Nicola quietly looked out the window, but her tight grip on the stone sill betrayed her attention to the summons.
“Lord Ovin is ready.”
Nicola turned from the window. Not even the warm morning light lifted the pallor from her face as she looked at the man-at-arms. She gathered her woolen mantle around her and followed him down the stair. As the sounds of hounds barking and harness jingling came closer, Nicola stopped.
“Martin, are you sure?” she whispered. “How can we possibly take action? There are too many people watching.”
He sighed and turned part way. “My lady, that is what we are doing today. Looking for the way we can take action.” He held up a hand as she opened her mouth again. “No, I don’t know if it will work, but I do know Ovin is expecting you. Now.” He turned around and continued, not checking to see if she followed.
Nicola hurried after.
The courtyard bustled in its normal Tuesday activity. Today was Tuesday, and Tuesday meant taxes. Lord Ovin believed in collecting dues on a regular basis. Harvest time, of course, brought in more concentrated revenue, but every fortnight he would squeeze out additional profit from some of his peasants.
Today a horse stood ready for Nicola. Ovin saw her approach the company and smirked.
“And here is our lady-in-training. Let’s see if we can tame her flightiness into something steadier and ready for the hand of her own strong lord someday.”
Nicola flushed slightly but carried herself demurely to where the chestnut mare stood and accepted help mounting. She nodded gracefully in thanks to the retainer.
“Soft,” snorted Lord Ovin.
Nicola pulled herself up taut, but kept her tongue quiet. Staring regally forward, she never saw when the retainer slipped away from Lord Ovin’s circle of attention.
Along the way, Ovin nigh on chattered about the profits of regular tax collecting and tips on doing the job well. “Watch the ground,” he said. “Hoofprints will bewray the livestock’s presence. Peasants are always trying to slip out from paying their just taxes.” He tapped his horse’ shoulder impatiently with his whip. “Another reason to keep a proper aloofness. Don’t muddle the signs of taxable beasts.”
Nicola gently rubbed her own horse’s shoulder, then quickly glanced over to make certain her guardian was not watching.
From one cottage to another Nicola watched Ovin extract coins, produce, and occasionally an animal from the residents. At one cottage, an aging widow pushed her way to Nicola’s mount, laying her hands on the young lady’s skirts and pleading for mercy. Nicola straightened stiffer than ever. Her heart squeezed itself into a hard lump. She did not need to look to feel Ovin’s cold, thoughtful gaze rest on the scene a few stone-heavy moments before beckoning to one of his men to pull the peasant away. At least he did not warm his whip on her.
Nicola welcomed the return to the castle that afternoon. She retired to her bedchamber early and threw herself onto the feather bed. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to block out the day’s images along with the light: sour glares, spindly limbs, crying babes. But the images continued to haunt her mind’s eye throughout the night and into the next week.
One day she cornered Martin alone in a corridor. “Martin, I just cannot keep up appearance.” Tears blurred his face as she clutched at his sleeve. “There is no way to help these people. And I just keep thinking—oh, Martin, what of that widow? Her only goat!” She let go to cover her face with both hands. “Is she—do you know if she is even still living”
“You couldn’t have helped, you know.” Martin tried to comfort her. “Remember what happened when you gave charity to that scullery maid.”
Martin cleared his throat. “It’s only been one trip. Maybe we’ll find a way next time.”
“I wish Idda was still here.”
Martin sighed. “And your father, too, while you’re at it. And—”
“A pox on the pox!” Nicola whirled around and strode back along the passageway. She could hear Martin grumbling behind her.
“Aye, well, I doubt ‘twould have helped your old nurse any.”
A mere two days before the next tax day, Ovin received a summons to appear before his leigelord and render his service. He sent back word with the messenger graciously enough, but soured the evening breaking of bread with his surly attitude.
“Peasants need to know what’s coming to them is verily coming, with no room in mind for question. If questions are allowed to rise, in little time they will raise the question, ‘May we not take the rule?’ Then reigns anarchy! Was not your own father slain, Nicola, in a peasant revolt? And I myself narrowly escaped as I guarded our lord’s treasury.” He slammed his chalice down on the trestle table.
Nicola prodded the mutton on her plate with her knife. “You wouldn’t have to go.”
Ovin practically roared. “Have you not been listening to a word I said? You weak-minded fool! If I allow delay—“
“No! Send me!” Nicola clanked the knife down and tossed her chin up to meet her guardian’s eye. Almost immediately she had to grab the table planks to keep from flinching away from his hot glare.
“I—you took me with you last time—to learn. And I wouldn’t be alone. Martin would—”
But Ovin had already started to nod. He cut Nicola off with a wave of his hand.
“Yes. Yes, that would be just the thing for you. This is an easy run, too, mostly coin. Of course you shall not go alone. I’ll arrange a party to go with you. They’ll crush any trouble that tries to stir. And they’ll make sure no one tries to cheat me over the worth of livestock. I’ll want a large enough number to encourage proper fear, but not so many as to appear I need an army to do my will.”
“Martin,” Nicola began, half rising from her bench seat.
“Yes, yes, bring him if you want.”
Nicola ducked her head. She began eating again, faster than normal. She would need Martin to slip away with some of her jewelry before then. She ran over the pieces in her head and tried to decide which would be least missed and sell for more.
Tax day broke clear and cool. Nicola forced herself to wait for the sky to soften to gray before she readied herself for the day. Dressed and with her hair bound tightly back, Nicola rubbed her face with cold water one more time. Now her heart pounded sharply and nervous tingles plagued her, but she wished to wash all sleeplessness from her eyes lest it creep up on her later. She drew a smokey-blue cloak around herself and pulled up the hood. She went to break her fast in the Great Hall. She could hear stirrings from the kitchen. Bread and cheese should be available to break her fast if her stomach would prove up to the task.
Nicola pranced about, hands restless, waiting for the retainers. They trickled in at their usual times. Martin seemed to be latest of all. He walked in, looking about uncertainly. Nicola practically pounced on him.
“Well?” Her voice arched up to brush with sarcasm. “Are you quite ready?”
Martin raised his heavy eyebrows, but bowed with all gravity. “Aye, my lady. I had but to seek my ladyship and attend upon her needs, and now I have found her.”
“Good.” Nicola then lifted her voice. “We are now ready to depart,” she announced to the room’s inhabitants. Freezing, she shot a hurried glance at Martin.
Martin inclined his head and slid a hand beneath his heavy cloak.
Nicola relaxed. “To the horses!” she trilled.
The latest comers left their victuals with less than enthusiasm.
For the whole of the morning Nicola sat rigidly on her steed. She worked hard on maintaining a haughty aloofness. This was partly to maintain her cover in front of her guardian’s agents, and partly an excuse not to meet any of the agonized pleas more directly than she must. And pleas she did receive, some silent and others loud and urgent.
Tenant after tenant dared to hope for mercy in Ovin’s absence. Nicola dared not give them reason to think their hopes had any foundation. She impatiently pushed through each affair, her heart stuttering lest Ovin’s men find any chance to heap up unnecessary abuse before they left.
The lingering Martin alone gave her ease. He dallied to bestow upon each overtaxed victim a small return from the monies gained from the sale of Nicola’s jewelry. It could not fully repay the tax, but she hoped it would help to ease the burden.
When the sun rose high in the sky, anxiety squeezed Nicola’s middle. They had made a great many stops, and she began to doubt Martin’s bag of money would last. Still, he continued to linger behind. After their last stop, collecting half a dozen head of sheep, Nicola counted every step her horse made before Martin caught up. She looked over at him and chewed her tongue, trying to think how to ask if the coins had been enough.
He caught her gaze and smiled.
When Ovin returned home and reviewed the takings, he was very pleased.
“You didn’t give an inch,” he said, running his thumb down the edge of the parchment records. “That’s more like the father of yours I remember. He never backed, nay, not when the fight was a broken spear-shaft against a dozen pitchforks.” Ovin shook his head. “Aye, well, perhaps this is good for you. I’ll let you try your hand on taxes regular starting today, and to keep your interest engaged, I’ll let you keep all of the squeeze.”
That evening Nicola summoned Martin to her chamber and closed the door. Pacing about ever more rapidly, she told the man-at-arms of her guardian’s words.
He listened in silence, arms folded across his chest.
“Don’t you see how perfect it is?” she finished. “If I merely forego the squeeze, the sting will be removed from the taxes, and my lord Ovin need—”
“But-but Martin.” Nicola finally stood still.
“I haven’t the money to make another round like the last.” Nicola looped one of her tresses about a finger and tugged. “And I will not—cannot! take so much from the peasants.”
“You can. And you will.”
“Martin! Would you have every peasant on this land starving—”
“Do you think that Lord Ovin would not know? Will he send you by yourself, do you think? Or are his cronies so dense as to not notice when you take less than your lord? And keep none.”
Nicola pulled her fingers into tight fists.
“No, my lady.” Martin gentled his voice. “You will take your squeeze. But you will not keep it.”
“Oh, Martin! But how? Surely they will notice if I give you the money each time.”
“We will have to wait until later. After, perhaps under night’s wings, I can slip out—”
Martin frowned, but now Nicola crossed her arms. “Come with me,” she said, “But it is my venture, too. And do not forget where you will have to come to get the silver.”
And so they began. It was like a whole new life. Nicola’s heart twisted to leave cottage after cottage stripped almost to the bone, but each excursion under night sky brought as much lightness to her heart as it did to her purse.
Then came the pigs.
Gathering livestock was always difficult on Nicola. Money was easy to return. One coin looks like another. A cow, though, even could it be disguised, would attract notice if it reappeared. Since Nicola always took money only for her share in the work, she was able to take a little extra from the collection when animals were taken and use that to return a little more coin to those losing livestock. Still, silver gives neither milk nor wool.
That day she stared in dismay at the pen full of squealing piglets before her. This peasant had no coin and a crooked foot kept him from farming all but the strictly required land strips due his superiors. All fifteen of the piglets were due Lord Ovin.
The men were in the pen with the frantic piglets. Nicola was uncertain whether they hoped to seize the piglets and carry them off one by one or to herd them as a drove. Neither plan succeeded.
The peasant stood to the side, cursing and mocking. “I hope the old sow bites your legs! That’s right, roll about in the mud a bit more. Maybe I can change you in for some of the livestock my lord demands.”
“You’re lucky we don’t skewer the sow right now,” said one of the guards. He had been knocked down trying to cut off a piglet, and now tried to kick free of the big pig’s hooves before she started using her teeth.
“So lucky. Now I can slaughter my breeding stock for this winter and put off starving a year. Unless his lordship decides to tax that as well,” the peasant snapped.
Nicola nudged her mount up to the gate. Shifting her cape to block anyone’s view of her foot, she nudged the latch with her toe. In the confusion she hoped to open the gate enough to let out just a piglet or two with no one the wiser. Later Martin could help round them up for the peasant to either keep in a hidden pen in the forest or to sell at market. Nicola prodded the gate open a few inches.
She felt the gate begin to swing out. She glanced down to see when one or two piglets had slipped out. Instead, a whole wave of squealing pigs surging toward her.
The gate burst open. Nicola’s horse shied and reared as swine burst out. Nicola yelped and grabbed at the horse’s mane. She lingered on the horse’s back long enough to land on the back of the sow as she shot by.
The ride did not last long. In three short zig-zags Nicola bounced to the ground, the pig’s ear slipping from her fingers.
Martin ran over. “My lady, are you well?”
Nicola couldn’t answer a few moments for lack of breath. “I think she stepped on me,” she finally answered.
Martin looked sharply at the horse.
“No, the sow,” said Nicola. She slowly sat up and felt her arms and legs.
The retainers spread out through the forest, running after the escaping taxes.
The peasant stood where he was and laughed. “It seems high ladies are better squealers than a whole brood of piglets,” he jeered.
“Have you nothing better to do, wretch, than mock a damsel’s distress?” Martin asked. He helped Nicola to her feet with a snap of his arm.
“Eh, well, leastways I know not to waste my time running after piglets through the brush. You could not lay a hand on one when they were put away. I’ll not be seeing my sow again, either.” He smirked. “You can tell Lord Ovin that this time he owes me. And a scrawny little runt won’t even the score, either. Never thought I’d see the day I was the creditor.”
Lord Ovin was not pleased to hear about the pigs. He held his words, but his face spoke clearly. Nicola kept as far as she could from his business that day. She did not dare to leave her chamber that evening, but sent Martin out alone with the money. There was less than usual that night, for Ovin had taken the price of the escaped piglets from out of the squeeze.
A few days later Lord Ovin called for a feast to be laid. A neighboring knight would be staying the evening. Two maids came to attend Nicola, but she soon dismissed them. Their chatter and fussing reminded her too much of her old nurse, Idda. Slowly Nicola finished binding her hair and arranging her headrail. A year had passed since Idda’s death, and she had almost become accustomed to the loss, but from time to from time memories pressed hard upon her. Walking down the hallway, Nicola almost didn’t notice Lord Ovin in time to not bump into him. She stopped with surprise. She had expected him to be in the hall already with his guest.
“You’re late,” he said.
This was not quite true. Nicola had given herself enough time not to make a late entrance or delay the meal. She had no desire to call undue attention to herself, especially not with Lord Ovin’s lingering disapproval towards herself.
“Did you not hear this was a feast? Where is your fine apparel? Jewels? What were those worthless servants thinking?” Ovin scowled.
“I – I sent them…I didn’t think—”
“What will Sir Quintin think? Go upstairs and change.” Lord Ovin made a sharp movement with his hand.
Nicola fled upstairs. Her shaking fingers fumbled at the laces. Now she truly was late. Finally the dress came off. Nicola flung it onto her bed and pulled on her best dress. The laces on this dress co-operated no better. She took a long, slow breath and closed her eyes. Little by little the laces pulled the dress into place and fastened it. Then she went over to her jewel chest to find a necklace. She picked the best one she had kept—silver with amber pendant.
Nicola scurried down the stairs, but pulled back at the hall’s threshold. The whole hall seemed to be frozen in silence except for a man in a surcoat of argent, sable and vert. His ears were bright red and color rose slowly above his beard line as he roared at a man before him.
“Never! And do not think that this is the end of the matter. In the morning I will personally see to it that you get twenty strokes, if I have to deliver them myself. Now get out of my sight! Nigel, if there’s one problem…”
The man answered with a quick bow and left the hall, accompanied by another. Both men in green and black liveries passed near by Nicola. She shrank back, but neither seemed to notice her.
The angry man took off his cloak and gave it a hard shake before draping it over the guest chair and sitting.
Nicola softly made her way to the table, sitting on the bench as far from Lord Ovin and Sir Quintin as she dared.
“I offer you my apologies,” Sir Quintin said to Ovin. “I am grieved that you should have had to bear such behavior in your own hall.”
“Nonsense.” Lord Ovin waved his goblet in dismissal. “You are dealing with your underlings with the firmness they need.” He nodded toward Nicola. “I must apologize for our tardy start.” His eyes quickly appraised her, and he frowned.
Nicola’s heart tumbled about like a jester at the fair. Had she not laced her dress properly? Did he expect another necklace?
“The young lady seems to have been distracted in her dressing.” Lord Ovin kept the hardness in his eyes out from his voice. He took a swift drink and set the goblet down.
“Your heir?” asked Sir Quintin.
“Not mine. My Lord Earl of Derby appointed me her guardian at her father’s death.” He commenced to tell the knight all about the peasant attack along the wayside where her father had risked—and lost—his life to bring the earl to shelter when others had fled or hid themselves. He did not even mention his own staunch stand, single-handedly defending the treasure store, but went on to elaborate the dowery the earl had promised Nicola to honor her fallen father.
“She knows some about running a manor,” he continued “I’ve even had her help in collecting rent. It’s good to have a weighty understanding about taxes.”
“You send her out for collections? Alone?” Sir Quintin’s eyebrows drew together.
“No, no, of course not. She had a full band of men under her.”
Sir Quintin stroked his beard. “Are you quite sure that was safe? The king’s own guardsmen have had trouble with attacks when carrying tax money.”
Lord Ovin shook his head. “You’re thinking of the outlaws lurking deep in the wilderness. Nicola stays on the manor lands. Besides, she has a woman’s touch. They all look after her with love-struck eyes. I’ve seen them. She must take after her mother, God rest her soul. Her feminine charms would probably be a more sure guard than any armed men I could send.” He looked over at Nicola in a calculating way that sent her stomach scurrying about, looking for a place to hide. She did not hear one bit more of the conversation that evening.
When time came to arrange the delivery of the king’s taxes, Lord Ovin assigned the trip to Nicola.
“There’s a market just beyond your deposit spot. It is the perfect cover, even if the Sherwood outlaws didn’t pride themselves in their bard-touted chivalry toward women.”
“If you don’t think I’ll be attacked, why are you sending such a big escort?” She rubbed at the iron ring she wore that day to show Ovin that she did still have jewelry, lest he wonder.
“Am I such a fool as to believe the bards? And even were I, even fools know that more than one band of villains roam the roads.”
Nicola retired to ponder the matter. Her guardian had not sent her on any tax collecting missions since the pig fiasco, and Martin thought this was the perfect opportunity to redirect all the money under guise of its having been stolen by outlaws despite Ovin’s ploy. Nicola remained skittish of the idea. It sounded uncomfortably like theft.
“Recovery, you mean,” Martin retorted.
“But it’s the king’s.”
“So the king steals from the poor as well. Or has brutes like Ovin do it for him. It’s still an act of restoration.”
Nicola hoped the extra armed guard would put the idea out of being a possibility.
Martin became more and more impatient. “Where else will we get the money?” he demanded.
Still, the night before the trip Nicola had not given consent.
That evening, Lord Ovin called her to himself to give detailed instructions about where to go and how to deliver the king’s due. “Linnel knows the mode. But you are the one carrying the task out, and you are the one carrying the money. So,” Ovin sat back smugly. “As long as you remember to wait to go to the fair after taking care of business, you should have a successful trip.”
“The fair. That is what this whole trip is about, remember. Besides, it gives you the perfect chance to use the money you’ve been collecting on pretty cloth or ornaments. A suitor like Sir Quintin will be more likely to woo beauty than wealth, it would seem. He didn’t even seem to listen to the barley yield of your promised dowry land.”
“Not yet, but he would make a find husband. Sensible head, strong leader—you need to make a better impression on him next time.”
“Next time!” Lord Ovin shoved himself up. “Are you addle-pated that you must repeat every thing I say? Next time he visits! Now get to bed. Hopefully you will recover your wits by the morning.”
Nicola stumbled off. She almost did not see the way before her as she remembered Sir Quintin’s angry, red face. The words “deliver them myself” and “twenty strokes” kept ringing through her mind. She jumped to find Martin before her.
“My lady?” he said. “We journey on the morrow.”
“Oh, Martin.” She stretched out her hand toward him. “He hopes me to marry that cruel knight, and spend all my money on—Oh! The money! What will I ever do at the fair?”
“It’s not too late to make arrangements,” said Martin. “I have some friends who can help. We need never get so far as the fair.”
Nicola hesitated, then nodded once.
Martin gave a quick bow and hurried away.
The next morning the party left early enough to reach Sherwood before the sun could fully pierce through the thick leaves. Nicola slowly edged her way to the front of the party. She tried to keep her eyes forward. She did not wish to call attention to any of Martin’s friends who might be nearby, nor raise suspicion in any other lurkers.
The deeper in they went, the tighter the group seemed to pull. Nicola began to wonder if she might not be trapped, when the signal came.
An arrow flew over their heads. Nicola pulled her horse as still as she could. The next arrow passed by her by a foot. She could feel her horse pull back in a start. Martin gave him a subtle kick, and the horse leaped forward.
“Wait, Tempest! What are you doing?” She yelled even while urging her mare on. The horse leapt forward while the guardsmen snatched for their weapons.
“I’ll get my lady!” yelled Martin.
As soon as she was out of sight, Nicola turned Tempest aside and pushed through the thick undergrowth. She did not dare travel far from the road, but stopped as soon as she was hidden from it. Sliding down from her horse, she waited, straining her ears to pick up any clues as to what was happening. She jumped when someone came pushing through the bushes.
It was Martin. He grinned. “You’re easy to track,” he said. “I went a bit farther to start a false trail, in case anyone finds time to come look for us. Do you have the money?”
Nicola pulled the bags out from the pack on her horse.
Martin nodded, and another man appeared from among the trees.
“She has it,” said Martin. “You know the place. And don’t think we don’t know every half-penny in those sacks.”
Nicola glanced at Martin, startled. He gestured for her to hand the money over. Still she hesitated.
“It isn’t safe for us to return with it,” he explained. “They might find it on us. We’ll collect the money later tonight.”
Slowly Nicola handed the tax money over to the stranger. He grabbed it and ducked back into the shadows.
“Come,” said Martin. “It’s time I returned with the rescued maiden before the rest have a chance to join the search. The—feint should be over by now.”
With no money, the trip had no point, so the whole party turned around and retraced their steps.
Lord Ovin was furious. “Can you do nothing right?” he roared. “Now I have to cover the whole countryside’s tax at my own expense! I should make you pay it.”
Nicola decided then was not the time to point out she had no money. At least Lord Ovin would credit that to outlaws rather than finding the lack suspicious.
When dark fell, Nicola tied a rope to her window. Carefully she scanned the area. No guards were visible. She let the rope drop. A figure darted out from a nearby outbuilding and ran toward the rope. Nicola knew it must be Martin, but held her breath until he had climbed high enough to recognize.
At the top, he let her fumble onto his back and carried her down with him again. Neither spoke as they slipped out a side wall gate and into the forest. Under cover of the trees, two horses waited, tied.
“You know the exact amount, do you not?” Martin asked before they mounted.
Nicola nodded, and they continued in silence until they reached an old, hollow oak tree. Once they dismounted, several other figures approached from the darkness.
Nicola recognized the stranger from that morning.
Martin stretched out his hand and the stranger tipped his head at two of his followers. They approached and rendered the bags of money to Martin. He handed them to Nicola. “Count it,” he said. She obediently bent down and counted out the coins. She went quickly, uncomfortable to be crouching down in front of such an audience.
“Silvester was hurt. That will cost,” said the stranger.
“Fine,” said Martin. “Double the cost.”
“Measure it out.”
Nicola watched in shock as Martin measured out a half pound into the stranger’s had. She did not shake the shock until the band had slipped away and left her alone again with Martin. She whirled to him. “What—what was that?” she whispered fiercely. “That money is for the peasants!”
“It’s gone to a good use. Many have been cheated and abused.”
“But—but—we stole from the king’s own—”
Martin laid his hand softly on her mouth. “Repossessed. And,” here he grinned, “Did you not listen to the Lord Ovin? The king will get his taxes. We are just helping return some of his own greedy gains to those who need them more.” He drew back to mount his horse. “Now we need to hide this where Lord Ovin will not find it.”
Nicola’s mouth was still open, but not finding the right words to put in it, she closed it and mounted to follow Martin.
Closer to the castle was an especially tall oak with thick, dark leaves. The plan was to tie the bags in the treetop. Martin climbed up with a rope. At the top he dropped one end down. Nicola tied one bag to the rope and called like an owl. She watched as the bag rose through the branches and out of sight. Soon the rope dropped down again and she tied up the second bag. That was when she heard hoofbeats. They were coming hard and fast. Nicola called like an owl again. The bag began to ascend. It was not quite quick enough. A mounted figure rode into sight. Nicola pushed herself back against the tree trunk, hoping the rider would not see her. He went fast for a night ride through the forest. She doubted he could miss seeing the bag rising.
Perhaps she was wrong. He headed toward it, but did not slow his pace. No—he ran right into it. The bag of coins smacked into his head. The rider reeled.
Nicola scrambled around the tree to better cover.
The bag, now swinging, hit the rider again and he fell from his horse. As he regained his feet, Nicola saw his face. Lord Ovin.
Lord Ovin must not see the money. He must not find Martin hiding in a tree. She trilled like a nightjar, calling Martin to lower the bag. The bag, still swinging, began to descend.
Lord Ovin whirled around, looking for what had assailed his person, just as the bag of silver reached head level. He spun right into it.
Nicola called like a nightjar again as Lord Ovin fell to the ground. She called and called. Martin must have dropped the rope, because the bag crashed over Lord Ovin’s head. Silver spilled out.
Ovin groaned, but did not try to rise again.
Martin slid down the trunk. Nicola gestured frantically at the fallen lord. Martin growled and scooped up the bag. He started to collect the spilled coins, but Nicola tugged at him.
“It’s too dangerous! We need to go,” she said.
“We haven’t finished our task,” he answered.
Nicola watched Lord Ovin for movement. “We need to go. Now! We can bring it with us.:
Martin glared at Lord Ovin, but came away. They rode back and slipped into he manor grounds. At the foot of the tower, Nicola turned around. “Do you think he’s all right?” she asked. “You don’t think he’s—he’s—”
“Women,” Martin growled. He heaved Nicola onto his back and began to climb. At the top, he deposited Nicola through the window. “This time,” he said, “I’m dealing out the money myself.” He dropped back into the darkness.
Nicola was too worried to argue.
The next morning she was relieved to see Lord Ovin breaking his fast in the Great Hall. He was irritable and complained of a headache, but distinctly alive. Martin, however, was nowhere to be seen.
Over the next few days, Martin made himself scarce. Even when his path crossed with Nicola’s he did not speak to her. Still, she managed to tell herself there was no time to meet anyway. Lord Ovin was planning a longer, more circuitous journey to deliver the taxes himself. Nicola was to go along and witness the way a successful trip was managed.
Martin went, too. Several days into the trip, progress was good. He would speak to Nicola again, though they only exchanged formal pleasantries and other such talk as was fitting for a lady and her man-at-arms.
Half-way through the third day, they rounded a bend in the path to find a ragged man sitting at the side of the road.
“Good morrow,” he said cheerily. “Might you have a loaf to spare for a hungry wayfarer?”
Lord Ovin scowled. “We have no time for beggars.”
“Where are you going in such haste?” The stranger brushed his yellow hair away from his eyes.
“Keep your nose to your own business if you wish to keep your nose at all,” Lord Ovin retorted.
“It must be business matters,” the raggedy man said. “Money seems to make men ill-tempered.” From the tatters on his chest, he pulled out a silver horn and blew three blasts.
Immediately, the traveling party pulled tighter. Men began unsheathing swords and wheeling their horses to face the countryside. All around archers appeared.
Nicola felt someone tug her. She looked back. Martin was behind her.
“Off your horse,” he said “Quickly.”
Nicola slipped off.
Martin pulled her away, off the path. Dodging between rocks, they ran. A short distance away, they found a crevice. Martin shoved Nicola in.
“Stay,” he said, then left.
She was close enough to hear the conflict. Twice a horse galloped away. In time the sounds of fighting gave way to talk. Nicola strained to hear.
“I wish we could offer you our hospitality, but we are travelers ourselves,” the blond stranger said. “We are just on our way back from the Queen’s fair. So let us get right to business and I’ll be on my way home to Sherwood.”
“How dare you! Who do you think you are?” That was Lord Ovin.
“Forgive my manners. I am known as Robin Hood. And who have I the pleasure of meeting?”
Lord Ovin roared incoherently. For a while that was the only sound Nicola could hear. Then the band must have begun their robbing. Ovin’s yells became more coherent.
“Villain! Uncouth Barbarian! That belongs to the king.”
“Hear, hear! Our friend has an answer to our dilemma. Who should host our visit but the king? I am his guest as of late, and you are about his business. What could be more reasonable?”
Voices began to be more jumbled and overlapped, then faded. Nicola hesitated a little longer, then began to creep back toward the road. Cautiously she snuck closer to the battle scene until she could peek out and see the people. Some men lay on the ground, whether dead or wounded, Nicola could not tell. Some men from her party, including Lord Ovin, were bound and propped against boulders and the trunk of a withered tree. Two outlaws stood guard, one straight and tall with a staff in his hand, the other casually leaned against a boulder himself.
Lord Ovin was not gagged, but his complaints had dropped to a mutter. When he spied Nicola peeking out, he immediately raised his voice.
“Send for the king’s men! These treacherous thieves must be brought to justice. Bring the nooses, bring the hangman. Hurry before the silver is gone! Hurry! And stay away from pigs!”
Nicola ducked back into hiding before one of the guards decided to see who their captive was yelling to. Skirting that part of the road, she scurried on toward London. How should she ever get anywhere in time without a horse?
Every bend in the road made her stomach jittery. At the third steep twist into rocky outcrops, Nicola tucked her skirt up and left the path to clamber to the top of a boulder. She clung close to the rocks, staying as invisible as she could on precariously lumpy heights.
The road ahead was clear, but just off the road a little farther on, Nicola could see movement. It looked like a man leading two horses. Nicola squinted. It was Martin.
She slithered down the dusty outcrop and hurried in the direction of Martin. He had gotten horses! How had he managed that? And what was he doing? The man-at-arms had been moving slowly, carefully looking at the ground as he went. Did he fear to ride to London yet, and was waiting until he was sure of clear surroundings? Why did he seem to be veering even farther off the path?
Nicola pulled her skirts up and hurried. Maybe she should have stayed hidden and let Martin take care of the rescue, but now was too late to retreat. Unseen dangers lurked all around, concentrating especially behind. Ahead was the way to go, especially after Lord Ovin’s order, and Martin would know what to do.
Nicola knocked some pebbles rolling as she scrambled toward Martin.
He spun to face her, tense. He scowled.
“Oh, did you see what happened?” Nicola flung herself at Martin. “We have to go get help, right now! Where did you ever find horses?”
Martin pushed her away. “What are you doing her, lady?” His voice sounded rough and hard.
Nicola looked up at him. Behind him, someone had slipped out from the outcroppings. The stranger crept speedily forward, an arrow trained on Martin.
Nicola screamed and snatched off her wimple to throw at the attacker. The cloth flapped in the air, obscuring the view, but failed to land on or entangle him.
Her hand fell on a bag by the saddle, and she grabbed to throw that, too, but Martin stopped her. He grabbed her wrists and pulled her to himself as he turned. She stood facing the stranger, back to Martin, arms crossed sharply over her front.
“Here, maid, none of that,” said Martin.
Nicola felt hot, especially her eyes. She knew the pressure on her chest was from more than just being held. The man before her began to blur.
“You seem to be at odds with your traveling companion,” said the stranger.
“The lass exploded out of hiding and threw herself at me. Sometimes a body needs to defend himself, even from a woman. You can never be too careful.”
Nicola wanted to protest, to tell Martin it was just herself, Nicola, and urge him to escape with her, but her voice seemed tied into a knot and lodged below her throat.
“One never can be too careful,” agreed the stranger. His voice seemed light, but he kept his arrow aimed straight at them. “Which is why travelers most always take the road rather than creep through the hills. One might find leaving the road uncommon strange.”
“Not as uncommon as the rumors I’ve heard.” Martin held himself alert, but not tense. Nicola wondered at his confidence at talking his way out of danger. “Rumor has it that Robin Hood himself has been seen in these parts.”
The bow creaked.
Nicola bit her lip, half wishing she could faint at will.
Martin didn’t even twitch. “Who would not forsake the roads for a chance to meet the best yeoman in England? The friend of the poor? Defender of the downtrodden?”
“There are many who would desire to met with the famous outlaw, but not so many as would seek it with high regards to his person.” The archer’s eyes were narrow, his gaze straight down the arrow to a pair of beating hearts.
“Greedy tyrants, yes, but I bring token of my esteem.” Martin pinned one of Nicola’s hands by leaning it against the horse and reached for the bag she had tried to grab earlier. He threw it to the ground by the stranger’s feet. It clinked.
Nicola felt dizzy.
The stranger lowered his bow. “High regards, indeed.” He poked at the bag with the end of his bow. “What about the lady?”
“Her? She’s nothing to me. Take her to your leader for all I care.”
No. No. No. No. No. The word beat through Nicola’s head as Martin pushed her forward. She could not move, even her feet seemed frozen. They dragged against the ground as Martin pushed her toward the stranger.
Three pairs of eyes turned to see the new speaker. Sir Quintin sat astride his charger, scowling.
Martin and the archer exchanged lightning looks. The archer scooped up the money bag and sprinted toward Martin’s horses. Martin threw Nicola across the back of one horse and leaped on behind her. Quintin drew his sword and charged with a yell.
The charger pushed between the other two horses. The archer galloped into the hills, quickly disappearing. Martin tried to dodge around his attacker and follow.
Sir Quintin cut him off, swinging twice with his broadsword. Twice Martin dodged and pulled away, but seemed unwilling to turn and flee to the road.
Sir Quintin pulled up close aain, but this time instead of swinging out, he leaned over, flung an arm around Nicola, and pulled.
Nicola squirmed and fought as she felt herself dipping away from solid horseflesh to empty air. She felt Martin grab onto her ankle, then let go. She slipped away and screamed.
Quintin pulled her sharply over to his horse. He pressed her against himself with a hand across her mouth. “Enough. You’ve attracted ample attention.”
Martin used the chance to wheel his steed around the knight and plunge for the cover of the hills.
Nicola tried to thrash away, but Sir Quintin held her tight and close. He kicked his steed into movement toward the road. Nicola considered biting. She needed to get help, not be dragged hither and yon by…by… The vision of piglets scrambling every which way from their captors sprang up, captors splitting their attention between capture and avoiding sharp hooves and teeth. She opened her mouth against the leather glove that covered it, then immediately felt guilty. She was trying to at least shake her head free when something from behind jolted Sir Quintin. He grunted.
Nicola froze for a moment, then tried to turn around and see what had caused the lurch.
“Be still,” said Sir Quintin. “Or did you want the next arrow to find you?”
She stopped wiggling then. Almost slumped, she felt the horse’s strides pound through her and watched as they turned right at the road, away from Sir Ovin and his misfortune.
Quintin let her mouth loose and took the reins back up.
Nicola started to feel sick. She wondered how he had even directed the horse before now. Was his wound now so bad that it forced him to hold on more? Would he fall?
Around a curve in the road revealed a small band of men sharply pulling on mail and springing onto horses.
One removed his foot from a stirrup to turn towards Sir Quintin. “Lambard returned, my lord, with news—by her mercy! What have you here? Let me assist.” The man stepped forward and reached out. Nicola recognized him now as the man Sir Quintin had promised to thrash during his visit.
“Back, Ernald. I’d sooner set Nigel to watch her.” Sir Quintin plucked Nicola from his saddle and dropped her gently to the ground.
“I see how it is.” Ernald’s voice soured with his face. “One dispute over flirting with some villein’s sister marks me for life, but you can carry off whomever you please.”
Nicola glanced up quickly. Would this man-at-arms argue with his lord, even when he was wounded and might collapse? A rip flapped in the back of his surcoat. She shyly moved her eyes to look again to see how bad the wound was. She wondered at the lack of blood until a glint of metal shone through. Her face warmed even as her shoulders relaxed.
“Lambard reports a party distressed by thieves straight down the road.”
Nicola looked to see who the new speaker was. The mounted man bore a shield of quartered ore and gules with an eagle head on one arm, his helmet under the other. Steely grey eyes matched his grizzled hair and beard, and his eyebrows turned down sternly.
“Unless you have one-handedly dealt with them and bring back the spoils of war.”
“Sir, I am ready to ride,” Sir Quintin answered. “I stopped only to rescue a mislaid damsel.”
The grizzled knight looked hard at Nicola. “Methinks your rescue bears strong resemblance to capture.”
Nicola flushed and looked down. Of course it was a rescue. Had she not been mere moments away from a bandit snatching her? Only thinking that it was from Martin she had needed—she winced away from the thought. Nicola peeked up to see what Sir Quintin would say of her foolishness.
The knight’s ears tinged red as he sat straight and stiff atop his mount. His mouth clenched in a stubborn line.
Nicola’s stomach performed its own acrobatics. He would not speak, after all, and denounce her foolishness. If justice were to be given, it must be by her words.
“Please, sir.” She curtsied as the grizzled knight looked at her. “It was my own fault. I fell into company with—with ruffians, and must needs be rescued by force.” She thought of the arrow, and how only Sir Quintin and his armor had come between. “He thought only for my safety.”
“Well enough for now,” grumbled the grizzled knight. “Mount up! We ride.”
Amidst the swirl of horses, Sir Quintin surveyed Nicola. She blushed, suddenly mindful of the dust clinging to her and bedraggled strands of escaped hair. He nodded once, approval on his face, then snapped his gaze up.
Behind her Nicola heard a snort of displeasure, and then Ernald clattered into view, joining the men in their gallop away. She watched Sir Quintin disappear into the dust.
“Don’t mind Ernald. He’s a good companion, really.”
Nicola turned to see one of Sir Quintin’s men still there, holding his horse.
“He just likes to get his way with the ladies.” He offered a tipped-over smile. “Sir Quintin keeps a sharp eye on him. You needn’t fear.”
Nicola glanced back toward the cloud of dust. Gently she brushed her skirt clean. She reached up for her wimple only to remember how she had flung it at the bandit. She flicked a look toward Nigel. He genteelly looked the other way. Plucking her bronze comb from her hair, Nicola shook her tresses free and ran it through the tangles. Deft fingers rebound the hair.
Yellow by the side of the road caught her eye, and she bent to pluck the wild flower. The stem wove neatly into her mantle clasp.
Undoubtedly Sir Ovin would find it meet to hold a banquet in honor of his rescuers. Perhaps Sir Quintin would find her green gown becoming? It had little flair, but would complement with his coat of arms. Nicola settled down to wait.
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