Chapter One - The Encounter
Near Melton Mowbray, England
Will Scarlet hated trees. Any trees.
Woods. Holts. And Sherwood Forest, most of anything.
Although Sherwood lurked at the end of a long day’s ride to the northwest, Charnwood Forest taunted him with its resemblance. The stink of rotting leaves crawled into his nose. Noises like chattering goblins sounded through the ever-moving branches. Even at noontide, details hid within clusters of shadow.
A shiver skimmed his backbone. Crouched in the ferns, he glanced to see if the other dozen men working for Sheriff Finch noticed his nerves, but they remained intent on their task.
“God grant me leave from this hell pit,” he muttered, crossing himself.
Sinking a knee-guard into the loam, he leaned forward along the road to Nottingham.
Four warhorses slowly approached, riding out of Melton. Struggling fingers of sunshine burnished the mail of the foremost riders. One’s lax posture suggested a light sleep, while another carelessly held the reins of his plodding mount. Slender-bodied horses followed, bearing riders in stately dress and the crest of the Earl of Whitstowe.
Will’s superior, Roger of Carlisle, a close confederate of the Sheriff of Nottingham, stepped from the cover of brush. The nearest horses snorted and shied. Riders jerked to attention, raising flattop shields and unsheathing swords in a cold song of steel sliding along steel.
The earl’s foremost guard, a gaunt man with ruddy cheeks, raised a gloved hand and brought the procession to an abrupt halt. “Who goes? Away now, man.”
“No.” Carlisle crossed thick arms across his chest. The boiled leather he wore made his stout, muscular body appear even more formidable. “I shall speak to Lord Whitstowe.”
The earl himself nudged his horse forward. “What’s the meaning of this?”
“I am Roger of Carlisle. I represent the Sheriff of Nottingham, Peter Finch.”
Lord Whitstowe pushed back the hood of his embroidered surcoat, scowling. “My party has not reached the Nottinghamshire boundary. What business have you here?”
“Milord, you hold lands in both shires. Your obligation to King John is to protect these forests from poachers and itinerants.”
Whitstowe’s face darkened. “You lark about in the road and dare remind me of my duty to His Majesty?”
“I do, milord, on behalf of the sheriff, because you’ve failed to obey that duty.”
Holding his balance, Will flexed his feet. Reputation held Whitstowe to be a man with sense as good as his breeding, but with a history of defying royal edicts regarding quitrents and armies. He deemed a number of royal demands wasteful and, on that excuse, disregarded them.
Hiding in trees usually meant trouble. But perhaps dealing with stubborn nobles required Carlisle’s dramatic methods—forcing an audience in the road like a highwayman. A recollection of the wage Will stood to earn smoothed his sudden unease.
The second of the two lead sentries wore a conical steel cap, a nosepiece obscuring his face. He guided his warhorse between Carlisle and the nobleman. “You dare speak to Lord Whitstowe thus? Show respect, man!”
“Settle your temper, Hendon.”
“Milord, I will not,” said Hendon. “His insolence cannot be borne. You there, clear out of the way!”
Carlisle grinned. “You clear out. I have matters to discuss with your liege, gelding.”
Hendon hoisted his massive sword and charged.
From all around, Carlisle’s men jumped from their cover and rushed the procession. Cries and scorns slit the air as the two factions brought to blows. Swords bashed together with force enough to loosen teeth. Horses reared high. Arrows flew. A masterful shot pierced the neck of the first, ruddy-faced guard, dropping him dead at the hooves of the earl’s horse.
Will watched in mute horror. Time blurred into a chaos of motion and violence. He should move. He should fight. But motives and meaning escaped him. How could he know which side to take if he hardly understood what sparked the fray?
A scream ripped through the impassive trees.
A woman? By the best!
Before he could deliberate, he leapt from his scrubby cover. No woman deserved to be caught out when men met with flaying swords.
He trained in on the echo of her distress and sped through a tangle of struggling bodies and deadly armaments. When he could not evade direct conflict, he parried or ducked. But when he faced one of Lord Whitstowe’s men in an unavoidable duel, he lunged. Fully a hand taller, the challenger pivoted and swung his sword. The long, deadly blade caught Will on the left arm, imbedding in muscle and leather-lined mail. Pain surged at his
shoulder. He cursed, twisting and setting the other man off kilter.
Despite the torture of his injury at every flex and move, he gripped the sword with both hands. Again he lunged, pushing and attacking. The demand for survival and that ancient need to aid a woman in distress inflamed his assault. His physical responses slowed, but his mental
acuity quickened. He waited for any misstep. When the man briefly exposed his neck, Will hacked through flesh with a sickening chop of steel.
The soldier gurgled and paled. Will wrenched his blade free, snaking from under the flaccid corpse as it collapsed. Blood coated his gloves and bile filled his mouth.
He spat, turning to behold another slaying—a slaying that turned his stomach more cruelly than the wound he suffered. Hendon, the earl’s guard whose charge had sparked the fight, pulled his liege to the ground and bared his throat. The single slice of a dagger ended Whitstowe’s life.
Stance relaxed, weapons lowered, Roger of Carlisle looked on. A grin stretched the weathered skin of his face.
They are in league?
When Will met Carlisle’s eyes, a cold sluice of understanding slid down Will’s back.
Treason. A plot. And he was stuck in its midst.
Another scream sprouted goose bumps on his neck.
He wheeled from the duplicitous butchery to find a woman in blue seized by Dawes and Munro, two of Carlisle’s men. Dark stains of anonymous blood discolored their hands and tunics. The woman thrashed, whipping her head free of attempts to stifle her hysterics.
Distracted by their writhing quarry, the pair did not see Will’s furtive advance. He sliced Munro’s calf—a man who, minutes before, had hidden in the roadside bushes beside him, both in
the employ of Sheriff Finch. Munro screeched and rolled, clutching a hunk of ruined muscle.
Dawes hauled the woman in front of his body, using her as a slender and uncooperative shield. A blade pressed to her neck calmed her struggles. “Stay where you are, Scarlet, or I’ll kill this comely prize.”
Will sheathed his sword and held bloodstained gloves face-up.
“No draft, Dawes,” he said. “I killed one of the earl’s men, same as you.” He stepped closer—once, twice. With a wink, he unceremoniously hiked his tunic and began to unfasten his breeches. “She’ll be reward enough for both of us.”
Dawes blinked, a moment of hesitation. From a fold at his waist, Will retrieved an anlace and leapt. He drove the petite dagger up and into the soft flesh beneath Dawes’s chin.
Only when his opponent fell did Will look at the woman. She knelt, her eyes downcast.
An outmoded, saffron-colored cowl covered her head and draped around her face. Recognition pounced on him.
But I arrested her in Nottingham.
Plots and double crosses teased just beyond his understanding. He felt like the only reveler left without a partner at the beginning of a dance.
He reached for her. Flinching and screaming again, she pitched and drove her shoulder into his gut. The unexpected assault upset his balance, toppling him to the ground. Breath erupted from his lungs. The woman landed astride his torso and slammed a fist into his ear. He grunted, then roared when another flailing fist connected with his wound. Catching hold of her slender waist, he flipped her away.
Carlisle’s shouts to his men thundered in his brain, banishing thought. Only instinct remained. He claimed the woman’s wrists and dragged her to the nearest horse. The agonizing ache of his injury made him clumsy, but dread pumped strength into every movement.
“Let me go!”
“Without lies, I mean you no harm.”
He propelled the woman and her entangling skirts into the saddle and mounted behind her. Dark, curled hair made untidy by rough treatment poked from the cowl, tickling his nose.
She smelled of damp leaves, sunshine…and vinegar?
Will gouged the horse with his heels and made their escape.
The horse charged and wove through Charnwood Forest. Leaves and twigs like whips scored Meg’s face, tugging her hair, and every lash stung anew. She burrowed her head into the hard solace of her captor’s chest. Leather overlaid with iron rings bit into her cheek. For whatever mindless moments of flight remained, her safety atop that breakneck mount depended
on his skill—no matter whether he proved a champion or a villain.
But no fate could match the woe she nearly suffered. Never had she known a fear as deep and sharp as being wrenched between those grasping male beasts. Faring against a lone opponent worried her less.
He flexed, ducking low over the animal’s neck. Balancing in opposition to quick cuts and jumps, he shielded her from the worst of the battering branches. His breath came in grunting exhales, urging their dreadless pace. Minutes passed as slowly as sleepless nights.
When the horse began to tire, the man straightened and pulled the reins. Meg emerged from the shelter of his body. “Why did we stop?”
“The horse is easily traced.”
Exertion roughened his voice to a gravely rasp. Or, remembering Hugo, she hoped it was exertion. That foul thief had sounded similarly winded when thrusting into her. But then, she had as well.
Suddenly aware of her position on the stranger’s lap, she pushed to loosen his firm hold.
“What will you do?”
“Calm yourself. I mean you no bale.” His breathing slowly regained a usual cadence.
“With mine, your account will establish the circumstances of the ambush. I’ll not be held answerable for that morass.”
Meg rubbed a thumb against her lower lip. He must have given the attack a great deal of consideration, studying facts while navigating the forested terrain. By contrast, the wild ride had concealed her logic in a mist of dread and frustration. She swallowed the mineral taste of fear and collected her scattered reason.
He swung from the fatigued horse and pulled her to the safety of still, sure earth. “Will you help me, woman?”
She kept her head bowed. Her captor had brought low two men, perhaps more. To save himself from hanging, he would protect her.
The lie came easily. As always.
She could not see his reaction. In truth, she had not seen a moment of the carnage on the road—nor anything else for five long years.
But the truth mattered not at all. As long as he believed her testimony valuable, he might keep her from harm. Lord Whitstowe and his knights would lay hold of them soon. She only needed to disguise her impairment until their arrival.
Straightening her skirts, she ran a hand over the alms-bag at her waist. She smiled to herself, reassured, for she could always resort to other means if her deception failed.
“Where shall we go?”
The man did not answer.
“At least tell me your name, good man.”
“I’m called Will Scarlet.”
Again she waited, resisting the urge to fidget. He must be watching her, and she hated the sensation of a prying gaze on her face, her body. Eyes tenaciously downcast, she could do nothing but suffer the examination and imagine the worst. Apprehension blossomed into spite.
“Will Scarlet,” she said. “That’s an unusual name.”
“You’ve not heard of me?”
A glimmer of emotion peeked through. At last. Her thoughts bounced in busy circles. She searched for a hint, traveling along a tally of pikers and sharps she knew, but found nothing.
“Should I have?”
“We waste time,” he said. “Anyone can catch us out in this clearing.”
Navigating Charnwood’s uneven terrain required her entire notice. Breaks in Scarlet’s steady gait helped her anticipate logs and brush. Scuffing through the autumn leaves, his footfalls became her guide, even as she grew resentful of his sure-footed grace.
Brambles snagged her skirts again. She stumbled and tripped.
“Keep up, or I’ll abandon you to the sheriff’s men.”
A shiver dusted her skin. “But you’re one of them, I know. You were not among Whitstowe’s party, and that man you killed—he knew your name.”
He stopped short. Even near enough to touch, he revealed little. The insulating leather he wore concealed any body heat. His respiration and heartbeat escaped detection. He hovered within her awareness like a menacing wraith, bristling the delicate hairs at her nape.
“For the moment, accept that I’ve renounced my association.”
Surprise of surprises, he talked. She needed to define the hazy line between fostering a useful conversation and provoking him too greatly.
“I appreciate what you’ve wrought on my behalf. I prefer to stay in your keeping.”
“Then do as I say,” he said, his voice low and close. “I’ve no need for your questions.”
Banking her defiance, nurturing her dislike, she nodded. “I understand.”
He turned and resumed their trudge. Meg stumbled nearly as often as she stepped. Without great success, she attempted to solve the basic problems of poise and motion.
For his part, Scarlet muttered useless orders. Pick up your feet. Mind that branch.
With each brusque sentence, she studied his words. Edgy impatience could not disguise
the melody of cultured speech. No matter his posturing, he was no brute. The vice of fear thatsqueezed her since the ambush loosened. Mindless men could behave as animals, but she might appeal to one accustomed to reason and rules.
Apparently tired of issuing orders without results, Scarlet lapsed into silence. Meg’s isolation returned, blanketing her like a thick fog. That she was so lonely for companionship, craving even the random commands of her murderous captor, galled her.
And she missed Ada. What an irritating turn of events.
Only the sounds of snapping branches, halting steps, and their matched respiration intruded on the heavy quiet of the wide woods.
But the menacing rush of a river stopped her heart.
Fear snaked a crooked path through her insides. Old terrors burgeoned. Sliding below the surface. Losing the hard thump of earth beneath her feet. Clutching at a liquid void, deafened by the gurgle of water. Only one terrible sense would remain: She would learn the river’s taste as it filled her mouth.
Panic gorged on the calm she had barely maintained. She pulled free of his hold and stumbled, grasping the nearest means of support: Scarlet’s upper arm. He cried out. Lashing against the creature causing his anguish, he yanked her cowl. Her skull snapped back, dragged by his grip on a handful of cloth and hair.
His gravelly voice hissed near her ear. “You first.”
She did. He flung her away, disorienting her. She landed on her knees with a splash. A scream burst forth, certain the water would consume her. But her frightened brain identified the mud slinking between her fingers at the river’s shallow edge. With an exhausted gesture of good sense, she shoved the alms-bag behind her back, keeping it dry.
“You said nothing of your injury,” she said. “I didn’t intend to cause you more hurt.”
When silence answered, she sat on her heels and turned to Scarlet. “Hello?”
“Telling you shouldn’t have been necessary.”
Anxiety crumpled her weary body. He was farther downriver than she guessed. Pain laced his words, conjuring an assortment of ghastly images. How much of that stench had been his blood?
“This wound should be obvious to anyone who can see. But you cannot see, can you?”
Trees creaking, birds singing—the river’s vigor obliterated every noise in the forest. All that remained was the sound of her pumping blood.
“No. I cannot.”