ShadowWolfe – Kathryn Le Veque

THUMP, THUMP, THUMP…. His heart was pounding so hard in his ears that the surging of blood through his veins was all he could hear. It was all he could feel. He’d been riding at a maddening pace since leaving Northwood Castle, several miles to the north, as he headed to the home of his mother and father. Castle Questing had always been a place of joy and warmth for him, something that soothed his soul and eased his mind. The entire world could be falling apart around him but, still, he would have Castle Questing and he would have his family. They were his rock in times of trouble, all of them. Nothing else mattered. But if what he’d been told was true, the rock had disintegrated. He had nothing left to hold on to. He tried not to think of it. He only tried to think of the next breath he would take, the next step the horse would take. Second by second was the only way he could function. He wasn’t a man normally given to panic because that was alien to him, something that wasn’t in his nature. He was a de Wolfe and de Wolfes didn’t crumble.

At the moment, however, he was filled with enough of it to crumble him and then some. And his heart – pounding so forcefully – was full of that same panic, reminding him with every painful beat that something had happened, something had gone terribly wrong, and he’d been summoned to Castle Questing by his father. William de Wolfe, the great Wolfe of the Border, had called his two eldest sons home. Scott de Wolfe and Troy de Wolfe had been beckoned back to this great castle of warmth and family with a message that had been so ominous that, even now, Scott de Wolfe refused to remember the message. All he knew was that he’d been called home by his father and he was praying that it was all a terrible mistake. It had to be a mistake. Please, God, let it be a mistake…. Scott didn’t know if his twin brother, Troy, was on his way home from his outpost of Wark Castle, a garrison of Castle Questing. But Scott assumed he was. The messenger that had come for Scott had mentioned that Troy had been summoned also.

In fact, Troy was probably already at Castle Questing because Wark was much closer to the family home than Northwood Castle was, where Scott had been on an errand for his father when he’d received the missive. Just a simple errand. Hell, he’d only left Castle Questing just a few hours earlier. Now, he was heading home again and dreading it with every fiber in his body. But he wasn’t alone as he fled home. Beside him, Paris de Norville, his father’s oldest and dearest friend from Northwood Castle, was riding with him as he headed home. The man also happened to be Scott’s father-in-law. The message William had sent had concerned Scott’s wife, who was also Paris’ daughter. Troy’s wife, who had also been mentioned in William’s missive, was also Paris’ daughter and a sister to Scott’s wife. If Scott was feeling panic, he couldn’t even imagine what Paris was feeling.

Devastation. Horror. Unimaginable grief…. Scott couldn’t even spare a moment to look at Paris, who was riding beside him. Both men followed by several Northwood warriors including Sir Michael de Bocage, an old knight and another old friend of William’s who served at Northwood Castle with Paris. Northwood Castle was where the older generation of knights had served together for many years – William, Paris, Michael, and a whole host of them – and the men had remained close even until old age. Therefore, what affected one of them affected all, but no one was affected like Scott was at the moment. The panic he was trying to keep at bay was hovering on the fringe of his mind, threatening to take hold at any moment. Keep calm. Just a little longer, man.

Keep calm. So, he rode into the late afternoon, heading south to Castle Questing, focused on the swift ride home and not what was waiting for him when he reached there. Around him, the land was wet and mushy from the heavy rains they’d had that spring and mud was kicked up from the horses, flying over the men and making them look sloppy and filthy. A little under an hour after leaving Northwood Castle, the rise of Castle Questing finally came into view. The castle was gleaming in the late afternoon sun, appearing golden as it perched atop the hill like a great beacon. Once Scott had the castle in his focus, he forgot about living for the moment. Now, he was living for Castle Questing and closing the gap between him and the fortress. That pounding heart was causing his breathing to come in labored gasps and as they began their ascent up the muddy, slippery road to the castle on the hill, Scott dug his spurs into the side of his horse so hard that the animal had bloodied flanks. It was indicative of Scott’s level of anxiety, goring the horse he loved so well. But at the moment, all he could think of was reaching his father.

He had to reach his father. Like a nightmare, time seemed to slow down the closer he came. One more step… Just one more step! Finally, they reached the crest of the road and the castle was laid out before them, a vast and massive fortress with the de Wolfe black standards snapping on the battlements. Scott’s frothing, bleeding horse thundered up to the drawbridge, which was lowered, and he and his party raced into the bailey of Castle Questing only to be met by his father as the man was emerging from the keep. Having been notified of the approaching party, the great and mighty Wolfe of the Border was ready for them. Waiting…. In haste, Scott pulled his horse to a halt and dismounted so quickly that he nearly fell to his knees. By the time he regained his balance, his father was standing in front of him, steadying him. That big, warm hand of his father that Scott loved so well now felt like a vise, squeezing him. There was urgency in the touch.

“Scott,” William de Wolfe said. “Thank God you have come.” Scott was in no mood for any delays. He only wanted answers. “Thomas said there had been an accident,” he said, his voice trembling with grief and exhaustion as he referred to his youngest brother, the messenger who had come to him at Northwood. “Tell me what has happened, Father. What accident? Where is my wife?” William looked at his son; gregarious, blonde, and wildly handsome as well as a knight of legendary talent and command ability. William could ask for no finer son than Scott de Wolfe. The man had lived a charmed life. But that was all about to end and William seriously wondered how his son was going to take a blow that could not only send him to his knees, but destroy him as well.

Was Scott strong enough to accept what he needed to hear? The next few moments would tell if he had the de Wolfe strength of character or if those years of fortune and blessings had weakened that inherent de Wolfe resolve. Either way, William knew he would regret this moment to his grave. He proceeded. “Paris,” William glanced at his old friend, who had come up beside Scott. Even as he put a hand on Scott’s shoulder, he reached out to take Paris’ hand. This was to be the most gut-wrenchingly painful moment of William’s life and he fought off the nausea it provoked. “Listen to me, both of you. Listen carefully. Helene and Athena were traveling to Berwick today to visit Patrick and Bridey’s new son.” Scott cut him off.

“I know,” he snapped. “I was here this morning and saw them off.” William squeezed his son’s shoulder, begging for patience. “You know the facts, but Paris does not,” he said quietly. He looked between the two men as he spoke. “The women took a contingent of men with them and they were traveling in the heavy carriage. You know the one with the covered cab; the one my wife likes to travel in because it is enclosed. Athena and Helene took the younger children with them.” He was speaking calmly, succinctly, referring to a situation Scott was already very familiar with. His younger brother, Patrick, had recently been presented with a son from his wife and Scott’s wife, Athena, had sewn some lovely little garments for the infant.

Her sister, Helene, who was Troy’s wife, also had gifts for the child. The women had been planning to visit Berwick for at least a week, ever since Patrick’s wife had presented him with a healthy son. It was all information Scott already knew and he was about to explode with frustration. “Father, please,” Scott begged. “What happened?” William was genuinely trying not to tear up. His heart was breaking as he struggled to bring forth the rest of the tale, already seeing the distress on his son’s face. God, it was killing him. “You know that we have had quite a bit of rain this spring,” he said, his voice hoarse as his emotions got the better of him. “It has made the creeks and rivers very swollen. The soldiers who escorted Athena and Helene to Berwick said that when they reached the River Till, it was very swollen and they were uncomfortable with the bridge crossing.

It seemed to them that the strong flow of water had weakened the bridge. When they told the ladies their concerns, their warning was not heeded.” Bile rose in Scott’s throat. He could see what was coming but, like a runaway horse, there was no way to stop it. It was going to crash right into him and he couldn’t possibly brace himself against what was coming. Instinctively, he put his hand over his chest, as if to protect his heart. “Oh… God,” he breathed. “They went anyway.” “They did.” Scott took a deep breath, laboring to remain on his feet as the ground swayed beneath him.

“Go on. Tell me.” William sighed heavily, struggling with every word. “Athena and Helene insisted on crossing it,” he said, his voice raspy. “When the carriage was halfway across, the pilings gave way and the bridge collapsed, dumping the carriage into the river. The soldiers tried to help them, but the weight of the carriage and the swiftness of the water… it was swept down river with the women and children inside of it. The soldiers chased it and lost it, only to find it an hour later, upside down against the riverbank. The horses had miraculously managed to survive and break their harnesses, standing on the riverbank and grazing. But Athena and Helene and the children….” He trailed off, unable to continue, and Scott stared at his father as the news settled.

The runaway horse had hit him full-force and he felt weak all over. But in his attempt not to shatter, he steeled himself, turning into stone right before their very eyes. No shock, no grief registering; simply stony, emotionless reflection. It was the only way he could handle the news. His father didn’t even have to tell him the rest. He already knew. “My wife is dead.” It was not a question. William nodded, once. “Aye.

” “And my children?” Tears glimmered in William’s one good eye; the other was patched, lost in battle decades before. He cleared his throat, trying to speak. “Andrew and Beatrice could not be saved,” he whispered. “The soldiers tried, but it was too late.” Scott stared at him, unable to register anything. The shock was too deep. “It is not true,” he said, sounding desperate. “They did not try hard enough. Where are they? I shall heal them. I have the skill.

” William shook his head, grabbing his son by the arm before he could charge away, blindly, in search of his family. “Unless you can bring them back from the dead, you cannot help.” That wasn’t what Scott wanted to hear. He couldn’t believe it. But the look on his father’s face told him otherwise. Slowly, he began to understand that no healer in the world could bring his loved ones back to him. Oh, God… was it really true? “What of Helene?” he breathed. “What of Troy’s children?” “Gone, all of them.” “Does Troy know?” “He is inside with them now.” William lost the battle against the tears; they streamed from his eye.

“He is making his peace with them, as you must. They are waiting for you, Scott. Go to them.” Scott simply stood there and absorbed what his father was telling him. He wasn’t even sure this was real, any of it. Perhaps it was a dream he would soon awaken from; for all of the panic he’d been feeling, when the worst of all possible news was finally delivered, he felt numb. Simply numb. This morning, he’d had a wife and four children. Now, he only had two children, older boys who were away fostering. His beautiful, willowy Athena with her golden-red hair was gone, and spirited Andrew and sweet Beatrice right along with her.

Was this even possible? He couldn’t even comprehend it. As he stood there in a daze, his brother, Troy, suddenly emerged from the keep with their mother, Lady Jordan, trailing after him. As Scott watched, Troy came to a halt, fell to his knees, and vomited into the dirt of the bailey. He watched as his mother stood over his brother, weeping, trying to comfort her devastated son. Scott was so stunned he couldn’t even go to his twin brother. All he could do was watch the man break down in one of the most horrific scenes he’d ever witnessed. But he couldn’t watch anymore. Troy’s devastation was quickly becoming his own. Dazed, Scott turned away from the scene, wandering several feet away, aimlessly. He had no idea where he was going or what he was doing; he was simply wandering.

He couldn’t watch his brother fall to pieces and he couldn’t go inside and see those cold, dead bodies, macabre effigies of the people he loved. Even if it was expected of him, he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t look at those faces and know he’d been unable to save them. He’d planned to go with them to Berwick that morning but his father’s business had changed those plans. Just a simple errand to Northwood had changed his life forever. His wife and younger children had died because he hadn’t been with them as they traveled to Berwick. Not only had he failed them but, in the aftermath, he couldn’t even heal them. With all of the skill and knowledge he had acquired over the years, it was worthless to him now. Now, when he needed it the very most. This was all his fault.

It was a horrific realization. Scott’s head filled with visions of his wife and their two youngest children, their faces, their laughter. He could feel Athena’s hair in his hands and smell her scent in his nostrils. He could hear Andrew’s infectious laughter and see the glimmer in little Beatrice’s blue eyes. She had blue eyes when everyone else in the family had green or brown or hazel. Scott had often teased his wife about Beatrice’s eye color, accusing her of bedding another man because of the child’s unusual eye color. He could still hear Athena’s shrieks of anger as he laughed. He loved to laugh at her because she was so easy to taunt. There would be no more taunting her now. God, I am so sorry I taunted you.

Please forgive me, Tee… As turmoil swamped him, Scott could hear muffled sobs behind him and he turned to see Paris with his head hung, hands over his face as William and Michael tried to comfort him. The man had just lost two daughters in Athena and Helene, not to mention four grandchildren, and was taking the news hard. Now, in addition to witnessing Troy’s collapse, Scott was witnessing Paris’. A man who had been as much a mentor to him as his own father, perhaps the strongest man he knew. But that was all fracturing before him. Everything Scott had ever known about life was shattered, his dreams and hopes and loved ones right along with it. Everything was in pieces. Scott knew he would become part of the splintered reality if he’d only let himself feel what the others were feeling. If only he didn’t fight it off. But the truth was that he didn’t want to feel any of it.

He was afraid that if he felt it, it would be the only thing he felt for the rest of his life. Unlike better men, perhaps his brother and Paris, he’d never be able to shake his sorrow. Once he went down that road, he would never return because the guilt, the grief, would claw at him like a great beast, the claws tearing into him and ripping his heart out until there would be nothing left but a shell of a man. He didn’t want to be a shell of a man. Turning away from the scene, he began to walk. He walked away as he heard his father calling after him. He couldn’t listen to the weeping and he couldn’t face whatever he was expected to face. He was nearly to the gatehouse when his father caught up to him, begging him to stop. But Scott wouldn’t listen to him. He couldn’t.

He had to block it out, all of it, if he was to survive. No, he couldn’t look back. He couldn’t go back. He had to keep running. It was the day that Scott de Wolfe encased his heart in stone and left it there.

.

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