The priests said in hushed tones that Hell was fire and brimstone and never ending torment for those who did not confess their every sin. Lord Edward Chandler of Aubregate supposed it easily could be the other way around. Hell could be ceaseless rain, a cold dampness that settled into one’s bones and an endless sea of mud up to one’s ankles that made every step a battle.
That particular version of Hell lay all around him. Edward removed his helm and sat it before him upon the saddle, pushed back his coif and yanked his gauntlet off with his teeth before he rubbed his hand through his close cropped gray tinged hair. His hair in his youth had been a fiery red which led to his being called the Flaming Sword in battle, much to his amusement. Now his hair, just like the world, was faded and gray.
Edward felt each one of his years. His arms and shoulders ached from an acute overuse of his sword and shield. His head pounded from the dispensation of his many prisoners. His back reminded him that he had spent far too many hours in the saddle. He wanted nothing more than a bath, a meal, and a bed, all of it to be had in exactly that order as he had no desire to eat or sleep covered in sweat, blood and dirt.
Somewhere among the mud and the muck and the mess before him was King Henry. His liege’s messenger had requested his presence posthaste after the recent battle. Edward just wanted to go home. He had been too long on the King’s business and he sorely missed the peace and tranquility of Aubregate, the lands he called his own. He longed to see the face of his beloved wife, Arden. Once he saw her he knew he would no longer see the many faces of the men he’d killed. Once he heard the childish laughter of his darling daughter, Eliane, his ears would no longer ring with the cries of battle. Once he was home, the smell of fresh grass and deep wood would cleanse the putrid smells of death, decay and rot from his nostrils. He longed for the hidden magic of the land that came to him through Arden to cleanse his soul. He needed it as if it were the air he breathed or the water he drank. It was a part of him, a part that was too long missing from his life.
“Please God, let him release me,” Edward said in a quick prayer as he tried to decide his best course to find the king. His prospects were dim at best. The sight of a wagon buried up to its axle in the mud did nothing to encourage him.
Edward turned to his squire, Peter. The boy’s face was pale and there were great circles beneath his brown eyes. He was exhausted and at fourteen, much too young to have been bloodied. Yet given the alternative, he came through it well enough. He was alive and he was whole which was more that could be said for many who had broken their fast with them this morning
“It seems that someone had the forethought to create a bridge,” Peter pointed to the left. The boy’s eyes were as sharp as his mind. Edward had no reason to doubt him as his eyes followed his line and saw a neat bit of engineering. A large oak had been felled and split, the two halves laid side by side over a ditch that most likely at one time held running water. Now it was a morass of mud and waste, both animal and human from the smell that assaulted his nostrils as they rode in that direction. It also contained the wreckage of war machines. The debris was so thick that it was not beyond reasoning that bodies could be present beneath. If it were in fact true then they faced the prospect of the outbreak of disease. Surely someone would see to the cleansing of this area.
“Please God, let that task pass me by,” he muttered. He would do his duty if asked, but he was most anxious to be home. It chaffed at him more of late, as if there was some urgent need he should attend too.It was way past the time to leave this place. Edward pulled a linen scarf from beneath his hauberk and held it across the lower half of his face as his well seasoned destrier Hector, delicately picked his way amongst the scattered remnants of discarded weaponry and armor to the bridge.
It was a busy place. Men and boys scurried back and forth bearing messages and supplies from one side to the other. In the distance he saw the standards of the king weakly fluttering in the puny breeze. Gray clouds hung heavily above, holding with them the promise of more rain.
“Tell Cedric to bring my things across,” Edward instructed Peter as they waited for the bridge to clear. “And please pray that we can set up in as dry a place as he can find if any such place still exists in this world.” He trusted Peter and Cedric, his manservant, to do just so. His young squire was smart enough to impart the things Edward need not say and Cedric wise enough to do what needed to be done.
Without a word Peter turned his horse to make his way back to where Edward’s troops waited for their orders. The men at arms would have to find their own place as Edward was certain the area around the king was full of those whose rank declared such privilege. Edward was assured of a place close by, not that he wanted it. But duty and honor required that he take it no matter what his personal feelings on the matter.
Two young squires stood in line awaiting their turn in front of him. His rank was such that he could delay them for his own crossing, no matter who they served. The colors beneath the dirt on their tunics indicated they served Lord Allan Barclay. Edward knew the man well enough to know that his talents were more inclined towards fighting than diplomacy. Edward recalled his wife, the Lady Giselle, who was of a most sweet nature and pleasant company to sit next to at the infrequent court dinners he was forced, by necessity, to attend. In sharp contrast to his wife, Allan was quite a bore, unless one was inclined to talk endlessly about the proper way to hold a lance during a joust and which way you should strike at a man in battle. A boy who was anxious to learn such things could do much worse than to squire for Lord Allan.
Edward decided to let the two squires go on their way. The largest of the pair who was the same size and near the age of Peter, turned and gave him a sullen look. Edward was surprised to recognize the face of Ragnor Vannoy, who held an estate on the other side of the wood that bordered his. Vannoy was not one he would not call a friend or ally under any circumstances. The resemblance was so striking that Edward surmised the boy must be the son, Renauld.
Renauld wore a surly expression on his face and held a small chest in his arms. Edward made no indication that he knew who he was and the boy responded in kind. Instead Renauld snapped at his companion, a dark haired child of eight or nine, who stood precariously beneath the weight of several pieces of armor. He seemed a bit young to be a squire but sometimes circumstances sent them off at a young age.
“You better not drop it,” he snapped. “I will make sure Lord Allan beats you if you do.”The smaller boy did not respond, instead he hoisted his load up more securely and raised his chin.
Good spirit, that one. Here’s hoping that Ragnor’s get will not bully him to his death.
The way became clear and the two before him took their turn. Edward made to follow and urged Hector forward. The horse tossed his head and his huge hooves made a thunking noise as they hit the green wood of the makeshift bridge. At that moment a man stepped on from the other side and declared to those waiting that he was on urgent King’s business. The man hustled across and Edward quickly backed Hector off as there was no way the man could pass by the wide girth of his war horse.
The two squires stopped in their tracks to allow the messenger to pass. Edward frowned at the puffed up importance of the messenger who brushed by as if the boys were causing him a great delay. To his astonishment, Renauld used a well placed elbow to shove the younger boy off the bridge as the messenger passed them. The boy toppled backwards into the ooze below and quickly sunk beneath the weight of the armor.
“Damn!” The curse rang forth from his mouth without thought as Renauld looked down with an appearance of horror and despair upon his face. Those waiting on both sides stood and watched helplessly. None wished to go into the muck to save a mere boy.
Edward quickly dismounted. He still wore his armor and knew it would weigh him down but he had no choice. The boy must be saved. He waded into the stink and filth that sucked upwards to his thighs. The mass bubbled where the boy went under and Edward stuck his hand down and felt around for anything soft. He came up with a helm and a deep gash on his hand. He cursed at the cut, flung the helm aside and reached down again. This time he came against something soft and yanked the child forth. The mud let go with a sucking sound as he lifted the boy by the cloth of his tunic. The boy’s features were lost beneath the muck that clung to his face like a second skin. Edward turned him over his arm and pounded on his back three times.
The boy gagged and spewed and desperately fought against Edward’s arm as if he was the one holding him under. Edward turned him about and held him before him with both arms. The boy dangled in the air like a puppet but managed to wipe the mess from his eyes and peered at him with eyes as dark as night.
“Than…thank you sir…” he gasped out before his eyes fluttered and closed. Edward shook him and the boy sighed deeply. He was alive. That was enough for the moment. Getting out of the ditch was the next step. He could feel it sucking at his calves as if it were a live thing and he its prisoner.
It appeared that having a Lord of the Realm in the ditch was a much more serious matter than having a mere boy fall in. Suddenly there were helping hands all about. Edward kept the boy balanced on his hip with one arm and allowed two men to pull him forth by grasping onto the other. He scanned the gathered crowd for any sign of Renauld but he was suspiciously missing.
Peter appeared at his side. “Cedric was not that far behind,” he explained as he took a step back from the offensive smell.
“Good,” Edward said. “The first order of business is a bath for both of us.” He looked closely at the cut on his hand. “Find me something to wash this with, and make sure it’s clean.”
“Do we know who he belongs to my Lord?” Peter asked as Edward shifted the boy up into his arms.
“We do,” Edward said. “However circumstances dictate that we keep him for a bit as I feel my saving his life would have been in vain.” He pulled his piece of linen forth to wipe his face and instead pitched it down when he saw it would only make matters worse. “Send word to the King that I am indisposed to meet him at the moment and I humbly beg permission to come as soon as I rid myself of this vile smell.”
Edward had no worry of the King’s response as Peter took off to do his bidding. Peter was the son of one of the King’s closest advisors so he would be well received. As Peter left, Cedric rode up with several men at arms and a wagon holding his supplies. Cedric took one look at his Lord and quickly sprang into action, relieving Edward of his burden in the process.
Within an hour Edward was as clean as he could be under the circumstances, his hand bandaged, and he was enjoying the first meal he’d had since the night before. He did not know how Cedric did it, but bless him; he always managed to find a way to do what Edward thought impossible. Who would have thought that there was a decent place left for him to set up his tent? Much less, someplace that was high enough to have good drainage yet still close enough that he could reach the King in a brisk walk. The coals in the brazier gave off enough warmth that he did not need his cloak and wearing clean clothes felt like a sinful indulgence.
He was a lucky man, luckier than most. He’d survived this day and the days before it, he was clean, he was fed and most gratifying of all, he was dry. He had a feeling the boy lying beneath the furs upon his bed would not wake with the same blessings foremost in his mind.
Edward studied the boy. It was exhaustion that took him, more so than the near death he’d come close too. Shock at his experience could have added to it. From his appearances he was close to starvation also. His bones jutted painfully beneath his skin and his eyes were rimmed with dark circles. A healing bruise marred one cheek, most likely put there by Renauld, if Edward’s memory of the boy served him correctly. If he was anything like his father. Vileness such as what Ragnor possessed tended to expand with each generation.
As if he knew he was the object of attention, the boy stirred slightly, then sat up quickly. His dark eyes blinked owlishly at Edward, then darted about the tent as if looking for an escape route.
“I will not harm you,” Edward assured him.
“Where are my clothes?” the boy asked suspiciously.
“Here,” Edward replied. He tilted his head at a rope that hung over the brazier where several pieces of clothing hung, with the boys things among them. A pair of leather shoes curled on the floor beneath the cheery fireplace. “Do you not have a cloak?”
“No sir,” the boy replied. He pulled the fur around his thin shoulders and clutched it to his chest with long and elegantly tapered fingers. There was good blood running in his veins. It was obvious in the cheekbones and line of his jaw along with his hands.
“Who are you?” Edward asked.
“I am Rhys de Remy of Myrddin sir,” he said. Second Squire to Lord Allan Barclay.”
“Yes, I surmised that much from the colors of your tunic,” Edward said. “Rhys de Remy…” he pondered the name in his mind. “Was your father Roger de Remy? And your mother…”
“Yes sir,” Rhys said quickly. His dark eyes lowered to stare at the furs.
That certainly put an interesting light on the subject. Edward knew the story quite well. The mother was Welsh, one of the daughters of a troublesome Welsh Lord given as a hostage to guarantee his cooperation. Edward had been present for the giving of hostages. He recalled the Lady Branwynn well, even down to the meaning of her name. Fair raven. It suited her. Her skin was porcelain white and her eyes and hair both dark as coal.
It was not surprising when Roger de Remy, who was assigned to be her guardian, as his property had been the most threatened during the skirmishes with the Welsh, became quite enamored with her. Even Edward, with his own marriage well content although childless at the time, was tempted for a brief moment when he first beheld the enchanting and mysterious face of the Lady Branwynn. It was not a secret that the other men in the party, including the past king who was long dead now, felt the same way.
It was soon told that she was expecting Roger’s child. Whether she wanted his attentions or not was ever discussed. What was discussed was the fact that she was tied to the altar during their marriage ceremony. It was also told that immediately after the child was born, she cursed its father before jumping to her death from the battlements of Myrddin. She told the women present at the birth that the babe was to be called Rhys. The naming of the child was such a contradiction to her actions as Rhys meant passion in her native tongue.
After that it was said that Roger went insane with grief due to Branwynn’s parting curse. No matter what the cause, he joined her in death soon after and in much the same manner as the lady. The boy was sent to his mother’s father by his grandmother, the only surviving de Remy. The Welsh Lord was too overcome with grief at his daughter’s death and sent the child back so he would not be reminded of her.
The young Rhys de Remy was the heir to a large estate and would be Lord once he was knighted. What ever was he doing with Lord Allan? He should be in custody of the King until he came of age. Of course the recent uncertainty of who actually was the King could have played a part. It would not have done the boy any good to send him to the wrong court. Edward was one of the few Lords who supported the rightful heir as he owed much to Henry’s mother Matilda.
The rumors of the curse could have followed the boy in any case. Edward looked at him speculatively. If he remembered correctly, the grandmother was very devout. She had wanted to go to a nunnery but as she was the only child of some Lord whose name he could not remember, she was betrothed at an early age to Rhys’s grandfather. Lord Allan was a cousin or some such relation. It was all so complicated and he spent as little time at court as he could get away with yet this tale had managed to spread the width and breadth of the country.
“Where is your grandmother?” Edward asked.
“She went to the nuns sir,” Rhys responded. “As soon as she was rid of me.”
That explained it, Edward surmised. She gave custody to the only living male. It was a good choice. Allan was not greedy and he only had daughters. Mayhap he even had betrothed one to the boy. Still, he should take better care of the child.
Unless…Edward rubbed his chin. The boy had character. He was not one to complain of his lot. He must have learned that early from his grandmother.
“What happened to your cloak? Certainly you had one when you came to be with Lord Allan.”
“Does my Lord have need of it?” Rhys asked.
Edward shook his head. “Nay son. I am well cared for as you can see.” He smiled at the boy. The child had spirit as evidenced earlier when he struggled with his load. “Does Lord Allan beat you?” he asked.
“Only if I deserve it,” he replied.
“Have you deserved it much?”
The boy’s eyes were upon him, clear and steady. “Deserved sir?” he replied. “No.”
Edward had to laugh at that. It spoke volumes about the boy and his situation. Edward had heard many tales of Renauld’s tendencies.
This meal would taste much better if I had someone to share it with,” Edward said, phrasing his words carefully. Even though the years were long gone, he recalled his own years of service and bouts of pride that carried him through. If he asked the boy if he was hungry he would say no because it would reflect poorly upon his Lord to say otherwise. “Please join me.”
Rhys ate with great care for his food and his manners. The boy seemed intelligent yet acted in a reserved manner which was a rare combination and surprising in one so young. If his memory served him correctly the boy could be no more than ten years of age. Now that the boy sat up and the light from the candles shone upon him, Edward saw the resemblance to the mother. He had the same pale skin, the same dark hair and the same fathomless dark eyes. Edward recalled well thinking there were mysteries hiding behind the ladies dark eyes. Mysteries that even he, one who was well seasoned and well married, had been tempted to solve. Mayhap the mother was the one who was cursed.
The boy stopped eating and studied him. “I have yet to thank you for saving my life,” he said solemnly. Such a big statement for one so young. Edward thought it possible that the boy more than likely was never allowed to be simply a child with his grandmother. Instead he was taught piety and responsibility and not allowed the luxury of playing with pretend swords and lurking about the stables as he had been inclined to do as a lad.
“Oh I assure you, you did,” Edward replied. “It was the first and only thing you said when we came out of that mess.”
The boy flushed and Edward regretted reminding him of his faint. But then again, pride would only get you so far when you were in need. Mayhap he should have a word with Allan and remind him that not all boys were created equal. Some learned evil and cruelty at an early age and were not beyond the use of such tactics on those around them. There was no doubt in his mind that Rhys’s lack of food and adequate clothing was because of Renauld’s mistreatment, not Allan’s.
It would also not do any good to further incite Renauld to do mischief to Rhys. Still, Allan must be told of Renauld’s crime. Edward had personally seen the boy’s cruelty years before and had often heard his vassals speak of the things they’d seen. Fortunately, or mayhap unfortunately, none had happened on Edward’s lands that he could prove. Therefore the matter was not one that he could control. Apparently absence from his father had not softened the boy’s heart at all, not that Edward expected it too. Ragnor Vannoy had no thought to anyone but himself and his personal advancement of riches and title and was not one to forgive any slight whether real or imagined. Edward knew that well enough from personal experience. He did not expect the son to be any different.
‘You must have a care to yourself,” Edward instructed the boy. “Even when dealing with those who act without honor.”
The boy looked questioningly at him with his dark eyes. “I would not think to dishonor my name or my Lord should such an occasion arise.” He said it quickly, as if it were something he’d memorized. It was a statement of the grandmother’s teachings.
Edward shook his head. If he were a younger man he’d think of taking the boy on himself. It was rare one came across one with such quick understanding. At his advanced age, Peter would be his last squire. “Nor would I expect you too,” he continued. “What I am saying that there is no dishonor in fighting for your rights. The right to food and shelter as promised to your grandmother by Lord Allan.”
The boy nodded.
“And the right to learn all there is to know about being a knight so that you may protect your own lands if they are ever under attack.”
“Lord Allan instructs me when he has time,” Rhys assured him.How much time Lord Allan had of late was not discussed. Edward knew the man well enough to know that once this war was over and they returned home that Allan would see to his duties. Allan took great pride in his fighting skills and would take it personally if one of his squires did not live up to his reputation.
Peter entered the tent and with a quick bow to Edward informed him. “The king awaits you at your leisure, Milord.”
“Tis good to know Peter,” Edward responded. “Sit and eat.”
“Thank you sir.” Peter wasted no time in reaching for a hefty portion of venison and placing it between two thick slices of crusty bread.
“Sir?” Rhys asked. His voice still held the innocence of childhood in its timbre. Edward could not help but smile indulgently as the boy seemed hesitant to go on with his inquiry. His dark eyes darted towards Peter who had already finished a goblet of watered wine and was in the process of refilling his empty vessel.
“Sir,” the boy continued. “Since you saved my life I would like to serve you as your squire,” he said in a rush. “My grandmother taught me that the scriptures said that you must repay in kind for a deed well done.” His dark eyes were filled with hope as he looked up at Edward.
Peter looked at the boy. “Do you mean an eye for an eye?” he asked. “A life for a life?”
Rhys nodded solemnly. Edward cast a warning eye to Peter. It would not do to injure his pride by having Peter laugh at the boys offer. Peter quickly grabbed his goblet and sucked down his wine as if he were choking.
“So it does,” Edward agreed. “However I am not sure how we can achieve that end, and to be truthful, my days of training squires will come to an end when Peter is knighted in four short years.” He looked pointedly at Peter as if to remind him that his knighting was not necessarily guaranteed. “You have much to learn and it would serve you well to listen and learn from Lord Allan.”
“Yes sir.” The boy’s face remained impassive. But the eyes….the eyes showed his deep disappointment. He had hoped for a way out of his misery. It would serve him well in his later years if he could come through this with an understanding of how the world worked. Edward could only hope that the great depth of character the boy showed now would see him through. “If I can not serve you Milord, how am I to repay you for saving my life?”
Such responsibility for one so young. Was it a good thing or not? There did not seem to be any joy about the boy, if such a thing was even possible in his life. Edward could not brush aside his intent, no matter how impetuous or impractical it seemed.
“Do you know what day this is?” Edward asked.
“Yes sir,” Rhys replied. “Tis the day we took Anjou back for the king.”
Peter smiled into his goblet while Edward managed to keep his face solemn.
“On this day a year hence, and every year here after I want you to write a letter to me, informing me of your progress until such a time comes that you are able to repay your debt to me. I will be sure to let you know when and if I require such payment.”
The boy seemed disappointed but also relieved if that was possible. His dark eyes looked upon Edward without guile. “Thank you milord,” he said. “I will be sure to do so each and every year.”
“Good,” Edward said with a smile. “I look forward to your letters.” He rose then; the king had awaited his leisure long enough. “Peter will see you back to Lord Allan.”
“Yes sir,” Rhys replied.
Peter followed Edward out of the tent. He was lucky in the fact that Peter watched him well enough to realize his Lord wanted a private word with him.
“If the young Lord inside does not have a care to defend himself against the others he will not survive the year,” Edward explained. “See if you can offer him some encouragement in that direction,” he instructed.
“I know of whom you speak sir,” Peter said with a wry grin on his face. “I am certain I can arrange something that will insure that someone will think twice before harming young Master Rhys.”
Edward placed a hand on Peter’s shoulder. His squire showed a promise of great size when he achieved maturity. His shoulders were broad and his limbs long and straight, although his youth still showed in his face and in the softness around his girth. He would do well enough in a fight. “It will not do any good for Rhys to have others fight his battles for him,” Edward instructed. “But I also see no harm in reminding someone what its like to be on the receiving end.”
Peter’s grin widened and his eyes sparked at the prospect. “I will do my best to make sure Rhys is delivered safely sir,” he promised.
Edward nodded. “I just hope we can have the same guarantee of the boy being delivered safely to knighthood.” He ruffled Peter’s hair. “I am off to see to the king’s business,” he said. “Have a care that nothing else disturbs my day.”
“Yes sir.” Peter bowed his way back into the tent with his face still split in a grin.
“One more thing,” Edward said. “Find a cloak for the boy. Surely not all the bodies have been stripped. See if Cedric has one among our supplies. It would not due me any good if the boy froze to death before he can repay his debt to me.”
Peter’s laughter followed him as Edward started off towards the King’s tent. He had not gone far when he was stopped by a familiar face rushing toward him. One he had not seen since he’d left his lands over three years ago.
“Han,” he said to the young huntsman when he came before him and bowed low. “What brings you hence?”
Han swallowed hard. His youthful face was etched with weariness, either from the travel or the news he bore, Edward could not tell. Edward feared it was the latter.
“I bear a message Milord,” Han said. “One that I fear will trouble you greatly.”
Edward placed a comforting hand on his man’s shoulder even though fear curled around his heart and clenched it within its fist. “Fear not Han,” he said. “Whatever it is, I am grateful it is a kind and familiar face that delivers it.”