Sirocco Wind from the East
ISBN #: 978140677776
Available on Create Space
by Virginia Ann Work
A troop of armored men and horses perched atop a hill.
The lord had halted on the very edge of the cliff and turned his black eyes on a young knight. “Where did you say he was going, Sir Reynold?”
“I … I think they said north, my lord. He usually rides north. Along the river.” Reynold shifted in the saddle, his mouth a taut line.
“Think!” The baron’s roar startled the horses; some of the them reared — all of them jumped. “That is not good enough, Sir Knight! If we miss the prince, you shall pay.” He studied the rolling fields below and gazed at the castle spires on the horizon. “We shall angle north, and intercept his troop on the loop of the river. If he comes not, you shall pay in blood. I vow it upon my sword.”
He kicked his gray roan into a startled leap down the side of the hill. Black was the pennant that flew from his lance — black with a fierce red bull upon it.
A boy clattered across the cobblestones of the courtyard of the ducal castle Modelias, darting like a hare to his saddled and bridled destrier.
He was tall for his age, and crowned with yellow hair that fell unhindered to his shoulders.
Grabbing a fistful of long, white mane, he planted his left foot on the knee of his stallion, and vaulted into the high-backed saddle. After allowing his squire to place his feet in the stirrups, he took the reins, wondering how many other boys his age could mount alone. Kazimer, his white Andalusian, had snorted and side-stepped the first time he tried his flying mount, but now he only shook his head, impatient to be off.
“That will be all,” the boy said to the squire who bowed and backed away. He smoothed the bright red saddle blanket that bore a Planatagenet emblem, and pushed back his thick brocaded cape that was lined with white fur.
A low mist, like ghost shrouds, swirled along the river and a cock crowed in the lower bailey.
The boy glanced at the sky. It was the color of robin’s eggs, speckled with the flight of birds near the tree line. Not a cloud in sight; it would be a fine day, for certes.
Thirteen knights stomped from the barracks, leaped to saddle and gathered the reins their squires held without a glance in his direction. Jean, a younger man, nodded to him and smiled.The boy returned the smile, noting that he would favor Jean with a small reward when they returned.
It was an odd hour for a run, but he wanted to go and return before his lady mother discovered his intent, before she sent a command that would halt his expedition. He waited until Lord DeArmond, his teacher and mentor, appeared and mounted. DeArmond did not smile or greet him; he only grunted as he settled himself in the saddle.
The boy, who was Prince Arthur son of Lord Geoffrey, lifted his right hand and led the way across the castle drawbridge.
He was in a keen mood this new day and his spirited steed knew it. Kazimer raced down a small hill and thundered across a bridge spanning the river. Arthur directed him north, following a well-worn road along the river. He reined to the right, entering a dim path that led east into the forests of Brittany. Kaziner took the hills without pause, his gait never slacking.
The white mane whipping his face, Arthur lifted his free hand and laughed, feeling the surge of power and the sheer pleasure of the ride, his small body as one with the great horse beneath him.
He had planned this ride for months, cajoling DeArmond into secrecy, for he was not allowed to ride far afield. Brittany was not secure, nor were her borders watched, that the eight-year-old prince could ride at will in her lands. Indeed, he had never been allowed more than ten furlongs from the castle. That was a pity. What of the wide, wide world out there, waiting to be discovered?
He glanced back and laughed again, for his knights could not keep up. Mother will have a fit of ten wet kittens when she hears I am gone. Ah, well. He would bear her indignation for the joy of the moment. Who would harm him, anyway? He could think of no enemy, besides the English. But the English? Was not his uncle Richard the High King of England and half the world? He would not harm a freckle on Arthur’s cheek. The French? The French would not harm him either, for his mother was second cousin to King Philip Augustus.
The morning flew as swiftly as Kazimer’s heels and after a time Arthur tired of the pace and pulled back on the reins.
He looked about, realizing he had ridden farther than he thought. Aye, it was strange country. He rode in a wide valley that was ribboned with a slender river — to the right, a fen, its pools of stagnant water glittering seductively in the mud. To the north, the mountains loomed closer, their rocky sides catching the morning sunlight. A desolate country; no sign of road or path or village.
Where were his knights? He slowed to a walk and stopped altogether.
It was dark here under the eaves of the giant oaks with the gentle drip, drip, plop of water from the hanging boughs. He sniffed — moss and decaying vegetation and pungent pine. Cocking his ear, he heard no sound of hooves approaching from behind. His neck prickled. It felt as if a wad of cotton was stuffed in his throat as stories of murders, rapes, and tortures filled his mind.
“Come, friend, perchance we should go looking for my knights.”
He reined Kazimer around and indeed, the horse seemed anxious to depart. He hard a noise, a crackling of a tree bough. What if a band of brigands exploded from those trees just over there?
Wait. Was that the trod of a hoof? The jingle of a bridle? He laid a hand on Kazimer’s neck, staring toward the sound, willing it to be his knights.
With a crash, a troop of knights, the leader sitting upon a gray roan, exploded into the clearing, their eyes set upon him in fierce concentration, lances in hand.
“Come along, prince,” the large man called in a hoarse voice. “We have your surrounded. Come peacefully and we shal … ”
Arthur heard no more. With a savage yell, he dug his spurs into Kazimer’s flanks. The horse leaped to action. From the corner of his eye, he saw more knights erupt from cover. How many? A dozen?
He drew sword, the sword given him by DeArmond just yesterday. Screaming and slashing with all his might, he drove straight into the right flank of the encircling knights. Surprise flitted in their eyes as their mounts gave ground. An opening appearing where one horse stumbled and kicking Kazimer, Arthur broke through the circle and thundered down the lane.
He was not free of them.
They came in a close pack and there were more than he thought. He glanced back. Two dozen? His only chance was to throw them off. He reined sharply to the left, Kazimer leaped a creek and mounted a bank. Under the low-hung limbs of old oaks and young maples, he rode like one possessed.
Yet it was not good enough. He tried doubling back on his tracks, he tried speed, he tried agility, he tried riding on solid rocks, to no avail. He burst finally into a small meadow where a dolmen protruded from the rick, black soil, and an ancient oak spread it thick limbs. He turned and drew sword as the pursuers surrounded him.
Hoofbeats sounded on the path. He lifted his head. To his relief, DeArmond on his familiar bay charged into the meadow, breaking through the line of enemy knights with a yell. Behind him, his knights skidded to a halt.
Prince Arthur swung his horse closer to DeArmond. “Where did you … ?”
“They decoyed us. We did not know where you were.” DeArmond’s face was pale and wet with sweat.
The strange riders drew the circle tighter and lowered their lances.
Arthur lifted his chin, forcing himself to stare at them fiercely regardless of his heart’s furious pounding. He was dismayed that his voice sounded high and boyish, yet he spoke with the voice of command that no man could ignore.
“Who are you and what do you want? I do not recognize the red bull and the black banner. Are you so cowardly that you do not show your faces? Come now, speak out, if you are men.”
There was no response, only gutteral laughter and the lifting of lances in derision.
Across the clearing, Arthur noted a young knight who held himself straight and rode a fine, black horse. His pale gray eyes bored into Arthur’s with hatred–a hatred that seethed with the fires of hell. He held Arthur’s gaze; their eyes locked.
The prince tried to break away but found himself captive. It was as if a branding iron had touched his soul. Who is he? Why should he hate me so? He did not recognize the face. The knight dropped his visor.
An emotion Arthur seldom felt clutched at his stomach; bile crawled up his throat.
It was like the time a bear charged him from the forest when he picnicked with his mother. But this was worse–far worse. He scorned it, tried to push it aside, told himself he must be brave. Yet his hands shook and his stomach twisted. The sun dsiappeared under a bank of dark clouds–where had they come from?
The horses were restive, pawing the ground, tossing their manes, mawing their bits.
What was once a quiet meadow now crackled with high tension as if lightning was about to strike. A crow gave voice from the boughs of the old oak. The sun broke through a rift in the clouds and Arthur lifted a hand to shield his eyes.
“Take the boy and the old man. Kill the others.”
The hoarse voice of the leader rang out to the accompaniment of visors being lowered, lances readied, horses snorthing and swords screaming from their scabbards.
DeArmond grasped Arthur’s elbow, his voice grave. “Flee, my lord! We shall cover your retreat.”
“Nay!” Arthur held his sword with white-knuckled fingers, fighting the sick feeling in his gut, praying he would not do anything stupid, hoping he had the courage of his father and Uncle Richard.
The strange knights kicked their chargers.
Adrenaline pulsed through Arthur’s veins and time stood still. The beauty of the meadow smote his senses–cheery-faced daisies bobbed in the lush grass, dappled white bark of alders gleamed against dark green firs, a brook rattled over small stones in its bed. He smelled damp moss and oak and horse and mint.
‘Tis a good place to die.
He shook his head. His mouth formed a thin line. He would not die today.
DeArmond grabbed for Arthur’s reins in a futile attempt to steer him from the path of the oncoming horses but Arthur pulled away. He raked his spurs against his mount’s sides and with a yell entered the fight.
The quiet air exploded into a blur of slashing, whirling, yelling, the shriek of steel on steel, the screams of horses, dust, and desperate fury.
Arthur defended himself as blows fell upon him like rain, but was at a disadvantage with his height and weight and lack of armor. Blood flowed from his wounds, but he scarcely felt them and fought on. Time and again when a sword descended, Kazimer reared or dodged sideways or lunged forward and the blow missed by a breath.
From the corner of his eye, Arthur saw men crashing to the ground.
Was that Rene? Oh, God! Blood spurted from wounds; bodies lay like sacks of grain on the grass. The knight with the soulless eyes attacked, his monster of a horse shouldering into Kazimer and forcing him, pace by pace, plunging and skidding, toward a ditch.
Arthur’ssword arm wearied, yet he parried the blows and managed to stay in the saddle. His enemy’s horse tripped and sent the knight reeling. Arthur followed closely, aiming for the opening of the mail in the armpit. He sank in his blade; the young knight shrieked, but then he turned, his attack doubled, his eyes blazing with hatred and purpose.
Arthur saw his own death in those eyes and in the sword aimed for his heart.
He could have turned, could have fled. But he yelled and Kazimer, sensing his intent, lunged forward. Arthur ducked, flet the sword brush his hair. The two horses met with bone-shattering force, yet the knight held his seat and with a roar swung back his arm to deliver another stroke.
Arthur parried, feeling his arm would break, yet he hung on, his sword engaged, deadlocked, face to face with his enemy, dragging air into starved lungs in a grin of effort.
The swords broke free, and the black knights swerved away, parrying an attack from the other side.
Then, sinking his spurs into the flanks of the black, he rode out of the circle of warfare and into the forest. Arthur followed, filled with blood lust, an unholy fervor, a boiling rage. Dodging low limbs that threatened to unseat him, he clung to the saddle, having no need to direct Kazimer, for the horse was as fully engaged in the battle as he.
They came to a small meadow where the knight waited, sword aloft.
Arthur noted again the cold rage in the man’s eyes and fear swallowed him whole. He had difficulty breathing, his hands shook, his stomach heaved. Yet he shouldered it aside, shoved it down, blinked and brought himself back to the fight. The heavy sword fell; he parried and was caught again in a dance of death.
Arthur held on with both hands, but sweat blinded him, caused his fingers to slip.
His sword slipped off his opponent’s–with a grunt, he fell backward. Kazimer reared, his forelegs pawing toward the black, his teeth gashing the glossy neck. The horse screamed and reared; the knight was thrown off balance, yet he recovered in an instant and with a bellow a hate lifted his sword.
Aided by Kazimer’s quick forward lunge, Arthur dodged under the deadly sword but the knight wielded it again, this time a stab, and this time it found its mark–Arthur’s side. The blade bit deep, a serious wound, yet Arthur did not drop his eyes. He raised his swrod to parry again
The knight drew back his sword. Time slowed to a crawl. There was sweat on the man’s brow, a rent in his armor, rest on his helmet just below the visor; a fly buzzed his head.
Arthur tried to raise his sword, but his arm was heavy, too heavy. He screamed, yet his voice was a wavering wail. Mist drifted into his vision, the world seemed to spin in a lazy circle. He strove to bring himself back, knew his enemy’s weapon cut the air, this time on target, saw himself lying on the turf, dead.
It seemed a strange thing to die.
Sadness swept through his soul. He mourned the boy who lay bloodied and dead. His thoughts flicked to his mother, saw her crushed, heard her keening cries, knew she would perish in her lamentations. The two of them would find their way to heaven or hell, he know not which. For himself, he would go into the pit, for certes, for he had not confessed to the priest for many weeks.
A man’s shout brought him back.
A bay jostled against the black, a jolt against his leg. He clung to the saddle with all his strength and knew vaguely that someone fought for him. He heard the clash of steel on steel, lifted his eyes in time to see his enemy’s weapon struck from his hand, a sword pierce his shoulder.
Dimly, as if from a far distance, a man’s voice cried, “Frederick!”
The clearing was silent, save for labored breath. Arthur looked down at his side where he clutched his wound. Blood gushed around his hand.
“M’lord! You are wounded!” DeArmond’s voice seemed far away as Arthur swayed in the saddle.
Hands pulled him from his horse and laid him on the ground. Pain richocheted through his body as someone tore his clothes. They bound up his wounds and carried him, lifted him to saddle. Someone mounted behind, arms wrapped around him, holding him erect.
After a time, he awoke. It was dark. He lay on a cot, a small lamp fluttered above his head, the walls were wattle and daub. He moaned, tried to move.
A woman’s voice, sharp and clear, said, “Here! Let me treat the prince, you great oaf!”
He knew no more.
The next installment tells more of Prince Arthur, of DeArmond, and of the Duchess Constance, Arthur’s mother. What happens next? Come back and find out …