The three boys came up through the gill behind the chapel, so that they were hidden from the big house and the stables. Tom, the eldest, led them as he always did, but the youngest brother was close on his heels, and when Tom paused where the stream made its first turn above the village he renewed his argument. 'Why do I always have to be the cat? Why can I never join in the fun, Tom?'
'Because you are the littlest,' Tom told him, with lordly authority. He was surveying the tiny hamlet below them, which was now visible in the slot of the ravine. Smoke was rising from the forge in the smithy, and washing flapped in the easterly breeze behind the Widow Evans's cottage, but there was no sign of human life. At this time of day most of the men would be out in his father's fields, for the harvest was in full swing, while those women who were not toiling beside them would be at work in the big house.
Tom grinned with satisfaction and anticipation. 'No one's spotted us.' No one to carry reports back to their father.
'It's not fair.' Dorian was not so easily distracted from his argument. His coppery gold curls spilled down on to his forehead, giving him the look of an angry cherub. 'You never let me do anything.'
'Who let you fly his hawk last week? I did.' Tom rounded on him. 'Who let you fire his musket yesterday? I did. Who let you steer the cutter?'
'Yes, but --'
'But me no buts.' Tom glowered at him. 'Who's the captain of this crew, anyway?'
'You are, Tom.' Dorian dropped his green eyes under the force of his elder brother's stare. 'But, still --'
'You can go with Tom in my place, if you want.' Guy spoke softly for the first time. 'I'll play the cat.'
Tom turned to his younger twin, while Dorian exclaimed, 'Can I, Guy? Will you really?' It was only when he smiled that his full beauty burst out, like sunlight through parting clouds.
'No, he won't!' Tom cut in. 'Dorry's only a baby. He can't come. He'll stay on the roof to keep the cat.'
'I'm not a baby,' Dorian protested furiously. 'I'm nearly eleven.'
'If you're not a baby, show us your ball hairs,' Tom challenged him. Since he had sprouted his own, these had become Tom's yardstick of seniority.
Dorian ignored him, he had not even a pale ginger fluff to match the impressive growth of his elder brother. He went on to another tack. 'I'll just watch, that's all.'
'Yes, you'll watch from the roof.' Tom killed the argument dead in its tracks. 'Come on! We'll be late.' He struck out up the steep ravine.
The other two trailed after him with varying degrees of reluctance. 'Who could come anyway?' Dorian persisted. 'Everybody's busy. Even we should be helping.'
'Black Billy could come,' Tom replied, without looking back. That name silenced even Dorian. Black Billy was the oldest Courtney son. His mother had been an Ethiopian princess whom Sir Hal Courtney had brought back from Africa when he returned from his first voyage to that mystic continent. A royal bride and a shipload of treasure plundered from the Dutch and the pagan, a vast fortune with which their father had more than doubled the acreage of his ancient estate, and in so doing had elevated the family to among the wealthiest in all Devon, rivaling even the Grenvilles.
William Courtney, Black Billy to his younger half-brothers, was almost twenty-four, seven years older than the twins. He was clever, ruthless, handsome, in a dark wolf-like way, and his younger brothers feared and hated him with good reason. The threat of his name made Dorian shiver, and they climbed the last half-mile in silence. At last they left the stream and approached the rim, pausing under the big oak where the hen harrier had nested last spring.
Tom flopped down against the bole of the tree to catch his breath. 'If this wind holds we can go sailing in the morning,' he announced, as he removed his cap and wiped his sweaty forehead with his sleeve. There was a mallard wing feather in his cap, taken from the first bird ever killed by his own falcon.
He looked around him. From here the view encompassed almost half the Courtney estate, fifteen thousand acres of rolling hills and steep valleys, of woodland, pasture and wheatfields that stretched down to the cliffs along the shore, and reached almost to the outskirts of the port. But was ground so familiar that Tom did not linger long on the view. 'I'll go ahead to see if the coast is clear,' he said, and scrambled to his feet. Crouching low, he moved cautiously to the stone wall that surrounded the chapel. Then he lifted his head and peered over.
The chapel had been built by his great-grandfather, Sir Charles, who had won his knighthood in the service of Good Queen Bess. As one of her sea captains he had fought with great distinction against the armada of Philip of Spain. Over a hundred years ago Sir Charles had built the chapel to the glory of God and in commemoration of the fleet action at Calais. He had earned his knighthood there, and many of the Spanish galleons had been driven in flames on to the beach, the rest dispersed to the storms that Vice-Admiral Drake had called the Winds of God.
The chapel was a handsome octagonal building of grey stone, with a tall spire that, on a clear day, could be seen in Plymouth almost fifteen miles distant. Tom vaulted easily over the wall, and sneaked through the apple orchard to the iron-studded oak vestry door. He opened it a crack and listened intently. The silence was impenetrable. He crept inside and went to the door that opened into the nave. As he peeped in, the sunlight through the high stained-glass windows lit the interior like a rainbow. Those above the altar depicted the English fleet locked in battle against the Spaniards, with God the Father looking down approvingly from the clouds as the Spanish galleons burned.
The windows above the main door had been added by Tom's own father. This time the foes who were being battered into submission were the Dutch and the hordes of Islam, while above the battle stood Sir Hal, his sword raised heroically with his Ethiopian princess at his side. Both of them were armoured and on their shields was blazoned the croix patté of the Order of St. George and the Holy Grail.
The nave was empty today. The preparations for Black Billy's wedding, which would take place next Saturday, had not yet begun. Tom had the building to himself. He ran back to the vestry door, and stuck his head out. He put two fingers in his mouth and gave a shrill whistle. Almost immediately his two brothers scrambled over the outer wall and ran to meet him.
'Up to the belfry, Dorry!' Tom ordered, and when it seemed that the redhead might still protest, he took a menacing pace towards him. Dorian scowled but disappeared up the staircase.
'Is she here yet?' Guy asked, with a hint of trepidation in his voice.
'Not yet. It's still early.' Tom crossed the floor and went down the dark stone staircase that led to the underground crypt. When he reached the bottom, he unbuckled the flap of the leather pouch that hung beside the sheathed dagger on his belt. He brought out the heavy iron key that he had removed from his father's study that morning, and unlocked the grille gate, then swung it open on its creaking hinges. He showed no hesitation as he entered the vault where so many of his ancestors lay in their stone sarcophagi. Guy followed him with less confidence. The presence of the dead always made him uneasy. He paused at the entrance to the crypt.
There were high windows at ground level through which glimmered an eerie light, the only illumination. Stone and marble coffins were arranged around the circular walls of the crypt. There were sixteen, all of the Courtneys and their wives since Great-grandfather Charles. Guy looked instinctively to the marble coffin that contained the earthly remains of his own mother, in the centre of the line of his father's three dead wives. There was a carved effigy of her on the lid, and she was beautiful, Guy thought, a pale lily of a girl. He had never known her, never taken suck at her bosom: the three-day labour of giving birth to twins had been too much for such a delicate creature.
She had died of blood loss and exhaustion only hours after Guy had vented his birth cry. The boys had been raised by a series of nurses, and by their stepmother, who had been Dorian's mother.
He crossed to the marble coffin and knelt at the head. He read the inscription in front of him: 'Within this casket lies Margaret Courtney, beloved second wife of Sir Henry Courtney, mother of Thomas and of Guy, who departed this life on the 2nd of May 1677. Safe in the bosom of Christ.' Guy closed his eyes and began to pray.
'She can't hear you,' Tom told him, not unkindly.
'Yes, she can,' Guy replied, without raising his head or opening his eyes.
Tom lost interest and wandered down the row of coffins. To his mother's right lay Dorian's mother, his father's last wife. It was only three years ago that the cutter in which she had been sailing had overturned at the entrance to the bay, and the rip tide had swept her out to sea. Despite her husband's efforts to save her, the current had been too strong and had nearly taken Hal with her. It had cast them both up in a wind-battered cove five miles down the coast, but by then Elizabeth was drowned and Hal nearly so.
Tom felt tears welling up from deep inside of him, for he had loved her as he could not love the mother he had never known. He coughed and brushed his eyes, forcing the tears back before Guy could see his childish weakness. Although Hal had married Elizabeth mainly to provide his orphaned twins with a mother, very soon they had all come to love her, as they loved Dorian from when she had given birth to him. All of them but Black Billy, of course. William Courtney loved nobody but his father, and he was as fiercely jealous of him as a panther. Elizabeth had protected the younger boys from his vindictive attentions, until the sea took her from them and left them defenceless.
'You should never have left us,' Tom told her softly, then glanced guiltily at Guy. But Guy had not heard him, too intent on his prayers, and Tom moved across to the other coffin, which flanked his natural mother. This belonged to Judith, the Ethiopian princess, the mother of Black Billy. The marble effigy on the lid depicted a handsome woman with the fierce, almost hawk-like features that her son had inherited from her. She was in half-armour, as befitted one who had commanded armies against the pagan. There was a sword on her belt, and a shield and helmet rested on her chest, the shield blazoned with a Coptic cross, the symbol of Christ that predated even the ministry of Rome. Her head was bared and the bush of her hair was a dense curling crown. As he looked at her Tom felt the hatred he bore her son rise in his chest. 'The horse should have thrown you before you had a chance to whelp that cub of yours.' This time he spoke aloud.
Guy stood up and came to join him. 'It's ill luck to speak so of the dead,' he cautioned his brother.
Tom shrugged. 'She can't hurt me now.'
Guy took his arm and led him to the next sarcophagus in the row. They both knew it was empty. The lid had not been sealed.
'Sir Francis Courtney born 6th January 1616 in the County of Devon. Knight of the Order of the Garter and of the Order of St. George and the Holy Grail. Navigator and Sailor. Explorer and Warrior. Father of Henry and Valiant Gentleman.' Guy read the inscription aloud. 'Unjustly accused of piracy by the craven Dutch settlers of Cap de Bonne Esperance, and most cruelly executed by them on the 15th July 1668. Although his mortal remains lie on the far and savage African shore, his memory lives forever in the heart of his son, Henry Courtney, and in the hearts of all the brave and faithful seamen who voyaged the Ocean Sea under his command.'
'How can Father set an empty coffin here?' Tom murmured.
'I think perhaps that he intends one day to fetch back Grandfather's body,' Guy answered.
Tom shot him a sharp glance. 'Did he tell you that?' He was jealous that his brother had been told something that he, the elder, had not. All the boys worshipped their father.
'No, he didn't,' admitted Guy, 'but it's what I would do for my father.'
Tom lost interest in the discussion and strode out into the centre of the open floor, which was inlaid with a weird circular design in granites and marbles of many different colours. Brass cauldrons were set at the four points of the circle, which would hold the ancient elements of fire and earth, air and water, when the Temple of the Order of St George and the Holy Grail was convened at the full moon of the summer equinox. Sir Henry Courtney was a Nautonnier Knight of the order, as had been his father and his grandfather before him.
In the centre of the domed roof of the crypt there was an airhole open to the sky above. The building was so cunningly laid out that, through this opening, the rays of the full moon would strike the design on the stone floor under Tom's feet where the cryptic legend of the order was inlaid in black marble: 'In Arcadia hahito.' Neither of the boys had yet learned the deeper meaning of this heraldic device.
Tom stood upon the black Gothic letters, placed his hand over his heart and began to recite the liturgy with which he, too, would one day be inducted into the order. 'These things I believe, and I will defend them with my life. I believe there is but one God in Trinity, the Father eternal, the Son eternal and the Holy Ghost eternal.'
'Amen!' cried Guy softly. They had both studied the catechism of the order assiduously and knew the hundred responses by heart.
'I believe in the communion of the Church of England, and the divine right of its representative on earth, William the Third, King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith.'
'Amen!' Guy repeated. One day they would both be called upon to join this illustrious order, to stand in the light of the full moon and to make these vows in earnest.
'I will uphold the Church of England. I will confront the enemies of my sovereign Lord, William...' Tom went on, in soaring tones that had almost lost any last timbre of childhood. He broke off abruptly as a low whistle issued from the opening in the roof above his head.
'Dorry!' said Guy nervously. 'Someone's coming!' They both stood stock-still, waiting for the second sharply pitched whistle that would signal alarm and danger, but there was no further warning.
'It's her!' Tom grinned at his brother. 'I was afraid she might not come.'
Guy did not share his pleasure. He scratched his neck nervously. 'Tom, I like this not at all.'
'Bollocks to you, Guy Courtney.' His brother laughed at him. 'You'll never know how good it is unless you try it.'
They heard the rustle of cloth, the patter of light feet on the staircase, and a girl burst into the crypt. She stopped in the entrance, breathing quickly, her cheeks flushed brightly from her run up the hill.
'Did anyone see you leave the house, Mary?' Tom demanded.
She shook her head. 'Not a one of them, Master Tom. They was all too busy a-pigging thar broth.' Her voice purred with the local brogue, but its tone was light and pleasing. She was a well-set-up lass, with a full bow and stern, older than the twins so probably closer to twenty than fifteen. However, her skin was flawless and smooth as the famous Devon cream, and a tangle of dark ringlets and curls framed her pretty chubby face. Her lips were pink, soft and moist, but there was a sly slant to her bright, knowing eyes.
'Are you sure, Mary, that Master Billy didn't see you?' Tom asked insistently.
She shook her head so the ringlets danced. 'No. I looked in at the library afore I came, and he had his head in the books like always.' She placed both her small hands on her hips, and although they were rough and red from her work in the scullery, they almost encircled her tiny waist. Both twins' eyes followed the movement and settled on her body. Her full petticoats and ragged skirts reached halfway down her plump calves, and although her feet were bare and grubby, her ankles were slim. She saw their eyes, their expressions, and smiled with a sense of power over them.
She lifted one hand and fiddled with the ribbon that held her bodice closed. Obediently both pairs of eyes followed her hands and she pushed out her breasts so that they strained at the retaining ribbon. 'You said I would ha' sixpence for it,' she reminded Tom, who roused himself.
'That I did, Mary.' He nodded. 'Sixpence for both of us, Guy and me.'
She tossed her head and stuck out her pink tongue at him. 'You're a sly one, Master Tom. 'Twas sixpence each, a shilling for the two, 'twas.'
'Don't be daft, Mary.' He reached into the purse on his belt and brought out a silver coin. He flipped it in the air. It glinted in the soft light as it spun and he caught it on his palm, then held it out for her to inspect. 'A whole silver sixpence, all for yourself.'
Again she shook her head, and pulled loose the bow in the ribbon. 'Shilling,' she repeated, and the front of her bodice opened an inch. Both the boys stared at the sliver of white skin that was revealed: it contrasted startlingly with the sun-browned, freckled shoulders above.
'Shilling, or naught!' She shrugged with feigned indifference. At the movement, the swell of one fat round breast popped half out, leaving just the pointed tip still hidden but with the border of the ruby aureole that encircled her nipple peeping shyly from under the frayed edge of her blouse. Both boys were speechless.
'Mice got your tongue?' she asked saucily. 'Methinks there's naught for me here.' She turned back to the staircase, flouncing her round bottom beneath the skirts.
'Wait!' Tom called, in a strangled voice. 'Shilling it is, then, Mary, my pretty.'
'Show me first, Master Tom!' She looked back over her freckled shoulder as he scratched frantically in his purse.
'Here you are, Mary.' He held out the coin and she came to him slowly, swaying her hips in the way of the girls at the Plymouth docks. She took the coin from his fingers. 'Do you think I'm pretty, Master Tom?'
'You're the prettiest girl in all England,' Tom told her fervently, and meant every word. He reached out for the big round breast, which had now come clear of the bodice. She giggled and struck away his hand.
'What about Master Guy? I'nt he first?' She looked past Tom. 'You never done it afore, have you, Master Guy?'
Guy swallowed hard, but could not find his voice. He dropped his eyes and flushed darkly.
'It's his first time,' Tom affirmed. 'Take him first. I'll go after.'
Mary went to Guy and took his hand. 'Don't be afraid.' She smiled at him with those slanted eyes. 'I'll not hurt you, Master Guy,' she promised, and began to lead him to the far end of the crypt. Guy smelt her as she pressed against him. She had probably not bathed in a month and exuded a powerful odour of the kitchens where she worked, of bacon grease and woodsmoke, the horsy tang of her sweat, the odour of lobster boiling in the pot.
He felt his gorge rise. 'No!' he blurted out, and pulled away from her. 'I won't -- I can't --' He was close to tears. 'You go first, Tom.'
'I got her for you,' Tom told him harshly. 'When you feel it, you'll go daft for it. See if you don't.'
'Please, Tom, don't make me.' Guy's voice shook, and he looked back desperately to the staircase. 'I just want to go home. Father will find out.'
'I've already given her our shilling.' Tom attempted to reason with him. 'You'll just waste it.'
Mary seized his hand again. 'Come along, now!' She tugged at his hand.'There's a good lad. I've had you in my eye, honest I have. You're a fine pretty boykin, that you are!'
'Let Tom go first!' Guy repeated, frantic now.
'Very well, then!' She flounced towards Tom. 'Let Master Tom show you the way. By now he should be able to find it blindfolded -- he's been there often enough.' She grabbed Tom's arm, and dragged him to the nearest coffin, which happened to be that of Sir Charles, the hero of Calais, and leaned back against it.
'Not me only,' she giggled up into his face, 'but Mabel too, and Jill, unless they were both speaking a lie -- and half the girls in the village, I've heard tell. It's a ram and a half you are, Master Tom!' She reached down and tugged at the laces of Tom's breeches. At the same time she stood on tiptoe and fastened her mouth on his. Tom shoved her back against the stone coffin. He was trying to say something to his twin, rolling his eyes in Guy's direction, but he was gagged by her soft wet lips and the long cat-like tongue she was thrusting deep into his mouth.
At last he pulled his face free and gasped for air, then grinned at Guy, his chin wet and shining with the girl's saliva. 'Now I'm going to show you the sweetest thing you ever will lay eyes on if you live a hundred year.'
Mary was still leaning back against the stone coffin. Tom stooped and, with practiced fingers, loosed the drawstrings of her skirt to let the garment billow down and drape around her ankles. She wore nothing under it, and her body was very smooth and white. It looked as though it had been moulded from the finest candlewax. All three looked down at it, the twins in awe and Mary with a smirk of pride. After a long minute of silence, broken only by Tom's ragged breathing, Mary lifted her blouse over her head with both hands, and dropped it on the coffin lid behind her. She turned her head and looked into Guy's face. 'You don't want these?' she said, and took one of her own plump white breasts in each hand. 'No?' she mocked him. He was dumb and shaken. Then she ran her fingers slowly down her creamy body, past the deep pit of her navel. She kicked away her skirt and planted her feet apart, still watching Guy's face. 'You've never seen the likes of this little pussy cat, have you now, Master Guy?' she asked him. The curls rustled crisply under her fingers as she stroked herself He made a choking sound, and she laughed triumphantly.
'Too late now, Master Guy!' she taunted him. 'You had your chance. Now you must wait your turn!'
By this time Tom had dropped his breeches to his ankles. Mary placed her hands on his shoulders and, with a little hop, pulled herself up, clinging to him with both her arms tight around his neck and her legs wrapped around his waist. She wore a necklace of cheap glass beads, which caught between them. The string snapped, the shiny beads cascaded down their bodies and scattered over the stone slabs. Neither seemed to notice.
Guy watched with a strange mixture of horror and fascination as his twin pinned the girl against the stone lid of their grandfather's sarcophagus, thrust and pounded against her, grunting, red-faced, while the girl thrust back at him. She began to make little mewing sounds, which rose higher and louder until she was yelping like a puppy.
Guy wanted to look away, but he could not. He stared in dreadful fascination as his brother threw back his head, opened his mouth wide and let out a dreadful, anguished cry.
She's killed him! Guy thought, and then, What are we going to tell Father? Tom's face was bright red and shining with sweat.
'Tom! Are you all right?' The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them.
Tom turned his head and gave him a contorted grin. 'I've never been better.' He let Mary drop to her feet, and stepped back, leaving her leaning once more against the coffin. 'Now it's your turn,' he panted. 'Give her your sixpennyworth, lad!'
Mary was also breathless, but she laughed unsteadily, 'Gi' me a minute to catch my wind, then I'll take you for a gallop you'll not forget in many a year, Master Guy.'
At that moment a sharp double whistle reverberated down the airhole in the roof of the crypt, and Guy jumped back with alarm and relief. There was no mistaking the urgency of the warning.
'Cats!' he exclaimed. 'It's Dorry on the roof. Somebody's coming.'
Tom hopped on one foot, then on the other as he jerked up his breeches and hauled at the laces. 'Get you gone, Mary,' he snapped at the girl. She was scrabbling about on hands and knees, trying to gather up the fallen beads.
'Leave those!' Tom told her, but she ignored him. Her naked buttocks were marked with pink where they had caught the edge of the coffin -- he could almost make out his grandfather's inscription imprinted on the white skin, and he felt a ridiculous urge to laugh. Instead he grabbed Guy by the shoulder. 'Come on! It might be Father!' That thought put wings on their feet and they flew up the stairs, jostling each other in their haste.
As they tumbled out of the vestry door, they found Dorian waiting for them, hiding in the ivy that covered the wall.
'Who is it, Dorry?' Tom gasped.
'Black Billy!' shrilled Dorian. 'He's just left the stables on Sultan and took the path straight up the hill. He'll be here in a minute.'
Tom gave vent to his most potent oath, learned from Big Daniel Fisher, his father's boatswain. 'He mustn't catch us here. Come on!' The three raced to the stone wall. Tom boosted Dorian over it, then he and Guy sprang over and pulled their younger brother down into the grass.
'Quiet! Both of you!' Tom was snorting with laughter and excitement.
'What happened?' Dorian piped up. 'I saw Mary go in. Did you do it with her, Guy?'
'You don't even know what it is.' Guy tried to avoid the question.
'I do know what it is,' Dorian told him indignantly. 'I've seen the rams at it, and the dogs and the cocks, and Hercules the bull, like this.' He rose on all fours and gave a lurid imitation, bucking and pumping his hips, sticking his tongue out of the corner of his mouth, and rolling his eyes horribly. 'Is this what you did to Mary, Guy?'
Guy flushed furiously. 'Stop that, Dorian Courtney! Do you hear me?' But Tom gave a delighted guffaw and pushed Dorian's face into the grass. 'You dirty little monkey. I bet a guinea you'd be better at it than Guy, hairs or no hairs.'
'Will you let me try next time, Tom?' Dorian pleaded, his voice muffled -- his face was still buried in the turf.
'I'll let you try, when you've got a bit more to try with,' Tom said, and let him sit up, but at that moment they all heard the hoofbeats coming up the hill.
'Quiet!' Tom said, through his giggles, and they lay behind the wall in a row, trying to control their breathing and their mirth. They heard the horseman approach at a canter and rein down to a walk as he reached the gravelled area in front of the main doors of the chapel.
'Keep down!' Tom whispered to his brothers, but he pulled off the feathered cap and raised his head cautiously to peer over the top of the wall.
William Courtney sat up on Sultan. He was a superb horseman: the art had come to him naturally, perhaps some instinct from his African origins. He was slim and tall, and as usual dressed all in black. This, apart from his skin and hair pigmentation, was why his half-brothers had given him the nickname he hated so vehemently. Although today he was bare-headed, he usually wore a wide-brimmed black hat decorated with a bunch of ostrich feathers. His high boots were black; his saddle and bridle were black. Sultan was a black stallion, groomed until he shone in the pale sunlight. Horse and rider were magnificent.
It was obvious that he'd come to check the arrangements for his impending marriage. The nuptials were to be held here rather than in the bride's home chapel, for other important ceremonies were to follow. These could only be held in the chapel of the Nautonnier Knights.
He stopped at the front door of the chapel and stooped low in the saddle to peer inside, then straightened and rode slowly around the side of the building to the vestry door. He looked about carefully then stared straight at Tom. Tom froze. He and the other boys were supposed to be down at the river mouth, helping Simon and his crew with the salmon nets. The itinerant labourers, whom William hired for the harvest, were fed almost entirely on salmon. It was cheap and plentiful, but they protested at this monotonous diet.
The apple-tree boughs must have concealed Tom from his brother's keen gaze for William dismounted and hitched Sultan to the iron ring beside the door. He was betrothed to the middle Grenville daughter. It was to be a splendid marriage, and their father had haggled for almost a year with John Grenville, the Earl of Exeter, to agree the dowry.
Black Billy's in a lather to get at her, Tom thought derisively, as he watched his brother pause on the chapel steps to slap the dust from his glistening black boots with the heavy lead-weighted riding-crop he always carried. Before he entered the chapel William glanced in Tom's direction once more. His skin was not black at all, but light amber in colour. He looked more Mediterranean than African, Spanish or Italian, perhaps. However, his hair was jet black, dense and shining, scraped back sleekly from his face and secured in a pigtail with a black ribbon plaited into it. He was handsome, in a formidable, dangerous fashion, with that thin, straight Ethiopian nose and the flashing dark eyes of a predator. Tom was envious of how most young women became flustered and fluttery in his presence.
William disappeared into the vestry and Tom rose to his feet. He whispered to his brothers, 'He's gone! Come on! We'll go back --' But before he could finish there was a scream from the chapel.
'Mary!' exclaimed Tom. 'I thought she had run, but the little dilly is still in there!'
'Black Billy has caught her,' gasped Guy.
'Now there'll be trouble!' said Dorian gleefully, and leaped up to get a better view of the excitement. 'What do you think he'll do.'
'I don't know,' said Tom, 'and we aren't waiting to find out.'
Before he could lead them in a precipitous retreat down the gill, Mary burst out of the vestry door. Even at that distance her terror was obvious. She ran as though pursued by a pack of wolves. A moment later William charged out into the sunlight, following the fleeing girl. 'Come back, you little slut!' His voice carried clearly to where they still crouched behind the wall. But Mary snatched up her skirts and ran all the harder. She was heading straight towards the wall where the boys were hiding.
Behind her, William freed Sultan's reins and swung up easily into the saddle. He sent the stallion after her at a full gallop. Horse and rider overhauled the running girl swiftly. 'Stop where you are, you dirty little whore. You've been up to no good.' William leaned over with the heavy riding-crop in his right hand as he caught up with her. 'You're going to tell me what you're doing here,' He slashed at her, but Mary dodged away. He wheeled the stallion to follow her. 'You aren't going to escape me, bitch.' He was smiling, a cruel, cold smile.
'Please, Master William,' Mary shrieked, but he swung the crop again. It hissed in the air and she ducked under its arc with the agility of a hunted animal. Now she was running back towards the chapel, ducking through the apple trees, with William after her.
'Come on!' whispered Guy. 'Now's our chance.' He sprang up and tumbled down the steep side of the gill, Dorian behind him, but Tom still crouched by the wall. He watched in horror as his brother caught the running girl again and rose in the stirrups over her.
'I'll teach you to listen when I tell you to stop.' He lashed at her again, and this time the crop caught her between the shoulder-blades. Mary screamed at a higher pitch, a cry of agony and terror, and collapsed into the grass.
The sound of that shriek chilled Tom's spine and set his teeth on edge. 'Don't do that!' he said aloud, but William did not hear.
He stepped down out of the stirrups and stood over Mary. 'What mischief were you up to, drab?' She had fallen all in a welter of skirts and bare legs and he hit her again, aiming for her terrified white face, but Mary threw up an arm and took the lash across it. It raised a bright scarlet weal and she blubbered and writhed at the pain. 'Please don't hurt me, Master William.'
'I'm going to beat you until you bleed, and until you tell me what you were doing in the chapel when you should be in the scullery with your greasy pots and pans.' William was smiling easily, enjoying himself
'I didn't do no harm, sir.' Mary lowered her hands to plead with him, and could not lift them again fast enough to meet the next blow that caught her full in the face. She howled and the blood rushed into her swollen check to colour it flaming scarlet. 'Please. Please don't hurt me any more.' She buried her injured face in her hands and rolled over in the grass trying to get away from him, but her skirt was rucked up under her.
William smiled again as he saw that she was naked beneath it and his next blow was delivered with relish across the soft white skin of her buttocks. 'What were you stealing, bitch? What were you doing in there?' He hit her again, and left a scarlet weal across the back of her thighs- Her scream struck Tom just as cruelly as the crop had sliced into her flesh.
'Leave her, damn you, Billy,' he blurted out, struck by an overpowering sense of responsibility and pity for the tortured girl. Before he had even thought about what he was doing he was over the wall and racing to Mary's rescue.
William did not hear him coming. He was absorbed in the sharp, unexpected pleasure he was experiencing from punishing this little slut. The sight of the scarlet lines on her white skin, her flailing, naked limbs, her wild shrieks, the unwashed animal smell of her all roused him keenly. 'What were you up to?' he roared. 'Are you going to tell me, or shall I beat it out of you?' He could hardly restrain his laughter as he laid a vivid scarlet stripe across her bare shoulders and watched the muscles beneath the soft skin spasm in agony.
Tom crashed into him from behind. He was a strapping lad for his age, not much shorter in height or less in weight than his older brother, and he was strengthened by his outrage and his hatred, by the injustice and cruelty of what he had watched, and by the memory of a thousand hurts and insult he and his brothers had suffered at Black Billy's hands. And he had the advantage this time of complete surprise.
He struck William in the small of the back, just as he was balanced on one leg, in the act of kicking the girl into a better position to receive the next blow from the riding-crop. He was flung forward with such force that he tripped over his victim and went sprawling, rolled over once and crashed head first into the bole of one of the apple trees. He lay there stunned
Tom bent down and yanked the trembling, blubbering girl to her feet. 'Run!' he told her. 'As fast as you can!' He gave her a push. Mary needed no urging. She went off down the path, still weeping and howling, and Tom turned back to face the wrath of his brother.
William sat up in the grass. He was not yet certain who or what had knocked him down. He touched his scalp, pushing two fingers into the dark wavy hair, and brought them out smeared with blood from the small cut where he had hit the tree. Then he shook his head and stood up. He looked at Tom. 'You!' he said softly, almost pleasantly. 'I should have known you'd be at the bottom of this devilry.'
'She's done nothing.' Tom was still too buoyed up by his anger to regret his impulse. 'You might have wounded her sorely.'
'Yes,' William agreed. 'That was my purpose. She deserved it well enough.' He stooped and picked up the crop. 'But now she's gone, it's you I shall wound sorely, and take the deepest pleasure in doing my duty.'
He cut left and right with the weighted crop, which made a menacing hum in the air. 'Now tell me, little brother, what it was that you and that little whore were playing at? Was it something foul and dirty that our father should know about? Tell me now, before I have to whip it out of you.'
'I'll see you in hell first.' This was one of their father's favourite expressions, but despite his defiance Tom was bitterly regretting the chivalrous impulse that had propelled him into this confrontation. Now that he had lost the element of surprise he knew himself hopelessly out-matched. His elder brother's skills were not confined to his books. At Cambridge he had wrestled for King's College, and all-in wrestling was a sport without rules, except that the use of deadly weapons was frowned upon. At the fair in Exmouth last spring Tom had seen William throw and pin the local champion, a great ox of a man, after kicking and punching him half out of his mind.
He considered turning and running. But he knew that on those long legs, even wearing riding-boots, William would catch him within a hundred yards. There was nothing for it. He took his stance and raised both fists, the way Big Daniel had taught him.
William laughed in his face. 'By Peter and all the saints, the little cockerel wants to make a fight of it.' He dropped the riding-crop, but let his hands hang at his sides as he moved forward lazily. Suddenly he shot out his right fist. He had given no warning of the blow, and Tom only just managed to jump back. However, the fist grazed his lip, which swelled and immediately leaked the salty slick taste of blood into his mouth. His teeth were stained as though he had been eating raspberries.
'There we go! The first drop of claret spilt. There will be more, I warrant you, a cask of it before we're finished with this business.' William feinted with the right again, and when Tom ducked away he hooked at his head with the other hand. Tom blocked, as Big Daniel had shown him. William grinned. 'The monkey has learned a few tricks.' But his eyes narrowed: he had not expected that. He fired the same fist again, and Tom ducked under it then seized his brother's arm at the elbow in a desperate two-hand grip. Instinctively William pulled back, and Tom used the momentum to spring forward instead of resisting and, at the same time, to kick out wildly. Again he caught the other off balance, and one of his flying kicks landed squarely in his crotch. The breath went out of William in a whoof of pain, and he doubled over to clutch his injured parts with both hands. Tom swirled round and ran off down the path towards the house.
Although his dark features were still contorted with pain, when he saw the younger boy go, William straightened, forced himself to ignore the pain and launched himself after him. He was hampered by his injury, but even so he bore down inexorably on the fleeing Tom.
When Tom heard the racing footfalls coming up on him, he glanced over his shoulder and lost a yard. He could hear his brother grunting, and imagined he could feel his breath on the back of his neck. There was no escape, he could not run away from him. Instead he dropped to the ground and rolled himself into a ball.
William was so close, and coming on so fast, that he could not stop. The only way he could avoid Tom was to jump over him. He cleared him easily, but Tom rolled on to his back in the middle of the muddy path, and reached up to grab William's ankle while he was in mid-air. He held on with the strength of terror, and the man crashed down in the path on his face. For that instant he was helpless, and Tom scrambled to his feet, was on the point of racing away again, when his anger and hatred took over from his good sense.
He saw Black Billy sprawling in the mud. The temptation was too much for him to resist: for the very first time in his life his elder brother was at his mercy. Tom pulled back his right leg and took a full swing of the boot. He caught William in the side of the head just in front of his ear, but the result was not what he had expected. Instead of collapsing, William let out a roar of rage and clutched at Tom's leg with both hands. With a heave, he flung the boy into the bracken beside the path then hauled himself to his feet and launched himself at Tom before he could recover.
He straddled his younger brother's chest, then leaned forward to pin his wrists to the ground above his head. Tom could not move, and could hardly breathe as William's full weight crushed his ribs. William was still gasping and wheezing, but slowly his breathing eased, and he began to smile again, a twisted, painful smile.
'You're going to pay for your fun, puppy. You're going to pay in a heavy coin, that I promise you,' he whispered. 'Just let me get my breath back and then we'll finish this business.' The sweat dripped from his chin onto Tom's upturned face.
'I hate you!' Tom hissed up at him. 'We hate you. My brothers, everybody who works here, everybody who knows you -- we all hate you!'
Abruptly William released his grip on one of Tom's wrists and slashed him across the face with a vicious back-handed blow. 'For all these years I've been trying to teach you manners,' he said softly, 'and you never learn.'
Tom's eyes filled with tears of pain, but he still managed to gather a mouthful of saliva and spit it at the swarthy face above him. It splattered across William's chin, but he ignored it. 'I'll get you, Black Billy!' Tom promised, in a painful whisper. 'One day I'll get you.'
'No.' William shook his head. 'I think not.' He smiled, 'Have you not heard of the law of primogeniture little monkey?' He landed another fullblooded, open-handed blow against the side of Tom's head. The boy's eyes glazed, and blood appeared below one nostril. 'Answer me, brother.' William swung back with the other hand, knocking Tom's head across. 'Do you know what it means?' He hit him again, right-handed. 'Answer me, my little beauty.'
The next swing was left-handed, then right-handed again, and the blows settled into a rhythm. Slam, with the right. Slam, with the left. Tom's head rolled loosely from side to side. He was swiftly losing consciousness, and the succession of blows never let up.
'Primogeniture --' Slam! '--Is the --' Slam! '-- right --' Slam! '-- of the --' Slam! '-- first born.' Slam!
The next blow came from behind Black Billy's back. Dorian had followed them down the path and had seen what was happening to his favourite sibling. The blows raining down on Tom hurt Dorian just as painfully. He looked around desperately for a weapon. There was a thick accumulation of fallen branches along the edge of the path. He picked up a dry stick as thick as his wrist and as long as his arm and crept up behind William. He had the good sense to give no warning of what he was about to do, just quietly lifted the branch with both hands high above his head. He paused to take aim, gather all his strength, then brought down the branch on top of William's head with such force that the stick snapped in his hands.
William's hands flew to his pate and he rolled off Tom's chest. He looked up at Dorian, and let out a bellow. 'The whole stinking litter!' He came to his feet, and swayed unsteadily. 'Even the youngest cur.'
'You just leave my brother be,' Dorian threatened, white-faced with terror.
'Run, Dorry!' Tom croaked dazedly, from where he lay in the bracken, without the strength to sit up. 'He'll kill you. Run!'
But Dorian stood his ground. 'You leave him alone,' he said.
William took a step towards him. 'You know, Dorry, that your mother was a whore.' He smiled, soothingly, and took another step forward, dropping his hands from his injured head. 'That makes you the son of a whore.'
Dorian was not certain what a whore was, but he answered furiously, 'You are not to speak of my mama like that.' Despite himself he took a pace backwards, as William advanced menacingly upon him.
'Mama's baby,' William mocked him. 'Well, your whore mama is dead, baby.'
Tears flooded Dorian's eyes. 'Don't say that! I hate you, William Courtney.'
'You, too, must learn some manners, Baby Dorry.' William's hands shot out and locked around the child's neck. He lifted Dorian easily into the air, kicking, clawing.
'Manners maketh man,' William said, and pinned him against the trunk of the copper beech under which they stood. 'You must learn, Dorry.' He pressed carefully on the child's windpipe with both fingers, staring into his face, watching it swell and turn purple. Dorian's heels kicked helplessly against the tree trunk, and he scratched at William's hands, leaving red lines on his skin, but he made no sound.
'A nest of vipers,' said William. 'That's what you are, asps and vipers. I'll have to clean you out.'
Tom heaved himself out of the bracken and crawled to where his elder brother stood. He clutched at his legs. 'Please, Billy! I'm sorry. Hit me. Leave Dorry alone. Please, don't hurt him. He didn't mean anything.'
William kicked him away, still holding the child against the tree. Dorry's feet were dancing two feet above the ground.
'Respect, Dorry, you must learn respect.' He relaxed the pressure of his thumbs and allowed his victim to draw a single breath, then clamped down again. Dorian's silent struggles became frantic.
'Take me!' pleaded Tom. 'Leave Dorry alone. He's had enough.' Tom pulled himself to his feet, using the tree trunk to support himself. He tugged at William's sleeve.
'You spat in my face,' William said grimly, 'and this little viper tried to brain me. Now you may watch him choke.'
'William!' Another voice, rough with outrage, cut in from close at his side. 'What in the name of the devil do you think you're playing at?' A heavy blow fell across William's outstretched arms. He let the child drop to the muddy earth and whirled to face his father.
Hal Courtney had used his scabbard to strike his eldest son's hands off the child, and now it seemed he might use it to knock William off his feet.
'Are you mad? What are you doing to Dorian?' he asked, his voice shaking with rage.
'He had to be -- it was only a game, Father. We were playing.' William's own rage had miraculously evaporated, and he seemed chastened. 'He has taken no harm. It was all in good part.'
'You have half murdered the lad,' Hal snarled, then went down on one knee to pick his youngest son out of the mud. He held him tenderly against his chest. Dorian buried his face against his father's neck and sobbed, coughed and choked for air. There were livid scarlet fingermarks on the soft skin of his throat, and tears were smeared across his face. Hal Courtney glared at William. 'This is not the first time we have spoken about rough treatment of the younger ones. By God, William, we will discuss this further, after dinner, this evening in the library. Now get you out of my sight, before I lose control of myself.'
'Yes, sir,' William said humbly, and started back up the path to the chapel. As he left, though, he shot Tom a look that left no doubt in the boy's mind that the matter was far from settled.
'What happened to you, Tom?' Hat turned back to him.
'Nothing, Father,' he replied staunchly. 'It's nothing.' He wiped his bloody nose on his sleeve. It would have been a violation of his own code to carry tales, even of such a hated adversary as Black Billy.
'Then what happened to make your nose bleed and your face swell and turn red as a ripe apple?' Hal's voice was gruff but gentle: he was testing the lad.
'I fell,' Tom said.
'I know that sometimes you're a clumsy clod, Tom, but are you sure someone didn't push you?'
'If I did, then it's between him and me, sir.' Tom pulled himself up to his full height to disguise his aches and injuries.
Hal placed an arm around his shoulder. With the other he clasped Dorian to his chest. 'Come, boys, we'll go home now.' He took the pair down to where he had left his horse at the edge of the woods, and lifted Dorian up onto its neck in front of the saddle before he swung up behind him. He slipped his feet into the stirrups then reached down to take Tom by the arm and haul him up behind,
Tom placed both arms around his father's waist and pressed his swollen, bruised face into the small of his back. He loved the warmth and smell of his father's body, the hardness and strength of him. It made him feel safe from all harm. He wanted to cry but he forced back the tears. 'You're not a child,' he said to himself. 'Dorry can cry, but you can't.'
'Where is Guy?' his father asked, without looking around.
Tom almost said, -He ran away,' but he stopped the disloyal words before they were spoken. 'He went home, I think, sir.'
Hal rode on in silence, feeling the two warm bodies pressed gratefully against him, and hurting for them as he knew they were hurt. Yet he felt a sense of angry helplessness. This was far from the first time he had been sucked into this primeval conflict of siblings, the children of his three wives. He knew it was a competition in which the odds were heavily loaded against the youngest, and from which there could be only one possible outcome.
He scowled in frustration. Hat Courtney was not yet forty-two -- William had been born when he was only eighteen -- yet he felt old and weighed down with care when he confronted the turmoil of his four sons. The problem was that he loved William as much, if not more, than even little Dorian.
William was his first-born, the son of his Judith, that fierce, beautiful warrior-maid of Africa, whom he had loved with deep awe and passion. When she had died under the flying hoofs of her own wild steed she had left an aching void in his existence. For many years there had been nothing to fill the gap except the beautiful infant she had left behind.
Hal had reared William, had taught him to be tough and resilient, clever and resourceful. He was all those things now, and more. And in him there was something of the wildness and cruelty of that dark, mysterious continent that nothing could tame. Hal feared that and yet, in all truth, he would not have had it any other way. Hal himself was a hard, ruthless man, so how should he resent those qualities in his own first-born son?
'Father, what does primogenital mean?' Tom asked suddenly, his voice muffled by Hal's cloak.
He was so in step with Hal's own thoughts that his father started. 'Where did you learn that?' he asked.
'I heard it somewhere,' Tom mumbled. 'I forget where.' Hal could guess very well where it had been but he did not press the boy, who had been hurt enough for one day. Instead he tried to answer the question fairly, for Tom was old enough now. It was high time that he began to learn what hardships life held in store for him as a younger brother.
'You mean primogeniture, Tom. It means the right of the first-born.'
'Billy,' said Tom softly.
'Yes. Billy,' Hal agreed frankly. 'In accordance with the law of England, he follows directly in my footsteps. He takes precedence over all his younger brothers.'
'Us,' said Tom, with a touch of bitterness.
'Yes, you,' Hal agreed. 'When I am gone, everything is his.'
'When you are dead, you mean,' Dorian bored in, with indisputable logic.
'That's right, Dorry, when I am dead.'
'I don't want you to die,' Dorian wailed, his voice still hoarse from the damage to his throat. 'Promise me you won't ever die, Father.'
'I wish I could, lad, but I can't. We're all going to die one day.'
Dorian was silent for a moment. 'But not tomorrow?'
Hal chuckled softly. 'Not tomorrow. Not for many a long day, if I can help it. But one day it will happen. It always does.' He forestalled the next question. And when it does, Billy will be Sir William,' Tom said. 'That's what you're trying to tell us.'
'Yes. William will have the baronetcy, but that's not all. He will have everything else as well.'
'Everything? I don't understand,' said Tom, lifting his head from his father's back. 'Do you mean High Weald? The house and the land?'
'Yes. It will all belong to Billy. The estate, the land, the house, the money.'
'That not fair,' Dorian expostulated. 'Why can't Tom and Guy not have some? They're much nicer than Billy. It's not fair.'
'Perhaps it isn't fair, but that's the law of England.'
'It isn't fair,' Dorian persisted. 'Billy's cruel and horrible.'
'If you go through life expecting it to be fair, then you will have many sad disappointments, my boy,' Hal said softly, and hugged his baby. I wish I could make it different for you, he thought.
'When you're dead, Billy won't let us stay here at High Weald. He'll send us away.'
'You can't be sure of that,' Hal protested.
'Yes, I can,' Tom said, with conviction. 'He told me so, and he meant it.'
'You'll make your own way, Tom. That's why you have to be clever and tough. That's why I'm hard on you sometimes, harder than I ever was on William. You must learn to fend for yourselves after I am gone.' He paused. Could he explain this to them, when they were still so young? He had to try. He owed them that. 'The law of primogeniture has served to make England great. If every time somebody died his land was split between his surviving children, then soon the whole country would be divided into tiny, useless parcels, unable to feed a single family, and we would become a nation of peasants and paupers.'
'So what will we do?' Tom asked. 'Those of us who are driven out.'
'The army, the navy and the Church are open to you. You might go out into the world as traders or colonists and come back from its far corners, from the ends of the oceans, with treasures and wealth even greater than William will inherit when I die.'
They thought about that in silence for a long while. 'I'll be a sailor, like you, Father, I'll sail to the ends of the oceans, like you did,' said Tom, at last.
'And I will go with you, Tom,' said Dorian.
Copyright © 1999 by Wilbur Smith