12th Century VC
I have set this story in the tumultuous times of Englandís 12 century commonly known as the Anarchy. When the White Ship carrying the only legitimate son of King Henry I of England went down off the coast of France he named his only other legitimate child as heir. Unfortunately that child was a daughter, Maude, and even after swearing their fealty to her twice the English nobility would not suffer being ruled by a woman. Upon Henryís death they urged her cousin Stephen to take the crown which he did plunging England into 19 years of civil war. Loyalties were divided between the two adversaries and sometimes changed as fortunes ebbed and flowed. Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, was one such figure in history who epitomized the treachery and violence of the times.
Eleven year old Catherine stared dejectedly over her shoulder as she rode along the rutted dirt road that led to the White Ladies Priory, a few hours ride south west of Blackthorn, the seat of her familyís vast holdings. She could just make out the top of the battlements of her fatherís castle as the sun that rose before her began to burn away the morning mist. Sparing a glance at her father, who rode beside her, she thought about trying to dissuade him from his course one more time, but by the grim set of his mouth she knew it would avail her nothing. Ever since Catherineís mother had past away of a wasting illness almost a year ago, Charles had worried as to what to do with his daughter. Strong willed and stubborn, Catherine had been a handful at the best of times whose taste were more bent to climbing trees than applying herself to more womanly pursuits. Now with the steady influence of her mother gone she tended to ignore her nurse and hang about the stables or run wild in the woods rather than sit demurely in a bower learning needlepoint. Having to listen, yet again, to the complaints of Catherineís latest nurse, Charles knew something had to be done. After giving it much thought he decided that the nuns at the Priory would be the best educators to train Catherine for the duties that were expected of her as the wife of a lord
When he had voiced his decision to her, Catherine had thrown herself on the ground, screaming that she wouldnít go, pummeling the inoffensive floor with her fists. Her governess had looked on appalled at her chargeís tantrum and was quite at a loss as to what to do. Lord Charles had merely shooed her away and sat down in his great chair by the fire until Catherine had cried herself out. Still hiccupping from her exertions she flung herself into his arms and snuggled up against his chest. Charles stroked her honeyed hair and calmly told her that the arrangements had been made and that they would be leaving the following day.
Early the next morning Charles escorted Catherine through the huge, arched double doors of the great room and out to the courtyard of castle Blackthorn. Her palfrey, Wizard awaited her there amidst the armed escort her father had ordered, tacked and ready to take her away from her home. The pack horses were loaded down with everything Charles thought Catherine would need along with supplies he was sure the abbess would welcome and put to good use. The saddle leather creaked as Charles lifted his daughter onto Wizardís back, then with an ease that belied his age he swung himself up onto his own mount. Catherine settled herself in the saddle trying very hard not to cry. It wasnít fair, she thought miserably, she had lost her mother and now she would lose her whole world, everything she had ever known and loved would be shortly rift from her.
Charles squeezed his mountís barrel with this kneesas the signal to go, and led the procession out of the courtyard and through the gate of the castle. He had smiled at her hoping she would return it, but she looked quickly away. How could he do this to her? She caught a fleeting glimpse of the deer in her little meadow as Wizard carefully made his way down the hill. Would she ever see her woodland friends again? Probably not, her course had been set; the nuns would teach her everything she would need to know to run a proper household and her father would most likely secure her a good marriage to an equally noble or better family.
She sighed deeply and turned away to look at the road in front of her. Normally a ride with her father filled her with joy and excitement. She loved hearing the jingle of the harness as the horses trotted along the road, leaving home behind for somewhere exciting, but she always returned home. Today marked the journey into adulthood, there would, most likely be no going home. And what of her father, he was going off to fight for the king when would she see him again? She knew he was the best swordsman in all of England but what if something were to happen to him, she would be a ward of the king and then he would decide who she was to marry. She shook her head angrily as tears welled in her eyes, it wasnít fair, this stupid war was ruining her life why couldnít people just get along?
A whinny brought her out of her dismal reverie and a small smile graced her face, thank God her father had consented to let her keep Wizard with her. The little palomino was a gift from her father on her eighteighth birthday and the two were seldom separated. She would spend hours in the stable grooming the deep yellow coat until it shown like gold, in stark contrast to the geldingís white mane and tail. Together they had had many adventures, riding around the woods outside the castle gates. Catherine was a natural rider, fearless, taking jumps and crossing streams that would make older, more experienced riders think twice
Hours later, Catherine could see the high, outer protective wall that surrounded the priory. One of her fatherís men had ridden ahead to alert those within of their arrival and the gates stood open in welcome. Catherine and her escort clattered through the cobbled courtyard, stopping in front of the steps to the hall. Her father lifted her from Wizardís back as an elderly man with a limp came forward to hold the bridle. Taking a firm grip of his daughters hand Charles directed his men to unload the pack horses. The wide doors swung open emitting a stern faced woman clothed in rough, un-dyed homespun robes, cinched at the waist by a wide leather belt from which swung the beads of a rosary. Resting on her bosom was a cross of black wood hanging from a simple bit of leather tied around her neck. Her hair was completely covered by wimple and scapula which made her features all the more forbidding. If not for her eyes Catherine would have been completely cowed, but they twinkled with the light of humor and kindness.
"Ah, Mother Margaret," Lord Charles greeted the woman with a slight bow. "This is my daughter, Catherine."
Catherine dropped a polite curtsey and stood straight and tall by her fatherís side, determined not to dishonor her him in this womanís eyes. The abbess inclined her head to them both then turned to the man who held Wizard,
"Jacob, would you be so kind as to take Lady Catherineís mount to the stable?"
The old man inclined his head and led the gelding away. Catherineís eyes followed hungry to know where she might find her only friend. Her stare did not go unnoticed,.
"Donít worry, Jacob will take good care of him and if you are biddable you will see him soon enough."
Catherine looked sheepishly down at the cobblestones under her feet; she would need to be careful around this woman it was obvious she missed very little of what went on around her.
The abbess led them through the doors, "You and your party are welcome to stay the night, Sir Charles, Iím sure the ride was tiring."
"Thatís very kind, Mother, but Iím needed else where, it has been reported that the Empress Maude has landed at Arundel with a hundred and forty nights. King Stephen has sent for me and I must ride at once to his side. I thank you again for taking Catherine, I know sheíll be safe here with you and I can ride with an easy mind."
"As you know," the nun replied with candor, "we do not normally take in girls that are not destined for the order, but as you have always been more than generous to us over the years, we could hardly turn a deaf ear to your request."
Leading them to her own rooms she called for refreshments and enjoyed a lively conversation with her guest on the politics of the time. Cloistered she might be but that did not blind her to what was going on around her, she was shrewd in her observations and Charles was thankful this woman had devoted herself to God for truly she was cast from the same mold as the Empress. After their repast Charles took leave of his daughter wrapping her slight form in a great hug and staring at her so that he might remember every nuance of her features for in truth it might very well be the last time his eyes might look upon her. The forces that shaped their world were in flux and peace was a thing ever fleeting in England.
"Mind your betters, Catherine," he said, "when I come back I will undoubtedly find a woman any man would be proud to have as wife."
He lifted her chin, kissing her on both cheeks and then rose, taking his leave. Catherine had hugged him tightly wishing she could stay in the safe circle of his arms forever. She had accompanied him back to his horse, holding back the tears that threatened to overflow down her face until he had mounted and was gone through the gates and around the bend in the road. Standing beside her Mother Margaret laid an arm around her shoulders and gently turned her back to the priory,
"Come child, Sister Mary will show you to your room."
So began her life at the White Lady Priory. Her room was a small Ďcellí located in the dorter where all the nuns slept. Her things had been piled inside and after waiting some little while for someone to help her she decided to unpack herself and set about making the sparse room into something she could call her own. She was just finishing up when Sister Mary came back to take her in for Vespers. She followed meekly behind the slight form of this quiet, soft spoken nun, determined to learn the layout of her new home. She asked questions as they went and learned the location of the lavatorium and the garderobe which she begged to make immediate use of. Vespers, and indeed all the services of the order, were held in the chapel which is where their journey ended. Afterwards Catherine accompanied the nuns to the refectory where they were served a plain but delicious meal by the novices. Catherine later met the orchestrator of the meal, a huge, beefy man called William whose jovial demeanor did much to improve her melancholy.
A young girl of about six or seven confronted her as she came out of the kitchen saying that her presence was requested by the Mother. She was led to a room which she took to be the abbessí office. There was Mother Margaret seated behind a plain, worn, table. A stout oak chair stood before the imposing woman who waved that Catherine should be seated. In a voice that indicated she would tolerate no argument, she outlined what she expected of Catherine. Each day she was to attend services, between would be her lessons in reading, writing and deportment. She would also learn spinning, needlepoint, gardening and herbology, and there would be chores. The nuns tilled their own soil in order to provide for their table and for their livestock. They made their own wine and collected their own honey. They cared for the sick and helped the poor in any way they could. The abbess clearly expected Catherine to do her share. Catherine carefully guarded her face, as inwardly she groaned, the abbess had just listed everything she hated and had avoided at her fatherís castle. As careful as Catherine had been Margaret had seen the dulling of the childís eye, a small smiled played around her lips and she thought, the girlís spirit must be tamed not crushed.
"I assure you, Catherine, there will be time to play and ride that golden horse of yours."
Catherineís face brightened immediately and she flashed such a sunny smile that the whole room seemed to sparkle in the light of it. The oblate who had fetched Catherine stood just within the room and Mother turned now to her,
"Jaime, see that you show Catherine the grounds and buildings."
As soon as they were quit of the room Catherine implored Jaime to show her the stables.
"Please Jaime, show me that first so that I may see first hand that my horse is well."
The young girl nodded and trotted off out through the open, grassy area of the cloister with its gurgling fountain, past the infirmary and through the wicket in the low stone fence, past the herb gardens to the barn. As soon as they entered Catherine heard a welcoming whinny. There stood Wizard in a stall big enough to house her fatherís destrier, pastern deep in a bed of soft straw, munching happily on some grain.
"Well I can see that youíll be very happy here." She stroked the golden neck as Wizard pushed his soft nose into her chest.
Suddenly a voice came from behind, "May I be of service, my lady?"
Catherine turned and saw the lame man who had taken Wizard earlier, she recalled his name and dropped him a slight curtsey, "No, thank you, Jacob I just wanted to see the manner in which he was being kept."
Jacob limped over to the stall, leaning upon his gnarled cane, "As you can see he abides very well, as do all the animals here."
Just then a young boy walked into the barn and stopped dead in his tracks, staring at Catherine, as if stunned. Before he could turn around and scamper off Jacob called out to him, "Mouse, come and meet the Lady Catherine, you bedded her horseís stall."
Cautiously the boy named Mouse sidled closer, keeping a wary eye on Catherine making sure Jacob stood between them.
"Heís not much for strangers, our Mouse, but heíll soon get used to you."
Catherine dropped him a polite curtsey, the boysí eyes widened and he fled.
"Is he dumb, he said not a word?" Catherine asked mystified at the ladsí strange behavior.
"No, he has a voice, but no knowledge of words as yet. He was found in the woods not long ago, naked as the day he was born, wild as any animal and just as shy. He has some words, but it will take time and patience."
She thanked Jacob and left with Jaime to see the rest of the Priory grounds.
It took some time but after much trial and error she finally got used to the routine of the Priory and if her wild spirit rose up to take her into some mischief she was immediately taken to task, treated just like any novice who had transgressed. Mother Margaret would send her to the misericord where she would kneel on the hard ground and read chapters of the bible out loud for hours. Or she would be sent to clean the garderobe, or scrub the cobblestones of the great courtyard or clean the fountain that graced the middle of the cloister. The worst punishment was when she was forbidden to ride for a length of time. She soon learned that disobedience was not worth the punishment. Dutifully she learned to spin, her nimble fingers making her yarn fine and even. Her embroidery stitches became uniform and well placed. She was a quick study and was soon helping in the scriptorium carefully copying out manuscript pages on precious vellum. She found that she liked being outside best of all, working in the soil and watching the seeds she planted sprout to become food for their table or for the tables of the poor that the nuns tended. As a Lordís daughter she would never have been allowed the tending of the gardens, but as a residence of the priory it was expected of her. She aided in the care of the sick and learned the medicinal properties of the herbs she tended. This knowledge she gained mostly from Jacob, who had, before settling at the Priory, traveled far and wide picking up bits and pieces of herb lore from many places. Jacobís main duties were eventually revealed to be in the infirmary where his knowledge was invaluable. He tended the sick with Sister Mary, the infirmarian. Catherineís days were full, but she always found time to tend to Wizard and play with Jaime and Mouse, who soon became used to the beautiful young girl.
Months after arriving at the Priory, Catherine realized there was a mystery she needed to solve. Often as she went about her duties she would see a figure just darting around a corner or melting into the shadows. At first she thought it a specter of her imagination and she doubted her own eye sight. But as time went on the Ďghostí became careless and would linger long enough for Catherine to be sure it was no phantom of her mind. The apparition was taller than she with a coltish look about its form which was clothed in a loose tunic over course woolen breeches, legs wrapped with leggings held on with crisscrossed leather thongs. The hands and head were so covered that Catherine could make out no particular of its features. She could not even tell if it were woman or man. She questioned Jaime about it and got no answer other than the child rushing away every time she asked. Mouse would do the same and Jacob would say it was all in her mind.
Early one morning, before Prime, she dressed in the plain gown that looked much like that of the nunsí habit and slipped out of the dorter. She made her way across the cobblestones of the courtyard with only the full moon to light her way. Keeping close to any concealment she could find she made it to the barn unseen and silently entered. There was her Ďghostí standing by Wizardís side, its back to her, brushing the geldings coat, oblivious of her presence until her trusted gelding betrayed her, nickering a greeting. As quick as the lightening that flashed in a summer storm, the being before her whipped on a hood and the long golden hair that she had caught a glimpse of was covered.
"What are you doing here?" demanded the being in a boyís voice that cracked with the beginnings of manhood.
"IÖI couldnít sleep," Catherine stammered not knowing what to do now that she confronted the elusive being. "I started walking and decided to come to the barn."
Keeping his back to her he admonished, "Itís early you should go back to bed," his voice was settling into a deep, resonant tone, pleasing to the ear.
She moved closer, entranced, "Who are you?" she asked.
"Vincent," he replied hesitantly, "I am called Vincent. Please come no closer."
She stopped her advance, confused; Vincent had thrust his hands into the pockets of his tunic and kept his face averted from her.
Then a thought struck her and her breath caught in her throat, "Are you a leper?" she asked aghast, she had never seen a person afflicted with the disease, but she had heard stories of the sores, of the flesh that rotted and fell off a living body.
In a flash he had turned to her, forgetting himself completely, "No, I am no leper," he retorted vehemently.
The blue eyes that stared at her through the holes of the hood captivated her and she started forward again.
"Then why this elaborate game of hide and seek, why the hood, why canít I see your face and your hands?" she look pointedly at his pockets.
"Because Iím not as other men," he whispered, hanging his head, "Iím not like anyone youíve ever seen."
Catherine chuckled, thinking of some of the men in her fatherís retinue, some were ugly from their birth she was sure, but some had been made ugly by the wounds they had obtained in battle. She had suffered their appearance and had not shirked from them knowing that the spirit inside their ugly cases was just as handsome as any man with pleasing looks.
"I assure you I shall not run screaming from you, I have seen many ugly men."
Vincent sighed and walked out of the stall. Catherine was afraid he would go past her and bolt out the door so she moved to block him. Standing close to him she smelled a strange, pleasant spicy odor emanating from him. He stepped away from her and gracefully sank down to sit cross-legged on the floor. She sat down in front of him keeping herself between him and the door.
He sighed deeply and began his story, "As a babe I was found wrapped in rags and laid on the doorstep of the Priory. Sister Anna found me, God rest her soul and she took me in. It was St. Vincentís name day so they gave me his name and mark my years by that day. They tell me I was sick for some time as I was found on the coldest day of the winter, in a winter that was reckoned the worst in memory. I swung between death and life for three days before I came around and when I was well enough Jacob took the raising of me."
He darted a look at her to see her expression and seeing her interest continued.
"Jacob thinks my parents must have vexed a great sorcerer and that a spell was cast over me at my birth in repayment of their wrong doing. May hap their guilt and my ugliness drove them to leave me with the good sisters."
"You were enchanted," Catherine whispered intrigued, leaning closer. "Perhaps by the great Paracelsus himself," she added excitedly.
Vincent shrugged, "Itís possible, but Iíll never know what is true, I donít know my parentage so my beginnings are a mystery to me."
Catherine inched closed, completely caught up in Vincentís unusual story, "May hap if you confront Paracelsus he would reverse the enchantment and you would be like other men."
Vincent shook his head, "No one is even sure Paracelsus walks among men, I wouldnít even know how to begin searching for him."
That was true enough, Catherine mused, Paracelsus was as much a specter as Vincent had been, but could he turn out to be as real as Vincent was? She resolved then and there to find out as much as she could about the sorcerer.
"When next I see my father I will inquiry about him, my father is very wise and knows many people."
Vincent raised his head again to look at her. Was that a flicker of hope that flashed across those intriguing blue eyes? Then another thought struck her, "Do you always go about hooded?
Vincent shook his head, "Nay, Mother bades me don the hood when there are strangers about."
Catherine snorted and crossed her arms across her chest, "Iíve been here these many months and am still considered a stranger? Come fellow, doff the hood, I promise you I will not dishonor my father by shrinking from you like some delicate flower. Iím the daughter of a great Lord after all, an only child, and much is expected of me." She saw Vincentís bowed head and abandoned her imperial tone. "Please Vincent, it will be all right, I promise you. Youíve taken such good care of Wizard all this time, he likes you I can tell and I set great store in his judgment." She reached out a hand, placing it on his arm. He flinched, but did not pull away. "I too would like to be counted among your friendsÖplease," she entreated him.
He stared at her for some little time while he considered her, then he cast his eyes downward once again. Her hand dropped away from his arm as he freed a hand from its concealing pocket, her eyes grew wide as she noted the fur that covered it and the sharp nails, more like claws really, at the end of each finger. He reached up and slowly pulled the hood off. Catherine held her breath as long strands of golden hair floated back down from the hood and settled around Vincentís bowed head. She heard him take a deep breath and then sat very still as he slowly raised his head so that she was able to see his unique features for the first time. A small gasp escaped her lips and he quickly looked away, but she caught his chin to turn him back to her again. Her finger lingered, brushing the soft stubble of golden fur that covered his chin and high cheek bones. His almond shaped eyes were like cornflowers in a wheat field, accented by upswept brows. His nose and cleft lip reminded her of the cats that roamed the priory.
"Vincent," she gasped when she could find her voice, "youíre beautiful."
Embarrassed he looked down again the pink tinge of a blush coloring his face. "Father, that is Jacob, says I look like a lion."
"Iíve never seen a lion before, but I have read about them and have seen renderings. They are said to be strong, powerful beasts, proud in bearing and fierce in battle. I think it is no bad thing to be likened to such as these." She had noticed when he spoke that he had the teeth of a cat as well although he tried hard to conceal them.
Vincent was grateful for her words and even more grateful that she had not run from him. He had watched her secretly since her arrival, something intangible drew him to her, something he had no control over, and if pressed would be at a loss to explain. He could feel her wherever she went, knew where she was at any given time. That she had been able to sneak up on him unawares showed how deep in thought he must have been. He admonished himself for his carelessness and resolved to be more alert in future.
He could also feel her moods, somehow knowing when she was happy, or sad, or ill. He had asked Jacob about it and after giving it due consideration the old man had postulated that it may be that she like he was left on the doorstep of the priory, motherless and for all intense and purposes fatherless as well. It may be that he felt a kinship in the abandonment, an empathic connection of some kind. Vincent knew that wasnít true, but could explain himself in no better way so he mentioned it no more.
"Vincent," A cry from the door brought the young people to their feet, "what do you think youíre doing?"
Red faced, Catherine sputtered, "JacobÖitísÖitís my fault I made him take off the hood. IÖI wanted to be friends. I wonít tell anyone really, I mean him no harm, I would never harm him."
Catherine didnít know why she said that, they had really just met, but something in her knew that she would protect Vincent with her life if it came to that.
"Well whatís done is done and canít be taken back." He glared at them both and then held out his hand, "Come itís time for Prime."
They walked together to the church, Catherine feeling happier than she could ever remember feeling in her life, knowing Vincent and having his friendship seemed to somehow complete her. She felt content and she flashed him a dazzlingly smile as they entered the church. She took her place beside the novices, adopting the proper decorum for the solemnity of her surroundings. Vincent stayed at the back of the room beside Jacob with a heart that was soaring into the heavens. Never had he felt this way before and even though he knew it would come to naught having her friendship for even just a little while was worth it, it was worth everything.
Mother entered just behind them and noticed that Vincent was not wearing his hood, evidently the enterprising Catherine had found out about the prioryís most unusual ward. She sent a prayer heaven ward asking for the Lords kindness and goodwill for these two young people who she had come to love as if they had been born of her own flesh.
As the months flew by Catherine and Vincent could be found spending any free time they had in each others company. Mother could say nothing against it because instead of being detrimental to Catherineís studies, Vincentís presence had improved them. He loved to read and would read to her or her to him. His writing was beautiful and his thirst for knowledge was unquenchable. A riding horse had been donated to the priory and Vincent had the use of it, he and Catherine could often be seen riding through the fields at break neck speed, jumping fences and ditches.
Vincent often talked about joining the Kingís forces as a knight fighting the Empress, or the Welsh who had been infringing upon the borders, or any other foe that threatened the realm. He had wrung Jacob dry of his knowledge of sword fighting and the rest of what he knew was gotten from books. Mouse was his sparing partner until Catherine took it in her mind to learn. With swords made of wood they would fight, on the ground or on horseback. Archery was something they both excelled in and they would challenge each other with ever more difficult targets.
When Jacob complained that a lady would have no need of sword knowledge or archery Catherine would counter that at least she would be able to defend herself if set upon by brigands. Jacob would shake his head; Catherine always had an answer. What, he wondered, would her answer be when they entered adulthood and Vincentís needs as a man entered their relationship. Would she be repulsed and push him away, would his need overwhelm him, would he hurt her? He worried about that day more and more Catherine was the last of a line of important and powerful people. This relationship with Vincent was doomed from its very beginning, Vincent could hope for nothing but her friendship. Catherineís father would find her a husband among the lords of the Kingís court that was a certainty. All his life Vincent had been protected here from strangers, from the unfriendly people that would look upon him and call him demon spawn and would most probably kill him. How could he protect Vincent from falling in love?
Jacob wasnít the only one that thought about Catherine and Vincentís friendship. Sister Mary was extremely fond of both of them and unlike Jacob thought they should take their happiness where they found it and live in the here and now rather than worry about the uncertain future. She rejoiced in their relationship, enjoyed being in their company, there was something about the two of them, an aura that one could almost feel, that lifted ones spirit. No, she thought, let them enjoy what they have now and let tomorrow take care of itself.
Catherine hadnít realized Vincentís growth into manhood until the night the gate bell rung well after Compline. Jacob and Sister Mary had been tending to a patient in the infirmary when the strident ring of the bell had erupted, breaking the peace of the night, Sister Eugenia, the portress, had already gone to bed so the two grabbed lanterns and made for the gate. Catherine a light sleeper and worried it might be some dire message about her father threw on a robe and hurried across the courtyard some paces behind. She saw Vincent moving silently before her clothe only in a light homespun sleep shirt and hastily donned breeches. The light of the full moon shone through the shirt revealing the broad shoulders and rippling muscles as he moved gracefully beside Jacob. His long golden hair hung about his face and shoulders in a tangle giving the appearance of a halo. She saw him pull the hood over his head and stand just behind Jacob ready to come to his aid if the bell ringer proved to be ill intentioned.
"Who is it?" Jacob called out, "Who calls at this hour?"
A single word whispered weakly back at them, "Father." Vincent almost ripped the door off its hinges in his haste to open it. In the opened doorway Catherine could see a man slumped over the neck of his horse. Vincent caught him as he slipped from the beasts back leaving a trail of blood along the sweat lathered coat. Gently Vincent cradled the wounded man in his arms, his eyes searched out Jacobís, and in a voice thick with grief she heard him say, "Father, its Devin."
Jacobsís eyes grew wide and for a moment he seemed stunned into immobility. Sister Mary, however, was not so hindered; the man was injured and bleeding for who knew how long. "Vincent, take him into the infirmary, quickly." Vincent nodded, carrying his burden easily with little effort and Jacob followed as one sleep walking. This then was Jacobís son, the boy who had ridden off for travel and adventure, the one, according to Vincent, who called him brother, who had wanted to see far off lands and strange exotic things. Nary a word had come back to father and brother as to his whereabouts all these years and Jacob had counted him as one who was dead.
Catherine watched from her vantage point, hidden in the shadows of the courtyard wall. She knew she should come forward to render any assistance she might be able to give, but she found that her feet would not obey her. She had eyes only for the sight of Vincent. She had not realized until that moment that he had gone beyond the boundaries of youth and had entered into manhood. It struck her like a bolt from a summer storm. Her eyes never left him as he carried his adoptive brother so easily across the courtyard to the infirmary. She noted with growing desire the arms whose muscles bulged, his height as he towered over his companions who fell behind him as his long strides outpaced them. As they disappeared into the building Catherine followed, loath to lose sight of him. She wanted him as a thirsty man would crave water. Trance like she followed after and watched as Vincent gently laid Devin onto a cot. Her desire flared and she felt a heat rise in her body. Vincentís head snapped up and his eyes caught hers and held them until she looked down ashamed that he had felt her lust.
Vincent had felt her near when he had gone to the gate behind Jacob and willed her to stay back in case of trouble. He had forgotten all about her when he saw that it was Devin until he felt a hot wave of desire wash over him. Knowing the emotion was not his own he had looked up and had seen Catherine staring at him with undisguised longing in her eyes. He held her gaze until she looked away and dashed out of the room. He moved back away from the cot after laying Devin down on it. Jacob had come to himself and was, with Sister Maryís help, cutting Devinís blood soaked clothing away to ascertain the extent of his wounds. Seeing that there was nothing else to be done Vincent followed Catherine out of the infirmary.
He found her in the herb garden, sitting on the little bench by the rose bushes.
"Catherine," he said softly sitting down beside her.
She kept her head turned away from him, hot tears flowing down her cheeks, "Vincent, Iím so ashamed."
Gently he took her shoulders and turned her around to face him. "Why, Catherine?"
His voice was that of a boysí no longer, he said her name like a caress, when had that happened, when had he grown to be a man and under her very nose? Why hadnít she seen it before? Patiently he lifted her face to his with a finger under her chin. "What is it Catherine," he searched her eyes, "tell me what troubles you so?"
"IÖI didnít realize it until just now," she stammered. Taking his hands into hers she drew a deep breath and looked deep into the depths of his blue eyes knowing in her heart the truth of what she was about to say, "I love you."
Vincentís eyes went wide with shock never in his most guarded dreams did he ever think that this woman, for woman she was, or any woman for that matter would want him. Didnít Jacob tell him that often enough so that he believed him, so that he never entertained the thought of wife or family of his own?
He felt the truth of her words and without conscious thought slowly put his powerful arms around her slight form and pulled her towards him. Their lips met gently at first, each feeling the soft, unique sweetness of the other, and then more urgently. The embers of their hearts bursting into flames of desire they were hard put to control. Finally Vincent found the strength to break away and looked with astonishment on the woman he had called friend now turned lover.
Whatever they might have said to each other was interrupted by Jacobís urgent calls.
Vincentís gaze lingered on the girl in his arms, nay a girl no longer but a woman, her cheeks flushed, her breath coming in rapid pants, her desire for him plain to read in her eyes. He would have kissed her again, so strong was the urge, but the tone in Jacobís voice alerted him that all was not well.
"Here, Father," he rose from the bench pulling her up with him. She clung to him for a moment before letting him go, bitterly disappointed by the interruption. She would have liked to have stayed in his arms forever. Her mouth still burned with the taste of his lips on hers.
"Vincent, there you are. Go, rouse the household, Devin tells me more wounded will be coming weíll have need of as many hands as we can get."
Briefly he noted how close Catherine was standing next to his adopted son and how protective Vincentís stance was.
"Hurry, we donít have much time." Jacob urged, determined to talk to Vincent at a more opportune time. This friendship had clearly crossed the line he had envisioned long ago and he must stop it before it went too far.
Vincent gave Catherineís hand a small squeeze then left to do Jacobís bidding.
Jacob tuned around heading back to the infirmary, but stopped when he felt Catherine touch his arm. "Jacob, what is it, whatís wrong?" She had seen the black look he had given her when he had come upon them.
He looked at her, anger filling his eyes, "You shouldnít play with Vincent in this manner, he is a boy with deep emotions."
"Iím not playing with him and he is no longer a boy, heís a man, the man that I love." She declared fiercely, glaring at him.
"You are the daughter of an important lord," Jacob pointed a finger at her, "you have title, property, wealth, Vincent has none of these. Your father will find a suitable match for you that will be your equal or better and you will leave Vincent with a broken heart."
Catherine shook her head, "Nay I would never hurt Vincent and my father would want me to be happy, he will approve my choice."
Jacob sighed and shook his head, "Come there is no time for this," he admonished her, "we must prepare for the wounded." He turned around and hobbled back to the infirmary. She watched him a moment and then hurriedly ran back to her room to put on proper garments, passing nuns that had awaken to Vincentís call.
Just as she was rushing through the courtyard, back to the infirmary with some others the gate bell began to ring again. Mother Abbess herself opened the door in the gate to peer out and saw a wagon drawn up outside filled with wounded, escorted by those that could still sit horse. The sickly, metallic odor of blood was strong and filled the night air as did the moans of the wounded. Sheriff Maxwell was at the fore, swaying precariously in his saddle, his left arm hanging useless and bloody.
"Mother, my men have need of your infirmary."
Taking the reins of his horse, she ordered the heavy double gates to be opened and as they swung wide she led the way through. Catherine watched aghast as Vincent took the bridle of the wagon horse and led it inside the enclave. Willing hands helped take the injured from the wagon to the infirmary, some still able to walk with help, others needing to be taken in on stretchers. As she helped one of the men from the wagon she saw her fatherís coat of arms. With a small cry she leapt forward,
"FatherÖFather," she called in a rising panic.
A weak voice answered her, "CatherineÖdaughterÖ"
Catherine scrabbled into the wagon and was at her fatherís side, blood caked his face from a wound inflicted upon his head. He was pale in the moonlight and his skin had taken on a translucent look. His hand trembled as he reached up to stroke her face and as she held it in both of hers she felt it go limp. The tears that had filled her eyes spilled out and covered her cheeks. Frantically she looked around and spotted Vincent coming out of the infirmary. She called out to him and he quickly climbed into the wagon bed and lifted Sir Charles into his arms. Catherine ran beside him as he carried her father into the infirmary and laid him gently on a cot. "Get basin and water," he urged her and as she ran to do his bidding he began to strip off the older mans clothing. She returned speedily, handing him the wash rag and held the basin as he dipped it in and wrung it out. He bathe Sir Charlesí face and much to his relief discovered that the head wound was a shallow cut that had bleed profusely but was of no consequence. In the rest of his injuries he was not so lucky his legs had been crushed and it was evident to Vincent that Catherineís father would, if he survived his injuries, never walk again. She saw the verdict in Vincentís eyes and steeled herself for the worst. She sat by her fatherís side gently bathing his face as Vincent went to Jacob and Sister Mary. Jacob confirmed Vincentís fears Sir Charles would never again sit horse or walk the halls of his castle. Silent tears ran down Catherineís face as she heard Jacobís pronouncement and she resolved to be at her fatherís side for whatever time he had left in this world.
A knight, some years older than herself, his arm wrapped in a sling, came to her.
"My lady Catherine, I was by your fatherís side when his horse took a mortal blow, he could not kick free of the stirrups and it fell with him and rolled in its death throws, it took three of us to pull him out from under it."
Catherine looked up at Sir Elliot, a knight she had known for most of her life and a favorite of her fatherís. His family owned the manor house and properties some miles to the south of Shrewsbury. He had last seen her just before her father had left her at the priory. He had promised her at that last meeting that he would keep her father safe and in this he had failed miserably. The pain of his wounds was nothing compared to the pain he saw in her beautiful face. She had grown since he last laid eyes on her into a woman any man would be proud to have on his arm.
"I am sure you did all that could be done, my lord," she managed a small smile, "you were ever watchful over my father and for that I am most grateful."
The moans and cries of the wounded filled the infirmary, but Catherineís world had narrowed to only her father. She watched him, thankful for every rise of his chest and bathed his fevered brow with cool water. When he seemed to be resting easier she went to other wounded and did what she could for them always keeping one eye on where her father lay, ready to go to him if the need arose. Vincent was kept busy providing what ever was needed, strength to hold a man as a bone was reset, water from the well, bringing brychans from the storage room to wrap fevered men in. He seemed to be everywhere helping everyone and Catherine marveled at his stamina, she herself had awoken with a start realizing she had fallen asleep on a stool. As the sun rose on a new day all that could be done was and the nuns that were not needed in the infirmary went to the chapel for Matins to pray.
Catherine chose to remain behind to stay close to her father. He was resting at the moment so she moved with her basin and cloth to Devinís cot. Here was the man that Vincent called brother and natural son to Jacob. Once the blood and grime were washed off him he was dashingly handsome, the kind of man that would make any woman look twice. She was bathing his face with cool water when his eyes fluttered open and then closed again.
"I must be in heaven," he whispered.
Catherine smiled down at him, "I assure you, sir that you are not, your wounds were not so grievous as to take you from this world, you are still counted among the living."
Keeping his eyes closed he replied, "How can that be when I have seen an angel before my eyes."
Catherine smiled, "I am no angel as any in my acquaintance will tell you."
"I will not believe that I live," Devin insisted, eyes still closed "until I feel your lips upon mine and feel their sweet warmth," he pursued his lips in invitation.
Just bringing in an arm load of wood for the hearth Vincent heard Devinís declaration and setting down the wood he came up to stand behind Catherine. Gently moving her to one side he lifted up his hood just enough to clear his mouth and bent low to provide the kiss.
Grimacing Devin rubbed the back of his hand over his mouth and complained, "Angel, you are in need of a shave."
Opening his eyes he saw Vincent standing over him. Thwarted from getting a kiss from the beautiful maid he growled his displeasure, "Little brother when I am well again I will give you a proper trouncing for your impudence."
"I look forward to it," Vincent declared heartily, it had been a long time since he had seen his adopted brother and he was greatly relieved that he had come back whole with only minor injuries.
Catherineís father stirred and called out for her. Hurriedly she went to his side to tend to his needs.
Vincent watched her as he sat down beside Devin, "What happened, Devin?"
Devinís eyes took on a far a way look as he told his tale. "I had taken up with a troop of Stephenís men and rode border patrol with them thwarting the Welsh incursions time and again. Since Maudeís return they have gotten bolder thinking us spread too thin. We were on our way to join forces with Sir Charles when one of his outriders reached us in a flurry, beseeching us to ride with all speed to succor his lord from an ambush. This we did and upon reaching the battle ground turned the tide for the defenders. They had been set upon by a much larger force and had fought valiantly but the attackerís numbers were too great until we swelled their ranks. We pushed them back across the border but with no little harm to ourselves."
Vincent nodded, thinking back to when King Henry had died; his only son who would have inherited the crown had drowned years earlier when the ship he had been traveling on had sunk leaving his sister Maude as heir. She had not lived in England for many years and her cousin Stephen, with the support of many nobles, decided to make a bid for the throne and had himself crowned king thus splitting England into two warring factions. The chaos that ensued made the country ripe for incursions from without as well as within.
Vincent gazed upon the face of his adopted brother, whose eyes had drooped closed. Devin was doing everything Vincent longed to do and he envied him. He longed to ride outside the gates of the Priory, Jacobís stories about the crusades had fired his imagination and the ever increasing forays of their very near Welsh neighbors roused his protective nature. He sighed and leaned his chair back against the solid stone wall of the infirmary. He saw Catherine sitting beside her father and his heart swelled with love. Feeling his eyes on her she glanced over to him and their eyes held. She graced him with a wan smile and his heart ached for her. He could feel her pain and her frustration, her love for him and for the man that lay broken beside her. And there was nothing he could do, he could not fix her father, he could not take his place and protect the border, he could not even go outside the enclave, but most of all he could not love her. Frustrated he got up and with fists clenched at his sides left the room of wounded.
Weeks later with only the most grievously wounded still in the infirmary Devin found Vincent in the barn furiously grooming Catherineís gelding.
"So little brother I find you at last," Devin hailed Vincent from the barn door.
Slowly, with the help of a crutch, he made his way to a stool and sat down extending his aching leg before him.
Vincent looked at him, frowning, "Should you be walking yet?"
Grimacing slightly Devin answered, "Father has said that I might so long as I do not over do."
Vincent spared him a rare grin, Devin was never known to sit still for very long.
"So," Devin continued watching Vincent curry the gelding, "tell me, why are you rubbing the pelt off that fine animal?"
Vincent turned away letting the arm that held the brush drop to his side. "Catherine is leaving today; she is taking her father home to Blackthorn."
"I had heard something to that effect," Devin nodded. "I saw the wagon bed being padded with straw and brychans."
"Yes, and theyíll be using the yoke of oxen to draw it hoping their slow pace will give him more comfort." Vincent added.
"Is there something between you and the damsel that puts you in such a black mood?"
Vincent turned to look at his older brother, "I love her," he stated simply, but with such pain in his eyes that the chiding retort Devin would have given froze in his throat.
"Is the lady aware of your feelings for her?" He asked instead. Vincent nodded. "And has she voiced any feelings for you?"
Vincentís eyes met his, "She loves me as well, Iíve heard the words from her own lips, and I know it to be true as Iíve felt her emotions since first we met."
Devin got up, leaning heavily upon his crutch and limped over to where Vincent stood. He had no doubt that what Vincent had told him was true; since they were children Vincent had known what those around him felt.
"So what holds you from the ladyís side?"
Vincent held his arms away from his sides, "Look at me Devin, I know not if I am man or beast. Was I born to this or was I bewitched? Will any child of mine be condemned to wear this face, these hands?" He brought his hands forward for Devin to inspect curling the fingers inward to make fists. "She is the last of a noble blood line, of good reputation and well propertied, she has everything and I have nothing. Her father stands high in the kingís esteem. I am nothing, nobody, what do I have to offer her?" Vincent bowed his head his pain evident in every line of his stance.
Devin put a hand on his brotherís shoulder, "You have your love to offer, which is no mean thing, and she has declared her love for you, your appearance is of no consequence to her. I perceive it is your own pride that keeps you from her."
Vincent glared at him, "I am thinking of her, she would be better off with Lord Elliot he has money, positionÖ"
"Yes and is fair of face," Devin interrupted, "but she does not love him."
Suddenly Vincent jerked his head up and stared at the doorway, "She is coming," he stated simply. Devin quickly hobbled out through the other door.
"Vincent!" He heard her sweet voice call out to him.
"Here," he answered and seconds later she had flung herself into his arms. "Vincent, please come back with me, I do not wish to be parted from you."
"Catherine, weíve been all through this I canít go with you, your people would think me a demon and that I had cast a spell upon you."
"Donít be absurd, Vincent, none here think that of you." Catherine scoffed at the idea.
"Here I have lived all my life; these good people have known me from my infancy."
"And I have known you for but a few years and I know your goodness. Why do you persist in demeaning yourself? In my eyes you are beautiful and I would have you for my husband."
They had been standing close together, close enough to feel the warmth of each others bodies, hands entwined. But now Vincent dropped her hands and turned away from her. "No Catherine I will not be a kept man, with no title or property of my own to offer you. Please go and forget me."
Catherine stood rigid, hands balled into fists at her side glaring at his back. "Very well, I will go because I must, but I will never forget you and I will never take another, you are the man that I love and that will never diminish, never!" Angrily she turned on her heel and strode from the barn.
Vincentís shoulders slumped, tears fell from his eyes and rolled slowly down his cheeks. They had been so happy together and it had been so fleeting.
Devin re-entered the barn and stood just within the doorway. "You are a fool!" he declared bitingly.
"You donít understand," Vincent sniffed from behind the curtain of his golden mane.
"Oh I understand perfectly and so since she is willing to wait until you feel properly able to ask for her hand we had best get to work so she wonít have to wait over long."
Vincentís head shot up to stare at his brother in astonishment. Devin laughed, hobbled over to his brother and clapped him heartily on the shoulder, "There are more ways to wealth, position and honor than being born to it. Come don your hood and we will observe the parting procession.
Vincent did what he was bid and followed Devin out to the courtyard, still mystified by his words. He watched from the shadows as Lord Charles and his entourage slowly filed out through the great gates. He lay in the bed of the ox drawn cart, in a soft nest, with his head held gently in his daughters lap. They had given him a draught of poppies before setting out against the pain he would feel at every rut and bump in the road. Sir Elliott and Sheriff Maxwell rode to the fore with the rest of their men at arms in front of and behind the wagon. Jacob watched shaking his head sadly; Lord Charles was a man of action unaccustomed to lying about no matter what the reason, being an invalid would not sit well with him, the inactivity and the pain would probably eat away at him greatly shortening his time on this earth.
Standing in the wicket of the herb garden, his features safely hidden by his hood, Vincent watched Catherine go. She must have felt him near and raised her head to look directly at him. The morning sun struck her face and the tears in her eyes glistened. Her heart cried out to him and his answered. He watched until the wagon was lost behind a bend in the road.
The days that followed Catherineís departure from the White Ladies Priory saw Vincent withdraw deep into himself. Even Devinís gentle chiding, which would normally bring out a smile, did nothing to bring Vincent out of his melancholy. Putting their heads together, Jacob and Devin decided that a diversion was necessary. Jacob had put a little coin by through the years and this he gave to Devin sending him off to the nearby town of Shrewsbury to find a new steed for Vincent. The horse that Vincent had enjoyed riding so much had become too small for the six foot five man he had become. Devin scoured the horse fair for something suitable, but soon realized that King Stephen had conscripted every worthy mount for his army, there wasnít much left but ponies or nags so ancient their backs swayed. Despairingly he started to walk away, kicking at pebbles in the lane in his frustration, complaining to his own faithful charger, Commander. The big bay pricked his ears forward listening attentively as his master muttered about the needs of the King compared to the much greater need of his foster brother.
"Really Commander, this war is ridiculous, cousin against cousin, Maude doesnít even reside in England, the nobility donít like her and from what I hear the common folk donít like her at all. Men flock to her banner for what she promises, but when Stephen has the upper hand they run to him. Itís all a shameful waste as far as I can see, and why the King had to take every decent riding horse from this town vexes me beyond measure!"
Savagely he kicked a fairly large stone and felt the pain of it shoot through his foot. "Blast!" He shouted hopping on one foot startling Commander backwards.
A man was standing by the exit of the horse fair grounds and chuckled as he watched Devinís antics. "I see the stone got the better of you," he drawled.
Devin stood, and laughed, "Aye, I should pick it up and throw it into the river to get my own back."
"I hear youíre looking for a horse." The man walked over and laid a hand on Commanderís withers, "though it seems to me youíve no need this fellow seems hale and hearty enough."
"Not for me," Devin shook his head, "For my brother, heís out grown the one heís had the use of, but it looks like my trip was in vain, the armyís taken anything useful."
"Aye they did that some months back," the man nodded, "but thereís one I know of you can get and if your brotherís any hand with animals he could turn the beast around."
Devin cocked his head, "Go on friend youíve got my curiosity up."
Devin rode out to the manor house he had been directed to and up to the stables. In a paddock, close to the barn, stood an enormous black stallion, its long black mane flowed down its muscular neck; the forelock all but covered his eyes which stared malevolently at the two men that held him. A third man was attempting to place a saddle on the broad back, but the beast would step this way and that dragging the men around the enclosure as if they were no more than children. Devin dismounted and leaned his arms on the top rail of the fence watching.
The beast was everything the old man at the horse fair had said he was and then some. Swishing his tail angrily the big animal charged at the man holding the saddle causing him to drop it and leap for the fence. Turning swiftly on his rear legs he lashed out at one of the men holding him and then at the other. They followed the first man up the fence and out of harms way. The horse stood in the middle of the enclosure pawing at the ground, the black feathers covering the lower part of his leg flying up and down with the motion. He stared at the men, and when one of them looked like they were going to climb back in he charged, his snapping teeth just missing as the man tumbled to the ground on the other side of the fence.
"Thatís it Iíve had it with that beast," one of the men stormed, "take him to the butcher and get what you can for him." The two grooms eyed the horse warily as their lord marched away in the direction of the manor house wondering how they were going to get it to its final destination.
Devin sauntered up to them, "I could pay you the price and take him off your hands," he drawled, "your master would never be the wiser."
It didnít take them long to agree upon a price and after handing over his coin, which was a mere pittance compared to what he thought he would have to pay, he directed the men to open the gate. Devin mounted Commander and rode through, he gave the two horses just enough time to sniff noses before he grabbed one of the lead lines that dangled from the black stallionís halter. Keeping the blacks head close to Commanderís side he undid the other rope and threw it to the ground. Squeezing Commander with his legs he went out through the gate and down the road back to the Priory with their new acquisition calmly walking beside them.
"By the way," Devin called out as he passed the men, "has he a name?"
"Thor," one of the men shouted back, "but devil we called him."
"Good luck, to you friend," the other man chuckled, thinking they had gotten the better end of the deal, "youíll need it."
Devin grinned knowing Vincentís way with animals of all kinds. He had no doubt that Vincent would be able to turn this fellow into an admirable mount and wasnít this just the right kind of project to take his mind off his troubles. Devin congratulated himself on a deal well struck. "Well my friend Thor, I dare say you are about to meet your match."
When they reached the Priory walls the portress opened the gates and expressed her appreciation of the magnificent animal Devin had procured for their most unusual ward.
"Devin, heís beautiful however did you afford him?" She exclaimed as she ran an appreciative eye along the black body.
"I practically stole him sister," at her shocked expression he grinned, "Donít worry Iíll tell the tale at chapter and do whatever penance deemed necessary."
Jacob had been watching the gate from the herb garden all day waiting for Devinís return. He hobbled over as Devin dismounted from Commanderís back, hearing the conversation. As they walked the horses back to the barn together he glanced over at his son,
"You didnít really steal him did you?"
After all the pranks he had endured during Devinís childhood he would put nothing past him. Devin laughed,
"Rest easy, father, I paid what they expected for him, which was little enough."
He explained what the old man had told him about Thor that he had killed a previous owner and had come close to killing the current one. The man had a good eye for horse flesh and knew this one was worth saving. Jacob looked the stallion over warily, would Vincent be able to handle him? He sighed, he knew if anyone could it would be Vincent, he had a way with the orneriest of animals, he just hoped it wouldnít get the boy hurt.
They let Thor go in the paddock behind the barn and Jacob took Commander in to unsaddle while Devin went to look for Vincent. He found him sitting on the trunk of a tree that had partially fallen into the river, idly throwing stones in. He stopped for a moment before hailing him; he had never seen Vincent in such a depressed state.
"Vincent," he called out finally, "there you are."
Vincent raised his head with vacant eyes. "Come," Devin waved, "I have a surprise for you." Vincent ignored him returning his attention to the slow moving water beneath him. Carefully Devin moved out onto the log and grabbed his foster brothersí jerkin at the shoulders, heaving upward.
"Devin, what is it?" Vincent asked tonelessly, "Iím busy."
"Yes I can see that, filling up the river one pebble at a time. Come!" he insisted.
Wearily Vincent got his feet under him and trudged after Devin. Why couldnít people just leave him alone? Jacob had been nagging at him to do this thing or that; the sisters had found stupid little chores for him to do, why? To what purpose? There was no purpose anymore, without Catherine nothing seemed important or worth doing. He should have tossed himself into the river instead of the rocks. What was life worth without the one you love?
Dimly he noted that Devin was leading him to the back of the barn, he followed slowly behind, head hanging, shoulders slumped, until he came to the paddock fence. Devin turned to him beaming, "Well what do you think?" Slowly Vincentís eyes traveled down Devinís arm to the black horse that stood in the center of the enclosure watching him. His eyes ran down the black body, the broad chest, the long legs and muscular hindquarters.
"What is this?" he asked Devin when he could tear his gaze away.
"This, brother of mine, is your new mount."
Devin was grinning from ear to ear as Vincent turned back to the horse in amazement. He heard Jacobís step behind him and turned towards him.
"Is it true?"
Jacob nodded, "Heís all yours if you want him."
Vincent opened the gate and went through. Slowly he walked up to the pawing horse; he could sense its anxiousness and began speaking to it in a low voice. "His nameís Thor," Devin called out.
"Thor," Vincent repeated an apt name for so big and powerful a beast he thought. Carefully he held out his hand for the horse to sniff all the while talking in soothing tones. When the pawing stopped he walked around the big body noting old scars where cruel spurs had been used. Signs that a whip had been used as well were evident. Vincentís heart went out to Thor, this magnificent animal had been abused to break its will, but for all the cruelty he had endured his spirit was untouched, Vincent could feel that. He reached out his hand to stroke the glossy neck and was dismayed when the horse sidestepped away from his touch. Vincent frowned promising the big horse that better days lay ahead.
At chapter the next day Devin told the story of Thor to all there and the abbess deemed that there had been no deceit in the purchase and therefore no penance or recompense required. Devin breathe a sigh of relieve, in the days of his youth his penance had been to clean the garderobes a job anyone in their right minds detested.
Thor seemed to be the balm to assuage Vincentís broken heart. He spent hours with the great beast, gently talking to it, touching it here and there, building a bridge of trust between them. And when he felt confident enough in their relationship he carefully mounted. He asked nothing of the stallion but to stand and his heart ached as he felt the great body shake in anticipation of another beating. Vincent would sit astride for only a few minutes at a time asking nothing and then dismount, stroking the glossy neck and showering praise. When the shaking stopped Vincent asked Thor to move forward with the merest squeeze of his legs. As Thor took a hesitant step forward Vincent again would heap praise on him keeping his voice low and calm. Days went by in this fashion and gradually Thor began to trust his new owner. Vincent always asked the big horse to do something, never commanded, and the asking was done in the gentlest of manner. Soon the two were inseparable and could be seen galloping at breakneck speed along the river or through the fields. It seemed Vincentís melancholy was all but gone and Jacob and Devin congratulated themselves on a plan well done.
As Devinís leg healed, he and Vincent would spar with sword and dirk. Jacobís training had given Vincent a solid foundation but the rigors Devin put him through sharpened his skills so that any army would be happy to have him. When Vincent felt confident enough he and Devin took their swordplay onto horseback. They would charge each other and the sound of their swords clashing could be heard throughout the enclave. Devinís Commander was a war horse trained in combat maneuvers aimed at helping to protect his rider. They found out very quickly that Thor was just as well trained; the black horse would carefully counter Commanderís moves as the two men fought. Vincent was delighted with Thorís new found skills and Devin once again marveled at what a bargain he had wrought.
The worst winter in Englandís history spread its icy fingers throughout the land. Snow fell by the foot and howling gusts of wind created mountainous drifts making travel all but impossible. His leg completely healed, Devin once again talked of leaving, voicing his thoughts on rejoining the border patrol or the kingís army in the south.
"No army in their right mind would march through weather like this," Jacob argued, "best to wait until the spring thaw thatís when things will begin to stir again."
Devin nodded his head in agreement there was little anyone could do in this kind of weather. The last news they had had of the outside world came from some travelers that had come north before the storm from Oxford where Stephenís army had laid siege to the town hoping to capture the Empress Maude who was in residence there.
The spring would also bring a new threat to Jacobís life, Vincent, chaffing under the idleness the winter imposed began talk of joining Devin when he left the Priory.
"Vincent," Jacob would exclaim, "How could you possibly go? One look at you and they would kill you for a demon or some other such nonsense."
He would watch his foster son pace back and forth before the hearth of the house the priory had given them for their use.
"Father, I am sick and tired of being confined. I read stories of other places, and yearn to see them for myself. I hear of the atrocities committed outside these walls and want to do something about it. I am no longer a boy content to roam the safe world the priory grants me. Iím a man grown, I want to enter a manís world, I want to protect and fight for what I think is right not sit here amongst the old men and women and do nothing."
Had he been anyone else Jacob would have applauded Vincentís zeal and wished him Godspeed, but that it was this most unusual of men his heart tighten in his chest with fear for him. Going down on one knee, Vincent took Jacobís hands in his own and looked imploring into the sad eyes of the man who had raised him.
"Father, surely you can understand my needs, you of all people know me best. I need to do this no matter what the danger. Please say youíll give me your blessing."
Vincent bowed his head and waited with held breath. Sighing Jacob disengaged one of his hands and laid it on Vincentís head, stroking the golden mane.
"I do understand, my son, and when you leave you shall have my blessing, but I will fear for you all the same."
Vincent looked up at Jacob and quickly stood to kiss the old man on both cheeks. Jacob looked imploring at Devin, who merely shrugged, once Vincent had made up his mind it was near impossible to change it. When Vincent went out later to check on the horseís Devin promised his father to protect Vincent as much as he could,
"Who knows, father, with his hood in place and a story of an ugly face perhaps he will come to no harm."
Jacob merely blessed the winter that kept his two sons close and prayed that it would be a long one.
Catherine laid another brycan over her fatherís still form, carefully tucking it in around him. Even in sleep his face was etched in pain and she wondered how long his indomitable spirit would last. As much as she loved him and wanted to keep him with her she knew this was no kind of life for him. During these last few months as the cold of winter chilled the castle she saw her father fading away more and more each day. She saw him shiver in his sleep, it couldnít be from the cold, she was actually perspiring, between the fireplace and the extra braziers she has brought in, the room was almost stifling. She glanced over to the table where she kept the poppy juice Jacob supplied and hoped it would last until the road to the priory was passable again. Jacobís elixir was Charlesí only easement from the pain his broken body gave him and Catherine kept a wary eye on their stock of it, rationing it out carefully.
Nodding to her old nurse who sat beside the bed, her nimble fingers stitching away on a piece of embroidery, Catherine took her candle and quietly slipped out the door. Pulling her robe closer about her against the chilly air that moved through the hall she started her nightly rounds. She went down to the great hall where the fire burned brightly in the huge hearth giving warmth to those huddled in their cloaks lying on the rushes strewn about the floor. Catherine had made it a practice to open the hall to those who had no source of heat for the night, or travelers caught out on the road without the coin to buy a bed. Walking through she would sometimes hear someone say a word of thanks and blessing. Silently she walked the length of the hall to its farthest end, mounting the steps of the dais where her fathersí chair sat proud and solitary. This was the seat from which he would hear the petitions of his vassals and from where he had dispensed justice. Lovingly she ran her hand along the back of it remembering a time that seemed years ago when as a young girl, she would conceal herself behind the tapestries that hung on the wall behind the chair and watch him. Sighing she pushed those tapestries aside and passed through the door behind them into the hallway to the stairs that led back to the upper chambers. When she reached the landing a voice called softly from behind,
"My lady, Catherine."
She turned to see a figure coming towards her from the bottom of the stairs. When it reached the circle of light her candle cast, Catherine could see that it was Lord Elliot.
The altercation between Maude and Stephen lay dormant in these winter months as too had the Welsh raids on English borders so Elliot had left a minimal troop on guard and was making his way back to his own estates stopping on his way to see how his mentor and friend was faring and, if truth be told, to see Catherine again for his heart was set on her. She could see the glow of desire in his eyes and her thoughts once again flew to Vincent, but she summoned up a smile for the man that stood before her,
"My Lord Elliot," she acknowledged with a small curtsey. "It was kind of you to stop by to see my father, especially in this benighted weather."
She began walking towards her chamber with Elliot beside her. Stopping in front of her door she turned to bid him goodnight, but he took her free hand in both of his and looked deep into her eyes. In the warm glow of the candle light she looked as if she could have come down from heaven. He stood struck dumb for a moment then plucking up his courage he made his plea,
"I asked your father for your hand, he gave me his blessing," he swallowed hard when he saw the shocked expression on her face but determinedly continued, "he seemed happy at the prospect of having me for a son-in-law, but he left it to you. She has a mind of her own he said ask her yourself. So Catherine Iím asking would you have me as your husband?"
Catherineís eyes filled with tears as she hung her head, shaking it slowing from side to side. Anger flared in his eyes as he dropped the hand he was holding and began to pace furiously in front of her just able to keep his voice to a roaring whisper.
"Why not? I am well propertied, titled; others have told me Iím not bad to look upon." He stopped and stood before her, pleading, "Why not, Catherine?"
She looked at the pain etched in his face and her heart tightened; tears fell down her soft cheeks. "Iím sorry Elliot, but I love another."
Elliotís face fell, his shoulders sagged, "Heís a lucky man, whoever he is."
He turned from her and made his way back the way he had come. She stared after him for a moment before fleeing into her bed chamber. Setting the candle on the table she flung herself through the curtains and onto the bed, sobbing for the pain she had caused a good friend and crying out for the one she wanted most.
The next morning Elliot and his men left, continuing their journey to his manor. Catherine, bundled up against the cold, had stood on the steps of the great hall to see them off. Before mounting Elliot had gone to her taking her gloved hands into his own, the pain in his eyes reflecting the pain in her heart,
"Goodbye Catherine," he said squeezing her hands, "if ever you have need of anything, anything you have a servant in me." She nodded unable to speak and watched him ride through the gate.
Days later an icy wind roared from the north driving the snow before it, blinding anyone who was brave enough to venture out. It found every crack in the castle walls causing the inhabitants to huddle close to hearths and braisers. Catherine stood by her fatherís bed side looking down at the once robust, energetic force in her life. The noise of the wind seemed to upset him and she had found it necessary to give him more of the poppy juice then her careful rationing had allowed to just give him a modicum of comfort. She looked at the jar of the precious liquid noting that there wasnít much left, she would have to send someone out to the White Ladies Priory for more, but in this storm who could she trust to make it through and back again? Did she even have the right to ask anyone to do it? She shuddered to think of what kind of pain her father would be in without the dulling effect of the drug. She took herself off to bed and lay awake long into the night trying to come to a decision.
"Where are you going this time of night?" Jacob rounded on Vincent furiously. His adopted son had stormed into the workshop rummaging through it until he had come across the jar of poppy juice.
"Iím taking this to Catherine, Charles has need of it." And she has need of me he added silently. He had felt her loneliness and pain grow until this final need had all but made him stagger.
"You canít be serious?" Jacob hobbled after him as Vincent pulled the hood of his cloak up over his head. "The roads are all but impassable, youíve heard so yourself from the travelers we have in the guest hall." It was true the guest hall was full of people who had been caught out on the road when the storm had hit telling of great snow drifts created by the blowing north winds. He had discreetly gone hooded and gloved among them, bringing in cots and supplies necessary for their comfort, listening to their tales of the weather.
"Nevertheless I am going!" Vincent shouted to make himself heard above the roar of the storm.
Jacob stood before the door, blocking Vincentís way. A snarl curled Vincentís lip and his eyes blazed at his adopted father. Cringing slightly at the fearsome being before him, Jacob set his shoulders and lifted his head defiantly, "And if by some miracle you make it through what will you do when you get there? Knock on the gate and simply walk into the castle as if youíre just like anyone else. One look at you and youíll be spitted on the end of a spear!"
Vincent glared at him and after carefully placing the jar into one of the many pockets of his cloak wrapped the thick scarf that was draped over his shoulders around his nose and the lower part of his face. With the hood pulled low and anchored by the scarf all that could be seen of Vincentís face were his eyes and a few tendrils of golden hair. Gently he pushed Jacob aside and took firm hold of the door. Jacob made one more desperate plea, grabbing hold of Vincentís arm,
"Vincent, please donít go, please!"
Vincent stared at him a moment then wrenched the door open. The wind blew in causing the floor rushes to shift on the ground and the candle flames to flicker wildly. Swiftly he closed the door behind him blocking the wind and the sight of Jacobís face. Bent almost double, he turned into the gale and made his way to the barn. Jacob leaned against the closed door in despair, fearing he would never see his adopted son again.
Vincent saddled Thor in the relative comfort of the barn, it was still bitterly cold, but the walls kept out most of the wind. He apologized to his four legged friend for dragging him out in the foul weather, but assured him that it was necessary. Or was it himself he was reassuring? No matter his course was set and he would not be swayed from it. Leading Thor to the barn door he swung it open and pulled the reluctant stallion through it, closing and barring it. With his cloak flying about him he put foot to stirrup, mounted and pointed Thor in the direction of the gate. The stallionís mane and tail flew out behind him like a banner as he bent his mighty head and stepped onto the road that led to Catherine.
Blackthorn lay northeast of the priory and unfortunately the wind that drove the heavy snow almost horizontally was coming from that direction. Vincent pulled his hood down low over his face to protect his eyes from the stinging snow, trusting Thor to pick the best route. The cold air seared his lungs every time he took a breath and the white plume of his exhale was blown away as soon as it left his body. Snow clung to Thorís mane where it froze into beads of ice as the stallion valiantly pushed his way through the storm. The naked branches of the trees whipped wildly in the wind sometimes catching at Vincentís cloak threatening to rip it off. They were engulfed in a world of white that obliterated every landmark so that Vincent had to rely solely on his connection with Catherine to guide them.
CatherineÖHis heart soared every time he thought of her, going to her now might seem like folly to some, but he felt her need, her anxiousness, her pain and grief, how could he ignore that if there was something he could do about it. He loved her with every fiber of his being even though he knew there was no future in a life together. If he could ease her suffering even by a little he would do it. Her image stayed before him as he and Thor struggled through the swirling snow and deep drifts. The feel of her soft lips on his own, the smell of her, the way she felt in his arms so small and delicate yet with an inner strength that matched his own kept him on his course.
He rode through the night with only the bond showing him the way. There were no stars, no moon to light their way only the incessant roar and howl of the wind and the never ending snow. Thor slipped and slid along the frozen road, his sides heaving from exertion. Deep drifts made the going slow and laborious. The wind found every opening in Vincentís cloak and for once he was thankful for his natural covering of fur.
Finally the outer walls of castle Blackthorn loomed in front of them materializing like a ghost from out of nowhere. Dismounting by the gate, Vincent banged on the porters door several times before the window finally opened.
"Whoís there?" the porter shouted against the roar of the storm.
"Iíve come from the Priory with medicine for Lord Charles," Vincent shouted back through the scarf that covered the lower part of his face.
The porterís eyes widened in surprise, he had heard from the maids that the Lady Catherine had been roaming the halls all night worried about her father, now as if in answer to her prays this very large apparition appeared covered in snow with exactly what was needed. Quickly the porter opened the gate to admit horse and rider. A sleepy eyed youth stumbled out of the porterís lodge,
"Joseph, run to the steward, tell him the Lady Catherine has a guest from the White Ladies Priory." The boy stood, rubbing at his eyes, "Joseph, goÖnow!"
He gave the boy a shove in the back. As Joseph ran up the steps of the great hall the porter took Thorís reins,
"Never you worry, Iíll make sure your beast is comfortable and well fed."
He motioned Vincent towards the hall as he led Thor to the stables. Vincent stood for a moment watching Thor being led off, his sharp ears hearing the mumbled words "fool" and "Godsend", then turned and mounted the steps. As he entered the hall he heard his named called and saw Catherine rushing towards him. Heedless of watching eyes she flung herself into his arms. He held her close for a moment before pushing her away. Looking at her he could see that their time apart had not been kind to her, dark smudges, attesting to sleepless nights, lay under her weary eyes, her skin was sallow and drawn taut over her cheekbones, she had lost weight.
"Catherine, Iím covered in snow youíll be soaked through," he chided her.
She laughed, and his heart warmed, "What does it matter, youíre a pray answered, come," she held out her hand, he took it in his gloved one and followed her through the hall and up the steps to her bed chamber. Vincent hesitated in the doorway but Catherine pulled him through, shutting the door behind him. The room was warm and welcoming awash with Catherineís sent. Vincent stood a moment as his frozen fingers and toes began to thaw, it seemed like years since heíd been warm instead of mere hours. The flames in hearth leaped and sparked like a living thing giving warmth and light. Catherine led him over to it, helping him off with his sodden cloak and scarf, but before she could drape them over a chair he fished out the jar of precious poppy juice. He handed it to her, "for your father."
Reverently she took the jar, "You came through this horrible storm to bring me this? How did you know?"
He shrugged his shoulders, "I felt it through our connection, your pain and anguish for your father, your loneliness, how could I feel these things and not help you?"
Catherine held his eyes for a moment and then hung her head, "Iím sorry Vincent, I know I should be stronger, I shouldnít have let you feel all those things, but Iím so tired, so heartsick of seeing my father in such pain. This kind of thing is terrible for the person going through it, but it is terrible for those around him as well. I never knew how it was to feel so helpless, to watch someone you love in pain grow weaker every day and not be able to do anything about it."
Tears ran down her face as she spoke, "It would have been better for him had he died under that horse, better a quick death than this horrible lingering one."
Vincent gathered her into his arms, holding her close, as great wracking sobs tore through her body. He let her cry herself out and then gently carried her to her bed. He laid her down, covered her with a quilt and drew the bed curtains shut, then pulling a chair up close to the hearth he made himself comfortable and was soon asleep.
Catherine awoke slowly, feeling better than she had felt in a long time. Her mind was fuzzy trying to remember how she gotten into bed. She raised her arms stretching luxuriously and then suddenly remembering she jumped out of bed, pushed aside the curtains and found Vincent gently snoring in a chair beside the hearth. She watched him for a moment thinking how she would love to be able to wake up every morning with him. Suddenly his eyes flew open and she blushed, had he felt her yearning? Slowly he sat up rubbing the kinks out of his neck. She smiled and moved behind the chair,
"Here let me, itís the least I could do since your presence awarded me the best rest Iíve had in months."
He bowed his head and sighed as her delicate fingers massaged his shoulders. Probing their bond he could feel that she was happy and content, that he was the cause filled him with great pride and joy, but also with foreboding because friendship was all they could expect from their relationship, but for now she was happy and that was all that matter.
The wind still howled outside, banging the wooden shutters that covered the windows, protesting the solid walls that kept it from the warm chamber. The sun struggled to illuminate a world covered in white glistening snow, and even though day looked like night the growling of Vincentís stomach declared that it was time to break his fast. Catherine giggled as her stomach voiced its opinion as well. Throwing on a thick robe and carefully picking up the poppy jar, she went to the door, "Iíll check on my father and then bring some food." She graced him with a glowing smile and then was gone.
She reappeared a short time later with a trencher laden with bread and cheese, they broke their fast together immensely enjoying each otherís company relating stories of their time apart. Then Catherine grew serious, "My father wants to meet you, he knew the poppy juice was almost gone and he asked me how I came to have a full jar. When I told him you had come riding through the night, through the storm he thought you mad." She dropped her eyes, "I told him about us, I told him we were connected in some strange way that let you know that I was in need. I told him that I love you," she looked up locking her eyes to his, daring him to deny her feelings for him or his for hers. Vincent broke the stare first, rising from his chair to pace the length of the chamber.
"Catherine, this is an old path we are traveling, you know as well as I that we can never be. I am no one, nothing, part beast, part man; you can have nothing to do with me."
Catherine stepped into his path, blocking his way putting a hand on his chest, "you are the man I love nothing and no one will change that, I want to spend the rest of my life with you and if I have to do that living in the woods, in a hut, in nothing but my shift I will." She declared fervently.
Vincent grasped her shoulders, shaking her gently, "you donít know what youíre talking about."
"I do," she retorted, "come meet my father, youíll see, he only wantís my happiness, heíll accept you."
She took his hand and began tugging him to the door. He broke free, grabbed his cloak and swung it about his shoulders, raising the hood. He stooped and picked up the scarf that had fallen on the floor, wrapping it around his face till only his eyes were visible. After he had gloved his hands he nodded to her and she opened the door, leading the way to her fatherís rooms.
"Ranulf," she said to her fatherís squire as she entered, "you may leave us, I will call you when we are done." Ranulf eyed the tall stranger with curiosity; the castle had been abuzz all morning about his daring ride through the storm and even more so that he had passed the night in the Lady Catherineís bed chamber. He nodded to his mistress as he quit the room eager to add more fodder to the circulating tales.
Catherine went to the bedside, "Father," she whispered softly, "Iíve brought Vincent with me."
Slowly Charles opened his eyes straining to see in the gloom. Extending a withered hand Charles beckoned, "Come forward man so that I may thank you myself."
Vincent eyed Catherine apprehensively; she stood with a hand resting on her fatherís shoulder, nodding encouragingly at him.
Standing at the foot of the bed Vincent looked at a man he hardly recognized. He had seen Sir Charles, from his hidden vantage point, when he had first brought Catherine to the Priory. He had been a tall, strong man, with a ruddy complexion and the air of authority about him. The being before him now looked nothing like that man; pain had etched itself into the once handsome face making it look pallid, almost skeletal. The eyes were sunk deep, with black smudges under them. The hand that once held a sword was shaking as it beckoned Vincent forward.
"There," whispered the voice that once commanded armies, "thatís better. I wanted to thank you personally. Catherine, has told me much about you, she tells me that she would have you for her husband. Tell me what do you have to recommend yourself to me other than my daughters love?"
Vincent shot Catherine a quick look, "Nothing, I have nothing, sir, I was a foundling, with no title, no property, no money. I have not made an offer for Catherineís hand, I would not presume to do so knowing she is of noble blood." He raised his eyes to look at Charles, "I do have plans, in these times of turmoil a man can make a name for himself, I hope to fight for the king."
Charles stared at the man before him at least he had honesty if nothing else. He was a large man from what he could tell, broad of shoulders and tall. Impatiently he waved his hand, "Uncloak man, this chamber is kept warm for my comfort, you must be sweating." Again Vincent looked at Catherine; he saw the fear in her eyes before she looked away. Slowly he raised his hand to the scarf that hid his face, bowing his head as he unwound it. He used both hands to lower his hood and slowly raised his head to reveal himself. Time seemed to stand still the only sound was the banging of the shutters and the crackle of the fire in the hearth. Charlesí eyes grew wide as he took in the strange features. Catherine expelled a breath she wasnít aware she had been holding.
Finally Charles whispered, "What manner of being are you?"
Catherine heard the edge in his voice, "Father, please," she entreated.
"What demon spawned you?" Charles hitched himself up high on the bed, his voice regaining some of its old strength. "You have bewitched my daughter, spelled her in some manner, be gone from this place," Charles flung his hand towards the door, "Leave here, stay away from my daughter!"
Vincent staggered backwards as if struck, the vehemence in the tone and words like a knife through his heart. Jacob was right; there was no place for him in the world outside the safety of the priory where he was loved for the man inside and not feared for the beast on the outside. This was his first taste of what it was like to be judged solely on his appearance by one who did not know him, it hurt. Quickly he hid himself and made for the door. Catherine looked on aghast, she stared down at her father as Vincent hurried through the door, "Father, how could you?" Tears ran down her face as she felt the pain of her fatherís rejection sear through Vincent, and then it was gone, he had shut the bond down, throwing a wall around his feelings, shutting her out. She ran for the door, with her fathers calls going unheeded, following Vincent down the stairs and through the great hall. Mindless of the cold she ran outside and to the stables. Vincent was just placing his saddle on Thor when she entered. He kept his back to her struggling not to turn and take her into his arms and hold her one last time.
"Go back Catherine, itís no use, we were never meant to be, itís useless to go on hoping, dreaming. Please, Catherine, donít make this harder for both of us."
She knew he was right, but that didnít make the pain any less. Why, why, why did she have to be born a noblemanís daughter with duties and responsibilities? Why did the man she love have to wear the face of a lion? Why did God bring them together only to tear them apart this way? There were too many questions and no answers. She stood watching as he bridled Thor and led him out of the stables into the courtyard. She watched him mount from the doorway. He looked back once as he made his way to the gate. Blue eyes met green and clung for a moment, before he tore his gaze away and rode through the gate.
He never knew how he got back to the priory; tears had stung his eyes and blurred his sight more than the storm had done on his outward journey. The vision of Catherine standing in the stable doorway, shivering in the cold haunted him the entire way back. He had had to fight the urge to jump off Thorís back and take her in his arms to warm her body with his own, to kiss away her tears and tell her everything would be all right, that they would live their dream, but Charlesí words were reality, and brought their dream crashing down around them smothering it with truth. Catherine was beyond his reach, it had all been a glorious fairy tale with a bitter ending.
When Thor stopped he looked around in a daze, he was outside the priory wall, the portress had heard Thorís whinny and was opening the gate. He dismounted to a flurry of questions that he answered automatically. Sister Eugenia sensed from his demeanor that his spirit had been badly wounded and sent Mouse to alert Jacob of his sonís return.
The following days saw Vincent very withdrawn from his adopted family, all were concerned and all were at a loss as to how to proceed. Soon after his trip to Blackthorn he announced his intention to leave the enclave with Devin who had decided to join Stephensís army at Oxford. No words, no amount of persuasion, or logic would sway him.
Mother Margaret and Jacob stood on the steps of the church surrounded by the rest of the Priory inhabitants and watched as the two brothers rode out through the gate and into a land in turmoil.
"It was just a matter of time, Jacob," she laid a comforting hand on his shoulder.
"I know," Jacob shook his head sadly, "I know."
Snow still covered the world as the Devin and Vincent made their way east, then south, skirting the town of Leicester. Winter should have been at its ebb but its icy breath still blew down from the north making travel unpleasant. Devin judged they would be in Oxford in time for the spring thaw when the warring factions would begin hostilities again for neither side would back down. While they rode Devin kept up a steady stream of babble recounting the adventures heíd had of his time away from the priory. Vincent, always reticent at the best of times, was even more so since his visit to Blackthorn. He had never spoken of what had happened at the castle, but Devin surmised that whatever it was it had affected his brother deeply.
Suddenly Vincent reined Thor in, sitting very still in an attitude of listening.
"What is it, Vincent?" Devin whispered.
"Men," Vincent growled, loosening his sword in its scabbard. Devin did the same as they left the main road which curved ahead of them blocking their view. Carefully they threaded their way through the trees. The snow muffled the sounds of their horses hooves, the evergreens and holly trees hid them as they followed the sound of men speaking. Advancing slowly Vincent could just make out that there were two groups and an altercation was about to ensue. He motioned to Devin who peered through the snow laden branches of a tree, holding up his fingers indicating the number. Vincent nodded and had Thor follow Commander as Devin urged him forward back out onto the road.
Four Benedictine monks had suddenly found themselves the target of a group of thieves, "We have nothing of any value," the smallest monk pleaded standing in front of his fellows as if to guard them.
A thick, swarthy fellow grinned, showing yellow, broken teeth, "Thereís always something to be had even if itís only a cloak." The others chuckled, anticipating some sport, as the man advanced on the monk, but before he could lay a hand on him two riders astride big chargers appeared as if from nowhere.
Sitting easily in the saddle arms crossed over the pommel the smaller of the two called out nonchalantly, "Brotherís, can we be of some assistance?"
Shaken to his marrow by the ragtag group that accosted him, Brother Pascal, sent a pray of thanks and called back, "We are monks from Ramsey Abbey on our way to our brother abbey of St. Peter and Paul in Shrewsbury, these men", he glared at the rabble blocking his path, "seek to take what little we have."
Devin look disdainfully down, "I would not call them men, brother, vermin, cowards perhaps, but certainly not men."
"Youíd do best to hold your tongue," the apparent leader of the group growled. He was an ugly man with stringy, dirty brown hair; a scar ran from the right side of his forehead to the opposite side of his chin, a ragged black patch covered what remained of his right eye. "We are fifteen against you two and four brothers," he swung his pitted sword for emphasis, "Iíd say you were outnumbered."
Devin chuckled and looked over his shoulder, "What say you, Vincent, are we out numbered?"
Slowly Vincent shook his head from side to side. The leader of the band hesitated in his advance; there was something ominous about the big man shrouded in black. A large, bald man with broken teeth brandished an axe and stepped forward, "Thereís only the two, Theo, we can take them." Devin grinned at Vincent as the group advanced. Two swords sang out of their scabbards, gleaming in the weak sunlight. One of the bandits swung at Devin while another tried to pull him from the saddle. Commander struck, cow kicking the one while Devin swung his sword down on the other. The two men howled with pain and backed off blood spurting from their wounds. Another group surged around Vincent, Thor spun lashing out with back hooves that connected with a satisfying crunch. Vincent swung his sword round him like the vanes of a windmill. It lasted only moments as it became clear the two horsemen were not the easy prey the villains had thought they were.
Soon Vincent and Devin found themselves with only the monks for company. The four terrified men had hung back during the altercation, fervently praying for their two champions. The oldest one, Samuel by name, swooned falling to the snow covered ground in a heap. Quickly Vincent dismounted, taking his pack from behind the saddle. He knelt by the fallen monk ascertaining his condition, tending to what he could. On closer inspection it was evident that these monks had been in some sort of confrontation earlier.
When Samuelís eyes fluttered open his gaze fell upon a head swathed in black with only two of the bluest eyes he had ever seen looking down at him filled with concern. With Vincentís help he sat up, "How are you feeling?" rumbled Vincentís deep voice. Samuel sat a moment looking around himself, disoriented, trying to remember why he was in the middle of the wood, sitting on a snowy road. He drew in a sharp breath as the memories came tumbling back. He struggled to rise and with Vincentís help made it to his feet, the other monks flocked around him lending him support as he swayed precariously.
"We owe you our lives," he wheezed painfully looking from Devin to Vincent. "We would welcome your company to Shrewsbury," he added hopefully.
"Actually we were on our way to Oxford to join the kingís armyÖ," Devin began, but seeing Vincent shake his head he added, "Öbut we would be happy to accompany you."
Vincent and Devin carefully hoisted Samuel onto Thorís back, and then piled what few possessions the monks had onto Commander. It was decided that Vincent and Devin would escort the monks as far as St. Giles, the lazar house of St. Peter and Paul, situated on the outskirts of the town of Shrewsbury. There the monks would be welcome, and after resting, could resume their trek without fear of attack, the under sheriff of Shrewsbury kept a watchful eye over his writ.
As they walk beside the monks, leading their horses, Brother Pascal told them what had happened and why they were going to Shrewsbury.
"We are brothers of Ramsey Abbey," he began as they walked along.
Geoffrey de Mandeville, one time Earl of Essex and Constable of Londonís Tower, had attacked the abbey and driven out all the occupants to make it the headquarters for his army of ragtag miscreants and mercenaries. He no longer pled allegiance to either Stephen or Maude having jumped from one to the other always looking for his own gain. Now his aim was to get back the family lands he had lost and gather as much plunder and support as he could. The monks told of the atrocities that de Mandeville had visited upon them and their brother monks. Some had been killed outright, some tortured. The abbey itself had been desecrated, pillaged and looted beyond recognition. Before the winter itself slowed him down de Mandeville had devastated the countryside for miles around sacking and burning anything of value. If his mob survived the winter the spring would find the country once again terrorized by their attacks.
As they listened to the monks story Devin began to formulate a plan, here was the perfect opportunity for he and Vincent to make a difference to the innocent people who were caught between two warring factions and those that would take advantage of the situation. The monkís plight made it very clear that people would need protection which he and Vincent could provide. In this way too, Vincent would be able to remain hidden in his cloak and scarves without coming under too much scrutiny, a story of hideous features would suffice whereas in an army being with the same men for a length of time sooner or later those features would be revealed, a shudder shook Devin as he thought of what would happen.
They arrived at St. Giles without further incident and left the monks there with their thanks and prayers ringing in their ears and once again headed east.
The winter was a long one lasting well into April, but by May it finally began to thaw into spring. News began to reach the priory, through passing travelers, of two riders who would fearlessly ride into situations of peril, succoring people who had been set upon by roving bands of lawless men who were making the most of a country in strife by preying on the weak and helpless. The description of the big, black horse with its equally big rider let the nuns and Jacob know that Vincent and Devin were alive. Although knowing that they were still counted among the living was cause for rejoicing the tales of their exploits were harrowing to say the least. Jacob fretted for his sons and eagerly questioned any traveler who had happened upon them. The stories he heard made him proud, they fought for neither Empress nor King, but for the common people of England.
For their part, the two brothers thrived on the excitement of their chosen course. Vincent got to see much of England on their journeys, places he had only heard about and Devin need call no man his superior. They went where they pleased, and did what they pleased. They aided peasants, travelers, townspeople, sometimes even sheriffs; they were rewarded sometimes in coin but mostly in a place to sleep and a meal, supplies for their travels. But wherever they went and whatever they did they always left with a grateful thank you ringing in their ears. Vincent became known as the black rider and Devin his companion.
Charlesí rejection of Vincent devastated Catherine. She went about her duties as she always did, but no longer smiled. Charles noted the change in her but was adamant that she fulfill her destiny. She was to marry a nobleman and continue the line of Chandler; it was her duty he insisted.
Duty, what a disgusting word, obligations, another one, she was sick to death of them both, but what else was there for her or for any woman for that matter born in this time, in this position. Duty and obligation for a noble daughter meant making an advantageous marriage, one that brought land, money, title to the house which she was from. Many was the night she thought of running away, but where and to whom, Vincent had thrown a wall up between them, the bond no longer hummed with the love he had felt for her. She had heard nothing from him since he had left so abruptly, felt nothing from him. It was if he had never been, as if their bond had never existed, that it had all been a fleeting ghost of her imagination.
Spring saw Charles still tenaciously clinging to life and with the roads passable Catherine decided to go to the White Ladies Priory herself to obtain another jar of Jacobís poppy juice. Perhaps a trip in the bright sunshine with the trees budding and the birds singing would shake the cobwebs from her and lighten her spirits. She looked forward to seeing the sisters again and Jacob, she would seek out Jaime and Mouse and perhaps, just perhaps she would be able to speak to Vincent. More than anything she wanted to see him again, talk to him, touch him; perhaps together they could think of someway to be together. With her heart soaring in anticipation she mounted Wizard and with an escort of four men rode out of the courtyard, through the gate.
The sunshine on her face felt wonderful, the first of the spring flowers had poked their heads up through the soil and lent their fragrance to the cool wind that blew gently through the land. They took an easy but steady pace sometimes having to skirt around nasty holes the winter storms had gouged out of the road. In this weather it was hard to imagine the storm Vincent had ridden through the last time she had seen him.
She was lost in thought, daydreaming about what she would say to him when she saw him, that is of course, if she did see him. What would she say to him, what could she say that would take the pain of her fatherís words away? Intellectually he knew what people would say if they ever saw him, hadnít Jacob told him often enough, but this was the first time he had actually heard it, actually confronted someone outside of the safe haven of his home. The first time he felt the revulsion and the sting of rejection. Tears sprang to Catherineís eyes as she remembered the look on Vincentís face.
Suddenly a shout from one of her guards tore her back to the present, a group of men were bearing down on them and by the look of them nothing good was going to come of their meeting. She reined Wizard in as her men surrounded her with drawn swords.
A man elegantly clad sitting astride a handsome chestnut stopped just in front of her as she and her men were surrounded by twenty well armed men. She heard one of her men whisper "de Mandeville" under his breath and fear knotted her stomach. She had heard about his depredations.
"Well, well, well, what have we here, a lady taking some air on a fine spring day?" His dark eyes glittered full of mockery.
A man with an axe had been staring intently at her and suddenly called out, "I know her, sheís Lord Chandlerís daughter, I used to work in his stable until I was thrown out for thieving." He stared at her licking his lips. "Chandler would pay a good sum of coin to have her back."
"Indeed?" de Mandeville drawled, "Well then, my lady, we will just have to insist that you become our guest."
One of Catherineís guards spurred his horse forward brandishing his sword, "youíll not take her while I live."
De Mandeville drew his own weapon, "Then weíll just have to see to it that you donít!"
As the two groups surged around her she heard a yell, "run my lady!" She dug her heels into Wizards sides and clung to the saddle as he leaped through an opening. Four against twenty was no contest and the altercation was soon over. Two of de Mandevilleís men went after Catherine. She stayed on the road to gain some distance but soon realized that Wizards short stature and age were against them. She took to the woods wishing for the leaves of summer that would have better hidden her. She urged Wizard forward as fast as she dared threading her way through the trees. Branches whipped her slight form as she bent low and snatched at her clothing. The crashing of the underbrush behind her told her pursuit was not far behind. Recklessly she kicked Wizard to greater speed, feeling the sting of a briar across her face as they pushed through it. If only she could reach the river, once across it they might be able to reach the town of Ironsbridge and get help. Before they could even reach the river bank Wizard stumbled and went down to his knees dislodging her from the saddle. She cursed the dolt who had ever invented the unwieldy side saddle for well bred ladies to ride in. Scrambling to her feet she drew her sword from its sheath. She held it before her, assuming a defensive stance as two of de Mandevilleís men rode down on her. They reined in a little distance away, the taller of the two dismounted,
"Look at this, Elrond, our little bird has talons," he laughed as he stepped toward her. She watched him close in on her with not even his sword drawn so confident that he could take her. The one he called Elrond still sat in the saddle not even bothering to dismount.
"Have a care, Hugh; the ladyís little stick could have a nasty sting to it."
He chuckled as Catherine stood her ground brandishing her weapon. Hugh reached his hand out to grab her arm, but she side stepped bringing her blade down. The sharp steel easily sliced through the gauntlet he wore. A satisfying yelp issued from his lips as blood flowed from the wound. Startled he swore and pulled his own sword from its sheath. Catherine took a moment to look around, there were still only the two of them and Wizard was back on his feet only a few yards away. If she could disable these two she might yet be able to escape to safety. Her attention was drawn back to the one named Hugh who was approaching her with more respect. Elrond had dismounted but still had not drawn out his own weapon. Good, she thought, they still didnít consider her much of a threat, if she could dispatch this one sheíd only have to deal with one other. She feinted to her right and as Hugh moved to block she darted in driving her blade up under his chin, spinning away as blood spurted from his throat. Dropping his weapon, Hugh clutched at the wound his eyes wide in amazement and fell to his knees. Catherine backed warily, breathing hard, she had fought like this with Vincent, but there had never been blood on her blade before, she had never killed before. She felt herself begin to shake in reaction to what she had done but then Elrond was before her, his eyes hard and angry, he would not make the same mistake of thinking her easy prey. He was taller than she, with a longer reach, but this was precisely what she had faced when sparring with Vincent. Brutally she pushed her fear aside; if she were to survive she would have to have her wits about her. She took up her stance again keeping her sword before her. Elrond came at her much more cautiously, hampered by the fact that de Mandeville would want her alive and in good condition, he had to be careful, she was worth a large ransom. Besides she would provide much more satisfying sport in a bed chamber, a grin broke his face when he thought of the punishment he would exact on her for killing Hugh.
Catherineís heart thudded in her chest as she parried one blow after another looking for an opening. She had the advantage of being light on her feet and quick but she knew it would only be a matter of time before she tired, she was already beginning to feel the weight of her sword. Desperately she fought careful of her footing on the treacherous forest floor. She spied a fallen tree and began to maneuver her opponent backwards, toward it. When she judged him to be in the right position she rushed at him with a flurry of strokes causing him to fall over backwards, striking his bare head on a rock. As he lay stunned Catherine ran for Wizard, sheathing her sword as she went. Grasping hold of his mane she began to pull herself up when a hand grabbed her from behind and brutally yanked her to the ground. Leaves wet from melting snow broke her fall. She lay for a moment stunned then struggled to get up until a sword point pricked her throat. She froze. Hugh stood over her dripping blood, hatred burning in his eyes. Suddenly his eyes glazed and he fell right across her. She screamed and tried to move but the dead weight of his body kept her pinned. Squirming and wriggling she finally managed to free her upper body and was about to roll him off when a group of de Mandevilleís men surrounded her. Quickly they pulled the dead man from her and hoisted her, none to gently, to her feet. Wet leaves clung to her once elegant gown, a long tear in the skirt exposed a shapely leg, snide remarks flew until de Mandeville rode up and dismounted.
He nudged the body of Hugh with the toe of his boot, "Well it seems the Lady Catherine knows how to take care of herself."
Elrond staggered over rubbing the back of his head, "she has a sword," he warned.
He pulled it from the sheath, blood still staining the blade.
De Mandeville took it, looking it over, "itís a pretty little thing," he bent over and wiped the blood off the blade on Hughís cotte. "Weíll send it to your father as proof we have you, Iím sure heíll be happy to pay whatever ransom we set." Catherine glared at him through the strands of hair that had come unbound. "Tie her hands and set her on her horse," de Mandeville commanded.
A brut of a man with foul breath caught Wizardís reins, and after tying her hands in front of her, hoisted her into the saddle. Leering wickedly he ran his rough, dirty hand down her exposed leg. Shaking with disgust and rage she kicked him viciously under the chin. Wizard side stepped as the man stumbled backward in surprise, but he didnít let go of the reins. Spitting oaths he was about to backhand her when de Mandeville caught his arm, "No harm comes to the lady until I say so," he released the manís arm and raised his voice, looking around at his men, "is that understood?" Then he turned back to Catherine, "And you, my dear, would do well to behave yourself I wonít always be around to hold my men back." Catherine merely glared at him as he mounted.
One of the men took Wizardís reins leading him back to the road. Catherine sat defiantly, head held high outwardly strong and rebellious, inside small and frightened. She looked at de Mandeville riding in front of her with her sword lying across his saddle bow. A giggle threatened to well up as she thought of the irony of her situation, her father had never seen her sword, didnít even know she could handle one, he would never recognize it as hers, it had been a gift from Vincent. Her thoughts flew to him now, where was he, was he all right, would he know that she was in trouble or was the bond gone forever destroyed by her fathers words? She took a deep, calming breath and clung to the memory of Vincentís strength.
FEAR! It crashed over him like a tidal wave, throwing him to his knees. Dazed Vincent rocked back on his heels and brought a hand to his head trying to concentrate. He had completely closed down the bond to Catherine unwilling to be tormented by a dream that could never be. He had thrown up walls around it until he no longer felt her at all, but this pure terror tore through his fortifications like a cross bow bolt through vellum. Concerned by Vincentís apparent pain Devin rushed to his side, "Vincent, whatís wrong?" They were just breaking camp on the Welsh border where they had helped put down an incursion by a group of opportunists seeking to increase their holdings
"Itís Catherine," Vincent mumbled as he clambered shakily to his feet, "somethingís wrong." Without further explanation he grabbed his saddle from the ground where he had used it to pillow his head and threw it on Thorís back. The stallion snorted feeling his masterís agitation. Seeing Vincentís determination to be off Devin quickly broke camp, stuffing their meager belongings into their packs and slinging his own saddle up on Commander. As he tacked up his horse Vincent strove to break through the barriers he had erected, barriers he thought heíd never have to breach. Once in the saddle he set a blistering pace east. Those who were on the same path scrambled to get out of the way presuming they were couriers with some urgent message. Vincent saw nothing; everything was a blur to him as he strove to reestablish his bond with Catherine. That she was in grave danger he had no doubt, but what that danger was he could not ascertain. They reached Shrewsbury in record time sweat lathered their horseís coats and once past the town Devin took hold of Thorís bridle and pulled to a stop.
Vincent looked at him startled, "What are you doing?"
"Vincent, the horses canít keep this up, youíll run them into the ground, we need to stop and rest them."
Vincent knew he was right; Thorís sides were heaving, his nostrils flared and bright red. He stared at Devin, torn by his need to get to Catherine and the logic of Devinís statement. Suddenly he caught a sent, one that sent a chill down his spine. Leaping to the ground he led Thor to the side of the rode, there in the underbrush were the bodies of four men. The evidence on the remains testified that they had been set upon by a group well armed with sword and axe. The bodies had been stripped of any weapons and clothing even boots, and left to putrefy in the ditch that ran along side the road. As Vincent checked the bodies Devin dismounted to study the ground, from the signs of the struggled a small group had ridden from the west meeting a larger group headed east. He walked some distance along the rode following a trail of hoof prints. These horses had been moving fast. He came to the place where the riders had left the rode, peering in he could see the destruction of their passage in the broken branches of the trees. Vincent joined him and they both slowly followed the disturbed foliage. A familiar scent wafted to Vincent nose and he picked up his pace. Close to the river bank he found Catherineís cloak, it lay almost covered by leaves in a spot that had evidently been the site of another altercation.
Snatching up the cloth Vincent held it in a trembling hand, "This is Catherineís," he whispered to Devin.
There was blood splattered on the ground and with some trepidation they followed it. It led to another body, but this one had not been stripped, it lay face down, and when they rolled it over Devin sucked in a breath.
Alerted Vincent asked, "You know this man?"
"Iíve seen him before, he rides with de Mandeville."
De Mandeville! Fear shot through Vincent as he remembered the atrocities the monks from Ramsey had told them on his first venture after leaving the priory. They had heard other tales from people made homeless by de Mandevilleís forces. They had seen first hand for themselves the plunder and destruction of Cambridge. Vincent shuddered to think Catherine was in the hands of a man who killed so wantonly. Vaulting into the saddle he once again set a blistering pace. He knew de Mandeville wouldnít kill her, she was far too valuable a hostage, but that didnít mean he wouldnít have some sport with her.
They rode for the fens, a marshy swamp land to the east, known to be de Mandevilleís strong hold. As they rode Vincent again attacked the mental barrier he had erected to protect himself from Catherineís love. Ruthlessly he hammered at the wall until he felt it begin to crack and then suddenly, the cracks widened, like a dam bursting, the wall crashed down enabling his mind to travel the familiar path way to her. He felt a warming and then suddenly a burst of light as if the flood gates of his mind had broken open and he felt the sun shine in his soul. She was there again with him and it was as if the missing piece of his being were returned to him. He was whole again and he reveled in it for just a moment before sending his strength and love to her. He felt her recognition and immense joy at his return. He felt his love buoy her floundering spirits and rejoiced in their reunion. She was moving at a fast pace away from him and he quickly urged Thor to greater speed.
De Mandeville set a punishing pace that soon had Wizard stumbling. He stopped just long enough to set the palomino free, much to Catherineís sorrow, and had her remounted on Hughís horse. She prayed that her faithful mount would find his way home without incident. Now she rode astride and her torn gown was bunching up between her legs and the saddle, she could feel sores forming and tried to shift around, but at the speed they were traveling and with her hands bound it proved almost impossible. Grimly she set her teeth and endured the pain. She kept a picture of Vincent in her mind as the miles flew by and suddenly, like the sun coming out from behind a cloud, he was there with her He had reopened the bond. His love and strength poured into her like a welcome libation bolstering her spirits. Now she rode knowing that he followed secure in the knowledge that whatever she had to face he would be with her in spirit and soon in body. As twilight deepened they began riding through villages that had been looted and burned no doubt by the very villains she rode among. Bodies of people and livestock lay strewn about, the stench gagged her, smoke curled lazily into the air to be blown away by the cool spring breeze. Catherine shivered from the destruction as much from the cold. She had discarded her cloak when she had drawn her sword not wanting to become entangled in it.
Well past the village they halted for the night, she was pulled from her horse and pushed to the ground where she sat under guard while camp was set up. It was meager at best a fire was constructed and a dinner of bread and hard cheese passed out. She was given a hard crust of moldy bread and an equally disgusting piece of cheese, but she was starving having had nothing to eat since she broke her fast that morning. As unappealing as it was it was better than nothing, she ate it slowly washing it down with the bitter ale they provided her. Miserable she curled up into a tight ball and tried to sleep. She slept fitfully and in the morning awoke completely exhausted. She wasnít used to this kind of treatment and it was showing. She was cold and filthy, the inside of her thighs had blisters on them, her wrists were bleeding from the cruel ropes that bound them. She reached out for Vincent and felt him answer. He was her only hope. After breaking her fast on the same fare as supper she was hoisted back into the saddle.
Vincent and Devin rode until it was too dark to go on. The night sky was obscured by clouds that scudded across a crescent moon making it all but impossible to keep going. The two brothers took care of their exhausted mounts and then made themselves as comfortable as they could. Vincent waited until Devin was asleep and then got up and paced, he could not rest with Catherine in the hands of that monster. He prowled about the area, checking on the horses, listening to the hoot of owls, aware of the night creatures moving about in the darkness. Towards dawn he felt Catherine reaching out to him and he sent his love and assurance that he followed.
When Devin awoke he found the horses already saddled, "You didnít sleep at all, did you?" he admonished Vincent.
Vincent merely grunted and continued tightening Thorís girth, "We must go," he said curtly swinging himself up on to Thorís back and sending the stallion galloping up the road. Hastily Devin leaped into the saddle and pelted after him. Rain started to fall turning the dirt road into slick mud, slowing their pace. When they reached the fork in the road they could not discern which way Catherine had been taken, the rain had obliterated all traces which might have been able to lead them. The brothers knew from past journeys that both roads traveled somewhat parallel to each other for a time before one continued westward and the other south. De Mandeville had two strong holds in the fens, Benwick to the south and Ramsey Abbey to the west, the traitor could be heading for either one. Vincent checked the bond, Catherine was ahead of him but he couldnít determine the direction. Trusting in faith Vincent chose the westward road. As the miles flew by he kept his mind on Catherine reassuring her that she was not alone and that he would be with her soon. He worried about the route until Thor let out a whinny and was answered. The brothers pulled up and were amazed when Wizard came trotting out to them. Vincent dismounted and held out his hand, the palomino, recognizing his scent, nuzzled it. Vincent took a length of rope from his pack and made a make shift halter, it seemed the outlaws had no use for the side saddle, which was still on Wizardís back, but they had taken the bridle. Vincent discarded the saddle and after remounting he set Thor into a canter, ponying Wizard behind them. A small sigh of satisfaction escaped his lips; he had chosen correctly de Mandeville was taking Catherine to Ramsey Abbey.
Catherine was thoroughly soaked and completely miserable by the time she was led through the imposing gates of Ramsey Abbyís outer walls. The spires of the church rose high above her as the horses clattered into the courtyard, disappearing into the murky air as if they were one with the sky. She was unceremoniously lifted from the saddle and plunked down onto her feet. She swayed, clutching onto the saddle stirrup for support feeling the tingle in her legs as the blood rushed downward. One of de Mandevilleís men grabbed her neck and forced her forward, propelling her up the steps and into the church. All discomfort was forgotten as she viewed the wreckage the outlaws had perpetrated on the once beautiful interior. Tapestries had been torn down and used as bedding, the monks stalls had been hacked apart and piled by a roaring fire, the alter was strewn with dirty trenchers and goblets.
De Mandeville laughed when he spied her horrified expression, "My lady, I can see that you do not care for my redecorations."
"Youíve desecrated a holy place," Catherine glared at him, "youíll burn in hell for all eternity."
The villain holding her neck let go of her as de Mandeville moved to stand in front of her. Taking her chin in his hand he jerked her head up, "You forget my lady," he sneered, "Iíve been a guest of the tower, I already know what hell is and it does not frighten me."
His hand dropped from her chin and slid down to fondle her breast. Outraged at such a bold touch Catherine slapped him hard across the face. The imprint of her hand stood out as an angry red mark on his cheek. The thug who had dragged her in grabbed her arms, pinning them behind her back. De Mandeville gingerly touched his cheek, his eyes blazing.
"Confine her to a cell," he commanded, "she can await my pleasure there."
His eyes raked down her body, her torn, sodden gown revealing much of what lay beneath; he licked his lips promising without words what his pleasure would be. Catherine shivered in revulsion, terrified of what might lie ahead of her.
The man that held her arms began to shove her before him, but before she took two steps de Mandeville called out, "Wait!" He pulled out his dagger and once again stood before her. Catherineís heart froze in her chest, her mind, like a frightened bird winging to Vincent, if she was about to died let her last thoughts be of the man she loved. She held her breath as de Mandeville reached out his hand, he grabbed the braid that had worked itself lose and hacked off a length of it. Grinning he held it up like a trophy, "Let this accompany the sword and be a sign of my intent." A curt motion of his head signaled Catherineís jailor and she was once again shoved in the direction of a doorway which led to a locked cell.
After she was tossed inside she prowled around the small enclosure looking for anything that might aid her in escaping. Rain pelted the roof as she paced the small space. There was nothing save for a bed which was nothing more than an elevated board. There wasnít even a chamber pot she could use to bash in a skull. Dejected she sat and contemplated her fate the only thing that kept her from complete despair was Vincent.
The roads had become treacherous in the spring deluge that poured down upon the two brothers. Vincent could feel Thor slipping and sliding in the mud and chaffed when at times they had to slow to a walk to negotiate a particularly bad patch of road. He let out a roar and kicked Thor into greater speed when he felt Catherineís terror, but again had to slow down when the stallionís back legs slid out from under him. The big horse landed hard on one side of his rump lurching Vincent practically out of the saddle. Thor pulled himself back up and thankfully sustained no injuries and although it strained his patience to the utmost Vincent kept a safer pace after that. Catherine had calmed and seemed not to be in immediate danger.
Lightening flashed through the sky showing the devastation of the land they rode through. Ramsey had once been a rich and powerful abbey with many manors and prosperous fields filled with bountiful harvest. Now all had been laid to waste, orchards had been burned, livestock killed, manors plundered and stripped of everything of value. De Mandevilleís devastation ran far and wide and all of King Stephenís efforts to halt the destruction so far had come to naught.
Finally they could see the abbey walls in the distance, the lights in the watch tower and gate house alerted them that they were close; a flash of lightening confirmed it. They dismounted leading the horses to the abandoned smithy that stood some distance from the wall. Warily they approached the wall on foot, another lightening flash had shown that there was a guard patrolling in the tower and Vincentís keen senses told him of another in the gate house. Ramsey was built in the style of the priory and as such the brotherís reasoned that there was probably a door in the chapel that opened to the road so that the lay people could come in and worship any time of day. They crept along the wall keeping as close to it as possible. Once they reached the door they found it unbarred, de Mandevilleís forces had probably overlooked it as the chapel was merely a quiet room with little adornment.
The brotherís slipped inside pausing to catch their breaths and consider their next move. Catherine was probably being held in one of the cells used by the abbey for a monk or lay brother who had committed a major transgression. If the layout were the same Vincent and Devin would have to pass through the infirmary and past the abbotís house which was undoubtedly now occupied by de Mandeville. Vincent took the lead, motioning to the door opposite them. Devin nodded and drew his sword from its sheath, keeping his free hand on Vincent whose vision was unimpaired by the blackness that surrounded them. Gliding through the dark they passed through the abbotsí garden, now nothing more than a muddy morass. They thanked the rain that continued to fall in great sheets that kept de Mandevilleís forces indoors.
They reached the house without incident and at Vincentís signal scurried across the small courtyard that fronted it. Vincent could feel Catherineís mounting anxiety and hurried to the two cells normally used for disciplinary infractions. Unerringly he went to the one on the left feeling Catherineís anxiety mounting to terror.
Catherine sat huddled on the edge of the cot, jumping at every crack of lightening and roll of thunder. The waiting was worse than anything. She wondered if a rider had gone out yet to present her father with de Mandevilleís demands showing him her sword and hair as proof that they held her. She could only imagine the pain and grief her captivity would cause him. She worried about the families of the soldiers that had been killed trying to protect her. She chewed her lip over her own fate, would de Mandeville truly have the gall to touch her? She nodded her head grimly, of course he would, he had nothing left to lose, he had lost everything why not take out his anger on her. She represented the noble class that he had once been a part of and was now no longer. He had been stripped of his lands, his title, his heritage, if it made him feel like he got a little of his own back by raping a noble woman why not? Catherine shuddered and pulled her feet up onto the cot, hugging her knees into her chest, fiercely she dashed away the tears that had started to fall. No one was going to touch her but Vincent; she had made that promise to herself a long time ago when she realized she was in love with him. No matter what even if it meant taking her own life would she let another man touch her. She didnít know how she was going to manage it, but somehow she would. Rocking back and forth she pictured de Mandeville walking into her cell, she would stand there unresisting, resigned to her fate, seemingly docile and then she would take his dagger and either kill him or turn it on herself. Yes thatís what she would do, she nodded resolutely.
Suddenly she heard a noise at the door and her head shot up, she stared at the door wide eyed as she heard the plank being taken down. Jumping up she cowered in a corner for a moment until she chided herself for her fear. She called upon the strength Vincent always assured she had and faced the door, head held high, as it began to open. De Mandeville sauntered in, leering at her.
"I hope I havenít kept you waiting over long my dear." He drawled, pulling the door closed behind him, never turning his back on her.
She glanced down at his belt; he wasnít even wearing a dagger so supremely confident that she would acquiesce to his demands without a fight. He walked toward her, crowding her back against the wall. Her heart hammered in her chest and her mouth went dry. As he raised his hand to stroke her cheek she flung her head to the side. He grabbed her chin and pulled her head painfully back around to face him. She glared at him as he pushed his body against hers, she could feel his excitement straining against his trews. A shudder of revulsion shook her and he laughed.
"I understand you rejected a proposal of marriage from our dear lord Elliot," he huffed into her ear, his cheek resting on hers, "saving yourself for me?"
His hand traveled down the side of her body stopping at the tear in the gown that exposed her thigh, he insinuated his hand through it and cupped one cheek of her buttocks. "I rather enjoy plucking the first fruit of the vine," he murmured huskily, his voice thick with arousal.
She began to struggle, but he pinned her against the wall one hand at her throat the other caressing her bottom. Suddenly she went limp, her body falling to the floor her knees pulled up to her chest. He laughed and reached down to pull her up. As he did so she exploded, both legs kicking out together connecting between his legs. De Mandeville collapsed, clutching at himself, his mouth producing a string of profanities she had never heard.
Quickly she jumped up and made for the door, but de Mandeville snatched at her ankle jerking her off her feet. The scorching look of hatred in his eyes said he didnít care what condition she was in when she was returned to her father, if she was returned to her father.
Suddenly a roar that rivaled the thunder split the air and the door was violently jerked open. Both occupants of the cell froze. De Mandeville saw a huge, black shape filling the doorway, blazing blue eyes pinning him where he lay. Catherine saw salvation. "Vincent," she whispered. She had known he was coming to her, known that he was getting closer, but her side of the bond had never been very strong and with de Mandeville facing her all she could think about was survival.
Vincent bent down pulling her to her feet his eyes never leaving de Mandeville. He pushed Catherine behind him as the man shakily clambered upright; painfully he straightened holding his arms out to his sides. "I am unarmed, sir, you have the advantage over me." Vincent moved further into the cell, growling. De Mandeville backed, fear filling his eyes. Devin popped his head in, "Come, we must go. Leave him, weíll bar him in his own cell." Reluctantly Vincent backed out, and shut the door, firmly placing the plank across it.
"Vincent!" Catherine rushed into arms that all but crushed her in their welcoming embrace. "Catherine," he whispered, kissing her head, her cheek, her mouth. They clung together for a few precious minutes until Devin tugged on Vincentís cloak.
"Come we must leave before weíre found out."
Vincent took Catherineís cloak out from under his own and threw it over her shoulders then taking her hand he guided her across the abbotís courtyard. They froze when a man came out of the abbotsí house carrying a tray which he dropped when he caught sight of Catherine. He began drawing his sword from its sheath, but before it was clear Vincent was on him cuffing him hard on the side of the head. The force of the blow was so great the man thudded into the wall, and slid down in a crumpled heap to the cobblestones. The sword had landed not far from Catherineís feet and she lunged at it, grabbing it by the hilt. She carried it with her as they ran toward the chapel; it was heavier than her own blade and not nearly as well balanced, but it would do. They ran around a corner and right into a group of men coming from the stables, mercenaries by the look of them and probably just back from some sordid mischief. They reacted quickly drawing their blades.
Devin grinned at Vincent, shouting above the storm, "Two against sixÖ" thinking them not bad odds. "Three," Catherine interjected stepping up between her two rescuers, her sword held in a defensive stance. Vincentís eyes pleaded with her to stand down, these men were soldiers for hire, professional warriors, but before he could say a word she launched herself forward, swinging her blade down on the nearest man.
Vincent and Devin moved to either side of her keeping one eye on her while battling their own opponents. They moved around the courtyard in a bizarre dance, lightening crackled through the sky intermittently bathing them in bright light and then plunging them into inky darkness. Rain continued to pelt them as they moved through intricate steps of parry, slash, thrust, and riposte. They had paired off two to one, the defenders keeping their backs to the chapel wall so they would not be caught from behind. Vincentís blade moved like the lightening that flashed above their heads, quick and deadly. He dispatched one man by feinting high then slashing low grunting with satisfaction when the man dropped to the ground, unmoving.
Catherine was holding her own having quickly dispatched one of her opponents until she slipped on the wet cobblestones, landing hard on her side, the breath knocked from her lungs.
"Catherine!" Vincent roared spearing his second man through the chest and yanking his sword out as he leaped in front of her bringing his blade down in a mighty swing that nearly decapitating the man that stood over her. There was only one man left and while Vincent helped Catherine to her feet he decided to run for help. Devinís knife pierced him neatly through the neck dropping him like a stone.
They made it through the chapel and to the horses, thankfully, without further incident the peals of thunder and rain slamming against the rooftops completely covering the sounds of battle.
The horses whickered in greeting and Catherine was delighted to see Wizard, taking a moment to run her hand down his neck as Vincent leaped into the saddle. Leaning over he grabbed Catherine around the waist and hoisted her up to sit in front of him, nestled comfortably in the crook of his arm, then sent Thor in a gallop following Devin away Ramsey Abbey.
Catherine snuggled deeply into Vincentís warmth, her head resting on his chest, the steady beat of his heart soothing her. The rain finally stopped as they rode and the stars began to peek out displaying their brilliance against the deep darkness of the night like diamonds on black velvet. Catherine sighed contentedly as Vincent tightened his arm around her, she was safe, she was happy, she was home. He felt her relax against him, felt her complete joy and contentment and realized for the first time that neither one of them was complete without the other. He resolved that they would walk the path of their futures together no matter what the obstacles. Somehow they would find a way.