Northern England: Year 1299
The rumble of the collapsing wall brought the small column of armed men to a halt. A dusty cloud billowed up as rock and dirt tumbled down and splashed into the wet moat below. Even from a distance it was an impressive sight. Impressive…and disheartening considering this was their new home.
Bryant Beringar scowled at the gaping hole in his newly acquired castle. It was no larger than the hole in his gut. He had a strong urge to hit someone.
“Your lands do not please you, my lord?” Col Martel reined his horse beside Bryant’s. He had pushed his chainmail coif off his head and bared his tangled blond curls in typical disregard for his safety. That hair—in need of a clipping—glowed like the halo of an iconic angel. His smirk, however, spoiled the effect, which was also typical of the man who was more like a brother to Bryant than a friend or vassal, his companion in mischief as a child and his companion in arms ever since. Not to mention a continual thorn in his side when there was the slightest opportunity for some heckling.
Maybe he would hit him.
“Why would you think that?” Bryant asked.
“I’ve seen that look on your face once before and that was in the midst of battle. One we were losing, as I recall.” Col replied.
A gust of wind riffled over them and a slight break in the clouds let forth a single brilliant shaft of light that fell, not on the castle, but on a plot of graves with crude wooden markers near a copse of trees.
“You think this isn’t a battle?” Bryant nodded toward the graves. “The previous occupants of this place were all massacred, you know.”
“And on that happy note, we pronounce this place home,” Col said, though he then appeared to ponder Bryant’s words. He said, “It seems strange, does it not? It appears to be a defensible position.”
Both men studied the fortress with practiced eyes. Though not large, the castle did have formidable defenses, round corner towers, well-formed battlements, massive gate towers, thick walls and a wet moat that lapped at the foot of those walls. It was a structure meant to impress and intimidate, the way it loomed up, massive and solid in the clearing. Impress it did, as long as one ignored the monstrous breach in the wall. Blackened rubble from two collapsed towers and a good section of wall filled a portion of the moat. It made a quite passible bridge to the hole and the bailey beyond. That did tend to spoil the intimidation effect.
Col said, “Its previous lord must have been very remiss to allow it to be overrun without a prolonged siege.”
Remiss. Yes, one would think so. But from all accounts Marcus Turville had been a competent and cautious man. Not the sort to be taken by surprise. Or to give up without a fight.
Bryant spurred his horse forward and set the column in motion once more. It was evident as they drew nearer that there had not been a siege at all. The ground around the castle showed no scars of an encamped force, no traces of cook fires, none of the detritus left behind by any army. The walls did not bear scars from war machinery. Even from a distance it was evident that the destruction was, for the most part, inside the castle. The collapse looked to be the result of fire, not siege engines or mining.
Bryant glanced behind him at his men. They were a rugged group, filthy from a fast, hard journey, which added to their fierce look. Seasoned warriors, every one, formidable in spite of their lack of numbers. In all, they made up a garrison of no more than a hundred. All he could gather in the time he’d had. Few enough to man an intact castle, far too few to defend a breached one in hostile territory. But defend it they would. King Edward had granted him this fief because he did not doubt that Bryant would defend his lands to the death. His majesty knew how desperate he was for lands of his own. Edward never missed an opportunity to fulfill his own needs when he bestowed a gift.
Not that he was complaining. As a second son it was never certain he would ever have lands of his own. He had served his king to the best of his ability in Wales and France, and more recently in Scotland at Berwick and Falkirk in the hope that this day would come. And here it was. His chance, his opportunity to build something for himself. A castle on the border of a rebellious, hostile nation, in need of a strong military leader. He had sacrificed much to prove himself to be that leader. He’d fought for the majority of his life. Fought England’s enemies to prove his loyalty and his strength. Oh yes, he would defend these lands to his last drop of blood. He’d earned that right.
Closer to the castle now, he held up a fist and halted the column of men once more. He wanted to study the castle from this closer vantage point. He looked it over with an eye for how to defend it in its current state. It was far from a complete loss. The walls that remained were in good condition, the gate was reinforced with a drawbridge—which was down though its chains were intact—and an iron portcullis that was jammed at an angle at the top of the entry. The gate towers were positioned in such a way that any intruders who tried to gain entrance by the main gate would face a crossfire of arrows and perhaps a shower of burning pitch or oil. Col was right, a raiding force of Scots should not have found an easy target here. Yet, the castle had fallen. It was as if the defenders had just opened the gates and given their enemies free entrance.
“It will be dark soon and it looks as if we’re in for a storm,” Col said.
Darkness could be something to fear in this place. Behind them, one of the knights began to mutter. Bryant glanced back. Gawen, a knight so young that his beard grew spotty and thin on his chin. The man gaped, wide-eyed, at the castle, while he fingered something attached to a leather thong around his neck. A religious relic, no doubt. Gawen always fell prey to pilgrims pawning off trinkets said to ward off evil or bring good luck.
A shiver jittered along Bryant’s spine. He shook it off and called, “Which saint are we praying to today, Gawen?”
“Saint Germaine,” Gawen answered. He held up what proved to be a rotten chunk of wood. “This is a piece of the staff with which he, alone, slew a thousand blood-thirsty barbarians who wished to sacrifice his people to heathen gods.”
Col said, “He slew a thousand men single-handed, Gawen? Doesn’t sound very saintly to me. Are you sure this Germaine is a real saint?”
“Don’t trouble the boy,” Duscin, one of the older knights, said in a voice as scarred and textured as his face. “That chunk of wood is a grand step up from the jaw-bone of Saint Thomas.”
“At least Thomas was a real saint,” Col replied. “Who has ever heard of this Germaine fellow?”
Gawen began to protest and the other men—always fond of spirited discussion—chimed in with their own opinions of this so-called saint. Bryant was sorry he’d asked. He scowled at Col who had fallen silent with a satisfied grin.
“You do delight in getting them started, don’t you,” Bryant growled.
“It’s better than Gawen’s superstitious muttering,” Col said.
As the discussion grew more heated behind them, Bryant could have argued the point. Instead, he kicked his horse into motion. Time to inspect his new home from the inside. His eyes narrowed as he considered the task before him. The hole in the wall was the real concern. If they could hold out long enough to repair the hole, they would be in a good, defensible position. They’d need reinforcements. He would send for those first thing.
They were near the gate now, a mere arrow-shot away. The open bridge taunted him. The invaders had gained entrance to the castle somehow. Was there a fatal weakness in the castle’s defenses? He would have to do a thorough inspection, from top to bottom.
Behind him, the ‘discussion’ grew louder. If he didn’t put a stop to it, it would come to blows. Once they were inside he would put them all to work. That should shut them up for a while.
He didn’t have to wait that long. A sharp twang sounded from the castle. It brought instant silence. A moment later a shower of small stones rained down upon them like hail, far from lethal, but maddening with their sharp sting. The men drew their weapons and struggled to control their mounts. Bryant scanned the battlements. His scouts had reported the castle empty. They were good men. He knew they had been thorough. It would have to be a very small force to have hidden themselves from them.
The last of the pebbles fell and all was still. There was no sign of their enemy. Then a sudden flash of darker gray offered a target and in an instant his archers released their shots. Arrows clattered against stone and were answered with another twang, another stinging shower of pebbles.
Bryant’s gut urged him to charge. He signaled his men and they burst forward with a cry that would have chilled the blood of Lucifer himself. His men were few, but well-chosen. They thundered across the bridge and into the bailey to be confronted by…silence. Unexpected and unsettling. At Bryant’s signal a handful of men dismounted and made their way in pairs up open stairways that gave access to the battlements on the walls. Col and Duscin entered the right gate tower, Loys and Evart the left. The rest of the men waited with him in the bailey, poised for action wherever it may be needed.
One by one men appeared at the top of the wall and signaled all was clear, no sign of the enemy. Gawen started muttering again. Bryant scowled at him and he fell silent.
A sudden, muffled screech came from the right gate tower. It was all the indication Bryant needed. Sword drawn, he leaped from his horse, sprinted through the door, and started up the inner stairs. Soldiers crowded in after him eager for a fight. Halfway up, Bryant collided with Duscin who backed down the narrow staircase. Bryant couldn’t see around the man, but the sound of a scuffle came from up above, punctuated by an occasional grunt. Duscin turned and pushed Bryant into the men behind him saying, “Out, out. Clear the way.”
Duscin prodded and shoved and with much stumbling and many curses the stairway was cleared. Duscin continued to herd the men out of the tower. Bryant turned back to peer into the gloom of the staircase and was almost knocked from his feet by a mass of flailing arms and legs—which was Col and something else—as it tumbled down the stairs and crashed into him.
The something else separated itself from the heap and tried to dash back up the stairs. Col’s hand caught the ankle of the creature as it fled and brought the thing crashing to the ground. It let loose a grunted oath. It’s human, at least, Bryant thought, though you’d never know by its looks.
Col wasted no time in making his capture secure. He trapped the creature’s arms beneath his own, struggled to his feet and proceeded to drag it over to Bryant. This took some effort, despite the fact that the thing was quite a bit smaller than Col. It kicked and squirmed and looked like it would have bit him if he had let its teeth get anywhere near bare skin.
Bryant gripped a handful of tangled brown hair and jerked its head up so he could get a look at its face. It stared up at him with large, dark eyes that burned with a hatred so fiery that he had to fight an urge to take a step back.
Good lord, he thought. It’s a woman.
Despite the intensity of her eyes, she looked no more harmful than a pile of old rags. Indeed, had it not been for the dirt and grease, her woolen tunic may not have held together as clothing at all. Her hair had been cropped to shoulder-length and it hung in wild, snarled clumps that shielded her face. What the hair didn’t mask, dirt did.
“Who are you?” Bryant demanded.
The woman continued to impale him with that fiery stare. She had grown quite still, though her chest heaved and her hands were balled into fists at her sides. He thought she was young, little more than a girl, but it was hard to tell through all that dirt.
He loosened his grip on her hair and smoothed it back from her face. “Don’t be frightened,” he said. “You’re in no danger here.”
Her eyes narrowed. He slid his hand down to cup her cheek. “We won’t hurt—”
She lifted her knee into his groin with a force that his split mail hauberk did little to dispel. Bryant dropped his sword and sank to his knees. Through a red haze he saw the girl throw her head back and catch Col in the chin. Col’s head snapped back. The girl slipped from his grasp and darted back up the stairway. Bryant’s well-trained soldiers crowded in the doorway were slow to react. One or two took a half-hearted step towards her, then seemed to think better of it. The rest watched her flee. Bryant would have cursed the wretches had he been able to draw a breath.
“A feisty wench,” Col said and rubbed his jaw.
Teeth clenched, Bryant glowered at him.
Col turned on the immobile soldiers. “A lot of help you are, standing around with your mouths agape like a bunch of helpless old women.”
Arnuld stroked his long, grizzled beard and said, “We thought to stay and fight the others, sir.”
“What others? It was just the girl.”
The men looked around as if willing an enemy to materialize from the dust.
“We were attacked by a woman?” Gawen’s voice cracked into a squeak. The young knight flushed and cleared his throat.
Col laughed. No one else did. Bryant forced himself to his feet.
“What?” Col said in response to the men’s silent accusation. “You’re the ones who let her get away.”
There was an outburst of heated protest. Bryant collected his sword and, with no more than a slight limp, pushed his way through the men in the doorway into the fresh air of the bailey. Col followed on his heels and carried his argument from the smaller group in the gatehouse to the larger group outside. Accusations flew back and forth and it promised to become a brawl if he didn’t intervene. Heaven help him, it was like living with a gaggle of geese. And there was Col, that grin on his face as he urged them on.
“Col!” Bryant shouted above the din. Col turned. Bryant’s fist sent him sprawling in the dirt. Astonished, the men fell silent.
Bryant smiled. That was much better.
The corridor was draped in shadow. Gawen’s skin prickled as he crept down it. Had he still been a naïve and fearful youth, he might have suspected that something lurked in those shadows, stalked him when his head was turned, watched and waited for the opportunity to pounce. But he was a seasoned soldier and even if he thought he’d seen movement in the darkness he did not feel panic. Not at all. Not one bit.
He fingered the hilt of his sword while his other hand groped for the bit of wood at his throat. “Saint Germaine protect us,” he murmured as he rubbed his thumb across the smooth wood. His toe collided with something and there was a metallic clang as the object bounced along the corridor. He threw himself against the nearest wall and squinted into the dark shadows. Nothing.
Nothing that he could see. But that didn’t mean that nothing was there. Witches could hide in darkness, melt into the blackness until they were little more than air.
And she was a witch, that woman. No doubt about it. They had searched the castle, every nook and cranny, and they had not found her. She had simply disappeared. Mayhap she had turned herself into a raven and flown away. Which, of course, didn’t mean she wouldn’t be back. She was sneaky, that one. She had called on the forces of evil to attack them, then used her magic to escape, and now she might even lurk somewhere in these wretched passages, weaving her spells, waiting to place her curse upon them so they would either be her slaves or die in horrible, writhing agony.
But he was not afraid. Oh, no. He had Saint Germaine on his side and he would wager that this witch had never been up against the likes of Saint Germaine. Again he rubbed his talisman and proceeded up the passage.
He had to find wood. The rain had started soon after they arrived and hadn’t let up since. If not for the damnable drizzle, he could search out in the open for wood instead of prowling these miserable corridors near the ruined towers on his hunt for unburned bits of debris. So far he hadn’t found anything of much use. He looked over his shoulder down the treacherous corridor toward the warm great hall. A hall full of people and light. He felt the pull. A powerful pull. But he had found no wood and he could well imagine the jibes of the others if he showed up with not even a stick. He sighed. There was no option but to forge ahead.
Saint Germaine was with him, for it wasn’t many steps further when he came across the remains of a rafter that lay shattered on the landing and steps of a stone staircase. There was enough wood here to fill his quota. Humming beneath his breath, he gathered the more manageable chunks as he climbed the stairs. He would have to have help for the larger bits, or else chop them where they lay.
He had just reached the landing when a frosty voice said, “Tis pitiable to see the depths to which vile pillagers will stoop.”
Gawen dropped his burden of wood and scraped his fingers raw as he clutched the stone wall to keep from falling down the stairs. The witch was seated on the ledge of the landing window, rematerialized out of the shadows of which she was a part.
She hopped from her perch. The background of fading twilight from the window outlined her figure, surrounded her with a pale glow while her body itself remained obscured by darkness. A dark void. Perhaps not fully materialized. Gawen pressed himself against the stone of the far wall and willed himself to melt into the rock. He groped for his sword, but she must have bewitched him for he could not seem to grip it to draw it from its sheath. He did manage to take hold of Saint Germaine’s bit of staff and he held it out before him like a shield.
“Preserve us from our enemies,” he cried. “Make us to stand safe in the center of the storm.”
He could have sworn she floated as she came toward him, and she came close, very, very close.
She looked at the bit of wood in his hand and said, “Why don’t you burn your own wood instead of thieving mine?”
“Saint Germaine defend us from the evil in our midst,” Gawen answered.
“Saint Germaine?” the witch said. “I’ve never heard of him.” She reached out, plucked the relic from his fingers and let it fall on its cord against his chest. Gawen found himself unable to look away from her dark gaze, though he knew she could steal his soul with her mesmerizing stare. He was frozen in place, pinned by her black magic.
It seemed that time stood still—another bit of her sorcery—and then she reached out and placed her finger on the tip of his nose.