Nunnery Brides – Kathryn Le Veque

THE SHREWSBURY HORN had blared. “Dane! Behind you!” Sir Dane de Russe heard his brother’s cry, bending in with the plaintive cry of the battle horn, and he ducked low and tried to spin away from whatever was coming up behind him. But he wasn’t fast enough, nor was his body pressed low enough. A blow from a shield, the broadside shoved at him, caught him on the head and shoulder, and down he went over the side of the embankment. Sliding, spinning, out of control, the weight from the armor he wore carried him down the side of the slippery slope. It was pouring buckets, the angry pewter sky above sending a deluge down to the earth as the Shrewsbury army and an angry Welsh army faced off at the base of Erwood Castle. Water and mud ended up in Dane’s mouth as, halfway down the slope, he finally rammed a dagger into the hillside like an anchor so he wouldn’t slide all the way down into the moat. Down there, men were up to their waists in muck, struggling to not only stay alive, but struggling to kill the men who were trying to kill them in return. It was sheer madness. But it was worse up above. At the top of the embankment, where there was a partially destroyed wall, men were fighting with swords and pikes. But when they lost those, fists were flying. As a result, some of the battle had turned into a massive fist fight, and men were sliding down the slope and into the moat on a regular basis to the point that there was more fighting going on in the moat than on land. Dane didn’t want to make it into that moat; once men went in, they were stuck. They were dead.

Overhead, the sky lit up with thunder and lightning, creating a brilliant display, but in the mud lands of Erwood, no one noticed. They were all trying to keep alive, caught up in their own battles as the Duke of Shrewsbury’s army tried to regain control of Erwood, a small but vital outpost along the Welsh Marches in the very southern fringes of Shrewsbury’s territory that was disputed between the English and the Welsh. Shrewsbury claimed it, and had for decades, but a resurgence of Welsh rebellion, very unusual in this day and age, was trying to gain it back. And that was why the English were here, sliding down slippery slopes and ending up in a moat of mud and blood. Dane had managed to avoid most of it so far. As he reached the top of the embankment, he paused, catching his breath and looking out over the great mass of fighting, dying men. It was beyond chaotic, and he found himself reflecting on how he’d come to this moment in time, fighting on the Welsh Marches for a slip of a castle that everyone wanted. Truthfully, he didn’t want to be here. But he had little choice. Dane had assumed control of one of his father’s outposts along the Marches not quite a year ago, and what a glorious year it had been.

Blackmore Castle had become his, along with the lordship, and for the first time in his life, Dane had been in complete control of something that was his very own. Not that he minded serving his father, the Duke of Warminster. In fact, he’d loved serving his father as the captain of his army, but a man wanted more in life than to be subservient to a parent. His father knew that, as did his mother, so when Gaston de Russe had purchased Blackmore Castle from the king, he’d given it to Dane with the provision that Dane remain loyal to the Dukedom of Warminster. That hadn’t been a difficult task. Taking a younger brother with him, Dane and Boden de Russe had set out for Blackmore Castle with four hundred de Russe troops and another knight, William Wellesbourne. It had been a great adventure for the de Russe brothers, and the Wellesbourne knight, but when they got to their destination, they’d discovered Blackmore Castle to be a rather dilapidated bunch of stones. Still, it didn’t matter; to Dane, it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen and a scant year later, Blackmore was mostly rebuilt thanks to hard work and de Russe money. Dane had built friendships and alliances among the border lords, including the elderly Duke of Shrewsbury, which was how he found himself here. Aye… he remembered well how he got to Erwood.

Shrewsbury. Old Garreth de Lara, Duke of Shrewsbury and Lord of the Trinity Castles, knew Dane’s father and had taken an immediate liking to Dane. Shrewsbury wasn’t far from Blackmore, only a half-day’s ride, and Garreth came to visit Dane and Boden and William nearly every other week. He brought men with him, men he’d given to Dane to plump up his army of four hundred into an army of seven hundred, and he’d brought gifts and horses and food with him. He even brought his captain, Sir Dastan du Reims, a god of a man who had women falling all over him in spite of the fact that he was married. They would all sit together at night, feasting and telling stories. Garreth loved Dastan, but he loved Dane more. He showered the man with gifts. It was as if Dane had a rich uncle who had suddenly died and left him everything. Only Shrewsbury wasn’t dead, and being that he was in good health, he wasn’t even close to meeting death.

He was simply a lonely old man with no sons and an only daughter who was off in a convent somewhere. He took great delight in Dane and his brother, and in William Wellesbourne, whose family was so close to the House of de Russe that he was considered family, too. Family… That part of his family was here, fighting in this mess, and thoughts of William and Boden shook Dane from his reflections. Those two were around here, somewhere, as was the duke, and Dane was coming to think he needed to locate the pair sooner rather than later. With all of the chaos going on, he wanted to make sure they were well. He wanted to make sure Garreth was well, too. The old duke had no business in a battle but because it was his property, he had insisted on coming. Dastan had tried to stop him, as had Dane, but Garreth wouldn’t be dissuaded. He had a contingent of bodyguards that he kept with him. But for Dane’s own peace of mind, he wanted to make sure the old warrior was in one piece.

The battle had been particularly brutal, especially with the Welsh involved, so something told him to find Garreth and ensure the man’s safety even though he was fairly certain Dastan hadn’t let the old duke out of his sight. Still, Dane might even be able to talk him into returning to camp, but something told him that wasn’t a possibility. Heaving himself up from the muddy slope, Dane went on the hunt. Almost immediately, he could see Boden over by the keep. His brother was whole and sound, shouting to some Shrewsbury men, so Dane didn’t worry any more about him. Now, he turned his attention to the twin baileys, faced with a writhing mass of men. One man found, two to go. The castle, as a whole, was perched on the top of a hill, one that had been leveled off to build the structure, but the entire thing sloped downward, so as Dane walked from the inner to the outer bailey, he found himself slipping and sliding in the very wet mud as he went. By the time he’d reached the outer bailey, he’d slipped so much that he’d nearly fallen, twice, and with his broadsword in hand, he charged into the melee in the outer bailey. Quickly, he spied William Wellesbourne, the fiery youngest son of Sir Matthew Wellesbourne.

He was called Willie, or Dimwit, or anything else his family and friends could hurl at him because William had a wild and reckless streak in him a mile long. He’d come with Dane at Matthew’s request – something about wanting his son to grow up – but so far, William hadn’t done much growing up. He was still the same loveable, brilliant imp. He was too much fun to punish and too foolish to believe at times, but it was all part of the man’s charm. Dane spied William as he hacked away at a Welshman who wasn’t very skilled, but who was very strong. He had a shield he kept up and William was slashing away at him. Dane suspected that the Welsh warrior was simply waiting for William to wear himself out so he could strike a deathblow, so Dane charged at the pair, the dark steel of his sword swinging at the Welshman and catching him off guard. Dane caught the man across the chest and shoulders with the sharp end of his blade, wounding him badly. As the Welshman fell away, William turned to Dane. “What are you doing down here?” he demanded.

“I thought you were going for the keep?” Dane turned to the keep at the top of the rise, in the inner ward. “The Welsh have it,” he said. “Boden is trying to organize a charge, but it’s my sense that Shrewsbury is going to have to move some war machines in here if he wants to take the keep. The Welsh are dug in like rabbits in a hole. Where is Shrewsbury, anyway?” William began to look around. “I saw him not too long ago with his personal guard,” he said. “They were over by the bridge that crosses into the inner ward the last I saw. Didn’t you come from that direction?” “I did.” “And you did not see him in the inner ward?” Dane shook his head. “Nay.

” “Then you’d better look in the moat below the bridge,” William said, warning in his tone. “The last I saw, Shrewsbury was right by the bridge.” “Where is du Reims? Isn’t he with him?” William shook his head. “Du Reims took a bad blow to his shoulder,” he said. “He could not even lift his sword. He has been sent back to camp.” “So Shrewsbury is alone?” William nodded ominously. Somewhere up near the keep, the Shrewsbury battle horn sounded again, their rally cry. It was an alarm that the Shrewsbury army always carried with it, and always responded to. That horn was famous up and down the Marches.

But Dane ignored the muted wail; he was feeling some trepidation now at William’s words. So many men had fallen into that moat; not only did it surround the upper bailey, but the lower one as well. He couldn’t imagine that an old man in armor would fare very well in it, so he motioned for William to follow him and, together, they made their way back up the slippery outer bailey towards the bridge that crossed into the inner bailey. It was a bridge that the English were trying to prevent the Welsh from actively destroying. In fact, Dane sent William to the bridge to help the English fend off the Welsh, who had axes, and he could hear William yelling insults at the Welsh as Dane headed over to the moat to see if, in fact, Shrewsbury had ended up in it. What he saw didn’t help his anxiety. Because of the slope of the hilltop, this portion of the moat was deeper than it was up towards the keep. Everything was draining downward, including men and guts and bodies. Down on this end of it, it was deeper and filled with far more muck than it was upslope. And then, he saw it.

Two of Shrewsbury’s personal guard, dead in the moat. As he ran to the edge of the pit, he could see two more trying to claw their way out, holding the limp, dazed duke between them. Seized with panic, Dane ran to the edge of the moat, just where Shrewsbury guards were trying to lift out the duke, and he reached down, grabbing the old man by the arm and hauling him out of the moat. As the rain pounded and lightning lit up the sky, Dane ended up on his arse at the edge of the moat, clearing mud and debris from the old man’s eyes and mouth. Shrewsbury coughed, beginning to come around. “I have you, my lord,” he said calmly. “You are safe now. I have you.” The old man was in a bad way, but he was so covered with filth that Dane couldn’t see where he was injured. “Dane?” he said feebly, trying to open his eyes.

“Dane, is it you?” “It is me, my lord.” “Are you injured?” “Nay, my lord. Are you?” Shrewsbury blinked, with eyes the color of the gray sky above. “My belly,” he said. “They stuck a sword in my belly.” Dane looked at the man’s midsection but he honestly couldn’t see anything. He began to pull at the man’s plate armor, trying to see what he was talking about. Shrewsbury had the latest in armor, and very expensive, so it fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Dane couldn’t see where there were any gaps until he wiped away some mud near Shrewsbury’s groin and saw a bright red river of blood burst forth. Then, he knew.

It was bad. “My lord,” he said, looking around to see if he could spy William. He needed help. “I shall find William and we shall remove you from this place.” He started to move, to shout at William, who was far enough away that he couldn’t hear Dane’s cries over the storm and roar of battle, but Shrewsbury stopped him. He grabbed at Dane, refusing to let him go. “Nay,” he rasped. “Dane, you must listen to me. It is important.” Dane didn’t want to hear a dying confession.

He was fond of the old man and the situation was dire. He had to get him out of there. “My lord, if you will only…” Shrewsbury cut him off. “Listen,” he said. “I do not have much time, so I must tell you what I have done. I have done something terrible, Dane.” Dane sighed faintly, knowing he was going to hear a confession whether or not he wanted to. “I am sure it is not so bad,” he muttered. “If it were Willie, I would believe it, but not you.” Shrewsbury smiled faintly.

“You must trust that Willie will find his way someday,” he said. “I have told you before. He will be a great knight.” “I will believe that when I see it.” Shrewsbury emitted a noise that sounded like something between a laugh and a groan. “You will,” he muttered. “But I have done something to you, Dane, and I beg your forgiveness. Mayhap you will not be pleased about it, but I felt strongly for it.” Dane wiped more rain out of the old man’s face. “What did you do?” Shrewsbury’s muddled gaze fixed on him.

“My daughter,” he muttered. “Grier. I have told you of her.” “You have, my lord.” “She is at St. Idloes Abbey, in Llandridod,” he said. “You must go and bring her home.” “Me? Why not Dastan?” “Because she belongs to you.” Dane blinked, registering surprise. “She belongs to me?” Shrewsbury reached up an old, wrinkled hand, trembling because his strength was failing him.

Everything was failing him. His watering eyes were intense on Dane. “She is the last of my line,” he rasped. “She is a great heiress, Dane. She will be a great prize for any man, but she is your prize. I made the decision some time ago that she should belong to you because, as the heiress to Shrewsbury, the dukedom goes with her. You shall be the Duke of Shrewsbury when I am gone. Everything I have, I give to you. It is yours.” Dane couldn’t keep the astonishment off his face.

“Me?” he said. “But… I do not understand. You have nephews, my lord. You have told me this yourself.” Shrewsbury closed his eyes. “They are all very distant and very unworthy.” “But… but what of Dastan? He is most worthy and…” “He is already married,” the old man stressed. “Dane, only you are worthy of my daughter and my wealth. Accept this and let me die in peace, knowing that Shrewsbury shall be taken care of after I die.” It was too much for Dane to process.

A wife, a dukedom… he was a simple knight, a son of a duke, but the truth was that he was the second son. In fact, Gaston de Russe wasn’t even his blood father, only his adoptive one, so in that sense, Dane felt even less worthy. Aye, that was the truth – he wasn’t a real de Russe and everyone knew it. His real name was Stoneley and his father had been a vile excuse of a man. His history against the crown, against humanity, was something only whispered of by the brave. It was something Dane had spent his whole life trying to live down. “My lord,” he said, taking a deep breath and trying to stay on an even keel. “You are most generous and you know that I am grateful, but I am not sure I can do this. I… I am no one of any great note, and certainly no one who should hold the Shrewsbury titles.” Shrewsbury’s eyes opened again, but his lips were starting to turn blue, a sure sign that his blood was draining out of him, as was his life.

Time was short. “Your father disagrees,” he said. “Warminster has accepted the offer of my daughter on your behalf.” Dane’s jaw popped open at the mention of his father. So Gaston was in on this, was he? And just when did he, or Shrewsbury, plan to tell him this? It was clear that a mortal wound had pushed Shrewsbury’s hand into revealing the truth out of necessity, but Dane couldn’t help but feel both miffed and confused. “My father knows of this?” he asked, incredulous. Shrewsbury reached out a hand and Dane took it. The old man squeezed as hard as he could, which wasn’t very hard considering his life was slipping away. “He knows,” he muttered. “He only wants the best for you, lad.

My daughter is yours, Dane. Promise me you will take good care of her.” Dane didn’t even know what to say. “But I…” “Promise me.” Dane hesitated for a brief moment, knowing there was really nothing he could say other than the obvious. He felt as if he’d just lost a battle he hadn’t even had the chance to fight. It was over and done with before he was even let in on it. “I… I promise.” All of the concern seemed to leave Shrewsbury’s features. “Then I am satisfied,” he said.

“Send word to your father right away to let him know of your new appointment. He will want to know. I know that you shall make me proud, Dane. I’ve always… known…” Before Dane could respond, Shrewsbury’s personal guard managed to make it out of the pit, and even as Dane sat beside the old duke, his men were picking him up, intending to take him to safety. Even though Dane knew the old man was beyond help, as the red river that ran from his groin and into the mud was heavy and dark, he waved the personal guard on, drawing his sword and providing protection as they carried the old man out of the fighting. Dane fought off many a Welshman, killing at least two, before Shrewsbury was clear of the fighting and carried off to camp.

.

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