Reckless – Tamara Leigh

He wearied of leading men and women to victory. Albeit satisfying in the moment, never could such feats outweigh the ache of later leading those victors to injury or death—if not of their persons, then of hope whose each resurrection was more pitiful than the last. He wearied of anger, its flames scorching his insides and filling his gorge so full it threatened to overflow on innocents among the guilty. He wearied of life, seeing mostly darkness beyond which he dare not imagine more than a prick of light lest disappointment drop a fierce warrior on his face. A warrior fierce no longer. Hunched on his mount the same as his men who ought to be with those who remained of their families, warming hands and feet before a fire and filling bellies full, Vitalis raised his chin from his mantle’s fur collar and blew breath to the side so its mist would not obscure his vision. The densely swirling snow that had made it difficult to see more than fifty feet ahead now reduced to lazily drifting flakes, once again it was possible to watch for the Norman army whose boots and hooves defiled this ancient mountain pass. Those enemy forces were led by a man Saxons named Le Bâtard, though he was better known as William the Conqueror, William the Great, and King William to those who bowed to him as Vitalis would not, nor what remained of his Rebels of the Pale. Unfortunately, if his followers continued to resist England’s new ruler, the uprising in Cheshire they wished to join could claim their lives as dysentery thus far failed to do. Shifting his gaze from the distant rise where the Normans would appear hours from now since prudence demanded they wait out the storm, Vitalis considered his men mounted to the right. Half were bent low in their saddles, hoods obscuring faces gone pale beyond the burn of biting cold. The others, including the smithy-turned-warrior whom Vitalis counted more than a friend, kept watch with their leader. Dysentery, better known as the flux, had struck the latter as well, but their recovery was swifter, as evidenced by greater alertness, quicker reactions, and less weight loss. Though the sickness also weakened Vitalis, it was kindest to him. Or had been.

Belly cramping, he breathed deep, and as he swung his gaze toward the rise, paused on a nearby cave. Though tempted to shelter his men in it whilst snow choked the air, he had deemed it too dangerous since the army would pass near and might pause there for the night. Many were the God-hewn tunnels stretching from the cave in all directions, including this rocky place where they waited out the storm, but still the rebels could have found themselves cornered there since it would be necessary to leave their horses distant and the flight of ill men would be hindered. Hence, no relief for the Rebels of the Pale until they were leagues distant and well off their enemy’s path. Vitalis looked to where the army would appear and determined it was time to resume the journey toward Cheshire—hopefully, only in that direction. His men would not like it, but he must persuade them to disband their remnant as done the majority following the disastrous battle at Stafford. Once they healed, if they remained determined to resist Norman oppression, better they could do so, albeit no longer under Vitalis’s command. Pain lancing his gut, he turned aside and struggled to contain a groan. “Vitalis?” Zedekiah’s fatherly concern nearly made him shake off the hand gripping his arm, but he had no right to shield his pride while the others were denied the same. The sickness, having decided it had been too lenient with him, made this warrior feel almost a boy.

He looked to Zedekiah, and seeing his weakness had come to the others’ notice, said, “Aye, the Norman plague has its heel more firmly on my throat.” Of enemy origin, all agreed since the invaders’ butchery and fires had fouled the water. Anger suffused Zedekiah’s broad face. “Devil-bent Normans!” he growled. “More greatly I shall savor the defeat of the next I take to ground.” “Look there!” another rebel said. The first of the army had appeared on the ridge. As they did so much sooner than expected, they must have continued to advance despite the storm. The enemy being ignorant of these mountains, it was either exceedingly courageous or dangerously foolish. “Where are the rest?” Zedekiah asked what Vitalis also wondered as seven riders slowly advanced, the hood of the one at the fore down around his shoulders and snow capping his short hair.

They were too distant to look near upon, but so fine were their mounts, they could not be mistaken for mere scouts. And yet, they were without escort. Is it possible? Vitalis wondered. Since the day past when he sighted the army marching to suppress the Cheshire uprising, several times he had seen their impatient king ride ahead of his forces in the company of his personal guard. If this was William absent his army, then beneath the hood of one of six guards was the chevalier who eluded Vitalis as much as Vitalis eluded him—Sir Maël of the family D’Argent whose young men were known as much for their skill at arms as silvered dark hair that ought to be exclusive to the aged. Then there was the chevalier’s lone female cousin whose raven-black hair was also marked by silver. Lady Nicola, Vitalis silently named her and recalled the first time the girl dancing toward womanhood had spoken to him—rather, yelled and called him a— Yanking his thoughts back to the present, he searched beyond the riders. Still no sign of the army. “I believe that is Le Bâtard,” he said and more greatly resented this sickness that would prevent him and his men from challenging the pompously self-assured conqueror— and possibly ending William’s rule. “There will come a better time,” Zedekiah said.

Vitalis did not concur. As this opportunity was hardly possible, a better one seemed impossible. “Accursed flux,” rasped a rebel, and Vitalis was pleased by his disappointment and that of the others who murmured agreement. His men’s health improved, but they accepted their limitations, all hopeful that by the time they joined the resistance in Cheshire they would be sufficiently recovered to make a difference in ridding England of Normans. Lord, Vitalis prayed, let them be receptive to reason when I seek to transform men of the sword back into tillers of the earth. “We should ride,” Zedekiah said. They should, taking the long way around the gradually ascending mountain through corridors of sheer rock that would aid in remaining out of sight, but… Vitalis looked between the Normans and the cave which would come to their notice had it not already. The surrounding land being mostly open, it would provide the enemy a safe place to rest while awaiting those who had fallen behind. Rather, safe on the surface. As it was unlikely they knew of the underground passages, things might be learned by a Saxon willing to make use of the nearest tunnel—something that could give Vitalis cause to lead his men to Cheshire rather than around it.

Ignoring his churning gut and warmth beneath his skin that portended fever, he said, “Ride ahead. I shall rejoin you shortly.” “What say you?” all demanded, Zedekiah the loudest. “With the storm abating, they will pause here. Thus, I will enter the cave by way of the tunnel we passed and see if anything can be learned of their plans.” “That tunnel is unstable,” said the one who had traded the name of Pog for Boar when a sword replaced the scythe with which he harvested wheat. “As told, the earth tremors preceding King Harold’s death weakened it in places, forcing one to bend low to negotiate it. In the years since, it may have collapsed entirely.” “If so, sooner I shall overtake you.” “Vitalis—” “I have spoken, Zedekiah.

” “Then I go with you.” The burly man jutted his jaw, which all knew meant the end of an argument. Or nearly all. Vitalis did not know it himself, the rebel having never seriously challenged him, but though he was tempted to test Zedekiah, he inclined his head. “You alone.” Then looking to the others who would gain more time and distance to escape the Normans, he said, “Ride. We shall leave our mounts here and, God willing, rejoin you shortly. Do we not, I ask you to go home until you are healed.” Seeing protest rise on their faces, he added, “A warrior whole of body and mind is worth ten half of body and mind.” Still they did not wish to leave Zedekiah and him, nor forego the Cheshire uprising, but they agreed.

After clasping arms with the two left behind, they urged their mounts onward. Vitalis dismounted. Behind cover of his horse, he allowed discomfort to contort his face, then cleared his expression and turned. “You are not well,” Zedekiah said. “Well enough to do this.” His friend sighed. “Lead and I shall follow, my lord.” “As told, I am not your lord.” Zedekiah harrumphed. “As told, I am your man now and evermore.

” It should be easy to argue the opposite since Zedekiah had saved Vitalis’s life two years ago, but accepting he would fail, Vitalis began the trek to the tunnel he hoped remained passable. HAD HE, a warrior who was not rash, been rash? He had, and it would be a lie to entirely blame it on this sickness. More responsible were the years of injustice and cruelties dealt his people—worse, the recent harrying of the North that stole the lives of thousands of innocents and destroyed their homes. Thus, it was no easy thing to allow the man before him to live. But that he would do and seek contentment in shaming the conqueror in a manner that mocked his justification for putting England to the sword. The Saxons were not ungodly as claimed, and had their churches been in need of reform, surely less so than those of the Norman invaders. Vitalis peered across his shoulder into the dim where one of many tunnels let into the cave and saw the shadow of Zedekiah. Feeling the man’s unease and disapproval, he inclined his head then lowered to his haunches before a rock barely visible in the pale light entering the cave. While William refastened his mantle, still unaware he was not alone in this place where he had sought privacy to relieve himself, Vitalis drew through his fingers the cloth cut from the usurper’s garment and noted the raised embroidery unseen by the eye. Just as when first he saw who entered here, his thoughts moved to a tale of David of the Bible.

If ever he had questioned God’s acquaintance with irony, no longer. Had the cloth David sliced from King Saul’s cloak in a cave to prove he could have slain his enemy been as fine as this? More, as distinctive as this could prove? Likely not. When the pretender who called himself King of England stretched his long legs to exit the cave, Vitalis drew his dagger, let its blade catch light, and called in Norman-French, “Le Bâtard!” Though the warrior would be ashamed for allowing an enemy so near he ought to be gasping his last, his reflexes were above reproach. Of a sudden he faced Vitalis, in his hand a great sword that merely whispered of its parting from the scabbard beneath the ruined mantle. Doubtless, shock shone from eyes that landed on the enemy who had stolen upon him, but far greater that shock once he learned how near death he had been. “Ere summoning your guard to defend you, consider this, Duke of Normandy,” Vitalis continued in that one’s language. “The possibility a Wulfen-trained warrior is accomplished at landing a blade where he wishes. And more certain that when the neck of his target is long and broad.” By the light slanting into the cave, Vitalis saw William’s eyes narrow in a fierce face, then the man said in an obscenely guttural voice, “Wulfen-trained.” Vitalis raised his other hand.

“Now consider this, Le Bâtard.” Unlike when first he named him that, this time he felt the usurper’s anger over what could see the offender relieved of hands and feet. All knew he was illegitimate, but one who had much to lose should never speak it in his hearing. “Is that a piece of cloth?” William demanded. “It is, and of royal—albeit self-proclaimed—origin. Were you to look near on it, you would know it.” He rose, ground his teeth over his gut’s spasming, and stepped further into the light to reveal his unmatched height and breadth and the red of his hair and beard—but not his face lest the cast of sickness render him more vulnerable than already he made himself. William gave a bark of laughter. “At last we meet, Vitalis of the Rebels of the Pale.” “At last, Duke of Normandy.

” Vitalis sighed heavily. “I must tell I expected something more.” “More?” “An opponent not easily bested. I am disappointed.” The usurper adjusted his stance, causing light to streak his blade. “Be assured, do I deem you worthy of meeting me at swords, you will learn I am not easily bested. Indeed, never bested.” Vitalis reached the cloth to the side where light more boldly tread. “You are certain of that? As told, this scrap is not common. That from which it was cut was woven of the finest wool and embroidered under the direction of a lady most high—if not her own hand.

” After a long silence, William said, “What is your game?” He supposed it was a game, albeit a deadly one. “Regardless what one calls it, Duke, I have won, the same as…” He feigned searching his memory. “Was it not David of the Bible who stole upon his treacherous king in a cave and spared his life though he could have slit his throat?” This king set his head to the side. Sensing the moment he unraveled that, Vitalis said, “It is true, Your Majesty. Do you inventory your person, you will discover you miss the same thing King Saul lost to the man he persecuted.” Was it a credit to William he did not scrabble at his mantle to verify it was despoiled while he was ashamedly vulnerable? That his only visible reaction was further darkening of his face? “I am impressed, Vitalis. As you seem a worthy opponent, let us meet at swords.” Great the temptation, especially since it could cool this anger. Were he in good health, therefore more confident of success, he would accept. “I am not here to slay you, Duke, neither by stealth, as must be obvious since you breathe, nor to issue or accept a challenge.

” “Then you wish to surrender to me personally in the hope of gaining mercy for having taken only a piece of my mantle?” Vitalis wished he could laugh. “No surrender, defiler of England. I am here because your prey could not resist becoming acquainted with his prey.” The point of William’s blade wavered. “You think I will allow you to depart alive?” “Allow?” Vitalis stepped nearer to reveal the sword at his hip, then raised his dagger higher. “If I sought permission and agreed to leave your life intact, it would be a temporary state.” It sounded a challenge, and not a wise one considering the mess his insides made of themselves, but so great was this hatred for the man who had stolen all, it had to be spoken.

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