Secret Thunder Part 25

Chapter 16.

Luke watched with interest as his lordship's gaze shifted from his plump little pigeon of a wife to Faithe, captivating in emerald silk, and then back to him. Alberic's eyes narrowed; his nostrils flared. Luke could have laughed out loud.

Instead, he turned toward Griswold, standing behind him, and said, "My brother mentioned you the other day."

"Alexandre?" Griswold exclaimed. "Heard a dozen Saxons jumped you and him in the woods a while back."

A dozen. Luke grinned. "There were only two, but they came out of nowhere. One of them had a spiked mallet, and he did a fairly thorough job of it on Alex."

"How is the White-"

"Fine," Luke said quickly, realizing how foolish it was to have brought up the subject of Alex, under the circ.u.mstances. "He's fine. Much improved. He's walking without a cane now, and he can ride again. He's planning on returning to the sheriff's service in the fall."

"So, what did he say about me?" Griswold asked.

"He said, 'Can't say as I miss Griswold. That fellow didn't know when to keep his mouth shut. Never could stand to be around him.'"

Griswold brayed with laughter.

"Except," Luke amended, "he didn't say 'fellow.' I can't repeat what he really called you, because there are ladies present."

That produced a chuckle from everyone except Alberic, who appeared to be pointedly ignoring the conversation.

"I must say, Luke," Griswold began, "you're in remarkably good spirits. I never knew you to seem so... at ease."

"Hauekleah suits me." He gave Faithe's hand a gentle squeeze, which elicited an engaging smile from her.

Griswold shook his head disbelievingly. "Well, now, that's something I never thought to hear you say. Not that I'm disputing the truth of it, mind you. I've seen some strange things in my day, but few stranger than the Black Dragon exchanging his crossbow for a plow-and liking it."

"I've always been partial to farming," Luke said.

"And to beautiful woman, eh?" Griswold grinned. "'Tis easy to see why you're so content with your lot."

From the corner of his eye, Luke saw Lady Bertrada whisper something in Alberic's ear while pointing to his almond cream. Grimacing, he shoved the bowl at her, and she attacked it with zest.

"'Twas a most agreeable match," Luke said for his lordship's benefit. "I'm grateful to Lord Alberic for arranging it."

"Never thought to see the day when you'd settle down with one woman," Griswold said. "Wouldn't have pegged you for the marrying type at all." He caught Luke's eye and winked.

A tickle of apprehension crawled up Luke's scalp. Griswold, one of his fellow crossbowmen, had been famous for his zealous wenching. No matter where the corps was dispatched, he always seemed to find the wh.o.r.es. Whenever Luke was in need of their services-usually right after a battle, when the blood-thirst, fueled by those loathsome herbs, still hummed in his veins, and he craved release-he would ask Griswold where to go.

"I've been trying to remember when I last saw you," Griswold said with a mischievous grin. "'Twas four or five months ago, wasn't it? Was it the day we took Cottwyk Castle?"

He knew very well that it was. Luke let go of Faithe's hand and reached for his cup of brandy. "That's right."

Griswold scratched his scar. "Nasty siege, that. They set vats of tar on fire and poured it on us from the battlements, remember?"

Luke hadn't remembered that-not until just now. Suddenly, his nostrils were filled with the stench of burning pitch, his ears with the screams of men writhing in agony. He'd gotten off some good shots and hit three of the Saxons on the battlements. One of them, though merely wounded in the arm, fell to the ground outside the curtain wall. He landed faceup; he was young, little more than a boy, and his eyes widened in terror as half a dozen Norman soldiers closed in on him. Luke's comrades had eviscerated the youth as he lay helpless and shrieking, then left him alive to die slowly amid the mayhem of the siege. And then...

Enough! Luke drained his brandy in one gulp. He would remember no more. d.a.m.n Griswold for making him remember any of it.

To Faithe, Griswold said, "Your husband was the fiercest warrior I ever knew, my lady. A legend, and that's the truth. The enemy trembled when they heard his war cries."

"So I understand," Faithe said quietly. Luke gritted his teeth.

"Aye, 'twas a b.l.o.o.d.y siege, that," Griswold continued. "And afterward, you were desperately in need of a good-"

Luke shot him a look.

"-stiff brandy, as I recall," Griswold finished with a grin.

I need a good tupping, Luke had told him, still buckled into his blood-spattered chain mail and quivering from head to toe.

I know a place, Griswold had said. 'Tis as close to a brothel as you're going to find in these parts. About half a mile into the woods, that way. There's just the one wench, and she's not much, but she'll spread her legs for anyone with tuppence and a hard c.o.c.k-even a hard Norman c.o.c.k. Most of these Saxon b.i.t.c.hes run and hide when they see us coming.

"Do you remember?" Griswold asked him laughingly, with sly glances at Faithe.

"Nay," Luke lied. In truth, he hadn't remembered any of it clearly-until now. Although Griswold was just having a bit of fun at his expense, Luke found himself unamused. He didn't want to be reminded of the events of that b.l.o.o.d.y awful day, especially in the presence of Faithe.

Eager to put an end to this conversation, Luke said, "Do you lazy curs still spend your afternoons playing ninepins outside the barracks?"

The garrulous soldier laughed. "That we do. Why? You in the mood to lose some silver?"

Luke rose. "Nay, I was thinking 'twould amuse me to empty your purse." To Faithe he added, "If my lady doesn't mind, that is."

She smiled up at him. "Of course not."

The hot sun was a blessed relief from the chill and gloom of that hall. Griswold slapped Luke on the back as they strode across the bailey toward the soldiers' barracks. "'Tis good to see you, Luke. I missed you after you disappeared the day of the Cottwyk siege. Somebody told me you became a monk, but I never did credit that. Can't quite see you taking a vow of chast.i.ty, that's for sure."

It struck Luke that the subject of s.e.x must comprise a goodly portion of Griswold's waking thoughts.

"Luke!" He turned to find Faithe walking briskly toward him from the keep.

He rested a hand on her arm when she joined him. "Is everything all right?"

Nodding, she glanced at Griswold and then reached into the little pouch on her girdle. Too late, Luke realized what she was retrieving-Alex's mantle pin.

Luke s.n.a.t.c.hed it from her, but not before Griswold saw it. "Say! Isn't that-"

"We have no idea who it belongs to," Luke said, spearing Griswold with a look of warning while he squeezed the golden disk in his fist.

Griswold blinked at them both. "But isn't that..." He reached toward Luke. "Let me see it. I think it's-"

"If you know who it belongs to, we'd be most interested," Luke said slowly, fixing Griswold in his gaze and not letting him go. "We don't know whose it is."

"The man who owns that pin," Faithe explained to the mystified soldier, "is a murderer. We're searching for him."

Griswold looked back and forth between them. "A murderer."

"So it would appear," Luke said carefully.

"Luke." Faithe touched his tightly clenched fist. "Show him the pin. Perhaps he knows who it belongs to."

Luke stared unblinkingly at Griswold. "I'm sure he doesn't."

Griswold arched an eyebrow, a slow grin spreading across his face. "How do you know unless you let me see it?" He held his hand open. "Come. What are you afraid of?"

The b.a.s.t.a.r.d's eyes glinted with mischief. Luke's jaw ached from grinding his teeth together. After holding Griswold's gaze for several more long moments, Luke dropped the pin into his palm.

Griswold examined the pin from all angles as the sun glinted off it. "Well, I'll be d.a.m.ned."

Luke cursed inwardly.

Faithe clasped her hands together. "Do you recognize it?"

"I should say so!"

Her eyes grew wide. Luke closed his eyes.

"Well?" Faithe prodded.

"'Tis a wolf!" Griswold said.

Luke opened his eyes.

"Yes, of course it's a wolf," Faithe said. "But-"

"Very clever." Griswold brought the pin close to his face and squinted at it. "Up close, you can't really make out the shape. But from a distance" -he held it out and peered at it- "it couldn't be anything else."

Faithe wrung her hands. "But who-"

"And it's all done with those tiny little pearls. There must be over a hundred of them."

"Yes," Faithe said impatiently, "but who does it belong to?"

"Who does it belong to?" Griswold echoed.

"Aye."

Luke held his breath.

"Can't say I know." Griswold handed the pin back to her. "Sorry." He grinned at Luke.

Luke let his breath out in a rush. "Let me have that." He reached for the pin. Faithe handed it to him with a look of melancholy that sent a little dagger of shame into his chest. "I'll show it to the other men." The bald lie only shoved the dagger deeper.

"All right," Faithe said. "Thank you, Luke." Faithe gave his arm a grateful squeeze, then turned and walked away. Luke followed her with his eyes until she entered the keep.

Griswold studied him as he stared at the door through which she'd disappeared. "Ready for that game of ninepins?"

"Indeed I am," Luke said, grateful that his old friend knew better than to demand explanations. They continued their stroll toward the barracks.

"Care to triple our usual bet?" Griswold asked.

"Have you got that much on you?"

"Nay, but you probably do." He flashed a c.o.c.ky grin. "And you're going to let me win."

Luke couldn't suppress a grin. It was a small enough price to pay.

The wh.o.r.e screamed as thunder roared in his ears. Why was she screaming?

Luke struggled to his feet, the dark little cottage whirling drunkenly. He climbed the ladder as the wench's screams grew louder and louder.

Why is she screaming?

It was dark in the loft-until lightning pulsed through the window, and he saw the young Saxon in the straw. He was little more than a boy, and his guts had been torn right out of his belly to lie strewn about him like purple serpents. It was he who'd been screaming.

And then...

Panting in terror and agony, the youth looked at the crossbow in Luke's hand, then met his gaze. He had hazel eyes, like Faithe's-soft English eyes. "Please," he mouthed in the Anglo-Saxon tongue.

Luke's comrades jeered the boy's plea for mercy.

"Please."

Luke turned and walked away. The Black Dragon had no interest in mercy.

"Nay!" Luke sat up, shaking and yanking at the scratchy blanket that covered him. His heart pounded in his ears.

"Luke?" came a gentle whisper in the dark.

"Faithe?" Luke looked around frantically, disoriented. He could see nothing, but he knew he wasn't in his own bed.

Soothing hands found him and stroked his sweat-dampened brow. Warm breath fanned his face. "We're in the great hall of Foxhyrst Castle. Remember? We're staying the night."

He ran a shaky hand through his hair. "Aye. I remember." They'd had to bed down in this gigantic chamber with at least twenty others-visitors, servants, and a few soldiers for whom there was no room in the barracks. Luke had chosen a relatively isolated corner and positioned Faithe's pallet between his and the wall, to offer her a measure of privacy. She slept in her green silk kirtle, he in his shirt and chausses, having removed his tunic.

"Were you having a nightmare?" she whispered.

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