Bolsover, Derbyshire, England
Before Dawn, 15 April 1277
Fifth Year in the Reign of Edward I
Shadows crept down into the alley, hiding Sir Luc de Joinville from the prying eyes of anyone who might pass by his place of concealment. Slouched under the inn’s thatched eaves, he whistled quietly between his teeth.
Humble cottages and shops crouched around the fog-shrouded village green fronting the inn. The inhabitants were stirring awake, industrious hands lighting the ovens and hearths in preparation for the new day. Coal smoke curled above the chimneys. The pungent scent hovered in the air.
Heaving a deep breath, he straightened. The foul air scoured his lungs. Where was his blasted factor? If Luc were late joining his brother… his limbs iced up.
He glanced along the road snaking up the hill where Bolsover Castle perched. Guy, Lord Joinville, expected to meet him at the village blacksmith shop across the green to resume their journey to Duffield Castle.
He tugged the top of his hood over his brow, but his thin cloak was no match for the persistent mist that had soaked through to his surcoate.
His nostrils itched just before the hair on the back of his neck stood on end.
Spinning around, Luc withdrew his dagger. A cat screeched then its paws pattered away. A shadow lurked against the back alley wall. “Who goes there? Show yourself.”
The shadow detached from the wall, shuffling steps drew closer. “Mean no ’arm sir.” The reply warbled, soft and girlish.
The first rays of a murky dawn limned the pale face of a girl who looked no older than eight winters. She stopped several feet away, her reed-like body tense. But her dark eyes darted back and forth between him and the narrow gap to the alley entrance.
“Seeking a scrap of food is all,” she said, her arm raised, and indeed, she held a piece of moldy bread in her trembling hand.
Long, dark curly hair sprouted beneath a tight-fitting coif, flyaway pieces sticking out like a badly shorn hedge. Wraithlike from hunger no doubt, she pursed her lips as though in calculation. Her hollow, dirt-smudged cheeks called attention to her youth and wretched state.
The sack hanging over his shoulder suddenly slunk down his back like a ton of rocks. “Where did you . . .” Luc’s breath expelled, stifling his ability to speak more.
“Na, didn’t steal, sir,” she blurted as though he’d accused her of thievery. She sidled away, bracing one hand against the wall behind her. Her narrow shoulders curled inwardly. Mayhap trying to make herself a smaller target? “Found the bread rottin’ in the rubbish. ’onest.” Her curly head nodded emphatically.
When Luc and his brother arrived in Bolsover last night, the dark had obscured the identity of the small beggar he’d given a piece of bread to outside the inn. But the wild dark hair gave her away now. He relaxed his tense shoulders and sheathed his blade.
She dashed for the opening to the alley entrance. He slid over and blocked her escape.
He grabbed her arm. “Not so fast, child,” he said, his voice low, stern. “I can’t let you leave.”
She glanced up at him, her big brown eyes wide in stark appeal. “Please don’t call the watch, sir. Didn’t steal nutin’.”
He let her arm go. “You need not . . . Oww!” He dropped the sack and clutched his shin, jumping up and down on his right foot.
The little whelp had kicked him! As further insult, she grabbed the sack he’d dropped and darted past him.
“Come back here, you hell-born heathen,” he shouted. He lurched after her. Just when she reached the street, Luc clutched the back of the urchin’s grimy tunic and hauled her back into the alley. Aha! He held her up by the scruff of her neck and shook her.
The bag slipped from her fingers. He caught it by the strap then he set her on her feet. “Cease your struggles. I mean you no harm,” he said, a tight grip on her shoulder.
She stilled immediately. “’ow do I know you won’t ’urt me?” She scowled at him but her stomach grumbled.
The poor mite looked as thin as an ash tree’s stripped palings. “Answer a few questions and I’ll give you the bread and eggs in here,” he said, holding up the sack.
She raised her dimpled chin. “After you let me go?”
Luc nodded. “Answer my questions first.”
She thrust her dirty hand out. “Food first.”
The girl had courage. She was also smart not trust him. Unable to prevent a grin, he tossed her the sack.
Luc de Joinville