Noble Line of de Nerra – Kathryn Le Veque

“CULLEN, I AM sure you realize that you are not going to Wales with the others.” “I have assumed as much, my lord.” “I have something very special planned for you.” “My lord?” In the rather bright and well-appointed solar of William Marshal’s favored country property, an enormous knight with blonde hair and dark eyes faced off against a man who was in the latter years of his life. William Marshal was, in fact, that man. Tall, with a body that had seen years of battle and conditioning, his yellow-tinged eyes told the story of everything he’d seen in his lifetime. So much warfare, so much hatred, and far too many politics. But like any old war dog or politician, he would never surrender his vocation. It was all he knew. Hence, the strong, young knight standing in his solar. He had plans for the man. “As you know, our king has trouble nearly everywhere he looks,” he said. “In Wales, in Scotland, in France, and particularly at home. You know this, Cullen; you helped quell the plot to assassinate him a few years ago.” “I was a very minor player, my lord.

” William held up a hand. “Nonetheless, you were part of it,” he said. “Even the pope plotted to kill our king and you were part of the contingent that prevented it. The man has more enemies than he can effectively defend against and fewer allies by the day.” “Has something more happened, my lord?” William looked at the knight. Sir Cullen de Nerra was the third son of the High Sheriff of Hampshire, a very powerful man who wielded a great deal of power in the court of the king. Sir Valor de Nerra hated the king, just like most everyone else in England did. But Valor found him a necessary figurehead because to remove him would be to throw England into chaos. John’s only heir was a child so, at least for the time being, they needed the one king they did have, even if he was a troublemaker. And that was putting it mildly.

William had been involved in the politics of England for fifty years. He’d known kings and kings, and he’d fought for one or all of them at varying times, but he’d never known a more difficult reign. He had knights who served him, men he placed with strategic lords, a network of spies he used to control the winds of politics as best he could. For de Nerra, he had a particular role in mind even though most of the armies that served The Marshal were heading north because of the current dispute between the Scottish king and John. Cullen expected to be part of that army, because he was first and foremost a seasoned battle knight. But in this case, William needed him elsewhere. He had enough swords; what he didn’t have enough of was competent thinking men. Cullen had that gift. “The Earl of Barklestone,” he finally said. “Do you know him?” Cullen nodded.

“Preston de Lacy,” he said. “The last de Lacy of that branch of the family, an extremely powerful man with a big army. He is lord and master over Quellargate Castle in Lincolnshire.” “He is also one of the major players in a resurgence of rebellion against the king.” “So I have heard.” William’s gaze lingered on the man. He was the biggest de Nerra son, born and bred for battle, and William knew that he’d been aching to have his own command for quite some time. Cullen was obedient and followed commands flawlessly, but there was something burning behind those dark eyes that suggested he was hungry for more. More glory, more control, more of everything that would bring him the glory he wanted. William was about to give him that opportunity.

“Then you are going to find out for certain,” he said. “You have surely also heard that the man is fickle, unpredictable, and dangerous. He has a massive army, and a good deal of wealth, and we never seem to know when that army is going to be unleashed either for, or against, the king. He has sided with John in the past, and he was a great supporter of Richard, but the older he gets, the more unstable he becomes. That is why I am traveling to Quellargate Castle soon. I have a date with destiny and Preston de Lacy.” “What do you mean, my lord?” William was, if nothing else, extremely shrewd. He held up a finger as if to indicate a great idea. “I am stopping at Quellargate under the guise of traveling north and you are going with me,” he said. “Of course, de Lacy will welcome me and after an evening of feasting, I will suggest a game of chance.

The man loves games of chance, or so I am told. I will wager my very best knight on a game and conveniently lose both the game and the knight.” Cullen was starting to catch on. “And I am to be that knight.” William nodded. “You will serve de Lacy and you will keep watch over the man,” he said. “You will earn his trust and you will watch every move he makes. You will have to pretend to be loyal to his causes and hate those he hates. You are to become his Father Confessor and his conscience if he allows it, and report to me on things of significance. Never forget your true loyalty, Cullen, for it belongs to me.

Is this in any way unclear?” Cullen drew in a long, slow breath, thinking of the sharp turn his future was about to take. To be truthful, he wasn’t all that pleased, but he understood William’s reasoning. De Lacy did, indeed, have a reputation as being unstable, a madman with the wealth of Midas at his fingertips, but the thought of being the man’s handler didn’t sit well with Cullen. He wasn’t a nursemaid, nor was he a spy. “My lord,” he began quietly. “Although I am greatly flattered, surely there are other men for this job.” “There are other men, but not better men,” William said. “You are the best man for this task.” It was clear that William had already made up his mind. Cullen struggled not to become frustrated.

“My lord, you know I have been serving Maxton of Loxbeare for a few years,” he said. “I command the Loxbeare armies and it is an important position. I know that, eventually, I shall have command of my own outpost. This is something I’ve been working hard toward.” William eyed him. “Maxton knows of my offer to you,” he said. “Why do you think I am speaking with you? It is at Max’s recommendation. He thinks most highly of you and feels you are worthy of such a position.” Cullen couldn’t help but feel betrayed by his liege even though he knew it was meant as a compliment. “Max is attempting to rid himself of me?” he muttered.

William shook his head. “He is trying to help you gain the stature and glory that you deserve,” he said. “Cullen, I know you are ambitious. I understand that. I ask that you give me at least three or four years in the service of de Lacy. Perform flawlessly, help me keep the man under control, and I shall reward you generously.” That had Cullen’s attention. “How generously?” William had to chuckle. “Your mercenary streak is showing,” he jested. But he dutifully turned for his table, the one that was covered with maps and missives and other things.

There was one particular map on the table, old and torn at one end, and he bent over it as he evidently searched for something. “I have been given property to pay a debt, property I’ve never even seen before. It is a small fortress once belonging to the lords of Sussex called The Haven. It carries three villages and a good deal of land, and the income from it is decent, but it could be better with the proper man at her helm. Perform well for me and I will give you this property as your reward. It is not far from your father’s property, in fact.” Cullen made his way over to the table, too, looking to the area of the map that William was pointing to. He was far more interested in the reward than in the actual mission. Collecting a taper at the end of the table, he brought it around to shine upon the map so he could see it better. “The Haven,” he repeated.

“I have not heard of it. Prosperous, you say?” “From what I am told. I have men heading there now to secure it and give me an assessment.” He watched Cullen’s face as the man examined the map. “Well? Do we have a bargain?” The lure of property and riches was great. So great, in fact, that Cullen knew he was going to accept this mission in spite of whatever reluctance he was feeling. He inspected the map, scratching his chin as he did so. “You know that I am the third son in my family,” he said. “I have two older brothers who will inherit almost everything from my father. Do not misunderstand me; I do not begrudge them their birth order.

It simply means that anything I have, I must obtain myself. For this sheer opportunity alone, I am grateful. Truly, I cannot refuse you now.” William’s lips twitched with a smile. “I do not care what prompts you to accept this task, Cullen, only that you do,” he said. “If it is not love for country, or for me, the prospect of a great reward is just as well. But do not think this mission with de Lacy will be simple, for it will not be. You have seen and accomplished many things in your life, but nothing like this. It will be as dangerous as you can possibly imagine. Preston de Lacy is a dark hole of mystery, and I am depending on you to clarify it – and him.

” Cullen nodded, feeling not entirely reluctant for this task any longer. The Marshal’s reward offer had him rather eager to get on with it, in fact. “I understand,” he said. “Four years at most?” “Four years at most. But you must agree to discuss a continuation of this mission when those four years are up. I may need you more than ever at that time.” It wasn’t an unreasonable request. “Very well, my lord,” he said, a glimmer in his dark eyes. “It would seem that you and I have struck a bargain.” That was what William had been hoping to hear.

He permitted himself to relax enough to let his smile come forth. In truth, he’d had his doubts. But a landless knight had been swayed with the lure of properties, and William was satisfied. As he’d said – he didn’t care that Cullen hadn’t agreed to the mission simply for the love of his country or the love of William Marshal. A mercenary reason didn’t matter to him in the least. He had what he wanted. “Excellent,” William finally said. “But there is something else you should know, de Nerra. De Lacy is… deviant. He is cruel, barbaric, and abhorrent.

I have heard tales of the man and his behaviors, but rather than entertain you with such stories, it would be better if you went into this only warned as opposed to being showered in detail. You will have to serve the man and I do not want you holding prejudice against him immediately. That will affect how you do your duty. What you learn about him, you will learn personally.” Cullen looked at him, long and hard. “You waited to tell me this after I had already agreed.” “Indeed, I did,” William said as if he were in the right. Perhaps he was, or perhaps he wasn’t, but it was a moot point now. He lifted a hand, patting Cullen on the shoulder. “We shall feast and drink tonight and speak of this new mission.

I have a feeling it might be quite an adventure for you.” Cullen craved adventure. What he didn’t crave was shadowing an unstable old earl who evidently had an odd streak, but he didn’t say so. He’d agreed to do it and there was nothing more to say. “When are you planning on traveling to Quellargate Castle?” he asked. William was already reaching for a rock crystal pitcher, filled with dark, sweet wine. “Next week, I suppose,” he said. “Now that you and I have an agreement, I am eager to move forward with it. One stop at Quellargate and you shall belong to de Lacy. From what I understand, he has a few good knights, but no one outstanding.

You, my son, are outstanding. He will appreciate having you.” Cullen accepted the cup of wine that was extended to him. “I will do my best, my lord,” he said. “You have my thanks for your generous offer. I shall not fail you.” William lifted his own cup to his lips. “I know you will not,” he said. “If you do, it will be a failure for England as a whole. Do you understand this?” “I do, my lord.

” “Then let us drink to a great success for us all.” As the warm liquid coursed down Cullen’s throat, he couldn’t help but feel some foreboding. Not in his own skills or the honor of his mission; it was more the unknown he would soon be facing. Something in William’s tone suggested it was more serious than he was willing to let on, than he was willing to explain to Cullen. Perhaps, that was something he was going to have to discover for himself. Little did he know that in that solar on that dark and clear night, Cullen made a deal with the devil that would give him more adventure than he ever dreamed of. An adventure that might very well cost him his life.

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