Chapter 1: Chapter 31: Wilfred
Wilfred and Wamba come to an agreement about what Wamba is owed for his labors.
Wilfred drummed his fingers on the table as he watched Rotherwood’s steward scratch at his scroll. “Well?”
Frederick made one final mark and looked up. “All in all, it comes to seven-hundred twenty-three pounds and three shillings, my lord.”
“Seven hundred?” Wamba echoed across the table, his voice thin and face graying with shock. “Are you certain?”
“I have done the sums twice. If you would like to confirm it for yourself, I will not begrudge you.” Frederick proffered the scroll with a smile.
“That won’t be necessary,” Wilfred said. He snatched the parchment from between them and cast his eye quickly over the long column of numbers. “Prepare a letter for the king’s steward with instructions to have that amount delivered to Wamba upon his return to London.”
“What?” Wamba yelped. “My lord, that is far too generous.”
“It is nothing of the sort,” Wilfred said. “That coin is yours, rightfully earned by your labors, and it will be returned to you.”
“Earned in your service,” Wamba protested. “I have never lacked for what I needed to see to my own needs. The rest is yours.”
Wilfred pointed a warning finger at him. “So help me, if you say one word about my right as your master, I will give you that sum three times over and that is a promise.”
Wamba’s mouth snapped shut at this threat, his eyes wide, though as ever he was not cowed for long. “It is not only that, Wilfred. You have always been good to me. You protected me and gave me counsel and…” he stuttered, flushed, and said again, “you were good to me.”
Wilfred heard his meaning well enough. It softened his indignation, though not enough that he would allow Wamba to forfeit everything to which he was entitled for the sake of a misplaced sense of his own worth. “All of that I would have done in either case, for friendship alone. I cannot allow you to begin your life as a free man with nothing.”
Wamba’s flush darkened, but he collected himself and said, “I will have my full wage from here on, correct?”
“Yes. I will make sure of it.”
“Then there is truly no need for any more,” Wamba said. “I cannot imagine spending even one year’s worth in a lifetime.”
“I will not accept that,” Wilfred said firmly, “but perhaps we can agree on somewhere between. What say you to half?”
“It is more than I could ever need,” Wamba said, shaking his head. “Can you not use it here? I would rather it serve some needful purpose for Rotherwood. There is little enough I can do to repay what I have been given. At least allow me to do this.”
Wilfred huffed a laugh, a fond smile stealing over his face for all he fought to maintain his stern visage. “That is your bargain? If I keep what is needed here, you will accept the remainder?”
Wamba returned the smile somewhat warily. “It is.”
“Then we are agreed,” Wilfred said.
Wamba nodded, though his smile faded as his gaze dropped to his hands. He touched the silver ring on his hand with the fingers of the other. “And this?” he asked quietly. “Should I return it to you?”
Wilfred stood and leaned across the table to cover Wamba’s hands with one of his own. “No. Of course not. That is yours.”
When Wamba looked up he was smiling again, relief shining clear in his face. “Thank you, my lord.”
Wilfred shook his head. “Go and find that overgrown hellion of yours. Get him to teach you a little of his irreverence. Frederick and I have other matters to discuss.”
Wamba did as he was told. Wilfred and Frederick watched as the door closed quietly behind him. Then Frederick turned to Wilfred.
Wilfred sat back in his seat and spun the scroll to face him again. “What is yet owed for the repairs to the gate?”
“No more than twenty or thirty pounds," the steward replied.
“Take that from this sum,” Wilfred said, sliding the parchment back toward him.
“And the rest?”
“Give it back to him,” Wilfred said. “Give all of it back.”
Frederick smiled, and lifted his pen. “Excellent, my lord.”
Chapter 2: Chapter 45: Emmett
Emmett and Wamba have a conversation about Oscar.
The gate into the tower was open wide, every space within its stone walls transformed into a place of celebration in honor of the king’s wedding. Whole hogs turned over great spits in the yard. Mugs of ale and mead were doled out by cheerful soldiers. Games, curiosities, and all manner of other entertainments abounded there as well.
Emmett held Mark cradled in the crook of one arm. The other kept a firm hold of Peter’s hand as he waded through the teeming crowd, craning his neck to search for his brother. Emmett had never before had reason to step foot inside the tower walls. He had readily agreed when Oscar suggested this outing, intrigued by the prospect of a glimpse into the world that his brother inhabited now.
His eyes found the familiar shock of black hair just beside the door of the keep, removed from the worst of the crush. Relieved, Emmett pointed his feet toward Oscar, only to stop short when he recognized the figure standing with him. It was no small surprise to see the magistrate there. Cedric remained something of a mystery, spoken of in only the most glowing terms by Oscar but ever distant, at least until today. At a glance, he little resembled the man Emmett recalled from their first and only meeting. He wore a coat of fine leather, clearly the work of a master craftsman despite its simple cut, but an odd contrast to the scarf of rough red wool that was wound about his neck. His smile as he listened to whatever Oscar said to him was honest and sweet, with none of the reserve that Emmett remembered. This, then, was the true face of the man Oscar loved so dearly.
Peter spotted his uncle then, and interrupted Emmett’s staring with a shriek as he tugged his hand free. He pelted on stubby legs toward Oscar, whose face lit in an enormous grin as he caught sight of them. He crouched with both hands extended and caught Peter up to toss him flying into the air.
“He’s getting too big for that sort of thing,” Emmett said.
“All the more reason to do it now!” Oscar spun Peter around and hoisted him beneath the arms to settle the boy on his shoulders. Peter promptly wrapped both chubby arms around his face.
Cedric smiled at their antics, though there was a deliberate politeness to it now that put a distance between them. Emmett ducked his head. “My lord.”
“Please,” Cedric said, “there is no need for formality today.”
“Good luck with that,” Oscar laughed as he pried Peter’s small hand away from his nose. He pointed to his nephews. “This one is Peter. That one is Mark. You remember Emmett.”
“Of course,” Cedric said. “Welcome.”
“Do you want to see the fire eater?” Oscar asked Peter. The boy enthusiastically agreed, drumming his fists on top of Oscar’s head. The next moment they had trotted off, leaving Emmett and Cedric standing awkwardly alongside one another while Mark peered around curiously from the safety of his father’s arms.
It was Cedric who spoke first, to observe mildly, “Sometimes I am convinced he never grew up at all.”
Emmett snorted a laugh. “I suppose I should take the blame for that, since I raised him. I promise you, I’ll do a better job with these two.” He set Mark down on his feet. The child toddled toward the closed doors of the keep, bedecked with brightly colored ribbons, and began to amuse himself with the trailing ends.
“Oscar told me about your parents. I am sorry that you lost them so young.”
“At least we had each other,” Emmett shrugged. "I have meant to thank you."
Cedric shook his head. "This was Oscar's idea."
"Not for today,” Emmett said. “For what you've done with him."
"I would argue that I did very little,” Cedric said. “He is something of an unstoppable force."
Emmett glanced away from Mark to look at him. "I hope he is not too much of a burden on you."
"A burden?” Cedric’s face softened. “No. He is the opposite of that."
"You've been a blessing,” Emmett said. “I always thought he would do well to find someone who could steady him. Though I admit I never would have expected it to be someone like you.”
Cedric stilled. His eyes dropped, and he said very quietly, “I know it cannot have been easy for you to hear. Please allow me assure you that it was never my aim to seduce him. I did try to encourage him toward a more acceptable choice.”
“I know,” Emmett said quickly, alarmed at the turn their had taken. "Truly, I know. He was never one to take the easy path."
“I will do everything necessary to ensure that I do not cause you any inconvenience.”
Emmett frowned. “I don’t…”
“Aren’t you coming?” It was Oscar who interrupted him, bounding back with Peter bouncing on his shoulders. His smile was wide and warm and just for Cedric, and after a moment the magistrate returned it. They did not touch, but the energy between them was unmistakable, and Emmett made up his mind.
“You should come back with us for supper tonight," he said, in a tone that brooked no argument. "Both of you.”
Oscar’s smile was blinding, but Cedric gave him a wary look. “I am not certain that is a good idea.”
Emmett reached down to scoop Mark up, and deposited him in Cedric's arms with a smirk. “You’re a part of this family now. You might as well start acting like it.”
Chapter 3: Chapter 60: Richard
Wamba asks Richard for some time away from London.
Richard was not expecting Wamba in the great hall that evening. He had been informed of his official’s arrival at the tower as a matter of course, but fully anticipated that Wamba would not return to his duties until the following day, making the most of the time he had been given. Yet come he did, after the meal and just as Richard was preparing to retire, looking somehow more weary than he had at any point during their forced sojourn in York.
Richard beckoned him up to the emptying dais, casting an assessing eye over him. He moved slowly, his hands tucked into his sleeves and his face wooden. He did not raise his eyes as he bowed.
“Back in one piece, I see,” Richard said with a smirk. “No sea monsters had a go at you, did they?”
“Fortunately not, sire,” Wamba said. The corners of his mouth twitched in frail deference to the king’s jest, but there was no hint of humor in his expression.
Richard considered Wamba again, more critically this time. “You hardly have the appearance of a man just returned from a pleasant holiday,” he observed. “I take it you have not come to entertain me with tales of your travels.”
“No, sire,” Wamba agreed. His voice was quiet, and his eyes were fixed somewhere about Richard’s boots. The hall was half empty already, and those few that remained for the most part well soaked, but some were beginning to take an interest in their unusual conference. Richard noted their eyes, and decided the conversation was best continued elsewhere.
“Come,” he said, stepping down from the dais and gesturing for Wamba to follow. “Walk with me back to my chambers.”
“Yes, sire.” Wamba fell in beside him, and said no more, until Richard at last tired of his silence.
“What is it that you have come to discuss with me?”
Wamba’s fascination had shifted at some point from Richard’s feet to his own. “I know that I have already begged many an indulgence of you, sire,” he said quietly to his boots, “but I wondered if you might see fit to grant me one more brief leave.”
Richard’s brows rose. “Leave? Again? You have only just returned.”
Wamba’s head dropped further. “Yes, sire.”
“For what purpose this leave?”
“To go away from London,” Wamba said, “just for a short while. Perhaps a week. No more.”
Richard could see Wamba steeling himself for a refusal, his mouth a tight line, but he did not withdraw the request. That in itself was enough to arouse Richard’s curiosity. It was unlike Wamba to ask any favors for himself at all, much less so many in so short a span, and Richard would know what was behind it.
“I suppose it will be a race to see whether Gilbert or Nicholas will be first to declare himself blighted by the unjust burdens I place upon him.”
Wamba did not look up. “For Nicholas, I do not think you will have any trouble, sire.”
Richard came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the wide corridor. Wamba stumbled to a stop as well, just a pace behind. “So Oscar will not accompany you on this journey?”
“No, sire.” Wamba’s fingers played absently with his sleeves.
“And why is that?” Richard asked, determined to pry the truth from him, whatever it might be.
Wamba bit his lip, was silent for a long moment, then finally replied, “I imagine he will be occupied with preparations for his wedding.”
Few things truly shocked Richard any longer, but these words sent an incredulous chill racing through him. “His wedding?”
His surprise must have been apparent, for Wamba finally looked at him, though his expression did not shift. His eyes were empty. “Yes, sire.”
Richard waved a hand at him, commanding him to silence as he tried to make sense of what he had heard. “It is hardly a week since I was forced to reprimand both of you for incautious public displays of your uncontrollable affections,” he said, “and now you would have be believe that he has undergone such a transformation as to wish to take a bride? Was he bewitched by a mermaid on your travels?”
Wamba did not manage even the semblance of a smile. “I cannot speak for his reasons, sire.”
The silence that followed echoed long in the cold air of the corridor. Richard was frankly amazed that Wamba could stand before him and make this request as calmly as he did. He held a keen fondness for Wamba, and knew that he indulged the young man more than he perhaps should if he wished to maintain an appearance of impartiality among his advisers. He knew also that he was not the one to whom Wamba would show his hurt. It was a sign of how very bad the betrayal had been that he asked this favor of the king at all.
“Where will you go?”
Wamba looked up at him, surprise and relief breaking through the calm. “I think I might be welcome at Coningsburgh, sire.”
“Not Rotherwood?” Richard asked.
“No, I... “ Wamba’s face dropped again. “No.”
Richard knew that the kindest thing would be to ask no further explanation of him. He knew enough to guess at Wamba’s reasoning. He nodded his assent.
“I will see that there are guards ready to accompany you first thing in the morning. If I see you back here before midsummer, I will have you locked up.”
It was nearly two months longer than Wamba had asked. He did not question it. “Thank you, sire,” he managed in a hoarse whisper, and gave the king a deep bow.
Richard watched him go, and wondered whether Nicholas would be too terribly opposed to finding himself a new assistant.
Chapter 4: Chapter 66: Devy
Devy watches Wamba put Oscar to bed.
Devy kept Oscar’s scroll tucked inside her apron pocket, resisting the urge to peek at whatever urgent truths it contained, until she could deliver it to Wamba that evening. She waited until he was alone in his chambers, and stayed to watch him open it with shadowed eyes and unsteady hands, ginger as though it might contain some poisoned trap within it. What little color was left in his cheeks drained away as he read. Then he carefully rolled the scroll again, and set off without a word into the castle.
Less than an hour later, Devy was scurrying about the keep on fresh orders from her lady, hastily appropriating an unclaimed pallet from the guard quarters and clean blankets from the laundry. She saw them hauled with all haste to Wamba’s chamber, where the bench had been moved aside to make space on the hearth.
Devy sent the other servants away and made up the bed herself, watching Wamba from the corner of her eye all the while. He was wringing his hands and pacing the open floor of the chamber, darting anxious glances between the pallet and the door. It was odd to see him so animated, after weeks of watching him slowly wear away beneath his grief. The news of Oscar’s arrival had first sparked his agitation, but it was the scroll that truly upended everything, convincing Lady Edith as well as Wamba with whatever was written there.
A curt knock at the door stalled Wamba’s pacing. Devy stood and took one step toward him as the door opened, but she did not think he was even aware of her any longer. His eyes landed upon Oscar, stumbling into the room guided by the hands of two guards, and did not leave him. Oscar’s dark head dangled limp from his shoulders, exhaustion taken over nearly to the point of delirium.
“Where do you want him?”
“Here,” Wamba said, his voice hoarse as he directed them to the pallet. “Put him here.”
The guards dropped Oscar down onto his back without ceremony and quickly retreated. Wamba did not acknowledge them further, his whole attention on the man sprawled out upon the hearth. He approached slowly and knelt down beside the pallet as Oscar roused himself enough to crack open his eyes.
Devy had been fully prepared to hate Oscar, unable to justify his actions as easily as Wamba did. As Wamba had shown himself incapable of summoning any anger on his own behalf, Devy intended to do it for him. That conviction lasted only until she saw Oscar, and realized that the despair that consumed Wamba day by day had engulfed him as well. Side by side, they were remarkably well matched in their misery.
Oscar mumbled something unintelligible, squinting against the firelight. Wamba reached out one trembling hand and laid it on his brow. “It’s alright,” he said, in that same hollow voice. “Rest now.”
“Don’t you want to talk to him?” Devy asked.
Wamba startled at her voice, confirming her suspicion that he had forgotten she was there at all. He glanced up at her quickly before his eyes returned irresistibly, inevitably to Oscar.
“There will be time for talking later,” he said. “He has had an exhausting journey.”
“What does his letter say?” Devy asked, curiosity winning out at last.
“It says that this fate was not of his making.” Wamba brushed a lock of Oscar’s hair back from his brow with the tips of his fingers. “It is possible that he is as much a victim in this as anyone.”
Devy could see how badly he wanted to believe it, so she kept her doubts to herself. She watched Wamba watching Oscar, until he shook himself from his stupor and reached for the stay of Oscar's cloak.
“Will you help me with this?”
Devy stooped to pull off Oscar’s boots, a little shocked to discover the state of them, and folded the cloak when Wamba handed it to her. Wamba removed Oscar's belt as well, coiling it to lay it atop the cloak before he pulled the blankets up and over the younger’s sleeping form. But even after he was settled, Wamba could not seem to stop touching him. He took Oscar’s limp hand in his for a brief moment, before he laid it atop Oscar's chest and covered it with his own.
“So you’re going to take him back, then?” Devy asked.
Wamba quickly pulled his hand away, a guilty flush rising on his cheeks. “No," he said firmly. "He is not mine any longer.”
“I'm not so certain he agrees."
“Whatever other truth might be, there is still a child,” Wamba said. “It is too late for us now. It is better that way.”
He pushed himself to his feet, and took one decisive step back from Oscar's pallet. Devy stood as well, puzzling at the adamant words. "Then why did you ask to have him brought here?"
"I could not leave him out in the cold. And perhaps..." Wamba face twisted, with a pain as familiar to Devy now as her own. He looked at Oscar again, and deliberately away. "Perhaps I wanted a chance to say goodbye."
Chapter 5: Interlude: Nora
Nora discovers an unexpected visitor in her kitchens.
The first time she woke to discover neat rows of freshly scrubbed dishes awaiting her in the kitchens, Nora was amused. After the second, she concluded that one of the girls must be trying to butter her up. But another day passed, and none of them came asking her any favors. On the third night, intrigued, Nora decided to settle the mystery for herself. She banked the fire low, as she did each night after the kitchen work was done, but rather than retire to bed she seated herself in her chair on the hearth, her back to the door, and settled in to wait.
It did not take long, though her intruder proved to be impressively light-footed. Listening for a step by the door, she was startled to hear a faint clatter from the corner beside the garden door, where the scullions has stacked the pans and kettles to soak in their tubs. That was followed in short order by a hefty thump, a small gasp, and silence.
She waited until she heard the unknown visitor shuffling about again, then stood slowly from her chair. She followed the soft, familiar scrape of scouring sand through the darkened room and around the work tables to confront the curious sight of a pair of skinny haunches in overlarge trousers protruding from her largest stew pot.
“So this is the kitchen sprite that cleans my kettles while the castle sleeps.”
The intruder startled, the blunt thud of skull meeting iron setting the pot ringing like a church bell.
“Dear me.” Nora laughed. “You’d best come out of there before you do yourself an injury.”
She bent down and laid a hand on the child to guide him, only to remove it when the small body flinched away from her touch. Rotherwood’s children did not, on the whole, find her especially terrible, so it was little surprise to see the pale face and fair head of Gurth’s new stray boy emerge from the pot. He sat back on his heels, eyes fixed resolutely on the flagstones.
“Well, now, this is a surprise,” Nora said. “It is good to see you again, Wamba.”
He glanced up at her through the tangle of his hair, but no sooner had his eyes met hers than they quickly fell away again. Until Gurth had finally brought Wamba to meet her, Nora had thought that his irritation must be causing him to exaggerate his descriptions of the boy. If anything, he had not done justice to Wamba’s pitiable state. Violence and neglect were writ clear on every part of him, bruises still dark around one eye and at the corner of his jaw, sores red on his neck. He was paralyzed by any attention directed his way, even a smile, and silent unless prompted.
“What are you doing here at this hour?” Nora asked him, careful that it did not sound like an accusation.
Wamba looked between her and the pot with doubtful eyes before he offered timidly, “Washing up.”
“I see that,” Nora nodded, “though it is not a task often performed in the dark.”
Wamba’s shoulders hunched up toward his ears, and he did not reply.
“Did Gurth send you?”
The boy shook his head.
“Does he know where you’ve gone?”
Wamba seemed to shrink before her eyes.
“What was it gave you the idea?”
Wamba snatched another glance at her, and flushed as he mumbled, “You gave me milk.”
Nora’s heart was beset by a dull ache as she understood his reasoning. It made a dismal sort of sense, taken together with all the rest of him. Her instinct was to take the child in her arms, hold him and give him the affection that he had so clearly been denied, but it would take time before he could accept any such comforts from her. She stepped back instead.
“Come over to the fire with me, Wamba.”
Slowly, he rose and followed her to the hearth. He hesitated when she directed him to the second chair there, but settled just on the edge of it at her urging. He was such a slight thing already, that with his body curled and hands clasped between his knees it dwarfed him.
“Did you like the milk?” Nora asked him.
“Yes,” Wamba said, voice faint.
“Would you like to have some more?”
He hesitated, weighing the question as he had every other, searching for the trap in her words.
“Yes,” he said at last.
“And how many days of washing pots do you suppose it will take to earn another cup?”
Wamba’s mouth opened, but no sound emerged. He snuck a glance at her, as though he could divine the correct answer from her face.
“Go on,” she prompted him.
“Ten?” he ventured at last.
Nora shook her head, and said gently, “No.”
His head dropped and his hands clenched, small body bracing for her wrath.
She went to the fire and took a mug from the mantel, while she stirred the small pot dangling from a hook with one hand. She ladled out the milk, thick and sweet after hours beside the flame, and took it to Wamba. He cringed when she reached down to him, but she took his hand anyway and pressed it to the warm side of the cup.
“You may have as much as you like,” she told him. “Any time you wish. All I ask is that you come and sit with me while you do. No more sneaking about in the dead of night.”
He finally looked up, surprise and wonder in his eyes as they met hers properly for the first time.
“Are we in agreement?”
He did not quite smile, but the shy flush in his pale cheeks as he nodded was enough. She gave his head a soft pat.
“You’re a good boy.”
She did not yet know whether those words were true, but she thought they might never have been more sorely needed.