Lady Thief
Author:Rizzo Rosko

Chapter Fourteen





William led the search for Marianne when James was dragged into the great hall, bleeding from the head and unconscious, but alive.

The search lasted barely an hour before the boy awoke, sent a servant girl to fetch his lord, and told them the identity of his attacker.

William swam in rage. “Where is Robert! I want him found now!”

Archer, who had aided in the search, looked crestfallen. “Her ladyship told me to go to Molly, said she would stay until Robert returned.” He shook his head, clutching his hair. “I should not ‘ave left. Should not ‘ave left.”

Letting the man feel his guilt was punishment enough. “‘Tis of no consequence now.” William said.

One of his men at arms called to him. “Milord, I was stationed atop the outer gate earlier. Robert left here with a horse and cart.”

William whirled on the man. Rage renewed. “You allowed him to pass?”

The older man reddened under his graying beard. “The sun had not completely set. I saw no reason not to. The man said he was off to ‘is brother’s farm to bring more grain for the horses.”

William could barely contain himself. “Robert has no brother!”

Hugh put a hand on his shoulder. The small act reminded him that he was lord of this castle and as such, his men turned to him for their guidance. Their faults, intentional or naught, where his own, and should Marianne be frightened, or in pain, ‘twas his own damn fault.

William took a breath, forcing calm into him. “What was in the cart? Did ye see anything?”

The man’s eyes were wild as he struggled to think. “‘Twas darkening outside, I only saw ‘im. I saw nothing in the cart and paid it no mind.”

“Nothing?” William tried desperately to ignore his pounding heart.

Hugh scratched his chin. “So for all we know, he has killed her already and hidden her before making off.”

“She is not dead!” William refused to believe that she could be laying someplace cold, dying and waiting for him to come to her, or already dead.

He grabbed the man’s chain mail and tunic in his fists, pulling until they were nose to nose. “There must be something else! Something you missed!”

Hugh did not stop him while he handled the older knight, but Bryce did speak up.

“Yer quite sure there was naught in the cart. No jugs, sacs, blankets—”

“Now—now that you mention it, sir,” the knight said. “I believe there was a horse blanket.”

William nearly laughed. “A horse blanket?”

The man did not hear William’s sarcasm. “Aye, ‘twas spread out inside the cart. I thought I saw shadows in it but told myself ‘twas only the gloom caused by rumples in the blanket and nightfall.”

William released him, calmer solutions taking shape. “Were they long shadows, long enough to be the height of a woman?”

He shook his head. “Nay, ‘twas why I paid them no mind.”

William would not give up. “He could have put her under the blanket, counting on the night to further disguise her as it did. She could have been folded closely into herself, unconscious or…”

“Dead,” Said Bryce.

William ignored him but turned to his friends. “He has no family, and it would not be below Ferdinand to have hired Robert to take her. She still lives.”

Nicholas, always optimistic, was the first to mention the flaw. “How would Ferdinand have contacted him? Someone would have noticed messengers coming from Ferdinand’s castle.”

“And even Robert must know that it would take days to get there. He would be surely be caught. Why the risk?” Asked Hugh.

William shook his head, seeing what they did not. “Ferdinand is staying at Marianne’s old home. ‘Tis just under a day’s ride from here. And if Robert thought he had killed James he would have known I would have searched the entire castle for her before moving elsewhere. That would give him more than enough time to reach his destination and collect his reward.”

Even as he babbled his beliefs, he was moving around his men, towards the stables where Benedict awaited. He would not waste time having new shoes put on the horse for the ride, and William called orders to have every man suited up.

“We have already wasted hours! We must be off immediately.” He did not need to tell Archer to have his horse ready as the man already ran ahead to see it done.

“I will go with you.” Hugh said, catching up and striding alongside him. Nicholas and Bryce caught up as well. Shockingly, even Blaise.

“If ye say she lives, then we will fight with ye until we see otherwise,” said Bryce.

“She lives.” ‘Twas Blaise who spoke, a grudging respect in his voice. “My hot-headed step-mother would never allow herself to be killed by a serf.”

William allowed himself a moment to be warmed by their words before returning to the task at hand.

Then he realized it had been years since he’d fought a battle, and not all of his weapons would be in good condition.

“I want every spare man and squire armed and on a horse. I doubt there will be enough weapons so the rusted ones from the armory will have to be used as well.”

“There are no rusted weapons.” Blaise said.

William stopped to look at him. “What happened to them?”

“The armory was one of the places Marianne visited while on her mission to better your castle. She made certain the men had no sleep until they sanded every last blade clean of rust.”

Love swelling in his chest, William set off for his wife.

***

William and every man available to him shot out of the stables. They rode hard until needing to slow their pace for the sake of the horses.

Hours passed, the snow fell in heavy clumps and covered the frozen earth. It prevented any chance of searching for tracks to confirm if Robert was even going where William thought he was.

“Milord,” Said Hugh. “I do not think they came this way.”

“Even before the snow there were no cart trails or horse tracks.” Blaise said unhelpfully, still gazing down at the ground as though searching for tracks through the white.

William continued to ride, his pace at an even trot so Benedict might catch his breath for the next burst of speed. He inwardly promised the horse plenty of rest, water, oats, and even a mare as long as he brought him to where William needed to go.

William had to agree with them, but could not bring himself to believe that Robert was not taking Marianne to Ferdinand. “Aye, Robert must have found another way to Ferdinand’s manor. He could not take the cart off the road and through the woods, nor would he abandon it. There must have been another way.”

“A shorter path?” Nicholas asked.

William nodded. “Which means there is even less time than we all thought.”

With that he kicked Benedict into speed again.

***

When Marianne gazed upon the lonely walls of her home for the first time in two months, she did not feel as delighted to see it as she once thought she would.

The heavy snowfall and grey sky aged the house, made it tired and unfamiliar, but only because she knew that another man owned it.

Robert drove the cart to the stables. No one familiar to Marianne came into view, and even though she made no effort to hide her tied hands, no one came to her aid.

When inside, she immediately noted the change in the smell. What had once been familiar to her, a constant reminder of her brother’s love when her father was too caught up in his games, now smelled of Ferdinand’s cruelty.

The walls were bare and stripped of everything of value her father spared when he paid her dowry, giving off the appearance of emptiness. Marianne could not help but think that the lack of objects suited Ferdinand’s hollow-hearted nature.

This was no longer the place she had played in as a child, nor was it where she wished to be. She wished to be in her real home with William. Even a shouting match with Blaise would be preferable to this.

When they reached the house, a servant Marianne did not recognize was sent to fetch Ferdinand. Like the men and women working outside, the servants inside seemed not to notice or care that her hands were bound in front of her, or that Robert continued to push her along.

Despite his eagerness to be rid of her, he made what could be a genuine effort to soothe her. “I would not fret, milady. Sir Ferdinand is old and will pass into the next world soon, until then, being his mistress will not be such a horrible thing.”

William’s words of Ferdinand’s liking for sexual torture came back to haunt her. Even if they had not, she knew Robert’s attempt would have been wasted on her.

She was no one’s mistress.

“Fool!”

Marianne and Robert shot their heads up to the source of the hateful voice. Ferdinand stood at the peek of the stairs, his gnarled hands clenching the rail and staring down with stunned fury directed at Marianne.

“What is she doing here? Why are her hands tied?”

Marianne relished his confusion. He could punish Robert and send her on her way and she would never have to think of this horrible experience again.

He descended the stairs at a speed she would not have thought possible of him. When he reached the bottom, he came towards them both and glared up at Marianne before turning his monstrous stare to Robert. Though Robert was taller, sir Ferdinand’s face and horrid stare prompted Robert to look at anything but the man in front of him.

Robert opened his mouth, stunned by his welcome. “I…I,” He cleared his throat and gathered his courage. “I have brought Marianne Holton here for your pleasure, milord.”

Ferdinand barked a laugh. “Lord? You must have hopes that your flattery will save you. What makes you presume I want her?”

Robert’s grip on her arm tightened, and Marianne felt his pulse quicken in his grip. “I overheard sir Holton mumbling to himself of the reward you offered him should he bring her here. Since he has failed I have taken his place and wish to collect what he could not.”

Ferdinand’s back stiffened, and he eyed Marianne with cold interest. There was a promise in his eyes, a promise to himself. Whatever it may be could not be good, for it brought chills to her flesh, and she tried to move away. Robert halted her with a jerk on her arm.

“I see,” said Ferdinand.

Robert sputtered. “Lord Gray does not know I have taken her, not so soon, and when he discovers what I have done I will be away with the reward you will pay. He will never know she is here.”

Robert did not see the men who surrounded them while he tried to sell her. Marianne did. Ferdinand signaled one of them with a small movement of his head.

Marianne felt a splash of warm blood spread across the back of her neck.

She shrieked and stumbled away, slapping the wetness away. But now she had it soaking her hands, which was far worse.

She spun to look at Robert, who held the spurting wound in his throat. The man holding the dagger used Robert’s tunic to clean the blood from the blade before Robert fell to the floor.

Marianne’s face ran cold at the sight. She had never seen a man killed before, and the sight would forever haunt her nightmares.

She looked down at her bound hands, covered in his drying blood, and she felt as dizzy as she had been when he strangled her. Her knees wobbled.

Ferdinand sneered at the body. “Clear that away!”

He gestured for his men to step back, Marianne was pulled along with them. Several more servants she did not recognize scurried forth and in clean motions wrapped Robert’s body and spilling blood in old blankets while the others scrubbed and washed the floor.

They carried him out, and the women cleaning the floor left with them. All that remained was the wet, circular spot which would soon dry. ‘Twould be as though a man had not been killed at all. The only proof being the blood still cooling on Marianne.

Ferdinand turned his eyes towards her, but they were no longer hard and sneering. Now they were cold and dissecting. That alone made her squirm.

Marianne swallowed and, refusing to show him weakness, yanked herself free of the man who held her upright. She held her bloody hands still, now knowing that the cruel scent she picked up when she came into the house was in fact death. “Ye will send me home now?”

He shook his head. “I think not, Milady.”

Panic ripped through her. “But ye have killed my captor! There is no reason to keep me now that you have set me free!”

He waved a boney finger at her. “Ah, but you have heard him claim that I sent your father to Graystone to retrieve you. I cannot simply send you on your way knowing that.”

Marianne felt more hands grabbing her arms, pulling her away. “William will come for me! He will see to it that you pay for this you filthy pig!”

Ferdinand did not lift an eye at her insult, he touched her cheek with leathery fingers and purred. “Presuming he knows you are here, milady.” He looked at the men holding her. “Take her to my chamber, I shall be there shortly.”

Marianne fought and kicked the men grabbing her. She shrieked and a large hand held her mouth shut. She bit the hand hard enough to draw blood, but they still refused to release her.

Ferdinand’s men dragged her into a room and with a brutal shove threw her to the floor. She struggled to her feet and tried to follow them but they slammed the door of Ferdinand’s bedchamber in her face, locking it behind them.

***

She waited, twisting her hands in an effort to loosen the ropes, and then tried to wash away the blood which itched her skin in Ferdinand’s old basin. Some rinsed away, most did not. With her hands tied, they were nearly useless, and she could not scrub it all away.

She checked the closed shudders but they would not open.

Marianne circled the room, searching in the large chest in the chamber and under the bed, but found only strange leather straps and clips of a kind she had never seen before. They looked like something with which a man might use to tie a horse. A very small horse.

A shiver twisted through her fingers and up her back, and she had to drop the offending objects.

A commotion outside the chamber had her whirling towards the door, waiting with a beating heart for her new captor.

The door opened, only enough for her father to come inside.

He greeted her with a smile and a finger to his lips. “I said I would only be a few moments.”

Anger coursed through her, but she did not get the chance to demand an explanation. He grabbed her by the arms and silenced her with the sharpest look she had ever seen on his face.

His fingers travelled to her bindings. While he untied her wrists she puzzled over his old and worn clothes. Stains and holes littered his tunic, his hands were filthy and calloused. Not even her lowliest servants had ever been forced to wear such rags.

Her anger melted away as shock took over. “Father, what happened to you?”

“I should be asking that of you.” He held her bloody hands tenderly and touched her swelling neck with a gentle finger.

“‘Tis not my blood. Where are your garments?”

“There is no time, come with me.”

He pulled her to the tall fireplace where the fire burned low from lack of attention. Her heart and lungs nearly burst when he stepped inside and disappeared around the corner.

The sound of stones scraping over each other had her stepping closer. “Father?”

He peaked his head out and held his hand for her. “Watch your gown.”

She was careful of the fire she stepped around. To her shock inside the fire pit was a small doorway in the stone slab!

“What is this?”

“My father had this built to protect himself should he be attacked. It leads outside. Ferdinand does not know of it.”

Marianne followed him through, trusting even when he closed the stone door behind them and their light was completely shut out.

***

Ferdinand went to the solar that was now his to prepare. There were special items he hid there for his use whenever he was fortunate enough to have a lady in his bed.

He hid them in the solar, in chests along the halls of the house, and there were even a few items in the kitchen, because he did not believe in restricting his activities to his bedchamber. He’d tried that once, and the games quickly became dull.

This way, he would always be prepared, and though he’d not lived in Holton’s house for very long, he’d still planned ahead. Marianne was in his chamber, for now. He’d take her in here later. He’d have her all over this house, and then do the same at his castle.

Despite the foolishness of the servant for bringing the girl to him, Ferdinand was quite pleased with the turn of events. He had grown far too used to the idea of simply giving up on her when Holton returned to him empty handed but for the few useless trinkets he’d stolen from Graystone.

Just the memory of that insolence was enough to make him clench his aging fist. Yet, despite his anger, he allowed the man to live, and relished seeing him toil as a servant in his own home.

It was beautiful because Holton had insisted on it, just for the purpose of seeing the graves of his sons. A small pleasure that would have been out of his reach had Ferdinand decided to throw him from the property.

Ferdinand unclenched his hands and stared at them. Thick veins protruding from thin hands with bulging knuckles.

There was a time when he would never have had to resort to such measures to snare a mistress for himself. They would have flocked to him, fought for him, and come to his bed willingly and wept when he finally threw them away. And he enjoyed sending them away when he finished with them.

But as he aged, the numbers of his women dwindled until ‘twas he seeking out the beautiful maidens, seeking them out until they finally would not have him.

Marianne’s attempt to free herself of her marriage to him had been one insult too many, and tonight he would bed her and she would know what it meant to insult Bartholomew Ferdinand.

The sound of thundering hooves distracted him from his thoughts, and he went to the window.

His eyes widened at the sight of William Gray dismounting from his horse, along with what could easily pass for a small army.

Ferdinand flew from the solar towards his bedchamber, calling out orders.

That fool! He was glad he’d killed that idiot because William did know what the servant had done and he came for his wife! Ferdinand needed to move her! Hide her! If she stayed where she was he would be killed!

He came upon the doors to his temporary chamber, satisfied to find both men he sent with her still guarding the doors.

“You,” He called, they both stood straighter. “Bring her to the kitchens, tie her feet, her mouth, and blindfold her eyes if need be when you hide her in the pit. Lord Gray cannot know she is here.”

The pit was a tool that was sure to fit Marianne nicely. A small hole in the ground with a trap door used for keeping food cool in the warmer seasons. The risk of Gray finding her remained, but ‘twas the best spot for the moment.

The guards opened the doors for him to enter his chamber, prepared to carry out his orders. But when Ferdinand stepped inside, he stopped dead. No woman stood in this room, no one at all, and the ropes that had tied her wrists together lay uselessly on the floor.

***

Ferdinand made another show of inching down the stairs, much to William’s irritation, his hand held against his lower back as he came to greet the army at his door.

“Milord,” He said, nodding his head slightly. “To what do I owe the unexpected honor?”

William did not pretend to believe the lie. “Where is Marianne?”

Ferdinand tilted his head. “I would assume she would be safe at your keep.”

William narrowed his eyes. He knew she was here, there would be no other safe place for Robert to bring her. Bryce spotted cart tracks as they came upon the house. They could belong to none other than the cart Robert had stolen.

Bryce whispered to him. “Milord, the men,”

William looked around. Bryce was not referring to their own men, but to Ferdinand’s.

Many stepped forward, standing around open doorways or atop the stairs, their hands on their weapons, all staring down mistrustfully.

“We outnumber them,” William said, returning his attention to Ferdinand, who stood much straighter now.

William drew his sword. So did all the men under Ferdinand’s employment. The slide of their blades echoing in the spacious room.

William’s men inside the house did the same, and he heard the draw of their weapons as well.

“I’ll not ask you again!” He could hardly contain his anger, though he knew there would be no honor in killing an old man.

Ferdinand raised his disfigured hands and signaled for his men to put away their weapons. “As I have said, milord, your wife is not here. You are, of course, welcome to search the house if it would please you.”

“Aye,” William sheathed his weapon. “It would.”

***

Marianne’s father struggled with the stone above their heads until he managed to slide it aside. Cold air assaulted Marianne’s face and the falling snow disoriented her. ‘Twas falling thicker now than before.

Holton helped her out of the hole she was in. After seeing the headstones, Marianne recognized herself to be in the family graveyard.

She stared at the stone belonging to the hole they had climbed out from. ‘Twas the old stone with the faded letters. Whenever she had asked of it her father never gave a proper answer of which relative it was. Now she knew why.

Her eyes sought out the stones of her brothers, and she sighed when she found them unharmed. Even the stone of Justin, who had died before she was born, was untouched.

“I thought he would have destroyed them.”

Holton struggled to return the stone to its place, also sparing them a glace before taking her hand. “I have seen to it that he has not.”

Marianne jerked her hand away. Now that they were safe she felt Robert’s betraying words coming back to her. “Is this why you came to Graystone? Hoping that selling me would spare their graves?”

He gave her a pleading look. “I thought I was able to do it, but betraying you in life would have been no better than betraying them in death. I could not do what Ferdinand asked of me, so I took what I could and sold myself to him.”

Marianne touched Reggie’s stone, brushing the snow from it as if dusting a precious heirloom. Dead for nearly eight years but it seemed only yesterday he’d fallen from his horse. The pain of losing her brothers erased her anger with her father.

“You could not save them in life, so you tried in death.”

She looked at him, at the filthy clothing he wore, recognized what he had risked to save her from Ferdinand’s chamber, and she forgave him.

She hugged him. Holton tensed as her arms wrapped around his body before putting his arms around her.

For the first time in years, Marianne felt his love.

He lifted her face. “We will have to be quick now if we are to get you back to Graystone before Ferdinand finds that you are missing.”

Marianne opened her mouth to agree whole heartedly when she heard something unfamiliar. She moved away from Holton and began climbing the small hill that shielded her and her father from the view from the house.

“Marianne! Stop!” Her father hissed, but she paid him no mind as she peeked over the hilltop and gasped at the sight.

Knights, men-at-arms, and squires, hundreds of them, stood patiently waiting outside the former Holton manor.

Marianne’s heart beat faster. Those men were not there when she arrived.

Happiness consumed her. “William came for me.”

“What? I heard that servant speaking to Ferdinand. He said Lord Gray would not think to come here for a while yet.”

Marianne shook her head. She didn’t know how he had known to come so quickly. Robert had ridden the cart at a leisurely pace through his hidden path. William must have run the horses nearly to death to catch up with her the long way.

Then she spotted him. Through the fog of falling snow, James sat with a stiff back on his horse, a wrap around his head and a surly look on his red face. Robert hadn’t killed him after all.

“We have to go down there!”

Holton grabbed her arm to stop her, but she pulled and dragged him along.

“Are ye certain those men are here for ye?” Holton asked, still resisting but moving along with her.

“Aye, yes, of course! ‘Tis James, and there is Blaise right there!” She never thought she would be so happy so see him.

Holton, satisfied, ran with her as Marianne clasped his hand in her own.