Excerpt: Silken Threads
Book 1: Lords of Conquest, The Wexford Family
May 1165, London’s West Cheap District
How do you tell a man you’ve come to take his wife away? Graeham wondered as he knocked on the red-painted double door of Rolf le Fever’s Milk Street town house.
He’d pondered the matter at some length during his storm-ravaged Channel crossing and the two-day ride from Dover to London, but no easy answer had come to him. It was a dicey business, removing a woman from her husband’s home, one that might call for the most silken finesse…or savage force. Graeham automatically touched the horn handle of the dagger sheathed on his belt, hoping he wouldn’t need to use it.
The iron door knocker was shaped like the head of some unidentifiable beast with a gaping mouth, from which curled a long, demonically pointed tongue. Graeham reached for it again, but hesitated as footsteps thudded from within, accompanied by a man’s voice. “Where the devil are you, you bloody worthless wench? Didn’t you hear that knocking?”
The door swung inward with a squeal of corroded hinges. The fair-haired man who had opened it looked about Graeham’s age, although Graeham knew him to be, at five-and-thirty, fully a decade his senior. He was taller than average, though not as tall as Graeham. Pale, smooth-boned, clad in a calf-length tunic of emerald silk trimmed in sable and cinched with a jeweled belt, Rolf le Fever more closely resembled a royal courtier—or his own notion of one—than a merchant, however prosperous he might be.
Le Fever assessed Graeham up and down with eyes the color of water, his expression that of a man contemplating an insect. Little wonder; unwashed and unshaven, his split-front riding tunic and leathern leggings grimy from the road, his unbound hair hanging limply, Graeham must have looked as if he were there to empty the privy.
“Rolf le Fever?” Graeham inquired, although there was no quesion in his mind whom he was addressing.
“Tradesmen enter round back.” Le Fever stepped away from the door and began to swing it shut.
Graeham slammed a hand on it before it could close. “Gui de Beauvais sent me.”
At the mention of his father by marriage, le Fever slowly reopened the door. “Lord Gui sent you?”
Graeham opened the hardened leather case resting against his hip, suspended by a cord across his chest. He pulled out a folded sheet of parchment bound in gold cord that had been sealed with the baron’s insignia, and handed it to the merchant. “His lordship’s letter of introduction.”
Le Fever broke the waxen seal, slid the cord out of the slits in the crisp parchment, and unfolded the letter, his mouth silently forming the words as he struggled to decipher them.
Opting for tact—at least for the time being—Graeham said, “I apologize for my appearance. I’ve been traveling for the better part of a week, and I’ve only just arrived in London.”
“Indeed.” Le Fever refolded the letter and tapped his chin with it. “Where’s your mount, then?”
“I left them—”
“I have two.” One for me and one for your wife. “I left them at St. Bartholemew’s.” It was on Lord Gui’s advice that Graeham had chosen the renowned monastic hostelry, located outside the city wall, over Holy Trinity or one of London’s many public inns. His lordship had extolled the priory’s hospitality, but Graeham hadn’t been there long enough to sample it. Upon his arrival a short while ago, he’d stabled his exhausted horses and proceeded by foot through Aldersgate—one of the seven gates that provided access into London proper—and through the bustling city streets to the retailing district of West Cheap, mindful of his mission. Too mindful perhaps, for le Fever might have proven more receptive had Graeham taken the time to clean himself up and dress as befitted the emissary of a distinguished Norman baron.
He was overeager. Little wonder, considering the urgency of his assignment…and his stake in its success.
“May I come in?” Graeham asked. “I have a matter of some importance to discuss with you.”
Le Fever drilled his eerily transparent gaze into Graeham. “Lord Gui describes you as a retainer. That’s not very specific.”
“I’m one of his serjanz.”
“Ah. A military man,” le Fever said, as if that explained Graeham’s appearance. He tucked the letter beneath his belt. “Come.” Turning, he strode through a small entrance hall and up a flight of stairs to a second-floor landing, with Graeham following; the stairs continued upward to a third level, Graeham noticed.
“You’re English,” le Fever observed as he led the way into a sizable chamber, opulently furnished and bedecked in silken hangings, its floorboards plastered with smooth white clay.
“Aye.” Graeham couldn’t help smiling, gratified that the eleven years he’d lived in the Frankish county of Beauvais hadn’t completely erased the native accent with which he spoke the Anglo-Norman common tongue of his homeland.
Le Fever motioned Graeham into an ornately carved chair, one of two facing each other before a hooded fireplace set into a stone chimney. A hellish blaze roared within it, out of keeping with the mild spring afternoon. The merchant crossed to a corner cupboard painted with leopards and fleurs-de-lys. “Do you have a name, serjant?”
A ring of keys dangled from a chain attached to le Fever’s belt, much like a lady’s chatelaine. Sorting through the keys, he chose one and unlocked the cup¬board. “Graeham of…?”
“Some in France know me as Graeham of London—I was born here. But I’m also called Graeham Fox.”
“For your cleverness?”
“For my hair.” And for his cleverness, but sometimes it was best to be underestimated. “In sunlight, it has a reddish cast.” When it was clean, which it hadn’t been since his last bath, back in Beauvais.
Le Fever’s expression hovered somewhere between indifference and disdain. “One must take your word for that, I suppose.” He retrieved a flagon and a silver goblet from the cupboard. “Something to cool your throat after your journey?”
“Ale, if you have it. I’ve missed English ale.”
“Wench!” le Fever shouted. After a moment’s silence, he snarled, “God’s tooth,” and stalked to a corner stairwell. “Aethel! Where the bloody hell are you?”
Something scraped on the ceiling overhead—a chair?—and then came the hurried descent of footsteps on the stairs. A doughy serving wench appeared, clutching her apron in one hand and a spoon in the other. “Beg pardon, Master Rolf. I was upstairs feeding Mistress Ada, and I didn’t hear—”
“Go down to the buttery and bring our guest some ale. Step lively.”
“Yes, sire.” Aethel cast Graeham a swift, curious glance as she darted back into the service stairwell.
“Pointless creature.” Le Fever filled the goblet with wine and sat opposite Graeham to sip it. Rings glinted on his fingers and thumbs. When he crossed his legs, Graeham glimpsed, beneath the hem of his tunic, the intricately embroidered garters that secured his chausses just above the knees. The snug hose were fashioned not of wool, but of gleaming plum-colored silk—an understandable affectation, Graeham supposed, given that his host was not only London’s most prominent silk merchant, but master of the newly established Mercer’s Guild.
“I can’t help wondering,” le Fever said as he eyed Graeham over the rim of his goblet, “what ‘matter of some importance’ could prompt Lord Gui to send a soldier to his daughter’s home.”
Tread carefully. “His lordship misses Mistress Ada, and is eager to visit with her. Given his advanced years and ill health, it would have been unwise for him to attempt such an arduous journey himself. He sent me to escort his daughter across the Channel to him.”
Le Fever’s eyebrows quirked, just slightly. “He wants you to take her back to Beauvais?”
Slowly Graeham said, “To Paris. He’ll visit her there.”
“Ah, yes,” le Fever sneered. “Ada has never set foot in her own father’s castle, isn’t that right? Tell me—does the baron’s lady wife even know about the twin daughters her husband sired on that Paris whore?”
“Nay,” Graeham said evenly. “And, as I understand it, their mother was a dressmaker.”
Le Fever snorted contemptuously. “They call themselves all sorts of things.” He took a long swallow of wine and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “I’m afraid your journey has been for naught, serjant. I have no intention of consigning my wife to the care of a complete stranger, especially…” His frosty gaze took in Graeham’s disreputable appearance.
“I assure you she’ll be entirely safe with me.”
Le Fever smiled thinly. “That’s really not the point. ‘Tis quite irregular for a married lady to travel abroad without her husband. ‘Twould reflect badly on me, and I do have a reputation to maintain. I’m a man of consequence in this city, after all, regardless of what his lordship may think of me.”
Something clattered on the floor upstairs. Le Fever did not avert his unnervingly steady gaze from Graeham.
“Are you aware,” Graeham said, “that your wife has maintained a steady correspondence with her father since your marriage to her last year?”
“What of it?”
“Six months ago, the letters stopped coming.”
Aethel reappeared with a stein of ale for Graeham, at whom she smiled shyly before disappearing back into the corner stairwell. A moment later, there came footsteps on the floor above, and another grating of chair legs. Listening closely, Graeham heard Aethel saying something apologetic in muffled tones, followed by the much softer voice of another woman.
Tracking Graeham’s gaze to the ceiling, le Fever said, “My wife has been ill since Christmastide. When she’s recovered, she’ll resume her correspondence with her father. Is that why he wants to see her? Because she stopped writing?”
“That…” Graeham gained a moment by taking a slow sip of ale. Too bitter, but it tasted like ambrosia; it tasted like England. “And because of what she communicated to him while she was still writing.”
Setting his stein on a little table next to his chair, Graeham reached into his document case and brought forth a short stack of letters. Le Fever eyed them uneasily, as well he might have.
Graeham said, “Your marriage appears to have soured within days of the wedding.”
Le Fever made a sound of derision. “We were married in Paris. Three days later, while we were in a boat crossing the Channel, she told me what her father had declined to mention before the nuptials—that the daughter whose hand he’d so generously offered me had, in fact, been born on the wrong side of the bed. He’s never publicly acknowledged Ada and Phillipa, never even owned up to their existence. I thought I’d negotiated a union with a baron’s daughter, but what I ended up with was a wife I daren’t speak of, lest someone inquire after her parentage. How could such a marriage possibly benefit me?”
“‘Twas to protect the delicate sensibilities of his lady wife that the baron opted for circumspection regarding—”
“He hid those girls away in Paris like the shameful little secret they were. And still are.” Le Fever drained his wine in one swift tilt of the goblet.
“On the contrary, after their mother died, he delegated their upbringing to the care of his own brother, a canon of Notre Dame. They were well provided for, educated, given every possible advantage. He visited them frequently.”
“And all the while,” le Fever said, gripping the stem of his goblet as if squeezing a throat, “he hoped and prayed that no one in Beauvais would ever learn of them. Is it any wonder he betrothed Ada to an Englishman? The farther away he could keep her, the better. God damn that blackguard to eternal hell for his treachery.”
“His lordship realizes he…misled you.”
“He lied to me,” le Fever spat out as a livid flush suffused his face. “If not outright, then by implication. He arranged my betrothal to his bastard daughter as if there were naught amiss, laughing at me all the while. Tell me—were you privy all along to his sordid little scheme to foist one of his by-blows off on a gullible English mercer?”
“‘Twasn’t the way of it. Lord Gui was merely trying to provide for his daughter through marriage to a man of means.” Although his lordship had, of course, concealed his daughter’s illegitimacy during the betrothal negotiations. By the time le Fever discovered it, he reasoned, the marriage would be consummated and the English mercer would be too enamored of his lovely and sweet-tempered young bride to raise any objections. As it turned out, he was wrong. “But no,” Graeham added, “I knew naught of the matter until two weeks ago, when Lord Gui asked me to come here.”
His lordship’s eyes had been damp and red-rimmed when he’d summoned Graeham to his private chamber. What I’m about to tell you, he’d said unsteadily, I’ve never revealed to a soul—at least not in Beauvais. Nineteen years ago, while visiting friends in Paris, he’d had a brief liaison with a woman named Jeanne, whom he’d hired to make some new gowns for his wife. Never before had he strayed in his fidelity to his beloved Lady Christiana, but he found himself helpless to resist Jeanne’s seductive charms. Nine months later, he received word that Jeanne had given birth to his twin daughters. Four years later, the dressmaker succumbed to an outbreak of typhoid and Lord Gui made the girls wards of his brother, Canon Lotulf. Phillipa still lived with her uncle in Paris, where she had several suitors vying for her hand, although her studies consumed her complete interest. Ada was united with Rolf le Fever last year in a marriage that Lord Gui arranged, but which he had since came to deeply regret.
“His lordship must hold you in the highest esteem,” le Fever said, “to have confided such a secret—and to entrust his daughter into your care for the journey back to Paris.” What might have seemed like a compliment from another man struck Graeham as the most oily dissembling.
“I gather he was simply desperate,” Graeham lied, ever heedful of the strategic advantage of being underrated. In truth, Lord Gui considered Graeham by far his most trusted serjant, as skilled in diplomacy as in the combative arts, which was why the baron had chosen Graeham for the delicate task of spiriting his daughter away from her husband, employing whatever means necessary.
“Despite the circumstances of Mistress Ada’s birth,” Graeham said, “Lord Gui loves her—and her sister—as dearly as he loves his sons by Lady Christiana. He only wants what’s best for them. If he erred in not revealing the circumstances of Mistress Ada’s birth, he now deeply regrets it.”
“He bloody well should regret it. He ruined my life, the lying cur. May he die of the bloody flux and roast in everlasting torment.” The contemptible turd actually crossed himself.
Graeham held up the top letter from the stack. “Apparently you flew into quite the rage when your new bride admitted the truth of her birth.”
“I damn near pitched her over the side of the boat. I daresay you’d have had the same reaction if you’d been hoodwinked as I was. And do you know the most galling part of it? There’s absolutely nothing I can do. I can’t annul the marriage—there are no grounds. And naturally I can’t let it get out that my wife is the product of some sordid tryst in the back alleys of Paris. So I swallow my pride and carry on. Just as Lord Gui knew I would have to.”
Quite right, Graeham thought, sympathizing reluctantly—but only fleetingly—with the bastard’s dilemma.
“Ada is provided for,” le Fever said, “and her reputation remains intact, as does Lord Gui’s marriage to the blessedly oblivious Lady Christiana. The only one who suffers is me.”
“And your wife.” Choosing the second letter in the stack and setting the others on the table, Graeham unfolded it and read a portion aloud. “‘I despair, dearest Papa, over what will become of me in this marriage. I can bear it when he strikes me. Most husbands discipline their wives, do they not, and Rolf is really rather restrained in this respect, except when he is in his cups. It is his endless taunts and insults that wear me down. Yesterday he said, “No wonder the great Baron Gui de Beauvais was willing to wed his daughter into the merchant class and pack her off to England. You’re the misbegotten spawn of some Paris whore. He was glad to be rid of you. Oh, that I could discard you so easily.”‘”
Graeham looked up and met le Fever’s frigid gaze. “How often are you tempted to discard her, Master le Fever?”
The mercer smirked. “Is that it? The old man thinks I’m going to bring some sort of harm down on his precious daughter?”
Graeham refolded the letter and put it with the others. “Are you?”
“That, serjant, is none of your affair.”
“Baron Gui de Beauvais has made it my affair. At best, your wife is miserable in this marriage. At worst, you do, indeed, intend some harm toward her.”
Le Fever leapt to his feet, his teeth showing. “You’ve got some stones, coming into my home and accusing me of—”
“I’m accusing you of nothing. I’m merely conveying a father’s concern for his daughter’s welfare.”
Le Fever’s gaze sharpened on Graeham. “You’re not here to escort her home for a visit,” he said softly. “You came to take her away for good.”
Graeham didn’t bother to deny it. “I should think you’d be pleased to be rid of her, considering your feelings about the marriage.”
Le Fever’s eyes lit with a white-hot fury. “You propose to steal my wife out from under my roof, and I’m supposed to be pleased about it? How in bloody hell do you think that’s going to look, for my wife to leave and never come back?”
“Ah, yes, appearances.” Graeham sighed. “His lordship has authorized me to offer you fifty marks if you let her leave with me.”
“He could offer me a thousand marks. Ten thousand. I’m not letting the bitch go. She knew what she was doing when she married me. Let her reap what she’s sown.”
“Master Rolf?” came a tenuous voice from the service stairwell.
Le Fever wheeled around to face the girl who stood there, a milky-skinned redhead of about sixteen or so, dressed in a dark green, hooded mantle and homely gray tunic, her brow furrowed. She might have been pretty had she not looked so cowed.
“Olive!” le Fever exclaimed. “What do you mean, sneaking in here this way?”
“I—I knocked at the back door,” Olive said, looking back and forth between Graeham and the mercer, “but no one heard me. Your man is out back, currying the horses, and he said I could go on in.” She shrugged helplessly and held up a phial of thick blue glass that contained a dark liquid. “I’ve brought today’s tonic for Mistress Ada.”
“Very well.” Le Fever waved her upstairs. “Bring it up to her.” He turned back to Graeham, still seated, as the young woman darted up the stairs. “Go back to that conniving whoreson who sent you here and tell him he’s not getting his daughter back. He’ll never see her again. She’s mine now. He gave her to me. Now, get the hell out of here.”
With lazy movements, as if he had all the time in the world, Graeham slid the fourth letter from the pile and unfolded it.
“Did you hear me?” le Fever sputtered, his beringed hands fisting at his sides. “Get out—or I’ll have my manservant throw you out. Byram’s quite the strapping beast, and good with his fists—I guarantee you’ll come away from the experience bloodied.”“‘My husband makes no attempt to hide his numerous assigna¬tions with other women,’” Graeham said, reading from the letter. “‘Indeed, he boasts of his conquests to his man, Byram, within my hearing.’”
Le Fever crossed to a large window overlooking the stable yard. “Byram!”
“Yes, sire,” came a man’s deep-pitched voice from outside.
“Put Ebony back in his stall and come up here, will you? I need your help with something.”
“Right away, sire.”
Graeham resumed his reading of the letter. “‘Rolf seems proudest of his liaisons with the wives of the high-ranking men whose influence he so avidly courts. Perhaps seducing their wives makes him feel more like one of them. Recently I overheard him bragging to Byram that he had slept with the wives of four of London’s aldermen, including that of our own ward, Fori.’” Graeham looked up from the letter. “That would be Alderman John Huxley, would it not? Lord Gui met Master John when he was studying in Paris—did you know that?”
Two spots of pink bloomed on Rolf le Fever’s cheeks.
Returning his attention to the letter, Graeham read, “‘From what I can gather, Rolf has grown so bold as to set his sights on the wife of the king’s justiciar. Cool though my feelings toward my husband have grown, I dread to think what will come of him should it become known that he has made cuckolds of so many important men.’” Graeham refolded the letter and replaced it on the stack. “I’d say she makes an excellent point, wouldn’t you? ‘Twould go badly for you should your wife’s correspondence happen to fall into the wrong hands.”
Le Fever leaned out the window. “Byram, I…I don’t need you after all.”
There came a pause. “Are you sure, Master—”
“Yes, damn it, I’m sure. Go back to your work.” Le Fever’s expression when he turned back to Graeham was murderous. “You blackmailing bastard. Let me see those letters.”
“You’ve got the ‘bastard’ part right,” Graeham replied as he handed le Fever the bundle of letters. “As for blackmail, it needn’t come to that.”
“I daresay it needn’t.” With an expression of triumph, the mercer flung the sheets of parchment into the fire. “It seems they really do call you ‘Fox’ for your hair and not your cleverness. So glad to find I misjudged you.”
“Ah, but you didn’t,” Graeham admitted with a mild smile. “Those were copies. I penned them myself before leaving Beauvais. The originals are locked up safely in his lordship’s private chamber.”
Le Fever sank into his chair, his face as white as bleached bone. “The fox has set quite a cunning little trap of his own, it seems. That’s it, then. If I don’t let Ada go, you ruin me.”
“Will it ease the sting any,” Graeham said, “to know that Lord Gui instructed me to give you the fifty marks regardless of your cooperation? I told him he was too generous by far.”
“I’ve been in trade long enough to know that such generosity doesn’t come without conditions.”
“You’re to refrain from discussing Mistress Ada with anyone, ever, especially in ways that may reflect badly on her. In particular, you are to keep your counsel as regards the circumstances of her birth.”
“I’m hardly eager to advertise those circumstances, I assure you. But fifty marks isn’t enough. I want more.”
“It’s all I brought with me, and it’s fifty marks more than you deserve. Take it or leave it.”
A muscle spasmed in le Fever’s jaw. “Give it to me, then.”
“The prior of St. Bartholemew’s is safeguarding it for me. You’ll get it when I come back to collect Mistress Ada.” Graeham stood. “I’ll return this evening at compline.”
“She’ll be packed and ready.” As le Fever rose, he squinted at something in the corner. Graeham turned to find the young woman who’d brought the tonic, Olive, lurking in the service stairwell. “How long have you been standing there?”
“I just…I’m sorry, sire. But Mum, she’ll light into me something awful if I come back to the shop again without the tuppence for the tonic.”
Glowering, le Fever dug two silver pennies out of the purse on his belt and hurled them at the girl. She squealed and covered her face; the coins bounced on the clay floor and rolled away.
“Jesu!” le Fever bit out.
“I’m sorry,” Olive muttered, dropping to her hands and knees to scramble after the money. “I’m sorry, Master Rolf. I’m so clumsy.”
She found one of the pennies under a chair. Graeham picked up the other, which had come to rest near his feet, and handed it to her. She accepted it with murmured thanks, blushing when he took her hand and helped her to her feet.
“Do you work for the apothecary?” Graeham asked her.
The girl nodded. “I’m her apprentice. She’s me mum.”
“If she was to make up a week’s worth of tonic for Mistress Ada, would it keep that long?”
“Aye. We brew it up in four-pinte batches that last longer than that. Just mind you don’t let it get too warm, and it’ll keep just fine.”
“Good.” Graeham untied his purse and counted fourteen pennies into her hand, then added another four for good measure. He could well afford to be generous—or rather, Lord Gui could, for this was the baron’s money, provided to cover Graeham’s expenses in returning his daughter to him. “There’s a shilling and a half. That should more than cover it. See that you have the medicine here by compline.”
“Yes, sir. It’ll be here, sir. Good day, sir.”
After she left, a disconcerting thought occurred to Graeham. “Your wife,” he said to le Fever, “how ill is she? She is well enough to travel, isn’t she?”
The guildmaster gave him a look of smug contempt. “The way I see it, that’s entirely your problem now. As of compline, I wash my hands of her.”
The sun hung low in the sky, gilding the thatched roofs of London, when Graeham returned to West Cheap on the sorrel stallion he’d purchased in Dover, his saddlebags heavy with silver for Rolf le Fever. Having given it some thought, he’d decided not to bring along the chestnut palfrey he’d acquired for Mistress Ada. If she was seriously ill, it would be safer for her to ride pillion behind him. It was either that or a litter, and he didn’t know where he’d find a proper one on such short notice.
Graeham couldn’t help wondering what Ada le Fever would look like. The baron hadn’t described his twin daughters except as “angelic beauties with exceedingly temperate dispositions.” Of course, Ada’s long illness might have taken a toll on her appear¬ance. Graeham cautioned himself not to be dismayed if she struck him as less than comely. After all, it wasn’t Ada he was betrothed to, but Phillipa.
Almost betrothed to. It wouldn’t be official until he returned Ada safely to Paris. Then would come the reward Lord Gui had promised him—Lady Phillipa’s hand in marriage and a generous holding. Best of all, an English holding, and one of the baron’s finest estates—fifteen hides of fertile farmland and rolling pastures just outside of Oxford.
Graeham had been stunned when Lord Gui had offered such a princely reward—especially as regarded the betrothal to his daughter—but he’d known better than to question it lest his lordship start entertaining second thoughts. For a man of Graeham’s modest background, it was the opportunity of a lifetime—land of his own and marriage to a beautiful woman of temperate disposition. Phillipa’s illegitimacy troubled him not at all, for it was a curse he lived with himself. Perhaps their shared baseborn status would even enhance their compatibility.
What would it be like, he wondered, after a lifetime of never really belonging anywhere, of always being alone, to have a home and family of his own? How would it feel, after years of forgettable couplings with serving wenches and laundresses, to take his ease night after night in the arms of the same woman, to see her grow great with his child, to watch her hair gradually turn to silver as the years passed?
Soon would come his opportunity to find out. All he had to do was return Ada le Fever to her father. The Devil himself couldn’t stop him; Rolf le Fever hadn’t stood a chance.
Graeham turned onto Milk Street, guiding his mount around gaps in the crumbling Roman paving stones. From his boyhood in London, he recalled perhaps a dozen such old paved lanes among the complex network of dirt roads that filled the square mile within the city walls. He walked his horse gingerly across a section that was mostly rubble, the stones having been torn up to build the house next to le Fever’s.
Except for the Church of St. Mary Magdalene and that house, all the dwellings and shops on Milk Street were of thatch-roofed timber, although Rolf le Fever’s was, by far, the most conspicuous. Of course, this part of West Cheap was the hub of London’s silk trade, a trade overseen by le Fever as guildmaster. He was the most important man for blocks around; why shouldn’t he have the biggest, most ostentatious house? Still…painted in garish red and blue, its portico supported by intricately carved posts, the rest ornamented with fancy moldings and beams, it struck Graeham as the home of a man who’d gotten too rich too fast.
Eyeing the window of the third-floor solar as he rode toward the house, Graeham fancied he saw someone sitting there, silhouetted against yellowish lamplight; Ada le Fever? He hoped she was packed and ready, as promised, for he didn’t have that long to get her to St. Bartholemew’s, where he’d secured a place for her in the women’s guest quarters. Once night had fully fallen, the churches would ring curfew and the city gates would be locked until dawn. It was well that Lord Gui had steered Graeham to St. Bartholemew’s. Not only did the hostelry accommodate women as well as men, but the priory maintained a splendid hospital—although he hoped Ada wouldn’t need it. The sooner they could manage the journey to Paris, the better.
As he approached the house, Graeham noticed a burly, bald-headed man in a russet tunic leaning against the tall stone wall that enclosed the front part of Rolf le Fever’s property, absently whittling a chunk of wood with a large knife. When he looked up and saw Graeham, he tossed the wood aside. “Graeham Fox?”
“Aye.” Graeham reined in his mount.
“I been waitin’ for ye. Master le Fever, he said as how you were to come round back for his wife. Says he don’t want the whole neighborhood to see her leavin’ with the likes of you.” He shrugged apologetically.
“Are you Byram?”
The fellow shoved his knife back in its sheath. “That’s right. This way, then.” Pushing off the wall, Byram motioned for Graeham to follow him into an alley adjacent to le Fever’s house. “You might want to dismount. It gets a might tight in there before you get to the back of the house.”
Graeham got down off his horse, his soldierly suspicion of anything irregular raising his hackles. Alert and wary, he led his mount into the alley, a dirt path about a yard and a half wide that connected Milk Street to the street just west of it—Wood Street, as Graeham recalled. Cast into shadow by the buildings to either side, the passage¬way was dim and littered with debris. The sorrel stallion snorted anxiously.
About halfway down, the right-hand side of the alley opened up into what looked to be a common rear croft of packed earth shared by the houses on Wood Street, and from which access could be gained to Rolf le Fever’s stable yard via a gate in the low stone wall surrounding it. The croft was deserted for the supper hour, save for a few chickens and pigs in scattered pens. The alley, shaded by dwellings whose upper levels were built out awkwardly over the lower, grew even darker and narrower as it ap-proached Wood Street.
“Where are you going?” Graeham asked as Byram walked past the gate to le Fever’s stable yard.
Byram turned around, his gaze shifting from Graeham to something out of sight behind le Fever’s stable.
Graeham spun around, unsheathing his dagger as two men—one of them gigantic—emerged from behind the stable. The smaller one seized the horse’s reins, while the giant swung a long-handled sledge-hammer at Graeham’s head. Graeham ducked beneath the sledge, rolled, leapt up. He grabbed his attacker’s tangled black beard to hold him still and drove the dagger deep into his belly. The bastard grunted. Without so much as a pause to catch his breath, he jerked away and whipped the sledge around, smacking Graeham in the ribs and sending him sprawling onto the hard-packed dirt.
“Shit, Dougal,” Byram gasped at his companion. “Are ye all right?”
Dougal looked down at the horn handle of Graeham’s dagger protruding from his belly, and shrugged.
As Graeham struggled to sit up, his teeth clenched against the dull pain in his side, he saw his horse being led swiftly down the alley toward Wood Street. “No!” He reached into his boot for his spare weapon, a little razor-sharp dirk—for all the good it would do. He was outnumbered, and by brutes who could clearly take a bit of punishment.
As Graeham braced himself to rise, Byram knelt over him, knife in hand. Grabbing a fistful of Graeham’s hair, Byram yanked his head back and pressed the giant blade to his neck. “Say hello to the Devil for me, Fox.”
“Say it yourself.” Graeham aimed his dirk at Byram’s throat, but the bastard saw it coming and recoiled; the blade opened a bloody gash across his cheek and chin instead. Byram dropped the knife, swearing rawly.
Keeping a firm grip on the dirk, Graeham reached for the knife, but Dougal stepped on his hand, immobilizing him and all but crushing his fingers. Graeham drew back his foot, encased in a wooden-soled riding boot, and kicked the giant in the groin.
Bellowing like a bear, Dougal slammed the sledge with a jolting crunch on Graeham’s left shin. Pain ignited in a searing explosion, racing like Greek fire along his nerves. A roar that must have come from his own throat reverberated in the alley.
From a window somewhere, a man yelled, “Pipe down out there! I’m tryin’ to eat me supper!”
Graeham uncurled himself, sucking air, and tried once again to get up, but his lower leg had been smashed; it wouldn’t support him.
Byram, using his tunic sleeve to blot his bleeding face, kicked Graeham in his broken ribs. To Dougal he said, “Finish him off and let’s get out of here.”
Dougal, the dagger still sticking out of his belly, stood over Graeham. His gaze narrowed on Graeham’s head as he took aim. He raised the sledge-hammer high.
Gripping his little dirk by its ivory handle, Graeham flicked it toward Dougal’s massive neck. It stuck there, quivering. Dougal blinked and slowly lowered the sledge.
“Jesus, Dougal,” Byram murmured, gaping as the big man patted the dirk’s ivory handle curiously. “Give me that.” Byram yanked the sledge out of Dougal’s grip and took aim at Graeham’s skull. Graeham rolled aside as the sledge descended, imbedding harmlessly in the dirt.
The big knife was once again close at hand, and Graeham grabbed it. Groaning in pain, he bolstered himself on the wall behind him and pulled himself to his feet as Byram yanked the sledge free and wheeled on him.
“Good evening, gentlemen.” Graeham and his two assailants turned to find a man—flaxen-haired, lean and long-limbed—striding toward them from the direction of Wood Street. From the tooled scabbard on his belt, he withdrew a gleaming steel sword. “Mind if I play?”
Byram and Dougal looked at each other.
“Because it strikes me you haven’t really got enough competitors.” He spoke like a nobleman, and there was that handsome sword—although his leather tunic and woollen chausses were worn and dirt-smudged. A wineskin and satchel hung across his chest. “Two against one—that hardly seems sporting, does it? What do you say I even things up?”
“Bugger yourself,” Dougal growled, even as he stumbled back against the wall, nudged by the stranger’s sword.
“If I could figure out how, I’d probably give it a go.” With a nod toward the horn handle emerging from Dougal’s stomach, he said, “That smarts, I’ll wager. But I’ve seen men take a knife in the stomach, pull it out, and snap back good as new within days.”
“Hunh.” Dougal regarded the dagger with an expression of relief.
“The one in your throat’s a bit trickier, though. If you take that one out, blood will start pumping from you like a fountain, and it won’t stop till you’re dead as a stone. Just thought you should know.”
Dougal looked at him with slack-jawed dismay.
“On the positive side, it’s a very quick death. And not too painful, as these things go.”
“He’s lying,” Byram said.
Dougal turned and started lumbering back up the alley toward Milk Street, crossing himself and muttering softly under his breath.
“Come back here!” Byram screamed. “Damn your eyes, Dougal, he’s making it all up! Come back here!” He shook the sledge menacingly. “Get away from here before I smash your brains in.”
Ignoring the threat, the stranger tilted Byram’s chin up with the tip of his sword and inspected the laceration on his face. “I hope you’re already married, because no wench wants a man with a scar like that.” To Graeham, he said, “Your handiwork?”
Graeham nodded, shaking all over as he strained to stay on his feet. “I was going for his throat.”
“Were you? I’ve found the best way to cut a man’s throat is to plant the blade firmly, right about here—” he pressed the edge of his sword against Byram’s throat “—and then just sweep it across, like so.” He made an abrupt slashing movement.
Byram yelped and dropped the sledge. The stranger kicked it toward Graeham, who made no attempt to lean down and pick it up, suspecting he would pass out if he did so. “Hands in the air, then.”
Byram spat out a few ripe Anglo-Saxon curses, but complied.
“I’m going to send for one of the sheriffs and have your miserable arse hauled off to gaol,” the stranger said.
“Let him go.” Graeham said.
Because Graeham had sworn to Lord Gui that he would proceed with the utmost discretion, revealing to no one—save le Fever himself—his true reason for being in London, lest it become known that the baron was Ada le Fever’s father. Getting the constabulary involved would open a Pandora’s box of inquiry that could expose the secret his lordship had striven for so many years to protect. Besides, any investigation into the “robbery” was pointless. Graeham had a fairly good notion that Rolf le Fever was behind the attack, the point of which had been to relieve him not just of his silver, but of his life. Le Fever, fearful for his precious reputation, most likely never had any intention of relinquishing his wife to Graeham. But he wanted those fifty marks.
Graeham still had every intention of bringing her back to Paris, of course. Not only was her delivery from the likes of Rolf le Fever a just cause, but Graeham’s very future rode on it. Somehow, despite his injuries and le Fever’s defiance, he would manage to execute his mission—but without the dubious assistance of the Sheriff of London.
Thinking as quickly as he could, given his throbbing leg, Graeham said, “This mongrel’s not worth the trouble of bringing him up on charges. We’d have to give statements, testify at the sheriff’s court, all that bloody nonsense—just so they can deal him a few lashes and toss him out onto the street again. ‘Tisn’t worth it.”
He must have been convincing, because after a moment’s thought, the stranger stepped back from Byron and said, “Why don’t you go find your friend and help him get that knife out of his throat?”
Byram hesitated, casting an anxious glance in Graeham’s direction—troubled, perhaps, at leaving unfinished business—then turned and sprinted down the alley toward Milk Street.
Graeham shoved the knife under his belt, then slumped to the ground, gripping his leg and cursing like a sailor. The criss-crossed thong that secured the leather legging was stretched taut over his bulging shin; it thudded with pain.
The stranger sheathed his sword and squatted next to Graeham, frowning at his leg. His right earlobe, Graeham saw, was pierced by a small gold ring etched with an exotic design. Graeham had once seen an infidel in a turban walking down the Rue de la Lanterne in Paris; he’d had an earring like that.
“Is it broken?” the stranger asked.
Graeham nodded. “Rather badly, I suspect. I can’t tell too much with it wrapped up this way.”
“Don’t unwrap it. ‘Twill act as a splint till you can get a proper one from a surgeon. Is that all they did to you?”
“They cracked a few of my ribs. But they would have done the same thing to my head if you hadn’t shown up when you did. I’m Graeham Fox, by the way. And I owe you a debt of thanks.”
“Hugh of Wexford—and I’m the one who should be thankful. ‘Twas the best sport I’ve had all week.”
“Will that fellow really bleed to death when he takes the dirk out of his neck?”
Hugh grinned and shrugged. “I’ve no idea. I made that up.”
“It sounded good.”
“I thought so. Come.” Hugh stood up and hauled a woozy and pain-racked Graeham to his feet, pressing the four-foot shaft of the sledge-hammer into his trembling hand. “This should serve fairly well as a cane. Let’s get you inside where you can lie down.”
“Inside?” Graeham rested most of his weight on the sledge, but Hugh aided him with a hand under his arm.
“This is my sister’s house,” Hugh said, patting the earth-and-straw wall against which Graeham had been leaning. “I was on my way here for a visit when I saw a rather mangy cur leading a handsome sorrel stallion out of this alley.”
“A handsome sorrel stallion with fifty marks in his saddlebags,” Graeham said as Hugh guided him by torturous little hopping steps into the rear croft and around to the back of the house—one of a long row of attached two-story dwellings facing Wood Street. Outbuildings dotted the croft; a privy shed had been built against the back wall of Hugh’s sister’s house, and in the shadow of a tree behind it stood a stone hut, which probably housed a kitchen. She had a little garden plot, bare of plants this early in the spring, but no livestock.
“Fifty marks!” Hugh let out a long, low whistle from between his teeth. “Rotten luck, falling prey to robbers when you’ve got a fortune like that on you.”
Rotten luck had nothing to do with it, Graeham thought, and one of those “robbers” just happens to be manservant to the master of the Mercers’ Guild.
Hugh pounded his fist on the oaken back door of his sister’s home. “Joanna! Joanna, it’s me, Hugh. Open up.” He tugged on the latch string trailing from a hole in the door; from inside came the metallic scrape of the bolt being lifted. Pulling the door open, he called down a narrow hallway, “Joanna?” No sound came from within. “She must not be home. Come on in, but step carefully here—it’s a sunken floor.”
Hugh escorted Graeham down the hallway, which opened into a humbly furnished living chamber with a ladder in the corner leading upstairs. The rushes that blanketed the floor of this modest salle smelled fresh. In the middle of a rough-hewn table flanked by benches sat a sort of poor man’s oil lamp—a lump of fat in a clay dish with a burning rush in it—which cast a wavering corona of light. Two deep little iron-barred windows looked out onto the alley; a white cat observed them dispassionately from the ledge of one.
“That imperious creature is Petronilla,” Hugh said. “Her brother’s around here somewhere. Manfrid—he’s the timid type. With the exception of Joanna, he’s terrified of people—especially men. There’s usually a dog or two in residence, but not at the moment, apparently. Where’s your mum, Petronilla?”
Petronilla turned to look out the window.
“Joanna lit that lamp,” Hugh observed, “so she must not have left that long ago. The sun has just set.”
Through a wide, arched doorway Graeham could see a small front room—a shop stall, for next to the door that led to the street was an enormous window with horizontal shutters, now bolted shut. Near this window stood a large rectangular embroidery frame laid flat on trestles, on which a length of sky-blue silk, partially stitched in vines and flowers, was stretched taut by means of lacings around the edges.
Noticing the direction of Graeham’s gaze, Hugh said, “Joanna’s husband is a mercer. He imports silk and they sell it out of the shop—or rather, she does. He enjoys the buying, but he can’t bear the peddling.”
Graeham nodded politely, straining for composure despite the howling pain in his leg. “You mentioned some place to lie down…?”
“Right in here.” Hugh pushed a leather curtain aside and helped Graeham to limp into a tiny back room with no rushes to obscure the floor of beaten chalk. By the dusky twilight filtering in through the windows, Graeham made out various chests and sacks and implements, as well as some bolts of jewel-toned silk and a few small baskets on a bench. A narrow cot stood against the back wall.
“Who sleeps here?” Graeham grunted in pain as he lowered himself onto the linen-covered mattress of crackling straw and stretched out, searching for the position that was least agonizing for his leg.
“Prewitt.” Hugh punched a limp feather pillow and shoved it under Graeham’s head.
“Who’s that—the apprentice?”
“The husband—Prewitt Chapman. They don’t have an apprentice. Here.” Dumping his satchel on the floor, Hugh handed Graeham his wineskin. “Have some of this—’twill ease the pain and warm you up. You’re shivering.”
Graeham gratefully uncorked the skin and squeezed some wine into his mouth, not bothering to sit up. He was tempted to ask why the master of the house had to make do with a cot in the storeroom when there was apparently a solar upstairs, but it would ill repay his new friend’s hospitality to start prying into private family affairs. “Won’t your brother-in-law be a bit put out to find his bed commandeered by a complete stranger?”
“Prewitt only sleeps here when he’s in town. He spends most of his time abroad, buying silks.”
“Is that where he is now?”
“I couldn’t say. This is my first visit to Joanna in almost a year.” Hugh shook out a woollen blanket that had been folded at the foot of the bed and covered Graeham with it. “You rest here. I’m going to go get you a surgeon.”
“Is there one in the neighborhood?”
“I seem to recall seeing a shop with a red and white striped pole out front up toward Cripplegate.”
After Hugh left, Graeham set himself to the task of draining the wineskin in the hope of inducing a state of numb oblivion before the surgeon arrived. Having held down screaming men more than once while their cracked bones were shoved back into place, he reckoned he’d rather not be in full command of his senses for the procedure.
Time swam; night fell. Just as Graeham realized the wineskin was empty, he heard a door open and close; the sound came not from the back of the house, where he was, but the front. From his position, he could see through the open storeroom doorway into the lamplit salle and beyond that to the darkened shopfront. A shadowy figure in a hooded mantle moved through the shop. Graeham was about to call Hugh’s name when he realized this person was smaller than Hugh—and wearing a lady’s kirtle.
The woman—Hugh’s sister, no doubt—entered the salle, hung her mantle on a peg and placed a parchment-wrapped bundle on the central table. Drunk as Graeham was, it was taxing to keep her in focus. She was tall for a woman, though not excessively so. He saw that she wore a plain blue kirtle with no overtunic; her hair was concealed beneath a white scarf twisted and tucked around her head, a few golden brown tendrils having escaped at her nape; keys and various small tools jangled on the chatelaine hanging from her embroidered girdle.
The cat jumped off the windowsill and joined another—a large black and white tom—in rubbing against its mistress’s skirts. One of them yowled something that sounded like “Now.”
She chuckled. “It’s eel turnovers you smell, but you must wait till I’ve eaten my fill before you get yours.” Her voice sounded young, and had a scratchy quality to it that was not unpleasant.
Graeham knew he ought to announce his presence. He raised himself onto an elbow, groaning when things spun sickeningly.
He heard a sharp gasp. The woman stilled, staring into the darkened storeroom with wide, unblinking eyes. “Who’s there?” she called out in a quavering voice.
“Don’t be afraid,” Graeham muttered thickly as he collapsed back down, squeezing his eyes shut against another wave of drunken disorientation. He heard the rushes rustling beneath her feet; the footsteps grew closer.
He opened his eyes, squinting at her as she stood over him, holding an enormous axe with both hands, its blade aimed at his head.
“Did you hear me?” she demanded shakily. “Get out of my house this instant, or I’ll split your skull open where you lie.”