Xavier Brice heard the murmurings as he dismounted in the small bailey. The days hadn’t become the long sun filled ones of summer, and the late morning hour produced shadows allowing those whispering worriedly to conceal themselves, but he could feel them as much as hear them.
A short gaunt man rushed from the turret holding his robes as he jumped over the mud puddles populating the poorly kept yards. Since his departure from the building, he’d failed to look up. When he did and his eyes landed on Xavier, he stopped so sudden as to almost fall back into the last puddle he’d so carefully avoided.
Pulling himself to his full height, Xavier turned giving the man a clear view of the coat of arms adorning his tunic in expensive fashion. Few knew him on sight, but no one didn’t know his coat of arms or that the man behind the Axe and Lion was best known for his viciousness in dispatching enemies of the crown. The man who once hastened towards him now hesitated before moving forward to greet the small group of six.
“My lord.” The man bowed formally. “What service might I give you?”
“The master of this house is in?” Xavier handed the reins of his massive mount to Ian who, like the others, still sat their horses.
“He dines in the hall, my lord.” The man bowed and stretched his arm out signaling Xavier to precede him into the crumbling tower before them.
Xavier’s long stride had the man scrambling to catch up even as two of his own men, Jon and Gerald, easily fell in beside him. They had to push through a crowd of goats and kick several chickens from underfoot before entering the filthy hall where dozens sat about eating.
Their appearance brought the room to a tense hush, and the man at the table on the dais choked on the mouth full of food when he saw who was before him.
“My lord.” The man who had greeted them in the yard rushed around Xavier to move closer to his own lord. “Lord Brice of?”
“I know who he is you stupid puke.” Harold Cumbers stood but did not move to greet the men in his hall. “My lord, what brings you to Drahmoore?”
“You have a woman in your house.” Xavier crossed the room and handed Cumbers the role of parchment.
It took several moments for the man to read through and find the name. “You are taking her?”
“By the command of the crown, now fetch her that we might be from this place in haste.”
The lord of Drahmoore laughed. He laughed so hard he had to sit down or risk falling to the floor, but it was not a kind laugh nor did it last long as he sobered and with a smug grin, handed the parchment back to Xavier.
“I knew it would come to pass. The bitch offended the wrong person. Perhaps you will honor us here and take her head while we watch.” He turned to the servant who stood cowering behind the tables. “Fetch Io to me now.”
Xavier watched the servant cower at the order. He hesitated just a moment too long and Cumbers took a swing at his head.
“Now.” The servant dashed away. “Sit, eat. Surely the end of that one is a reason to celebrate.”
Xavier’s left hand curled around the hilt of the sword he wore. He saw the other man’s gaze fall there before it nervously came back to meet his. “Fetch the woman.”
“She will be brought here as soon as she is found.” Realizing it wasn’t going to be his blood shed this day, Lord Cumbers took his seat. Several tense moments passed before he gained enough confidence to speak again. “The notice didn’t say for what offense she is to meet her end, although I can think, myself, of several.”
“You presume much and know little,” Xavier said in a quiet tone, masking his disgust of this man, his words and his house. Again silence ruled and the longer it drew out, the more impatient Xavier became. He was about to demand Cumbers fetch the woman himself when a disturbance from the far left caused everyone to turn.
“Touch me again, ghoul, and I will break off every finger on your hand.” The feminine voice rang out clear.
Xavier’s eyes fell on the figure clinging to the walls and the shadows as she moved up to the dais. He could make out nothing of her looks other than she appeared rather small. She moved smoothly and if not with haste, at least at a pace he wouldn’t call leisurely.
Cumbers turned as she approached. “Io, you have?”
“What in fucking damnation causes you to have me drug into this hellhole you call a house?” the woman yelled as she stepped from the shadows into the torch light.
Her loose, dark gold hair swirled around her waist in a thick cloud, and the flame from the torches gave a sun-like glow to her smooth skin. Her features were delicate, but her words were not.
“I detest this cesspit you call a hall and that you bring me in while you eat, damn you to hellfire you son of a whoring bitch.” She made a swipe at the man’s meal. He blocked her, keeping it from ending on the floor for the dogs.
Xavier’s face heated in outrage. While she was visibly a beauty, her words and cutting tone were of the lowest, base person to be encountered. Again his hand curled around his sword hilt. He tightened his grip least he grab the wench and correct her vulgarities. He schooled his features when he felt Cumbers’ eyes fall on him again.
“Hold your tongue you bi?” Cumbers stopped his insult when Xavier leaned forward.
The woman turned her head slightly, perhaps noticing there were strangers standing in the hall. She hardly spared him a consideration before turning back to face the man who, until this moment, had been responsible for her. Clearly a responsibility he’d failed at most completely.
“Well, you shit? Do you plan to sit like the stupid pig you are, or to speak that I might be gone?”
Strange how her voice could be so vibrant and rich though she spewed words few men dared to let past their lips. What might she sound like speaking of bodily pleasures? Of non vulgar things? Xavier mentally shook himself before he allowed himself to indulge in those thoughts. For certain he’d learn the latter, she’d curb that filthy tongue in his presence or he’d curb it for her.
“It seems you leave us this day, Io, and good riddance to you.” Cumbers turned away to look at Xavier and his men. “Take her. I do not care if she dies here or there, just knowing she will be no more is enough.”
The woman turned, looking at Xavier and the men with him. If he waited to see fear or uncertainty in her expression, Xavier knew he’d have to wait a long time. Rather he saw contempt, even anger and perhaps a bit of curiosity. All strange for someone told she was about to die. Even if the claim was fully false.
“You are Lady Io Desmond?” Xavier let his gaze travel the full length of her. Servant rags hung off her in a shapeless manner. Her hands settled at her hips. He could tell both by the narrowness there and her bony arms she lacked adequate food and lacked it for some time. His eyes flashed to Cumbers, that man didn’t lack for food and his table held a fair bounty.
“I am Io. Who are you and what cause have you to call me out?”
It was possible for her to speak without words like a harpy’s and as he suspected, it was not unpleasant. “Sir Brice, my lady, and you are to leave here and come with me. Collect your belongings and make ready to be gone.” Xavier expected nothing less than compliance. After all, he always received it from everyone. Not this time. The woman stood there for a long moment before she threw her arm out in a dismissive gesture and snorted, actually snorted at him.
“Go with you where?”
“When you need to know, you will be told. Now do as I said, collect your belongings and…”
“I will be told now, before I do any collecting of anything.”
“My lady.” Xavier thought her hesitation due to the idea she’d die in his care.
“Fuck the ‘my lady’,” she snarled.
“Take care, Io, you play a dangerous game with a deadly man.” Cumbers leaned in as he spoke, perhaps the first showing of any care for the woman.
“And care you now, why? I think life to be nothing but dangerous. I surely have been no safer in your care these last eight months than anywhere before.” She stopped glaring at Xavier to focus on the lord of the house with a look that should’ve killed him. “Or do you forget how you trapped me this past morning, again, in the gallery to grope at me like some drunkard in an ale house with a whore?”
Cumbers surged to his feet, tipping back his chair in the process. His hands collected at the woman’s throat and tightened. She took hold of his wrists in an attempt to pull the hands loose.
The drawing of swords had people scrambling for shelter. The two combatants on the dais failed to notice until the broad steel blade passed over Io’s left shoulder and under Cumbers nose.
“Let. Go,” Xavier said, calm and clear.
“She lies,” Cumbers whispered.
“Then it will be dealt with, by me.” He angled the sword tip down so it rested on the man’s Adam’s apple. The simple act of swallowing now would lead to a nasty cut. His hands fell away and he stepped back.
“Get from my house, witch, and I hope your end is as horrid as your presence has been to me.” Cumbers took several more steps backwards before turning and departing.
“Collect your things and make ready to leave, my lady,” Xavier whispered in her ear, “and quibble not for I am most desirous to hurt someone at this moment, and I care not if it is you.”
“If your purpose is my end, sir, then get to it here and now for I have preference of a death close to a churchyard rather than where I will lay out for the dogs to feast.”
Xavier stepped back, sheathing his weapon. He took her arm and turned her to face him. “I think death would not cure you of your ways. But I am sure in the time it takes to reach our destination you will indeed be well healed. Now fetch your things.” He swung her away from him, landing a mighty smack to her rump as he did.
She turned to glare at him, but a moment later turned back and moved off, hopefully, to do as he commanded.
“That one is going to be a burden, Brice,” Jon said as he and Gerald came up beside him. “Why exactly are we to escort her north?”
“I cannot begin to imagine, but that is what the King wants, that is what we do.” Xavier spared one more glance in the direction the woman went before he headed out to the bailey where he would wait for her.
Expecting it would take several hours, he ordered the horses fed and watered and his men to eat from the supplies they carried. It would be well on to sundown, he was certain, before they were able to travel from here and they’d likely get no more than a few miles before having to camp. He made plans with his men, consulting a map for possible locations to make camp. Then he spent time adjusting previous plans to meet the rest of his army who hadn’t come on this detour. Less than an hour later, he again needed to adjust his plans.
* * * * *
“Blessed mother of God, Io, do you know who that is you sparred with in the hall?” Bysen hissed as she watched Io shove her foot into her boot.
“Should I care? How is he different from anyone else who has come to pull me from one house and place me in another the entirety of my life?” She carefully worked the laces securing the boot. Normally she didn’t bother with them. They were after all her only footwear and their longevity remained important to her. She slipped on the second boot and took the same care to lace it properly. She had no idea what direction she’d go or the type of ground she’d walk on so she’d start with the boots on. If the ground turned out to be well, she could take them off and preserve their use for worse conditions.
“Io, he is the king’s executioner, his very own private assassin,” Bysen said. She handed the last piece of clothing that was truly Io’s own over.
“Well enough then, perhaps this misery that has been my existence will be coming to an end.” She slipped her arms through the heavy sleeves and locked the mettle fitting, which held the garment closed, just under her breast. Picking up the little sack, which held the small remnants from her past, she turned to the woman next to her. “But I think I have stopped caring even of this.” She pointed to the discarded dress she’d been wearing. “Please see that Fie gets that back.”
“Aye.” Bysen stepped aside so Io could collect the worn quiver which carried her bow, several arrows and a short sword. She slung the whole thing over her shoulder to rest across her back. “Farewell, Io,” Bysen said.
Io passed out the doors, heading towards the gates. “Not in this life,” Io replied without a glance back.
Leaving was easy. She had no friends here, no friends anywhere to be sure. No family, no connections, no commitments. She refused them; it made the inevitable leaving easier. And she always left. She was never too long in any one place. Here for eight months the longest she’d stayed put in some time, and now she was to leave. All the better as the last several years, since she started developing a woman’s body, she’d felt less comfortable in these houses. Either because the men sought to put their hands upon her, or the women thought she looked too much at their men.
Skirting the kitchens, Io rounded the side of the building that housed everyone and everything, even the damn pigs made beds in the hall. She avoided the interior of the house at all costs. She moved to the garden wall. Halfway down the path, she stopped and knelt to pull away a stone which looked misplaced in the wall. Behind the stone, in a hole filled mostly with straw, Io dug through until her fingers lighted upon a hard lump wrapped in the softest fur. She pulled it out and hugged it to her breast. All she had left of her heritage she could hold in her hand. The only thing she possessed that would tell who she should’ve been was folded inside the rabbit skin. Whenever she arrived at a new house, she found a place to hide it for she wouldn’t, even if it cost her life, allow this, too, to be taken from her.
Standing, Io shoved it into the concealed pocket of her cloak and headed for the gates. She stopped before she stepped into the open to observe the men who’d be displacing her. Six in all, a smaller party than normally escorted her. But they looked like capable men, especially the leader.
“Brice.” She wondered now if that was his family name or his given name. Not that it mattered; she wouldn’t bother to get to know him. Like everyone else, he wouldn’t be long in her life.
She did take a moment to study him. He was a large man but not disproportionately so, tall for certain. Wide in the shoulders and thick in the arms and legs, muscled, likely from long hours working the heavy blade he carried. He’d held it, without so much as a tremor, over her shoulder when Cumbers had been choking her. A man didn’t hold such a weighted weapon without shaking from strain unless he was used to it.
His coloring, what she glimpsed of it, was dark. Black hair with eyes either dark blue or deep brown? she hadn’t been able to tell in the hall. His skin too, was far from the pasty white of the men she’d spent most of her days surrounded with. He’d the coloring of a man who spent his waking hours in the glare of the sun.
She watched him now as he directed his men. His large hands made sharp gestures in the air. And they were large hands. Strong hands, attached to powerful arms. Io’s hand slipped back to the tender spot. Damnation no one ever assaulted her like that.
Certainly she’d been assaulted over the years in various ways, but never so she’d been left to feel retaliation wouldn’t be fitting. Something in the act, and perhaps in his expression, felt different. It hadn’t seemed an act of violence. In fact, it seemed more something done to motive a slow child or a stubborn animal. Either she could consider an insult, but at the time hadn’t considered at all except to perhaps avoid another when so many watched.
“Damn it all, I will get mine back.” Io couldn’t have anyone thinking her unwilling to fight and defend herself lest she end as some harlot whining at the feet of men who would think nothing of her. Squaring her shoulders, she moved into the open and headed towards the group, her lips curling up in pleasure as she watched their horrified expression.
“Go back,” Brice yelled, coming at her but pointing towards the buildings. “Go back and dress yourself before I take a whip to you for your indecency.”
“You should dare, knight, for if you think I would stand and let you get in a swing, you are mad.” Io stood her ground as her escort came at her. When they were toe to toe, she gleaned the reality of just what an opponent he would be.
She barely came up to mid chest on the man, and she would’ve had to lean far to one side to see around him. A deep breath drew the heady scent of him to her, and she felt a tightening in her stomach that was new and not unwelcome.
“You will go inside and dress properly.” His voice, like his body, was stiff and hard.
“What do you know of what is proper for me? These are my clothes, all I own, and I will not be removed of them.” Io felt his eyes pass over her as he stepped back slightly.
“You’ve no other clothes? No other belongings?” He pointed to the small bag in her hand.
“I have what I carry. If you like it not, then go. Someone else will come and do what you seem incapable of.”
His expression grew dark. His hand clamped down on her arm, and then inexplicably loosened until his hold was firm but not crushing. Pulling her along, he headed back towards his group.
“Something else I will have to correct,” he muttered as they went, though she couldn’t see what concern it was of his, what she owned and didn’t own.
She watched Brice make a gesture to his men, signaling them to make ready to go and they did without question or hesitation. A servant crossed his path and he called out, “Make the lady’s horse ready.”
“Horse?” Io and the servant shrieked at the same time. When he turned to look at her, she shrugged loose his hold. “I do not ride.”
“We have no time to plod along in a carriage, madame, you will ride.”
Did no one tell this man anything he didn’t want to hear? Well let her be the first. “I do not ride; either horse or carriage. If you wish me to go, I walk. Best you top your beast, or we will get nowhere before it is dark.”
“You will be mounted, woman,” he snapped at her, only to go red faced when she lifted an eyebrow at him. “You will ride a horse. We have a long distance to travel and a schedule to keep.”
“Well if you wish to move quick then I will walk at such a pace, but I will not ride.” Io was capable of keeping up with a trotting horse for several miles.
“What troubles have I been burdened with?” She heard him grumble as he took her by the arm and pulled her towards his group.
His men mounted as they approached. One man waited, handing Brice the reins of his horse.
“You?” the man asked Brice in some kind of understood message. The man took her bag from her and passed it off to another who tucked it in his saddle bags. Her quiver she relinquished as well, she could travel light.
“Dressed like that, yes, me,” Brice said, sending her what he must have thought to be some frightening stare. She’d seen worse.
All the men chuckled, but before she could grasp the jest, she was grabbed around the waist and lifted off the ground. She screamed and flailed but landed, seated behind Brice, on his big war horse. He gave her no chance to dismount or protest. He dug in his spurs and started them galloping away from the house.
Io made a wild grab for anything to hold her on the animal. It turned out all there was to grab was the man before her. She wrapped her arms around him and clutched at his tunic with a white knuckled grip.
“Stop this horse you stupid fucking whore of a man,” she yelled into his back. He didn’t stop, but he did slow from a full gallop to a long lope.
He turned in the saddle, wrapped his arm around her waist, and dragged her from her perch. She cried out, as for a moment she was sitting in the air beside an animal capable of stomping her to death if she was dropped. He swung her around to sit in front of him. He lowered his head and with a deadly tone spoke in her ear.
“Soften your tongue, my lady, or I will soften it for you.” With that, he again swung her out into mid air and with a slight twist, reseated her behind him, setting his horse into a full gallop.
All Io could do is hold on and fume as the long stride of the horse ate up the ground at a terrifying pace. She thought perhaps better to be angry and think on revenge than to have nothing to think on but the dangerous way she traveled.