Authors: Samantha James
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
THE TRUEST HEART
An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
Copyright (c) 2001 by Sandra Kleinschmit
Early October, 1215
“Tell me. What news is there of Ellis of Westerbrook?”
The imperious command came from John, king of England, the youngest of the Devil’s brood, as Henry II’s rebellious sons had come to be known, for they had been ever and always at odds with their father … and with each other.
Gilbert of Lincoln crushed his cap in his hands and stared up into the black-bearded face of his king. Like so many of England’s people, he, too, was weary of the king’s greed; the grumble of discontent was heard throughout the land. Many of John’s barons were outraged by his ceaseless demands to replenish his treasury—that and the call to arms that John might continue his fight to regain his lands across the Channel in Normandy and the Angevin provinces. John had signed the Great Charter in early summer, yet still refused to be humbled. The discord with his barons continued to fester. Indeed, several were so incensed—and so intent upon his demise—that they had hatched a plot to kill him.
‘Twas a plot gone sorely awry.
For the arrow loosed upon King John, who had been lured away from his hunting party, had missed its mark when, at the last instant, the king’s mount had reared. Instead the arrow hit one of the king’s guards who had given chase to seek his errant king. The perpetrator had escaped into the woods, for the forest had been especially dense. It was several weeks later before he was eventually caught and imprisoned….
It was Ellis, lord of Westerbrook.
But there was another, too… the wounded guard, afore he breathed his last, had gasped that there were two assailants.
The king’s men had immediately taken John far, far away lest there be another attempt. And so ‘twas because of this attempted slaying of the king that Gilbert of Lincoln had taken to horse and ridden madcap through the forest and the mud and the dark for nearly two days to reach his king. He was sodden to the skin by the never-ending drizzle, drenched to the very center of his being. His cloak dripped puddles on the rushes strewn beneath his booted feet. Gilbert did not relish the news he was about to impart, for he very much feared the king’s mood would soon be as foul as the weather without.
“Aye, sire. I bring news of-of Ellis.”
John leaned forward. Ellis, the rogue, had been caught near the Scottish border; John had ordered him taken to Rockwell, his castle nearby. But he had grown impatient with Ellis’s refusal to divulge the identity of the other man responsible for the attempt on his life, though Ellis had freely admitted his own guilt.
It had posed a dilemma… but not for long. ‘Twas plain to see that Ellis was a proud, honorable man, a man of principle. But every man had his weakness, John had reasoned, and even the stoutest back would break before the right persuasion. He’d heard how deeply Ellis loved his children—for that very reason he’d dispatched his men to Westerbrook to seize Ellis’s daughter, Gillian, and his young son, Clifton. The king had surmised Ellis would sing like the veriest nightingale when his daughter and son were brought before him with a blade at their throats.
“Well, out with it then! Tell me, for I would know, and I would know now! Ellis has confessed the name of the rogue with whom he conspired to kill me, hasn’t he? Who is it then? Who is the other blackguard?”
Gilbert had gone pale. He stole a glance at the other occupants of the room, the king’s men Geoffrey Covington and Roger Seymour. Also present was the lord of Sommerfield, for it was at his castle that John had decided to take shelter for the night.
Gilbert locked his knees to still their quavering. If he feared for his life, he could not help it. It was well known indeed that John possessed a vindictive streak. If the king so pleased, he might order his eyes burned out or his nose slit… or worse. Many a soul had no doubt that John had done away with his own nephew, Arthur of Brittany, who had disputed John’s right to the English throne. Ah, little wonder that Gilbert had not been eager to be the bearer of such news that he would give this night.
The king’s questioning left Gilbert damp of palm and sweating at the brow. “I-I do not know, sire,” he stammered. “Ellis … he confessed nothing of the other man.”
John’s smile vanished. Thick, bejeweled fingers drummed against the tabletop, for the king was fond of excess and indulged in many. He scowled his impatience. “By God’s teeth! Have I naught but imbeciles to serve me? Why the devil do you come to me, then? Has he escaped?”
Gilbert swallowed. He knew full well that torture had not compelled Ellis to confess. In truth, he shuddered to think what Ellis had endured, for never would he have been so steadfast and unwavering. If all accounts were to be believed, Ellis of Westerbrook had not cried out, not even once….
“He is dead, sire. Ellis is dead.”
For one awful moment John said nothing. Then he leaped to his feet, his eyes ablaze.
“Dead? How can that be?”
The king gave Gilbert no chance to respond. “I gave orders that he was to be kept alive,” John roared, “alive until his daughter and son were brought to Rockwell and I had returned! By God, who did this? What fool dared disobey me? I vow I will have his head—”
Gilbert spoke up before he lost his own. “You misunderstand, sire. Ellis was not killed, by your men or any other. He died by his own hand. He hung himself in his cell.”
The king had gone white about the mouth. “What of his son and daughter?” he demanded.
Gilbert’s knees had begun to shake anew, for he was aware of John’s reputation of cruelty and ruthlessness. “Westerbrook was deserted, sire. Ellis’s daughter and son were gone. It seems they fled in the middle of the night… along with many of his men.”
For the space of a heartbeat the king stared at Gilbert with frightening intensity. He made not a move, nary a sound. Yet his countenance was such that Gilbert felt every drop of blood drain from his face. It spun through his mind that the king in a rage was not a pretty sight. Nay, there was nothing majestic about this man who called himself king of England. His lips drew back over his teeth in a snarl. His dark features were contorted with rage. Although John did not possess the Plantagenet coloring, the fair handsomeness of his brother Richard, Coeur de lion, upon whose death Henry’s last remaining son had come the throne of England, ‘twould seem that he did indeed possess the famed Plantagenet temper of his forebears….
Gilbert’s mouth opened in a soundless scream. He was convinced that at any moment the king’s fiery gaze would surely bore through him, burning him to cinders in the very spot where he stood.
Then all at once John whirled. He stalked from one end of the hearth back to the other. Broad, leather-shod feet kicked the remains of his meal, for about his chair bones were strewn, along with heads of fish and crusts of bread. All the while black curses spewed from his mouth. The blaze of his anger seemed to vibrate and leap from the lofty rafters that spanned the width of the great hall of Sommerfield.
“By God, who does he think he is? No. I’ll not be duped by him, by that traitor Ellis!”
The king’s men, Lord Geoffrey Covington and Lord Roger Seymour, exchanged troubled glances. It was Geoffrey Covington who slipped from his chair and laid a hand on Gilbert’s shoulder. Nodding toward the door, Covington spoke in a low tone. Gilbert was wise enough to bow to Covington’s request; quickly he took to his heels, anxious to escape the hall… and the king’s fury.
Geoffrey Covington remained where he was, one slim leg angled away from the other. The broad sweep of his brow furrowed, as if in consideration. The elder of the king’s confidants, Roger Seymour, brushed a hand across his balding pate, then placed his hands on the broad plane of his knees, his expression one of decided consternation. He lowered his gaze, clearly reluctant to interrupt the king’s fit of petulance. Covington’s gaze had turned keenly observant, his eyes the same rich brown as his hair. Though he was a man of slender proportions, he was nonetheless a man fashioned with wiry strength and fluid, agile movement. As he looped his hands behind his back, the sword strapped to his side caught the light from the fire. He was a man of quiet demeanor, as evidenced by his words to Gilbert and the way he waited patiently for his king’s wrath to expire.
At length he cleared his throat. “Sire,” he said.
John paid no heed but continued his pacing. “By God, that wretch, Ellis! He thought to best me, to rob me of my revenge. I should have slit his nose. Burned out his eyes. Carved off his ear and sent it to his daughter. Then he would have talked!”
“Sire,” Covington said more loudly.
“By God’s teeth, he shall not deprive me of my satisfaction! Do you hear, he shall not!”
“Sire, you must calm yourself.”
“Calm myself! How the devil can I?” John stormed. “I want it burned. I want Westerbrook burned to the ground. Seymour, see to it.”
Seymour inclined his head. “As you wish, sire.”
“He will pay. By God, Ellis will pay. By the robes of Christ, he thought to cheat me, the king of England, of his death—of discovering the identity of the other man who would see me dead. He will not. I tell you, he will not. Ellis of Westerbrook will not cheat me! His treason must be punished.”
Covington frowned. “But how, sire? He is already dead. Is that not punishment enough?”
“Nay, not for him!” John ground to a halt. “His children,” he pronounced flatly. “They must die.”
Covington and Seymour exchanged glances. “But, sire,” Seymour said slowly, “the eldest is but a woman, scarcely out of girlhood. The other is but a boy of twelve. Surely they can do you no further harm—”
“It matters not. Ellis’s seed will be wiped out. I will do what must be done. She cannot be allowed to bring forth her father’s blood. Neither can her brother. Aye, Ellis’s seed must be wiped from this earth … forever. Only then will I be avenged.”
Seymour had gone pale. Even Covington appeared uncomfortable. It was Seymour who spoke. “Sire,” he ventured faintly. “You cannot mean to murder them.”
“And why not? Did you not hear, Seymour? I want them dead, both of them!”
Seymour placed his hands on the table. He glanced at Covington, then back to John. This time it was Covington who raised a hand.
“Sire, I pray you do not misunderstand me. I… we … do not question your judgment.” Carefully he chose his words. “There are those who still believe you may be responsible for the death of your nephew Arthur, which was deplored by the world. I know— we know,” he hastened to add, “that you have no knowledge of Arthur’s disappearance. But to do away with Ellis’s daughter and son would be to risk further condemnation.”
By now John had lowered himself into his chair. “Then none will know but those present in this room,” John declared.
Seymour broke out in a cold sweat. “But, sire,” he ventured tentatively, “I must ask who … who would you have carry out such an onerous task?”
For the longest time King John said nothing. His gaze alighted on the dark-haired man at the far end of the table, a man whose watchful green eyes surveyed all but said nothing—the man in whose castle he’d chanced to reside for the night.
John stroked his beard, thinking on all Covington and Seymour had said, for in truth, he was well aware of his own faults. He was not a trusting man—nor was he a man to be trusted. The question of who would kill a maid and a boy was a very good question indeed, he mused …
‘Twas not a task for one of his mercenaries. Nor could it be given to a man who might lie or cheat or betray him. But it was rumored that the man opposite him, the lord of Sommerfield, had grown harsh and bitter by the death of his beloved wife early in the year. Immersed in grief, to John’s knowledge, this man had not been among the army of barons at Running-Mead, those wretches who had forced him to sign the Great Charter. Oh, how he’d chortled when he learned that Pope Innocent had ruled in his favor. The pontiff had cast aside that foolish document and ordered the barons to lay down their arms or risk excommunication.
The threat had done little to dispell the barons’ rumblings. But John was still king, and this time he was determined to crush them. His spies told him how they had gone back to their old ways and quarreled among themselves as bitterly as ever. No matter. They had joined together once, and John would not allow it to happen again. Nay, he would not be brought to his knees yet again.
But this man … this man had not been held in any particular favor by the Crown, yet neither was he in disfavor. Better yet, he was not a man given to failure; his prowess and success in tournaments was exceeded only by the likes of William Marshal—it had gained him many ransoms and prizes. Besides, John reasoned quickly, if this fellow were thus engaged in finding Ellis’s daughter and son, he could not join the ranks of the other barons in plotting against him.