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Shadows of Valor
By Elsie Park
Jolly Fish PressCopyright © 2013 Elsie Park
All rights reserved.
Garth slapped his partner Darby on the shoulder in congratulations — another successful thieving effort to add to their repertoire. They'd wiggled and conned their way out of the hands of the local authorities, and now — in the safe cover of night — they rode on to certain freedom.
Their wagon rolled at a leisurely pace through the woods. Garth inhaled the earthy, moist scent — evidence of rain.
His skin prickled as they passed a particularly dark set of trees. His jaw tightened.
Someone was watching them.
"YAH!" he bellowed, flicking the reins. The wagon sped up, the horses building to a run.
He glanced over his shoulder. A black figure, astride an equally black horse, emerged from the trees and gave chase.
Garth cursed and Darby looked behind them, emitting a strangled gasp. "Faster, Garth, he's catching up!" he shouted over the din of pounding hooves and racing wheels. He maintained a white-knuckled grip on the rickety seat, his scrawny neck craning back.
Nocturnal creatures scurried off the hard-packed road before them, escaping death by steed.
Garth struggled to hold the reins with one hand while grasping his slipping eye-patch with the other. The wheels shook violently, threatening to abandon their axles with each jarring bump. As they hit a large rock, he almost lost his grip on the reins. He obligingly placed both hands on the leather straps and the eye-patch escaped into the wind.
His head whipped around to follow its path, his eyeless hole exposed. "Fie!"
The wagon hit a deep rut, all but overturning it.
"It'll shatter with another smack like that," Darby yelled.
Garth glanced over their left side. A board had come loose and barely hung onto its peg.
When he looked up again, the black horse had slowed to a trot behind them, without its rider.
"I think we lost him." Garth whirled back to the front. "He must've fallen off somewhere." He continued their hard pace long enough to put a safe distance between them and their fallen pursuer before pulling hard on the reins, stopping the wagon.
The wind picked up. "Let's take a reckoning of the goods," Garth said. "We may've lost something back there."
They turned to view the contents, Garth's finger pointing to each sack as his mouth silently counted. They were marked as flour sacks, but contained smuggled wool. Then his lone eye grew wide as he caught an indistinct shape crouched among their cargo. He moved a beefy hand to Darby's skeletal leg. "Don't move," he warned in a tight whisper. Darby obliged.
Slow and methodical, the shape stood, a masculine form materializing from the shadows. With his back to the moonlight, the intruder's face was invisible under his dark hood.
Garth moved to draw his booted dagger, but the man stepped forward and kicked his hand. The dagger careened through the air and landed in the dirt. Darby, frozen in place, provided no help.
Before Garth could react, the black-cloaked man lunged and grabbed them by their tunics, heaving them onto the bed. The pair landed on their stomachs, and the air was audibly knocked from their lungs.
The man leaped onto the rickety driver's seat, then turned to face the trembling pair. His ebony cloak flapped in the wind, making a sound akin to great dragon wings. With the moon now against his face, Garth recognized the signature mask covering the man's mouth and nose, and his chunky limbs quaked.
"I am everywhere and I see everything," the man spoke in a husky tone. "I've been watching you and know your ill deeds."
"You're The Shadow," Garth choked.
"Yes," the man affirmed with a chuckle. "The devil himself, who crawled up from the depths of yon underworld! You've cheated the king for the last time and now dungeon walls will be your abode, though you deserve far worse."
Garth shivered. The Shadow hunted smugglers and dangerous criminals for King Edward. It was said he could gut men with his sword before they'd realized he'd drawn his weapon. He was like a phantom, as stealthy and dark as the night itself. And he was rarely merciful.
"Be grateful for the leniency of imprisonment," The Shadow threatened, "for if you're ever released and you return to foul work, you'll wish for death to take you from the doom I'll bestow."
Garth stared at his captor, his jaw trembling, before dropping his head in fear. Beside him, Darby let out a small whimper.
"And now," The Shadow finished, his voice quiet and dangerous in the earthy night, "let darkness steal your wake."
At the sound of grating metal, Garth glanced up at The Shadow's steel sword reflecting the moonlight. The thick hilt connected with his companion's head, sending him into unconsciousness. Garth scrambled backward, then knew no more as he succumbed to the same fate.
* * *
Graywall Village on the northwest coast of England, 30th day of April, 1300 A.D.
As Elsbeth strode down the main road toward town, she kicked a dirt clod at the edge of the road, sending the hardened ball several yards ahead. With rolling hills, lakes and thick forests, her uncle's land provided a sprawling landscape for the village. She had to walk a full mile before she hit the main square. It was an additional mile from there to Emmy's house on the opposite side of town.
She'd received a message from Emmy Firthland that young Roland had injured his arm. Roland and the other orphans were precious to Elsbeth, she being parentless as well. She understood the fear and loneliness of losing one's mother and father. Serving the people of Graywall helped temper her feelings of unrest.
Elsbeth entered the town square where children skipped around with ribbons that would soon be tied to the maypole and watched vibrantly dressed entertainers juggle and perform tricks. Although May Day didn't arrive until tomorrow, the merriment had already begun. Mouth-watering scents of roasted meats, dessert confections, and bread permeated the air. Flowers, banners, and colorful flags adorned the village from the ground up. Guests flocked to Graywall by the hundreds.
Maidens were already whispering about who they would choose as their partner to dance around the maypole. She'd enjoy doing the same if she were several years younger. Elsbeth sighed, tugging her sleeves farther down her wrists.
It was impossible to feel like a worthy participant in the game of courtship when the other players ran off before the match scarcely commenced. Though she didn't think much about her scars, the unfortunate reality was that would-be suitors, upon seeing them, changed their minds about courting her. She'd seen it time and again.
The latest incident had occurred a month ago, but her frustration continued to assault her weary mind. When Lord Yorkworth's gifted necklace had slipped through her fingers by the lakeshore, she hadn't thought twice before pushing up her sleeves to retrieve it from the muddy shallows. She sneered, remembering his gasp of surprise. He couldn't have hidden his disdain for her arms with less tact. In an ill attempt to feign indifference, he'd filled the awkward moment with nonsensical small talk and had refused to look at her. He'd taken the necklace back, saying he'd return it after a good washing, but he had left that night, having received an urgent message from home, or so he'd said. She never heard from him again.
She shook her head, shoving the recollection from her mind. She had more important matters at hand than musing over a bygone beau. As she neared the bakery, her stomach growled, protesting her earlier decision to skip lunch to finish organizing her medicinal herbs. A loose strand of hair escaped her half-wimple and waved about her cheek. She tucked it behind her ear.
"Good day, Master Baker," she hailed as she approached Peter Gillam's shop.
Peter stuck his head through the ground-level window. "Lady Rawley."
Elsbeth stopped before his window and the aroma of baked bread invaded her nostrils. "How be your fine wife this day, Peter?" As a midwife, Elsbeth concerned herself with Fay's health in the woman's last month of pregnancy. Being the niece and ward to an unconventional uncle, Elsbeth was allowed the liberty to serve the castle and village as she pleased, a rare allowance for a lady. Uncle Rupert already possessed a wife and daughter to oversee household duties. He felt Elsbeth's skill and knowledge were wisely used among his people. And she enjoyed the freedom. "All's well that we can tell," Peter said of his wife.
"Glad to hear it."
"Does the fair bring you to town?"
"No, I've come to look in on Roland."
"Ah, that rambunctious boy." Peter lowered his voice. "I heard he ran into smugglers last night in the fields. He tripped, but got away."
"Good heavens." Elsbeth was shocked. "I had no idea he'd witnessed something so dangerous."
"Yes, the thieves are getting bolder of late."
"Mm, dangerously so." Elsbeth's eyebrows turned down. It angered her that some people turned to illegal means of earning money because they didn't agree with the king's heightened taxes. No one enjoyed paying taxes, but that didn't justify unlawful actions.
"On a more cheerful note," Peter grinned. "Have you enjoyed the festivities yet?"
"No, I haven't, but assisting others must come before revelry."
"Ah, I might have guessed by your attire that you ran errands instead." Dressed in a brown sideless surcoat over a white long-sleeved kirtle, Elsbeth resembled a fellow villager. "But save time for amusement if you can."
Elsbeth smiled. "I'll try, but now I must be off. Send for me if you need anything."
"Sure will. And here —" Peter tossed a large bun out the window. Elsbeth cupped her hands and caught it. It was soft and warm. She loved fresh bread.
"Thank you, Peter. You've just saved me from starvation."
Peter produced a toothy grin before his head disappeared inside his window.
Elsbeth continued through town, looking up at the thatched roofs that hung over the lanes. The buildings stood two and three stories high with living quarters situated above the ground-level shops. They lined the street, creating an outdoor hallway. Various side streets branched off from the main road, leading to other buildings and eventually to large fields beyond.
Elsbeth wondered in which field Roland had happened upon the smugglers last night. It could have been any of them, for they were all situated away from the populated areas.
She entered a remote part of town and the odor of sheep reached her nose as she came upon a low stone wall. She picked up her pace. The pasture it surrounded belonged to Bartram McCaulch, the most prominent sheep monger and wealthiest wool merchant in Graywall.
Though Elsbeth endeavored to like everyone, she didn't like Bartram and tried to avoid him completely. His beady eyes unsettled her. She didn't trust him.
With the added export tax on wool, many mongers had cut back on their spending, but not Bartram. His abode posed a grander residence than the average peasant, built of fine gray stone and strong oak beams. Although talk existed of Bartram's lewd business dealings, it lacked sufficient evidence to pin him to anything illegal.
She kept to the opposite side of the rutted street as she neared his dwelling. The road bent to the left, circling around the front of his home. Bartram sat in his yard, his legs astride an old log as he sharpened his shears. She cringed when he looked over at her.
He set his shears down and stood. Elsbeth longed to run, but continued walking at her present pace. She feigned ignorance as he moved his stocky frame toward the road. His signature limp reminded Elsbeth of a wounded, but dangerous, animal.
Elsbeth gauged the distance between them. "Maggots," she swore under her breath. Interception was inevitable.
"Well, well, Lady Rawley," Bartram snickered, barring her path with his burly form. Elsbeth had no choice but to stop. A crooked grin cracked his tanned face and she eyed him with uncertainty. He stood too close for comfort.
"Master McCaulch," she acknowledged with curt formality.
"Please, call me Barty." He smiled again, exposing dirty teeth through at least five days of beard stubble. His black, unkempt hair added to his shady appearance. In addition to his unnerving eyes, his breath was foul enough to knock over a war horse. She forced down the bile that rose in her throat.
His dark gaze swept over her body and she recoiled in disgust. "I beg your pardon, Master McCaulch," she again stressed his formal name, "but I must be getting along. I have errands to run and people to see." She sidestepped the offensive obstacle and took up a brisk walk.
Bartram pursued, limping from behind and taking a large step around to again impede her progress. Elsbeth let out an impatient sigh, and his knowing smirk proved he enjoyed his little game.
"What's the hurry, sweetheart? Stay a while."
"I really must go."
"You're certainly a do-gooder to those orphans. I like watching you as you pass by on the way to their house." Shivers raced up Elsbeth's spine. What a disturbing man. "Could you find the time to stop off and visit me too?" His face turned into a bold leer and he leaned closer. "Perhaps you could show me how a lady of noble breeding makes jolly with the opposite gender?" He waggled his eyebrows.
Though utterly repulsed, her expression remained impervious, giving Bartram no satisfaction he'd affected her with his crude comments. She mustered a calm response. "Bartram McCaulch, step aside and let me pass, or I will mention this interlude to my uncle, who will undoubtedly seek disciplinary action against you."
Bartram lost his smirk and seized her upper arm. She inhaled sharply, her eyes wide. She'd have lost her balance if not for his fixed hold upon her. "You impudent brute! Unhand me if you value your life!" Her heart hammered. The audacity, handling Lord Rupert's niece in such a way, but then no one was present to witness it. He would never have been so bold in public.
Bartram's menacing orbs bored into hers. "If you value your life, or the lives of those orphans, you'll think twice about threatening me."
Elsbeth froze. This man was treacherous. She didn't dare provoke him further. "Unhand me, McCaulch," she repeated.
Bartram held her a few seconds before letting her go. She rubbed her sore arm and glared at him. He smiled as if he'd done nothing wrong, and then turned and slithered into his house.
Elsbeth sped down the lane, feeling Bartram's eyes upon her from somewhere within his walls. She didn't slow her pace until his house disappeared from view.
She wouldn't mention Bartram's behavior to her uncle. He'd done no real harm, and if Bartram found out she'd said anything, he might do something terrible to the children before her uncle could stop him. She couldn't risk that.
Elsbeth's heart returned to a normal tempo as she came upon Emmy Firthland's modest but well-built, cottage. The sturdy oak door, with a bouquet of colorful dried flowers tacked onto it, warmly welcomed.
Loud, off-tune singing flowed from an open window around the side of the house. She chuckled and shook her head. Emmy's singing rivaled a howling cat.
Barren, Emmy and her now deceased husband had always cared for parentless tots, usually street urchins. Uncle Rupert gave them a monthly allotment to support the children they took in. Rupert considered it a smart tactic for keeping the criminal activity down. With someone caring for the kids, they wouldn't have to steal their daily bread.
Emmy currently looked after four young ones whose parents had died from fever three winters ago.
Elsbeth knocked on the door and the feline notes ceased.
"It's Beth! It's Beth!" a toddler voice elated. Light, pattering feet approached alongside heavier footsteps. The door opened to reveal a pudgy five-foot woman with a flour-splotched face. A little girl jumped up and down beside her.
Emmy smiled wide and admitted Elsbeth to the cottage, where the whiff of new thrushes scattered about the floor mingled with Emmy's yeast dough, brought feelings of tranquility.
"Thank you for coming, Beth." Emmy wiped her floured hands with a linen rag.
Excerpted from Shadows of Valor by Elsie Park. Copyright © 2013 Elsie Park. Excerpted by permission of Jolly Fish Press.
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