Original Prologue of The Loyal Heart

So I was searching through the first draft of The Loyal Heart this morning looking for the names of Ethan’s parents and I came across this.  This is the original Prologue that I had conceived for the very first draft of the book.  Obviously it didn’t make the final cut, and I’ve gotten much, much better at writing since then, but I got a huge kick out of it.  So I thought I’d share.

Incidentally, The Loyal Heart is 50% off this month at Smashwords….

Derbyshire, 1184

 

            It was late at night.  Far too late for the two of them to be out.  The lights were dark in the cottages around the village of Windale and even at the manor house only one light was on in an upstairs room towards the back of the house.  They kept to the shadows, ducking in and out and around scattered trees and fences until they made it to the side of the manor itself, one figure small and lithe, the other tall and muscular.  A restless wind blew up the road from the forest, ruffling the half-grown crops in the fields around Windale before traveling on, up to the peaks in the distance.  The figures waited as it waved in the trees, turning to each other and laughing as clouds skittered quickly across the night sky.  The taller figure pressed his finger to his mouth over a mischievous smile.

            “Quiet, little sister,” he told her, bright eyes glistening in the scant moonlight through the mask that he wore over the top of his face.  “We only get one chance at this.  Are you ready?”

            She nodded in admiration, doing her best to stifle the giggles that wanted to pour out of her.  She adjusted her own mask and pulled the scarf up to hide the bottom of her round, adolescent face so that only her large blue-green eyes could be seen.  “Ready, big brother,” she said, patting the long dagger tied to her belt.  She had been ready for this night for years.  Finally, after all that work training, as she called it, Geoffrey was letting her come out and make mischief with him.

            Geoffrey shook his head and laughed at his little sister.  “Alright.  Stick close to me, don’t make a sound, and when I say run, run.”  He yanked the edge of her hood down over her masked face playfully and then shushed her again when she laughed at his gesture.  Then he pulled his own scarf up over the bottom half of his face, concealing the beard he had only just been able to grow in enough to look respectable.  He defied anyone to call him respectable though.  Respectable was a joke.  He stuck close to the wall as he inched along towards the back door, glancing over his shoulder to make sure that his partner in crime was right behind him.  He wasn’t used to having someone else in on one of his heists.  It was kind of nice actually.

            The wind helped to muffle the sounds of their feet as they stumbled through the garden at the back of the house and made their way up to the simple wooden doorway that marked the entrance to the pantry.  Geoffrey tried the handle and was not surprised when it turned easily.  He pushed the door open, stood back for a moment throwing out his arm and putting a hand out to hold his sister back up against the wall.  He waited to see if anyone would notice the breeze that danced into the pantry and down the back corridor.  Everything remained still and quiet.  He stuck his head out and looked into the dim light of the house, making extra sure no one was waiting around the corner.  Then he motioned with a tilt of his head for his sister to follow him in.

            They crept through the pantry, careful not to disturb any of the baskets of bread or eggs or vegetables as they tip-toed past one of the rooms where the servants of Windale Manor slept.  She had practiced her creeping skills too, and personally she thought she was better at sneaking than Geoffrey.  She was smaller and lighter and less likely to bump into things than he was.  As they walked down the short hallway leading into the manor’s main hall she kept close to the wall as he had taught her, making sure she was hidden in the shadows that pressed around them.  Her heart beat furiously in her throat.  Sure, she had been inside of Windale Manor several times, but never at night when everything was dark and never uninvited.  That’s what made this particular visit so exciting.  It was hard to stifle the laughter that wanted to escape from her throat right then.

            “Up here,” Geoffrey called to her from the shadows of the stairs at the side of the room.  She scurried quickly from her hiding place against the dark wall to the staircase, proud of how quiet and stealthy she was.  The old wooden steps weren’t as quiet as she was though.  As she and Geoffrey crept slowly up, backs pressed to the wall just in case, they creaked every so slightly.  The sound only made her heart pound more furiously.  It was thrilling.  She had never had so much fun in her life.  As they reached the hallway at the landing looking out over the main hall she noticed there was still a glimmer of firelight under one of the doors.  She didn’t know whose door it was though and glanced anxiously to Geoffrey, hoping that he did.  He nodded and waved his hand for her to stay away from that door, creeping past it in the shadows and on along to a small door at the end of the hallway. 

            Geoffrey waited for his sister to catch up to him before turning the handle on the plain door and pushing it carefully.  It creaked menacingly as he opened it, and as soon as he could he squeezed his agile body through the narrow crack, reaching out a hand and pulling his sister in after him before carefully shutting the door once more.  Then the two of them took a moment to stand there in the darkness catching their breath and trying not to laugh.

            “What do you think they’ll do if they catch us?” she asked, giddy with excitement and half wanting to get caught just to see.

            “They’ll hang us for sure,” Geoffrey answered, mock seriousness filling his voice.

            “No they won’t,” she rolled her eyes at him, crossing her arms over her newly developing chest.

            Geoffrey shrugged and said, “They might put us in the stocks or something,” before grinning behind his mask and yanking at the brim of her hood again.  “Come on,” he told her when she pushed the hood back a bit, loosening some of her brown hair around the mask.  He sprung back into action and she imitated his cat-like pose as they surveyed the room.

            It was a small storage room.  One narrow window let in only enough light to see the outlines of the chests and shelves of family belongings, cups, bowls, a few unused, ornate weapons, a bag or two that may have contained coins.  Geoffrey searched around on the shelves for just the right booty.  He wasn’t here as a thief.  The point was not to take the most valuable thing that they had.  Or even a lot of things.  Just … enough.  His sister was following behind, looking at the items that he passed over with wide eyes behind her mask.  “If you see something you like …” he began and laughed in a low, hushed voice.

            She saw several things that she liked.  A fancy carved box with a painted picture of a saint stood on a high shelf level with her eyes.  A pair of goblets that were gathering dust but were obviously expensive sat behind it.  Several books with thick leather covers rested one on top of the other on a shelf near the window.  In that moment she didn’t think she’d mind taking one of them at all.  She could always give it back later.  She searched as best she could with so little light, lifting the lid of one of the smaller chests and feeling around at its contents.  She withdrew a large, fat coin and held it up to the small light.  It was printed with words in some language she couldn’t read with a head embossed on it of some ruler she didn’t know.  And it was gold.  It would do nicely.  She slid it into the pouch hanging from her belt.  When she looked up Geoffrey was holding a fat velvet pouch in one hand and a silver cup with a crest containing an eagle in the other.

            “Are you going to take both?” she asked in a surprised, hushed voice.

            “Why not,” he shrugged.  He held up the pouch, “Bread and meat for the people of Morley,” then held up the cup, “and a new horse to replace Courage.”

            The memory of their poor dead horse sobered her.  He had been a good horse.  She was fond of him.  And they had struggled with the funds to replace him.  Things in Morley were not as prosperous as they had once been, not since their father had died so unexpectedly just a few years ago.  Aubrey couldn’t remember the last time that her mother had been able to scrape together enough money after all of the obligations she had on the estate’s behalf to buy them something extravagant.  She glanced back to the shelves and the chest, opened it, and took another fat coin for good measure.

            “Right.  Let’s go then,” he said with a nod, turning back towards the door.  She jumped in front of him and rushed to grab the handle, full of excitement that they had made it in, captured the treasure, and now just had to make it out.  Trying hard not to make a noise and letting only a tiny giggle get out she turned the handle and pulled the door open.  She nearly screamed when she was confronted with the solid figure of a young man standing there, hands on his hips, wicked, scolding expression in his glittering eyes.  Somehow she managed not to make a sound, but she did jump and take a step back, landing on a lumpy sack on the floor, losing her balance and falling backwards, arms flailing.  She fell to the floor with a crash, knocking a stack of pewter bowls off one of the shelves and causing an almighty clatter.

            Both Geoffrey and the young man lunged forward to catch her, both with a loud, “Shh!”  The figure from the hallway reached her first.  He dropped to a squat and grabbed for her flailing hands.  Once he had them he pulled her from her back to a sitting position, pushing back her hood and pulling down her scarf.  Then he laughed.  “Lady Aubrey of Morley,” he shook his head at her, glancing up to her brother, who was pulling his own scarf down to reveal his face.  “What do you think you’re doing?” he laughed in a whisper.

            She gaped at him but could only manage to say, “Ethan,” before a muffled shout came from the end of the hall.

            “What is that racket?” the voice of the Lord of Windale complained from the end of the hall.

            “Hide!” Ethan warned Geoffrey and Aubrey as he jumped to his feet and rushed to the door.  Aubrey scurried into the shadows of the storeroom and Geoffrey backed up against the far wall so that they were hidden in the dark but could still see when Sir Harold of Windale threw open his bedroom door and marched out into the hall with a scowl, gray hair disheveled, broad shoulders squared for a confrontation.

            “What in blazes are you doing, Ethan!” he demanded in a sleepy, cross voice.

            “I, uh, I was just getting a bowl out of the store room,” he scrambled for an explanation snatching up one of the bowls that had rolled into the doorway.

            “And you found it necessary to wake the whole house while you did it?” his father scolded, rubbing his eyes.

            “I knocked something off the shelf, I don’t know what.  It’s dark in there.”  Aubrey watched in awe as Ethan defended them clumsily.  His hair was golden enough to look like he had just been outside, even though it was the middle of the night.  And he wore a rakish smile that made her young cheeks go pink.  She was glad that he couldn’t see her looking at him like that, glad that she still wore a mask.  She pulled the scarf up over the lower half of her face to really hide her blushing.

            “What do you need one of the good bowls for in the middle of the night?” Sir Harold asked impatiently, but he held his hand out when Ethan opened his mouth to explain.  “Never mind, never mind.  I probably don’t want to hear the explanation anyhow.  You,” he pointed a long finger at his son, “go back to bed!”

            “Yes, sir,” Ethan answered.  He waited, hoping his father would go back into his room first.  But it was no good.  He cast one brief glance back to the store room, a glance that made butterflies swirl in Aubrey’s stomach, and slunk back across the hall to his own room, the door at the top of the stairs that had had a light on.  Sir Harold shook his head and let out an audible sigh at his son before starting towards the store room.  Aubrey held her breath, not even daring to blink.  When he reached the door Aubrey gulped in horror when she was certain that his fierce eyes would spot her.  But Sir Harold just slammed it with a rattle, throwing them into near total darkness again.

            It took Aubrey several seconds longer than Geoffrey to recover.  He sprang up from his position against the back wall as soon as he heard the door to Sir Harold’s room shut and bent to look through the keyhole to make sure that the hallway was clear.  As soon as he was certain that it was he opened the door again, slowly and carefully, willing the soft creaking his motions produced to quiet.  By the time it was open enough to slip through, Aubrey thought she had enough strength in her legs again to follow.  She pushed herself to her feet and slipped out into the hallway behind her brother.  Geoffrey shut the door behind them and hurried along the hallway as quickly as he could, glancing back to Aubrey with a slight frown.  He knew he shouldn’t be upset with her.  It was Ethan’s fault more than hers for surprising them like that, but she would need to learn to be more careful if she was going to come out with him again.  And he liked having her around in spite of this set-back.  A swell of pride filled him and he reassured her with a quick, winning grin. 

            When they reached the landing at the top of the stairs the door to Ethan’s room cracked open, and when he saw Geoffrey and Aubrey stealing past him he snuck quietly out into the hall and to the stairs himself.  This time Aubrey was careful not to overreact when she felt him come up behind her as they were running down to the hall.  When they made it down to the floor of the main hall Ethan grabbed her slender wrist.

            “Thief,” he whispered to her, eyes dancing with mirth over Geoffrey’s little sister out and about with him.

            Aubrey immediately spun around to him and snapped back, “Coward!” although she didn’t really know why other than a sense that she should seem fierce.  She was even more stung when he laughed at her.

            “Geoff, what are you doing with her?” Ethan whispered to his friend.

            Geoffrey, who had made it part of the way down the hall, dashed back to where his friend and his sister stood.  “Teaching her the tricks of the trade,” he answered, mischievous grin lighting his eyes.

            “You’re a nobleman, you don’t have a trade,” Ethan reminded him, crossing his arms and resting his weight on one hip.  Aubrey thought he was the most beautiful thing in the world standing like that, a real rogue.  Even if he too was a noble.

            “Times being what they are,” Geoffrey shrugged.  “Everyone has to do their part.”

            “If that’s what you call it,” Ethan laughed at them and shook his head.

            A loud knock at the door shook all three of them out of their playful banter.  None of them had heard hoof beats or footsteps coming up to the door, they had been having too much fun.  Now all three of them tensed and glanced around for some place to hide.

            “Sir Harold!” the man pounding on the door shouted in a deep, rich voice.  “Open up!”

            Geoffrey grabbed his sister’s arm and raced with her to a dark space in the corner between the wall and a tall, thick sideboard while Ethan sprinted in the other direction and hid behind a tall chair that was only brought out for special feasts.  In the dim light of night all of them were invisible. 

            “Sir Harold!” the voice continued to pound, to demand entrance.

            A young man came bursting and stumbling out of the servant’s quarters.  He looked like he was about fifteen, well-dressed for a servant but obviously still half asleep and confused.  He pulled a cap down over his disheveled sandy hair and straightened his clothes and his shoulders, clearing his throat before pulling the door open.

            A tall, dark-haired man dressed in black with a sword at his side stood on the other side of the door, ready to bang his fist against it again if he had to.  His eyes were startlingly blue, even in the dim light of a faltering fire.  “Where is Sir Harold?  Who are you?” he asked when the startled servant let him in.

            “Toby, sir, household servant,” the young man answered as if his position were a great honor.

            The tall, dark man stared at him for a moment, face unreadable, eyes alive with purpose.  He stepped right past the young man and into the room, no time for pleasantries.  “I need to speak to Sir Harold and I need to speak to him now!” he demanded, voice threatening.

            “I’m right here,” Sir Harold announced from the top of the stairs.  His voice was even more irritated now and he rubbed his forehead as if nursing a headache as he walked slowly down the stairs.  “And who in blazes are you?”

            “Sir Crispin of Huntingdon,” the man said and bowed his head slightly, “Aide to Lord Alfred of Buxton.” 

            Sir Harold eyed him suspiciously at the name when he reached the bottom of the stairs.  He was far too young to be marching into a man of his stature’s house in the middle of the night with no more than a nod of the head.  He couldn’t have been twenty yet, younger probably.  And any man who carried the tag of Alfred of Buxton with them was trouble by definition.  “And what in blazes do you want?” he demanded testily.

            “There’s been a revolt, sir,” Huntingdon began without pause, shoulders tense and eyes flashing.  His hand hovered around the handle of his sword.  “In Buxton.  A peasant uprising.  They’ve surrounded the manor and are threatening to burn it down with Lord Alfred inside.”

            “What has Alfie done to upset them now,” Sir Harold frowned, crossing his arms.

            Huntingdon was not about to be dismissed.  His face sharpened into a dark scowl.  “Lord Alfred has sent me to bring you and a regiment of your men to quell the revolt, sir.  You are the sheriff of this shire.  It is your responsibility to come to his aid.”

            “I don’t need you reminding me of my responsibilities, boy,” Sir Harold snapped back, standing with his chest out and glowering at the young hot-head.

            Huntingdon met the older man’s eyes without backing down.  Aubrey watched the stand-off from her dark, unseen corner.  Her giddy excitement had been replaced by tense fear.  And Sir Crispin’s eyes were just so blue and his face so angry.  It made her back farther into her corner.  She was terrified of what he would do if he saw her, and all she really had to hide her was the darkness and her mask.  Sir Harold was frightening too.  He was not the warm, jolly man that some of her friends had for fathers.  He was important and his importance made him someone to be wary of.  He took a step towards the man and when Huntingdon didn’t back away he narrowed his eyes and stroked his pointed grey beard.

            “Toby!” Sir Harold shouted at the trembling young man who had backed towards the long table in the middle of the room when the two men began their confrontation.  He straightened up so quickly that he tripped as he stepped forward and caught himself clumsily, face burning red.  He straightened at one sharp glance from his master.  “Go wake the men.  Tell them to arm themselves and mount.  Have my horse brought around to the front.”

            “Yes, my lord,” Toby bowed and rushed out of the room through the hallway to the servant’s quarters where he had come from.  Aubrey sucked in a breath and pushed herself against the wall as he passed close to her.  She watched him go and as she glanced back to the two men in the middle of the room her eyes caught Ethan’s as he peeked out from his hiding place behind the chair.  She could see that he was alarmed, but he wasn’t scared the way that she was.  When he smiled a little bit at her it gave her courage.  If he could be brave then she would be brave too.  She turned back to watch what Sir Harold would do next.

            “Time is of the essence, Sir Harold,” Huntingdon urged him, hand still flexing near his sword hilt.

            “Yes I know, I know.  Any time Alfie gets himself into trouble time is always of the essence.”  He turned away from the younger man and started for the stairs.  “Let me get dressed and I’ll be right there,” he called over his shoulder as he headed towards the stairs.  Geoffrey pulled Aubrey back further into the shadows.  She had started to lean out to watch the interaction between the two men and was almost exposed.  She held her breath as Sir Harold passed and climbed the stairs two at a time.  Then she shifted slightly to watch what Huntingdon would do next.  He stood very still for a moment, watching Sir Harold climb the stairs and disappear into his room.  His face was a hazard of dark shadows and firelight flickering on his pale skin.  Aubrey watched his face shift from being angry to being anxious, waiting, troubled.  He turned away from the stairs and began pacing the room, walking away from her and towards the great fireplace at the far end of the room.  When he turned back he was staring down and at the floor as he walked, hands flexing at his sides, ready for battle.  She had heard the rumors about him, everyone had.  He had fought with King Henry in France when he was no older than Geoffrey was now.  They also said that when he fought with Prince Geoffrey and Prince John against their brother Prince Richard he had walked into the house of one of Prince Richard’s supporters alone and walked out covered in blood, murdering every man, woman, child, and servant in the house.  Everyone was afraid of him.  Except her, Aubrey told herself in that moment.  She wouldn’t be afraid of him.  She wouldn’t be afraid of anyone.  As she thought those brave words to herself Huntingdon’s blazing blue eyes flickered up and for half a heartbeat met her own.  A startled expression washed onto Huntingdon’s face.  Aubrey squeezed her eyes shut and squished herself back into the corner against her brother.

            “I’d better be back in my bed before dawn,” Sir Harold broke the tension of the moment when he came bustling out of his room at the top of the stairs, his wife, Lady Anne following in her nightgown, long graying hair spilling down over her round shoulders, helping him shrug on his cloak.

            When Aubrey dared to open her eyes Huntingdon was at the foot of the stairs instead of right in front of her like she was sure he would be.  “We must leave now, Sir Harold,” all of the urgency and purpose was back in his voice.

            “Yes, yes, yes,” sir Harold waved the eager young man away as he reached the bottom of the stairs.  He strode to the mantle over the fire, pushing right past Huntingdon with barely a glance.  Huntingdon bristled and his jaw grew tight.  Sir Harold took his sword from the mantle and strapped it around his waist.  He may have been getting on in years, but he was still strong and lean.  He could fight with the best of them.  “Let’s go dig Alfie out of the hole he’s dug for himself, shall we?” he smiled to the younger man, deliberately irritating him.  It was far too easy to do.

            The two men marched out of the house through the front door.  Geoffrey listened to the sounds of their footsteps until they disappeared.  He glanced up to make sure that Lady Anne had gone back to bed.  When he was sure that everyone had gone and no one would return to the hall he pushed himself away from the wall and out of his hiding place.  Aubrey followed after him and Ethan crawled out from behind the chair.  The three of them met in the middle of the room near the table.

            “What do you suppose that was all about?” Ethan asked.

            “A peasant revolt in Buxton?” Geoffrey wondered.  They spoke in hushed voices, tense because their night of fun had taken a decidedly nerve-wracking turn.

            “I would revolt too if I had to live in Buxton,” Ethan grinned, flashing his smile in Aubrey’s direction.  She immediately felt herself color and was grateful to be wearing the scarf and mask still.

            “My mother says that Lord Alfred is the meanest, cruelest, most wicked lord in all of Derbyshire,” Geoffrey smirked.  “She says that he uses his peasants as footrests and tables and if they drop anything he cuts their ears off.”  Aubrey’s eyes widened at Geoffrey’s tale.

            “Oh yeah,” Ethan said, not to be outdone, “My father says that he uses beggars who come to his village as target practice for his archers!”

            Geoffrey shot a quick glance to his sister and then winked at Ethan when he saw how wide-eyed the stories were making her.  “They say that he keeps pet mice and feeds them little bits of poison.  The mice get used to it, but when they bite a person he dies in agony!”  Aubrey squealed and clapped a hand to her face, even though she was almost certain that her brother was teasing her.  Almost.

            “And they say that his man Huntingdon eats babies for breakfast!” Ethan added.

            Aubrey shifted her weight to one hip and crossed her arms.  “Now that’s just silly,” she said, any fear she felt disappearing with a laugh as she pulled the scarf down from her face, fixing Ethan with a flat stare.

            Ethan shrugged.  “Well, he could,” he defended himself half-heartedly.  He knew he had gone too far.  “You never know.”

            Aubrey was about to open her mouth to tell him that no one ate babies, but the creak of Sir Harold and Lady Anne’s bedroom door opening made all three of them scatter to the far corners of the room again.  “Ethan?  Is that you?” Lady Anne looked around the upstairs hall and walked out to the landing at the top of the stairs and the gallery that overlooked the main hall.

            Ethan stopped his flight and let out a sigh.  He was caught.  He might as well keep his friends from being caught too.  He trudged back into the middle of the room, shoulders drooped dejectedly, and glanced up at his mother.  “Yeah, it’s me,” he admitted grudgingly.

            Lady Anne let out an impatient breath and planted her fists on her ample hips.  “Are we going to have to tie you into bed tonight?” she asked, her temper as short as her husband’s.

            Ethan shrugged and tried to use his most charming smile on her.  It wasn’t gong to work.  She continued to frown down at him.  He let the smile drop along with his shoulders.  “What was all that about?” he asked instead, trying a different tactic and walking slowly to the stairs.

            “Never you mind,” Lady Anne shook her head and glanced out over the high-ceilinged hall.  “Buxton in trouble again.  But it’s none of your concern.  Bed is your concern.”  Ethan reached the top of the stairs with those words and as he passed his mother she swatted at his backside.

            “Mother!” Ethan protested, “I am too old for you to hit me.”

            “You’re only sixteen.  And you’re never too old for your mother to smack you.  Get!”  She hurried him along into his room and pulled the door tightly shut behind him once he was safely inside.  Shaking her head and sighing as she spared one final glance over the hall which betrayed her true worry, she went back into her own room.

            Geoffrey waited until everything was absolutely silent before coming out of the shadows and heading to the mouth of the hallway leading to the servant’s quarters.  He motioned for Aubrey to follow him and she leapt from her own shadows and darted after her brother.  He grabbed her hand and together they rushed back through the hall and kitchen and out into the windy night.  Now they didn’t even try to be stealthy.  They just ran for all they were worth through the small cottages and huts of Windale Village.  The village had been disturbed by the rousing of Sir Harold’s fighting men, some of whom were still sleepily mounting their horses and galloping off down the road after their lord and master.  No one in the village spared a second thought for two cloaked and hooded figures who ran through their midst.  Aubrey managed to keep up with her brother even though he didn’t measure his pace at all.  She ran as hard as she could and she knew she was fast.  She didn’t dare slow down until they had crossed the sloping field that bordered Windale and darted along the road north to Morley until it dipped into the forest.  Only then, when they had the advantage of the trees to hide them, did Geoffrey stop and let them rest.

            Aubrey stopped, her legs rubbery with exertion, and bent over to rest for a moment.  “What,” she panted, “what was that?”  She stepped over to a nearby tree and leaned her back against it, sinking down to sit and spread her limbs against the tree’s roots and the forest floor.

            “I don’t know,” Geoffrey shrugged, bending over a stitch in his side.

            “We nearly got caught!” she put a hand over her racing heart, still not daring to take off her mask.  If they could have Ethan jump out at them when they thought they were in the clear then anyone could come after them in the forest.

            Geoffrey’s ragged breathing turned into a laugh and his eyes sparkled.  “Yeah, we did, didn’t we.”  He reached to his belt and held up his prize of the bag of coins.  “But we still captured the treasure.”

            Aubrey held up her own pouch in imitation of his and laughed along with him, though uneasily.  She lowered her purse slowly, looking hard at it.  “What about the cup?” she asked curiously.

            Geoffrey shrugged.  “I put it down when we were hiding and I guess I didn’t pick it up again.”

            The fresh memory of hiding and watching Huntingdon and Sir Harold washed back over her, giving her a chill.  She remembered the way Huntingdon’s eyes had almost found her out in the shadows.  It made her feel uneasy.  She glanced at her purse, feeling the two large coins inside.  “Maybe we should give it back,” she said slowly.

            “Why?” Geoffrey scoffed playfully at her, coming over to her tree and reaching out a hand to pull her to her feet.  “Sir Harold is wildly rich.  We are not.”

            “It’s stealing,” Aubrey tied her pouch back onto her belt and shot her brother a sidelong look through her lashes.

            “It’s not stealing,” Geoffrey laughed at her and pulled her hood down over her face again, “it’s redistributing.”

            She loved her brother and couldn’t help but trust what he said.  “Fine.  But do they hang you for redistributing?”

            “Not if they don’t catch you!” Geoffrey dropped down into a crouch for a moment before dashing off along the dark, windy path through the forest.  Aubrey laughed and shot off after him.

            They made it home safe and sound and were tucked carefully in bed long before the first halting rays of dawn spread through the morning sky.  And yet Aubrey had a hard time sleeping.  The thought that she had stolen something, that she was a thief just like Ethan had accused her, wouldn’t let her go.  Even when she slept she dreamed about Ethan’s dazzling smile … and Huntingdon’s flashing blue eyes.  She tossed and turned all night.  In the late morning when she finally came downstairs, bleary and cross, their mother was already busy ordering the household and had no time to listen to the eerie dreams of her only daughter.  She set Aubrey to work on a large, elaborate, completely boring tapestry that was driving Aubrey mad.  The combination of working away on something so pointless and inane and the weight of the two fat coins in the purse that sat in her lap as she worked was finally too much for her.  When her mother was out in the garden she put her needle down, went to the window to make sure she wouldn’t be seen, and slipped out the front door. 

            The sky above Morley was threatening rain, but she wasn’t about to let that stop her.  She stole off to the stables and had one of their boys saddle one of their two remaining horses, hurrying him the whole time.  She didn’t want to be caught sneaking off during the day any more than she had wanted to get caught last night.  Riding was another thing that Geoffrey insisted she be able to do as good as any boy, and she climbed easily to the back of the gray horse and straddled it, smirking at how useful it was to wear a split skirt no matter how hard she battled with her mother over altering her garments.  Not wasting any time, she nudged the horse out of the stable then broke into a full gallop along the road to Windale as soon as she could.  It felt exhilarating and exciting to gallop by herself across the fields and into the forest.  As dark as the forest was, even in the middle of day, it had never bothered her.  She knew that highwaymen and brigands lived in that forest, but none of them could touch her as far as she was concerned.  She took the fork in the road that lead southwest to Windale instead of south to the city of Derby.  Riding like this made her happy, the forest made her happy. 

            She was so full of youthful joy when she burst out of the forest and across the fields around Windale that at first she didn’t notice anything was wrong.  She slowed her mount as she neared the village, only then becoming curious that so many people were gathered around the manor itself instead of out working in their fields.  The joy in her heart faltered and she felt butterflies flood her stomach.  Something was very wrong.  No one seemed to pay her much attention as she walked the horse up the main street of the village and across the village common toward the manor.  When she got close enough to dismount she was stopped by the sound of crying and wailing coming from the peasants around the house.  The color drained from her face.

            “He was a good man,” she heard one of the village woman lamenting, “such a good master.”

            “It’s a tragedy, a tragedy,” another stood with her arm around her, comforting her.

            “Who would do such a thing?” a third cried, anger mingled with grief in her voice.

            “What happened?” Aubrey asked, her voice small and sounding far more like a child than she wanted it to.

            The villagers near the outer rim of those crowding around the house turned to her and glanced up sadly, remorsefully.  “Sir Harold has been killed, my lady,” one of the older men told her, face lined with sorrow as well as age.

            “Killed?” she replied in a strangled voice.  Her nervous horse took a step back and she held the reigns tightly to get her to stay still.  Sitting so high above the peasants she felt garish and conspicuous.  But she was too shocked to do anything but continue to sit there and stare at them, blue-green eyes wide.  “H-how?”

            The older man came forward and put a hand on her horse’s muzzle to calm it as he explained, “In Buxton, my lady.  There was a revolt among the peasants, or so they say.”  He shook his head in grief over the idea that something like that could happen.  “He was … he was stabbed in the back, in the confusion.”  He couldn’t go on.  He just sighed and went to rejoin the others.

            Aubrey sat atop her horse, mouth open in shock, tears welling in her eyes.  She had always respected Sir Harold, had always considered him a sign of stability in the world.  He had a temper, but he also knew how to laugh.  Dead?  Killed?  She couldn’t believe it.  She turned her horse away from the crowd of mourning peasants and slowly began to walk away.

            “Aubrey!” a voice called after her, Ethan’s voice.  Her heart jumped to her throat and she turned  around to see Ethan pushing his way through the peasants towards her.  They tried to stop him to hug him or comfort him in some way, but he wore a confused frown and pushed them away, mind intent on getting to Aubrey.  “Wait!”

            When he got closer Aubrey could see that his bright eyes were red-rimmed and tired.  The tears that had threatened her broke out in earnest.  She dismounted and when Ethan reached her she threw herself into his arms.  “Oh Ethan, I’m so sorry,” she sobbed and sniffled against him.

            For one stunned moment Ethan didn’t know what to do.  His friend’s little sister was hugging him, his father had died, his whole world was upside-down.  He didn’t know what else to do but hug her back.  For a moment he just stood there lamely with his arms around her warm body.  When she stepped back and looked him in the eye he was struck by the sudden thought that she wasn’t really the child he thought she was anymore.  She was definitely growing up.  “It’s Lord Alfred’s fault,” he ground out, the surprise of Aubrey in his arms only making him more confused, more bitter.  “It’s his fault, I know it.”

            Aubrey nodded vigorously, not knowing what else to do.  “I hate him,” she spat out through her tears, thinking it might make Ethan feel better.

            “They say it was a peasant who stabbed him, but I know it wasn’t.  I know it.”

            “How do you know?” her glistening eyes grew wide with admiration.

            Ethan frowned more darkly, grinding his teeth together.  “I just know it.  My father was a friend to the peasants, even if they weren’t from his village.  He was fair to everyone.  They wouldn’t kill him like this.”  Aubrey could only nod as he worked himself into more of a lather.  “I’ll prove that he did it,” he continued.  “I’ll prove it.”

            “How?” she asked hopefully, her young heart bursting with affection for this brave, wronged hero.

            Ethan kicked the ground in frustration.  “I don’t know.  But I’ll figure something out.”

            For several long, glorious seconds Aubrey stood there and watched the resolve grow and harden in Ethan’s eyes.  He was fierce and he was strong.  She knew she would love him for her whole long life.  He would be her husband. 

            “Ethan!” Lady Anne’s hoarse voice called to him from the front door of the manor.

            Ethan turned to see his mother calling to him and the tears that he had fought so bravely to keep back tried to get out again.  He couldn’t let them escape, not with Aubrey there.  “Coming, mother!” he called back, clearing his throat bravely.  He turned to Aubrey, who had a wide-eyed, sparkling look on her face now.  It made him smile in spite of himself, which only made Aubrey smile even more.  “I have to go.  My mother needs me.”

            When he turned to leave her Aubrey reached out and grabbed his arm.  “Wait!”  She reached for the purse tied to her belt.  “I … I came to bring you this.”  From the pouch she took one of the fat gold coins.  She reached for his hand and turned it palm up, placing the cold, heavy coin in his palm.

            A grin twitched at the corners of Ethan’s mouth as he looked down at the coin.  The adventures of the night before seemed a lifetime away now.  They seemed like something that had happened when he was a boy.  Now he was a man.  “Returning the treasure?” he asked her with a grin.

            He was so courageous to smile in the face of such tragedy.  “You called me a thief.  I’m not.”

            He laughed once, weakly.  “And you called me a coward,” he returned, righteous anger over his father’s murder welling in him.  “I’m not.”

            As he turned and strode back to the manor Aubrey watched his back, the strong line of his shoulders.  She stood there watching him with boundless admiration as he greeted the peasants who had come to pay their respects.  They crowded around him and sought to take him in their arms as if he was their new, last hope.  He was so young to be taking on so much responsibility, but now he would have to.  He was an only child.  She sighed heavily and took the other gold coin out of her purse, holding it to her heart.  Someday, she swore, she would reunite those two coins.  Feeling an odd mix of grief for him and elation at the emotions swirling through her, she grabbed hold of her saddle and swung herself back up onto her horse.  She glanced back at Windale Manor.  “Someday that will be my home,” she said quietly to herself, making a vow right there.  Then she turned and galloped off along the road to Morley.

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