The Sheriff of Nottingham set his cup down and grimaced. The noise in the great hall was becoming intolerable. It always did when the barons were invited to a feast.
He looked around the room at his dinner companions. Baron Ogbert groped a bored looking serving wench who kept slapping his hands away from her bodice. Baron Wulfric had given up on his tankard and instead swilled ale directly from the cask, ignoring the horrified stare of the steward. The Sheriff looked to his other side in time to see Baron Fulke hoist an entire turkey leg and stuff it into his mouth, his eyes bulging as he chewed. The Sheriff suppressed a shudder and directed his attention to his own most modestly portioned platter.
Not for the first time, he wondered why he put up with the barons. It wasn’t as if they brought anything useful to his activities. As warriors they were cowards, always jumping at their own shadows or at small noises. They were hopeless strategists, coming up with convoluted schemes that were guaranteed to fail. About the only thing they did successfully was to keep their own hides safe while he and his own men ran the truly dangerous risks.
The Sheriff took another drink. Sometimes it just seemed more bother than it was worth, fulfilling Mortianna’s prophecy about his destiny as the greatest power in the north of England. He snorted. Power over lummoxes like these was not something to be cherished or fought for.
“A toast!” Baron Fulke lumbered to his feet and raised his goblet high. “A toast to the good health of our noble Sheriff!” The motion caused him to sway precariously, wine slopping over the rim and running down his arm.
There was a drunken chorus of aye’s and as the Sheriff watched, smiling insincerely and trying not to calculate the damage to the castle crockery, the other barons downed their drinks, returned to their seats and indulged in a collective belch.
Obviously it was time to move onto the business portion of the meal while the barons were still able to participate in discussions. The Sheriff stood up and cleared his throat; his table partners fell silent. “Friends, I thank you for your good wishes. As sheriff and royal agent, it is my duty to meet with you on a regular basis concerning important matters relating to the shire. May I just say that it is my good fortune that this duty is a pleasant one thanks to your friendship and support?”
He paused while the barons struggled through a drunken haze to understand his words. After several moments, they nodded in a pleased fashion and tried to focus their eyes on him again. He resumed. “Your support is important to me. All the more so since the recent discovery of another baron’s...treason.”
The word fell heavily into a sudden silence. The other barons looked at each other and then stared down at the floor. The Sheriff let the silence drag out for long minutes, smiling grimly at their discomfiture. “Yes, Baron Robert of Locksley is no longer with us. It was a blow to discover his treachery but I was able to put aside my feelings and deal with the matter appropriately. I trust that I have your wholehearted support on this matter?”
The barons roared their agreement in voices tinged with fear. The Sheriff smiled benignly at them. “I was sure I could count on you all. In the coming days it might be necessary for me to summon some or all of you to join me in other disciplinary efforts against others who would defy my – I mean, the king’s authority. But enough of such gloomy thoughts! For now let us continue the feast!” He lifted his own goblet in the air and toasted the barons, now wiping the sweat from their brows with their sleeves. As he resumed his seat, he was satisfied that they understood his message.
For they had all been part of his group of hooded and cloaked riders that night. Not that they had done much; no, they preferred to hang back and let professional killers cut down one of their fellow barons. That way no blood accrued to their hands. But he knew that they had been with him, and they knew that he only toyed with them like a hungry cat with fearful mice.
And there was only one major threat left in the entire county. The Sheriff frowned as he sipped his wine. Marion Dubois, cousin of the king.
He would have to come up with a strategy to deal with her soon.
Two men – one Moor, one Briton – stood on the deck of a ship bringing them ever closer to England. Their thoughts were of the welcome they would receive there. Little did they know what awaited them...