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