Lady Thief
Author:Rizzo Rosko

Chapter One

Hampshire, Autumn 1311

Somewhere in the Royal Forest

Lord William Gray struggled against his kidnappers, but the hands pressing him to his knees were like iron. Ropes squeezed his wrists behind his back and the cloud of dust that wafted upward under his weight made him choke.

He did not know these men, and not one of them could match his strength individually, but together the half dozen of them held him easily. His face burned with anger.

Now more than ever he wished he’d never put his sword away those years ago and let his skills rust like they did. His laziness had put him in this position.

He struggled to calm himself and regain any dignity he could. “I am Lord Gray, I demand to know your names. Why have you abducted me?”

Had he vexed anyone recently? No one came to mind, no one who would go to these lengths for revenge, at any rate, and he could only assume they were common thieves. They were certainly not dressed as noblemen, but their shoes and breeches were in well enough condition, if a little old and faded, for them to be poor enough to resort to such actions.

They brought him to a dilapidated church. Tumbledown pews provided a home for moss and insects which were highlighted by the lit candles that barely won the battle against the dark. This was not a random act.

The men grinned, some exposing yellowing teeth, or no teeth at all, and nudged each other.

“We don’ know why the lady wants ye, but she’s paying us a wealthy sum to not ask no questions.” The smallest one of the group said. The man had overly large front teeth and smelled as if he slept with the pigs and looked very much as if he would rather be with them than in this church with William.

Despite the insult of ignoring his command for names, it took some seconds for the man’s words to sink in. Surely they made a mistake.

A lady?

William softened his voice. He would make no mention of it. He did not want to be on his knees with a gaping expression on his face with men who might murder him on a whim.

Best to flatter them. “But you do know, do you not? This lady of yours would have to have a higher than normal intelligence to hire such capable men.”

Their attack had been quick, precise, and planned. But before he was captured a tingled warning crawled up his spine. His hand had naturally wrapped around the handle of the blade he carried, but before he could pull it from its leather sheath he was ambushed and pulled from his horse and dragged to the ground while hands forced his arms to twist tightly behind his back.

His horse had bucked under the sudden onslaught of men, but a resounding smack on his rear had sent him charging into the woods.

While they busied themselves incapacitating him, he made sure to look at the exposed faces of every man in the church.

They kidnapped him without bothering to properly conceal their faces in the sunlight. Whoever this lady was, she must have been desperate to trust such people, and foolish to not take the proper precautions before carrying out her plan. Which brought him back to the question of why someone would pay for his kidnapping.

The buck-toothed one did not take kindly to having his secrets weeded out. He stood before William in an act of confident mockery, his short body towering over William’s kneeling one. “Ye’re in a house of God, milord, what do ye think she wants ye fer?”

Before William could shout an indignant reply, the doors at the front of the church burst open, bringing with it the brisk, cool wind, autumn leaves and a flash of sunlight before the doors were quickly shut again. The hope of the light did not last but the fresh air reached him and he breathed deeply, a nice exchange for the damp and stale air of the old church.

The figures that entered were cloaked and hooded, but the hunched back and the brown color of the first cloak suggested an older man, while the straight-backed, bright blue-embroidered cloak wrapped around a taller, slimmer figure hinted of someone much younger and wealthier. The hoods they wore and dim candlelight made it impossible to distinguish any features save for the delicate hands of a woman folded in the trumpet sleeves of her gown.

They were slim and fair in color, devoid of any sign of work or wear. William imagined they would be soft to the touch. They clenched and unclenched nervously as her footsteps echoed towards him. William remained on his knees and had a vague sense of the lumbering fingers on his shoulders disappearing, but he did not try to rise to greet the lady, or to escape. All he could do was stare.

So this was the mysterious lady kidnapper.

His sense of duty prompted him to bow to her, even while on his knees with his hands miserably tied behind his back, but his pride and anger allowed him to give her nothing more than a nod of acknowledgment. “My lady.”

She gave a curt curtsy in return. “My lord.”

How odd, she managed to make his title sound insulting.

She lowered her hood, and, bereft of the proper headdress, revealed a shimmering tangle of windswept red hair, so bright it commanded his attention and he nearly forgot to look at her face.

He knew he needed a clear description of the woman who planned this crime so that he could hunt her down later. Not many young maidens possessed hair that particular shade of red. Why did he not recognize her?

Her eyes, cool grey windows with flecks of blue hiding in their depths, like the morning sky fighting to emerge after a battle with a storm, flickered with confusion before they raged. “Who tied his hands? Untie him this instant!”

Her face, peppered with freckles, flared to the same color red at her hair, and the buck-toothed man untied him.

Through his gentle movements William knew that while the red-haired woman was in their company, her servents replaced their confident personalities with humble dispositions.

William rubbed the tender crater that snaked into his skin from the biting ropes. He moved to lift himself to his feet but the men pressed him back to his knees, which he was sure were building similar bruising marks.

He glared at her and noted how she said nothing in his defense this time. She looked down at him with curiosity and anxiety glinting in her eyes, hiding herself behind crossed arms.

Seemed she liked him where he was, but was as uncomfortable with the situation as her band of kidnappers. William was tired of these inexplicable clues being thrown at him but grabbed at whatever was tossed his way.

Red-haired maidens were known for their fiery spirit, but he always laughed away the notion. Women were flighty and fickle, not brazen and rash. And now it seemed as if Fate laughed back at him in the form of such a woman for dismissing the idea.

Her cold smile was awkward, as though unused to using her lips in such a manner, and it made him puzzle over her further.

“Does your seat make you uncomfortable, my lord?”

He gritted his teeth. William would ensure he returned this humiliation in full, with added interest.

“Not at all, my lady.” A shudder crept up her cloak. He smiled with pleasure at the small discomfort he was able to inflict.

She was quick to compose herself. “May I inquire as to what age you are?”

The question rocked him on his knees, but he answered her anyway. “Six and thirty, my dear, and since you find no qualm about asking my age, may I ask yours?”

By the look of her he guessed her to be just above twenty, but he could not pinpoint an exact number.

Her face reddened again, her arms tightening in their crossed position, and she looked away from him. “Nay, you may not.”

William clenched his jaw at her audacity but held his tongue in check because of their current differences in position. He held the kneeling position while hers was one of power. For now.

After silently studying him with a finger on her chin, she approached, her shoes loudly clicking in the disintegrating church. Candlelight danced on her skin. She had the air of a victorious warrior.

She stared down at him, and he stared back, unblinking and daring her to make her next move. She shocked him by offering her hand.

He took her smaller hand into his larger one, her skin soft against his rough hands, and he squeezed. She did not flinch but dug her nails into his flesh in a warning response, and he found himself secretly pleased, though he refused to soften his grip and locked his eyes with her. They were challenging and unwilling to move an inch in their silent exchange.

She broke the silence. “Well?”

He cocked his head, his expression a flicker of confusion. “Well what?”

“You are on your knees, I am here, and this is a church. You may ask me to marry you now.”