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Dunswick, Scottish Borders, AD 1157
'God preserve us! They're coming again! Run and save your souls!'
Tavia of Mowerby wheeled around in astonishment as frightened screams broke from the far side of the market square.
'Keep going, Tavia!' Noticing her lack of movement, her father growled at her, the fleshy lines of his face mottled purple in the early morning light. 'We'll not make any coin if the cloth is still in the cart!'
He had woken her before the sun had risen, shaking her shoulder roughly before pulling her up from her wooden pallet, glowering at her as she stirred the embers to life, put on the pot to boil the water. He was never in the best of moods on market day, especially as her mother had been too ill to make the journey into the city this week.
'But...what is happening...?' Tavia's fingers stilled once more on the smooth nap of the material before she caught her father's scowl. She lifted the bolt of cloth hurriedly from the ox-cart on to the trestle table, the brilliant hues of blue, purple and green glowing in the sunshine. She still remained awed by the process that turned the matted coats of their humble collection of sheep into such beautiful cloth. Pulling a length of the roll out across the trestle, she allowed it to fall in gentle pleats in order to show the cloth's drape to the best advantage. Her father nodded grimly at her actions; it was the closest he would come to approval.
Glancing up, high up to the thick stone walls that encircled the city, Tavia could see the soldiers of King Malcolm, resplendent in their green-and-gold surcoats as they fanned out along the walkway, or crouched in the turrets of the gatehouse, arms bent back as they drew their bows. A frisson of fear shot along her veins. Something was not right.
Her father answered the worried look in her wide blue eyes with a brisk shake of his head. 'It's nothing, it'll be another false alarm, just like all the others,' he grumbled. 'Ever since Henry took the English throne, this town has run scared. Bunch of lily-livered mice, the whole lot of them!'
'It's no secret that King Henry wants these lands back...'
'And what would you know of it, girl?' Coughing roughly, Dunstan spat on the greasy cobbles. 'Malcolm has promised that Northumbria will remain in Scottish hands. We have nothing to worry about.'
Tavia eyed the hunched positions of the soldiers between the grey stone battle ments, her eye dropping down to follow the scurrying townspeople as they nipped down alleyways, flicked behind shut doors. Usually at this hour, the marketplace would be crowded with people, merchants and tradesman, eager to do business with the people of Dunswick. Carts would jostle for space, merchants would argue over the best places to sell their wares, and the sound of music and laughter would fill the air. Now all she could hear were warning shouts, shouts renting the tense hush of fear.
Tavia made a determined effort to draw some strength from the waxy solidity of her father's face. At nearly sixteen winters, the young king of Scotland, Malcolm, had done little to inspire his people, people who had been used to the wise and powerful hand of King David. It had fallen to Ferchar, earl of Strathearn and regent to Malcolm, to assure the people that the border lands with England were safe.
An arrow, lit with flame, hissing and spitting, thumped into the pile of woven fabric. 'Sweet Jesu!' Dunstan hauled himself up on the table, grabbing at the arrow with his bare hands. 'Save the fabric!' he bellowed at Tavia. She grabbed at the top layers to pull it into a heap on the ground, watching the beautiful colours shrivel and scorch on the cobbles. What a shame. All her mother's hard work disappear ing in a moment. She caught her father's arm. 'We need to leave, 'tis not safe.'
'Nonsense, I'm not going to pass up an opportunity to make coin, my girl. We need every penny we can get.'
'Aye, but with no custom, 'tis hard to make anything at all.'
Her father's eyes reddened with anger. 'Just watch your lip, maid, or you'll see the side of my hand.'
'At least let me go and see what's happening.'
Dunstan shrugged his shoulders. 'If you must,' he agreed, grudgingly, grunting heavily as he reached down to gather up the ruined, singed fabric from the cobbles.
The smell of burning filled her nostrils as she ran towards the gate house, past town houses where the shutters had been closed. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the thatched roofs on a row of cottages, alight, flaming, thick, charring smoke flowering into the sky. The sturdy leather of the soles of her boots gripped decisively on the slippery cobbles, as she leaped over the street's central ditch stinking with dirty water. At this time of year, as the weather started warming up to summer, the city began to reek with the foul smells of so many people living in one place. How different it was to her family's simple cottage on the hillside, a few miles outside Dunswick. There, she could breathe in the sweet, fresh air, hear the lambs bleating on the fells behind her and drink the sparkling cold water from the stream.
Reaching the walls of the gate house, she placed one hand against the cool stone to catch her breath, leaning over slightly. Shouts above her drew her gaze upwards, and she backed away, panic slicing her innards. Sweet Jesu!
Starkly delineated against the pale blue of the sky, the white frothy cloud, the hulking figures of the enemy could be seen, climbing over the tops of the walls. The red-and-gold surcoats of Henry II, the English king, flashed menacingly as more and more of his men piled over the battlements. Swords clashed, echoing in her ears; men grunted with exertion as they fought for their lives. She jumped backwards, horrified, as a soldier's body landed with a tremendous thump, inches from her feet, blood seeping through the metallic skin of his chain mail as he sprawled across the ground, arms and legs at hideous angles. A dragging weakness invaded her legs, and she swayed slightly, a sick taste in her mouth, before dropping to her knees beside the man, wondering how she could help him, touching the cold metal of his hauberk gingerly.
'Get out of here, maid! 'Tis not safe!' Another soldier jerked her up by her shoulder and shoved her back in the direction of the marketplace. 'Save yourself, maid. It will not be long before they're in here. Save yourself!'
'But this man...' She gestured at the soldier on the ground.
'Was dead before he fell,' the man replied bluntly. 'We're no match for these English devils. Now make haste!'
She ran then, sheer panic forcing her to move her limbs, to head for a place of safety. Too late to run home, the city was surrounded. Her breath came in great gasps as she fled along the narrow city streets, urging her muscles to work harder, faster. No time to warn her father; she just hoped he had managed to hide himself. Too bad her crossbow was still in the cart in which they had travelled to town; she had only thrown it in at the last moment, as another form of protection on their journey. If only she had it with her, then she could find a high spot and pick these barbarians off one by one.
The shouts at her back were gaining on her, intermingled with the distinctive thump of a battering ram on the solid wooden gates. Twisting her head back, she almost screamed out loud at the sight of the red-and-gold garbed soldiers, mounted on huge gleaming destriers, cramming into the other end of the narrow lane. They must have come in from another entrance!
'God have mercy on me!' Tavia whispered, ducking away to the right. Blood pumped uncontrollably behind her ears, in her brain. She bolted down an alleyway, hoping her direction would lead her away from the English, would yield up some place she could hide, could creep into until this nightmare was over.
And then she saw it. Her sanctuary, rising up before her, the one building that no enemy would dare to attack or desecrate with their barbarous ways. The church. Sobbing, half with relief, half with the effort of running so fast, she stumbled up the smooth, level steps, her toe tangling in the long hem of her bliaut. She wrenched the bulk of her gown away, her movements jerky with agitation, and climbed higher. The church would be her salvation. The great door of coarse oak yielded under her slight weight, and she fell into the dark haven, breathing in the heady smells of incense and balsam. Running along the aisle, she fell on her knees at the simple wooden altar and prayed for her life.
Behind her, the door swung back violently on its hinges, the harsh noise bouncing menacingly through the high vaulted spaces of the building. Sweat slicked Tavia's palms as she clasped her hands tightly in prayer, her eyes closed. Every muscle in her body stretched with trepidation, with fear. If she didn't look around, then it wouldn't be real, it would all be a horrible dream.
A boot in her back kicked her prostrate on the altar steps. The pain radiated out from her spine, bruising her delicate skin. Shocked, aghast, scrabbling on her hands and knees, she tried scrambling to her feet, only to be kicked back down again, harder this time. She bit her lip, wanting to cry out at this brutal treatment, not wanting to give them the satisfaction. How dare they treat her so!
Still prone, she twisted her head. Five or six English soldiers stood over her, faces shadowed by metal helmets, the long nose-pieces obscuring their features. The memory of the soldier falling to her feet at the gate house shot through her mind. Rage, boiling rage, rose in her gut. 'How dare you!' she hissed, pushing one flat palm against the stone floor to lever herself up. 'How dare you defile the sanctity of this church!' The soldiers exchanged mock-innocent, wide-eyed looks, and guffawed. One leaned down and grabbed a fistful of her bliaut at her waist. Through the fabric, his knuckles ground into her flesh as her head jerked back with the ferocity of the movement.
'Only if we kill you,' the soldier ground out, the warm stench of his breath wafting over her face. 'And we have no intention of doing that...yet.' He threw her back, her head knocking against the side of the altar. 'Geraint, you first.' He gestured to the younger soldier at the back. 'And make it quick...the rest of us want a piece, too.'
Geraint frowned at the older soldier, his manner hesitant. 'But...le Vallieres said...'
'He'll never know...' the older man snarled back, scratching absentmindedly at a day's growth of beard. 'Don't you think we deserve it?'
Tavia began to shake, her body trembling all over. Her mind jumped and stuttered as she fought to make sense of what was happening. Never before had she felt so completely violated, so vulnerable. As the nominated soldier stepped forward, she forced her brain to think coherently, to think of a way out! Her fingers clung to the side of the altar, a thick, carved oak chest, covered with a linen cloth and, on the top, a heavy silver cross, ornately carved with an intricate filigreed design. As the soldier approached, she propelled her frightened body upwards, making a desperate grab for it. A blade hissed as her fingers curled around the weighty silver, as she swung it round with all her strength, aiming for the soldier's head. He ducked and the cross sailed past the man's helmet, landing with a deafening crash on the flag stones.
'Feisty wench,' a soldier muttered.
'You might need some help with that one!' another teased.
The young soldier grabbed the thick rope of her hair at the back of her neck, yanking her head back. The cold point of his dagger pushed at the delicate skin covering her windpipe.
'We can do this one of two ways, maid.' His narrow face gleamed with runnels of sweat, the filth of battle. 'The easy way or the difficult way. Either way, the outcome will be the same. Your city burns around you, your townspeople have fled. There is no one to save you.'
'I would rather lose my life than lie with the likes of you!' Tavia spat out. But nerves made her voice quaver with fear.
'Enough!' Incensed, the soldier dropped the dagger, jabbing the toe of his boot into the back of one of her knees to send her flying backwards on to the stone. Her head thumped against the floor. Momentarily dazed, she watched as he lifted the hem of his mailcoat, ripping off his leather gauntlets to fumble with the belt of his trousers. Nausea rose in her stomach as she closed her eyes. Was this really to be her fate? To be raped by English soldiers and left for dead?
From the top of his chestnut destrier, Benois le Vallieres surveyed the devastation around him with a dispassionate eye. His men had done their job well. The reeking smell of burning thatch filled the air, air that moments previously had been filled with soldiers' screams and shouts. Now the streets were empty, the townspeople trembling behind their flimsy doors, watching, wondering what the English would do next. Few had been killed in this attack; Henry's intention was merely to frighten the young King Malcolm into some form of discussion about the ownership of these border counties. And, of course, Henry had hired his most trusted mercenary to carry out the mission, and would pay Benois well if the young Scottish king agreed to a meeting.
Benois rolled his huge shoulders forward, trying to ease the tension that pulled along the back of his neck. He couldn't remember the last time he had slept in a soft bed, or laid his head on a linen pillow stuffed with sweet-smelling herbs. At night he slept under canvas, along side Henry's soldiers; his meals were lukewarm and often unpalatable, if there was food at all depend ing on whether the supplies had reached the soldiers. But these hard ships mattered not to him. He relished this relentless way of life: the remorseless pace of the marching; the continual harassing of the northern counties that fired his blood, and drove away those darker thoughts that he tried so desperately to forget.