THE BISHOP'S PALACE, CHESTER, ENGLAND
"Do you think the king is dead?"
Aubrey de Quincy was caught off balance and furious with himself for his negligence; he ought to have expected this. Throughout their meal, the sole topic had been King Richard's disappearance. All of England--and indeed, most of Christendom--talked of little else this Christmastide, for more than two months had passed since the Lionheart had sailed from Acre. By December, other crusaders had begun to reach English ports. But none had word of the king.
Had the query been posed by one of his other guests, Aubrey would have taken it for natural curiosity. Coming from Hugh de Nonant, it was neither random nor innocent. Coventry's worldly bishop had few peers when it came to conversational ambushes, laying his verbal snares so deftly that his quarry rarely sensed danger until it was too late.
Aubrey had no intention, though, of falling heedlessly into the other bishop's trap. Stalling for time, he signaled for more wine;he prided himself upon his hospitality, so much so that men said none in the Marches set a finer table than His Grace, the Bishop of Chester. The servers were bringing in the next course, a large peacock afloat in a sea of gravy, bones strutted and skin and feathers painstakingly refitted, a sight impressive enough to elicit admiring murmurs from the guests. Aubrey's cooks had labored for hours to create this culinary masterpiece. Now he gazed at it with indifferent eyes, for the shadow of treason had fallen across the hall.
Was King Richard dead? Many men thought so, for certes. In alehouses and taverns, they argued whether his ship had been sunk in a gale or attacked by pirates. The credulous speculated about sea monsters. But as the weeks went by, more and more of the missing king's subjects suspected that he was dead, must be dead. And none willed it more passionately than the man Hugh de Nonant served.
The Crusade had been a failure; not even so fine a soldier-king as Richard had been able to reclaim Jerusalem from the infidels. But to Aubrey, the Lionheart's greatest failure was that he'd not sired a son. He'd named his young nephew Arthur as his heir, but Arthur was a child, dwelling with his mother in Brittany. There was another royal rival, one much closer at hand, Richard's younger brother, John, Count of Mortain. No one doubted that John would seek to deny Arthur the crown. What none could be sure of, however, was what the queen mother would do. All knew that Queen Eleanor and John were estranged. Yet he was still her son. If it came to war, whom would she back: John or Arthur?
Aubrey doubted that John would make a good king, for if the serpent was "more subtle than any beast of the field," so, too, was Queen Eleanor's youngest son, unfettered by scruples or conscience qualms. But he did not doubt that John would prevail over Arthur--one way or another. And so he'd concluded that if he were ever faced with that choice, he'd throw his lot in with John.
But this was far more dangerous. The Bishop of Coventry's deceptively innocuous question confirmed Aubrey's worst fears.John was not willing to wait for word of Richard's death. John had never been one for waiting. But what if Richard was not dead? What if he returned to reclaim his crown? If Arthur was no match for John, neither was John a match for Richard. His wrath would be terrible to behold. And even if he eventually forgave John, there would be no forgiveness for the men who'd backed him.
But Aubrey knew that if he balked at supporting John's coup and Richard was indeed dead, he'd be squandering his one chance to gain a king's favor. For John nursed a grudge to the grave, and he'd not be forgetting who stood with him ... and who had not.
"Well?" the Bishop of Coventry prodded, smiling amiably as if they were merely exchanging pleasantries. "What say you? Is he dead?"
Aubrey's own smile was as bland as almond milk. "If I knew the answer to that question, my lord bishop, I'd be riding straightaway for London to inform the queen."
"I fear the worst, alas," Hugh confided, though with no noticeable regret. "If evil has not befallen him, surely his whereabouts would be known by now."
"I'm not ready to abandon all hope," Aubrey parried, "and for certes, the queen is not."
"It is to be expected that a mother would cling to the last shreds of hope, no matter how meagre or paltry. But the rest of us do not have that luxury, for how long can England be without a king?" Hugh had a pleasant voice, mellow and intimate, ideal for sharing secrets, and his words reached Aubrey's ear alone. "How long dare we wait?"
Aubrey was spared the need to reply by the sudden appearance of his steward on the dais. "My lord bishop, may I have a word with you?"
"What is it, Martin? Is something amiss?"
"It is Justin, my lord. He rode in a few moments ago, is insisting that he must see you at once."
"Justin?" Aubrey was startled and not pleased. "Tell him I will see him after the meal is done and my guests have gone totheir beds. Have the cooks see that he is fed." To Aubrey's surprise, the steward made no move to withdraw. "Well?"
The man shifted uncomfortably. "It is just that ... that the lad seems sorely distraught, my lord. In truth, I've never seen him like this. I do not think he's of a mind to wait."
Aubrey kept his temper in check; he had contempt for men who were ruled by emotion and impulse. "I am not offering him a choice," he said coolly. "See to it."
He was vexed by Justin's unexpected and ill-timed arrival, and vaguely uneasy, too, with that peculiar discomfort that only Justin could provoke. Nor was his mood improved to realize that Hugh de Nonant had overheard the entire exchange.
"Who is Justin?"
Aubrey gave a dismissive shrug. "No one you know, my lord ... a foundling I took in some years back."
He'd hoped that Hugh would take the hint and let the matter drop. But the Bishop of Coventry had an eerie ability to scent out secrets. Like a pig rooting after acorns, Aubrey thought sourly, finding himself forced by the other's unseemly and persistent curiosity to explain that Justin's mother had died giving him birth. "The father was known but to God, and there were none to tend to the babe. It was my parish and so when his plight was brought to my attention, I agreed to do what I could. It is our duty, after all, to succor Christ's poor. As Scriptures say, 'Suffer the little children to come unto me.'"
"Very commendable," Hugh said, with hearty approval that would not have been suspect had the speaker been anyone else. He was regarding Aubrey benevolently, and Aubrey could only marvel at how deceptive outer packaging could be. The two men were utterly unlike in appearance: Aubrey tall and slim and elegant, his fair hair closely cropped and shot through with silver, and Hugh rotund and ruddy and balding, looking for all the world like a good-natured, elderly monk. But Aubrey knew this grandfatherly mien camouflaged a shrewd, cynical intelligence, and Hugh's curiosity about Justin was neither idle nor benign. Ever on the alert for weaknesses, the good bishop. And Aubreywas suddenly very angry with Justin for attracting the notice of so dangerous a man as Hugh de Nonant.
"It may be, though, that you've been too indulgent with the lad," Hugh remarked placidly. "It does seem rather presumptuous of him to demand an audience with you."
Aubrey declined the bait. "I've never had reason to complain of his manners ... until now. You may be sure that I'll take him to task for it."
A loud fanfare of trumpets turned all heads toward the door, heralding the arrival of the meal's piece de resistance: a great, glazed boar's head on a gleaming silver platter. Men leaned forward in their seats to see, Aubrey's minstrels struck up a carol, and in the flurry of the moment, the bishop's foundling was forgotten.
Aubrey began to relax, once more the gracious host, a role he played well. The respite gave him the chance, too, to consider his options. He must find a way to intimate--without actually saying so--that he was indeed sympathetic to John's cause, but not yet ready to commit himself, not until there was irrefutable proof of King Richard's death.
It was the sharp-eyed Hugh who first noticed the commotion at the far end of the hall. In the doorway, the steward was remonstrating with a tall, dark youth. As Hugh watched, the younger man pulled free of the steward's restraining hold and stalked up the center aisle toward the dais. Hugh leaned over and touched his host's sleeve. "May I assume that angry young interloper is your foundling?"
Oblivious to the intruder bearing down upon them, Aubrey had been conversing politely with the seatmate to his left, the venerable abbot of Chester's abbey of St Werburgh. At Hugh's amused warning, he stiffened in disbelief, then shoved his chair back.
Striding down the steps of the dais, he confronted Justin as he reached the open hearth, trailed by the steward. "How dare you force your way into my hall! Are you drunk?"
"We need to talk," Justin said tersely, and Aubrey stared athim incredulously, unable to believe that Justin could be defying him like this.
He was acutely aware of all the curious eyes upon them. The steward was hovering several feet away, looking utterly miserable--as well he ought. Martin had always been friendly with Justin, too friendly, it now seemed. "I told you that you must wait, Justin!"
"I have been waiting--for twenty years!"
Aubrey hesitated no longer. As bad as this was, it was about to get worse. Justin was a smoldering torch; God only knew what damage would be done if he flared up there in the hall. "Come with me," he said abruptly. "We'll talk above-stairs."
Aubrey could have led Justin up to his chambers above the hall. He chose, instead, to enter his private chapel, for that was his own province, and the familiarity of the surroundings might give him an edge. He was going to need every advantage he could get.
Two tall candles were lit upon the altar, and glowing between them was the silver-gilt crucifix that was Aubrey's particular pride, both as a symbol of faith and as a work of art. Reaching out, he ran his fingers lightly over the smooth surface while bracing himself for what was to come.
Justin had followed him toward the altar. "Were you ever going to tell me?"
"Tell you what?"
"That I'm your son."
There was no surprise. He'd known as soon as their eyes met in the hall. What else could have gotten Justin so agitated? His mouth was dry, but he still managed to summon up a thin, ironic smile. "Surely you are not serious?"
Justin was close enough now to touch, close enough for Aubrey to see the muscles tighten along his jaw. "I've come from Shrewsbury," he said. "I tracked down Hilde, the cook at St Alkmund's rectory. She told me about you and my mother."
"And you took an old woman's ramblings as gospel?"
"You deny it?"
"Yes," Aubrey said emphatically, "I do."
Justin looked at him, saying nothing. The silence seemed to fill every corner of the chapel, every corner of their lives. When Aubrey could endure it no longer, he said, "This night never happened. We need not refer to it again."
"How generous of you." Justin's voice was toneless, impossible to read. Turning away, he stood motionless for a moment before the altar, and Aubrey dared to think he had won. But then Justin swung around, holding out the silver-gilt crucifix.
"Swear it," he challenged. "Swear upon Our Lord Christ that you are not my father!"
Aubrey opened his mouth. But no words came out. It was so quiet that he could hear his own breathing, uneven and much too rapid. Or was it Justiri s? After an eternity, Justin lowered the crucifix, replacing it upon the altar.
"Well," he said, "at least you'll not lie to God."
Aubrey found it unexpectedly difficult to meet Justin's gaze. "There was no need for you to know," he said at last. "What mattered was that I did right by you, and you cannot deny that I did. I did not shirk my duty. You always had food for your belly, a roof over your head--"
"What are you saying? That I ought to thank you for not letting me starve?"
"I did more than that for you," Aubrey snapped, "and well you know it! I saw to your schooling, did I not? Nor did I turn away once you were old enough to fend for yourself. If not for me, Lord Fitz Alan would never have taken you on as a squire. You have nothing to reproach me for, Justin, nothing!"
"A pity my mother could not say as much!"
Aubrey's mouth hardened. "This serves for naught. The woman is twenty years dead. Let her lie in peace."
Justin's eyes were darker than Aubrey had ever seen them, a storm-sky grey. "Her death was convenient, was it not? How disappointed you must have been that I was not stillborn, for then you could have buried all your sins in one grave."
Aubrey lost color. "That is not true. You are not being fair, Justin."
"Fair? What fairness did you ever show my mother, even in death? Have you forgotten what you told me? I was fourteen, had finally gotten up the courage to ask you about her. You said that any woman bearing a child out of wedlock was a wanton, and I should put her out of my thoughts."
"I thought it was for the best."
"Best for you," Justin said scathingly, and then stunned Aubrey by starting toward the door.
Justin halted, his hand on the door latch, and then slowly turned around. "What more is there to say?"
"A great deal," Aubrey insisted. "We must decide how to deal with this. Do you mean to go back to Lord Fitz Alan? I think it best if I find you another position. You need not fret, for you'll not be the loser for it. I will write on your behalf to Walter de Fauconberg, Lord of Rise in Holderness up in Yorkshire, ask him to take you into his service."
"Will you, indeed?" Justin's face was in shadow, for he'd moved out of candle range. "Is Yorkshire far enough for you? Are you sure you'd rather not send me up into Scotland?"
Aubrey sucked in his breath. "Damnation, lad, I am trying to help you!"
"Are you truly as blind as that?" Justin asked huskily. "I do not want your help. If I were drowning, I'd not want you to throw me a lifeline!"
Aubrey stared at his son. "As you will. You may be sure that I'll not offer again. But I want your word that you'll say nothing of this to Lord Fitz Alan."
"I have no intention of telling Lord Fitz Alan that you're my father." Justin jerked the door open, then paused. "You see," he said, "you're nothing to boast about."
Aubrey's face flamed. Clenching and unclenching his fists, he stood before the altar, watching as the candles guttered in the sudden draft. Only gradually did he become aware of the cold. A pervasive chill seemed to have seeped into the stone walls of the chapel, as damp and icy and desolate as the December night.
It was a wretched January night, the air frigid, the sky choked with billowing clouds, the wind snarling at shuttered windows, chasing all but the most foolhardy of Winchester's citizens from its iced, empty streets. Most were huddled before their own hearths. But for Justin, who had neither hearth nor home, shelter on this dismal Epiphany Eve was a seedy, squalid alehouse on Tanner Street, in one of the city's poorest quarters.
The alehouse was drafty and dimly lit, reeking of sweat and smoke and the acrid odor of burning tallow. The company was as cheerless as the surroundings. The burly, taciturn owner inspired no tipsy confidences and tolerated no tomfoolery, serving his customers curtly and grudgingly, as if they were unbidden guests who'd overstayed their welcome. In the corner, a noisy drunkard was bullying the serving maid and bragging to all within earshot of his success in foisting off sacks of worm-eaten flour upon the lepers of St Mary Magdalen's. Across from Justin was a shabbily dressed man of middle years, grey haired and sad eyed, nursing a tankard of ale to last till closing. There were two tanners dicing by the hearth, being cheered on by a buxom harlot. And then there was Justin, brooding over the bad luck that seemed to be stalking him so relentlessly in the last fortnight.
Lord Fitz Alan had dismissed him, angered by his stubborn refusal to explain why he'd not returned from Shrewsbury straightaway as instructed. Justin was not entirely sorry to go, for Fitz Alan was part of a past he wanted only to repudiate. His one regret was that when his father learned of this, he'd think Justin had kept quiet for his sake. The truth was that the wound was still too raw. Nothing could have induced Justin to let Fitz Alan know how badly he was bleeding.
Riding away from Fitz Alan's Shropshire manor with meagre savings and uncertain prospects, he'd not despaired, though, for he was not friendless. Deliverance had come from an unlikely source: his father's steward.
Martin had been a member of the bishop's household for aslong as Justin could remember, and had often gone out of his way to show kindness to the solitary, wary child who bore a double stigma: illegitimate and orphaned. Justin had been grateful for the attention, and at last understood why the steward had been so protective. Martin had known or suspected the truth. How else explain what he'd done after that bitter scene in the bishop's chapel? Following Justin out to the stables, he'd given him the name of a kinsman, a Hampshire knight who might offer him employment should he have need of it.
Since he could expect no reference from Fitz Alan, Martin's recommendation was a godsend, and Justin had taken the road south, heading for the town of Andover. But the journey ended in disappointment: Martin's kinsman was in Normandy, not expected back until the spring. At a loss, Justin had continued on to Winchester, simply because he had nowhere else to go.
His ale cup was almost empty. Could he spare enough for a second ale? No ... not unless he expected to find a miraculous windfall on his way back to his inn. The door banged open, admitting two new customers. They were better dressed than the other patrons, and in better spirits, too, boisterously demanding service from the serving maid even before they laid claim to a nearby table. They were soon haggling with the prostitute over her price, so loudly that the others in the alehouse had no choice but to listen.
Involuntary eavesdropping was not Justin's idea of fun, and he was starting to rise when he was jolted by a braying cry of "Aubrey!" A third man had stumbled into the alehouse, weaving his way toward his beckoning companions. Justin sat back again and drained the last of his ale. The name Aubrey was a common one. Was he going to flinch every time he heard it uttered? His own name was far more unusual, and he'd often been called upon to explain that it was the name of an early Christian martyr. He wondered why his father had chosen it, if it held ironic undertones. What would his mother have named him had she lived? He knew nothing about her, not even her name. Nor would he ever know now, for the only person who could answer his questions was the last one he'd ask.
Another name now intruded into his awareness, catching his attention no less fully than "Aubrey" had done. His raucous neighbors were joking about King Richard's disappearance. The jests were lame, and Justin had heard them before. What intrigued him was the mention of the king's brother.
"I tell you," the man called Aubrey was insisting, "that the king's brother must be planning to do the Devil's work. One of the serjeants at the castle says he heard that John is hiring men as fast as he can find them. You two lackwits ought to give it some thought, for he's not particular. If a man has a pulse and can wield a sword, he'll be taken into John's service!"
Inn guests were expected to share beds, for privacy was an unknown luxury in their world. Sandwiched between two snoring strangers, Justin got little sleep. Rising at dawn, he discovered that it had snowed in the night.
Winchester was beginning to stir. A sleepy guard waved Justin on through the East Gate, and he headed out of the city on the Alresford Road. The sky was leaden. Justin had ridden less than a mile before it started to snow again. There were no other travelers, only a lone figure huddled by the side of the road. Justin wondered what dire need could send a man out to beg in the snow, and as he drew nearer, he had his answer in the latten clappers leaning against the beggar's alms bowl--used by lepers to warn people of their approach.
Justin had great pity for lepers, forsaken by all but God. Embarrassed and regretful that he could not afford to give alms, he drew rein and said politely, "Good morrow, friend."
The man's face was shadowed by his leper's cloak. Whether it also hid the ravages of his disease, Justin could not tell, but he did get a glimpse of the leper's mutilated hand, with stumps where fingers ought to have been. His own plight suddenly seemed less perilous, and Justin fumbled for his money pouch, leaned over, and dropped a farthing into the alms bowl, ashamed that he could spare so little. The leper had learned, though, to be thankful for the most meagre offering, even courtesy, and wished Justin "Godspeed."
The road was half hidden by snow and icy in patches. Fortunately, Justin's big chestnut was as surefooted as a mule. But it would be slow going, for he'd not risk the stallion's safety. Copper was his pride and joy; he knew how lucky he was to own a horse, especially one of Copper's calibre. He'd been able to buy the stallion only because the animal had gone lame and he'd offered more than the butcher would. It had taken months to nurse the chestnut back to health, but well worth the time and trouble. Reaching out, he gave the horse a pat on the neck, and then blew on his hands to warm them, for his fingers were beginning to cramp with the cold.
The innkeeper had told him that the village of Alresford was just seven miles from Winchester, and the village of Alton another eight miles or so. If this were summer, he could reasonably have expected to cover thirty miles before nightfall. Today he'd be lucky to reach Alton by dusk. From there it was another twenty miles to Guildford and a final thirty to his destination: London. That meant four or five days on the road, depending on the weather. It was a long way to go on a hunch.
Slackening the reins, Justin gave Copper a brief respite. The leper hospital of St Mary Magdalen had receded into the distance some time ago. The ground had leveled off, for St Giles's Hill was now far behind him. It was like a ghost road, though; the only other soul he'd seen was the leper.
Was this a fool's mission, riding for London? Lying awake last night in that forlorn, flea-infested inn, he'd thought long and hard about his future and his survival skills. During his years in Lord Fitz Alan's service, he'd been taught to handle a sword. And he knew how to read and write. He'd been well educated for a "harlot's bastard." At least now he understood why: not Christian charity, a sop to a guilty conscience.
But that education might well be his salvation. He'd heard that London scribes set up booths in the nave of St Paul's Cathedral, writing letters and legal documents for a price. If he could hire out as a scribe, mayhap he could buy himself some time, a chance to decide what he should do next.
Or he could take another fork in the road. He could offer hissword to the king's brother. If that lout in the alehouse had spoken true, John was not asking for references. Justin did not know whether he wanted to fight to make John King of England. But he suspected that hunger would banish such qualms right quick.
The road had begun to narrow, for he was well into the woods now. Bare, skeletal branches stabbed the sky over his head. Ice-glazed ash swayed in the wind and the starkly graceful silhouettes of silver birch rose up behind him. The underbrush was thick and tangled with elder shrubs, holly, and hawthorn hedges, and the glistening, unsullied snow was occasionally smudged by deer tracks and paw prints of marten and fox. A rabbit sprinted for cover and an inquisitive red squirrel followed Justin for a time, sailing from tree to tree with acrobatic ease. There was an austere beauty about this frozen, snow-drifted landscape, but Justin would have appreciated it better had he not been half-frozen himself.
"No, it's not him."
Startled by the sudden sound of voices, so utterly out of place in this quiet, sylvan setting, Justin swung around in the saddle, reaching for the hilt of his sword. Off to his left, several fallen trees had formed a covert, screened off by glossy, green holly boughs. To a lost traveler, this sheltered lair offered sanctuary. To an outlaw, ideal camouflage for an ambush.
Justin spurred Copper forward and the stallion responded like a launched arrow, sending up a spray of snow as he lengthened stride. Within moments, they were in the clear. Glancing over his shoulder, Justin saw no movement, suspicious or otherwise. It was easy to doubt his own senses, to wonder if he'd imagined those disembodied woodland whispers. "Fool," he jeered aloud. "I'll be seeing forest phantoms next, Copper, with a few horned demons thrown in for good measure!"
But there had been something very disquieting about those eerie whispers, and his unease lingered. "We ought to be at Alresford soon," he told his stallion, and the horse twitched his ears at the sound of his voice. So far the snowfall had been light and powdery and the wind seemed to be dying down. God Willing,the rest of his journey would be trouble free. What would London be like? He'd been told that more than twenty-five thousand souls dwelled within its walls, but he could not imagine a city so huge. He was no stranger to towns, having passed his childhood in Shrewsbury and Chester, and he'd been to Oxford and now Winchester. None of them could compare, though, to London in size or significance.
The first shout was muffled, indistinct. Justin reined in, straining to hear. It came again, and this time there was no mistaking what it was: a desperate appeal for help. Later--much later--Justin would marvel at his reckless response. Now, though, he reacted instinctively, drawn irresistibly by the haunting echoes of that urgent, despairing cry.
Backtracking through the snow, he turned a bend in the road and nearly collided with a runaway, riderless horse. Swerving just in time to avoid the panicked animal, he unsheathed his sword, for any doubts he'd had about what he might find had been dispelled.
The sounds of strife had gotten louder. Responding gamely to Justin's urging, his stallion skimmed over the snow, reaching a dangerous level of speed for such treacherous terrain. Up ahead, a horse neighed shrilly. There was another choked cry for help, a burst of cursing. By then Justin was within sight of the covert. A figure lay prone in the middle of the road, groaning. Nearby, two men were struggling fiercely, while a third man sought to hold on to the reins of a plunging roan stallion. But although Justin was now close enough to see what was occurring, he was not yet close enough to prevent what happened next. One of the men suddenly staggered, then slumped to the ground at his assailant's feet. The outlaw never hesitated. Bending over his victim, blood still dripping from his dagger, he stripped rings from the man's fingers, then began a hasty search of the body.
"Did you find it?" Getting a grunt in reply, the second outlaw tried to lead the horse over, swearing when the animal balked. "Mayhap he hid it in his tunic. He--Christ's Blood! Gib, beware!"
Gib spun around, saw Justin racing toward them, sworddrawn, and lunged to his feet. In three strides, he reached the roan stallion, vaulting up into the saddle. "What are you waiting for, you dolt!" he snarled at his partner, who'd yet to move, continuing to gape at Justin's approach. Coming to his senses, the laggard grabbed for the outstretched hand and scrambled up behind his companion. By the time Justin reached the ambush scene, the outlaws were in flight.
Justin had no intention of pursuit. They would have horses hidden close by, and they knew these woods far better than he. As he reined in his mount, he almost came to grief, for Copper shied without warning, nearly unseating him. From the corner of his eye, he caught a slithering, sideways movement, and somewhere in the back of his brain, he noted it, a puzzle to be resolved later, for snakes usually denned up in burrows during the winter months. At the moment, though, his only concern was in calming his horse. Once he had, he dismounted swiftly, anchored Copper to a nearby bush, and turned his attention toward the men.
The closer of the two was a strapping youth about Justin's own age. His face was as colorless as the snow, his hair matted with blood, and he looked dazed and disoriented. But he'd managed to sit up, and Justin bypassed him in favor of the second man, who lay ominously still, a crimson stain spreading beyond him into the snow. Kneeling by his side, Justin caught his breath, for he knew at once that he was looking death in the face.
The man was well past his youth, fifty or so to judge by the grey generously salted throughout the walnut-brown hair and neatly trimmed beard. His mantle was of good quality wool, his boots of soft cowhide, and from what Justin had seen of his stolen roan stallion, he'd been riding an exceptionally fine animal. A man very prosperous, for certes, wealthy enough to be traveling with a servant, dying now in trampled, bloodied snow, unshriven and alone, with only a stranger to hold his hand.
Never had Justin felt so helpless. He attempted to staunch the bleeding with that costly wool mantle, but soon saw it was futile. Cradling the man's head in the crook of his arm, he unhooked the wineskin from his belt, murmuring words of comfort andhope that he knew to be lies. A life was ebbing away before his eyes, and he could do nothing.
The man's lashes quivered. His pupils were dilated, glassy, and unseeing. When Justin tilted the wineskin to his lips, the liquid dribbled down his chin. By now the other man had stumbled over, sinking down in the snow beside them. From him, Justin learned that the dying man was an affluent Winchester goldsmith, Gervase Fitz Randolph, on his way to London on a secret matter that he'd confided to no one, when they'd been set upon by bandits who'd somehow spooked their horses. "I was thrown," the youth said, stifling a sob. "I am sorry, Master Gervase, so sorry ..."
The sound of his name seemed to rouse Gervase from his stupor. His gaze wandered at first, then slowly focused upon Justin. His chest heaved as he sought to draw air into his laboring lungs, but he had a need no less pressing than his pain, and he ignored Justin's plea to lie still.
"They ... did not ... not get it ..." His words were slurred, soft as a sigh, yet oddly triumphant, too.
Justin was puzzled, for he'd seen the outlaw steal Gervase's money pouch. "What did they not get?"
"Her letter ..." Gervase gulped for air, and then said with surprising clarity, "I cannot fail her. You must promise me, promise ..."
"Promise you what?" Justin asked warily, for a deathbed promise was a spiritual spider's web, sure to ensnare.
Blood had begun to trickle from the corner of Gervase's mouth. When he spoke again, Justin had to bend down to hear, so close that he could feel Gervase's faltering breath on his face. Unable to believe what he'd just heard, he stared incredulously at the mortally wounded goldsmith. "What did you say?"
"Promise me," Gervase repeated, and if his voice was weak, his eyes burned into Justin's with mesmerizing fervor. "You must deliver this letter to her ... to the queen."