Marsha Canham's Blog

August 1, 2011

Readalong Monday…Chapter Four

Filed under: Caesars Through the Fence — marshacanham @ 4:48 am

In case you’re impatient and don’t feel like reading along chapter by chapter, Through A Dark Mist is currently FREE for a limited time at Amazon and Smashwords.  Those who are content to read along on your puters, hope you’re enjoying the story so far.

Through A Dark Mist © Marsha Canham

CHAPTER FOUR

 

It seemed to Servanne that outrage upon outrage was to be heaped upon her for as long as she was expected to endure the outlaw’s company. Not only was she being forced to join them in defiling the holy ground of the ruined abbey, but she was also pressed into taking part in further indignities. Scarcely had she been permitted the luxury of scrubbing the grime and dampness of the forest off her face and hands, when she was summoned to join the motley band of renegades while they consumed their evening meal. An adamant refusal was met, moments after it was relayed, by the appearance of the Black Wolf himself in the doorway of the tiny, windowless cubicle that had once been a monk’s sleeping chamber. A clear warning was delivered: refuse again and she would be thrown over his shoulder and carried to the dinner table.

Her eyes red-rimmed from weeping, her body aching and bruised in too many places to recount, Servanne accompanied the rogue to the long pilgrims’ hall, the only building of the three still boasting a partial roof, and the one that had obviously been taken over as living and sleeping quarters for the band of outlaws. To complete her humiliation, Servanne de Briscourt was seated, as guest of honour, with the Black Wolf and half a dozen of his more important henchmen on the raised stone dais that dominated one end of the vaulted hall.

It was an eerie feeling to be seated at a long trestle table, its surface covered with a prim white cloth and laid with fine silver and pewter, and to overlook a hall whose walls were scorched and blackened by fire, bristling with the nests of enterprising colonies of swallows. Mouldy rushes and decomposed leaves littered the floor, rustling and even moving now and then with small living things. Horses nickered and scuffed heavily against one another in a crude pen constructed at the far end of the hall. Their smells of offal, sweat, and leather mingled unpleasantly with musk and decay, which in turn was flavoured pungently with the oily black smoke that rose from the pine-pitch torches burning in iron cressets set into the stone walls.

Two longer tables had been erected at either end of the dais to form an open-ended square, while the fourth side was taken up by a fire pit filled with glowing red coals. Squirrels, hares, capons, and other small game were turned on spits by men who defied the heat and flames to snatch at pieces of the sizzling meat and crackling skin. Larger shanks of venison, mutton, and boar were overseen by two bustling women— the only two in the camp so far as Servanne could discern— who turned their spits and basted their meats with large copper ladlefuls of seasoned oil. Another fire, pitched over an iron grating, kept cauldrons of water boiling, steaming the air, and smaller pots of stews and sauces burping sluggishly at the end of long iron hooks suspended from crossbars.

Even to the casual observer, it would be obvious that these were not men accustomed to hardship. The life Servanne had envisioned for outlaws who spent their days poaching and their nights avoiding capture was definitely not one of fine linen, rich food, and flagons encrusted with gold and silver. Moreover, common foresters would hardly move about the countryside with a large stabling of horses, and most especially not the heavy-shanked, muscular animals that Servanne saw being fed and well tended in the pens. They were no ordinary plow-horses, nor were they nags stolen from merchants who used them to draw carts or carry packs. Sir Hubert had kept a fine stable of warhorses—huge beasts trained to respond to a knight’s commands, to kill if provoked, to bear the burden of full armour and heavy weapons.

At least half of the two dozen animals penned under the charred and rotted archways of the pilgrims’ hall could have rivaled the best Sir Hubert had kept in his stables. And one of them, a huge black destrier with a silver mane and tail whose slightest grunt or annoyed sidestep sent the rest flinching nervously out of range, would have compared favorably to the white rampagers bred for King Richard’s use.

Who were these men if they were not common thieves and outlaws?

Her curiosity roused, Servanne took a new interest in examining the faces around her. To her immediate right was the Black Wolf—an enigma from start to finish, and far too complicated for a cursory perusal. To her left, the mercurial sprite, Sparrow, equally baffling. Sandwiched between the half-man, half-child and the stoically formidable presence of Biddy, was the one they called Friar. He had shed his monk’s robes and was dressed more comfortably in lincoln green leggings and linsey-woolsey tunic. As serene and smooth as his countenance might be, there was nary a hint of softness in the breadth of his shoulders or the solid muscle in his arms and legs.

Gil Golden sat on the Wolf’s right-hand side, which gave Servanne a clear view of the terrible, ravaging scar that distorted the left side of his face. He too could not boast of an inch of excess flesh, but his was a wiry trimness not thinned by starvation or deprivation. To his right sat a pair of scoundrels so identical in features, clothing, and gestures, Servanne had initially blamed a weakened constitution for causing her to see double. Twins were a rarity inEngland. The fact that these two—nicknamed Mutter and Stutter by their comrades—should have survived to adulthood with no twisted limbs, missing teeth, or pockmarks to distinguish them apart, was truly a wonder. They lifted their eating knives in unison, chewed in unison, and, after the third goblet of strong ale, turned red as raw meat and belched in unison.

As for the others—a score who sat at tables—there were not a few oddities caught by Servanne’s sharp eyes. A hand raised to call for a servant or squire and quickly withdrawn on the recollection that none were there. An easy camaraderie only found among men who had spent a good many years together, not a few furtive months of skulking and thieving.

And the man who sat in their midst like an uncrowned king? Those shoulders and that musculature could not have been developed behind a plow or a serf’s thralldom! Those arms had known the weight and fury of sword and lance; those eyes, keen and canny, had seen the world—perhaps too much of it? And that voice, that carefully controlled, precisely articulated manner of speaking belonged to no peasant churl. He chatted amiably with the other outlaws at the table, and most of the time spoke in clear, unaccented French. Occasionally, however, he addressed the handful of retainers who laboured over the fires and tended the pens, in the barbaric Saxon tongue that branded them as locals. Once he even responded to a raucous jibe from the Welshman in the same melodic but totally unpronounceable gibberish native to the bearded mountain of a man.

Much as he sought to conceal it, the Black Wolf of Lincoln was well born, well educated, and well traveled. A knight turned rogue? An outcast who had surrounded himself with other knights who, for some reason or another, had chosen to break with every honour and vow they had once held more sacred than life itself? And what of his claim? Only a crackbrain would give any credence to his claim of being the real Baron de Gournay, so who was he? And why was he thieving his way through the forests ofLincoln, murdering, kidnapping, and wreaking havoc in the name of Lucien Wardieu?

Sinking deeper into a mire of confusion, Servanne tried to recall every scrap of gossip, good or bad, she had heard about the reclusive knight who resided at Bloodmoor Keep. There was some cold business, many years ago: false charges of treason against the father which were later proven beyond doubt to have been contrived by his enemies—but what powerful baron did not have enemies? Lord Lucien had hunted down each and every one of the conspirators and forced their sealed confessions, too late to save his father from a traitor’s death, but boldly enough to win back most of the estates confiscated during the trial. There was more, but nothing that would give her a clue as to why two men would be laying claim to the De Gournays’ violent, warlike ancestry.

“The broth is delicious tonight.”

Startled, Servanne looked up at the Wolf’s lopsided grin, then at the two-handled écuelle he was politely offering for her consideration. The steaming contents of the bowl gave off a rich, meaty aroma that started the glands beneath her tongue spurting with a vengeance.

It was the custom in all great homes for the diners to sit in pairs when there were ladies present, and for each couple to share the same soup bowl, wine cup, and thick trencher of day-old bread that served as a plate. It was also the gentleman’s task to serve the lady, to offer soup or wine to her first, to present the choicest cuts of meat, and to even feed her bite-size morsels of bread or cheese if she desired it. In this court, under these charred beams and torchlit ruins, Servanne regarded such formalities as ludicrous. Intolerable. The linen, the gold plate, the silver and bejewelled eating knives only added insult to indignity and made her want to scratch the mocking grin from his face.

“Perhaps the venison will be more to your liking,” said the outlaw lord, undaunted by her cold blue stare and even colder silence. He drained every last drop of soup from the bowl and set it aside to be collected, then smacked his lips with greater relish as a cheerful server replaced the used vessel with platters of still-sizzling meat. Mutton, venison, and hare were offered alongside bowls of leeks, onions, and peas. Eels turned inside out and boiled in wine gave off a sour-sweet aroma; fresh crusty bread, pasties, and quenelles swimming in savoury sauces and gravies prompted a need in Servanne to grip the edge of the table beneath the snow-white linen. Her stomach wept in protest as each dish was offered and refused. Her throat ached for a taste of bread and honey; her eyes drifted in a blur from platter to platter; her belly rumbled and quaked in an attempt to break down her resolve.

“My lady?” A sliver of tender hare’s meat wavered in front of her, flourished expertly on a silver blade. Servanne stared at the delicate pink morsel, following the movement of her tormentor’s hand until the meat was taken away and deposited between his own lips. A dribble of clear juice ran over his lower lip and trickled down his chin. Servanne’s tongue peeped out anxiously from the corner of her mouth, lingering there even after a casual wipe of his hand had removed the trail of sweet grease.

“A bite of lark pasty, perhaps? This way you can judge for yourself our boasting over Goodwife Mab’s skills.”

“No. Thank you,” she whispered.

He shrugged and the tender, delicate shred of meat, wrapped lightly and lovingly in a blanket of egg-glazed pastry, went the way of the declined hare. In the next instant, she swore she could hear the buttery pastry crunching between the strong white teeth; she had her own imaginary tidbit half chewed and swallowed before she caught herself and clenched her jaws tightly together in anger.

He was only being attentive because he knew she must be starving. It would serve him right if she fainted dead away and—

“Delicious,” he murmured, drawing the word out to ten syllables. “Mistress Mab, you have outdone yourself.”

A short woman, round as a dumpling and just as soft, giggled and bobbed gratefully after the compliment.

“Indeed, mistress. The fare is by far the best I have tasted in quite some time, and that includes a visit to the royal kitchens atWindsor.”

Servanne’s eyes opened wide. Hardly believing her ears, she looked to her left and confirmed that it was Biddy who had spoken, her mouth stuffed with the lark pasty. Moreover, all three layers of chin were dobbed with grease, and there was an unmistakable flush of warmth on her cheeks to indicate her wine goblet was not being refilled for the first time.

“Shall we cry ‘Judas’ and have her flayed for insubordination?” a husky baritone mused in her ear.

“Biddy is … older; not as strong. She needs to keep up her health.”

The explanation sounded feeble, even to Servanne’s ears, but her salvation was quick to come from another source.

“You should eat something as well, sweet lady,” Sparrow advised. “The rare air here in the greenwood thins the blood if it is not well fed. Even an apple, or a bit of cheese will help keep the humours balanced. You would not want to fall ill and have to rely upon the services of oldNorwoodthe Leech, now would you? He came to us with Mab and claims to be a fair barber and a drawer of teeth, but as to his leeching talents … we have not yet found a survivor to accredit them.”

A sad shake of the tousled brown mop of hair sent Servanne’s attention to a large, toothless toad of a man who was grinning at her from the lower tier and waving a dripping joint of mutton by way of acknowledging the compliments.

He had a red, leaky nose fully as broad as his face, and wore an apron of leather that had become so stained and encrusted, it was moulded to his body like armour.

“Perhaps … a bit of apple,” Servanne conceded.

Sparrow jumped up to stand on his stool so that he could reach the far side of the table. Quick as spit, there was a small collection of choice, tasty bits of meat, pastry, and other delicacies heaped on a freshly cut slab of white bread. This he placed in front of her and settled back onto his stool, his feet dangling several inches off the ground. He was aware, as was Servanne, of the smouldering gray eyes that had followed his every move, but if the threat of sudden flame troubled him, it was not reflected in his next piece of sage advice.

“The best way to stop a fly from annoying you is to stop swatting at him,” he said with a wink and an elfin grin. “Eventually it gets bored and flies away to pester someone else.”

There was wisdom in what he said, and, the fact that it caused the Wolf’s brows to furl together like the gathering clouds of a storm, prompted Servanne to breach her resolve to starve to death. She reached for a thin slice of capon and took the tiniest bite into her mouth. It was delicious, which made her stomach groan for a second morsel, then a third …

When her trencher was emptied, refilled, then emptied again, she unselfconsciously tore the gravy-soaked plate into bite-sized pieces and removed all evidence of its existence down to the last crumbs. Sparrow’s drinking cup had also ended up between them and she found the wine to be surprisingly fresh and full-bodied, of a far better quality than the vinegary possets that often graced the tables of wealthy nobles.

Mutter and Stutter, bowing to howled demands and flung food, took their leave of the table and, kicking aside the dogs who fought happily amid the crunch and snap of discarded bones, placed their stools in the bright glow of the fires and set their fingers to plucking out tunes on the lute and viol.

The food, the wine, the music cast a dreamy sense of unreality over everything. The fire sent gauntlets of orange and yellow flame leaping toward the blackness above. The enclosing stone walls formed a cavern of light and shadow that was almost cozy in its isolation.

Servanne could feel her eyelids growing heavier and heavier, the weight of her wimple beginning to pull her chin lower and lower onto her chest.

“So, my lady.” The Wolf’s sonorous tone brought her head up with a start. “You have supped on the king’s deer and prolonged your stay on earth awhile longer. You have also shown a remarkable restraint in the matter of the ransom I shall demand from your groom. Are you not curious to know the value of your life—or rather, what value your groom will place on your continued good health?”

Servanne sighed wearily, in no mood to take his bait.

“I am certain, whatever you have demanded, he will pay.”

“A true adherent to the codes of chivalry, is he? Gold spurs flashing, swords thrusting, damosels rescued from the clutches of evil at any cost? He sounds almost too good to be true.”

Servanne glared in silence.

“So, you have no doubt he will pay whatever I demand?”

“Have you?”

“Madam, I doubt everything and everyone—even my own good sense on occasion. It is a credo that has kept me alive while others have perished and turned to dust.”

“A pity you were not less insightful,” she murmured tartly, putting a deal of frost in her gaze before turning her attention back to the minstrels. “I have no doubt my stay here will be a short one.”

“One way or another,” he agreed smoothly. “Still, ten thousand marks is a goodly sum of coin.”

Servanne stiffened, then whirled to face him. “Ten thousand marks! Are you mad?”

“Are you afraid he will not part with that much silver?”

She released her breath on a gasp of exasperation. “If you are asking if Lord Lucien has the wealth to pay such an … an outrageous sum, the answer is yes. Ten times over.”

A dark brow arched inquisitively. “Then I should have demanded more?”

“No! I mean … no.” She stopped and chewed savagely on her lip. “Ten thousand is …”

“A fair test of his devotion?”

“Too much to expect a man to pay for—”

“A bride whose angelic disposition nearly overwhelms her vast inheritances? Tell me honestly—if you can do such a thing without compromising the staunch beliefs of your gender—have you not wondered what his motives were in seeking this union?”

“His motives!” Frustrated, Servanne clasped her hands into tight little fists and fought to keep her temper in check. “The purpose behind your aggravating persistence eludes me, sirrah. What is it exactly that you wish to know? Lord Lucien is a fine, noble gentleman—”

“Who loves you to the point of distraction and cannot bear to think of a prolonged separation.”

“A noble gentleman,” she reiterated furiously, “who—”

“Who wants something you have, and is willing to sacrifice his much prized freedom to get it.”

She flushed hotly. “There may have been some consideration given to the dowry, but—”

“My lady,” the rogue laughed outright. “You are far too modest. With what you bring into the marriage, you will turnLincolninto his small, private domain. A kingdom, if you will, with a dragon on the throne and a nest of serpents writhing at his feet, eager to do his bidding. Mind, it does you some credit to understand from the outset what he wants from you. Most women would be inclined to look no farther than the closest mirror to explain a sudden, pressing need for wedded bliss.”

“He will not suffer for his bargain,” she said archly.

“Spoken with true humility,” he grinned. “And for the sins of vanity and ignorance, you shall recite ten pater nosters to the good Friar.”

“You should be the one begging repentance,” she countered angrily. “For surely you traded your soul to the Devil long ago. As a Christian, I shall pray for your redemption.”

“Save your prayers for yourself, my lady. You will need them far more than I, whether the ransom is paid or not.”

Servanne gritted her teeth. “If you are threatening me, or endeavouring to frighten me—”

“My dear lady, I am not endeavouring to frighten you any more than you should be already. In truth, I would rather open your eyes to a few unpleasant facts.”

“By first demanding an outlandish ransom, then suggesting it will not be paid? How truly thoughtful of you, messire. Are you this considerate to all your hostages?”

“One or two have screamed quicker for mercy, but the methods improve with each outing.” He paused and his eyes were lured down to the moist pink arch of her lips. “Unless I am misinformed, you are Sir Hubert’s only surviving heir?”

“I do not see where that is a concern of yours.”

“There was a nephew,” he said, ignoring the sarcasm. “But I was told he had a fatal accident a few weeks back and fell on his own sword. Three times. Clumsy fellow, would you not say?”

This was the first she had heard of it and her silence caused the slate-gray eyes to fasten on to hers again.

“Moreover, you are an orphan yourself, are you not? As such, should you perish before another husband has been procured, all dower rights of inheritance revert by law to the crown, to be kept, sold, or dispersed as the king sees fit.”

“King Richard would never—”

“King Richard is away on his crusades,” the Wolf interrupted bluntly. “It would therefore fall to Prince John’s discretion, in his role as regent, to dispose of Sir Hubert’s properties and chattel. Of the two brothers, which one would you say had the greasier palms?”

“Prince John,” she whispered, intrigued despite herself, to see where this was leading.

“And of the two royal scions, who would have the most to gain by parceling out the late baron’s properties quickly and quietly, with as little fuss as possible?”

Prince John, she thought, temporarily chilled out of her anger and weariness. Acting on the king’s behalf and using the excuse that the funds raised would be going to finance the Lionheart’s crusades in theHoly Land, Sir Hubert’s estates could be divided and sold to interested bidders, with a portion of each sale discreetly ending up in the prince’s own coffers.

The Black Wolf was watching her reactions closely. “In the same vein, if I had a choice between paying out ten thousand marks ransom for a bride I had no desire to take in the first place … or to bide my time and pay a good deal less to buy only those estates I wanted …” He paused and shrugged his massive fur-clad shoulders. “I might be sorely tempted to let someone else do what my vaunted code of chivalry prevented me from doing myself.”

Servanne blanched, then sprang to her feet.

“Enough!” she cried, incensed beyond reason. “I will not sit here and endure such insults! Your logic is very sound, coming from a man who is both a traitor and a thief. I have no doubt you would choose the easier path to obtaining your goal, which only proves you are not who you claim to be. You are not Lucien Wardieu. You are not even a man! You are a corrupt and twisted shadow of a creature who has obviously decided that stealing a man’s identity and committing heinous crimes in his good name somehow satiates a petty need inside you to become more than what you are. You have no honour. You have no shame. I hope, nay, I pray for the real Lord Lucien to come into these woods and hunt you down! I pray he catches you and stakes you down on the ground, and leaves you there for the dogs and boars to chew away strip by bloody strip! Moreover, I pray … oh, how I do pray to be present when he does so, to have the privilege and immense pleasure of watching you die inch by gored inch!”

She stood there, her face flushed, her chest heaving with anger. Not only the outlaw leader, but every man within earshot of her outburst—which included nearly all present in the pilgrims’ hall—had stopped what they were doing to turn and stare.

The Wolf, in particular, was staring at the gleaming, jewelled eating knife she had snatched off the table and was holding in a clenched fist only inches from his nose. Half an eternity passed before he spoke, his tone silky, the words said with a quiet intensity that set off a roaring in her ears.

“I met Sir Hubert de Briscourt some years ago inFrance. A fearsome warrior on the battlefield, he brooked no insult from any quarter, servant or noble. It is a true wonder then, that in three years of marriage, he was not once driven to strangle you to death.”

Servanne’s lips were parted, the cool air giving ghostly substance to her rapid breaths. She stared down into eyes that were like banked fires, glowing and dangerous, apt to erupt at the merest provocation.

“Tut the knife down,” he instructed calmly. “Or use it.”

For a moment, her fingers tightened, and the knuckles glowed pinkish white. Then her senses cleared and her hand flexed reluctantly open, dropping the knife as if the hilt had suddenly become red hot. The sound shattered the absolute silence, releasing the tension everywhere but in the immediate area of the two principals. They continued to stare at one another over the resumed buzz of movement and conversation.

“Never, ever lift a knife to me again, madam, unless it is done with firm intent”—his voice was so low she could barely hear it—“for you will not be so lucky twice.”

Servanne believed him. Only a blind fool would doubt the savagery that lurked just behind the hooded, soulless eyes.

“You are despicable,” she said, the words tight in her throat. “I pray to God I do not live long enough to hate another human being as much as I hate you.”

“Sit down,” he commanded brusquely, “before the strain of all that prayer drains your strength and accomplishes your desire prematurely.”

“I have no wish to sit down, sirrah. Not now. Not ever.”

His jaw clamped ominously. “None at all?”

“None.”

“Very well, if that is your wish—” He stood abruptly, his patience snapped like a taut thread. “Sparrow!”

A meek corner of the pale, elfin face peeped around Servanne’s skirts. “Aye, my lord?”

“Have the table and stools cleared away. Lady Servanne will be remaining exactly where she is, by her own request. The night ahead promises to be a cool one, so by all means fetch a mantle and rug for the lady’s comfort, but under no circumstances is she to sit or lie down at any time without first seeking my express permission to do so. If she dares to attempt either, through stubbornness or feint, have her bound hand and foot and chained upright to the wall. Is that understood?”

“Scoundrel!” Biddy gasped. “Cad! Inhuman monster!”

The Black Wolf turned from the defiant sparkle in Servanne’s gaze to launch a particularly venomous glance at the spluttering matron.

“You may share your mistress’s discipline if you see fit. If not, you would be wise to remain in your chamber for the duration of the night lest you be mistaken for an intruder and shot out of hand. Gil! Friar! We have plans to discuss for the morrow. Ladies … I bid you a pleasant and comfortable evening.”

Servanne watched him skirt the table and stride across the firelit floor. Her body was trembling with anger; pride and obstinacy gave her the added strength to stand her ground and glare contemptuously at the sheepish ring of onlookers. She would stand there till hell froze, if she had to. Ask his permission? She would cut off her tongue and choke on it before grovelling to him or anyone else for favours. Ask his permission, indeed!

“Lady?”

A gentle tug on her surcoat drew Servanne’s blurred gaze down.

“Lady … he bears a heavy burden on his mind, does my lord. Aye, and at the best of times he has a temper that rankles most foul when pricked. It cools just as quickly, however, and I warrant he would be happy to reconsider if I went after him and—”

“The man who causes injury to a woman only shames himself,” she quoted stoically. “And, if he so injures her, she breaks his will more by refusing to bow to that shame.”

Sparrow’s eyebrows flew upward, losing themselves beneath the tumbled locks of his hair. Did she think the Wolf was a normal man?

“My lady,” he cautioned earnestly, “it is neither wise nor necessary to prove your will to be as strong as his. Many have tried; none have succeeded.”

“I have no wish to prove myself stronger, only to prove I am not easily broken.”

“Methinks he is well aware of that already,” Sparrow muttered, scratching furiously at a prickling sensation at the nape of his neck. “No one in my memory has had a voice left after raising it to him. As for the knife … dear oh dear, that was a sight to behold.”

“My lady …” Biddy began. “Perhaps young Woodcock is right. Perhaps you should—”

Servanne lifted a hand to silence her. “There is no point in two of us enduring the cold and damp, Biddy. My bones are a good deal younger than yours, and I am quite resigned to wait out this ruffian for as long as it takes. Go to your bed with a clear conscience, I would prefer to have you well rested for whatever new trials await us in the morning.”

Biddy clamped her hands together on her lap and swelled her bosom to prodigious proportions before pushing herself to her feet. “If you want me moved from this spot, you will have to have me dragged away by the heels! These decrepit old bones, as you think them, have a dole of life left in them yet, and shame to you for thinking so poorly of them and me in this time of tribulation! You! Woodcock!” She glared icicles at Sparrow. “Fetch those furs and mantle, and be quick about it. Bring the thickest pelts you can lay a hand to for my lamb to stand on, and a length of wool to wrap about her feet for warmth. Well? What are you waiting for: All Hallows Eve?”

The newly christened Woodcock planted his hands on his hips and looked as if he might balk at the chain of command. But a glance up into the sad and lovely eyes of the young demoiselle, who was fighting so bravely to choke back her tears, made him swallow his indignation and collect an assortment of blankets, furs, even a warm pair of mittens he had been hoarding in his own pack.

This done, he scampered off to his perch high on one of the undamaged wooden arches. From there he could look down over the entire cavernous refectory, seeing more than he was perhaps intended to see.

The Wolf was there, standing well back where the shadows were thickest and his presence not likely to be betrayed by the firelight. He stood as still as the stone wall he leaned against, and while Sparrow could not see his expression, he was mildly troubled by the suspicion that the wide brow would be frowning with perplexity.

In all the years they had been together—ten now since the Wolf had rescued him from a nightmare world of freak shows and fairgrounds—Sparrow had rarely seen him display anything but bored deference to the women who, more often than not, chased after him with their skirts raised and their eyes wanting. He was no fool to refuse what was so readily and eagerly offered; some he had even liked well enough to remember their names in the morning.

But this was strange. Very strange indeed. Prior to the widow’s appearance at the supper table, the plan had not changed from its original conception. She was a hostage and hostages were fair game, especially when there were old scores to be settled. Rape, forced marriage, even mutilation was not unexpected in most cases of rivalry and revenge, and the Wolf had given serious contemplation to each of the three options at one point or another.

At the very least he should have boxed her ears a dozen times throughout the afternoon and evening. The fact he had not even touched her … ! Well, it was too much for Sparrow’s tired head to support.

Yawning against the lull of heat and smoke that remained trapped under the dome of the roof, Sparrow settled more snugly into his nest of furs and let the hypnotic effects of the dying fires spare him the burden of further puzzles to solve.

 

 

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