Gentle Warrior(2)

By: Julie Garwood

Elizabeth folded her arms and waited. “What say you?” she demanded. When her servant did not immediately reply, Elizabeth sighed with exasperation and continued in a softer voice. “Be content, Joseph. I have sent little Thomas to safety. That must be enough.”

His reply was not what she expected. Elizabeth watched his shoulders slump even further than was their natural inclination. The servant rubbed his bald head and cleared his voice. “The evil ones have gone.”

“Gone? What do you mean, gone? How can this be? Where have they gone?” Her voice increased in volume with each question, and she was unaware that she had grabbed the loyal servant by his cloak and was vigorously shaking him.

Joseph raised his hands and gently pulled free from her grip. “Please, my lady, calm yourself. Let us go inside,” he suggested, “and I will tell you all I know.”

Elizabeth agreed with a quick nod and hurried inside. She tried to compose herself as was befitting her position, but her mind rebelled at the task, concentrating on the number of unanswered questions and conflicting emotions instead.

The one-room hut was sparsely furnished. Elizabeth sat on the edge of one of the two wooden stools, her hands folded in her lap, her back straight, while she waited for Joseph to light the fire in the hearth. Though it was late spring, the hut was damp and chill.

It seemed an eternity before Joseph was seated across from her. “ ’Twas shortly after I left here last, my lady. The day of the storm,” he qualified, “I had just reached the second rise above the manor when I first saw them approach as a cloud of dust on the winding road below. Though there were only two hundred or so of them, they still looked to be a deadly fighting force. Why, the ground fairly trembled beneath me so awesome was the sight. I saw their leader, for he rode well ahead of his men and was the only one without benefit of a helmet.

“Once they had battered down and entered the gates, for it was obvious to me that they cared not for the element of surprise, I rode closer, my curiosity pushing aside all caution. By the time I found a better vantage point, their leader had drawn up his force into a half-circle, and behind a wall of shields, they advanced. It was a sight to see, little one. I watched their leader take his stand, a gigantic figure, I must admit, for he carried a great sword I wager two lesser men could scarcely lift. I watched as his sword swung countless times and lay low as many. ’Twas then that the storm broke—”

“Were they from Lord Geoffrey?” It was a bare whisper, but Joseph heard.

“Aye, they were Lord Geoffrey’s men. You knew that he would send forces.”

“Of course I realized this, Joseph,” she sighed. “My father was vassal to Geoffrey, and his lord would reclaim what is his. Still, we did not send word to him. How did he arrive so soon?”

“I do not know,” Joseph confessed.

“Belwain!” The name was a shout of despair. Elizabeth jumped up and began to pace.

“Your uncle?” Joseph asked. “Why would he—”

“Of course,” Elizabeth interrupted. “We both know that my uncle was behind the massacre of my family. He went to Geoffrey. My God, he betrayed his own men to win Geoffrey’s favor. What lies he must have told.”

Joseph shook his head. “I always knew he was an evil man, but even I did not think he would go to such extremes.”

“Our cause is lost, Joseph,” Elizabeth replied in an agonized whisper. “Lord Geoffrey will listen to my uncle’s lies. Thomas and I will be placed in Belwain’s hands, and Thomas will be murdered, for only when my little brother is dead can Belwain become master of my home. Only then.”

“Perhaps Lord Geoffrey will see through Belwain’s plan,” Joseph answered.

“I have never met Lord Geoffrey,” Elizabeth said, “but I know he is said to possess a fierce temper and is most disagreeable at times. No, I do not think he would listen.”

“My lady,” Joseph implored, “perhaps—”

“Joseph, if I had only myself to consider, I would go to Lord Geoffrey and beg him to listen to my words, for Belwain’s perfidy should be told to all who would listen. But I must protect Thomas. Belwain thinks both my brother and I are dead.”

Elizabeth continued to pace back and forth in front of the hearth. “I have made up my mind, Joseph. Tomorrow we leave for London and the safety of my grandfather’s home.”

“And Belwain?” Joseph asked with hesitancy. A dread of what her answer was going to be made Joseph brace himself. He knew his mistress well. She would not allow Belwain acquittal for his evildoing.