England April 1155
Lightning crackled across the midnight sky illuminating the battle that raged around Peter Lawston. He took in the scene in that split second of brightness, worry constricting his chest as his men struggled against the enemy. Rain ran in rivers from Peter’s hair, blurring his vision and flooding into his mouth as he barked out orders.
Eolian’s attack had been swift and brutal, but Peter’s men had been ready. The army riding with Knight Eolian had been terrorizing the neighboring holds and lands for months, burning fields, raping women, and killing anyone who got in their way.
Following the path of destruction had been simple and Peter had pushed his men hard to get ahead of them, setting up camp and waiting for the enemy to come to him.
That morning, with dawn still hours away, the cries of battle had broken the silence. At first, torches had sufficed to light the way, now only the biggest of bonfires survived the deluge that befell them, the screams of warriors paling beneath the sounds of thunder and raging wind.
A blur of movement drew Peter’s attention, and he tightened his grip on his mace. He tensed in anticipation as a warrior raced toward him, a broadsword held high above his head.
There was no time for fear, just a steady rush of awareness and energy, his body tingling with power. Mud flew from beneath the warrior’s pounding feet and caked the fur of his leggings. Peter raised his mace and braced himself. He swung. Blood flew and the man fell.
The sodden ground sucked at Peter’s feet as another man charged him. He waited and swung his mace hard. There was the crunching of bone and the man fell. Man after man pierced the darkness and when no one came to Peter he went to them.
The exhilaration of battle was short lived. Peter’s adrenaline was quickly wearing off, leaving him feeling drained and empty as he fought his way through the muck.
He stopped in the ankle-deep mud, trying to ignore the cold that crept through him. Battered and broken bodies lay glistening with sweat and rain as the tenacious flames covered them with flickering light. Peter shook his head, pity tightening his chest. These men would no longer feel the warmth of the glowing fire, its welcoming heat caressed them but was wasted.
Not long ago, Peter had enjoyed his role as leader of the army, but now his only thoughts were of these men. No matter what they had done, they had wives and children who would never see them again. Where once Peter had felt elation at victory, there was now only painful sadness for the ones who were lost and the families who were left behind.
At nine and twenty it was time to think of his own life and future, or more importantly the future of Castle Grayweist.
Rain hissed into the fire and steam swirled around him. In the mist that caressed his face he saw his father before him. Peter was once again standing at the crackling fireplace in the library, trying to convince his father that everything would be all right…
…His father’s face wrinkled in worry as he paced in front of the large oak desk. “What am I going to do if you do not return.” Gesturing to the shelves of books and the expensive furniture that adorned the large room, he shook his head in frustration. “All I have built, all of this, will mean nothing without you. You are my future.” His face relaxed as he stopped before Peter. Gripping his hand, he smiled softly. “Please come home safe.”
A deep breath did little to calm Peter’s emotions. “Father, everything will work out and I will be home.” He could hear the strain within his own voice. Heat from the crackling fireplace made him think of the cold and wet nights that were in store for him. He rolled his shoulders and closed his eyes. “I will be fine, I always am.”
“Make this your last battle.” His father’s voice cracked with emotion. “I want to see you settled down with a wife and children who you love and cherish. I want to see my name go on but more, I want you to have a good life and to be loved and happy—.”
Lost in thoughts that had no business on the battleground, Peter was yanked back into the Hell that surrounded him as pain exploded through his shoulder. The warm comfort of the library vanished as the long blade of a dagger cut violently into the small area that his chest plate failed to cover. Peter lost his footing as the man, wide as the boulders that surrounded them, first twisted, and then ripped the dagger from his mangled shoulder.
Peter’s mace slipped from his fingers and was lost in the sludge. Mud splashed around him as he fell, his helm slipping from his head. He threw an arm up to defend himself as the man leaned in for the fatal blow. He wondered irrationally why this man was fighting with just a dagger as he reached for his own.
Peter’s dagger never cleared its sheath as the man’s log of a foot came down, crushing his wrist. This man was going to kill him. His father had been right to worry. He would not be going home.
That thought had just begun to form when a shadowy figure parted from the darkness and lunged at the man. The giant was knocked off balance as the man collided with him. The crushing pain disappeared from Peter’s wrist, and he slid closer to the fire. Heat penetrated through his armor and a warm trickle of blood ran down his arm and side.
Rain and fire fought their own battle behind him, hissing and crackling, creating a mist that enveloped everything around them. Peter could hear nothing but the sounds of the fire and the booming thunder.
The man that had saved him circled the enemy with not so much as a dagger in his hand.
His rescuer was tall and wide through the shoulders, but the massive man was a head taller and had at least a hundred pounds on him. Peter tried to identify him, but only caught a glimpse of shimmering chain mail and armor before he disappeared behind the larger man.
As the two circled, his rescuer came back into sight and his hairless face came into view. Lit by the fire it was obvious that he could be no more than fifteen. Shock rippled through Peter as he realized he wasn’t a man. He was just a boy.
Peter struggled to get to his feet, knowing this boy didn’t stand a chance. He managed to get one knee under him before his vision blurred and the world spun around him. The slick mud gave way and he fell back.
The boy grinned as he continued to circle through the swirling fog like a vulture. The boy’s grin only widened as the large man began to yell at him, getting angry enough that his voice was audible over the winds and the fire. He told him that his mother was a whore and that he was a bastard. He told him he was in the land of men now and he would die without ever seeing a woman naked.
The boy just laughed, yelling loudly, “I had seen more of a naked woman’s body by the time I was ten than you have yet to see. One has been filling my bedding every night for many years now.” Amazingly, no fear was shown, no hesitation evident.
A tight band of worry wrapped itself around Peter’s chest and refused to let go. He knew it was going to end badly and he didn’t want to see this boy die for him. He cupped his hand around his mouth and shouted for help, but he knew it was useless.
Reason stood that if he couldn’t hear them over the blaring sounds of war and nature, they would not be able to hear him either. Still, this kid had no business here. Peter could not just lay here with the cold seeping into his bones and do nothing. Struggling to his knees, he fought a surge of nausea as the world wavered around him and fresh warmth spread down his side.
The warrior lunged at the boy. The kid waited until the big man was off balance and then he jerked to the left, not to avoid him, but to ram a wide shoulder into his side. The man growled as he teetered, his arms pin-wheeling for balance, he lashed out with the dagger.
The boy jerked back as the blade sliced across his bare cheek, laying him open from his ear to the corner of his mouth. Blood welled, and then flowed freely covering the front of his armor before the rain washed it away.
As the big man tried to catch his balance, the boy slipped in behind him, giving his wide backside a kick and sending the outraged man face first into the mud. The man was surprisingly agile for his girth and took no time regaining his feet and charging the boy.
The boy laughed.
Laughed! Peter could not believe the gall of the kid. Once again, the kid waited until the last moment. Peter’s breath caught in his throat as the enemy got within grasping distance. The giant made a final lunge at the motionless kid. Relief washed over Peter as the boy dove out of the way, behind him was one of Peter’s men.
Richard Devenroe instantly brought his sword up. The big man had no chance of stopping and ran full force into the long blade.
The whole act became clear even to his pain-clouded mind, and it had been an act. Dangerous, but all to a point. It had been devised to distract the man. To anger him to a boiling rage, one that would cloud his thoughts and make him careless. It had worked flawlessly, minus the heavy gash in the cheek.
The boy shrugged off Richard, who was trying to check his rapidly bleeding face, and rushed to Peter’s side. Richard followed behind, a look of irritation that made Peter want to laugh, if only he had the strength. Right on Richard’s heels were several of Peter’s men. Their concerned faces faded and disappeared as Peter’s vision spun.
Pain washed over him as he was dragged roughly to his feet. An arm slipped around his shoulder, supporting him. The boy urged him forward, but his feet dragged through the mud, his legs not wanting to cooperate. The world around him swayed and he was forced to allow the boy to take his full weight.
A blurry lean-to appeared before him. Its opening faced the fire allowing in light and needed warmth. He bit his lip, staying a moan of pain as they placed him into the small shelter. He closed his eyes to keep the world from spinning. It didn’t work.
Listening to the noises around him, Peter could feel the comforting warmth of the fire seeping through him. He growled deeply, opening his eyes as pain bit through him.
The boy shifted him to remove his armor, rocking him from side to side and yanking the heavy metal from beneath him. Peter ground his teeth together as pain screamed through his shoulder.
Finally, he was bared to his dingy white tunic. Taking a deep breath, he prepared himself for the boy to remove it as well. Instead, the boy used a dagger to start a cut in the material. Then grasping the jagged edges of the shirt in blood-stained, dirt-encrusted hands, he jerked the tattered remains away from the mangled shoulder. Peter closed his eyes against another onslaught of pain.
He sucked in a breath and jerked his eyes open as pressure was put onto the wound. The boy looked over his shoulder at Richard. “Go get the doctor. If he does not want to come, and come now, you have my permission to get him here at your enjoyment.” The voice came out in a growl, an order too full of self-assurance to come from a mere page. No, he was undoubtedly a squire. The kid had battle under his belt. Instinct and experience told Peter that the trick with the monster who had almost killed him was just the beginning of his cunning.
Peter closed his eyes, his breathing shallow. Numbness was beginning to overtake his mind. His thoughts were getting slower. He could feel it. He tried to concentrate on the boy’s voice above him, but his mind felt heavy and sluggish.
The voice that had been gravelly and deep at first had changed—softened, like a gentle breeze across his heart. He was confused by his thoughts. His mind hazy, delirium was obviously setting in. A groan slipped from beneath his numb lips.
The sweet, concerned voice whispered, washing over him like a warm caress. “Are you with me? Can you focus on my face? Talk to me. Open your eyes. I need to know you are going to be all right.” The gentle voice was like a melody to his war-ravaged ears, a loving voice that brought forth images of that life his father had spoken of. Of children to hold and to love, not just some faceless heir to be his future, but a child to be his life.
He opened his eyes to the young boy’s blurry face. The light from the fire pierced into him, cutting through him like a dagger. He shut his eyes again with a moan.
“Come on, focus. You are going to be fine.” There was fear in that soft voice that told him he was cared for. That he was needed. “Look me in the eye.” The worry that he heard enveloped him in warmth in a way no fire ever could. He could almost picture the mother of those children who would hold him at night when he was cold, as he was now. She would be beautiful, dark, and exotic.
When he opened his eyes once again the boy was gone and in his place was the beautiful, yet blurry, face of a girl. “Are you alright?” she asked sweetly as she leaned close to him.
“I am here with you.” Concern filled him as he spotted the large gash on her cheek, oddly in the same spot as the lad’s injury. He shook his head to clear it. Confusion swirled through his weary mind. Peter lifted his hand and ran his fingers along the uninjured cheekbone as blood dripped onto his injured shoulder. “Your face. You are hurt. You must have it looked at.”
The face swirled in and out of focus and the boy was there once again. Peter closed his eyes tightly and shook his head. “I will. You first, I can wait,” the soft voice told him.
When Peter opened his eyes once again, she was smiling down at him. Her face was still blurred, but he knew it was her from her melodious voice.
“You have such dark eyes, almost black. One could get lost in them.” Peter continued to stroke the smooth cheek above him, sliding trembling fingers down the warm and inviting skin gently cupping the soft and shapely chin before starting again. He squinted to keep the world focused as he looked deeply into those black eyes and thought of his future. “You are so beautiful.”
Full lips parted in a sweet tinkling laugh, like water rippling over stones. “I will forgive you that since you have lost so much blood. Your thoughts must be scrambled and your vision faulty.” A wide, beautiful smile took the sting from the words.
A deep trembling breath caused the world to shimmer and the image of the boy was once again before him.
Peter pulled his hand away in confusion. “Quite. I have lost a great amount.” His arm dropped as darkness swallowed him.
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