Baron Wulfrith at Lillia? She glanced over her shoulder at the white destrier. How could she not have realized its significance? The baron must be angry indeed to have returned Jonas himself. Unless—
William’s unsmiling face. The lack of disapproval usually shown her by the castle folk. The wagon.
Not caring what her appearance might say of her, she lunged forward.
“My lady, pray—”
“I will see my brother now!”
The porter’s mouth worked as if to conjure argument, but he shook his head and opened the door. “I am sorry, Lady Annyn.”
The apology chilling her further, she stepped inside.
The hall was still, not a sound to disturb God and His angels were they near.
Blinking to adjust to the indoors, she caught sight of those on the dais. As their backs were turned to her and heads were bent, she wondered what they looked upon. More, where was Jonas?
The hare’s hind legs dragging the rushes where the animal hung at her side, she pressed forward, all the while telling herself Jonas would soon lunge from an alcove and thump her to the floor.
“’Twas an honorable death, Lord Bretanne,” a deep voice struck silence from the hall.
Annyn halted and picked out the one who had spoken—a big man in height and breadth, hair cut to the shoulders.
Dear God, of whom does he speak?
He stepped aside, clearing the space before the lord’s table to reveal the one she desperately sought.
The hare slipped from her fingers, the bow from her shoulder. Vaguely aware of the big man and his companions swinging around, she stared at her brother’s profile that was the shade of a dreary day. And there stood Uncle Artur opposite, hands flat on the table upon which Jonas was laid, head bowed, shoulders hunched up to his ears.
Annyn stumbled into a run. “Jonas!”
“What is this?” the deep voice demanded.
When Uncle’s head came up, his rimmed eyes reflected shock at the sight of her. But there was only Jonas. In a moment she would have him up from the table and—
She collided with a hauberked chest and would have fallen back if not for the hand that fastened around her upper arm. It was the man who had spoken. She swung a foot and connected with his unmoving shin.
He dragged her up to her toes. “Who is this whelp that runs your hall like a dog, Lord Bretanne?”
Annyn reached for him where he stood far above. He jerked his head back, but not before her nails peeled back the skin of his cheek and jaw.
With a growl, he drew back an arm.
“Halt! ’Tis my niece.”
The fist stopped above her face. “What say you?”
As Annyn stared at the large knuckles, she almost wished they would grind her bones so she might feel a lesser pain.
“My niece,” Uncle said with apology, “Lady Annyn Bretanne.”
The man delved her dirt-streaked face. “This is a woman?”
“But a girl, Lord Wulfrith.”
Annyn looked from the four angry scores on the man’s cheek to his grey-green eyes. This was Wulfrith? The one to whom Jonas was entrusted? Who was to make of him a man? Who had made of him a corpse?
“Loose me, cur!” She spat in the scratchy little voice Jonas often teased her about.
“Annyn!” Uncle protested.
Wulfrith’s grip intensified and his pupils dilated.
Refusing to flinch as Jonas had told her she should never do, she held steady.
“’Tis the Baron Wulfrith to whom you speak, child,” her uncle said as he came around the table, his voice more stern than she had ever heard it.
She continued to stare into the face she had marked. “This I know.”
Uncle laid a hand on Wulfrith’s shoulder. “She is grieved, Lord Wulfrith. Pray, pity her.”
Annyn glared at her uncle. “Pity me? Who shall pity my brother?”
He recoiled, the pain of a heart that had loved his brother’s son causing his eyes to pool.
Wulfrith released Annyn. “Methinks it better that I pity you, Lord Bretanne.”
Barely containing the impulse to spit on him, she jumped back and looked fully into his face: hard, sharp eyes, nose slightly bent, proud cheekbones, firm mouth belied by a full lower lip, cleft chin. And falling back from a face others might think handsome, silver hair—a lie, for he was not of an age that bespoke such color. Indeed, he could not have attained much more than twenty and five years.
“Were I a man, I would kill you,” she rasped.
His eyebrows rose. “’Tis good you are but a little girl.”
If not for Uncle’s hand that fell to her shoulder, Annyn would have once more set herself at Wulfrith.
“You err, child.” Uncle Artur spoke firm. “Jonas fell in battle. His death is not upon the baron.”
She shrugged out from beneath his hand and ascended the dais. Her brother was clothed in his finest tunic, about his waist a silver-studded belt from which a sheathed misericorde hung. He had been made ready for burial.
She laid a hand on his chest and willed his heart to beat again. But nevermore. “Why, Jonas?” The first tear fell, wetting the dried mud on her face.
“They were close.” Uncle Artur’s low words pierced her. “’Twill be difficult for her to accept.”
Annyn swung around to face those who stared at her with disdain and pity. “How did my brother die?”
Was Wulfrith’s hesitation imagined? “It happened at Lincoln.”
She gasped. Yesterday they had received tidings of the bloody battle between the armies of England’s self-proclaimed king, Stephen, and the young Henry, grandson of the departed King Henry and rightful heir to the throne. In spite of numerous skirmishes, raids, and deaths, it was told that neither man could claim victory at Lincoln. Nor could Jonas.
“Your brother squired for me. He was felled while delivering a lance to the field.”
Despite her trembling, Annyn held Wulfrith’s gaze. “What felled him?”
Something turned in his steely eyes. “An arrow to the heart.”
All for Stephen’s defense of his misbegotten claim to England.
She sank her nails into her palms. How it had pained Jonas to stand the side of the usurper when it was Henry he supported. And surely he had not been alone in that. Regardless of whose claim to the throne one supported, nobles vied to place their sons at Wulfen Castle. True, Wulfrith was Stephen’s man, but it was said there was none better to train knights who would one day lord. If not for this silver-haired Lucifer and his thieving king, Jonas would be alive.
“He died an honorable death, Lady Annyn.”
She took a step toward Wulfrith. “’Twas for Stephen he died. Tell me, Lord Wulfrith, what has that man to do with honor?”
As anger flared in his eyes, Uncle Artur groaned. Though Uncle also sided with Stephen, he had been aware of his nephew’s allegiance to Henry. This, then—his hope of turning Jonas to Stephen—among his reasons for sending his nephew to Wulfrith.
Amid the murmuring and grunting of those in the hall, Annyn looked to Wulfrith’s scored flesh and wished the furrows proved deep enough to mark him forever. And of Stephen who had pressed Uncle to send Jonas to Wulfrith? Whose wrongful claim to England had made the battle that took Jonas’s life?