The Heart of Valor (by Aigneis)

Summary:  I’ve played a little loosely with history here, but I think it’s still in keeping with the timing of the show. There is no intent to infringe on the copyrights held by ABC, Gil Grant or any other holder of the Covington Cross copyrights. No profit is being made from the story in the version it now stands. Hope you enjoy it!
Category:  Covington Cross
Genre:  Medieval
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  14,301


 

The herald rode through to the inner courtyard of Covington Cross and leapt down from his horse, his cloak billowing vigorously behind him in the early morning breeze. Without breaking his stride, he dashed to the door and knocked firmly. Moments later he was standing in the study of Sir Thomas Grey, nearly out of breath and holding out a message from King Edward. “His majesty awaits your answer, m’lord.

Bewildered by the degree of urgency in the boy’s voice, Thomas wasted not a moment in opening the sealed parchment. What matter could be of such magnitude as to demand an immediate response, he wondered. He smiled warily at the boy as he began to read, but even that smile soon dropped away, and he leaned back in his chair, heaving a great sigh. It almost seemed as if he had to catch his breath nearly as much as the young man who stood before him, and he sat for a moment, his brow creased in thought, his eyes lost in contemplation. Finally, without a word being spoken, he leaned forward, and taking his pen in hand, he etched his reply on a blank piece of parchment. Then, sealing it, he handed it to the young man. “God speed,” he whispered, and the boy bowed, bolting out the door and nearly knocking Richard off his feet.

“What was that all about?” Richard queried. He strode into his father’s study, nonchalantly munching on a fresh pair. His tawny hair was tousled and fell down casually across his sea green eyes, but in spite of his slightly unkempt appearance, there was no doubt that noble blood ran through his veins. It was apparent in the tone of his voice and the very way he carried himself. As Thomas did not answer at once, the boy flopped down in the large chair in front of his father’s desk, swinging a leg over its intricately carved arm and causing his father to lift an eyebrow in irritation.

“Will you ever grow up, Richard?” Thomas snapped. Then not wanting to engage in such trivial banter, he shook his head and sighed deeply. “Just fetch Armus for me, will you. I need speak with him immediately.”

Richard grinned mischievously, pleased by the prospect of someone other than himself being in trouble. “What has he done?”

The furrows in Thomas’ brow only deepened. “Never mind! Just do as you’re told.”

Richard knew that whatever it was, his father was not in the mood to share that information. Without another word, he did as Thomas asked, and moments later, both boys returned. This time Richard decided it might be better to stand and avoid his tendency to slouch in the chair altogether, for with the mood his father was in, he had no desire to irritate him any further. Thomas was staring out the window, the parchment held crumbled in his hand, his face gray and troubled. Armus and Richard looked to each other, the younger boy shrugging slightly, and then turned back to their father. Finally, Armus broke the silence, his voice full of concern. “What is it Father? Has there been some bad news?”

Thomas did not answer right away, and the boys glanced at each other once more, not quite knowing what to make of it. Could it be news of William, they wondered, yet they both knew better than to press their father when his disposition had taken such an irritable turn, and so they waited quietly. Still, his silence was frustrating, more than Richard could bear. He opened his mouth to speak, but Armus shot him a warning glance, and he reluctantly capitulated.

Finally, Thomas turned around, laying the mysterious communication on his desk, and taking a deep, painful sigh before he spoke. “The King has plans to invade Scotland. He has asked that I send a contingent from Covington Cross. I am obligated of course to do so. Armus, you will leave at first light with twenty of our best men. I will notify them at once.”

“Yes, Father,” Armus replied, his voice as calm and analytical as always. “Where are we to meet up with the main body?”

“Just south of Hexham. All the information you need is here.”

“What about me?” Richard asked, but it was as if he had not spoken at all. His father and brother continued to discuss the campaign as if he were not even in the room, and for one fleeting moment, he realized what it must have felt like to be Cedric, never quite considered old enough for any important duties. He, however, was not his younger brother, but a knight of the realm, fully qualified to take on such responsibilities. He had no intention of standing by in silence while they made plans to invade Scotland. “Father!” he shouted, and both Armus and Thomas stopped mid sentence and looked up. “Let me do this.”

“I’ve already made my decision, Richard,” Thomas said. “I have no intention of arguing with you about this matter.” Then he turned back to Armus intent on continuing their conversation. Richard, however, was not finished.

“But why? Armus has already served, and I . . .” He almost felt embarrassed by what he was about to say, but then continued, his voice firm, even on the verge of anger. “I’ve stayed here and watched my brothers go off to war, while I remained behind to tend the crops. Sometimes I wonder why I even became a knight, but it surely was not to be the keeper of the crops.” Then seeing the look of pain on his father’s face, he lowered his voice and continued, almost pleading. “Please, Father, Armus will inherit everything. He will be lord of this castle one day, and I do not begrudge him that, but can’t I at least

have a chance to make a name for myself. Perhaps even earn my own castle one day. How can I do that if I’m never allowed to do anything of real consequence?”

“Richard,” Thomas scolded his son. “I’ve seen to it that you’ll have money enough to buy your own land when the time comes, and Armus has already agreed to sell you some of his inheritance. Besides, you have land in your own right from the king. As a second son, it is not your responsibility to fulfill my pledge.

“No, but it is my responsibility to act as nothing more than a steward for your estates,” Richard replied. He could feel the temperature rising in his face, but he could not control his thoughts. He would not be passed over here.

“That’s nonsense, Richard,” Thomas bellowed his own temperature rising. “I’ve never treated you as anything less than my son. Armus, reason with him.”

Armus, however, could see his brother’s point and had no desire to get in the middle of the war that was about to begin right in the middle of Covington Cross. Besides, he really did not understand why his father was so against Richard doing his part. He had a good arm and a straight eye. Surely he was nearly as proficient as himself, if not better, for he was smaller and far more agile. Still, he did not feel now was the time to question his father about such issues, though he was sure it had nothing to do with Richard’s managerial abilities. A thought crossed his mind momentarily, and he dismissed it at once, yet it was not the first time he had wondered about it. Was it that his parents had loved the sweet adorable Richard more than he who was large and whose hair was plain and straight? His father called his name again, and he was jarred from his contemplation.

“I think I’ll wait outside, and let the two of you sort this out.”

“Armus,” Thomas called as his eldest son left the room. The turning back to his second son, he tried to continue in a more moderate tone. “Richard, be reasonable. I need you here.”

“But you don’t need Armus, or William?” Richard replied, his voice rising again. He was not going to let this go. He’d said nothing all the years Armus was away, and then on his return, he’d remained quiet while William went off to war, even though by right it was his position. Now was his chance, maybe his only chance at proving himself a knight, and he was not going to stand by silently while it passed him by as well. He sighed angrily, and then composed himself enough so that his tone did not seem as much argumentative as it did desperate. “Think how I feel, Father! I’ve been a knight for nearly four years, and I’ve yet to go to battle. I need to do this . . . Does the King specifically ask for your eldest son?”

“He asks that I send a representative of my house, but . . .”

“Then why can’t I go . . . or don’t you believe I have what it takes?”

“Richard,” Thomas chided, but he said no more.

“That’s it, isn’t it?” Richard barked. “You think I’ll do something to disgrace you.” Thomas tried to speak, but in truth he could think of nothing to say. “You trust me with your estates. Of course, I’m under your eye here, but off to war . . . Well . . . that’s another matter entirely, isn’t it?”

“That has nothing to do with it,” Thomas protested. He turned again to gaze out the window, his eyes searching the horizon for the answer, but there was none. He had feared this day for almost seventeen years. It was foolish and superstitious, he knew that, and yet he could not shake the nagging fear he’d harbored since that day so long ago.

“Then let me go, Father! Give me the chance to prove myself.”

Thomas sighed wearily. He knew his son was right. There was no logical reason to deny him this honor. He was well aware of how obstinate Richard could be, knew that his hesitation was pointless, for in fact the boy could decide to hire himself out to any lord in the country if he so chose. His reputation as an expert swordsman preceded him, and there was no doubt, he would be eagerly taken on by any noble he approached. Better he should be under his own banner, Thomas conceded reluctantly. “All right, Richard!” he moaned, though the boy seemed oblivious to his father’s concession.

“Have I ever done anything to shame you in front of your peers? . . .”

“All right, Richard,” Thomas said, his tone much firmer.

“Yes, there may have been a time or two I was a bit of an embarrassment, but . . . “

“I said you may go in your brother’s stead,” Thomas shouted, “just please, for god sake, stop your whining.

Richard was stunned. Had he heard his father correctly? He was going to be allowed to lead the men of Covington Cross into battle. His heart was pumping with excitement, and he had not yet even left his father’s study. Without another word, he ran from the room and began to gather his things together. He was not going to risk his father changing his mind at the last moment, and so, except for a short period later that evening, he managed to avoid him for the rest of the day. In a matter of hours he was to leave for the north of England, where he would rendezvous with his King and serve his country.

The night seemed to drag on, and he recalled a similar sensation as a child, when he would lie awake the night before the fair, too excited to sleep. Finally, the first wisps of morning light tinged the darkness, and he hurried down to the outer bailey to meet those who were to join him. His father had given him all the proper correspondence the night before, as well as a good long talking to about how he should conduct himself as the leader of men and representative of his house. For the first time in his life he would be going into battle, a real battle. He would finally be doing what he had been trained to do.

Thomas was there to bid him farewell, the heaviness in his heart obvious as he spoke. “Godspeed, Richard. May He bring you home safe to us.”

“I will make you proud, Father.” Richard could hardly speak, the emotion of the moment overcoming him as he hugged his father and mounted his chestnut steed. “We shall return victorious.” With that, he called to his men, and dropping his arm, led them away from Covington Cross.

*****

Three weeks later, Richard was standing on Scottish soil, facing an enemy of ragtag farmers and nobles, who were bent on repelling his king from their land. Few of them had horses, and while he felt confident it would be to England’s advantage, he could also see it turning against them. Just in case, he prepared himself to fight on foot as well and informed his men to be ready to do the same. He looked around at their faces and could see a combination of excitement and fear, eagerness and the urge to turn around and go home. There is no glory in war, Armus had told him on many an occasion, and for the first time, he truly understood those words for his emotions were now much the same as those of his men. Though he would fight, to the death if necessary, there was a part of him that wondered why he had been so insistent on serving in his brother’s place. Nothing he had learned as a squire had prepared him for this.

He looked down the line of men massed across the field, waiting for his commander to signal when they were to move. The archers acted first. He sat on his steed watching silently while volley after volley of arrows crossed the field, only to be met midway by the enemy’s darts. He could not help but cringe as foot soldiers fell before him, screaming in agony. Many were just boys, younger even than he was. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to compose himself. It was not the first time he’d faced a dangerous situation, not the first time he’d seen a man die, and yet somehow this was different. He shivered involuntarily.

“Are you all right, my lord,” one of his men asked. Richard smiled and nodded his head, but in truth he wondered if the veteran who had just spoken to him might not be better to lead. What did he know about going into battle? It was only because of his noble birth that he sat in that position, a duty that need be paid to their liege for the land and titles his father possessed. He had always thought he had wanted to be Armus, to be the eldest son, the first chosen to serve in his father’s stead and inherit his estates and status. Now, he understood why Armus had wished he were the second son, and he felt more comfortable in that position than ever before.

“Then what am I doing here?” Richard whispered slightly louder than he meant to.

“Something we’ve all wondered from time to time, my lord,” the veteran smiled, and suddenly Richard felt the need to take this well seasoned man into his confidence.

“I’ve never led anyone into battle before, Simon. What if I get you all killed?”

“You’ve trained well as a knight, my lord. Trust your instincts and you will do fine. Some of us will die, ‘tis true, maybe all of us by the looks of things, but it will not be do to any lack of skill on your part. I’ve seen you fight, my lord. You heart is true. Trust yourself, Sir Richard, for there is no doubt these men do.”

Richard nodded with uncertainty, and then looked down the line again. It would not be long now before the order came. He turned to the veteran again. It was as if he had to confess his sins before going into battle. “Have you ever felt fear, Simon?”

The old soldier gave a hollow laugh, filled with sadness. “If I had not, my lord, I’d be certain I’d lost my mind. That’s what true courage is, Sir Richard. Doing what you know has to be done, even though you’re scared to death. Don’t fight the fear, my lord. Let it work for you.”

Richard swallowed hard and nodded again. He took a deep breath of the cool, damp air and then looked down the line once more. A raise from his hand would send these men forward, more than likely to their deaths. He wanted to be sure he did not act too soon, not serge forward before the order had been given, for he wanted to afford them every advantage. There was a part of him that prayed the signal would never come, that they would turn around and go home, leave Scotland to the Scots, but he knew it would never be. For the first time in his life, he truly understood the abhorrence Armus had felt for war. As he gazed across the field, he saw men very much like himself, fighting for what they believed just as he was, and yet in moments he would be doing all within his power to end their lives. He understood the reasoning behind it, knew it must be done, yet at the same time, he felt a great sorrow overcome him. He hated war. His brother had been right.

A rustle of activity to his left caused him to gaze down the field once more, and he saw the Duke ride forward to his position on the line. It would not be long now. His heart was pounding; his breath short and dry as he awaited the signal. He thought he was going to be ill. If they would just get on with it, he thought, for the waiting seemed to be nothing less than torture. Then, it came, the sign he had been expecting. He took one last breath and lifted his hand, preparing the men to charge. Then he dropped his arm and spurred his horse forward. Almost as if they were bound together, his men followed; swords drawn, armor clanging, until with one great crash they collided with the Scottish hordes.

They fought secure from their mounts for a time, but then they began to go down. It was inevitable in the sea of Scots they had invaded. They were outnumbered three to one. Richard felt his steed stumble and had all he could do to keep himself from the being pinned beneath it. He ground his teeth together, swinging his sword with one hand, his dagger held firmly in the other. Make each thrust count, he remembered his uncle saying, and so he did, but what of his men. Fight well and your men will follow, he heard his father say. He would not falter; he could not. He parried a blade that was heading for his neck, then thrust into its master, bringing him down. He did not think of these men, who they were, the families they left behind. He could not allow himself that luxury. A blade slit his arm and he turned to stop it from inflicting further damage. All around him swords were clashing, men were dying, war was raging.

Then he saw a Scottish sword flying toward the head of one of his men. Without thinking Richard lunged forward and parried it. From off to his side, somewhat distant, he heard a voice call his name. He turned slightly, just in time to feel the point of a sword slip in between his armor and pierce his side. It caused him to catch his breath, but he would not give up. He lunged forward, inflicting his own blow upon his assailant, but another struck from behind, and this blow he could not fight off. He fell to his knees, the sword dropping from his hand, and darkness fell around him like a great black curtain.

*****

The sound of women weeping reached Richard’s ears even before he opened his eyes. Funeral dirges, loud and shrill, for the men that lay, plaid kilted, in the blood stained grass. He did not move, but glanced cautiously around the field, still dazed by the pain in his side and back. Here and there men were crying out. Some pleaded for water, others for their mothers to comfort them, and still others begged God to end their misery. It was the most horrible sound he had ever heard in his life. It was the sound of death, violent death, and he lay right in the middle of it. Indeed, he was a part of it for he could gaze down and see his life’s blood running out upon the soil, enriching it for generations to come. His sword lay inches from his hand, bloodied with the life of others. The man who had inflicted his first deadly blow was just beyond it; face up in the grass, his eyes staring to the heavens as if by doing so he could somehow will himself there. Richard felt ill, and closed his eyes again, commanding the sensation to pass.

Somehow, he found the strength to crawl over to another wearing his colors. It was Bryan Canfield, a strong man by all accounts and good with a sword. Yet he slept there, his eyes as dim and vacant as the Scot who had plunged his sword in Richard’s side. Hand shaking, Richard reached up and closed his eyes, gagging slightly as he noticed the large gash in the man’s head. How many more of these men had he led to their death, he wondered. Just then, he heard a groan off to his left. It was Simon Milford, the old veteran who had given him courage not hours before. Richard forced himself to his side, a tear trickling down his pale and bloodied cheek.

“My lord,” Simon whispered, his breath all but gone. “I thought you’d fallen.”

“I did,” Richard answered. “I’ve failed you all.”

“Failed us, my lord!” the man managed to exclaim. “If any walked away from here, it is because of your strength. You are a true knight, my lord. It is my honor to have died in your service.” With that the man smiled, and gripping Richard’s arm, passed to a better world.

Richard wanted to cry, to scream out in anger, to weld his sword against anyone left standing in that miserable vale. This was a brave man who laid before him, a man with a home and family, a man who deserved to live. Yet as he looked around at the women tending their dead, he realized that they must feel much the same way. Soon he would be one of the dead, he thought, for he was bleeding profusely from the back and side and could feel his strength draining away. Wearily, he removed his helmet, laying face down on the dampened sod. Here and there batches of heather sprang up around him. Flowers for his grave, he mused. For some reason, he felt compelled to reach out and touch Simon’s arm. Perhaps he felt the need to die with his men and not alone in a foreign land, but as he did, he remembered the words the veteran had spoken earlier that day. Courage is doing what you know has to be done, even though you’re scared to death. Richard knew then he had to fight. He had to try and return home, if not for himself, than for the men he had led into this valley of death. He may never see Covington Cross again, but if he was going to die, it would at least be on his way there, not languishing in his own blood waiting for death to take him. His body trembled as he used his knife to tear the hem from his cloak. Then he wrapped it around his side and back as best he could, hoping at least to stem the tide of blood that flowed from his wounds. He wiped his hands across his eyes to clear away the droplets of sweat that had run into them, and grinding his teeth together, his jaw fixed, he willed himself to stand.

It was dark now, the moon only a crescent as he made his way through the sea of bodies. He hoped he was heading south, for he had looked to the crest they had ridden down just hours before and headed in that direction. Time seemed to almost stand still as he walked along, his breath coming in painful bursts, his side and back throbbing mercilessly. Never had his armor felt so heavy, or his throat so dry. It was just about daybreak, and the sun began to creep over the horizon to his left. He was heading the right direction, and said a silent prayer of thanksgiving as he stumbled over a rock, banging up against a tree. Just a bit more and he would be across the English border. He could rest then, he told himself as he trudged along, his feet heavy and his body weary beyond belief. A large peel tower loomed off in the distance, but he could not tell if it were English or Scottish. Just then, his legs gave out beneath him, and he fell prostrate upon the ground. Perhaps someone would find him and send his body home, he thought as he drifted into oblivion, unable to retain his consciousness a moment longer.

*****

“Here, drink this,” the young auburn-haired girl whispered. She held a cup to Richard’s lips and he sipped generously. “That’s enough now. Too much at once an ye’ll make yerself sick.”

She dipped a rag in a basin and wiped it across Richard’s face, then down along his chest and arms. As consciousness returned, it dawned on him that he was naked, covered only by a thin linen sheet. My God, he thought, was she preparing him for burial? But he was still alive, wasn’t he? As if to prove it to himself, as much as her, he struggled to sit up.

“Where do ye think ye’r goin’?” she asked. She gently pressed her hand against his shoulder, pushing him back down on the soft mattress. “Ye’ll tear those stitches apart.”

“Stitches?” Richard looked at her curiously. “You mean I’m not dead?”

“Near enough ta it, I’d say, when me bruthers found ye, but ye’r right enough now. Nought a few days rest winna cure.”

“Where am I?” Richard felt confused and disoriented. He remembered the battle, the scene in its aftermath, and walking for what seemed an eternity, but that’s when his memory failed him. The girl smiled, seeming to understand what was on his mind.

“Ye’r at me family’s stronghold, just outside o’ Langholm.”

“Scotland!” It was as Richard had feared. He had not made it to English soil, but was in Scotland, in the hand of border dwellers no less.”

“Oh, dinna look so horrified,” the girl grinned. “Me ma’s from England, an’ she’s faired all right here. O’ course, me Da an’ bruthers hae plans ta hand ye o’er ta the Warden as soon as ye’r able, so it may be ta yer advantage ta act poorly as long as ye can. They’re still stingin’ fra battle, an’ it may take ’em a while ta get o’er it.”

“How long have I been here?”

“A few days, nought more, but ‘twas in a bad way ye came ta us. More’s the better for you, though, else ye’d be in the Warden’s hands e’en as we speak.”

“What will he do with me?” Richard asked. He was not afraid, just curious; after all, he had just faced death and somehow managed to survive that. What could be worse, unless of course it was a Scottish jail. He had heard about the Hermitage, and its dreary dungeons. No one escaped from their deadly grip, or so he had heard. Then again, he might not even make it there if they decided they did not want to take the time for a trial. There were always the drowning holes, and every tree along the border was a hangman’s tree. Death upon the field of battle just might have been preferable, he mused.

“That’s up ta the Warden, now isn’t it?” the girl said without any emotion at all. “He may just trade ye for a Scot, or he may . . . well, ‘tis no use thinking about that now, is there?”

Easy for you to say, Richard thought, as she lifted his head and gave him another drink of water. She was a beautiful girl, with long wavy auburn hair that fell in soft strands upon her shoulders. Her eyes were the deepest blue he had ever seen, and Richard could easily imagine himself drowning in them. As weary as he was, he could feel the blood pounding in his thighs; feel the desire growing within him. It did not help that she had continued to wash him and her hands were coming perilously close to his lower extremities as it were.

“Kate!” a gruff voice shouted from the doorway. “I think ye better let Ma finish there. Do ye want ta drive the lad insane?”

“Oh, Geordie, ya such a swine,” Kate said with a scowl. “He’s a fine gentleman, not a lecherous boar like yerself.”

“He’s all his parts, has he na?” her brother Robbie chimed in, a mischievous grin upon his face. “Then he’s as depraved as the rest of us, an he’ll na be havin’ his way wi’ me sister.”

“He’ll na be havin’ his way wi’ anyone you vast fool,” Kate shouted as she pulled the blanket up around Richard’s neck. “Can ya na see how ill he is.”

“He’s a man, isn’t he?” Her mother strode across the room placing a clean bowl of water on the table. “They can be on death’s door and still be remarkably agile in some respects. Now out wi’ ye. I’ll take care o him.”

“But Ma!” Kate complained. “I’ve cared for that lot, have I not, and survived an all.”

“Their ye bruthers, and they know they’d go blind if they thought about ye in any uther way. Now out wi’ ye while I wash the rest o’ him.”

Richard’s eyes grew wide. Now he was scared. They might as well just kill him and get it over with, for after Kate’s soft touch upon his legs, his emotions would be all too obvious. “It’s all right, really,” he said as he grabbed the blanket up tight around his neck. “I’d rather rest, if you wouldn’t mind. Can’t that wait until later.”

“Until you’re lathered down, ye mean.” Annie Elliot’s eyes shrewdly surveyed the slender form that lay before her, causing Richard to shift uncomfortably. She had raised eight sons and four daughters and knew well the effect her youngest daughter had on young men. “’Tis all right, lad. She’s a beautiful lass,” she said with a wisp of a smile that contained more of a warning than a comfort. “Just make sure ye keep it beneath them sheets. Ye rest now, and I’ll be back later . . . when ye’r feelin’ better.”

Richard heaved a great sigh of relief. If she ever knew his reputation where the ladies were concerned, she’d have solved the problem right there and then, more than likely with a rusty knife. He had to put Kate out of his mind, think of something less . . . stimulating, but the harder he tried, the harder it was to do. In desperation, he took the rag from the bowl and began washing himself. At least that way, no one would have any reason to look under the sheets, he thought.

He had just laid back down when Annie returned. “Are you feelin’ a bit better now?” she asked. She put a fresh bowl of water down on the table and wrung the rag out with such force, Richard cringed.

“I’ve already done it,” Richard said, almost shouting, then seeing the look of surprise on the woman’s face, he lowered his voice. “Thank you.”

“I see we understand each uther, lad. Now that’s out o’ the way, we should get along just fine. ‘Twas best ta settle it though afore me husband gets home.”

Oh, Lord, Richard thought, he was going to die. He found himself longing for the field of battle. At least there, he had a fighting chance. He winced a bit as the woman removed the bandage she had placed around his midsection.

“Ye had us afeard for a while ye know. We didna e’er think we’d get yer fever down. Ye called for yer muther quite a bit.”

“Did I?” Richard asked, trying not to cry out as she poured a golden liquid over the wound.

“Aye, that ye did. I’m sure she’s worried sick about ye.”

“She died when I was thirteen.” Richard didn’t know why he told her. It just seemed like the right thing to do, and perhaps, as it turned out, it worked to his advantage, for the woman’s touch seemed to soften some.

“I’m sorry ta hear that. The way ye were callin’ ta her, ye must miss her a great deal.”

“I do, though I believe she’s with me even now.”

The woman nodded, and then began bandaging his wounds again. “Aye, I’m sure she is, lad. Have ye any bruthers or sisters?”

“Three brothers and one sister.” He still did not know why he had answered, but it made him feel closer to home somehow, and as it seemed to be having a sympathetic effect on Annie, he did not see what harm it would do.

“That would be Eleanor?” she said.

“Yes, how did you know?” Had he blurted out his entire life’s history in his delirium, he wondered. Worse yet, had he mentioned other female names? Perhaps he should have said he had more sisters.

“’Twas the fever,” she smiled. “Ye’r na the eldest though, are ye?”

“No, I have an older brother, Armus.” He was beginning to become suspicious. Why was she asking so many questions? Why did she care?” Almost as if she could read his mind she answered.

“Oh calm yerself, lad. I’m just tryin’ ta make conversation. Besides, I could tell by yer surcoat ye were na the eldest. They have a way o’ doin’ that ye know.

Richard looked over to the chair where his clothing lay, his surcoat cleaned and folded, though the dull stain of his blood still shown against the pale azure and argent bars. He smiled remembering the day he first wore it, the crescent identifying him as the second son of Sir Thomas Grey.

“I suppose it does.” He looked at the woman again. “Is she your youngest?” he asked, his voice trembling slightly at the thought of the slender girl he had awaken to only that morning. For one moment he had thought himself dead, for surely she was modeled on the angels of heaven.

“I imagine ‘tis Kate ye’r speakin’ of,” Annie said gazing at him askance and lifting her eyebrow. “I thought we’d come ta an understandin’ about that.”

“I was just trying to make conversation.” He smiled in a poor attempt to cover his true motivation, thrusting Annie’s own words back at her, but he’d met his match in the handsome border woman.

“A wise one, you are,” she grinned, still eyeing him cautiously, “but ye’d best be coolin’ yerself, elst me husband will have at yer. ‘Tis only because o’ me he tolerates ye bein’ here in the first place.”

“Because you’ve asked him to? Richard queried. “But why?”

“I’m an English lass meself, born just south o’ York, though I moved ta Hethersgill when I was eight, right aft me own Ma died . . .” Then she stopped for a moment and looked him in the eyes. It was not a cold, hard stare, but one filled with tenderness, almost pleading. “Me Katie’s taken wi’ ye, lad, an I’ve no doubt ye might be wi’ her as well, but it can ne’er be. Her Da would na allow it. ‘Tis a different world ye live in down there.” With that she stood, and picking her bowl up, resumed her previous air. “Now, I’ll bring ye up a bowl o’ soup. Do ye think ye can feed yerself this morn?”

Richard nodded, not quite sure what to make of the whole situation. He’d been warned twice that day, but it was as if the warning came from two different women. Yet she was quite sane of that he was sure. Or was she, for she suddenly said something that left him speechless. Her voice became cold and distant, as did her stare. “He disna think ye incapable, lad, but he does fear a prediction. Much as he’s tried ta deny it, the fear was planted, e’en if he disna believe in such things.”

“I beg your pardon,” Richard said in complete confusion.

“Nothin, lad, I’ll be bringing ye that soup now,” she said, resuming her normal tone, as if she had never spoken the chilling words that caused his skin to grow cold.

“Please, wait, what did you mean?” he shouted. Wrapping the sheet around himself, he began to get up from the bed. Why he was not sure, but there was something about her words that spurred him to action, though his legs did not share the same compulsion. He had no sooner put his weight upon them, than they collapsed, thrusting him back upon the feathered mattress.

“What do ye think ye doin’?” Annie said. She ran back to his side, nearly spilling the bowl of water as she slammed it down upon the table in her haste. “Do ye want to split yerself asunder all o’er agin.

“Tell me what you meant!” he stressed. He starred into her eyes, his jaws firmly set, and she sat back down on the bed, fluffing his pillow and rearranging his crumpled sheets.

“Ye na ta say this ta a livin’ soul, lad, elst they’d think us both mad or worse. Do ye understand that?”

Richard nodded, and Annie sighed looking around as if she expected someone to pop out from behind the door or from under the bed. “I hae a gift, ye see. Sometimes I just know things about people, personal things. I dinna know why, but when I looked at you, I . . .” she hesitated momentarily to collect her thoughts. “Ye fear someone disna have a great faith in ye, but ye’re wrong. What ye see as lack o’ trust is naught but fear.”

“Are you talking about my father?” Richard’s mind was racing. He wanted answers. If Thomas did trust him then why did he act the way he did. Unfortunately, Annie would say no more. “’Tis all I know, lad. I canna control what I see and what I dinna.”

“This prediction he feared. It was that I’d fail, wasn’t it?” Richard felt the tears welling up in his eyes. On the one hand he could not believe he was having this conversation with someone he barely knew, and on the other hand, he wanted to find out more.

“I dinna know, lad. ‘Tis somethin ye’ll hae ta ask him yerself.” She smiled, gently this time, her eyes warm and understanding. “Now, let me get ye that soup, or ye’ll ne’er get home ta find out.”

*****

“Ye hae ta eat, ye know,” Kate said as she brought the spoon to Richard’s mouth. It had been two weeks since he had awakened, and he was growing restless. Not only did he want to get home, but he did not know how much longer he could stand being around the young auburn-haired Scot without throwing his arms around her and smothering her with kisses. She need only be near for his heart to begin pounding furiously, and what was worse, he looked forward to it. Reluctantly, he opened his mouth and let her feed him the course porridge she had prepared. She could sense something was wrong, and it worried her. “What is it, Richard. Ye seem as if yer a million miles away.”

“Not a million,” Richard answered, raising his hand to touch her face, “just about two hundred.”

The feel of her skin upon his fingertips sent ripples of ecstasy down his spine, and he turned away abruptly, his breath deep and his hands trembling. Katie took his hands in hers, leaning over to whisper in his ear, her breath warm and seductive as she spoke.

“Me Ma’s down by the river, doin the clothes, and me Da’s with me bruthers, herdin’ the cattle. ‘Tis nought but a thin sheet between us.”

“I couldn’t,” Richard whispered, but his willpower was rapidly failing him. He wanted to feel her flesh against his, to caress her lips with his own. He swallowed helplessly, unable to move as she slipped beneath the covers.

“Dear god, Kate,” Richard moaned, and he was lost.

*****

“Dinna look so worried, Richard.” Kate smiled softly as she stood to straighten her skirts. “They’ll ne’er know.” Her grin dropped away and a coldness filled her eyes. “I’ve been wi’ other men, ye see. Na o’ me own making, mind ye…”

“Someone . . . took you?” Richard growled. “Who is he? He’ll rue the day . . .”

But Kate interrupted him, the tender smile returning to her face. “’Twas a long time ago, Richard Grey, and me bruthers took care o’ him. They’ll na be anuther round these parts takes me agin.”

“But I . . .” Richard began to speak, but Katie pressed her fingers to his lips.

“No one will e’er know o’ this. I gave me heart freely ta ye.” Her eyes grew sad as she brushed the sandy curls back from his dampened forehead. She smiled again, kissing him on the cheek, but before he could say another word, she headed downstairs, for she could hear her father and brothers coming across the yard. It would not do to have them realize she had been alone in the house with their English guest, and so she ran down to join her mother by the river.

Somehow her words were not reassuring. He was glad her brothers were so protective, and that they would shield her from ever being ravished again. He would do no less for his own sister. But by the same token, if they found out that he had just bedded her, he would be the object of their wrath. Still, he almost did not care, for if he were to die at that moment, he would have died a happy man.

*****

“Come home with me, Kate, back to Covington Cross” Richard whispered the next day as she came to bring him a hot bowl of pottage.

Her smile was soft and inviting, but there was sadness to it. “That can ne’er be, darling. I’m a Scot at begin wi’, an even if I were English, I’d na be welcomed wi’ much favor outside o the borders.”

“My family would welcome you, I’m sure of it.”

“Perhaps, but I fear yer King would na. ‘Tis treason ta e’en think such as that, Richard. They’d hang ye sure, an me as well.”

“Not in England, not where I live.” His voice was becoming desperate now. “I’ll speak to the King. He can arrange a marriage for us.”

“Oh Richard,” she said with a giggle, “ye know the king that well, do ye?”

“My Father does. He’ll speak to him if I ask.”

All of a sudden, Katie’s face turned almost alabaster, and her eyes brightened with an urgency Richard had never seen before. “If ye’r that close ta yer king, Richard, ye’d best keep it ta yerself in these parts. They’d hang ye for that alone.”

“But . . .” he began, but Katie just bent over and kissed his lips once more, her voice tender and compelling.

“Let’s just enjoy the time we have, an hold that in our hearts.” Then slipping once more beneath his covers, she was his.

*****

The next day he ventured out into the barmekin to take some air and stretch his stiffened muscles. As he was rounding one of the outer buildings, he was met by a rider, his auburn hair flaring red in the sun. Sapphire eyes, filled with fury, pierced him through, and somehow he knew they had met before. For a moment, the rider stopped and stared at Richard, but then he clicked his heels and rode on around the side of the peel.

“Come in an get somethin’ ta eat, lad,” Annie called from the doorway. “Ye’ve had enough air for one day.”

Richard came in and sat down at the end of the table. No one else had come in yet, not even Kate who had gone out to gather some berries for a pie. Richard’s head was spinning, for he remembered all too well where he had seen the wild eyed rider. Was this some sort of macabre game they were playing, he wondered? Make him feel secure, only to kill him in the end. Finally, he could stand no more, and he spoke, his voice trembling half from anger and half from fear. “It was your son who did this to me, wasn’t it?

“Eat ye soup, lad,” Annie said, attempting to ignore his question, but Richard would have none of it.

“And that one out there saw what happened next. He saw me kill him, didn’t he?”

“It’ll be no good cold, lad,” Annie continued, still acting as though he had not spoken a word. Richard, however, was not going to play their game. Standing suddenly, he pounded his hand on the long wooden plank of the table.

“Stop it! I killed your son, for god sake. Don’t you feel anything? Why didn’t you just let me die?”

Finally, Annie turned around, wiping her hands on her apron, and then, sitting down at the table, she sighed deeply. “Because it wudna have brought me Walt back, an’ the killin’’ has ta end somewhere.”

“But he was your son!” Richard argued, unable to believe what he had just heard. Annie, however, continued quietly, a sadness permeating her deep cerulean eyes.

“An you are someone’s son as well, as is every uther lad that wielded a blade that day. I’m tired o’ it, I tell ye,” Annie said, her voice rising momentarily before she composed herself and allowed the calmness to return.

“That one out there; he’s your son too, isn’t he. He doesn’t want me to live, that’s obvious. He’d kill me in a moment. Your husband would too, I’d wager, so how is it I still survive, unless they have something more sinister in mind.”

A poignant smile touched Annie’s lips, and she reached across the table to brush her fingers against Richard’s cheek, her voice taking on a tenderness he had never heard before. “They dinna harm ye, lad, because I have asked them na ta.”

Richard was confused. He had never seen this woman before. “I don’t understand. Why would you want to help the man who killed your son?”

“Because ye’ve brought the life back inta me daughter’s eyes,” she smiled, “and me husband owed me this.”

“I still don’t understand. Why would your husband owe you my life?”

“Na yer life, per se, but a life. ‘Twas more than thirty year ago now, he took me bruther in an early mornin’ foray. He didna mean ta, but the clans were at it agin, an just as in any war, men lost their lives. I pleaded wi’ me Da no ta ride agin me Andy, an’ for love o’ me, he let him go. If na for that, me lad would ne’er have been born, ne’er have given me three darlin’ grandchildren, but now, ‘twas time ta pay me bruther’s debt, for Kate asked it o’ me.”

“She asked you to spare my life?” Richard mumbled, half dazed. Could it be possible that she truly wanted him as much as he wanted her? He could no longer hide his feelings. “Let her come back to Covington Cross with me. I swear I would love her, treat her as if she were a princess.”

“Oh, lad,” Annie exclaimed, a touch of amusement in her voice. “How far do ye think me influence can carry? I’ve saved ye life, but I can do no more. Andy will be lookin’ ta take ye ta the Warden in a day or two.” She stopped speaking for a moment, a playful look sparking her deep blue eyes. “Why don’t ye go up an get a wee bit o rest. I’ll have Kate bring ye up somethin’ ta eat later, when it’s quieted down some.”

Richard did not know why, but he trusted this woman. If she was asking him to go upstairs, there was a reason. Could it be that she was going to allow him to have one night with Kate? His heart leapt at the prospect of feeling her silken flesh against his once more. As he headed for the staircase, however, he remembered the strange words she had spoken when he had first arrived. “Who were you talking about that day you said he doesn’t think me incapable but fears a prediction?

“’Twas ye father, lad, ye thought right,” she said matter-of-factly. “Tell him he should put more faith in his own beliefs an’ na those o’ petty fortune tellers.” Richard opened his mouth to speak and she grinned broadly, stopping him before he could get a word out. “’Tis he that can give ye the answers ye looking for, lad, na I. Get on wi’ ye, then. Upstairs now.”

Richard did as he was told, convinced that she was about some kind of border tomfoolery, and later that night Kate came to him as he had suspected. He grabbed her around the waste and pulled her to himself, kissing her full red lips passionately. Though she responded eagerly, a single silver tear ran down her face, touching his cheek, and he pulled back, disturbed by its appearance. “What is it, Kate?”

“We must go tonight, Richard. I’ve horses saddled, and we can be away an across the border afore me Da knows we’re gone.”

Richard grinned broadly, embracing the girl’s tiny form in his muscular arms. “You’ve decided to come with me. I swear, Kate, I will make you happy.”

“I’m sure of it, Richard,” she said with a sad smile, then she took his hand, bidding that he rise, “but we must go now.”

*****

Hugh Downing led a disheveled group of men home from Scotland. Battered and bruised, some with serious wounds, they rode at last into the inner bailey of Covington Cross. The clatter of their hoof beats brought Thomas immediately out of his study, for he knew by the sound it could only be his men returning from the war. A knot grew in his stomach as he walked into the Great Hall, a horrible premonition that Richard was not with them. Trying to tell himself he was wrong, he took a deep breath and opened the door, a huge smile across his face to welcome his troops home.

By the time he did, Hugh was already at the door, his face still marked from the hilt of a sword. Though Thomas spoke to him, his eyes went from horse to horse, searching for his son. Perhaps he had gone to stable his mount, he told himself. Why else would he not be there to speak for himself? The answer came all too soon.

“I’m sorry, m’lord,” Hugh croaked, his voice thick and raspy. “Sir Richard gave his life for England. He died bravely.”

For a moment, Thomas could not speak. Then slowly, he managed to find his voice again, hoping that if he spoke of it, he would find some small ray of hope that his son lived. “How did he die?”

“We were outnumbered, m’lord, three to one at least, but Sir Richard did not hesitate. He did as he was commanded. Midway through, we lost our mounts and had to take to fighting on foot. They were overwhelming us, but we followed Sir Richard and did not waiver. He turned to stop a blade from slicing Jack over there and was hit in the side. He made short work of that one, but another was upon him before he could do anything. I called out to warn him, but it was too late. The fiend made a slicing blow across m’lord’s back, and he went down dead.”

“Perhaps it was not as bad as it looked, and he was still alive,” Thomas ventured.

“I don’t think so, m’lord,” Hugh replied, his head bowed for he hated what he had to say. “He was covered in blood. There was no sign of life in him. I looked as they called retreat, bent down over him. I shook him before they pulled me away, but he didn’t stir.”

“How many others were lost?” Thomas said hypnotically.

“Twelve, m’lord, ten in battle and two more on the way home, their wounds too infected to fight.”

“I will speak to their families, make sure they are well cared for,” Thomas continued, still almost in a comatose state, working more on instinct than from a deliberate effort. “They gave their lives in my service. It is the least I can do.”

“Yes, m’lord,” Hugh replied. He was finding it hard holding back his emotions. Richard had been well liked by the men, Hugh included, as was Sir Thomas, and seeing the man in this state troubled him. He wished there was something he could say, something he could do, but he knew each of them would have to work through their grief in his own way.

Inside, the family, too, was just about to learn of Richard’s demise. Eleanor had been up in the armory, repairing her crossbow again. She swore that she was never going to let Cedric borrow it again. Hearing the clatter of horses in the yard below, she had looked out the window, searching the group of men for her brother. The realization that he was not there washed over her like a horrific tidal wave, and she came running down the stairs in tears just as Armus was coming into the Great Hall, reading a book.

“Eleanor, what’s wrong” Armus shouted. On seeing his sister’s tears, he grabbed her by the arm, hoping to calm her down enough to speak.

“Richard’s not with them,” she sobbed. “He must be dead.”

Armus felt as if a great ball of lead had been dropped into his stomach, ripping his heart down with it. “Perhaps not; he could simply be wounded,” he uttered, trying to convince his sister as much as himself. Cedric was coming down the stairs and Armus grabbed him, sitting him down at the table next to his sister. “I want you to stay with Eleanor until I find out what’s going on,” he commanded.

“Who died and left you boss,” Cedric complained, but it was definitely the wrong thing to say.

Eleanor responded immediately by pounding her fists against the chest of her unsuspecting brother. “You great oaf,” she cried.

“What’s the matter with her,” Cedric yelled. “Has she lost her mind?”

“No,” Armus replied solemnly, “but we may have lost a brother.”

“William?” Cedric asked, forgetting Richard was at war as well, and not on vacation in Scotland. His face grew solemn, and he swallowed a great gulp. “Does Richard know yet?”

“It’s not William, Cedric” Armus answered. “It’s Richard, but we can’t be sure of anything yet.”

“But Richard . . . he just went to Scotland,” Cedric said in disbelief. “Just a little disagreement, he said.”

“Leave it to Richard to underestimate things of importance,” Armus said with a small laugh, though his eyes burned with tears. “Stay with Eleanor, Cedric. I need to speak to Father.”

Cedric just nodded. He was still trying to understand what Armus had told him. It could not be Richard, he thought. Everyone said he was one of the best swordsmen in all of England. At least that’s what everyone he knew said. Surely no one could have bested him in Scotland.

Armus opened the door just as Hugh was turning to leave. He needed only to look at the man’s face to have his answer. He had seen that face on a hundred other men; men who had to deliver similar messages to the families of their deceased comrades. He had worn that face many times himself. There was no mistaking what he had come to say. His eyes spoke volumes.

“Come inside, Father,” Armus said as he put his arm around Thomas, but the man was still dazed, still denying the truth of what he had been told.

“I have to go see their families. So many good men; I owe them that much at least.”

“Please Father, come inside,” Armus repeated.

“Yes, of course,” Thomas said with a smile. “I need to get some coins from my study. That should help them a bit, don’t you think?”

Armus bit his lip. He did not know how to handle this. What was he to do? He followed his father into his study, leaving Eleanor and Cedric waiting anxiously in the Great Hall.

“He’s gone, Father,” Armus uttered helplessly, his voice deep and thick.

“Get me that chest, will you, Armus.”

“Father, please!” Armus shouted, loud enough to bring Eleanor and Cedric to the study to see what was happening. “It’s not your fault!”

With those words, Thomas stopped what he was doing. He suddenly looked as if he had aged twenty years as he fell down in his chair. “Yes, it is my fault,” he muttered, barely able to say the words. “I should not have agreed to let him go.”

“He had every right to go, just as I had,” Armus stressed.

“No, not Richard,” Thomas said. “I should have protected him.”

A bolt of anger ran through Armus with those words. He was not sure why he let it affect him so. Perhaps it was because Richard was dead, and somewhere deep inside he wanted to vent the rage he felt, or maybe it was a jealousy that had lain dormant, undetected by him over the years. Why did his Father worry so about protecting Richard, when he allowed him to go off without any more than mild annoyance? And William was permitted to leave with no more than a stern lecture. But Richard, dear Richard! Armus wondered if his father might not have even preferred Eleanor or Cedric to go before sending him. Armus hated himself for what he was thinking, but he could not keep still any longer. “Why Father,” he bellowed. “Why did Richard need protecting anymore than the rest of us? Were we not as worthy of your love?”

Thomas, Cedric and Eleanor all looked at Armus, their faces revealing the shock they felt, and Armus wished at that moment that the earth would have opened beneath him and swallowed him up. How could he have said such a horrible thing? His brother was dead, a brother he loved without reservation, without condition, in spite of his faults. Richard, who spent his childhood looking up to him; who came to him with his problems; who never doubted his love regardless of how they argued. Richard was gone!

Armus fell down in the chair in front of his father’s desk, his head bowed in shame and sorrow. Where had those despicable words come from? He wished he had gone to Scotland, died in Richard’s place. He would never forgive himself for those words; never forget that he had spoken them. Just then, he felt Thomas’ hand upon his shoulder.

“It’s all right, Armus,” his father said. His voice was calm and gentle. “It’s my fault; I should have explained it to you years ago.”

”I didn’t mean that, Father,” Armus said. He was trying hard to choke back the emotion. He wanted to be strong for Cedric and Eleanor, for his father, and yet, he had spouted the most hateful words he could have ever imagined. In truth, he had been as much in denial as his father had. Now the reality of the situation had begun to sink in. A tear ran down his cheek as he spoke. “My brother is gone. I should have protected him, kept him safe. I should have gone with him.”

“There was nothing either of us could do, Armus,” Thomas replied. “He would have gone whether you went or not, and he would have died just the same. I was told years ago, but I refused to listen, thought it foolish superstition.”

“What are you talking about, Father,” Cedric asked. All three children looked at him, confused by what he said. Someone had told him that Richard would die, but how could that be possible? Thomas walked back behind his desk and sat back in his chair, his eyes fixed before him.

“Richard was very young, maybe five, and we had gone to the fair that autumn. There was a fortune teller there. You wanted to go, Armus, do you remember?”

“Vaguely,” Armus said curiously, “but was has that to do with Richard? If I remember correctly, you wouldn’t let me.”

“No, I thought it superstitious nonsense and wanted to teach you not to believe in such things. You began to pout, and I walked ahead with you a bit. When I turned around, Richard was standing in front of the tent with your mother, and the woman was shouting. I didn’t hear what at the time, but your mother was terribly upset, trembling in fact. She didn’t believe in that sort of thing, but the woman had spoken with such force . . .”

“What did she say, Father?” Eleanor asked. She was holding her breath, like a small child being told a ghost story. Cedric too stared, his mouth open, though his eyes had begun to fill with water, almost as if he knew what his father was going to say.

“She told Anne that Richard would die a violent death in a land not his own, in place of another who would have lived, carrying a standard it was not his place to bear, and nought we could say would hold him back. Your mother grabbed Richard up in her arms and ran to me, crying hysterically. By the time we returned home, we had convinced ourselves it was just an act to get us to come to her tent. Anne forgot it soon after, and though I never truly believed the prediction, there was enough doubt left to put fear in me. That’s why I said nothing when William wanted to go to the Crusades, even though I knew it was Richard’s right as my second son.”

“Then why did you let him go to Scotland?” Armus asked. He stared at his father in disbelief, almost angry that he had not stopped his brother.

“It was superstitious nonsense,” Thomas proclaimed. He felt as if he needed to defend himself for his actions, not only to Armus, but to himself as well. “And even if it weren’t, according to the words the woman spoke, there was nothing that any of us could have done to stop him anyway.”

“You should have tried,” Armus growled. He was not sure if he were more angry at himself or his father. All he knew was that he wanted someone to blame for Richard’s death, someone to take it out on, and he did not particularly care who. Yet as he looked at his father, his face pale and drawn, he knew he could not blame this man, and so he blamed himself instead. “If I had gone, I would have lived. He went in my stead.”

“You don’t know that Armus,” his father protested.

“She said bearing a standard it was not his place to bear, but it was my place,” Armus insisted as he banged his hand on the desk top.

“Stop it!” Eleanor cried. “No words killed Richard. War did. He would have gone whether you went or not. He wanted this more than anything he has ever wanted. He died the way he would have wanted to.”

With that, she turned and ran up the stairs to her chambers. Thomas and Armus called after her, but she did not stop. Cedric, however, just stood there, staring at the two of them. It was as if he could not believe what they were saying. “Well, I don’t believe any of it. You’re both just looking for someone to blame and using some decrepit old lady’s words to take it upon yourselves. Richard died in war. It’s a chance any soldier takes, and I refuse to accept that his fate was decreed years ago by a woman pretending to predict the future. Did she predict the deaths of the others as well? If anyone could foresee the future that accurately, then no one would ever be killed in battle, for what fool would go if he knew he was to die. Is this how we are to remember my brother? That he died by a twist of fate and not of bravery. Believe that if you want, but I never will.”

Cedric turned and stormed out of the castle. Thomas started after him, but did not have the strength. Wearily, he returned to his seat behind his desk, leaning over it and bringing his hands up to support his forehead. Warm tears flooded his cheeks as he sobbed softly. His son was dead.

*****

The dawn was just peaking up beyond the Cheviots as Richard and Kate approached the border. They road border ponies, taken from her father’s stables, and barely spoke a word as they went, for fear of drawing any attention to themselves. Richard could not help but keep glancing over in her direction, a subtle smile upon his lips, and she smiled back at him, her eyes filled with love. Before long they came to a stream, and Richard lifted Annie down so that they could drink from the cool sparkling water.

“This is Kershope Burn,” she said, “just beyond that bend is my cousin’s peel tower. He’ll see ye home safely. “What do you mean, he’ll see me home safely?” Richard asked. A puzzled laugh covered the tremor that had suddenly entered his voice, for Katie had already mounted and was turned away, riding north. “Kate?” he shouted, and for a moment she stopped, turning around to face him once more.

“Godspeed, Richard Grey,” she whispered, her voice trembling as tears trickled down her cheeks. “I shall ne’er forget ye. Ye have taught me how ta feel agin, but ye must have courage, darlin’, for our love can ne’er be.”

“Why!” he shouted. He began to run after her, but she put her hands out in front of her, and somehow that simple act, performed by this tiny girl, stopped him where he stood. His heart was breaking, but he knew she was right. She was the border, her auburn hair wild and free, her azure eyes gleaming with unbridled passion. Taking her back to his England, to a home of polite conversation and proper behavior would have killed her. He also knew he could not stay there, for Annie Elliott had bought him all the time she could. To return now would mean certain death, for both him and Katie. By caring for him and bringing him to England, she had committed March Treason. If she were caught at it, she would be hung.

Somehow, he knew Annie had prepared better than that. Her debt to her brother had been paid, a life for a life. Richard knew he would never again be mentioned. Life on the border would go on as usual, as if he had never collapsed upon their land. He stood for a second, a moment in time, preserved in his memory for all eternity. Then she smiled, blowing him a kiss, and turning to the north, she rode out of his life.

“I love you, Katie Elliot,” Richard shouted, but she was gone, no more than a vague memory, as illusive as the mist that swirled around his heels. His voice hung on the damp morning air, hollow and empty, emulating the condition of his heart.

He never stopped at the peel tower to ask for help. He just wanted to get home, forget Scotland and the warlike customs that pervaded the border. Yet, was his world any different for all its culture and sophistication. John Mullens would have seen any of the Greys dead as soon as look at them, and he had to admit, he felt the same when it came to the Baron. The sun warmed his face as he road along on the little pony, sure-footed and solid on the rough terrain. In a few days he would be home, safe in the bosom of the family that loved him, and he would forget, he told himself, though he never really believed it.

*****

Richard felt tired and sore as he approached Covington Cross. The remainder of the stitches Annie Elliot had sewn to piece him together pinched his side, though most had all but come loose, leaving bright pink scares in their wake. His bottom ached from days in the saddle and his stomach felt as if it had forgotten what real food tasted like. As he looked off across the fields he could see the parapets of Covington Cross off in the distance. He had deliberately avoided going through the village so that he would not be stopped along the way. The only place he wanted to be detained was the Great Hall of his own home, surrounded by his family. In truth, he dreaded coming across the families of the men who had accompanied him to Scotland. What if they were in the village? How would he explain how it came to be that he lived and they had died? He needed to speak to his father first, needed to seek his counsel and beg his forgiveness for having failed so miserably. He wondered if any others had made it back alive. Surely they would have told his family what a failure he had been. Suddenly, he began to wonder if he wanted to go home at all, or even if he would be welcome there. His emotions were stretched to their limit. He remembered a time when he would sit on his father’s lap and watch the knights jousting in the yard. He wanted to be held like that again, wanted to break down and cry in his father’s arms and have him comfort him. That was not likely to happen, he thought, for his father would be furious about the loss of so many of his men. I’ll be lucky if he allows me to sleep in the dungeon, he though as he shifted uncomfortably in his saddle.

Eleanor stood on the northern parapet, looking out across the fields and forests, as she had taken to doing every morning since word had come of Richard’s demise. She had decided that as long as she did not believe he was dead, there was hope that he would return one day. No amount of logic could persuade her otherwise.

“He’s not going to come,” Armus said tenderly as he and Cedric came to stand by her side.

“Do you have a crystal ball now, too,” she snapped.

“Hugh saw him, Eleanor,” Armus tried to reason. “He’s an experienced soldier.”

“He was hurt himself, and even he admitted that he only looked at Richard for a moment.”

“Even if he was still breathing, Eleanor,” Armus insisted, “without anyone to care for him, his wounds would have killed him. I have seen it happen too many times.”

“I don’t care what you’ve seen. Richard is different.”

“Well, if there were a woman around,” Cedric mused, “I’m sure he might have talked her into caring for him.” He grinned anxiously, hoping to ease the tension that existed between Eleanor and Armus. One was living in a dreamland and the other was far too logical to even entertain the idea that a miracle could have happened. To a certain extent, his strategy worked for they both transferred their attentions to him. For a moment he stood quietly, looking out over the countryside, feeling quite uncomfortable, and then all of a sudden, he spied the strangest sight.

“What is that?” Cedric said. He squinted his eyes, trying to make out the strange site he saw coming at him. Armus and Eleanor both made a face, thinking he was trying to divert their attention, but they soon turned themselves as he continued to stare. “I’ve never seen a horse like that before.”

“It’s a border pony,” Armus replied, confused by its appearance, “but what is it doing down here?”

Eleanor was not listening, however. She had focused in on its rider, and her heart leapt to her throat. “It’s Richard!” she cried. She pushed her brothers out of the way and headed down the back stairs.

“Eleanor!” Armus shouted, but as he looked back out across the fields, he could see just the vaguest hint of azure and argent. “Richard,” he whispered, “could it be?”

Cedric just looked at his brother, his dark eyes filled with a childlike hope. “Maybe there really was a girl,” he said excitedly as he too ran toward the back stairs.

Richard could see a figure running toward him, and his heart sank. Maybe his father was sending someone out to inform him never to darken his doorstep again. He thought of turning and running the other way, but he remembered the words of that veteran soldier. Courage is doing what you know has to be done, even though you’re scared to death. No matter how he had failed, he would not falter now. He would face his father like a man. Take responsibility for his decisions, right or wrong. Then, in the distance, he could hear his name being called, and he squinted to better see the form before him. He swallowed hard, his breath quickening as he tried to hold back the tears. It was his sister, coming to greet him, not to turn him away. Dear God, of course, they must have thought him dead.

He jumped from the pony, forgetting how weak his legs might be, and stumbled slightly, bracing himself against the small horse before pushing on across the field. The pain in his side and back was excruciating, but he would not give in, not until he’d reached his family, not until he could collapse in the arms of those who loved him. At last, he reached her, and she wrapped her arms around him, sobbing frantically against his shoulder, and he cried with her, holding her as if he were never going to let her go again. He buried his head in her soft hair, allowing the sweet smell of lilacs to carry him away.

When he looked up again, Armus and Cedric were standing before him as well. He just starred at them, his emotions running the gambit from fear at having disappointed them, to joy at just seeing them again. Eleanor had been easy to read, but they were not so obvious. Finally, Cedric stepped forward, pushing Eleanor out of the way so that he could hug him as well, but Armus still had not spoken. It would be easy for Eleanor and Cedric to forgive him. They had never been to war. They were not old enough yet to understand the meaning of honor. Richard looked to Armus, his eyes filled with tears. Did his silence mean he was not welcome? He lowered his head for a moment, trying to think of what to say, when suddenly two strong arms wrapped around him with such intensity that he groaned in agony.

“Are you all right, Richard?” Armus asked. On hearing his brother’s discomfort he had pulled away, holding him at arms distance, a hand on each of his shoulders.

“It’s nothing, just a scratch,” Richard grinned. “It still stings a bit though.”

“A scratch, is it?” Cedric said. “That’s not what Hugh Downey said. We thought you dead.”

“Hugh returned?” Richard asked. Could it be possible that he had not gotten them all killed. “Was he alone?”

“There were eight who made it back, brother,” Armus said. He put his arm around his brother to help him walk while Eleanor cuddled into Richard’s other side. Cedric walked ahead, bouncing around like a little puppy. “But we’ll talk about that later. Right now we need to get you home.”

Still, in spite of his happiness at the greeting he had received from his siblings, he could not dispel the dread that overshadowed him. He had to know where he stood with his father. Cedric and Eleanor had not understood the gravity of the situation, even Armus might have forgiven him, being the gentle soul he truly was, but it was his father’s men he had lost. At first the news that eight had made it back safely had filled him with relief, but now he knew he would have to face their testimony. He would not deny his incompetence, not contradict a thing they said, for he knew no matter what they had reported, he deserved no better.

“Father,” Richard finally blurted out, “how has he taken it?”

“It nearly destroyed him, Richard,” Armus said, speaking from the heart. “He blamed himself.”

“For sending me, you mean,” Richard replied. He was quite unaware, however, that he and Armus were talking about two different subjects.

“Yes,” Armus replied, laughing half out of relief. “He had some silly notion about a fortune teller predicting your death when you were a child. That’s why he didn’t want you to go in the first place.”

The words hit Richard as odd, and yet they spurred something in his memory. On the one hand he did not have a clue what Armus was talking about, and on the other, he remembered Annie’s words about his father fearing a prediction. His side and back nearly felt as if they were about to split open again and he grunted uncomfortably. As they still had a ways to go before reaching the castle, he stopped for a moment and sat down in the shade of a stately oak. “I just need to rest a bit.”

“Cedric, why don’t you go get a wagon,” Eleanor suggested and the boy started off immediately, but Richard called out to him.

“No, Cedric, I want us all to walk together. I just need to sit for a minute.” Richard wanted to delay the confrontation with his father as long as he could and had no desire to meet him in the middle of the field. At least if he made it to the castle, with his siblings around him, his father would be less likely to throw him out, he thought. “Armus,” he queried, “what did you mean about Father fearing some prediction?”

“When you were a child, a fortune teller predicted you would die in a foreign war, and while Father didn’t truly believe it . . . well, let’s just say, it planted enough doubt to make him hesitant about allowing you to go into battle. Then when you didn’t come home, he felt as if he was to blame for not stopping you.”

“She really did know?” Richard whispered, his brow creasing and his mouth dropping in a kind of curious wonder.

“Who knew?” Armus asked.

“There was this woman . . .”

“I knew it!” Cedric exclaimed. “What did I tell you?”

“What?” Richard was not sure he knew what anyone was talking about anymore. “Does somebody want to tell me what’s going on?”

“Cedric thought you’d find some woman to tend to your wounds,” Armus said, his laugh finally revealing the true relief he felt at his brother’s return.

“It wasn’t like that,” Richard protested. “We were in love.”

“Of course, you were, brother,” Armus teased. “You always are.”

Richard stood up, annoyed by his brothers’ innuendos, and began walking toward the castle again. “You don’t know anything about it! Besides, it was her mother that knew.”

“Knew what?” Eleanor asked. She quickly snuggled up against his side once more, and he wrapped his arm around her.

“About the prediction. She said something about father not thinking I was incapable, but fearing a prediction. Though he didn’t truly believe, the seeds of doubt had been planted or something like that, but then she said she didn’t know anything more.”

“Perhaps she didn’t,” Armus replied. He looked at his brother askance, his eyes revealing the depth of his thought. Then he shook his head and grabbed Richard around the shoulder once more to help him along. “It doesn’t matter how she knew. You’re home now.”

“Yes, and that old hag who predicted your death was wrong,” Cedric said. He felt somehow vindicated, for he had maintained that view right from the beginning.

“But my men did die,” Richard argued. “How can I ever face Father after what I did?”

“What are you talking about, little brother?” Armus asked.

“I got them killed, Armus,” Richard exclaimed, his voice trembling. “I led them into a massacre. I should have fought harder, kept them alive.”

Armus stopped walking, turning to face his brother. He finally understood what was going through his brother’s mind. “Richard, you kept eight of those men alive, just by your example. Hugh told us how you saved Jack’s life, how it was that move that brought about your own injury. Do you think Father faults you for losing his men?”

“How could he not?” Richard argued, his eyes filled with confusion. “I should have pulled them back, covered them better, done something . . . I don’t know.”

“It was war, little brother,” Armus said calmly. “You did everything right, at least that’s what your men say. Father was saddened by the loss of so many men, but he does not blame you. What destroyed him was the news that you perished. You’re his son, Richard. He loves you more than his own life.”

They were coming up on the outer courtyard as Armus finished speaking, and Richard could hear the servants whispering excitedly. Some greeted him. One woman came up and kissed his cheek. Yet all he could think of was that his Father loved him and did not fault him for his behavior in battle. He just wanted to see him, to have his father welcome him home. As they came up to the door of the Great Hall, Armus and the others stood back.

“Go on, Richard,” Armus grinned. “Tell him you’re home.”

Richard wet his lips, swallowing nervously. Then taking a deep breath he opened the door and entered. Thomas was sitting before the fire, staring straight ahead, an old scarf of Richard’s wrapped around his hands.

“Father,” Richard said, but Thomas did not move. The others were just outside the door, and he turned to them for guidance.

“Go on,” Armus insisted.

Richard walked over to where his father was sitting and noticed that the man was simply dozing. He wondered for a moment if he should wake him, but the look on his sibling’s faces when he looked over his shoulder gave him the answer. He knelt down before his father and gently, he shook Thomas’ arm. “Father,” he whispered once more. “I’m home.”

Thomas opened his eyes, blinking as the light emitted by the roaring fire hit him. He said nothing, but stared at his son for a moment. Then suddenly his face brightened, years dropping away in that one moment. “Am I dreaming, son?” he asked. He was still groggy from his nap, yet he knew enough to fear it was just another dream.

“No, Father, I’m home,” Richard cried. His emotions had gotten the better of him at last, and he wrapped his arms around his father, sobbing into his heavy tunic.

Thomas sighed a whispered prayer of thanks and embraced his son’s trembling form. “It’s all right, son. You’re home now.”

“I’m so sorry, Father. I failed you. I led your men into a massacre.”

“Richard,” Thomas smiled, taking his sons chin in his hand, “you have never failed me. You led your men into battle and fought like a true knight. You have done your family proud. By god, you may even get that castle of your own,” Thomas laughed, suddenly feeling giddy. “The king sent a message when word reached him of your death. He mentioned something about your deserving your own demesne had you lived. I think we might press him on it, what do you say?”

“Right now,” Richard replied. “I think I’ll settle for Covington Cross. It’s just good to be home.”

***End***

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