StormWolfe – Kathryn Le Veque

THEY WERE OUT to get him. He knew these walls. God, he knew them so well. He’d been born here and had grown up here until the time he’d gone to foster, so the old stone walls of Castle Questing were like being in the embrace of his mother or his father. The walls loved him, protected him, and he was as fond of this place as if it were a member of his family. For certain, it was. But now, these comforting walls represented great peril. He knew they were out to get him, perhaps waiting for him around the very next corner. There was danger everywhere and all he had to do was make it to the entry of the keep and beyond that, freedom. He wasn’t going to go down without a fight. The trouble was that those stalking him were as clever as he was, born and bred for battle, so they would be thinking exactly as he was. Therein lay the key to surviving this; if he wanted to evade them, he had to think differently. He had to think in a way that they wouldn’t. But that wasn’t so easy; he was a de Wolfe. Still, he was younger, faster, and smarter, wasn’t he? Those who were stalking him may have had the money and the titles and the reputations, the finest knights England had ever seen, but that didn’t matter in the long run because he was going to defeat them.

He knew the identities of his stalkers well. Nighthawk… ShadowWolfe… DarkWolfe… The Dragon Wolfe… The Wolfe… Some of the most powerful names on the Scottish borders, but they were little match for the man who brought a storm with him wherever he went. Where Thomas de Wolfe walked, thunder rolled. That’s what those in the north said. Each de Wolfe knight had his own particular brand of power, but with Thomas, it had always been dangerous unpredictability. He was as fast as lightning and twice as deadly, but wildly unstable. Those were the rumors, anyway, but those who had witnessed such talent swore by it. The youngest son of the Wolfe of the Border brought his own individual type of death to any given situation. There was no one else like him, anywhere. Which was why he wasn’t going to let them catch him.

He had four older brothers and a father out for him at the moment, all of them elderly in his opinion. At thirty years and five, he was the baby of the de Wolfe brothers, who were at least fifteen or more years older than he was. Not that it made them any weaker or slower. In fact, even his eldest brothers, as old as they were, could outfight men half their age. It was a specific de Wolfe trait, because their father had been fighting battles well into his seventh decade of life. He was still fighting even now, at least whenever his wife would let him. Old knights never died. They simply fought until their bones crumbled and their skin turned to dust. And that was the unfortunate part in all of this – Thomas knew they were ready for him, stalking him, waiting for the moment to pounce. And it wasn’t dealing with just one skilled knight, it was dealing with more than his brothers and father because he knew for a fact that others were in on this.

His uncle, Paris, was here at Questing, and more still. All of them, hunting him down like an animal, an animal who had been lured to Questing yesterday under false pretenses. He thought he’d come for a conference on some unrest along the border, but it didn’t take him long to figure out he’d been duped. Damn them! Now, he had to flee. Castle Questing was a vast maze of chambers, corridors, servant’s alcoves, and secret staircases. As a child, he’d found endless entertainment in the old castle, and now as an adult, he still remembered those hidden staircases and alcoves. He’d been moving from one to another for the past two hours, trying to evade capture. Now, he was closer than ever to that entry door. He’d been hiding in a seldom used servant’s staircase for the past twenty minutes but knowing that, at some point, his brothers would check it. He’d been one step ahead of them since this insane chase started and he didn’t intend to relinquish that lead.

Down to the bottom of the staircase, then about twenty feet down a small corridor, and he’d been at the foyer with the entry door ahead of him. He could smell freedom. But that vestige of hope would prove to be his downfall. His focus was on the door and not where it should be – in the shadows around it. The wolves pounced. “HE İS RECKLESS and mean,” a big, blond man hissed to a collection of battled-scarred knights. “You know what happens when he fights; he has no restraint and no regard. If we are not careful, someone is going to come away missing an eye. No offense, Papa, but none of us want to end up like you, courtesy of our baby brother.” Scott de Wolfe was looking at his father, William, who had, in fact, lost an eye over forty years ago in a battle in Wales.

Elderly, but still strong, competent, and intelligent, the legendary William de Wolfe shook his head at his eldest son. “If you lose an eye to your brother, I will be ashamed of you,” he said. “At least I lost mine in battle. You would be losing yours in a fist fight. That does not say much for your skills.” It was a serious situation they were all facing, but one with an odd undercurrent of humor. Ridiculousness, really. Thomas de Wolfe was running from his destiny like a child running from a physic’s potion, but it was a concerning situation, nonetheless. The youngest de Wolfe brother had grown up, matured, and become one of the fiercest knights England had ever seen. Not simply the borders – but in England as a whole.

As a youth, he’d been reckless and silly, but blindingly brilliant. He was innovative and cunning, outsmarting his parents on more than one occasion. As a young man, he’d been dutiful but resentful of living in the shadows of his elder, and greater, brothers. A young man with something to prove. But then came the fateful trip to Wales to escort his youngest sister to her new husband, a man who also had a sister Thomas had fallen for. It was something they didn’t really speak of any longer, mostly because it was in the past and wasn’t something to be fondly recalled. It had been a moment in time that had shaped Thomas’ entire life and he’d returned from Wales a different man. Changed. His father, William, had known he’d had to do something for his distressed son and that help had come in the form of a mission of mercy, of sorts. Kevin Hage, son of William’s dearest friend, Kieran, was determined to go to The Levant to fight with the Christian armies against a new wave of Mamluks to escape the woman he’d lost.

It had been the very sister Thomas had escorted to Wales, in fact, who had broken Kevin’s heart, and Kieran Hage himself had begged Thomas to go with his son. In truth, Thomas and Kevin had shared the loss of the women they had loved, one to death and one to another man, and in that sense, they were kindred spirits. They both needed to get away, to find a life for themselves that did not include their women. So, they had gone to The Levant and they’d learned warfare on an entirely different level, learning to fight against an enemy that was not English or Scottish or even Welsh, an enemy who hated them on a level they’d never seen before. They had learned to be killers. In fact, Kevin had learned that lesson so deeply that he’d become an English assassin known as the Scorpion, the knight with the deadly sting. Thomas, too, had learned the lesson so well that it had become ingrained into him, a man who thought like a hunter and hunted like a killer, who struck as fast as a bolt of lightning. Dhiib aleasifa, the Mamluks called him. StormWolfe. The hunter who brought the storms with him.

The Thomas who returned to England afterwards was not the same Thomas who had left them. Some thought that the time in The Levant might have done Thomas more harm than good, because the man who returned was a true hunter-killer in every sense of the phrase. He’d served the Duke of Dorset for a time after his return to England before heading home, where his father had given him command of Wark Castle. Scott had been correct when he’d said Thomas was mean; he could be quite mean when the mood struck him, and deadly in the blink of an eye. Therefore, every man in that solar knew that Thomas would not be taken without a fight, which was why they were converging near the keep entry in a pack for safety. The postern gate from the keep that led into the kitchens had been barred and locked, so there was no chance he could go that way. Soldiers were covering the exterior in case he decided to drop from one of the windows, and one very capable knight was waiting in the stables in case he made it that far. Better still, the commander of Questing, James de Wolfe who was also known by Blayth, was standing just outside the entry door. Every possible exit was covered, meaning Thomas was being driven to the entry where the majority would be waiting for him. At the moment, however, they were simply anticipating his movements as best they could.

He was somewhere in the keep, lurking. There was a small guard room, a solar, and then a main receiving chamber and a servant’s corridor that comprised the access points of the foyer. But at the moment, the knights were gathered in the solar, planning for the inevitable. Waiting. A storm was about to roll through. “Uncle Thomas will strike to injure,” a very tall, very large young man with big blue eyes and nearly black hair spoke. “I suggested the older knights wait here while the younger men attend to him. He will not escape us.” He had an eloquent way of speaking, one that made everyone look to him. Markus de Wolfe was the eldest son of Patrick de Wolfe, and he had his father’s size and strength, but his manner was much as his grandfather’s had been at that age – supremely confident in all things.

It was a confidence borne of youth, but at only nineteen years of age, he was already a full-fledged knight, which fed into that pride. He also happened to be the grandson of a Viking king, and he looked every inch the powerful Viking prince. But his father, who was standing a few feet away, shook his head at his arrogant son. “And you think he will escape us?” he said, incredulous. “Markus, either you think your uncles and I are going to collapse like brittle old women before your Uncle Thomas, or you are genuinely trying to protect us. I will choose to believe the latter because if it is the former, I will unleash your uncles, Troy and Scott, on you so that you can see just how weak they really are.” Patrick was referring to his older brothers, the eldest sons of William de Wolfe, twins by birth. Scott and Troy de Wolfe were, even at their age, remarkable warriors and seasoned commanders, so the threat was not an idle one. They were still quite tough and quite deadly. Markus knew that; he looked to his uncles, who were gazing at him in varying degrees of displeasure.

Realizing his boast wasn’t well met, he held up a quelling hand. “I meant to say that it is good training for us to take Uncle Thomas ourselves,” he said, backtracking. “It is not often we get the chance to go up against someone of his caliber who is not trying to kill us.” Over near the wide-mouthed hearth that was spitting out sparks into the stale solar air, William snorted at his grandson’s statement. “What makes you think he will not try and kill you?” he said, eyeing the proud, young knight. “The moment you truly believe that is the moment he will take your legs out from under you and you’ll be lucky to come away with all of your teeth intact. He is desperate and he is angry, making for a volatile combination. So presume he will hurt you if he can, because he will. However, given that you believe this to be a challenge, then I suggest you take your cousins and go hide yourselves in the entry. If I know Thomas, he is looking for the right opportunity to make a break for that entry door.

Make sure he does not reach it.” Markus nodded sharply at his grandfather, motioning to his cousins, who were standing grouped near their grandfather. Young knights who had all of the hunger of the de Wolfes and the skill of their powerful fathers and grandfathers. William de Wolfe, or Will as he was known to the family, was Scott’s eldest son. At twenty years and nine, he was powerfully built and extremely talented. He was also far more level-headed than his arrogant cousin and the smirk on his face told William everything the young man was thinking. Following Will was Andreas de Wolfe, Troy’s eldest son, at twenty years and eight. Andreas was taller than his father and built for battle, yet another gifted de Wolfe offspring. Along with Markus, those three rounded out the eldest of the grandsons of William de Wolfe present in the solar, a legacy that any man would be proud of, but there were more grandsons waiting in the wings. Specifically, waiting on the fringes of the solar and practically gnashing their teeth to be involved in the ambush of their Uncle Thomas.

Young, foolish, eager lads. William eyed the collection of them, who looked at him with great hope that they would be allowed on this endeavor. Rowan de Wolfe was the leader of the de Wolfe cubs at fifteen years, son of James de Wolfe. James, who went by his Welsh name of Blayth, was William’s fourth son, a man believed killed in battle years ago but who had been found living amongst the Welsh, unaware of his true identity. But Blayth had eventually returned to England, bringing with him a Welsh wife, and he had reestablished a strong relationship with his firstborn son, a young man who was growing up to be much like his gentle, humorous, but fierce father. Along with Rowan were his cousins Edward and Axel, at twelve years and ten years respectively, sons of Blayth’s twin sister, Katheryn. Edward and Axel’s father was Alec Hage, son of Kieran Hage, who had been William’s close friend and second-in-command up until his death two years before. The boys had Kieran’s immense size, even at their young age, and they were tough lads who were more than willing to jump into a fight, both a noble and foolish inclination. In this situation, William thought it was more foolish than noble, and he shook his head in resignation at his grandsons. “You intend to help, do you?” he asked them, watching heads bob up and down eagerly.

Suspecting it might do them good to get pummeled in a real fight, he held up his hands as if to surrender. “Then go. Will, watch out for the younger boys. Make sure Thomas does not bash their heads or kick in their teeth.” Will, standing over by the entry to the solar, fought off a grin. “No promises,” he said, waving impatiently to the three younger cousins. “Get over here, you scabs. Stay behind us and move when we move. If your Uncle Thomas catches you alone, he will box your ears.” The boys scampered over to him, although the command was mostly geared towards Edward and Axel.

Rowan was a very big lad for his age and could hold his own in a fight, but the younger two were aggressive and ludicrous at times. With a long look at William, Will grabbed Axel by the neck and yanked the boys out into the darkness of the entry where Andreas and Markus were already looking for a place to hide. To wait. With the six of them out in the entry somewhere, William motioned to Patrick and Scott, standing closest to the banks of fat tallow candles that were burning low and sooty. “Douse those tapers,” he instructed quietly, blowing out the ones at his table, the one he used to conduct Questing business. “Atty, shut the door but put your ear against it. We will wait in here until Thomas makes his move, but the second we hear sounds of a struggle, out we go to join it.” Atty was what the family called Patrick, even now that he was a middle-aged man. When he’d been very young, he’d been unable to pronounce his name and it had come out as ’atty. Patrick moved quickly to do his father’s bidding as Troy and Scott bunched up against the closed door in the darkened chamber, listening to the sounds in the entry outside.

The struggle wasn’t long in coming. It started with a blow, something heavy either being hit or falling, followed by the wail of a boy. Then, two boys. Patrick jerked open the door to find a mass of men writhing on the keep entry with the yelling coming from Edward and Axel. It was so dark in the entry that they couldn’t see what was going on other than a dark, undulating blob of arms and legs, and Patrick, Scott, and Troy plunged into it, grabbing a hold of legs and trying to pull the younger boys from the top of the pile. But that didn’t work so well. Unfortunately, Edward and Axel had battle fever and when Scott grabbed Edward by the leg, the boy panicked and lashed out a foot, catching the man in the chin. As Scott stumbled back, Troy inserted himself into his place, grabbing at another leg that happened to belong to Axel. Thinking he was being attacked, Axel screamed as if he’d been stabbed, momentarily startling everyone involved in the melee. Believing the young boy must have been gored somehow, William came charging out of his solar with an iron bank of candles in his hand, lit up so he could see what the screaming was about only to notice Thomas at the bottom of a pile of men.

He could see his youngest son’s head and hands, but that was about it. Everything else had Will, Andreas, Markus, Edward, Axel, Patrick, and Troy all over it. Unfortunately, the surprise of Axel’s scream had most everyone but Thomas pause in what they were doing, which allowed Thomas to shimmy out from underneath Will and Andreas. But he didn’t have a chance to escape. Realizing Thomas was using a frightened young boy to his advantage, Scott, Troy, and Patrick pounced on Thomas’ upper body, wrestling him to the ground and keeping him there. With Will, Andreas, Markus, and the two young boys on his legs, Thomas was effectively trapped but he wasn’t giving up easily. He continued to growl and strain against men who weren’t going to let him escape. With all of the noise and screaming, it was inevitable that the entry door opened. Blayth entered, enormous and blond and scarred, his eyes widening at the pile of men on the floor. He came to stand next to his father, looking rather incredulous.

“You caught him,” he said to his father. “Excellent work.” But William wasn’t feeling so proud. He thought this was all rather futile. He watched the mass, sighing heavily. “Thomas,” he said calmly. “Is this truly how you wish to end up? With your brothers holding you down like an animal? If your Uncle Kieran was here, you would be suffering his Helm of Shame for your actions. That is what he did to knights who shirked their duties.” Scott, Troy, and Patrick all fought off grins to varying degrees, knowing what the Helm of Shame was. They’d heard the stories from the old knights and, truth be told, Thomas was very lucky Kieran wasn’t present.

No one wanted the Helm of Shame. As it was, Thomas’ face was pressed into the wooden floor of the entry by virtue of Patrick’s hand on the back of his head. He tried to say something to his father but the words were muffled, so Patrick wrapped his enormous hand in Thomas’ long, dark hair and pulled his head up by the strands. William bent over, trying to look his boy in the eye. “Did you say something?” he said. “I hope it was an apology. I hope it was a plea for my mercy because it is only by the grace of God that I am not going to throttle you.” Thomas’ lips were covered with dirt from the floor. “You lied to me,” he said, spitting out the dirt. “You were not truthful when you told me that you were gathering your commanders to discuss increased border activity.

You lied to me and expected me not to react.” William shook his head. “I did not lie to you,” he said steadily. “I have never lied to you. What I told you was true; we have all gathered to discuss increased border activity with the border reivers. We have discussed it. Now it is on to other business.” It was that other business that had Thomas so enraged. He kept trying to push himself off the floor and dislodge his brothers, but it was impossible. “Where is the Earl of Northumbria, Edmund de Vauden?” Thomas demanded.

“I will tell him to his face what I think about his little scheme!” Anger had him at least lifting his brothers up, who were starting to laugh because Thomas’ unearthly strength was born of his fury. The younger knights weren’t seeing any humor in it, but Scott and Troy and Patrick were having a difficult time keeping a straight face. Yet, William met his son’s anger calmly. “It is not Northumbria’s scheme,” he said. “At least, not completely. Thomas, you are acting like an idiot. With all of the recklessness of your youth and your unsavory reputation in The Levant, I was never ashamed of you, but if you keep this up, I will, indeed, be ashamed of your behavior. You ran off before I could fully explain the situation to you and now I must explain it to you as Scott and Troy are squeezing the breath from you and Atty has his hands in your hair. Is this truly how you want to behave? To have your brothers restrain you so that I may speak to you on the situation?” Thomas was so angry that he was lifting his brothers up again and again, trying to dislodge them. Seeing this, Blayth moved from his father’s side and straddled Thomas as much as he could, sitting down on the man’s torso to force him down.

Thomas went down to stay after that; not even he could dislodge four very large men from his upper body. As he lay there, head turned to one side, William crouched down beside his son so that he could see his face. “Now,” William said quietly. “You will listen carefully to me because it is important. You have had your entire life to do as you please, Thomas, but it is time you fulfill your destiny as a de Wolfe, and that means a strategic marriage. You owe that to your family and to the de Wolfe legacy. Do you understand me so far?” Thomas refused to answer. He refused to look at his father, but William knew he heard him. He continued. “Edmund de Vauden is a major landholder in the north and the man is wildly rich,” he said.

“He is related to the royal family from generations back, a direct descendant of a bastard of Robert Curthose, son of the Duke of Normandy, and by virtue of that relationship, holds the title Earl of the ancient kingdom of Northumbria. His only child and heiress, daughter Adelaide, is in need of a husband. Allow me to explain to you what this means even though I know you are already aware – Edmund owns Kyloe Castle and Twizell Castle, plus several others. His lands go from Warenford down to Rennington, and all the way out to the sea. Kyloe Castle itself is a massive fortress that holds more men than Berwick does. It has the largest standing army outside of Alnwick in the north, but more importantly, Edmund de Vauden is the governor of Bamburgh Castle, a royal estate. You know how important that castle is. It is that castle, that army, and that empire which needs a strong hand – your strong hand, Thomas. Marry Adelaide de Vauden and you shall know an empire bigger than any estate in the north, including mine.” Thomas was still staring off into space, refusing to answer, which perturbed William.

His patience began to thin. “I did not raise you to disrespect my will as blatantly as you are doing, so listen well,” he growled. “I will tell your brothers to release you. If you run, it will not be back to Wark Castle. Wark belongs to me and if you disobey me, you are no longer my garrison commander. You may as well keep running because no one will take you in. You are the youngest of my sons but I have never known you to be disobedient. If you intend to start now by refusing this betrothal, then you should tell me now. I will have other arrangements to make.” Thomas’ jaw was ticking angrily but the hazel eyes, a similar color as his mother’s, moved to William, gazing at the man steadily.

It was clear that he had something to say, but he never got the chance. A voice from behind them, from the great mural stairs that led to the upper level of the keep, rang out against the cold stone walls. “Thomas, get up.” Jordan de Wolfe was viewing the mass of men and grossly displeased about it. “Atty, Scott, Troy, Blayth – get off the man. Do ye hear me? All of ye, get up.” The heavy Scottish accent of Jordan was not to be trifled with. The mother of the enormous men wrestling on the floor, and more besides, she was a strong, ageless beauty, a tribute to her family and to womanhood as a whole. They didn’t come any finer, stronger, intelligent, or beautiful than William’s wife of over fifty years. More than any battle commander, her voice made men move.

Blayth was the first one to stand up, pulling Patrick up with him. Patrick pulled on Scott as Troy leapt to his feet, hissing at Markus and Andreas and Will. Those three got up, yanking Edward and Axel to their feet as Thomas, at the bottom of the pile, bolted to his feet, turning to look at his mother as she began to come down the stairs. Jordan had a little girl with her, an eight-year-old child, one that she had not given birth to, but one she had raised since birth. The child looked like a porcelain doll, with curly dark hair and big, dark eyes, and the moment Jordan and the child came to the base of the stairs, the little girl yanked her hand from Jordan’s grasp and ran to Thomas, who picked the child up and cradled her. It was like throwing water on a fire. It had been a strategic move on Jordan’s part. Thomas could not become too angry with little Caria around, a child named after the Welsh word for heart. Though Thomas was not the father, Caria de Wolfe belonged to him. She was his heart.

“Intae the solar,” Jordan said quietly, pointing to the door and turning her son for it. “Go in and sit. Caria has been askin’ for ye, so take her with ye.”

.

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