Roberta Shepherd
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The Purloined Dagger

Chapter 1

ausing on the stairs leading to the front entrance of Haver Hall, Lady Ellene Hunter peered toward the road winding down the distant hill to the courtyard in front of their house. The green hills were bathed in a soft orange glow from the rays of the setting sun. The cool evening breeze gently brushed her cheeks and softly lifted strands of her dark curly hair, which had escaped her decorative French hood and black veil framing her oval face. There was still no sign of their guests. The handfasting celebration for her niece was scheduled for the following weekend, and she was anxious for the Monmouths to arrive safely. They were a day overdue, and anything could have happened to delay them.
Wringing her hands, she turned toward the house and walked back into the vestibule, her gown of red brocade revealing a tan skirt swayed with her steps. In anticipation of their eminent guests, she wore a gold chain and a partlet of lace at her bosom. Although she was short in stature, she carried herself with dignity and grace, which gave her an air of authority.
She paused to let her eyes adjust to the interior, which was dark, with only the flickering candlelight. Beyond was the Great Hall, wide and long, the walls covered with rich wood paneling. The tall, narrow windows on the south-facing wall admitted dim rays from the fading light. The sweet fragrance

of fresh rushes drifted through the air. It was April, and the flowers had yet to bloom, although some were showing buds. She heard the servants going about their preparations for the evening meal. Odors of roasting meat and freshly baked bread wafted through the Great Hall.
“William, I do not see them yet,” she called to her brother, Sir William Throck-Morton, whom she spied at the other end of the Great Hall. His dark, curly hair was cut short, and his neatly-trimmed beard framed his square jaw. He was dressed in a green velvet doublet, black jerkin, black breeches, off-white hose, and a baldrick to hold his family’s heirloom sheath and dagger at his left hip. A soft cap with a jewel sat at an angle on his head. He wore the ring bearing the family crest on his finger and gold chains around his neck.
The dagger, forged in the Far East, had a golden metal pommel, a cross-guard with a black grip, and a long thin blade. The weapon was awarded to his grandfather by Henry VIII for loyalty to the monarch. The head of the Throck-Morton family wore it during significant occasions such as weddings, baptisms, and handfastings to show that they enjoyed political favor. It was over a year since he wore it last.
“Do not fret, Ellene, I am sure that there is an innocent reason for their delay. How is Avrill this afternoon?” Avrill, his only child, was to be handfasted to Cedric Monmouth, providing he and Sir Percy Monmouth could reach an agreement on the terms of the marriage contract. Avrill was twelve, and the wedding would be when she was fourteen. But the marriage contract would be binding on both families once signed and would be announced in a ceremony in which the couple would be handfasted before the community.
Hearing footsteps on the stairway, William turned and spotted Avrill walking unhurriedly down the stairs, a crease furrowing her smooth brow. She wore her medium brown hair in a single braid with a green ribbon. Her green taffeta gown with a yellow skirt rustled as she walked to her father, and a gold necklace with pearls and lace collar adorned her neck. A French hood sat on her head.
“Papa, have they not arrived yet?” Avrill asked. She used the French word for father.
Henry Satterthwaite, the valet, walked quickly into the Great Hall from outside. “I see three riders and a wagon approaching. It appears that two men and a woman are on the horses.”
Hopeful that it was indeed their guests, they all turned and hurried to the door going outside into the courtyard. William called for the stableman Clive, and Ellene called for Twyla O’Rourke, the maid. Twyla was older than William, and her light brown hair was streaked with grey. She was thin with a long face and nose and grey eyes. She was stronger than she looked and said little to her employers except what pertained to her duties.
The family and servants converged in the courtyard, waiting eagerly for their approaching guests. Ellene and Avrill held hands, straining in anticipation of seeing Cedric.
The lead riders were two men, one in his late thirties and the other in his mid-teens. The older man had short brown hair and a full beard that concealed his round face. He was portly, and his complexion had a reddish cast from too much drink. The youth was slim, athletic, and had brown hair and eyes like his father. His face was round, and he wore his somewhat sparse beard in a carefully trimmed goatee. They were dressed in tan cloaks, leather boots, and the older man wore gloves. Both men wore soft caps with feathers. Their clothing was well cut and fashionable, and their horses were fit and healthy.
Behind the men was a woman riding sidesaddle. She was beautiful, with erect posture, blond hair and blue eyes, a slender face, and a thin nose. Tall and shapely, she wore an overskirt and a tan cloak with a hood over her head, which, when pulled back, revealed braids pinned to her head.
Behind the trio, a pair of horses pulled a wagon loaded with luggage containing clothing for their visit. The family was to be with the Throck-Mortons for a week, then travel on to visit relatives.
“Percy!” called William when they were close enough, his voice expressing warmth and excitement. The men had not seen each other since they went their separate ways when both were still youths. “Welcome to Haver Hall!”
“Well met, William,” Percy boomed back. “What a fine estate you have! Let me introduce my good wife, Lady Felicia, and our son Cedric.”
“Welcome, Lady Felicia and Cedric. This is my sister Lady Ellene Hunter, and my daughter Avrill,” he said with pride as he put his hand on his daughter’s shoulder. Avrill shyly glanced up at Cedric, her heart pounding in anticipation. Because William was observing Avrill, he did not see the perplexed glances from Percy and Felicia, nor the expression of disappointment on Cedric’s face. But Ellene and Avrill noticed.
William and Henry moved quickly to assist the Monmouths to dismount and hand their horses to Clive. The wagon driver began unloading trunks from the bed of the wagon. William stole several glances at Felicia. There was something familiar about her that tugged at his mind, but he dismissed it, planning to think about it later.
Ellene approached Felicia. “Come inside, Lady Felicia. Twyla will show you to your rooms so that you can freshen up before the evening meal.” She smiled broadly. Felicia was a full head taller than Ellene and about five years older.
“Thank you, Lady Hunter, it has been a long ride.” Felicia smiled back.
Cedric walked over to Avrill and took her hand in greeting while bowing over it slightly. He smiled, but the smile did not travel to his eyes. Avrill looked at him intently and felt nothing. Not at all comparable to what she felt when she saw Henry, who was busy helping with their luggage.
“Welcome to our home, Cedric. I am pleased to finally meet you.” Avrill was raised to be polite and decided that it would be wise to try to make friends with her future husband.
“We are content to be here,” Cedric said curtly. He was not pleased to meet her.
The ladies linked arms and turned toward the house, and Cedric and Avrill followed, maintaining a distance between them. William and Percy assured themselves that the luggage and horses were in good hands, then they also entered the house. The Monmouths were shown to their rooms upstairs so that they could refresh themselves from the journey. William retired to his office, and Ellene and Avrill went to the kitchen to oversee last-minute preparations for the meal.

As she supervised the preparations for the meal, Ellene struggled with her feelings about Avrill’s future marriage. “While I take care of Avrill, I have an important role in William’s house. After Avrill is married and gone, I will no longer be needed here, but will be dependent on my brother’s generosity,” she mused. “Since I do not desire to marry again, I may spend my days in a cottage on the estate.” Preferring not to dwell on that prospect, she shook her head to clear it. “Come what may, I will do whatever I can to make this week successful for Avrill.”

Chapter 2

ater that evening, the Monmouths joined the Throck-Mortons in the dining room located next to the Great Hall. In it were a rectangular wooden table set with pewter plates and chalices for the meal. Wooden stools and benches were placed on all four sides. Colorful tapestries hung from wood-paneled walls. Flickering torches in brackets on the walls emitted both smoke and light, leaving the corners of the room in deep shadow.
The servants brought platters with several types of meat and fish, root vegetables, dried fruit, and sweetmeats. They served ale as well. William sat at the head of the table and Ellene at the foot, while Percy and Felicia sat on one side and Cedric and Avrill on the other. The Monmouths had changed their clothing and were now dressed in satin, velvet, and jewelry. Felicia donned a French hood and lace-trimmed partlet, which matched her sleeves. They changed from boots to round-toed shoes.
Percy recounted their journey. “It started to rain a few hours after we left home and the roads turned to mud! We had to stop and shelter until it passed. We stayed overnight in an inn, but it rained the next morning again. We made frequent stops to rest since we are not accustomed to being on horseback all day. We lost one day of travel time.”
He then talked about the recent insurrections in support of Mary Queen of Scotland against Elizabeth I. As Percy spoke, William surreptitiously glanced at Felicia. He knew that he had met her before but could not remember where. She avoided eye contact and engaged in a conversation with Ellene.
“Please tell me about yourself, Cedric. What is a typical day for you?” Avrill asked quietly, a sweet smile on her face. She determined to find out what she could about him. Their first encounter was disappointing, but she was willing to blame his fatigue from their travel.
Cedric glanced at her and noticed that her smile softened the sharp angles of her face. When they reached Haver Hall, he was tired from travel and annoyed at his parents, but his spirits had mellowed after the food and drink. Although in his mid-teens, he was still not interested in girls, preferring the prospect of a military lifestyle.
“I am fond of hunting. My father and I ride with other men in the county and bring home deer, boar, and sometimes geese.” Warming to his subject, he went into detail about his most recent hunt. “The boar was charging us, but I am an excellent archer and hit him with my first shot. He died almost instantly.” He did not think it necessary to mention that the boar was already pierced with two spears, which also took a toll.
Avrill was interested in his stories despite her annoyance with him, and Cedric continued describing one event after another.
When he stopped speaking, she asked, “Did you have a tutor or go to boarding school?”
“I had a tutor until I was twelve, then I went to a boarding school for four years. I am learning how to run an estate and will take over the management of my father’s estate when he is older.”
“Do you attend church services on Sunday?” Ellene was interested in their religious preferences. Many people were still Catholics even though the religion had been outlawed in England.
“Yes, we have a family pew in a small church near where we live,” responded Felicia.
“We have one as well. There is a small church just across our field which was built by the Protestants during Edward VI’s reign,” Ellene commented.
After everyone had finished eating, William stood with a smile. “I propose that we go to the sitting room where it is more comfortable before we retire for the night.”
“A splendid idea, William,” replied Percy, who was also smiling. Dinner went well, and he was looking forward to finalizing the marriage contract the next day. William always followed Percy’s lead when they were youths, and he was sure nothing had changed.
Henry appeared with candles and walked toward the sitting room. William escorted Felicia, Percy went with Ellene, and Cedric leaned over to offer his arm to Avrill.
When they approached the sitting room, Henry opened the door and placed the candles on the table against one of the walls. The evening was not cool enough yet to need a fire in the fireplace.
“That will be all for now, Henry.” William turned to his guests. Henry bowed and left the room, closing the door behind him.
The sitting room had a fireplace on one wall. Several benches and two chairs were arranged for conversation. William and Percy took the chairs, and the ladies and Cedric sat on the benches. A small table in one corner was used for card games. There was also a frame built on a pedestal with needlepoint in progress.
Soon Felicia stood, her face pale. “May I be excused? I am weary after travel and would like to rest now.”
“But of course. Do you need assistance from Twyla?” Ellene offered.
“No, I will manage.” Felicia and Percy exchanged glances.
“I think Cedric and I should retire as well.” Percy rose and addressed his son. “Come along, Cedric.” To William, he said, “We will see you in the morning.”
“Sleep well. Henry’s and Twyla’s rooms are across the hall from you if you need anything,” added Ellene.
Henry had left extra candles, and the Monmouths each took a candle and climbed the stairs together to go to their rooms.
“Ellene, you and Avrill go on up. I will lock up tonight.” William knew that the next day would be intense and wanted them all to rest.
“Sleep well, Brother,” replied Ellene. She and Avrill took their candles and went to their rooms.
Percy followed Felicia into her bedroom while Cedric continued down the hallway to his.
“How do you think it is going?” Percy was anxious to hear about his wife’s comments.
“William and Ellene are friendly enough. Avrill and Cedric do not seem to like each other. I will counsel the boy on courtship in the morning. He is tired and should have a better attitude after a good night’s sleep.” Felicia frowned slightly.
“William and I will meet after breakfast to negotiate the marriage contract. He was always inclined to let me take the lead when we were lads. This should be quick. Haver Hall seems prosperous enough to provide a handsome dowry for Avrill. Too bad she is such a plain child.”
“Be careful, love. I suspect he is no longer a gullible boy but a man with firm beliefs.”
“Well, we will see.” Percy was sure that he was right about William.
When he was finally alone, William went to his office, where there was a desk with a lockable drawer. He removed the leather sheath and dagger, wrapped them with a soft burgundy cloth, and put them carefully in the drawer. After locking the drawer and the office door, William took the keys and made his nightly round to ensure that the house was secure. He started with the front door and ended at the kitchen door leading to the stable. Satisfied, he climbed the servants’ stairs to the hallway leading to his room.
He paused in the hallway at the head of the stair, thinking he heard voices. Curious, he turned to investigate, wondering if it might be his guests in need of something.
Avrill stood listening at her bedroom door. When the house was quiet, she carefully opened her door and crept down the hall to the main staircase. The scent of burning wax from the candles they used to light their way was still in the air.
“Avrill.” A male voice whispered her name. Suddenly a man’s hand came from behind her and covered her mouth, and his other arm encircled her waist, pulling her close and lifting her from her feet. Frightened, she tried to pull the hand from over her mouth, ready to scream for help.
“Avrill, quiet, it is me, Henry.” She stopped struggling, and Henry dropped his hand but kept his arm around her small waist. Her soft and fragrant hair brushed his chin. He set her back on her feet, and she turned to face him, putting her hands on his chest.
“Henry, you frightened me. It is dangerous for us to meet like this. If I am caught, it will ruin my chance for a good marriage. If you are caught, you will be severely punished.” She looked anxiously into his dark brown eyes. She was attracted to his rugged features and the dimple in his beardless chin.
“Avrill, my love, I would take on an army for you. I cannot bear the thought of you with Cedric. Come away with me; we will have each other forever.”
“Henry, you must not say things like that. We are from different stations. We must hide our affection for each other. Hold me close a few minutes, then I must go to my room and you to yours.” They embraced, and Henry inhaled her sweet scent. His lips softly brushed the top of her forehead. She felt safe in his strong arms.
At that moment, they heard footsteps in the hallway. Avrill gasped and stepped back, throwing her hand over her mouth in dismay. Thinking quickly, Henry turned from Avrill and strode boldly into the hall while Avrill hid in the shadows. In the dim light, he saw that William was coming down the hallway.
“Sir William, do you require something?”
“I thought I heard voices. Is someone here with you?”
“No, sir. I was in my room and thought I heard voices as well. I came down the hall to see if it was our guests.”
“Does one of our guests need something?”
“I saw no one, sir, and decided to return to my room. Perhaps it was an owl or the wind.”