Lady Thief Page 6

“You go. Much, will you help me tidy up a bit first?” Rob asked.

Much went to it, and I went for the door.

“You’re not coming back before nightfall, are you?”

Lifting a shoulder, I saw John behind me. “I’ll be back, John.”

He met my eyes, dark and heavy. “Don’t hurry.”

I nodded, swallowing though it hurt my swollen throat. I went out the door and off for the castle, stealing myself some precious time to be alone and think.

Chapter Three

Even if the forest had turned, cold and dark were two things that still had love for me, and by the time I made my purposeful slow way to Nottingham Castle, both had fallen around me like a cloak.

The snow made climbing the castle wall a bit harder; sometimes the rocks were slick where I couldn’t tell, and my hands slipped and tore from the rocks, red and raw and sore. I didn’t mind it much—it seemed the one thing that were still simple, that if I went slow and steady I’d still get what I were after. Like much of the winter in Nottinghamshire, it had tricks up its sleeve, but it weren’t beyond my reach. On the wall, in the wind, high above the earth, I still knew myself and what I were meant for.

Cresting the wall, I felt the cold wind rush over me like a victory song. I sat there for a moment, surveying the three baileys at once. Three stacked, fortified courtyards; each one led to a better-guarded, higher part of the castle, surrounded by nothing but the sheer rock wall meant to keep armies out. The upper bailey were dark and quiet cold; it hadn’t been much used these long months. After the day when life flipped on its ears, when the lads and I set explosions to crumble the Great Hall and the sheriff died and I earned myself a shiny reminder of my bond with Gisbourne, the castle had been empty. More than half of the middle bailey had been impassable from the wall what Much and John brought down, and the bailiff, the only person left to run the castle, moved his quarters to the lowermost bailey.

Then the knights had come. More than a month past, the knights had trotted up from London on the orders of the prince, to rebuild the castle under the charge of the bailiff, a man who didn’t much want to hurt anyone. The knights took men from the towns to do the work, and food and drink besides to feed themselves; they were allowed to do whatever they pleased until the wall were finished and a new sheriff were appointed.

And so they occupied the low bailey, filling one set of barracks with their ranks and the other barracks with the men of the county. Including most of the men of Edwinstowe and Worksop.

I went to the food store on the lower bailey. I’d found it some months before, and despite the heavy lock on the front of it, I could sneak in through the high windows that weren’t never guarded. Jumping and catching the sill, I hauled myself up and dropped inside.

It were a lick warmer than outside; the kitchens were near, and the heat from the fires kept the place a touch more livable. Wooden shelves stacked high to the ceiling were sagging with the weight of the fat of the land—grains of every sort, drying meat hung in great lines, stores of wine and oil and ale along with butter and eggs. They kept the milk in the kitchens day by day, but I sometimes managed to nick some of that as well.

Stealing through, I collected some flour, oats, dried meat, and meal, padding my shirt and thin coat with them.

The front door to the food cellar were locked, but there were a little back stair that connected up to the kitchens. I took it, twisting to the side to make it up the narrow steps. I slowed down, my steps turning careful near the door. There were a light shining on beneath the bottom edge of the door, and I heard voices, seeping through with the warm heat from the other side.

Tripping the latch, I eased the door open slow. In the crack I could see two cooks, bent over a flour-strewn table, pounding dough.

“Soon enough we will,” one said, pound-pound-pound. She were tall and red cheeked and thin, a proper opposite to the one across from her, round and short with small eyes that never left her task.

The other laughed. “Not never soon enough!” she said. She tossed a lump of dough onto a pile.

“With any luck the prince’ll bring his own cooks with him, and we won’t be much use.”

“Hush with that talk,” the second said. “I need this coin.”

“If the new sheriff is anything like the last, I won’t need the coin that bad,” the first said. Pound-pound-pound. Pound-pound-pound.

“There ain’t no new sheriff yet, they said. Said the prince is coming to pick one.”

“Well, don’t that sound like a merry picnic,” the first said, and they both had a laugh. Then she pointed farther than I could see. “Over there,” she said.

The second cook went over to whatever she were pointing at, and as the first raised her fist to pound-pound-pound, I pushed open the door and ran past them, nothing but a shadow in the corner of her eye.

The kitchens were connected to the soldier’s hall with a narrow walk, but I didn’t want to go in there. There were a big fire in there, and knights were almost always lumped around it, talking and drinking and trying to charm extra food from the cooks.

Going back out into the cold were welcome and oversharp both. The night were clear and worth more than a single shiver.

I went round the soldier’s hall to the first set of barracks, finding a window and sidling close. Propping my foot on a stone in the wall I jumped, grabbing the bars and hauling up to peer in.

The bit of light that were streaming in from the moon behind me were eaten up by the fire in the room, red and glowing and catching on shining armor and velvet cloaks.

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