolves.

Without thinking, Richard pulled the sack of coins from the man’s hand. “No William, no gold!” he stated loudly, hoping his voice would carry to his father’s hiding place. There was nothing else to do. He had to stop Goodall and pray his father would thwart the escape of anyone lurking in the nearby forest.

“As you wish,” the man replied, a smirk etched on his weathered face. He turned and began to mount his horse, but Richard was not going to have it. He pulled the man down and held a knife to his throat.

“Tell whoever it is you have hiding in those woods out there to bring William to me now, or on sweet Johanna’s grave, I shall end your miserable life.”

“You do that and the boy’s life is forfeit as well, Sir Knight,” Goodall replied with a cockiness that made Richard’s blood boil.

“Then we will all three meet our maker this day, but it will be your putrid soul that burns and rots.”

“Taking your own life, my lord, would risk your soul as well.”

“I will not take my own, but die on the gallows, for I would avenge my son’s death on each and every one of the disgusting dirt-eating creatures that took part in this kidnapping. I would spare not one of their wretched souls.”

“And you think your God would forgive you this.”

“I think He would guide my hand!” Richard stated, his lips taut as he pressed the knife against the man’s throat, drawing a small stream of blood.

“Richard! No!” Sir Thomas called from the brow of the overlooking hill. “God does not guide your hand in this. Leave him to the law . . . and William to us,” he added with a broad smile as Armus walked up beside him with the small child’s arms clutched tightly around his neck. On seeing Richard, however, William immediately let go and reached out, calling for his father.

Richard pushed Goodall out of his way and scaled the rock strewn outcrop in moments, plucking William from his brother’s grip and clutching him tightly. Tears of joy dropped among the golden ringlets as he fell to his knees in a silent prayer, whispering the child’s name.

Both Thomas and Armus looked at each other, their expressions a mingling of joy and utter amazement, for never before had they seen Richard display such raw emotion, and both knew as well they were unlikely to see it again very soon. Strange how one little being had freed Richard from all his foolish inhibitions, allowed him show his feelings so readily. Yes, Thomas thought to himself, children will do that to you.

Richard stayed that way for a long while, the child hugging him, and he returning the caress. Armus and his father had broken away, not wanting to intrude too much on the moment, and cut off Goodall’s escape, recovering Lord Spencer’s cache of gold in the process. Eleanor and Cedric joined them moment’s later with the sheriff, but by then, Richard had once more composed himself and stood holding his tiny son, a look of fury on his face as he gazed at the cause of William’s torment.

“I shall see you hang for this, fiend. To take the child of a noble in itself demands no less.”

Goodall laughed wickedly. “Ah, but he’s not the child of a noble, now is he, my lord, and I have two pieces of evidence to prove it.”

Richard held up the copy of the certificate he had retrieved from St. Michael’s. “But this is the only document I need. We’ll let the King decide whose claim is valid.”

The man’s face went pale; for he had left word with one of his cohorts, a servant at St. Michael’s, to tear the page from the book should he be captured. Now, that act would make little difference. Nor was the man likely to perform such a deed once he realized Richard held a signed copy of the certificate.

“Get him out of my sight,” Richard bellowed to the sheriff’s men, and they obliged without the slightest delay.

Goodall was not yet done with Richard, however. “What about him?” he growled. “He’s your thief.”

“Yes, right, of course he is,” the sheriff chided as he led the man away, instructing his guards to gather up the other villains.

Richard’s heart sank, however, for he knew he too would have to make an account of his actions. At the very least, he would be stripped of his knighthood, but there was a good chance he would be executed as well.

Thomas could sense the dark cloud that had descended upon his son’s spirits and gently touched his shoulder. “First, we all go home,” he said quietly.

*****

It was not until later that night, as William slept safe and secure in his own chambers, that Richard sat down by the fire with his family and asked a question that had been nagging at him since moments after William’s appearance.

“I thank you more than I can ever say,” he began, his brows drawn together in confusion, “but how did you manage to recover William? I could not see him anywhere, and when that creature said that he had failed to bring him this time, I was certain word of my betrayal must have reached his ears . . . through a second accomplice perhaps.”

“A possibility we thought of as well, brother, “ Armus grinned, “especially when our young page mentioned that the letter he had just delivered to you was from a tinker, when we knew in all probability it came from that bumbling servant Walter, after his very conspicuous disappearance.”

“Simon!” Richard exclaimed. “But why? I’ve always treated him with kindness, tried to teach him how to handle a sword and prepare to be a knight. I don’t understand.”

“It seems the lad was more interested in pilfering his fellow servants than practicing knightly virtue,” Armus stated. “Walter used that knowledge to threaten the boy, a serious mistake on his part.”

“A mistake!” Richard said. “In what way?”

“He trusted the boy to pick up Goodall’s second letter,” Thomas added, “while he was off following you to Exeter.”

“And after our little talk with him, the lad decided he found the gallows far less agreeable than a good stiff whipping,” Armus chuckled. “He was very forthcoming.”

“Then Goodall did get word about my talk with father,” Richard uttered, his face turning pale at the thought of what might have happened. “My God, I could have cost William his life.”

“No!” Armus exclaimed. He stopped for a moment to scratch his head, still wondering just how much of the bizarre tale he should tell his brother, for in truth he was not yet sure how much of it he really believed himself. “That’s the strange thing,” he continued slowly. “The boy claims . . . one of the housemaids thought your chambers would benefit from the scent of some lavender and so asked him to fetch it. As a result, he was never even aware of your conversation with father.”

“Thanks to his little excursion to Goodall’s cottage, however, he was able to tell us just where it was William was being held,“ Thomas added, “and so while you were at Lord Spencer’s, we were on our way to that cottage. We waited for Goodall to leave, and then simply attacked.”

“William was in our arms in moments,” Armus chuckled. “They didn’t even put up much of a fight once they realized they were outnumbered.”

“Outnumbered?” Richard queried, “But there were just the two of you.”

“Four of us,” Eleanor exclaimed as she and Cedric came to sit down beside their father. “But they didn’t know that,” she added on a triumphant note.

“And by the time they realized it,” Cedric continued, “the Sheriff’s men had arrived. Father told us to notify them and then follow quietly.”

“Our young page of course will be dismissed,” Thomas added solemnly, “but I see no reason to punish him further as he knew little about the real crime here. He had no idea William had been kidnapped and thought it no more than a mean spirited joke.”

“I still don’t know how I could have missed it,” Richard complained.

“You did have your mind on other things,” Thomas assured him.

“But if what the boy says is true, if he were no more than Goodall’s pawn, what will become of him?” Richard asked, suddenly feeling a pang of remorse for the lad as he thought of what his own son might have become if Johanna had kept his paternity to herself.

“He was robbing his fellow servants,” Armus grumbled, “besides I don’t think there’s anything to fear there. It seems Baron Mullens has already offered him a position in his household.”

“Baron Mullens!” Richard growled. “I knew he was behind . . .”

“Now Richard, we have no proof of that,” Thomas replied, seeing what his son was thinking; indeed, having thought the same thing himself.

“Perhaps not,” Richard replied reluctantly, “but if anything ever happens to my son again, I’ll break down his door and run him through before I stop to ask any questions.”

“You will do no such thing!” Thomas scolded. “Even Mullens is not above the law, nor are you. More than one will pay the price for the villainy that has been wrought here.” His eyebrows drew close together and his pale blue eyes took on an intensity Richard knew all to well.

“Do you think I could at least spend a few hours with William before they take me,” Richard stated with a calmness that was such an uncharacteristic aspect of the young knight’s personality. “I would like to somehow explain.”

Thomas and his children looked at each other with concern, as did Lady Elizabeth, who took her lover’s hand consolingly. None of them had considered the consequences for Richard. They were all too busy trying to work out the logistics of rescuing the youngest member of their family. John Mullens had considered it, however, and word having finally reached him, he came storming into the castle without so much as a knock.

“I think not, young Gray!” he chanted, almost on the verge of elation. “Left alone for the evening, you might feel it necessary to remove yourself from the premises. We couldn’t have that now, could we? Sheriff, arrest this man.”

The sheriff stepped forward awkwardly. “I am sorry, Sir Thomas, but this Goodall has made the accusation, and it is my duty to investigate.”

“Goodall!” Thomas bellowed. “The man kidnapped my grandson, and you would take his word over that of an honored knight of the realm.”

“No, of course not, my lord,” the sheriff offered hastily, “but the Baron has also lodged a complaint, and I do have to look into the matter. Of course, if Sir Richard can account for his whereabouts for the past few nights . . .”

“He has most certainly been in bed,” Thomas bellowed. “It is not my habit of keeping a watch on my children as they sleep.”

“Ah, but Sir Richard was not in his bed asleep,” Mullens snorted, “at least not on one occasion in particular. By his own admission, he had been out riding unusually early on the very morning the robberies were discovered.”

“And you think he managed to abscond with the treasuries of all three castles in one night,” Thomas exclaimed. “He must be an extraordinary thief indeed to have accomplished such a task.”

“I have no doubt that he is,” Mullens snarled. “Do your job, Gideon,” he instructed the sheriff. “I’ve sent for the King’s Chancellor to preside over his trial. I want no one contesting of the verdict.”

With that, the sheriff escorted Richard outside, binding the knight’s hands behind him and watching carefully as his guard helped the boy mount his horse. “He’ll be locked in my keep should you wish to visit, Sir Thomas. I truly am sorry,”

Thomas watched his son ride away. Richard had not even attempted to protest, and in his heart, his father knew why. The young knight had accused himself long before Mullens had ever done it. He knew he must convince his son otherwise and clear his name in the process, but those problems were for another day. First, he had to figure out what he was going to tell his tiny grandson when he woke to find his father gone.

*****

“Where’s Father?” William asked as he toddled down the staircase three steps ahead of his nurse, Sybil.

“Do be careful, Master William,” the nurse fretted. She was delighted to have her position back, but more than that, she was overjoyed that the small child had come home. In truth, she cared for the tiniest Gray as if he were one of her own and had wept bitterly when he had been taken away.

“I will,” William replied with all the self-assuredness of his father. He ran toward the table, giggling excitedly as he moved from one chair to the other in search of Richard. “Father playing hide go seek.”

Thomas could barely swallow, and he looked around the table praying that someone would answer, yet knowing it would be up to him to explain Richard’s absence. He bent over, smiling foolishly as he lifted the boy to his lap. How like his father he was. It was as if the years had been stripped away, and he held his own son on his lap once more. He could have been lost in the reverie had not Armus cleared his throat and brought him reluctantly back to the present.

“Father had to go on a trip for me . . . to the city,” he said cheerfully. “He’ll be home in a few days, but in the meantime, he wanted me to take you fishing this morning.”

“Me want Dada,” the small child whined. He stuck out his lower lip in an adorable pout and huge tears formed on the rims of his emerald eyes. A moment later he was crying. Thomas looked to Lady Elizabeth, who came to his rescue as only a mother could.

“There, there, now, William,” she whispered softly. “You don’t want your father to worry over you, now do you?”

Though still whimpering, the boy sniffled and shook his head, wiping his arm across his nose. “Uncle Henny say Dada only come if I be good and not cry.”

Elizabeth gasped in horror. What must the poor child have been told while he was in the clutches of that villainous band of outlaws? She could see they had their work cut out for them and gently sat the boy on her lap.

“Uncle Henry was a very bad man,” Elizabeth said sternly, “and I don’t want you to believe anything he may have said. Your father loves you very much, even when you do cry, but he wants you to be happy. Can you do that for him, William?”

The tiny boy took his hands and rubbed his eyes. “Dada be home soon?”

“Yes, William, as soon as he can.”

“I don’t want go away again,” the boy’s lower lip started to tremble, and Elizabeth pressed him to herself.

“No one is going to send you away, darling,” she whispered softly. “Your father would never permit it. He loves you so much.”

“Even when I cry,” William stated proudly, a bit of a smile touching his tiny lips, even as a tear glistened on his cheek.

“Even when you cry,” Elizabeth laughed as she hugged the child tightly. “We all love you very much.”

“Grandfather take me fishing?” he asked, and he reached out to Thomas as if all had been forgiven.

“Yes! Perhaps we’ll all go,” Thomas said with relief. He took his grandson from Lady Elizabeth and sat him on the high chair especially made for him. “But first you need to have a good breakfast.”

*****

Richard sat in the dark recesses of Gideon Fitzhugh’s dungeon. It tended to be a bit chilly and one corner leaked a bit, but as dungeons went, it was not really all that bad. Gideon had seen to it that he had a good straw mattress and a feather pillow, as well as a fair assortment of fruits and cheeses and all the ale he could drink. All in all, if not for the fact that he might be hung within the next few days, it was a tolerable state of affairs. Even with his impending death, the only thing he found truly unbearable was that in all likelihood he would never again see his son.

His heart ached as he thought of the boy growing up an orphan. Having lost his own mother, Richard had some idea of how difficult it would be, but he at least still had one loving parent to turn to. William would be left with neither. The knight’s only consolation was the certain knowledge that his son would be raised by his family and receive more love than any two parents could ever possibly offer, no matter how deeply they cared for their child. But Richard also knew William would inevitably have to face difficulties that he himself had never had to endure. There would be those who spoke of his mother in less than flattering terms, those who classed the child himself as little more than a peasant, and now, added to those humiliations, there would also be those who spoke of his father as no more than a common thief, a knight disgraced and shamed before his King, dead in the eyes of all who had once looked on him as noble. Yet, for all of that, he had no regrets for having chosen the path he had. His child was alive, and with his family’s love and protection, he might even be spared much of the unfavorable gossip that would inevitably arise.

“Sir Richard,” the sheriff said as he approached the knight’s cell, “is there anything else you need?”

“No, thank you, Gideon, you’ve been more than kind.”

The sheriff pulled up a chair and sat down, attempting to speak at least three times before forming the correct words. “I want you to know, Sir Richard, whatever is said here today will go no further than these walls, but I must ask it.”

“Yes, of course,” Richard answered, intrigued by the sheriff’s reluctance to say what was on his mind. “What is it?”

“Last night, when I placed you under arrest, you offered no resistance, no defense. If you don’t mind me saying so, my lord, it was quite uncharacteristic of you. It gave me cause to speculate as to why you had reacted in such a way.”

“And to what conclusion did you come, my lord sheriff,” Richard asked, a touch of humor in his voice.

“One I’m not sure I particularly care for, yet it is the only explanation that seems feasible.”

“And that is . . .,” Richard prompted.

“That you offered no defense because you had none. That you were indeed guilty of the crimes for which you were being charged,” the sheriff said with a grave solemnity. “I’ve known you since you were a child, Richard. You were always bold and impulsive, but as honest as the day is long. That being the case, I could only deduce that something greater than your honor was at stake. I’ve come now to ask you if my conclusions were correct, and if so, what could possibly be more valuable than the honor you have always regarded so highly.”

The humor in Richard’s voice faded away. “This is between us, my lord, and by no means to be construed as a confession, but I will answer both your questions, if for no other reason than to assure that at least one person outside my own family might still regard me as a knight. It is true that I was your thief, but even honor cannot compete with love. My son’s life was at stake, and the ransom required was indeed that honor I had thought so highly of. There was no other decision to be made, my lord.”

“That is the price Goodall asked for your son’s life,” Gideon stated, than he sighed deeply and rose from his chair. “Perhaps the King’s Chancellor will take the circumstances into account. It may not save your name, but it could very well save your life.”

Richard sighed wearily. “I’m not sure they are separable, my lord. I have the boy to think of, what’s best for him.”

Gideon’s eyebrows arched in concern. “And you don’t think having his father around would be to his benefit,” he exclaimed. “Or is it simply that you could not live with the shame.”

Richard let a small smile peek through once again. “You may well be right, my lord, and when I have the answer to that question, you shall be the first to know. For now, all that I’ve said stays within these dungeon walls. It is your honor we speak of now, my lord.”

“Yes, I suppose it is,” Gideon noted. “The question is, do I place my honor above the life of a dear friend’s son.”

“You do if you value that friendship, my lord.”

Gideon nodded, heaving a great sigh as he pushed the chair back up against the wall. “Does your father know?” he asked, but Richard only nodded as he walked away and went to lie down on the hay-filled mattress. Both knew the conversation was over. At the moment, the knight’s only prayer was that he would sleep a dreamless sleep.

*****

“You must contest this, Richard,” Thomas exclaimed in desperation, “noble though it may be to do otherwise! Think of the repercussions a guilty plea could have, not only for yourself, but for the boy as well. Your land would be taken . . . your good name . . . he’d have nothing!”

“He’d have you,” Richard said quietly, so quietly that Thomas wanted to throttle him.

This was not the fiery son he knew so well, the son whose sense of right and wrong was so well defined he would risk all to preserve it, and yet, was that not exactly what he was doing. Richard knew he had committed the crimes. To him, there was little else to do but admit it and face the consequences, but even he must see there were extenuating circumstances.

“That’s not the point, Richard!” Thomas continued in exasperation. “He’d have little else, not to mention the humiliation he would have to face as the son of a disgraced knight. You condemn yourself, Richard, and you condemn that boy to a life of shame.”

“Don’t you think I know that!” Richard snapped. “What would you have me do, Father? Say I was innocent, deny all knowledge of the affair. What good is my precious honor then? What example have I set for my son if I twist the truth to serve my own purposes?”

“There were extenuating circumstances!” Thomas bellowed.

“And the court will know them,” Richard replied, “and act upon them. If it is their judgment that I go free, then I shall. If not, I shall face whatever punishment they deem appropriate.”

“Mullens will not allow mercy!” Thomas stressed. “He and his henchmen will lie and concoct stories until the King’s Chancellor has no alternative but to send you to the gallows. The Baron will settle for no less, and all the while you shall sit by quietly, standing firm behind your misplaced principles.”

“My principles are not misplaced!” Richard argued. “Unlike Mullens, I believe in the oath I took. If you’ve a way to save my good name and preserve those principles, than I would hear it, Father. If not, then we have nothing more to speak of.”

Thomas was furious, but in truth it was not at his son. He could feel nothing but pride for the boy. It was an anger directed toward Goodall, for what he had put his son through, an anger aimed at Mullen’s, for not letting the issue go, but most of all, it was an anger turned upon himself, for not knowing how to correct this gross miscarriage of justice. Sensing Richard would not be swayed, he simply groaned and stormed out of the dungeon. There had to be a way, he thought as he headed up the stairs and out into the fresh summer air.

*****

“Thomas!” Lord Spencer exclaimed as he whisked into the Great Hall of Covington Cross. “What’s all this I hear about Richard being imprisoned?”

“He would not deny his guilt,” Thomas said wearily, “regardless of the reason he did it.”

“That’s sheer foolishness,” Roger Spencer stated matter-of-factly. “He’s not a common thief.”

“There are those who will make sure he appears as no more,” Thomas replied.

“Then we must make certain all the facts are known!” Roger replied.

“The facts, my friend, are what will condemn him.”

“Really, what facts are they?” Roger asked with a twinkle in his eye. “First, he borrowed some money from his father. Was it not money gladly given?”

“Yes of course,” Thomas replied in exasperation, “but I am not the problem.”

“Well, let’s continue then. Lady Elizabeth is a dear friend, is she not, perhaps even a bit more,” he added with a twinkle in his eye. “Did she not just as readily offer up her fortune to save the child?”

“I’m sure she would have if she had known, but . . . “

“And Lord Maxwell . . . weren’t Richard and his son, Derek, best of friends. Surely, for his son’s sake, if for no other, Robert donated his fortune.”

“Yes, yes, I’m sure he would have had he been consulted, but . . . “

“Then I see no problem,” Spencer continued. “As for myself, I gave full consent, so I don’t see where there was a crime committed.”

 “The crime is in Richard’s failure to consult anyone else before pilfering their treasuries,” Thomas sighed in frustration.

“A mere oversight! There was simply no time. Do Lady Elizabeth or Lord Maxwell wish to press the issue?”

Thomas’ head jerked toward Lord Spencer’s. “No, I don’t believe they do. In fact, they have expressed their concerns . . . but Baron Mullens . . .” he added cautiously.

“. . . was not involved . . . or at least not that we know of,” Roger said with a wicked smile.

“What are you up to, Roger?” Thomas asked his friend, his eyes squinting warily.

“Just that if none of us have any complaint against the boy,” Spencer said innocently, “and claim that we knew of it all along, what crime can he be accused of?”

“None that I know of,” Thomas groaned, “but Richard will have none of it I’m sure. He’s determined to speak the truth, no matter what the cost.”

“Yes, he always was a bit pig-headed,” Roger stated, “but what if we convinced him we actually did know of it?”

“It might work,” Thomas said, his mind racing, “though I fear he’d simply point out that as he was not aware of that fact, it was still a crime.”

“Then we shall have to remind him that it is simply his word against ours,” Roger countered, “Now who do you think the High Chancellor is going to believe, the King’s nobility or a common thief.”

“But Richard is a loyal knight of the realm,” Thomas protested.

“All the worse for him,” Roger pointed out. “A noble gone bad! The Chancellor will surely not believe a thing he says.”

“So against our testimony, he will have to deny his guilt to be believed,” Thomas said with as he considered the prospect, “and if he then says he is a thief, he virtually negates all the credibility of what he has said.”

“Yes,” Spencer laughed. “I believe they call it a paradox, and Richard will be caught right in the middle of it. “

“I never realized how devious you really were, Roger,” Thomas exclaimed as a hearty grin spread across his face.”

*****

The sky was overcast and grey the next morning as they led Richard before the High Chancellor. It seemed like every man, woman, and child in the shire had come to see the trial, though except for the most illustrious, a vast majority of them were kept outside the heavy oak doors.

“Sir Richard Gray of Covington Cross,” the High Chancellor announced, “you have been accused of robbing no less than three of your neighbors and absconding with their treasuries. How plead thee?”

“Richard felt as if a wad of cotton had been shoved into his mouth. He closed his eyes momentarily to compose himself, then spoke quietly. “Guilty, my lord.”

“I see,” the High Chancellor replied, surprised by the knight’s answer. His brows had come together and his lips tightened in annoyance. “You do realize the seriousness of the crimes with which you are charged?”

“I do, my lord, and I am ready to face whatever punishment the court sees fit to bestow upon me.”

“Yes,” the Chancellor said, “very well then. Let’s get on with it, shall we?” He was a bit confused by Richard’s answer, as Lord Spencer had been to speak to him earlier that day and proclaimed the boy’s innocence. It was only at Baron Mullen’s insistence that he had some evidence to the contrary that he had even agreed to proceed with the case. “Baron, your evidence, please.”

“Henry Goodall of Exeter will bear witness that Richard Gray brought him the contents not only of his father’s treasury, but those of Lady Elizabeth’s, Lord Maxwell’s, and Lord Spencer’s as well.”

“Henry Goodall!” the High Chancellor bellowed. “Isn’t he the fiend accused of kidnapping Sir Richard’s child?”

“He is, my lord,” Mullens replied, “and the stolen treasuries were the price he demanded for the return of said . . . child.” He wanted to use another term, one far less flattering, but thought it better not to take the chance of offending the judge.

“Let me get this straight, John,” the High Chancellor inquired in disbelief. “This Henry Goodall kidnapped Sir Richard’s child, then demanded he rob his neighbors in order to secure the child’s safe return.”

“Yes, my lord,” Mullens replied with a smirk, “but regardless of the reasons for Sir Richard’s actions, whether they be honorable or not, he obviously thinks himself above the law. If this kind of behavior is tolerated among our nobles, one can only imagine what will happen with the peasants.”

“Is this accusation true, Sir Richard?” the High Chancellor asked. “Was this the price you were asked to pay for your son’s release?”

“It is my lord,” Richard answered, his voice loud and strong, though it was obvious it pained him to say so.

“Oh dear,” the High Chancellor remarked. The whole situation was becoming more and more confusing by the moment. While he could understand Richard’s dilemma, he had to protect the rights of his other nobles as well, and the Baron was correct in pointing out that he could not show favoritism just because of his rank.

“It’s now or never, Thomas,” Lord Spencer whispered as he rose to speak and the weary judge eagerly acknowledged him.

“Might Sir Thomas and I speak to the accused, my lord. It is after all nearly luncheon, and a short break would not be uncalled for.”

“Yes, I don’t see why not,” the High Chancellor exclaimed in exasperation. “Return Sir Richard to the dungeon while the rest of us break for the noon meal. I shall return here in one hour, and I expect a thorough explanation of this whole affair.”

“Of course, my lord,” Spencer said with a respectful nod.

*****

“That’s . . . That’s just wrong!” Richard bellowed, after Thomas had informed him what he and the other nobles planned to do. “I’ll not be part of it.”

“Oh, that’s the beauty of it,” Lord Spencer said, smiling innocently. “You really don’t have to be. Whatever you say, the High Chancellor will really only be concerned with our statements. All he’ll be interested in is that no one has lodged a complaint against you.”

“Mullens will!” Richard answered snidely. “He already has!”

“And he’ll look like a fool,” Thomas replied. “After all, unless he incriminates himself, the only way he could have received such information was through the word of a kidnapper. I suspect the Lord High Chancellor will no doubt judge him even less reliable than the thief.”

“The others will all know the truth,” Richard cautioned his father. “I will never be trusted again.”

“Balderdash!” Spenser exclaimed. “We all understand why you did it, Richard. I assure you we will sleep just as soundly as always.”

“There’s nothing more I can say then, is there,” Richard sighed, half out of aggravation and half out of relief.

“No, there isn’t,” Thomas said, satisfied that justice, at least partially, would be served that afternoon.

“Now that’s settled,” Spencer said as he slapped his hands on his legs. “We’ll all have a bite to eat and then get on with it. As soon as we reconvene, I’ll ask to speak in your defense and this whole unpleasant business will be over.

 

*****

Lord Spencer was good to his word, for no sooner had the High Chancellor entered the hall and taken his seat, then he stepped forth and asked to be heard.

“If you’ll grant me but a moment, my lord, I think I can clear up this entire matter. It’s all nothing more than a misunderstanding, I fear.”

“Then please, by all means, speak, Lord Spenser,” ” the Chancellor exclaimed.

“It is true that Sir Richard committed these robberies,” he stated casually, causing the Chancellor’s eyes to widen and Baron Mullens smirk to grow even larger. “However,” he continued, “we are all quite pleased to have been able to help in the rescue of dear little William.”

“Are you telling me that although Sir Richard performed the acts he is accused of, he is guilty of no crime because you were, in fact, all willing participants in this charade?”

“I was, my lord. Sir Thomas spoke to me of the plan himself,” Spenser said honestly, being extremely careful how he worded his statements.

 “Case dismissed,” the Chancellor bellowed as he rose from his seat, casting Mullens a look of utter annoyance as he headed for the door.

Within a moment, the guards had stepped forward to release Richard, and the sheriff was apologizing profusely for the great injustice that had been wrought against such an honorable knight. Richard pressed his lips together and threw Gideon an angry glance, taking him by the arm and pulling him to the side for a quiet word. “You know the truth, Sheriff!” he growled. “Can’t you do anything about this?”

“I have my lord,” he said pointedly. “I have upheld justice.” He sighed wearily and gave Richard a sympathetic look. “Now go home, my lord, and know that only the truly guilty will be punished . . . though there may be one that gets away scot-free,” he added, as he nodded across the courtyard toward Mullens.

“Not completely free,” Richard commented, his lips turning up in a wicked smile.

The Baron was following the High Chancellor to his carriage, looking as though he had swallowed a fly and stammering and sputtering just as surely as if he had. “What are you talking about? Richard Gray has robbed no less than three of his neighbors, as well as his own father, but of course, I expected no help there. The last I heard, thievery on such a grand scale was punishable by death.”

“But there were no thefts, Baron,” the High Chancellor continued. “Did you not hear Lord Spenser’s testimony, man? The parties involved have spoken and conceded that they were part of a rather elaborate plot to uncover the kidnappers. They all gave their money quite freely, and it appears they were successful in their endeavor.”

“What!!!!” Mullins exploded. “I must protest, my lord!” The Chancellor gave him a cautionary glance, and Mullens continued on a more respectful note. “What I mean to say, my lord, is that I find it hard to believe that any noble would allow themselves to be drawn into such a scheme so freely.”

The High Chancellor looked appalled. “And why not, Baron Mullens? I’m sure the very thought of their own children in a similar situation would have spurred them to act as they did. In all honesty, how could they do less? Why, if they had not, I’m not at all sure I could have even held Sir Richard fully accountable for his actions. What father would not put all else above his son’s welfare?”

“Apparently, there are those that would not,” Godfrey muttered, the statement flung as a dart at Baron Mullins.

“With all do respect, my lord, this is preposterous!” Mullins exclaimed.

“No, Baron Mullens,” the High Chancellor exclaimed. “What is preposterous is that I have been called from London on such a fool’s errand. I suggest, Baron, that you corroborate the facts with your neighbors before acting in such a manner again, else you might find yourself in the good sheriff’s dungeons!”

“Yes, my lord,” Mullens stammered, grappling for the right words to place himself back in a better light. “You are right, of course. I acted hastily, but I assure you, it was simply out of concern for the nobles of this shire.”

“Yes, yes,” the High Chancellor mumbled, “but then is not Sir Richard a noble of this shire!” With that the he nodded respectfully to Richard, a sly sparkle lighting his eyes. Then he entered his carriage and was on his way. All three onlookers laughed heartily, causing the Baron to mount his horse and ride away as well, but not before he cast a warning glance in Richard’s direction. The young knight’s face turned to stone, fire shooting from his eyes, and steam virtually exuding from every orifice. Neither said a word, yet each expression spoke volumes.

*****

“How can I ever thank you all,” Richard said later that night. Thomas had decided to throw a homecoming party for both his son and grandson, and most were invited, even Mullens, though he had fortunately decided not to accept. It was later in the evening, and with William put to bed, only those directly involved in the recent dilemma remained.

“I’ve always known you to be an honest man, Richard,” Lord Maxwell replied, “a bit arrogant and reckless at times,” he added with a grin, “but ultimately true to your knightly honor.”

“Thank you, my lord,” Richard replied, choking back a flood of emotion. “Not only do I owe you my own life, but that of my son as well.”

“You be a good father to that boy, Richard,” Lord Maxwell said. “He’s the only one you owe anything to.”

Richard nodded gratefully, but he knew if he did not make his exit soon, he would be nothing more than a bundle of sobbing rags. What would that do for his reputation? he thought. “Thank you, my lord,” he replied, with great respect. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to check on William once more before retiring.”

*****

 Richard sat in William’s chambers that night, watching over his tiny son as he slept. He didn’t even know his father had entered until he felt his hand upon his shoulder. Looking up, he sighed, still suppressing the feelings that were hiding just below the surface.

“I’ll never send him away again,” Richard uttered in a hushed tone so as not to wake the tiny child.

“This was not your fault, Richard. There was no other course you could have taken.”

“I should have known . . . I did know, and yet I allowed Goodall to take him.”

“The law was in their favor,” Thomas reminded his son, “given the information they possessed.”

“False information,” Richard grumbled. “No, I should have followed my heart. It spoke the truth.”

“But even the heart must at times give way to reason,” Thomas replied, trying to assuage his son’s feelings of guilt.

“Nevertheless, next time I shall follow the dictates of my heart and not allow reason to interfere.”

“Oh dear!” Thomas exclaimed, knowing in fact that even in this his son had, as always, only followed his heart, allowing his sense of honor and justice to guide it. “Now that would be unusual.”

“What?” Richard asked absent-mindedly. “Yes, well, nevertheless, I will never make the mistake of sending William away again.”

“Of course you won’t,” Thomas agreed, but in his heart he knew the day would come when Richard would be forced to break that promise, for as he gazed at his tiny grandson, he saw how much alike the two truly were. He saw too, that one day in the not too distant future, the boy would wish to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a knight of the realm. Perhaps Armus could foster the boy, he thought with a whimsical chuckle, but that was at least a few years away.

***End***

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