TITLE: Tales of Sherwood: Embers (Chapter 1)
By Rachel Phelps
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“And you are certain, absolutely certain, that my father left nothing else?”
Robert Alexis Ayers let his hand fall limply on the table, welcoming the cushion of parchment rather than the rough-hewn wood against his skin. It was the only pleasant thing to be said about the piles of paper before him – the business affairs of his late father’s estate.
His steward regarded him as coolly as he had when Robert was a mere child. “Yes, milord. Your father left debts to most of the tradesmen in the county and several of the more powerful nobles in King Henry’s court. Your estate would have been forfeit years ago, but for the clemency of the king and his successor.”
Robert’s teeth ground together. “And this clemency is forfeit now that Richard has been crowned?”
“I fear so, milord.”
Robert ran a hand through his ruddy hair, lightened from its usual nut brown by his recent work in the orchards of his estate, and heaved a sigh that rustled the papers before him.
“What opportunities have we for gathering the money we lack?”
If possible, the steward’s mouth twitched into a smile for a fraction of a breath. “It would take the queen’s own ransom to save your lands.”
The hand that had been tugging on the lock of hair behind his left ear fell to the table again. “Would that the queen was sympathetic to our plight. An ear in London could save the estate for my mother and aunt, and Eleanor of Aquitaine has the ear of her son.”
“You could petition for clemency from the new king.” The laughing voice came from the doorway, jerking both Robert and the steward’s attention to the far end of the room.
“And grovel before the entire court? Hann, even you cannot joke about such things.” Robert shoved his chair back, wincing at the raucous scraping of wood on stone. His cousin had the advantage of him in age by a few scant months, but had not the responsibilities of an eldest son to an estate. His older brother was in the army Richard was raising to sail for Jerusalem.
“We’ve been friends far too long for me not to speak as I feel I must, coz,” Hann said, his face growing more and more serious. “Our cousin, the Prioress of Kirklees has been waiting to get these lands as a royal boon to her nunnery ever since your father first troubled her with the tale of his woes – and that was nigh on four years ago. With King Henry dead and her majesty freed from the Tower… you had best move on London before she does. The voice of the church is heavy on Richard’s ear.”
If it were not for the sheer breadth of the man, Robert would have threatened him a sound drubbing for suggesting the plan. As it was, Hann knew full well that such a threat had no teeth and would merely redouble his insistence.
Robert paced over to the window, resting a hand against the casement.
"My father has left me with no way to support my family as he charged." He could feel Hann moving closer behind him. "Perhaps if I had spent more time in the study with him instead of out wasting my days with a longbow in hand..."
"Your skills with that bow have kept your family in meat many a day since your father left you with that charge," Hann argued. "This is no time to find fault with what is past. In faith, I daresay there will be more than enough to rue in the future without tacking on the weight of what cannot be changed."
"Milord, would you have me draw up the petition for the king?" The steward's voice intruded, the smug tone setting Robert's teeth on edge.
He drew in a breath and began to answer, but Hann cut him off. "Nay, your master needs no one's words but his own to address his majesty."
Hann stepped closer to the man, towering over his slight frame with the bulk of his muscular body. "I suggest you find it in yourself to treat this man with the respect due your master. Forsooth, the man you served is dead, but your duty to this house and his son are not ended because of it."
"Sir, I must protest this-" The steward's pompous words died slowly on his lips as Hann leaned in closer, menace in his blue eyes.
"Peace, both of you," Robert said sharply, turning from the window with a frown on his lips. "I don't need a battle within my own home. Like as not, we will be hard-pressed to avoid one if the king sends his messengers to collect the debt."
"Then shall we not intercept them, coz?" Hann asked, summarily dismissing the steward with a glance. The man turned with an injured air and left the room. "Away from the manor, away from our poor mothers who need not know the disgrace of your father. If we can but reach London, I feel all will be well."
"Think you it is so?" Robert turned away again, his eyes greedily devouring the landscape that had been familiar to him from his boyhood. "For the last 19 years, I have looked out this window at least once every day. 'Twould be a wound indeed, to be forced to tear myself and my mother from these lands."
"Ever since you were wee Robin, aye?" Hann said softly, looking over his shoulder. "Many's the day you and I were in the trees yonder, climbing, hunting, doing the mighty deeds of foolish boys.” He sighed, “Your father and mine, for all their faults with the keeping of the gold, were honorable men, think you not?"
"And 'tis their memories as well as ours that
will be shamed by this," Robert said, a deep, painful furrow appearing between his eyebrows, where the skin had grown leathery in the sun.
"Then it is agreed - we will go?" Hann's heavy hand settled on his shoulder, tightening with excitement. "Let us not sit and wait like old women for the judgment to come to us. Let us meet the trouble on our feet like men and perhaps find away to dodge this arrow."
Robert mustered a tired smile. "Aye, we will go."
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