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Shildon Keep, north-east England July AD 1067
The acrid stench of fire and death burned his nostrils and his eye. Soren Fitzrobert blinked quickly and surveyed the devastation before him.
Crops and outbuildings yet burned in the late daylight of midsummer, the smoke darkening the sky more effectively than the setting sun could. The dead lay in pools of their own blood as it seeped into the ground. The silence crushed him, for not a sound echoed across the yard or the land surrounding it now. Stephen approachedfrom his good side, he noticedand waited for his orders.
'They are cowards,' Soren said as he lifted his helm off and rubbed his head. 'Look, they burn their fields, kill their own people and run.'
'For certain, these were Oremund's orders,' Stephen answered, disdain for the man involved clear in his voice.
'If he was not dead, I would kill him again, slowly, for something like this,' Soren declared. Lord Oremund had been in league with the rebels who sought to overthrow the king's rule and return the old Saxon lords to their place in England. He'd been killed in the battle to secure his friend Brice's claim to Oremund's half-sister's lands.
Oh, vengeance ran hot in his own blood and this bit of sympathy for the slain did not cool it. He had cause to seek out and destroy those responsible for his condition, but these villagersmen, women, even childrendeserved not the fate of being massacred by their lord's men. Soren even understood how innocents could be caught up in the throes of war, but this was not warfare.
This was slaughter.
'Seek any who live and gather the dead for burial,' he ordered. 'Burn the bodies of those who fought against us,' he added.
Stephen hesitated, but did not speak. Soren turned his good eye to gaze at him. The flinch in the man's gaze lasted less than a heartbeat of time, but it happened and Soren saw it. Worse, though, was the glint of pity that passed quickly through the battle-hardened warrior's eyes for him.
His stomach clenched in a way now familiar to him when faced with this constant and unfailing reaction to his face. Fear or horror or revulsion followed quickly by pity. By Christ, he was sick of it! Soren turned away and walked off, not waiting to see if his orders were obeyed or not.
His blood boiled with hatred then. He would seek out the get of Durward of Alston and destroy any of them who yet lived and wipe his very name from the earth. The skin over his eye and the ragged scar down his face and neck itched then, reminding him of the damage wrought by the coward Saxon after the battle had been called. Soren fought the urge to touch it, for there were too many watching him now.
Another of Brice's men called out to him and Soren nodded for him to approach. In tow, the halting shape of a priest walked behind, head bowed, prayers whispering under his breath. The priest did not look up and so he collided with Ansel and stumbled. It was as the priest raised his head that their gazes met and it happened.
The horror. The fear.
The priest instinctually made the sign of the cross and looked away as though unable to bear looking at him. Soren seethed with anger and hatred and lashed out.
'Get him out of here, Ansel!' he yelled. His voice echoed in the silence and everyone who was not watching, now did so. Soren did not care.
'Soren, he wants to bless the dead,' Ansel explained calmly, unaffected by his fury.
He sucked in a breath, trying to regain control, as the need to strike and hurt and destroy pulsed through his blood and nearly overwhelmed him. Clenching his fists and his teeth, Soren waited for the blinding rage to ease. The priest cowered and whispers rippled through the yard as the people there, both villeins and his men, waited to see his actions.
He could not speak, his throat clogged with anger; his arms and hands ached with the need to hurt someone, anyone. Soren simply nodded permission at Ansel as he strode off. The only thing that helped at times like these was labourhard, physical toil that would tire his body and drain some of the hatred from his soul. So, he walked to where groups of the men cleared the bodies from the fields and wordlessly joined them.
Hours later, exhausted from days of hard riding and the battle this morn and even more from the digging and carrying, Soren barely made it to his blankets. It would take days to bury all the dead and get things in order here before he could head north to Alston. Days wasted when he should be taking control of his own lands and killing those related to Durward.
He had given his word to Obert and to Brice, so he had no choice but to see this through. And he would, though not happily. Once he had held the charter in his hands, spoken the words making him the king's man and received the bishop's blessing, the tension had grown within him. With every passing hour and day, the need to claim his own lands and make his place forced him forwards, like a hunger in his belly for a meal he could not or should not eat.
With every passing day, the gnawing fear that this dream would be snatched away from him grew. Held out like a choice bone to a hungry dog, the promise of these charters enticed them to dance to the king's tune, regardless of the dangers. Soren and his friends were bastards, never meant to inherit or rule over wealth or lands. This opportunity from the king was unheard of and the threat of failure dogged his every step, just as it had Giles and Brice.
No matter now, he told himself for the thousandth time since regaining consciousness and discovering the offer made by Bishop Obert. Soren's dreams and hopes for a life had ended on the battlefield and now he lived only for vengeance. Though he would pursue the king's gift, he had little planned once he actually claimed it.
As he fell asleep on his fifth day of 'handling' Shildon for Brice and the king, the guilt struck him. And the irony as well, for he had the same fate in mind for Alston as Oremund had done hereburn it to the ground and wipe the slate clean so he could make his own mark on it. He wondered if he would feel pity for the get of Durward when they were dead at his hand and whether it would wipe him clean as well.
Sleep claimed him before he could answer his own question.
Soren called out for his men to mount up and then did so himself. He fought to keep the smile from bursting forth on his face, for it would only make him appear more demonic than he was without it. After securing the lands and organising the people left alive, Soren was leaving one of Brice's men in command until Brice decided who would oversee these lands for him.
The thought of riding to the lands that would be his, cleansing it of the vermin now living there and the fighting that would be necessary to accomplish those tasks charged his blood with heat and made his muscles ache to draw his sword. There would be time and opportunity aplenty, so he bided his time now, waiting for his men to fall into line behind him.
His attention was drawn to watching as they formed in their battle-ready lines and he never noticed the small boy approaching from his side. The scrawny child's bleating scream made him turn just before the boy attacked.
Attacked? The boy did indeed have a dagger in his hand and he held it high as he ran towards Soren and his mount. It took little time or effort to stop the attack, for Soren simply leaned over and grabbed the pitiful thing from his feet by the clothes he wore and dangled him above the ground. Due to Soren's long reach and the boy's non-existent one, there was no hope for success or escape.
'What the hell do you do, boy?' he yelled, shaking the boy until he dropped the dagger. Pulling him in closer, Soren pushed his hood back and used the horror of his face to terrify him even more. 'Do you think to kill me?' Once his men realised there was no threat, they laughed at the boy's puny attempt and waited for Soren to handle him.
'You you ' the boy sputtered, swinging his fists even though he could not reach Soren.
'Bastard?' Soren offered in a low voice.
'Aye,' the boy nodded and then spat at him. 'You bastard!'
That insult had stopped hurting some time ago. Soren had discovered the truth of his parentage at about the same age as this boy here and had learned the hard way not to let it goad him into anger or action.
Insults only had power when you let them control you, Lord Gautier's voice expressed a long-forgotten lesson of life.
'As is my king and yours now, boy,' Soren agreed.
His men laughed, having been taunted with the same words themselves since most of them were born out of the bonds of marriage. That was part of why they'd all banded together and why he was at ease with them. No high-born men in his ranks to belittle him. No legitimate sons of nobles served with him, for only Gautier's legitimate son Simon had ever befriended them. Bastards all, with excuses made to no one for it.
Soren dropped the boy onto the ground and waited to see what his next move would be. Strange, the boy was the first one here who did not flinch or wince at the sight of his face.
'What are you called?' he asked.
'I am called Raed,' the boy said as he stood and thrusted out his chin.
'Raed of Shildon, where are your parents?' Soren realised that the name did match the boy's colouring, even though his own did not. The boy glanced away from him, looking instead at the freshly dug graves along the road and nodded.
'I have no mother,' he answered in a low voice. 'My da lays there.'
An orphan. Soren glanced over at Guermont to determine if his men had killed the boy's father. Guermont's slight shake told him that it had been the work of Oremund's men.
'What skills do you claim?' Soren asked. Something about the boy touched him deeply, in a place Soren had not thought existed any longer. This Raed seemed to have about eight years and Soren remembered how strong pride had filled him at that age. The boy shrugged and shook his head.
'Foolish and fearless, then, for attacking an armed knight with but a puny dagger is asking for death.'
As the words escaped, a twinge pierced that place againthe one that recognised the truths one did not wish to know. Raed leaned over and picked up the dagger, shifting it from hand to hand, positioning it much as a warrior would. Clearly, the boy had used it before. In that moment, Soren made a decision that surprised even him and for reasons he could not understand fully.
'Fearless, I can use. Foolish, I can beat out of you,' he said, gruffly. The boy's face paled, but he did not run or turn away. 'I am in need of a squire, I think. Bring him, Larenz.'
The men laughed and Larenz approached the boy, grabbing hold of his shoulder and dragging him to the back of their troop. Not certain why he had just taken on the task of training the boy, Soren raised his hand and gave the signal to ride.
He never caught sight of the boy during the next four days' journey to Alston, but Larenz reported on him each day. Only the night before they reached Alston did the boy show himself and only for a moment before he tucked himself back into the shadows of the camp.
Soren's rest was fitful the night before the battle, as it always waspartly due to facing an unknown outcome and partly due to the thrill of battle. He woke from dozing and walked the camp, speaking to some of the men, yet in reality seeking out the boy he'd taken. He found him, curled in a ball far from the cooling ashes of a fire, shivering in the dawn's chill. Seeing an unused blanket nearby, Soren draped it over the scrawny form and began to walk away, stopped by the quiet whisper of the child.
'And what are you called?' Raed asked.
'Soren,' he said. 'Soren the Damned.'
For no matter what happened on the morrow, no matter the outcome of William's fight against the rebels plaguing his lands, no matter that the blood of his enemy would be spilled, Soren knew his soul was damned to the darkness in which it now lived.
Sybill a, Lady of Alston, stood up straight and moaned as her back spasmed in response to the movement. Pressing her fists into her lower back, she tried to ease the pain caused by leaning over too much and by carrying too many large rocks to the wooden palisade. They must shore up the defences, said Gareth, the commander of those who yet defended her and the keep. So, she helped as much as she could. Lady or not, another pair of hands lightened the work of all and gave her the hope that the wall could be strengthened to protect the keep from the coming invader.
Sybilla accepted a cup of water from the servant girl passing by, tightened the leather ties around her braid and began anew. They had little time to finish this task before the invader king's pawn arrived at their gates.