Authors: Samantha Holt
manor house, Nicholas could make out the faint glow of candle light seeping
through the shutters. Though it was early spring, the weather was intemperate,
giving way to draughty squalls and cold temperatures. His breath misted in
front of him and though he could not feel the chill through his hauberk, the
cool air served to sharpen his senses.
The manor house
must have been newly built as the whitewash was pristine and the soil
surrounding the large building was still overturned. In spite of the luminosity
of the white walls, a sense of foreboding struck him – a sensation rarely felt
for Nicholas. It couldn’t have been that this meeting was being conducted at
night; indeed it was rare he conducted business in the daylight. His was one
conducted in shadowy corners, nameless inns and winding alleyways, but the
feeling was there nonetheless.
A helmeted watchman
escorted him up the outer stairs to the second floor and into the hall. The
meagre light of the hall made Nicholas blink, given the dark night, and his
eyes settled onto the owner of the fief. Lord Benedict was a tall, thin man
with a bony face to match. His long nose hooked over slightly at the end and
his lips looked constantly pursed, as if viewing everything with displeasure.
He attempted a smile when he saw Nicholas but it came out as little more than a
sneer. With a flick of his hand, he motioned to the servants to disperse, with
the exception of a brown-haired brute of a man, who seemed to hang about the
shadows of the hall, watching Nicholas through sightless eyes.
“Ah, you’re here.”
Benedict stepped swiftly over, his elaborate tunic swishing as he went. “I
thank you for coming in such haste, Sir…” He trailed off, awaiting a name.
stared at the grey haired lord but he seemed undeterred by his silence.
The lord arched an
eyebrow. “Am I to trust a nameless man?”
“Do I not come
highly recommended, my lord?”
this, observing him down his patrician nose. “Aye, that you do.”
“So I give you no
reason to distrust me – named or otherwise.”
Astute eyes worked
behind the lord’s grey eyebrows and Nicholas wondered if it was Lord Benedict’s
trustworthiness that they should be discussing. But deceitful men came with the
territory and only emphasised Nicholas’ need to stay anonymous.
“I fear I shall be
taking all the risk in this endeavour, seeing as you know my name but I do not
know yours. Am I to be expected to part with a great deal of coin in such
Nicholas viewed the
older man with distaste. He didn’t take to being questioned and he certainly
didn’t like having his time wasted.
“You were made
aware of my demands, Lord Benedict. None of this comes as a surprise to you, so
I can only conclude you wish to negotiate the price of my services. I shall
tell you plainly, my lord, that I have need of your coin less than you have
need of my services. My terms are half now and half on completion. Shall you
accept such terms or shall I be on my way?”
twitched and he nodded. “As you will. Will you be seated so we can
Nicholas drew out a
chair and sat, noting the lord took longer to do so, probably enjoying the
momentary feeling of superiority.
“You know of
“Aye, my lord.”
Nicholas operated out of Kent and knew well of the demesne surrounding the
“My niece inherited
the keep from my sister’s husband upon his death. She is but only some eighteen
summers and relies on me for assistance in managing the land. It has come to my
attention that the rebel barons wish to take the keep to aid in their bid to
unseat the king.”
“I wish for you to
go to my niece, take her from the keep and guard her until I send word.”
Nicholas raised an
eyebrow. “I am no wet-nurse, I do not watch over spoilt noble women.”
Benedict let out a
grating laugh and Nicholas had to prevent himself from grimacing. “You misunderstand
me, Sir. I wish her out of the way until this rebellion peters out. In the
meantime, I have some negotiations to make with the king. If I have it right,
this rebellion shall not succeed and those that stick by the king shall be
“Ah, and you wish
for the keep of Alderweald?”
“Aye, but that
cannot be, as long as the heir remains alive. I need her…out of the way.
However, my niece is a favourite of the king, ‘twould not do for her to be
harmed until I can be sure of having the king’s ear. By which point, he’ll have
little care for her welfare…” He let out a sharp grin, revealing the points of
No doubt the lord
intended to poison the king against his precious niece.
“So what will you
have me do with your niece?”
here. ‘Twill be long enough a journey to keep her plenty occupied. I, in the
meantime, shall be working on the king. When this rebellion is over, return her
home but ensure she meets with an accident.”
inside, in spite of himself, but he retained his cold mask of indifference. A
woman? He had never killed a woman before. Endless nameless and faceless men
had met their end by Nicholas’ hand but never a woman.
“And you shall send
word when you wish for us to return?”
“Aye, and then you shall
have your final payment.”
contemplated the lord’s words. His contact had implied that this was to be no
ordinary job. It would take much time and resources but he would be richly
“Lord Benedict, you
have bought my services. Pray remember what is it that I do when ‘tis time to
pay your debt.”
and rose to his feet, motioning to his man. “Godfrey?”
The giant of a man
stepped out of the shadows to silently place a small leather satchel in his hand.
Benedict handed it over and Nicholas weighed it in his palm. He was tempted to
count it then and there – the glint of malice in the lord’s eyes increased his
suspicions of him – but he knew it could wait until he was at least away from
Lord Benedict. And with the misgiving that hovered over him, he knew that he
should hasten away promptly.
“Thank you, my
lord. I shall await your word.”
and nodded, speaking as Nicholas turned to leave, forcing him to pause. “You
will understand that I will not be crossed. Should you fail, there will be
repercussions. I will remember your skills if you will remember mine. I can
make life very unpleasant even for a nameless man.”
Nicholas spun and
left, not even acknowledging the lord’s threat, but the words remained with
him. He was going to have to watch his step. Whatever hand fate had just dealt
him, he doubted that it was a good one.
Lord Benedict swept
a gloved finger over his lips as he watched the dark knight move stealthily
into the night from the window of the hall. Begrudgingly, he admired the man.
He gave away little but absorbed everything with the merest of glances. The
assassin didn’t trust him. And rightly so. But Benedict was used to dealing
with these kinds of men, and he knew how easily a goodly amount of coin could
override even the keenest of instincts.
He allowed himself
a tight smile. Aye, all was falling into place. With his irksome niece out of
the way, he could stride in and take control of Alderweald without so much as a
finger raised…once he had the support of the king. A few choice negotiations
with the rebels and all would be as it should be.
His teeth clenched
as he thought of his hapless niece in command of such vast wealth. It was pure
folly to have allowed her to inherit. The king should have taken the land and
bestowed it where it belonged - in his hands. As brother to Annabel’s mother,
he was no direct relation to her father, but it angered him that the king had
never even considered handing the lands to him when he was clearly the better
Oh, how his pretty
little niece was loved by the king. Rufus adored the fair maiden and would not
deny her aught. Upon the death of Annabel’s mother and father, Benedict had
made it clear that he could do a far better job of running such a large demesne
than a young girl but his pleas had fallen upon deaf ears.
through him. If he had not made his views so abundantly clear, he would not
have to resort to such underhand techniques now. The way it stood currently, should
aught happen to Annabel, eyes would automatically fall upon him.
Which is where this
hired assassin came in.
With someone to
take the blame and the king convinced of her treachery, there would be no
investigations, no questions. He could step in and save Alderweald and finally
gain the wealth he deserved.
Swiftly turning to
the silent hulk in the corner, he motioned him forwards with the crook of a
Godfrey shuffled forwards,
his yellowed eyes revealing little. Benedict trusted no-one with the exception
of Godfrey. All brawn and just enough brain to carry out his tasks competently,
his loyalty was unwavering.
“Follow him and
ensure everything goes to plan. I shall away to London to speak with the king.”
Godfrey nodded, the
growl of assent just audible.
Benedict turned to
the window once more, imagining he could see the nameless assassin slipping
through the night, drawing Annabel to her doom. A twisted smile sat on his
lips. Aye, all would be as it should soon enough.
A loud crash caused
Annabel to jump. The sound of shouts and the clashing of swords reverberated
off the stone walls of the castle even though she was cloistered away on the
top floor of the square keep. A dash across the rush strewn floor to the deep
windows revealed her worst fears – the rebels had overrun the castle and were
likely coming for her. Leaning to gain a better view, Annabel could see clearly
out of the wide windows of the keep into the bailey. Wild-looking soldiers were
swarming through the castle gate and across the courtyard, rampaging and
pillaging as they went.
She had hoped to
reason with them but the triumph of previous victories assured them that there
was no sense in striking a treaty. Annabel had heard much of the marauding ways
of the Norman rebels as they spread across England like a plague. The country,
now divided by the late king’s two sons, had suffered much, as towns were burnt
and castles laid to siege. The rebel barons wished for Robert, Duke of
Normandy, to become king, rather than William Rufus, who had been given the
crown by his father, William I.
Now it seemed that
Annabel stood in the way. Alderweald Castle was situated close to London and on
an important supply route - the river crossing being an essential tool in the
relied on her uncle’s aid in matters such as these, but he had been called home
to Hampshire on unexpected business, leaving her to face the bloodthirsty
rebels herself. Her men-at-arms were loyal and her steward, wise, but between
them they had little success in persuading the rebels of the folly of going
against the king.
Having already sent
her maids away, Annabel cowered in her chambers as the sounds of battle raged
on. The thought of the men she had known for most of her eighteen years dying
only a few floors away turned her stomach. More crashes and heavy footsteps
sounded and she fought the urge to hide behind the curtained partition of her
sleeping chamber. Surely they would not dare hurt her? Annabel couldn’t be sure
though. They had little sympathy for supporters of Rufus and her family had
close connections with him. She had no wish to become involved and her refusal
to do so had effectively marked her as a threat to their cause.