Lady Thief
Author:Rizzo Rosko

Chapter Nine





William did not sleep that night. Despite his claim that he would take his wife to bed and have her, he had business to attend to a day’s ride from his castle. Bringing Marianne along for a possible romp was not a possibility. Should he have brought her strictly for her company on a road thick with muddy craters from the recent rains and oncoming cold, she would only be as uncomfortable and irritable as himself.

Highly unsuitable for loving.

He’d been eager to finally have her and expose her to the secrets of the bed, and after so long of torturing himself only to go without again brought an ache into his loins that was difficult to ignore.

When Benedict came to a much needed stop in front of the vast house that had once belonged to sir Holton, sir Ferdinand himself stood waiting outside the colorless structure.

Ferdinand approached William with a number of armed men, and he took notice of his mood as he stepped down from his horse.

The man’s eyes traveled up and down William’s tired form and wrinkled clothes as though searching for weaknesses to exploit. The aging eyes predictably stopped at the hilt of William’s sword, and then finally took notice of the men William had brought with him, which was hint enough for Ferdinand to take his eyes away.

“Milord,” Ferdinand nodded to him, “You will forgive me for not bowing, but with my back and all—”

William let Robert take the horses to the stables, several of his knights followed to protect those horses along with the valuables packed.

Despite how unapologetic Ferdinand was in his voice and manner, he overlooked the insult in favor of a speedy bargain and retreat.

“Yes, yes. I am not staying here long, I have business with you.” William made no effort to mask the hostility in his voice, his hand resting on the handle of his blade. He would have liked to stay and play the bothersome houseguest for the sheer amusement of it had he not thought for sure the man in front of him would poison his wine.

William prayed that Ferdinand had not sold off all the servants yet.

Ferdinand nodded his head and made a show of turning slowly back towards the house, keeping a long wrinkled hand on his lower back for support William was sure he did not need.

His voice bellowed strong when he commanded the men with him. “Back to your posts, all of you!”

William certainly had never seen servants or men at arms move so quickly, not even at his own keep now that Marianne was there to keep them in place.

He mumbled jealously under his breath and followed, walking at an equally sluggish pace beside him and wishing to be anywhere else. Though he did make a point to walk with a straight back and not offer his assistance to the seemingly feebly old man.

“Now, business you say? Pray, what business could you possibly have with an old man like me?” Ferdinand turned his face to him, leaving William unsure if the man sneered or ‘twas the expression that came with having a face of a gnarled tree.

William folded his hands behind his back, preparing to barter for what he wanted. “Aye, I wish to purchase some of the servants that came into your possession.”

“Oh? Your timing could be better, milord. I sold many already.”

William forced his expression to remain professional. He wanted to purchase the servants and get out, but if Ferdinand decided to be difficult that could ruin his plan of a hasty retreat.

“I only require a select few.”

He could not purchase all the servants of the former Holton House, or even all the men who participated in his abduction, but he could retrieve the families of the men currently in his care.

A woman stationed at the doors opened them when Ferdinand and William arrived at the steps, and despite how Ferdinand continued to walk in the manner of a man about to fall over, William was aware of how all heads turned down at his approach, and how no one came to aid him while he walked so weakly.

The man had not been this fragile when he attended the wedding party those weeks ago.

Ferdinand stopped before the doors to his new home, turned, and raised an eye at the men who followed William.

“I would prefer if your men remained waiting here.”

William controlled his jaw into remaining neutral at the order barely disguised as a request, though he could not convince his hand to not clench like it did.

The man was trying to vex him.

He nearly told Ferdinand that he would prefer that his men stayed with their lord, but knew that should he retaliate Ferdinand could simply not sell him what he wished to buy, and there would be naught at all William could do about it.

Ferdinand took his silence as an answer, his smile twisting his sagging features. “Unless, milord, that you fear an elderly man so greatly that you require protection?”

‘Twas not the elderly man William feared would sneak up on him with a blade, and he did not doubt for a minute that should he enter Ferdinand’s territory with no protection he would surely suffer a fatal accident, as was known to happen with some of the people in Ferdinand’s acquaintance. William spun on his men. “All of you, wait for me in the stables, James, you will come with me.”

The smile was removed from Ferdinand’s mouth, and his face returned to the natural scowl that was his face. “I suppose one man will not hurt anything.”

“James is not yet knighted, and as you and I both know ‘tis incredibly foolish to go anywhere without a man to watch your back. Unless you have something to fear from a squire.”

Though he was an incredibly talented squire, Ferdinand did not need to be subjected to that information.

Ferdinand sniffed, leading the way into the house. “Very well.”

He expected the house to be considerably warmer than the outside, but not a fire crackled anywhere. The hall was entirely silent but for the sound of easy footsteps while William and Ferdinand trailed mud into the house. Beyond that William detected no sounds of maids conversing with each other as they did the laundry or children laughing.

Ferdinand easily put one leg in front of the other while leading them up the stairs, his pace becoming stronger as he forgot to play the feeble old man with their conversation, but his hand never left his back.

“How many were you hoping to purchase, milord?”

“As I said, only a few. Three.”

“So few? I would have thought your new lady would have you coming to me to rescue the entire lot from my inadequate care.” He smiled that same sneering smile over his shoulder. “But then your care has not been much better for some time now, has it?”

William focused as much fire as possible into his eyes when he stared into Ferdinand’s. He should have known the man would be petty enough to remind him of this, as well as insinuating that he knew exactly what had caused William’s long lapse in judgment. He shook his head and made the decision to not allow Ferdinand the pleasure of seeing him flustered. “As I said, only three.”

Ferdinand looked predictably affronted that William would not rise to the insult, as well as he could not take more money from William’s pockets before allowing him, and reluctantly his squire, into his temporary solar.

Just like William’s, the writing table sat at the far end, under the tall window and facing East for the best light. No rushes lay under his feet, or stools for visitors, and on the writing table lay several pieces of parchment and an ink bottle.

William sniffed and noted to himself that the maids must not be allowed to enter here for cleaning. The room smelled of urine, and glancing behind him, the sour expression on James’s face told him that he recognized the scent as well.

“Not much left,” Ferdinand moved towards the table, seemingly oblivious of the smell or merely choosing to allow them to breathe it in anyway. “But it serves its purpose for however long I need to be here until I make the sale.”

“You could do that from your own estate. You always have before.” William raised his hand to pinch his nose, but realizing his actions at the last minute he scratched it instead. James made no effort to hide his disgust and openly held his nose with both hands. William did not reprimand him.

Ferdinand waved his boney hand dismissively and sat down, leaving William to stand.

William glared at him. The old man knew perfectly well that their stations provided William with the only seat.

Ferdinand gave him a smile that was more gloating than apologetic. “My old bones…”

“Aye, now to the servants I wish to purchase, there are two women, one Hawisa and the other Molly and her son. That is all.”

Ferdinand cocked his head. “You traveled all this way for that? Two women and a boy?” A light flashed in his eyes when the answer came. “I see, the servant Holton came to you with his tail between his legs and the one he gave you previously.”

William’s jaw clenched. He hoped the old man would not put it in place.

He expected him to deny the sale for the sheer pleasure of it, instead he pulled a single slip of parchment towards him and, instead of using a scribe, wrote down some figures himself, sanded the ink, and held out the parchment for William to inspect.

The figure he read made him crush and slam the parchment back onto the wooden surface.

“‘Tis four times the amount they’re worth!” He roared. The sound magnified in the small space and William was certain the serfs out in the fields heard him.

Ferdinand eyed the ruined parchment with a hint of disdain but a smirk twisted his lips. “The boy is still a boy, but he will grow into a man far more capable than two women. I must take that into account.” He looked up and stared hard at William. “And I must say, my lord, that I am still sore over the loss of my would-be wife. I shall not pretend that I do not take some enjoyment in this. That is my price. It will stay as such, and if you do not wish to have them then you must be on your way. Not even a man of your status can tell me how to price my wares.”

This time William could not help but show his displeasure, his shaking fists and clenched teeth were more than enough to tell the man what he thought of him.

He towered above Ferdinand, willing the other man to back down but he glanced up at him with the air of a man who had not a care in the world.

His heel twitched to turn and walk out the door, but denying Ferdinand all of that money would hardly count as a win for him considering he would still have the servants he knew William wanted for Marianne.

Finally, William grumbled and accepted the price. Ferdinand was right, William had traveled all that way and Ferdinand knew he would not return empty handed, regardless of the price he’d set upon the servants.

Marianne had best be grateful for this act. Thought William as he dragged the parchment back to him, signed his name and went to retrieve the monies to pay Ferdinand with.

***

Marianne waited for William’s return with an anticipation she could not hide. She was sure she knew where William had gone, as well as the reason despite his evasiveness on the hours before his departure.

Her husband had a soft heart, especially with his servants, and Marianne could not believe that he had gone away to simply not return with Hawisa and Molly.

She could not bring herself to share her thoughts with Clovis or Archer in case she was mistaken, but since she was forced to live in the same castle as her father, she told him of her suspicions while they breakfasted by themselves and away from the servants. Something that William rarely did despite the fireplace in their chamber.

Her father nearly spit out his ale with laughter.

“The man has more servants than he knows what to do with, why else would half of them be lazing about like they are?”

Marianne muttered and crossed her arms. Some servants still outright refused to do their jobs, but definitely not as much as half.

“He’s bringing them back,” She argued more to herself than to him. She already planned on having them help her convince the other maids to start pulling their weight. Hawisa had a scream that rivaled Marianne’s, and Molly’s nimble fingers made her very quick with her work. She could teach the sluggish women here a thing or two about working faster.

“And, did his lordship tell you of this?” Holton did not bother to look at her while lifting his goblet to his lips. When William left his castle her father had taken the liberty of making himself more than comfortable with his new lodgings, which included helping himself to as much wine as he wished.

The question, and his manner, prompted Marianne into a standing rage. “He is not a greedy toad like you! He will do it!”

And she had been correct.

Marianne clasped her hands together over her mouth and watched with barely suppressed joy as Archer kissed his wife and held his small son to his chest, Clovis doing the same while Hawisa wept openly in his arms, her feet not touching the earth beneath her since Clovis lifted her and appeared in no mood to put her down.

Pleasure and envy swirled through her blood, pleasure for their reunion and envy over how joyful and filled with love it was.

Molly melted in the presence of her husband, keen on touching his face and keeping their noses close together, the boy latched to his father’s neck, his feet did not yet reach Archer’s waist and between the three of them he had a much calmer disposition than his parents.

Marianne looked at William, he had a curious look similar to hers on his face. As if sensing her study of him, he turned and their eyes met briefly before he turned away.

He quickly sent an order to Robert to return the horses to their stalls but the man was already moving.

It could be the same for us. She thought, but then dismissed the idea as quickly as it had come to her. William felt lust for her and naught else.

The realization brought a sharp pain in her chest. Marianne became aware of the hard beating of her heart and the heat in her cheeks.

This beating was different from the other times when she was overly excited with anger, this beating represented something entirely different that she had never before experienced. And she shocked herself with the notion that she might know exactly what it was.

She covered the area above her heart with her palm, willing it to slow so that she might catch her breath, but looking at William again, who busied himself explaining to the men reunited with their families that he couldn’t bring anyone else from the former Holton House, only worsened her symptoms, and heat spread from her chest to the rest of her limbs at a delicious pace. Her knees threatened to crumble beneath her.

Good Lord, she loved her husband.

Even without ever experiencing the emotion in any way other than the sisterly love she felt for her brothers when they still lived, she knew what it was. There was naught else it could be.

Marianne nearly panicked and had to turn away from the beautiful reunion and tug at her red braid to force calm upon herself. She breathed deeply and closed her eyes.

Really, she thought, there are worse things.

Loving her husband was a luxury most married women could not pay for, or reach, her father and mother included, and at least if William did not love her back, he did show a physical interest in her, which was also more than what she could have hoped for.

The pain in her chest returned, though mixed in with a touch of regret over the circumstances, and Marianne released her hair and bit down on her fist to keep from gasping. Her insides felt like they did that time when she was a girl and jumped down the stairway in her old home. Her stomach, heart, and guts had all flopped into her throat. Only this time she stood still, not flying down a stone stairway.

A physical interest was all well and good, she liked it even, but how could she accept it as her only comfort?

She gave one last fleeting glance to William, who had seemingly forgotten the meeting of their eyes and grinned smugly over his generous deed. Marianne tightened her shawl around her shoulders and left to tell the cooks to prepare his meal. She could not face him yet, after the act of kindness he performed she knew she would burst into tears if he so much as said a word to her.

***

William hunted for Bryce when he escaped from the men and their wives, the unusual spring in his step brought on by retrieving their women soon disappeared as he remembered what he needed to do.

Strange how a small act of kindness towards a few servants could make him realize how brightly the sky shone on the chilly autumn day.

Then his thoughts returned to Ferdinand and the words the man spoke of, his unusual behavior to stay in a house just under a day’s ride from his castle, his hints towards William’s unspeakable past, and the frost in his voice when he spoke of the loss of his would-be wife.

Returning to his studies of the blade would now be for more than just to save face in front of his friends who frequently made his lack of skill known in their jokes, but he wanted to be prepared to defend himself and Marianne in the case that, that underhanded devil pulled a cruel stunt for revenge.

Men and women who’ve angered Ferdinand have been known to disappear, William knew this very well, having never forgotten it after the incident with the prostitute, poor Bertha, and he was going to prepare himself for the possibility of something dangerous. First, he needed to do one quick thing.

“Adam!” William called when he finally spotted him.

The man abruptly stopped, looked shocked at the sight of his master before bowing. He was running an errand outside the castle, probably hoping to see his woman as he was prone to sneak off and do when he felt there was naught better for him to work with. William decided not to mention it.

“Yes, milord?”

He struggled with the smirk on his lips, knowing this would displease Marianne and excited for her oncoming wrath.

“Find my wife, tell her that I have had time to think over my punishment for her lack of judgment when she rode off, and I have decided that she is now to have an escort.”

Adam blinked. “Does she not already have one, milord?”

“A male escort, but she is still to have Olma in her presence,” he quickly added. “James is about to be knighted so he will do, I would not want to deprive a knight of his apprentice unless I thought he would soon be ready.”

He also did not want Marianne to be suspicious of why she would be followed around by a knight. A squire would be a more believable prison keeper for the lady of the castle without arousing her worries.

Adam blinked again, and his expression fell at the prospect of telling his lady that she was soon to be shackled with another keeper. “Aye, milord, it shall be done.”

William nodded and went on his way. “Good, see to it then.”

“The lady will not be pleased, milord.”

William turned back to look at him. His expression had gone from forlorn to mildly fearful.

William grinned and continued walking. “I am well aware. I am going to train with Bryce, tell her where to find me should she wish a word.”

***

Marianne did not know how it was possible for her to have ever felt anything other than spite for the man. He infuriated her! Not only could she not leave the castle grounds, but now had to walk around with that little coward behind her.

A squire, soon to be knighted. Ha! The little fool could not even look her in the eye. She would feel sorry for him had he not been sent to guard her by her husband.

Now he trailed behind her, just ahead of Olma who followed too eagerly for Marianne’s liking. His head was still down, she did not need any witchcraft to see that, and right now she felt sadistic enough to not care for his shattered soul.

Every servant within eyesight scurried out of the way of her violent sneer, closed fists, and stomping feet as she marched up the stairway and burst through the doors of William’s solar, mouth open, ready to scream again.

He was not there.

She stomped her foot, the roar that escaped her shook her body.

A commotion behind her brought her back to her senses long enough for her to look behind her. The squire boy fell over and stared at her like she was possessed. Olma eagerly assisted him back to his stumbling feet.

She ignored them and went to the window, looking out passed the courtyard for any sign of where William could be.

Her eyes found him like a hawk that found a mouse while flying above. He played along the side of the stables, jumping and dancing clumsily away from another bigger man. They both swung their swords about, only William did a more terrible job of it.

Ah yes, she thought, he had mentioned something about sharpening his skills to her.

Marianne hardly cared. Nor did she care of what it was William saw that was so important about playing around like a child when he had the nerve to attach this meddlesome boy to her leg.

She fled from the solar, and flew down the stairs, nearly knocking over a maid carrying flour. Her two watch dogs followed behind her.

Marianne lifted her gown when she charged outside and into the mud, following the sound of laughter that she had not heard before when she was certain he was hiding from her.

“I’m improving!” William boomed, laughter in his voice. He continued his circular dance around his instructor, swirling his wooden sword about with his right hand, daring his instructor to come at him with his stance.

The man had a deep voice. “Lucky, you mean.”

“Not anymore!” Marianne screeched.

All laughter ceased as all eyes shot to her. Marianne did not stop, not even when she caught Blaise in her peripheral vision as she moved in on William. She stopped only when she stood up directly in front of him so that he could have a clear vision of the loathing in her eyes, her nose high enough that it nearly touched his while his breath warmed her face.

Angrily, she pointed his finger behind her to where she was sure the squire boy still stood unless he had fallen over again.

“What is that?” She ground through clenched teeth.

William looked at the squire, looked back at her and smiled. “That is James. He is to be knighted soon.”

“And pray tell, what is he following me for?”

It infuriated her that her temper did not have the same affect on William as it had on James, his unflinching demeanor silenced her long enough to hear what he had to say.

“My dear, he is to ensure that you do not take leave of your senses again and charge off towards the forest at the first sign of a broken heart.”

“I did not charge towards the forest!” Marianne stamped her foot. She rode casually to free her thoughts. “Nor did I have a broken heart!” She had merely been upset at the time. “And how is it that he is to be knighted? He cowers like a beaten dog.”

William ignored her previous claims of not charging towards the forest. “If he does cower like a beaten dog ‘tis only because you scream like a savage.”

Blaise, having suffered enough in silence, threw down his wooden sword. “I believe my training for the day is complete, if anyone has any need of me, I shall be riding.”

“Do not be riding Benedict! That is William’s horse!” Marianne shouted at his retreating back, remembering William speak of his dislike for Blaise to ride his prized horse without permission.

Blaise abruptly stopped, turned, and glared. But he looked behind her to where William stood and left without another word.

Marianne was glad for his decision to leave and did not look at him with regret when he chose to do so, even if it was the product of her temper.

The man instructing William had lowered his sword and found something much more interesting to stare at off in the distance.

For the first time she stopped to realize that there were guests about who could see her in this state. It occurred to her that perhaps she really did not have the hold on her emotions that she thought she did.

The larger man shook his head in the direction Blaise had left in before addressing William. “I do not know why ye let the boy get away with being so cruel to ye.” He said before staring down at Marianne in an equally meaningful way.

Marianne heard what was not said. The large man also did not understand why William allowed her to rant and rage at her husband like she did, and truthfully Marianne did not know the answer either.

Marianne feared William would speak of her behavior as well. His silence was equally accusing.

Wishing to take the attention away from herself, she puzzled over why the larger man would mention Blaise in the first place when all he did was storm off. She heard Blaise say naught of William when she stormed in. She deducted that he must have been speaking ill of William’s skills before she arrived.

Wishing to redeem herself for her wicked display, she spoke loudly with both arms crossed. “From what I have seen William is improving his swordplay splendidly.”

Both men had the good grace not to mention the sudden change in the subject, nor that she had never seen William spar previously to know whether he truly improved or not. Still, a pleased grin appeared on William’s face.

“Marianne, my dear, might I introduce you to my brother in spirit, Lord Bryce of Ironside.”

Marianne curtsied politely, blushing and wondering if it made a difference in his opinion of her now that he’d seen her in a rage.

The man had a bright smile hidden under his gnarled hazel beard. “I knew ye’d be plenty o’ fun. Said so myself, even Nicholas figured ye’d have a fiery spirit. Hugh thought Will had gotten ye with—”

“Quite enough, old friend,” William interjected, but ‘twas too late, Marianne knew what Lord Ironside was about to say. Her face blazed.

She decided the best course of action was no action at all and said naught. She pursed her lips and smiled, though the smile she gave suggested she was trying to hide lemon juice in her mouth.

“I pray that I have not ruined your practice, you may both continue if you wish.” Though that would not stop her from demanding a real explanation from William as soon as his guest was out of the way.

“I do no’ think so, milady,” Said Bryce, turning his attention back to William. “I think we are better to start this again first thing on the morrow.”

William nodded. “Aye, I have some other work that could be seen to while I wait for our next match.”

Bryce snorted and shook his head. “Don’t know how ye manage to sit there like that, adding numbers all day,” he poked the pointed end of the wooden sword at William’s chest and jabbed him. “‘Tis no wonder yer skills are lacking.”

William slapped the sword away, but Marianne could see that he took no offence to the comment.

Bryce turned to the stables, where his horse waited for him.

“Will you not stay the night and have some supper?” She offered, not sure if she liked the idea of letting a guest leave without being fed, as she was certain no well bred lady would allow.

Bryce turned at the mention of food. “I canno’ cheat a beautiful woman like yerself out of one o’ yer spare rooms when I live just an hour south, but if ye’ll be so kind, I would love to stay for supper.”

***

The man ate more than a pack of starved wolves and had the manners to match, but Marianne could see why William enjoyed having him as a friend. She could sense they had a genuine liking for each other that truly was brotherly. When they spoke to each other it was without any formalities.

Marianne was glad to meet him, his jolly humor and inappropriate jokes of both his and William’s clumsy boyhood made her forget that James stood several feet behind her. She now wished to meet the other friends William hid from her, because Bryce was correct, William did spend most of his time in his solar. Marianne was glad for someone other than herself who wanted him to spend time outside of that stuffy room.

When they bid him farewell Marianne was shocked to see that he hadn’t even brought any men for protection, just a single horse.

“Ye need no’ worry fer me. Who would try an’ rob me? I’m huge and look like a beggar.” He waved his hands over his torn clothing, a smile hidden under his beard at the worry on her face.

Marianne looked at the clothes he’d been training William in. They hung loose on his huge body and smelled of filth. She wondered if he dressed like so all the time or just for the sake of their practice.

Marianne chided herself for being foolish and decided it was the latter.

***

After Bryce left, Marianne had completely forgotten about James and Olma, and would have continued to be oblivious of them had William not ordered them away.

“Is that the end of my punishment then?” She asked, crossing her arms as she turned and walked towards their bedchamber.

Her body flooded with warmth when he caught up and pulled her close, walking hip to hip with her with his arm snaked around her body and hand resting against her belly.

He walked as though his touch was commonplace, and he seemed not as affected by it as she. He sighed over her question, showing no symptoms of a flush in his cheeks. “‘Tis not meant to be a punishment. You know that.”

Marianne was about to respond that she thought he needed to stop having her followed until he leaned in and closed his teeth around the lobe of her ear, calmly, as though that were also commonplace behavior.

Marianne stopped walking, his action caused that familiar flutter in her chest and the feeling of being very far away from everything. “Wha—what are you doing?”

He pulled her closer and they stood no longer hip to hip but now her back was to his chest. Servants walked by, and Marianne squirmed under their stares as they passed, slower to get the entire scene, but William refused to acknowledge them or let her move.

His breath in her ear warmed her further, his hands trailing tingles along her body. “I have waited long enough to have my wife.”

Marianne shuddered and her body blazed with impatient fire. Finally! Finally!

Marianne forcefully turned and pushed her mouth up onto his.

When he kissed her with his entire mouth it caused such a delicious ache in her, a spreading warmth through her blood that had not been there before. She felt he would enjoy it if she did the same.

She could tell she shocked him by taking the initiative but he eagerly allowed her to do as she wished with him, and when she slipped her tongue into his mouth like he had done to her before, he welcomed it and suckled hungrily.

Marianne mentally damned the servants. Had it not been for them scurrying in and out of hallways she would have been delighted to allow William to take her where they stood, eager to discover how far these sensations he had been teasing her with could go.

“Thief!”

Blaise’s angry shouted statement jerked Marianne out of her lusty haze. She spun, ready to lash out for the interruption. He marched towards the both of them, fists clenched and his eyes boring accusingly into her, as though he wished to pierce her and draw blood with them.

William was immediately alert, whatever lust he had apparently vanished as he pulled himself away from his wife to give his son his full attention. “Who is the thief?”

Blaise stopped before them and thrust forward his finger. “She is!”