Dark eyes regarded Tré steadily; rings flashed in torch- and candlelight as the king waved him forward. The chamber was near empty, save for a scribe and the king's steward.
Tré approached the dais where John sat in an unkingly sprawl; he did not bow his head or bend the knee, but stood silent and still while the king spoke to his steward. Heavy tapestries covered the chamber's walls, richly embroidered, a blur of red and gold behind the dais.
It was cold; Tré's boots were muddy, but he had taken no time to don clean garments when summoned by King John. In truth, he had been given no time to do more than accompany the guard sent to escort him to Windsor, a dire omen that set his jaw and his temper.
King John, Pell Ewing--two men of the same ilk. Greedy, ruthless warlords. Nothing mattered to them but their own goals. Not even the life of a small child--whose loss he blamed on king and earl as well as Saxon outlaws.
Over two years since Aimée died--not so long ago. Yet a lifetime. . . .
"Lord Devaux, Baron of Brayeton."
The scribe's gruff announcement jerked him from harsh memory to the present. Tré looked up, met the king's gaze with a steady stare. John's eyes narrowed slightly; thin lips twisted at the blatant refusal to bend knee or head.
"You took overlong to answer our summons, Brayeton."
Petulance marked the royal face and tone; one hand came to rest languidly upon the carved chair arm. Tré stood silent. Tension thumped in his belly.
John's expression eased into a mocking smile. Jewels winked as he chewed a fingernail, halted to say abruptly, "The Earl of Welburn has been deseisened of his lands and title."
Savage exultation flared, but Tré did not allow it to show in his face or words. "Indeed, sire."
"Yea, indeed, my lord of Brayeton!" The king leaned forward in his bolstered chair. "What say you to that?"
"It is a grave misfortune, sire."
"A misfortune?" John gave a bark of laughter that held no humor. "Misfortune for Ewing, or for yourself?"
"I am not allied with Pell Ewing, sire."
"No, you are not. Yet it has come to our attention of late that you have withdrawn from our service. You paid knights' fees and shield tax, but did not answer our summons to Nottingham. Explain your reasons to our satisfaction."
"My lands require much of my time, sire." Salvation lay in half-truths; survival prompted him to remind the king, "I have just returned from your campaign against the Welsh."
It was waved away as inconsequential. "We need more assurance of your loyalty. You have no family, no hostages to offer us, only an oath of fealty that you have not yet sworn."
Tré held his tongue; not even to avoid censure would he swear an oath he was not certain he could keep. It would be treason should he break it. More danger lay in perjury than in refusal.
The king's steward stepped forward, murmured in John's ear, then stepped away. Tension prickled down Tré's spine; the new wound in his side throbbed, raw and unhealed, a constant ache, compliments of a Welsh sword.
John turned back, mouth curled in a nasty smile. "We have seized Welburn lands for the crown. Ewing is your overlord, a proven traitor, alive only because he has fled to Ireland. He named you as conspirator. Show me good cause to allow you to remain free, my lord Brayeton."
Anger sparked, was swiftly tamped. "Sire, you are aware of my long feud with the Earl of Welburn. Would you accuse me of treachery on his word alone?"
"Can you prove your innocence?"
"I have not heard specific charges, sire. If I am to be accused, I demand my rights as baron to a trial before the Council of Barons."
John regarded him through hooded eyes; mockery tucked the corners of his mouth. "The council meets at Nottingham Castle. As we just met in September, you will remain in our custody until the next council meeting."
A clank of weapons and armor from the guards entering bespoke the king's intent; Tré tensed. Few men left Windsor's dungeons alive.
Coolly, he said, "Sire, the Barons of Brayeton have served England's kings since the time of the Conqueror. Imprison me without trial and you will earn the enmity of even your allies. Do you court more enemies when you are beset on all sides?"
King John frowned, glanced toward his steward again, and chewed his fingernail for a moment. Then he sat back, narrow shoulders pressed against wood and gilt.
"Your lands are forfeit until charges against you are put before the Council of Barons. Unless you prefer prison, you may be of some use, my lord Brayeton. We are in need of a High Sheriff of Nottingham."
Surprise and outrage rendered Tré silent for a moment. Wily John--if he could not extract one oath, he would secure another. An appointment to sheriff would bind him to uphold the very laws he hated. A refusal would result in his imprisonment. He sucked in a deep breath.
"I thought the position occupied, sire."
"Not," the king said harshly, "for long. Eustace de Lowdham has misjudged me. His greedy hand plunders my taxes. He fails to catch the outlaws who poach Sherwood preserves and steal from royal coffers. You have proven your worth in pursuit of the Welsh--prove your worth as sheriff, and lands and title will be returned to you in time."
Tré's eyes narrowed; dust motes danced in gray bars of light filtering through the open window. It was a subtle trap. Far easier for John to be rid of an appointed official than to risk alienating all his barons by eliminating one of their own without proven cause.
Disaster loomed. Until this moment he had not known how complete was Welburn's hatred of him. Cunning earl, to destroy an enemy with a simple accusation--tempting a king who coveted rich lands for his war against Philip of France and the pope.
Far better to compromise than lose all. . . .
Silence stretched, grew heavy and dense. Impatient, John snapped, "Decide, my lord Brayeton."
Bitter words burned his tongue: "If I am not trusted to be baron, am I trusted to be sheriff?"
"A landless baron wields little enough power. You will be a warning to those who consider treason--evidence of our resolve, and our generosity in allowing you life and liberty."
The king beckoned to his scribe, looked back at Tré. "Arrive in Nottingham before the first Sunday of Lent. Serve us well, Devaux, and we shall reward thee well. Fail us, and lose all."
Devaux--I am already stripped of title and rank. . . . He swallowed rage and unwise comment, held his tongue when John's eyes glittered with malicious satisfaction.
Brayeton Keep, gone in the blink of an eye, seized for a false accusation. Now they belonged to King John: the stone keep where he had been born, and a hillside where two graves lay beneath an old oak.
Aimée. . . .
Memory veered from the sharp pain, barricaded itself behind familiar grayness: hollow, empty of soft emotion, a vast desolation where it was safe. Where the anguish of loss could not reach him.Ad noctum
--Into the darkness.