The Mercenary Sneak Peek
St. Andrew Holybourne Abbey, England, 1214
Lady Sabine never wanted to be a nun.
She’d attempted to escape the abbey twice. On her last attempt, the monk with whom she’d arranged to leave had fallen ill and later died, a horrible omen, if one believed in such things. The time before that, she’d gone off alone, only to be spied by a stable boy, who had promptly told the abbess. Sabine had been given a warning—one more attempt and Lord Burge would be notified of her antics.
She shuddered at the thought.
“There you are,” said a familiar voice, the tone thick with accusation.
Sister Christine, the very woman she’d snuck out of the sext to avoid. The bishop was visiting, which had driven the sister into a frenzy. She had never taken to Sabine and had begun to critique her every action, especially at mealtimes. “Straighten your shoulders” or “Do not eat with such force” were admonishments she had heard for the past three days at nearly every meal.
How does one eat with force, precisely? Sabine wanted to ask but knew doing so would only anger Sister Christine. And so she had taken to avoiding meals these past three days, preferring to eat in her small chamber. Such an arrangement robbed Sister Christine of the chance to “better” her, however, and the sister often sought her out.
“Your presence is required at the evening meal.”
“Reverend Mother gave me leave,” she whispered in her most reverent tone. One she’d perfected of late.
The nun, her habit hiding all but her pale face riddled with wrinkles, was apparently not pleased with that particular response. Her eyes pinned Sabine to the spot. “Bishop Salerno is in residence,” she said, her tone brooking no argument. “You will take your meal in the refectory.”
Eyes downcast Sabine moved to make her way through the cloister to do just that when the nun’s hand wrapped around her wrist.
“And you will quit your attempts at escape. Many would be grateful for the opportunity you’ve been given.”
Her hand squeezed.
“Reverend Mother has been too tolerant.”
Sabine did not attempt to disengage her hand. Nor did she question the nun or comment on what she had left out of her speech. All knew the abbess was ill, even though she went about her duties as if well. Sabine had only been at the abbey one month, and even she could discern a difference in the elderly woman’s health. Sister Christine clearly had ambitions, and once she took control of the abbey, she would not be so tolerant.
“Aye, Sister. If you will pardon me?”
She attempted to pull her hand away, to no avail.
“You will be a Bride of Christ, child. Your haughtiness is not welcome here.”
Haughtiness? Sabine had never been accused of such in her life. But then, she’d never said so few words as she had since coming here. Her parents would be both surprised and appalled at the woman she’d become.
Sister Christine did let go of her then, but she continued to glare at her as if Sabine had breathed a word of dissent. Turning slowly so as not to anger her further, Sabine held her head high and walked the length of the cloister to the hall. Nuns sat side by side in rows, mostly silent other than a few whispered words. Moments after she sat, another novice plopped down a bowl of soup in front of her. Sabine had served both the morning and midday meal, but still the young woman glared at her as if she’d shirked her duties.
Unlike Sabine, she wanted to be here. Had chosen to become a nun and devote her life to God. So why the dour disposition?
“He seems to know the bishop,” said the older nun beside her.
“Who?” she asked, attempting to peer over the tables that separated them from their august visitor.
“We’ve another visitor this eve.”
“A knight,” whispered the nun to her left.
Sabine couldn’t remember her name, but she liked this one. She had an easy way about her, and when she smiled, it was obvious she meant it. The smile she was giving Sabine now looked almost . . . conspiratorial, as if their new visitor was . . .
“Is he handsome?”
A certain sparkle in the nun’s eyes was her answer. The nun seated directly across from Sabine gave her a stern glance that cautioned her not to say such things.
It was the kind of remark she may have made to her mother. Who would have laughed as her father admonished both of them for their forwardness. But he’d have done it with a smile on his face.
Sabine pushed aside the thought.
A handsome knight. Friend to the bishop.
She really should eat her soup and make her way to the kitchen, where she’d be expected to work until vespers. It would be best to forget about a man who was as likely to tell the Reverend Mother on her as he was to help her escape.
But once the thought took hold, she could not put it aside so easily.
“You may use the calefactory, if you please,” the abbess said to Bishop Salerno after they finished their meager meal. “I will see you are not disturbed.” She didn’t spare a glance for Guy, although that didn’t surprise him. He could tell she was leery of him, and his purpose here.
Guy followed the bishop into the room. Three nuns stood at the fire, their hands outstretched, although they quickstepped away from the hearth when they spotted the visitors. They nodded to the bishop in deference as they passed, ignoring Guy.
With luck, this would be the first and only night he’d spend at the cold and unwelcoming Holybourne Abbey. When Guy had spoken of his mission with the rest of the Order of the Broken Blade, his friend Terric had burst into laughter. So many women, none of whom would fall at his feet the moment Guy stepped into the room. He’d laughed at the time, but in truth, it was slightly disconcerting. He was unused to receiving so little attention from the fairer sex.
And he liked it not at all.
That he should admit the fact, even to himself . . . Guy shrugged internally. He was nothing if not honest.
The bishop extended his hand, and Guy sat, as indicated, in front of the fire. Though he’d been in the man’s presence all evening, he had little indication of the man’s temperament. He knew only what Conrad, their leader, had told him. That Bishop Salerno supported the order’s cause. Like them, he was alarmed by King John’s overreach. In truth, nothing else mattered.
When the abbess closed the door, Guy waited until he was sure she had left and was out of hearing. He tried not to stare at the rings bedecking every finger of the old man’s hands. Such wealth could serve a better purpose, but saying so, or even acting like he thought so, would not win him any friends.
“So you count the Earl of Licheford a friend?” the bishop asked him.
Guy pretended not to notice the bishop’s uneasiness around him. He was a mercenary, not a murderer. Although some may question the distinction.
“Conrad is more than a friend.”
Aware his next statement could see him executed as a traitor if said to the wrong person, Guy put his faith in Conrad and Terric’s insistence that Bishop Salerno would indeed support their cause.
“He is an ally in our quest for King John to answer for his actions.”
For the first time that evening, the bishop’s stoicism was replaced with surprise.
“And how,” he said carefully, “do you propose to accomplish such a thing?”
The bishop’s intelligent eyes looked through him as he awaited an answer. The others they’d brought to their cause over the last few months had required more delicacy. But Conrad had assured him none was needed in this particular case. He knew the man personally and was sure of his leanings. Perhaps Guy should have allowed Conrad to be the one to speak to the bishop. But somehow, as it always had been with these vague notions of his, Guy knew this task was meant for him.
He took a deep breath.
“We’ve formed an order. Our aim is to amass enough support that we may compel the king to adjust his policies.”
He had the man’s attention now.
“He will never agree to do such a thing,” the bishop said, his voice flat.
The bishop had good reason to be skeptical. Had the king been an agreeable man, predisposed to listen to his people, there would have been no need for the order. But King John’s demands were outrageous, his tax increases so high some barons had been forced to forfeit their properties rather than pay the money they owed.
“He will agree or see himself at war with his barons,” Guy boldly claimed.
If Bishop Salerno had looked surprised earlier, he seemed even more so now.
Dammit Conrad, you better be right.
“Your plan? And the men in your order?” His mask of indifference back in place, the bishop folded his hands on his lap, the glint of a particularly massive gold ring drawing Guy’s eye.
Once he uttered the names, there would be no turning back. There was already no turning back.
“Conrad Saint-Clair, the Earl of Licheford. Terric Kennaugh, chief of Clan Kennaugh and Earl of Dromsley,” he said, naming the Scot’s two titles. “And Sir Lancelin Wayland of Marwood and now lord of Tuleen.”
It was Guy’s turn to be surprised. “You are well informed, Your Excellency.”
If he had heard of Lance, the bishop had no doubt been informed his friend had married the Earl of Stanton’s daughter. Which meant he knew the Northumbrian border lord was on their side. Guy decided then he liked the bishop. Despite his show of wealth and stoic countenance, Conrad had been correct in his assessment of the man. He was intelligent. Straightforward. Guy could appreciate both qualities.
“I could have you and your friends hung for treason,” the bishop correctly assessed.
If the bishop were being honest, he’d give no less.
“I would not allow that to happen.”
The man actually smiled.
“And you would prevent it by?”
“Any means necessary.”
Bishop Salerno uncrossed his hands and leaned forward. “You would kill a man of God?”
He did not hesitate with the ugly truth. “I would do anything for those men.”
“And you would die for your efforts,” the bishop shot back.
The bishop glanced at the still-closed door. “Tell me of your plans.”
Guy had negotiated with all sorts of men. He’d learned it was best to keep his words short and honest. “With your support—”
“My coin, you mean?”
“Aye.” The bishop could not, would not, support them publicly. But that was not their aim. “I will meet with the leader of Bande de Valeur. Convince him to take his company back to France. I know the man well and once fought beside him. With the right amount of coin, I’m confident in my ability to persuade him. Without the mercenaries he’s secured, John has only his southern army and unhappy Northern retainers to call on.”
“You will ask for an audience with the king, then?”
“Nay,” he said, thinking of the day Conrad had proposed this plan. “We will demand it.”
Salerno had all of the information he needed now. Sitting back, the bishop continued to watch him. There were more names, additional barons that Conrad and Terric had brought to their side. But Guy would give no more details, and the bishop knew it.
He also knew they had his support. Which was a good thing as he’d understated their need. All of the earls and barons they’d gathered into the fold possessed only a fraction of this man’s wealth. Without him, they could not afford to make an offer large enough to compel the French mercenaries King John had secured, for a war against his own people, to turn back to France.
But would he risk supporting them, even if such support was silent?
It was rumored John may seek the pope’s support. Although the pontiff would never back the monarch financially, his word held incredible weight, and it would make securing new allies nearly impossible for the order. Add in Bande de Valeur’s presence . . . and their rebellion would end before it truly began.
“I will give you any amount necessary to convince them back to the shores of their homeland. Do what you must,” the bishop said as if commenting on the warmth of the chamber in which they sat.
So Conrad had been right. Bishop Salerno despised the king as much as they did. Whether it was his exorbitant taxes or ruthless policies, or some other, more personal reason, Guy cared not.
He allowed for his own smile then, standing. When Bishop Salerno did the same, extending a hand, Guy shook it heartily.
It was done.
And he still had his head. For now.