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It was one hell of a way for the son of Hugh Fitzwaryn to die. Killed by a mob of Breton peasants in a house that stunk of cows and dung.
Morvan kicked a bench over to the wall that faced the longhouse door. He sank down on it and rested his sword across his lap.
To his right, in the stable area of the house, his destrier snorted and stamped, aroused by the danger. To his left, on a bed near the hearth, the youth William moaned in pain and madness.
This end would probably be a mercy for William. Better to face a quick death than to endure the agony that burned your brain and deformed your body with black sores.
Where had they come from, this clutch of peasants who shouted curses and threats? He couldn't hear them distinctly, for the walls of the longhouse were stone and the door and one small window were closed. The only light in the chamber came from the fire he had built in the hearth when he had dragged William in.
The whole village had appeared deserted when he had led his men here seeking shelter for William. The disease had manifested itself yesterday, just in time for the gate guard at Brest to deny them entry to the port city. And so they had continued north along the coastal road.
It was only after he sent his men back toward Brest that the villagers had emerged. He had nailed a black cloth on the door in warning, and so they knew that the disease lurked within. These peasants had a right to be angry. The death had already run its course in Brittany and they knew all too well the danger lying in the longhouse.
He eyed the thatched roof above him. They could not risk entering. It would be fire. They only lacked the leader to emerge who would rouse them to it. And the night. It was always easier to do these things at night.
He could have left the squire and gone on, of course. It had crossed his mind, unworthy thought that it was. But he had held William on his horse and the disease would claim him too. The men would wait for him at the last crossroad as planned, would wait, he knew, the full day or even more. But if he went to them he would carry the death with him. Better to stay and die here. John would get the men back to Brest and across the sea to England. They didn't like John much, but they would follow him that far.
The noise outside changed. The cries fell into pauses and shouts. One voice yelled and then the crowd responded. They had found their leader.
William thrashed on the bed, his breath rasping. He called out several times to Sir Richard, the Gascon lord whom they had served until the plague had claimed Richard and his household and Morvan had taken the responsibility of getting William home.
The crowd grew more raucous. Their leader called something over and over and they picked up the chant. Morvan only understood a little of the Breton language, but it sounded like “No more!”
Maybe they wouldn't wait until night.
The chant soared, reaching new levels, the emotion of the mob thundering off the door. He gripped the hilt of his sword as the pounding of his blood matched the rhythms of the screaming peasants. Louder and higher and faster the yelling roared until it doubled in on itself and became an unending violent noise.
Then suddenly it stopped, swallowed in an instant by a hollow silence.
He waited, tensed for an attack. They hadn't left. He could still hear some movement. Compared with the previous din, however, the quiet possessed a physical presence.
The door of the longhouse opened a handspan. A slice of brilliant light fell on the floor. He rose and held his sword ready, to protect the villagers as much as himself.
The door swung wide. Two knights stood at the threshold, in the blinding glare of the afternoon sun. They appeared as silhouettes surrounded by halos, but their bearings and weapons proclaimed their status. Both had swords in hand.
One looked to be in his late twenties. Golden hair swept back from his forehead to his shoulders. He wore full armor except a helmet and was of medium height and build. His dark, deep-set eyes contrasted strangely with the fair hair.
The other was harder to see since he stood farther in the doorway. The sun picked up a glow of blond curls tumbling about his head and shoulders. He was taller than the other, but more slight of build. This one wore no armor, but instead a gray cotte and a black cloak. From his clothes and youthful frame he might have been just a squire, but the authority of his stance said otherwise.
The younger one spoke. “Put up your weapon. No harm will come to you here.”
Morvan peered past them through the open door. The villagers were gone. He sheathed his sword. The young knight strode through the shadows toward William's bed. “Go no farther,” Morvan warned. “Your people were right. It is the death.”
“I do not fear it.” The other man joined him and together they examined William. Then the older knight went back outside.
“Were you alone?” The voice was young, yet full of authority and command.
“Where are the others?”
“Waiting. About an hour hence.”
“The death spreads quickly and they may be carrying it. We must bring them back. I promise you and yours care, but they must return.”
Morvan told him about the crossroad.
“Will they obey you?”
“Then give me your cloak, so they know we come from you.”
Morvan unfastened the brooch and handed over his cloak, then followed the young knight to the doorway. Outside, in addition to the older knight, were six mounted men-at-arms and a youth no older than a squire. Two riderless horses waited nearby, one a handsome bay mare that appeared almost motionless.
The older knight came forward carrying a small box.
“Ascanio, here is his cloak,” the young knight said. “The others are at the first crossroad toward Brest. We will wait here for the boy to pass, and then meet you at the keep. Tell the servants to have all prepared.”
Ascanio took the cloak and handed it up to the youth. Then he returned to the doorway. “I must shrive him.”
“Aye. But say the sacrament quickly.”
So the older knight was a priest. It was not unheard of, but rare.
Morvan stepped outside into the sunlight. The men-at-arms eased their horses away. The young knight followed and spoke. “The squire is far along. I am sorry, but I have seen this many times. He will die soon.”
Morvan turned to respond. What stood there stopped the words in his mouth. In the clear afternoon light he saw that the young knight was not a knight at all, but a woman.
She presented a startling sight. For one thing, she was very tall. He was a big man, bigger than most, and he judged that she would reach his nose. Her blond hair fell in a tumble of unruly curls around her face and just past her shoulders. The face itself was oval-shaped, with high cheekbones and a straight nose. She was dressed all in men's clothes, the cotte too large and bagging over the belt that held her sword. Soft high boots reached almost to the hem at her hose-covered knees. The loose clothing and black cloak hid the bulge of her breasts, but here in the sun her woman's slender form was unmistakable.
Large sapphire eyes gazed back at him, compelling his attention. “What is your name, sir knight?” The voice should have told him. It was deep and throaty, but possessed a velvet softness. She and Ascanio spoke French to him, the language used by the Breton nobility.
“Morvan Fitzwaryn, my lady.”
“You are English, but Morvan is an honored name here in Brittany.”
“It is a family name. My ancestor rode with the Conqueror, but hailed from the Breton marches near Normandy.”
She smiled, and he realized that she was probably younger than her manner and authority implied. “Well, Morvan Fitzwaryn, you need not stare. Surely you know that our civil war has made some Breton women very strange.”
She was referring to Jeanne de Montfort, the last duke's wife. While her husband was imprisoned by the King of France, she had taken his place at the head of his army. Morvan had met her once in England before her husband had died and she had passed from strange to mad, leaving her son, the young duke, in King Edward's care.
The young woman before him held herself as proud and tall as any man. “I am Anna de Leon. You are on my family's lands. Since you are English, you may be glad to know that we are Montfortists and not supporters of Charles de Blois and the Penthiovre claims to the ducal crown.”
He hadn't even thought about it, and did not care overmuch. Considering the likelihood of his imminent death, the war of succession in Brittany seemed insignificant.
The priest-knight Ascanio emerged from the longhouse. “It will not be long.” He looked skeptically at Morvan, and then at Lady Anna. “You will be well here?”
“Sir Morvan has nothing to gain from harming me, and his immortal soul to lose. Go now, and find the others.” She turned to the youth. “Josce, they are our guests, not our prisoners. Follow Ascanio on this.”
They rode off, leaving the bay mare, who had not moved a hair the whole time. “Your horse has no saddle,” Morvan observed.
“She will take one, but prefers not to. I did not expect a battle today.” She walked back into the longhouse.
She hadn't meant it as a jest. Clearly some days she did expect to be in battle.
When he followed he found her at the boy's bed, laying a wet cloth on his brow. William accepted her ministrations. His delirious moaning ceased and his fitful movements calmed.
Morvan gazed at the young, anguished body. Was this what awaited him? He would choose ten deaths in battle compared with this pitiful, ignoble exit. He suddenly wished that this woman had not spared him from the villagers' fire.
He watched slender, feminine hands do their work. “You said that you do not fear the death. If so, you are the only one who does not.”
“I do not fear it because I have already suffered it. It does not claim the same body twice.”
“You were ill but survived?” Over the course of the summer, as this plague ravaged all of Christendom, he had heard tales of whole villages killed, of cities losing half their people. He had never heard of survivors. “Are there others?”
“A few in our villages and the town. Very few.”
“The priest? Ascanio?”
“Nay. He tempted fate repeatedly, but it never claimed him. There are a few others like that too.”
“Why ... How did you live?”
She looked at him with that level gaze. No feminine artifice. No coy glances or veiled expression. She looked at one as a man did. Straight, frank, and honest.
“I do not know how. As to why ... sometimes I felt that I was spared so that there would be someone to bury my people.”
She had been gently stroking William's hair and face. A peaceful sleep had claimed the youth.
“He can go at any moment, or it could take hours. We could hold a death vigil all night. I would get some rest, Sir Morvan. If the madness comes again, I may need your help.”
Morvan glanced at William's face, angelic in its newly found repose. He looked at the half-hidden face of the strange woman whose touch had brought this peace. Then he retreated to the bench across from the door.
Anna sank down on the floor and leaned her back against the bed. She had learned during those horrible months of fighting the plague to take her sleep when she could get it. She closed her eyes and calculated the calendar of her guests' confinement. If no one besides Sir Morvan got sick, it would be simple. But if it spread through his company they could be in very cold weather before it ran its course. She hoped that none of the villeins or tenants had come in contact with these men.
The boy's uneven breathing broke her thoughts. She was impressed that this knight had stayed with him. While nursing the plague-stricken she had seen mothers abandon their children, husbands their wives. This curse from God had shown the human soul for the frightened, pitiful thing that it was. She had thought that they were finally done with it, and could go back to rebuilding their illusions. She frankly wished that this knight had performed his noble Christian duty on someone else's lands.
She turned on her hip and looked down the room. Sir Morvan sat across from the door, his eyes closed and his body slouched against the wall. The door stood ajar and the light barely reached him, but it was enough for her to study his face.
It was a handsome face, and had probably been beautiful when he was a boy, before battle and time had hardened it. Now weather-bronzed skin stretched from strong cheekbones to square jaw, creating shadowed hollows between. He had a fine nose and a well-formed mouth, and no scars marked him. His black hair, unkempt from life in the field, hung beside his face in slight waves. His beard showed only a stubble, meaning that normally he was clean-shaven.
She regretted that his eyes were closed. They were remarkable eyes, dark and bright and expressive beneath their straight brows. When he smiled they sparkled like black diamonds and when he frowned a different, deeper fire burned in them. They were almost mesmerizing. Since she and Ascanio had entered the longhouse they were almost the only thing she had seen when she looked at this knight.
She had no interest in men as lovers or husbands, but she was not immune to male beauty. She could enjoy it, briefly and analytically, the way she enjoyed the colorful paintings in some of the Mother Abbess's books. This was a stunningly handsome man. She looked at him a long time before she rested her head against the side of the straw mattress.
Anna woke him with a touch to his shoulder. “He is gone. It was peaceful.”
Morvan went over and looked down on the wasted body. “It happened very fast. He appeared well yesterday.”
“Sometimes it goes like this. We sent some villagers to prepare a grave. It is consecrated ground. Put him on your horse, and we will walk there.”