Then William had welcomed him, and the boy had passed--almost--out of his thoughts. In the middle of a conversation concerning the wheat crop, however, William called for wine.
“Sir?” The voice was brittle, strained. A young voice. Ralph looked up. The boy again, in fancier dress, holding the pitcher towards Sir William. It trembled in his hand.
William, his dull eyes altering a bit, reached up and touched it, stopping the shaking.
“Something the matter, Robert?”
The boy said nothing. Ralph saw his jaw working. Something inside his darkening soul reached out, in a strange way he could not understand, in a way he didn’t know how to respond to.
“Good,” William said, the slight disapproval leaving his eyes. He turned back to Ralph and began talking again, in his throaty, aging voice. Ralph didn’t hear him.
The boy was struggling with the pitcher, trying to pour the wine without spilling it all over the table. He still trembled; his eyes were moist.
Rage, Ralph thought suddenly. He’s angry.
At last he got the cup half-filled, turned abruptly, and marched out of view.
“--and so, in consequence, I was considering--”
“William,” Ralph broke in.
William’s gray eyebrows shot up at the interruption. He was, after all, the High Sheriff.
“That boy,” Ralph said, fingers playing with the cool surface of his goblet.
“Which boy?” William asked.
“Blond, blue eyes--”
A blank look.
“The one who poured your wine,” Ralph fumbled.
William promptly turned to it. He gave a snort of disgust. “Well, what of it? Awful servant, isn’t he? Well...slave, rather.”
“Who is he?”
William gave him an odd look. “A nobody.”
“Well, who was he?”
“Oh, the son of Sir Robert of Locksley, who’s off somewhere involved in those struggles of our Higher Ups,” William said, blinking. He moved the grapes on his trencher around in circles.
“So he’s also a Robert of Locksley,” Ralph said.
“Eh?” William said, preoccupied. “Ah--yes,” he said, before Ralph could reintroduce the subject. “Lady Rosamund of Locksley died a little over two months ago, and he couldn’t afford the taxes--there was hardly anything on that wimpy estate. If he behaves well, he has about five years to pay off that debt.”
“Quite, yes--look, Ralph, about what I was saying--”
“Does he need to work it off here, or might he do it elsewhere?”
“Oh, confound it, Ralph!” William said, more than a little annoyed. “Since when did you have such high interest in servant boys?”
“I’ve a mind to buy him--at least for the five years you spoke of...”
William snorted. “Him? He’s a wagonload of trouble, those haughty Saxon airs, and grave disobedience.”
“Still,” Ralph said, “I have a mind to buy him.”
“You can have him, a gift from me to you, if you’ll just let him drop and listen to what I have to say!”
“Agreed,” Ralph said, tearing his mind from this Robert of Locksley to whatever mindless chatter William intended for him to endure.
Whenever this Robert (Robin, thought Ralph, I wonder if he answers to Robin.) came back into the Great Hall, Ralph watched him, in all his grief-filled anger.
Maybe I can make it right, Ralph thought, maybe I can make it all right. For him and--for me.
* * *
“Lad, I mean to be kind to you. You and I--we’ve had it rough.”
The boy stared at the floor.
The boy lifted his intense gaze for a moment and then looked back at the floor. Ralph stopped short.
“Can you understand what I’m saying, lad?”
The boy said nothing.
The servant who had brought the boy from Nottingham stepped forward and stuck him across the face, babbling in a tongue Ralph did not understand. The boy still said nothing, didn’t even move to touch his reddening cheek. A drop of blood trickled out of the corner of his mouth.
Again, Ralph Murdoc of Ashby-de-la-Zouch felt the lurch within his soul, and almost without thinking about it, he stepped forward, swept the servant out of his way, and took the boy’s shoulders, looking into his face.
There were tears. Two bright, shimmering tears threatened to fall out of his blue eyes and tumble down his pale face.
“Lad,” Ralph said, pain filling him.
“I--am not--an animal!” The boy said, the words explosive. He spoke Norman surprisingly well. “Not a monkey, not a workhorse--”
He struggled in Ralph’s grip. Ralph held tighter, loathe to let him go. The boy threw off the man’s hands and took a step backwards, the tears in his eyes freezing to hard ice that not even the hot rage behind them could melt.
“Robin--” Ralph felt the word come, from some aching place in his heart. Robin, help me. Please, I need you.
“No!” the boy screamed. “No, no, no! I am not Robin! Not to you!”
He turned and ran out of the room, whirling around the corner, heading down the corridor. Ralph took a step forward, arm outstretched. A drop of blood lay on his hand.
The flying footsteps, echoing down the hall, growing further away...he had to catch him...
He turned to the servants, dumb and dazed. He gave some order, pointing, and they ran after the boy. He floated to his room and locked himself in.
Several hours later, thinking had returned to him, and anger. How dare the boy...he had only wanted to help...he had just lost his mother...just been converted to a servant...but he had no right...Ralph had hurt the same as he...how dare he...
At last the wondering thoughts led to Ralph’s ringing for a servant. He did not want the dinner that the servant was eager to bring him, but the new boy. The servant sighed and exited the chamber.
Ten minutes later, he was dragged in. Ralph had the servants leave and closed the door.
“One--more chance,” he said haltingly, avoiding the boy’s hard eyes. “Do you want my friendship?”
“I want nothing from you,” the boy said.
“Oh, you’re going to get--” Ralph stopped himself. “I want to help you.”
“And I--do not want your help,” the boy said.
“But I must!” Ralph leapt at the boy, shaking his shoulders. “I must help someone! I must do something right in my life!”
The boy said nothing, did not retreat, did not change his gaze.
Ralph was panting. “You will--”
The brilliant eyes lifted, looking deep into Ralph’s own. They seemed to pierce through him, leaving him defenseless, unable to do anything, awaiting the boy’s verdict.
“I will not.”
The words were quiet, but they released him, tearing away a piece of his heart.
He lifted his hand.