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Anita Mills

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The Fire and the Fury
The Fire and the Fury
Anita Mills
Copyright
Copyright

Diversion Books

A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.

443 Park Avenue South, Suite 1004

New York, NY 10016

www.DiversionBooks.com

Copyright © 1991 by Anita Mills

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.

For more information, email
[email protected]
.

First Diversion Books edition May 2013.

ISBN: 9781626810365

For Hilary, who has great patience

Prologue
Prologue
Dunashie, Scotland:
September 28, 1127

The night was starless, the moon hazy behind a ceiling of clouds on this, the eve of Michaelmas. The column of mounted soldiers, their oddly assorted arms and mail bearing testimony to their mercenary service on both sides of the border, followed their youthful leader northward across the Cheviot Hills. Behind them, the iron-sheathed wooden wheels of two carts rumbled and rattled in the narrow ruts that passed for a road, and a dozen archers trod silently in their wake.

Ahead, the keep of Dunashie rose from the crest of an ancient mound that had been in place ever since the Romans bribed a Celtic chieftain to build it. Now it stood, an aged fortress upon the rubble, with but a single thatch-roofed tower executed in stone behind its timbered walls. The stagnant water of the surrounding ditch reflected the shadowy moon amid its scum.

The leader of the strange band, a tall, black-haired boy but one month and one day past his sixteenth birthday, raised his hand to signal a halt. Leaning forward in his stirrups, he drank in the hulking shadow of his disputed patrimony, the less than majestic symbol of his blood, then turned to the red-haired giant who rode at his side. Despite the dimness of the night, his black eyes glittered with an almost unholy light.

“The fools sleep,” he noted with grim satisfaction. “They know not we are come.”

“Aye.” William of Dunashie surveyed the boy he’d served and protected through a life of exile and attempted assassination with an equal grimness. “And may Hamon of Blackleith die knowin’ ‘twas ye as takes his life.”

The boy’s jaw hardened with the remembered insult of Lord Hamon’s spittle on his face. Even now, more than a month later, the usurper’s taunts rang in his ears. He’d been a fool to sue in King David’s court for what was his, for there was none to listen to the boy against the man. Hamon of Blackleith owed twenty knights in service, while the dispossessed Giles of Moray had naught to offer. Never again, he reflected bitterly, would he go before lord or king to beg justice. Justice was taken, not given, by those who would fight for it.

He looked up to the clouds that traveled across the moon, then back to where the carts had rolled to a stop. “We have God’s blessing, for He stays the rain,” he decided.

“Aye.”

The boy twisted in his saddle to address those behind him. “Every man will take two brands unlit,” he ordered tersely. “Archers, soak your wrapped arrows.” His gaze moved down the motley line to where a man prepared to fire the vats of pitch in the carts, and he shook his head. “Nay, I’d have all in readiness first, Hob. I’d not give them time to raise a defense once we are seen. We are not enough to stand and fight,” he reminded the toothless one. Nudging his horse now to ride back amongst his men, he kept his voice low. “Lang Gib,” he addressed one, “I’d have you cover the archers whilst they take to the trees above. ’Twill be Wat’s task to supply the arrows. And Willie and Evan will ride beneath, holding their brands high to light them.”

He spoke quickly, issuing orders throughout the line as seasoned warriors watched and listened, nodding their assent. The plan had been proposed and settled earlier, but Giles meant to leave nothing to chance. Swift execution was everything—to hesitate would ensure defeat.

One by one, the men dipped the wrapped ends of their torches into the thick pitch. Led by Hob, the archers moved silently to the trees that spread nearly to the malodorous moat. Leaves rustled as they climbed to posts within firing distance of the wooden wall. It was not until the toothless one gave the raven’s call that the rest moved into place.

Two columns of mounted men separated to ring the wall, while a small group led by the bastard Will of Dunashie positioned themselves in the trees just beyond the raised drawbridge, ready to cut down any who would flee. Above, along the timbered walk, a lone sentry carried a horn lantern, its flame flickering like a distant star, to peer over the side. It was as though they held a collective breath until he moved toward the other end.

Finally the boy nodded, and Willie rode back to where the hot coals were held within the vented iron kettle. Lifting the lid, he thrust his brand within, holding it until the pitch caught. At the same time, an archer’s unwrapped arrow hit its target and the sentry fell, his feeble cry muted by the splash as he hit the foul water.

Within two minutes the trees were alight with flaming arrows. The boy spurred his horse, shouting loudly, clearly to the sleeping keep, “Hamon of Blackleith, ’tis Giles of Moray come to claim Dunashie!” It was the signal to loose the hail of fire into the thatch roofs within.

Grasping his own torch, Giles rode the length of the wall, to where Willie had said the animals were kept. Rising in his stirrups, he flung the burning brand over the side. The mercenaries who followed him threw theirs also, until the curling smoke revealed a dozen or more fires started within. They circled and yelled, giving an impression of greater numbers than they were.

On the other side, the straw in the animal pens caught almost immediately, giving rise to the frightened bleating of sheep and the neighing of horses caught behind a fast-rising sheet of fire. Already the thatch had caught on nearly every roof from granary to tower. Angry shouts mingled with frantic screams as those within scrambled from their pallets, some to fight the blazes, others to mount a hasty defense.

The pitch carts moved closer and a villein dipped brands and fired them, passing them to those who rode by. The flaming torches arched through air to fall behind the walls, and soon the night was filled with smoke and noise. The few valiant defenders who struggled to the wall walks were either cut down or forced to retreat in the face of the flaming brands.

Amid the cries and shouts, the drawbridge began to creak downward as men mounted hastily within. Above the awful din Giles called to Hob, “Now!”

The cart rolled forward as though it would cross the bridge to meet those coming out, and just as the wooden platform struck the iron pilings that supported it, Hob pushed the vat over, spilling the pitch onto the bridge. Willie leaned from his horse to fire it, and those who would ride out faced flames that shot several feet upward. Panicked horses reared while men cursed.

Giles recognized Hamon of Blackleith, his huge girth outlined in the hot orange wall. He rode to the edge of the burning bridge, taunting the usurper, shouting, “Behold the boy you dispossessed is become a man! Use your spit to put out the fire!”

The older man’s face contorted with rage, and in his fury he spurred his horse to leap the flames. His sword flashed, its blade catching the glow of the disintegrating bridge. For a moment the animal appeared to lose its footing, but in its fright it managed to scramble onto the bank. Hamon, leaning from his saddle, swung so wide he nearly unseated himself, but the boy managed to sway away as he lifted his borrowed shield. The blow glanced off.

Sweat and soot streaked the older man’s face beneath his helmet, but his eyes betrayed his contempt for Giles of Moray. “Ye’ll not live to take it!” he snarled. “Ye’ve built yer funeral pyre!”

But even as he spoke the bridge behind him collapsed, cutting off any aid. “Nay, you’ll not live to keep it,” Giles countered. “ ’Tis you and I, Hamon of Blackleith—there is no king here to rule for you.” He rode closer and spat into the older man’s face. “I return what you gave me, Hamon, and take what is mine.”

“Whoreson cur!” Hamon rose, leaning forward in his saddle to slash at the boy furiously. “I paid gold to see you dead!”

He’d misjudged Giles’ reach. As the boy lifted his shield over his left arm, he counterswung the broad-axe he favored with his right, catching the older man below the rib cage, cutting him cleanly from his side to his belly. A bellow of rage died in a scream as Hamon of Blackleith fell from his horse.

Giles dismounted to stand over the man who’d stolen his patrimony. Hamon’s face exposed his agony and his fear as Giles’ eyes moved to the gaping wound. There was no question that he would die within the hour from it.

“I’d be shriven,” he gasped. “I’d have God’s mercy. In the name of the Virgin, I’d have a priest.”

For answer, Giles picked up the fallen man’s sword, placed it over his breastbone, and drove it home. Hamon’s body seemed to stiffen, then fell limp, and his head lolled. A trickle of blood drooled from his mouth. For a long moment Giles looked downward. “Nay, Hamon,” he said softly, “ ’tis all the mercy you will have of me. I’d see your soul in hell ere I’d call a priest for you.”

When he turned around, Willie was watching. Wordlessly, Giles turned into his embrace, clasping him with bloody hands. Tears streamed down the giant’s face when Giles looked into it.

“I have brought you home, Will—Dunashie is ours.”

“I never doubted ye would—never.” The bastard of Dunashie stepped back to smile crookedly at the boy he’d served for sixteen years. “ ’Tis yers, my lord.”

“Aye.” Giles swung around to survey the flames that licked the night sky. “And there’ll be none to want it now.”

“ ’Tis a lesson fer ye—when ye build it again, make it stone.”

The archers had ceased firing, and the riders had gathered silently to watch the ancient fortress disintegrate into an inferno. The shouts and the frantic screams of the people caught within had ceased, and now the only sounds were the crackling flames and the settling of charred logs.

Lang Gib prodded several sullen people, their faces grimed with soot, forward toward Giles of Moray. A young girl of twelve or so years, her wet clothes scorched, cringed before him, her eyes betraying her terror.

“They jumped through the flames into the ditch, my lord,” Gib told him. “Tis all as survives.”

Giles faced the girl grimly. “You are of Hamon’s family?”

She shook her head mutely, then covered her soot-streaked face with small hands, as she began to shake uncontrollably. A man behind her shouted furiously at Giles.

“They be all dead—Lady Margaret—aye, and her bairns with her! Burned in their beds by ye! May ye perish in hell fer it!”

Despite the surge of remorse he felt, Giles’ jaw hardened. As though he could justify what he had done, he turned again to the girl. “Nay, demoiselle, but he took what was mine.” But she would not look at him. Looking to another survivor, he asked curtly, “How many were inside?”

“Forty—nay, forty-one. There was a man of Creighton here also.” The man’s eyes accused him. “But we are all now.”

“Any of his blood?”

“Ye’ve murdered all, may God take ye fer it.”

Despite the mud and soot that clung to the girl, she was more than passably pretty. Giles reached a hand to lift the wet hair that clung to her face. “If you are not of his family, why are you here, demoiselle?” he asked gently.

“She was betrothed ter Dunashie’s heir,” the man behind her answered for her. “But the boy perished also.”

The girl choked back a sob as she raised her eyes to Giles. “Do you k-kill m-me also?”

“Nay. ’Tis done with Hamon, and I’d send you back to your father.” He started to turn away, then swung back abruptly. “How are you called, demoiselle?”

“Aveline—Aveline de Guelle.”

“If you mourn Hamon’s son, I am sorry for it.”

“Nay, but I mourn them all,” she answered in little more than a whisper.

The elation of victory faded as his eyes traveled to the burning wall. The stench of cooked flesh brought home the enormity of what he’d done. Had there been another way, he would have taken it. For a moment, his face betrayed the guilt that already weighed on his soul.

The giant that knew his thoughts better than any reached a comforting hand to his shoulder. “The guilt is Hamon’s, may God curse him, fer ‘twas he as stole Dunashie from ye.”

Giles nodded grimly, then squared his shoulders manfully. “Willie, we will have to sleep without. I pray you will make a tent to shelter Lady Aveline, and on the morrow I will send her home. As for the others, let them go where they will.”

He walked away, leaving them to stare after him. As Willie led the girl away, he heard one of those who survived raise his voice to him. “Butcher!” the fellow spat out. “Art naught but a butcher! May ye burn in hell for this!”

And it was as though something broke inside of Giles. He swung around. “Will,” he said evenly, “hang him.”

“Nay!” the man cried. “Ye’ve no cause! King David—”

Giles’ black eyes went cold. “You fought against your rightful lord—’tis reason enough.”

Hours later, as he walked the smoking ruin of his patrimony, the boy tried not to think of those who’d died there. Despite the fact that they’d already been buried in a hastily dug pit beneath what had been the chapel floor, the awful smell was still in the air. And that, coupled with the charred carcasses of sheep and horses, was more than he could bear. His throat tightened painfully as he saw what he had done.

The stone tower still stood, its wooden floors gone save for the burnt ends of the supporting beams. And the sky shone through a blackened fringe of thatch. He walked within and looked upward, seeing the crucifix still affixed to what must have been Lady Margaret’s private chapel. His boots crushed the rubble beneath his feet. He looked down and saw the carved ivory figure of Christ in his mother’s arms. Stooping, he rubbed the greasy soot from the Virgin Mary’s face, then he laid it gently again amid the smouldering refuse.

Walking outside again, he crossed the blackened courtyard to the main chapel, where all that remained was, oddly enough, the soot-covered altar rail and part of the cabinet that had held the host. The ground over the newly made graves was soft beneath his feet. He knelt, his knees sinking into the dirt, and tried to pray in the eerie emptiness, but there were no words capable of expressing the pain he felt. In his anger, he’d burned his own keep rather than let another man hold it. And innocent ones, those who served without choice, had died unshriven in the flames.

What had the man said?
May God consign you to hell for it.
He closed his eyes, his mouth forming the words of contrition, but no sound came, possibly because he could find no regret for Hamon of Blackleith. There was still a bitter gall within him that could not forgive the usurper of his birthright, there was still the damning knowledge that, despite the terrible cost, he’d do it again for the satisfaction of seeing Lord Hamon dead at his feet.

BOOK: Anita Mills
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