Authors: Jody Hedlund
But at a whoop from the branches and a crash behind me, I knew my wishes were in vain. The pressure at my backside was quickly followed by the sharpness of a blade against my neck.
Irene screamed. The guests shouted. And the horses stamped nervously, whinnying as they halted ahead of me.
“Don't move,” came the voice of the urchin. “None of you move! Or I'll slit his throat.”
At the threat, the boy brought the knife around into clearer view.
Irene's already pale face turned almost translucent. The two men riding next to her froze. One of the huntsmen farther ahead had already drawn his sword, but at the sight of the knife angled against my throat, he slowly lowered his weapon.
My fingers slid toward my knife.
But the child was smarter than I anticipated. Before I could stop him, he unsheathed my blade and tossed it into the forest. Another young boy charged out of the brush, this one on a horse. He caught my knife and held it in one hand,
aimed and ready to throw at the noblemen or servants if they moved.
“What do you want?” I asked, assessing how I could take down both of the boys if they became too threatening.
The boy behind me shifted. “Nice of you to ask, Master Collinâor should I now say Sir Collin?”
“Lord Collin,” I stated with as much nonchalance as I could muster. I could easily snap the boy's wrist and put an arrow into his accomplice before either of them could react. But I made myself wait patiently. “Do I know you, son?”
The boy gave a low chuckle. “It's been a while,
Collin.” The emphasis on my title was mocking.
I tried to place the voice, but from the strain in the child's tone I could tell that he was working to disguise himself from recognition. Who was this? Suddenly I was more curious than nervous. I wanted to spin around and take stock of the boy. But I also knew I couldn't underestimate the two youths.
Instead I glanced at the boy on the horse. His blond hair stuck up on end, his face was thin and freckled, and he was slight of frame. If I had to guess his age, I'd estimate twelve years and no more. The boy behind me sounded slightly older.
“So how can I help you today?” I asked casually, as if I made an everyday practice of bargaining with young bandits.
“You can help by giving us this.” With a flick of the knife, the young man behind me loosened the gold chain holding my cloak closed. He flicked the chain toward his friend, who caught it one-handed without so much as blinking.
My cloak fell away, revealing my jewel-studded mantle.
“And you can most certainly help by giving us this.” The tip of the knife slashed into the linen of the mantle, cutting it away.
Inwardly, I flinched, waiting for the knife to pierce my shoulder. But to my surprise, the boy divested me of the
garment and flung it toward his friend without so much as nicking my flesh.
Then before I could react, the boy stood on my horse, and with perfect balance leaped off and landed behind his accomplice. Their mare seemed prepared for the jarring movement of receiving the new rider, obviously having been through the routine plenty of other times.
Several of the huntsmen raised their weapons and began to move toward the bandits, but I held up my hand to stop them. Surely my servants had heard of my daring deeds in battle, and knew I could disarm these two waifs by myself if I chose to do so.
As the thief clutched his accomplice, I could see the size difference. The thief was just as thin as the boy, but taller and definitely older.
Their horse shied back. Only then did I get a glimpse of the thief's face beneath the hood of a cloak. Though remnants of dried mud peeled away from his nose and forehead, I could see past the thin disguise to elegant cheekbones, a gracefully curved chin, and full lips. Such features couldn't belong to a boy.
No. This was no boy.
This was a woman.
I had to rapidly conceal my surprise by side-stepping away from the bandits. I didn't want her to know I'd discovered the truth about her disguise. Not yet.
“Is there anything more you'd like to steal from me today?” I asked while twisting at the jewel on my finger. “Perhaps my ring?”
A flicker of surprise lit her eyesâdark brown irises that were framed by long, thick lashes.
I tossed the ring at her. She caught it with ease.
I could see that she was working to keep her face blank, to conceal her surprise. But she wasn't nearly as well trained as I was in such tactics.
I smothered a grin.
She tucked the ring into the bag at her accomplice's side. “You're too kind, Lord Collin.” Again her tone had a hint of sarcasm.
“I didn't thank you.”
“That's not very nice of you.” I couldn't stop my grin any more than I could stop the words.
“I was nice enough not to slice your throat open.”
I laughed then. I couldn't help myself.
Didn't she know I could have easily overtaken her and her partner if I'd wanted to? I could have killed them both in a matter of seconds. I'd trained with the Duke of Rivenshire for years next to the toughest knights in all the land. I'd fought in more battles than I could count. I was likely the best bowman in the entire kingdom.
Her eyes narrowed and her fingers crept toward the half-empty quiver at her side.
With a nod and another grin, I spun my horse away from her. I could tell she wanted to shoot me but that she wouldn't. There was something too kind about her eyes, too level-headed. She might be a thief, but she was no murderer.
I urged my mount toward Irene and our guests but couldn't resist a parting shot over my shoulder. “If you ever need anything more, don't hesitate to stop me again.”
Her eyes flashed. And for a moment I had the feeling I'd looked into those brown eyes before, that I'd experienced the churning anger in them once upon a time.
But before I could question her, she pulled her hood forward and gave a low command. The urchin in front of her
bent low and kicked their horse into motion. Within seconds they'd disappeared completely, swallowed by the thick forest. The huntsmen began to spur their horses and dogs into a chase, but I sidled in front of them, blocking their path.
“Let them go,” I called, staring at the spot where they'd disappeared. My heart hammered with the need to follow them, to find out who she was. But Irene had already moved to my side, having given the care of her falcon to one of the servants.
“My lord.” Her voice quivered. “Are you hurt?”
“Not in the least.” I studied the bend of the branches, the crush of the dried leaves, and the slight imprint of the horse's hooves.
Irene pressed a lacey handkerchief to her eyes and dabbed away moisture. “I have been dreading the day when something like this might happen here on our land.”
The young noblemen nodded and offered platitudes to comfort her. For a moment, I couldn't even remember their names. All I could think about were my friends, Sir Derrick and Sir Bennet, and how if they'd been there, they would have been by my side, lending me their unconditional support and companionship. The despondency from earlier sifted over me again.
“So far, the thievery has only happened on neighboring lands,” Irene was saying. “But now it appears we are to suffer the same fate.”
“Perhaps the Cloaked Bandit is behind this,” said one of the noblemen.
“Cloaked Bandit?” I asked, my mind already tracking the young woman through the woods. I could find her if I wanted. She'd left a careless trail.
“Lord Wessex has been trying to capture a thief everyone calls the Cloaked Bandit,” Irene started.
I snorted, expecting Irene to smile and tell me she was only jesting.
But Irene's pale face remained serious. Her lips pursed together in displeasure at my humor. She sat tall and straight on her mare, her blond hair and green eyes so much like my own. But our similarities ended with appearances, at least as far as I could tell.
I hadn't really known my sister while growing up, since I'd lived with the Duke of Rivenshire during my training toward knighthood. But while reacquainting myself with her over the past month, I'd realized we were as different as summer and winter.
And she reminded me too much of our father.
“I beg your pardon, sister,” I offered with as much sincerity as I could muster. “I didn't realize you were serious about thisâthis Cloaked Bandit.”
“Of course I am.” She lifted her chin. “The thief has been giving Lord Wessex trouble for the past year, so much so that now there's a bounty on his head.”
I had met George Wessex and his son at one of Irene's feasts. There I had learned that while I'd been gone serving in campaigns with the duke, George had marched in and taken the estate away from his half brother, Charles, claiming their father had left it to him. Apparently none of the other lords from the surrounding landsâincluding my fatherâdefended Charles for fear of repercussions from George's strong band of loyal knights and warriors. George had banished his brother without challenge and taken control of Wessex. Charles eventually perished, although I was still unclear how. I hadn't exactly been impressed with the new heir to Wessex, or his son. But it had been obvious that they admired Irene.
“And what is this cloaked bandit's crime?”
“Why stealing, of course,” Irene answered.
“Surely, it must be more serious than that if Lord Wessex put a bounty on the man's head.”
“He evades capture,” one of the noblemen chimed in.
“That's no fault of the Cloaked Bandit.” I again glanced at the forest and the gentle shadows of the shifting trees. “If Lord Wessex were competentâ”
“The Cloaked Bandit has amassed a group of followers,” Irene continued. “And they live in the forests of Wessex.”
Surprise once again nudged me. “What's wrong with Lord Wessex that so many people dislike him?”
“I've heard complaints of his high taxes,” Irene admitted. “But that's no excuse for stealing. Sin is sin. And we cannot turn a blind eye to crime, or the other peasants will think such behavior is acceptable.”
“Has Lord Wessex considered lowering his taxes?”
Irene smiled stiffly, almost patronizing me. “Brother, you've never had an inclination for business affairs. And besides, after being gone these many years, how can you know what it takes to manage a vast estate?”
I nodded. I didn't have one ounce of concern about the management of our wealth. I never had. In fact, as long as I could do as I pleased with my money, I didn't care what William, my steward, did with the estate, or how he did it. I trusted our old servant to take care of things as he always had.
“We need to inform the sheriff,” Irene said, spurring her horse around the way we'd already come. “We need to find these thieves and punish them.”
The noblemen followed her.
I stared at the forest for a moment longer, wishing I could leave the hunting party posthaste and follow the young pair of thieves. I'd have an easier time by the light of day. But the cover of darkness would give me an element of surprise. I
didn't want the bandits bolting before I could discover all I needed about them.
“In fact, I think I shall induce our sheriff to form a search party,” Irene called.
“There's no need,” I said, trotting after her.
“Of course there is,” she countered. “We don't want our people thinking thievery is acceptable on our lands. We must punish it severely and swiftly and set an example of intolerance, or we may end up with the same out-of-control problems Lord Wessex has.”
“No. We shall let the boys go,” I said more firmly. I was, after all, the lord now. My sister may have been in charge since our father died. But she didn't need to be any longer.
She cast me a sideways glance, opened her mouth to speak, but then clamped her lips shut.
“If they had need to steal my trinkets,” I said, “then they must have greater want of them than I do.”
“I have plenty more rings and chains and mantles.” We had riches beyond measure. More than any one man needed.
Irene didn't respond for a moment, and when she did her voice was tight and low. “Our father worked incredibly hard over the years to elevate our family's position and fortune. You can't come home and throw it all away.”
I sensed a threat to her words. But I didn't care. “Let them go, Irene,” I responded. “It's my wealth now. And I can do with it what I want.”
Irene bowed her head in compliance, as a younger sister should. But something about the tight lines in her face told me she didn't like my order. Not in the least.
“Dad will boil you alive when he finds out about
your stunt,” Thatch whispered through chattering teeth.