Heart of VengeanceHeart of Vengeance

(Book Five in the "Jewels of the Morrow" series)


Oxford, England, December 6, 2021

Even though she had lived and breathed caution for well over a year now, Helena still took painstaking care as she flittered through the busy streets. It would not do for her to be caught abroad at this late hour, when her proper place was at the side of Lady Catherine.

The risk she was taking was enormous. All of Oxford was in an uproar. Hubert Walter, the King’s chief justiciar, had just returned from Normandy and called a meeting of the Great Council, and like ants returning to the nest, the barons Richard had left in England were converging on the town. It was nearly full dark and still they arrived in steady numbers. Their entourages clattered up the narrow streets, their noisy progress echoing and bouncing off house and shop walls, giving Helena plenty of warning, yet she still took great care not to be seen.

If she were discovered outside the manor walls it would raise questions and suspicions about her, but the risk was outweighed by the potential reward for her excursion.

Just up ahead she saw a neat two storey stone building that fit the description she had been given. Aaron the Jew’s house. A dim light flickered in the upper windows. The lower windows were dark.

With a last quick check over her shoulder, Helena pulled her cloak around her tightly, and stepped across the street. She tapped at the door.

They were waiting for her, for instantly the door opened, and a hand beckoned her inside. She slipped inside gratefully, for the evening air was rapidly cooling. Inside, warmth fanned her cheeks, and a dull red glow came from a banked fire.

"A moment, my lady," came a murmur.

She heard the door being shut and the bar lowered. For a moment she considered the foolishness of allowing herself to be locked inside a room with strangers, but dismissed it. The note that had led her here had been written by a most reliable man. The most reliable man Helena knew.

A flame flared briefly, then settled. A tallow had been lit. She saw a long, sorrowful-looking face staring at her over the flame. Dark eyes and a full, long beard. Then he smiled and the impression of sorrow fled.

"My lady, you are punctual."

"You are Aaron the Jew?"

"And you are the Lady --"

"No!" She held up her hand, silencing him. "There is no need for formalities. You know I am the one you expected for I have come at the appointed time."

He nodded, his face grave once more. "Yes, you are right. These things are necessary."

"I go by the name of Isobel."

"Isobel." He inclined his head.

"You have information about the Early of Wessex?"

"Not I. Another knows a thing about this."

"He is here?"

"Yes, I am sheltering him for now. It is a favor, you understand? For him, and for the man he serves."

"The King."

Aaron nodded. "We share the same master," he explained.

"And where is he?"

"Right ‘ere milady," came a graveled voice right by her shoulder.

Helena whirled, fright spearing up through her. She had failed to check behind her, and cursed herself as she turned. Automatically her hand reached for her belt knife, plucking it quickly, and raising it.

The second man was a stranger to her, and to judge by his dress and aroma, a serf. He raised his hands when he saw the knife.

"I mean you no harm!" he cried.

Helena lowered the knife a little, breathing hard. "Then you should not have approached me from behind."

He lowered his eyes. "I am sorry, my lady. I am not used to the ways of Normans."

She studied him more closely, noticing the tattered clothes and the smell of animals and woodsmoke about him. It spoke of nights spent in dubious shelter and days of hard travel. "You have run away from your village."

A brief flicker of fear passed across his face.

"I do not intend to accuse you, or see you returned to your place," she assured him. "What is your name?"

He hesitated, then said quietly, "Ralf."

"Tell me what you know. Why did Lord Robert send you here?"

"Robin said you were looking for anyone who knew about the death of the Earl of Wessex."

"And you know of this man’s death?"

He shook his head. "Not I. But a man from my village -- he spoke of it."

"Spoke of it?" Helena asked, disappointment circling through her. Robert’s note had stressed the importance of this serf’s information. Surely he would not have had her risk contact with the Jew and a runaway serf on gossip that had passed through at least two mouths?

Ralf nodded. "He told me the story -- what ‘e’d seen that night."

"Seen?" Helena repeated sharply, and saw Aaron’s head lift, his attention pricked. "What did he see?"

"He saw his lordship -- the earl, that is -- and the others in the field. Standing around in a circle."

Helena’s heart began to beat a little louder. This was the closest she had come to proving that the Earl of Wessex hadn’t died of exposure in a lonely field. This was an indication that there had been others there, just as she had always maintained. "He saw the Earl die?" she asked the man.

"He said he saw murder being done."

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