The ground no longer rumbled with the thunder of horses' hooves and the clash of weapons. The air, still acrid with smoke from the smoldering ruins of the castle perched high on the motte and the sacked village at its base, was quiet. The damage was done; the enemy hadn't lingered. After all, it wasn't the castle he'd come to claim.
From across the trampled, body-littered field, a gentle breeze began to stir, drifting like a ghostly tendril over the carnage to where a boy lay, facedown and wounded. It ruffled his dark hair, coaxing him back to consciousness as it caressed his bruised and bloodied cheek.
"Mother?" he murmured, though he knew she was gone, slain before his very eyes just hours ago by Baron Luther d'Bussy, one of King Stephen's more ruthless warlords, when she refused to become his whore. Refused to share her bed with the man who had killed her husband three days past in a tournament gone awry.
Ten-year-old Gunnar Rutledge sobbed at the memory, gasping in a ragged breath and choking on the sweet, pungent scent of Wynbrooke's soil and the metallic taste of his own blood.
Just out of his grasp lay his father's signet ring, the token his mother had tearfully removed from her husband's stiff, dead finger as he'd lain in state. Despite the tremors of siege that had set the tiny chapel's stone walls quaking that morning, her voice had remained strong.
"Keep this always," she had said as she pressed the ring into his palm, "and remember your father's courage ... his honor. When you are grown, wear it and make me proud."
But he hadn't made her proud. Instead, to his shame, he'd watched her die. Helpless and afraid, his arms twisted behind him by a large guard, he had pleaded with the baron to spare her. Withstood the man's drunken, taunting laughter. Weathered the physical blows.
And screamed in terror an instant later when d'Bussy's blade ended her life.
How he had managed to break free of his captor's iron grasp, Gunnar could not recall. His last memory had been of running. Running out of the castle, down the motte, and through the field as fast as he could with a knight on horseback close behind him. Legs pumping, lungs near to bursting, he headed for the stream, thinking he might be able to hide in the bramble that flanked it. The thought had scarcely formed when, over the pounding hoofbeats, he'd heard a sword rasp from its scabbard. Then, in an instant, his world, his life, had gone black.
Now, through the haze of pain enveloping his senses, Gunnar heard the squeak of a cart wheel and the murmur of voices. Men's voices. Two of them: one close, the other several paces behind. Footsteps halted near his head.
Gunnar knew the name of the man summoned, recognized the old healer's limp in the crunch of twigs and pine needles beneath his heavy gait as he approached, the familiar smell of herbs clinging to his clothes.
"Look ye what I found near this unfortunate thief."
Merrick clucked, his voice somber. "'Tis the Rutledge signet ruby."
"Are ye certain?"
"Aye. Yestereve it rested on milord's lifeless hand in chapel. And lest you mean to keep it for yourself, my friend, think first on the price this lad paid for stealing--" Merrick suddenly sucked in his breath. "Jesu!" he exclaimed, falling to his knees. "This is no thief bleeding at our feet, man. Look closer! 'Tis young lord Gunnar!"
Heavy fingers inspected Gunnar's ravaged back, tore the sticky linen of his rent tunic away from his wounds. The old man swore an oath. "'Tis by far the worst damage I've ever seen suffered on a child."
"Is he dead?"
"Nay, but soon enough, I reckon." Gunnar heard a rustle of fabric, then felt the rough wool of the old man's cloak cover him. "Half-dead or nay, I'll not leave him to rot out here like some hapless beast. If I cannot heal him, I can at least provide him comfort in his final hours. Come, help me lift him."
Limbs numb from loss of blood, Gunnar felt himself rise from the ground, heard the men's scuffling footsteps in the grass as they hefted him several paces from where he had lain. The sweet tang of moldy hay assailed his nostrils before he felt the crush of his own weight, and he was placed on his stomach atop a straw-lined litter. His rescuers hurriedly dragged him across the field toward the village.
Each rut they hit, every furrow, nearly jolted him senseless with pain, but his broken heart continued to beat. God help him, but he did not want to live. He had proven a coward; he deserved to die. Living would mean every day facing his guilt, his dishonor. He was too weak; he could not bear it. He prayed for deliverance from his suffering, from the anguish of his shame. His family was gone, his home destroyed. What reason had he to live? What purpose?
The answer came swiftly, softly at first, a dark whisper that curled around him, anchoring his soul to the earth with shadowy tethers. It called to him, beckoning him to hold on, entreating him to fight.
And as the healer carried him into his hut and went to work on his wounds, the whisper grew in strength and meaning until it filled his mind, his heart, his soul. It was a single word. A mantra. A vow.
Baron d'Bussy's name was on the lips of well nigh everyone in England. For weeks past, criers had spread news of his grand tournament to the far reaches of the land, the scores of tents and pavilions now pitched on the wide plain outside Norworth Castle a testament to both his vanity and his thoroughness. Everywhere, pennons and colors flew, marking the independent warriors and those representing neighboring baronies and lords.
In the gathering twilight, men, women, and children--perhaps a hundred in all--wandered the wide avenue that ran through the center of the makeshift village. At the far end of the lane, two men, stripped down to their braies, fought bare-fisted to the gasps and cheers of a small circle of enthralled spectators. Boasting, swaggering knights were everywhere, many stumbling drunkenly toward their tents with a wench--some with two--under their arms. The more serious-minded competitors and dutiful squires tended destriers; others sat outside their tents polishing armor and inspecting weapons that would be well used on the morrow.
Amid this festival atmosphere, a distant flash of lightning went unnoticed.
It ripped across the darkening sky and reflected in a pair of eyes staring not at the bustling valley but at the castle looming over it. Those emotionless eyes, deep and cool as the forest that obscured them, blinked once, then looked up to the dismal clouds.
It began to fall almost immediately, pattering softly onto the canopy of leaves above, then swelling into a hard summer downpour that swept quickly toward the encampment. A grimace twisted the full lips that had until then been set in a determined line. Heavy rain meant a certain postponement of the morrow's tournament and worse, a delay of his promise.
Gunnar Rutledge cursed, his muttered oath swallowed up by a loud roll of thunder. Beneath him, his black destrier stirred in alarm, eyes wide and anxious. With a low murmur that sounded more like a warning than comfort, Gunnar quieted the beast, stroking its neck with a rough, unpracticed hand.
He had no use for fear, nor the experience to soothe it. Long ago he'd dispensed with his own fear, expelling it and any other emotion that might one day prove a weakness. He knew naught of celebration, did not indulge in dreams. His mind was fed on logic, his twenty-three-year-old body honed with hard work and countless battles until it now seemed more an extension of his armor and weaponry than it did flesh and bone. He had banished his feelings and exorcised his demons.
And now that demon had invited him into his lair, offering an opportunity more perfect than Gunnar could possibly have conspired to arrange on his own. He wondered if the baron ever thought about the possibility that he had survived. Did he sit up there in that massive stone fortress and consider--even for a moment--that a reckoning was imminent? Had he ever tasted fear? Did he feel as damned as the boy he had left on that field thirteen years past?
Soon he would.
For according to the Holy Church, to slay a man in tourney was to condemn him to eternal damnation. Hence, melees were fought with ceremonial blades--dulled, though nonetheless dangerous--and blunted lances.
Yet accidents happened.
Private scores were settled.
To avenge his mother, Gunnar would confront Luther d'Bussy. To avenge his father, he would triumph in the lists. The plan was simple enough. Best the baron, put the fear of God in his eyes. Make him plead for mercy.
And show him none.
The idea that he himself might not survive the day hadn't given Gunnar a moment's pause. He would keep his promise, no matter the price.
As the rain slanted down from heavy clouds, driving everyone to the shelter of their tents and turning the lists to mud, Gunnar wheeled his mount about and headed into the forest to make camp in solitude and search for patience enough to wait out the storm.
Bright morning sunlight filled the sky as Raina d'Bussy burst from Norworth's open gate astride a dappled gray mare and sped down the side of the motte. The fresh scent of the previous night's rains still clung to the air, but she scarcely noticed it. She rode at breakneck speed, the skirts of her bliaut rucked up over her knees and her unbound hair billowing in a wild, sable curtain behind her. With a gleeful laugh she leaned forward over her mount's neck, urging it on faster and faster past the empty, bemired lists and across the marshy ground. Warm, muddy water splashed around her and kicked off the horse's hoove...