(Barons of the Cinque Ports Series)
Muriel Draper is a spinster – a woman who spins wool. Once her father dies, she is ex-communicated by the Clothmaker’s Guild, and in order to pay back his debt to the Baron Nicholas Vaughn, she takes a job as his Personal Clothier.
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Excerpt of The Baron’s Quest
Nicholas Vaughn, Lord of New Romney and Baron of the Cinque Ports, looked up from his conversation with the other barons as he caught sight of a woman on the docks. He knew she wasn’t a whore by the way she was dressed. She was much too covered up, having a mantle wrapped tightly around her, made of brown wool instead of the crimson color worn by whores. Her hair was pulled up and tucked under a linen coif that she had tied behind her head, and she had a travel bag slung over her shoulder with a bolt of cloth sticking out the top. This could only mean one thing. Trouble. Aye, trouble was brewing like a storm over the sea and he had to keep his eye on this one.
“Romney, what distracts you?” asked Baron John Montague from the Hastings Port, using Nicholas’s port as his name as was proper. John was the eldest of the three friends, and also had the biggest castle. He thought highly of himself, and while he was quick to strike with a sword, he was as slow as a turtle when the subject of remarrying came up since the death of his wife.
The Confederation of the Cinque Ports consisted of five major ports – Dover, Hastings, New Romney, Sandwich, and Hythe. Established over a hundred years ago, it was created by William the Conqueror. Its purpose was to supply ships in defense of the coastline as well as in times of war overseas for the king. Merchant and fishing ships were used, and the ports were required to supply 57 ships, each with a crew of 21 men and a boy, for 15 days a year in service to the king as he saw fit. In return, the barons and portsmen were granted privileges, among them being the exemption of certain taxes as well as governing their own town and holding their own court.
“Something caught my eye, and it’s not a fish,” said Nicholas.
“Nice looking bait,” added Baron Conlin de Braose from Sandwich with a nod of his dark head. Conlin was by far the best looking of the three of them, and with the most muscles, and he knew it. He was also a lodestone when it came to women being attracted to him instantly. It was a skill that Nicholas wished he possessed at times. “So are you going to let her hook you?”
“Hold your tongue,” Nicholas told him, bringing his attention back to their conversation. “Whoever she is, she is not a whore nor a noble, so I have no interest in her whatsoever. And you know as well as I that a woman on the docks all alone and at this time of day, can only mean trouble.”
“Trouble you say?” John was suddenly interested, always the first to want to step in when needed. He craned his neck and focused his bright blue eyes the color of the sea to look down the wharf at the girl.
“My lords, your ships are ready to set sail,” said the Tidesman, bowing in front of the three barons.
“Thank you,” said Nicholas, having had plans to sail to Hastings next, since the three of them were taking the time to inspect each others’ ports as well as do a bit of trading amongst them. “However, there is a storm approaching, so we’ll wait til first light rather than take the chance of hitting the storm head on.”
“Aye, I don’t fancy having my ship torn to pieces if we hit a cliff,” added John looking very upset all of a sudden. Any talk of bad weather always seemed to rattle his nerves.
“Me neither,” said Conlin. “There is naught so important that it can’t wait til the morrow. One more night drinking ale and sharing a few laughs with good friends sounds fine to me. Let’s go back to the manor house before it rains.”
The two barons turned to go, but Nicholas once again glanced over his shoulder at the girl. He heard his Collector of Customs and his Tide Waiter telling her she was to be fined, and she was arguing with them as if she had the right to.
“Go ahead, I’ll meet you at the manor house. I have a matter to attend to first.” He strode quickly over the wooden walkway as thunder boomed overhead. The wind picked up, whipping his long cloak behind him. It had just started to rain when he approached them.
“Baron Romney,” said the Collector of Customs, nodding in a half bow. “We were just removing this woman and boy from the docks.”
“Were you,” he answered, seeing that they were not in control of the situation at all.
The wind blew the coif loose from the girl’s head. She caught it before it hit the ground, her cape opening in the process. Her golden hair came loose, blowing like a maelstrom around her. She was a small wench, the top of her head not even reaching his chin. Her hair was like spun cornsilk, and hung down to her waist – as was the customary length of hair for women of the time. She wore a sleeveless amber colored kirtle laced down the front and belted high on her waist that was long, all the way to the ground. It wasn’t the coarse, brown material, or canvas worn by the peasants. She also had what looked like a fine spun white, long sleeved chemise she wore underneath it. This told him she must be from the middle class instead. Probably a merchant, by the looks of the travel bag on her shoulder with the bolt of silk sticking out the top. “Who are you and why are you here?”
Her head snapped around at his command and she looked suddenly frightened. Her indigo eyes flashed over to the boy in the cart, and though there were no words exchanged between them, he recognized it as a warning to the boy to stay silent.
“My lord,” she said, curtseying dramatically, her sweet voice like the song of a meadowlark filling the air. The wind picked up her mantle and it blew in the breeze behind her, reminding him of a noble instead of who she really was. She quickly wound up her hair and replaced her coif, denying him the pleasure of seeing her silky long hair again. “We were just leaving.” She hurried around to the other side of the cart, giving him a wide berth.
“Not before you pay your fine, you don’t,” warned the Collector of Customs, reaching out and grabbing her by the arm.
“Let go of me,” she said, trying to shake him loose. “I didn’t sell anything, so I have no need to pay you a customs tax on my goods.” The song of the sweet meadowlark had suddenly turned into the sharp cackle of a raven instead.
“You are being fined not on the goods but for trying to peddle your wares on the docks, and on a Sunday after the noon hour no less,” the Tide Waiter told her.
“Let her go,” Nicholas ordered, in a low voice. He didn’t like to see any woman treated harshly, no matter if it was the norm for most men to do so.
The man dropped her arm and she hurriedly got into the wagon, settling herself on the wooden seat next to the boy. The rain started pouring down now, bringing with it a cold sting. She hurriedly placed her travel bag with the silk beneath her mantle, keeping it guarded from the weather.
“What about her fine?” asked the collector.
“Yes, the fine. Let me see.” Nicholas unsheathed his sword from his side, amused when he saw the looks of terror on their faces. Did she and the boy really think he was going to run them through with his blade just for trying to peddle their wares? “What have you got here?” He used the tip of his sword to push aside the blanket covering the goods in the cart. He saw about a dozen closed barrels and more bundles wrapped securely and wedged tightly into the spaces in between. “Open them,” he instructed his men, and stepped aside. As the dockmen moved forward to do so, the girl stopped them with her words.
“Nay! Please don’t. There is spun wool and bolts of finely woven cloth in there that will be soiled by the rain.”
“Don’t tell us what to do,” growled the Tide Waiter, reaching forward, but Nicholas stopped him.
“Leave it be,” he told the man, sheathing his sword in the process.
“But my lord,” started the man, but once again Nicholas stopped him.
“That’ll be all,” he said, dismissing the men.
“Aye, m’lord,” they answered and turned away. The rain fell harder now as he looked back up to the girl. She stayed hidden under her coif and the boy wouldn’t make eye contact at all. He had the feeling he’d seen these two before, but couldn’t place them.
“You are obviously merchants, though your faces are only slightly familiar. Tell me – what are your names?”
“I am Isaac, m’lord,” the boy blurted out, getting an elbow to his ribs from the girl in return.
“We are just poor merchants trying to make a living,” she spoke up, looking at her feet now. “Please let us go m’lord and I assure you we won’t do it again.”
“Nay,” he answered, not wanting to let her go. She intrigued him with not only her beauty, but with her determination and fierceness to be here at all right now. “I have not been the Lord of New Romney for that long yet,” he told her. “Since my main concern is on the docks, I have yet to meet everyone from town. I’d like you to tell me your name.”
She hesitated, but then sighed and spoke softly. The meadowlark had returned. “I am Muriel, and Isaac is my brother,” she explained. She glanced at him from the corners of her eyes, giving off a mysterious essence.