“Announce yourself.” White clouded eyes peered around a threadbare blanket serving as a door giving me pause. I took a step back and looked for the familiar tree I climbed as a boy. Thirty years had changed the branches, but no doubt thirty years had changed me as well.
“I am the Sheriff of Nottingham.” Head high, shoulders back, just as my mother had taught me when I was boy. I allowed myself to smile for the first time since I’d been taken from this place. Maybe this woman could tell me where my mother had gone. Now that I had made a name for myself it was time to keep my promise.
“Sheriff or thief, makes no difference.” The hunched old lady with straggly strands of graying hair hanging down her back disappeared into her hovel.
A hint of drying herbs, familiar to my childhood memories, mixed with the pungent smell of rotting food waved at my senses.
“What is it you have to do with me, Sheriff of Nottingham?”
“Is it wrong for a sheriff to visit the villagers?”
Harsh laughter shook the old woman’s shoulders and a chill crept down my spine. “I have nothing left for you to take but a child’s toy and my last breaths.”
Guilt nearly overtook me. How many mothers had I demanded payment from only to later discover their child had perished from starvation? How many mothers had I exacted payment from when they had no coin or possessions to pay? I was—I am ruthless. A bastard, the product of a sire forcing his way upon a beautiful young maid. Like father, like son. Nottingham would have been better served if my father had left me to starve instead of stealing me from my mother’s house or better yet if I would have fallen on my sword after I pushed him down the stairs in a drunken rage. The coward that I am had no such ability. ‘Tis why my father’s house believed his fall an accident.
Narrowing my eyes, I peered into the darkness and followed her shadow as she lit a small lantern. I ducked through the sagging doorway and halted. The rocking chair my mother had rocked me in remained in the same corner. The small pallet I’d slept on before I’d been dragged away edged one wall. A small wooden horse, the child’s toy the woman spoke of, graced the hole ridden blanket. I glanced at the old woman and my heart sunk. The moment I had dreamed of, gone. Gone with a useless promise and the whisperings of tomorrow, destroyed by the lapse of too much time. The fair-haired beauty I remembered her being had disappeared. Why had I not returned as soon my father died? “Can you not see, Mother?”
“Are you blind, sir?” Gnarled paper fingers danced over puckered scar skin. “My sight failed when the last sheriff paid me a visit.”
I clenched my fists. Lifting my chin a notch, I forced myself to relax. The last sheriff had already paid his dues, just as I would pay mine when Revenge came knocking at my door. My only wish was for an easier death than the one he’d received. A man hanging upside from the castle turrets was a sign of a cursed man, but that had been ten years past. I swallowed the fear cutting off my airway. The scars had not aged as the woman had. “How long ago did such offense occur, Mother?”
She titled her head. “Does it matter?”
For a moment I let the silence hold us captive as I contemplated the importance of such a detail. It was better to remain ignorant.
“State your business, Sheriff of Nottingham.”
“I’ve come to pay you honor.” I wanted to drag her from this hell and bring her to my home. I wanted to make amends for all my father had done to her. I wanted to do as a son should and care for his aging mother, but her condition shamed me. How could I do such a thing? What would the king think? What would my father’s brothers think? That I am a bastard of the truest form, my father’s son.
“You’ve come to kill me, then?”
“If that is your wish, Mother.”
“It has been my wish since the day you stole my son, you bastard.”