Outremer: Exiles of Heaven, Chapter 2

For everyone interested, chapter 2. Feel free to leave thoughts, comments, feedback, whatever, in the blog comments below!

Breckshire Keep

The still form of Safy’l’s sleeping body lay atop silken sheets, the slightest touch of perspiration on her forehead. A gentle breeze touched the curtains on either side of their bed, stirring the muslin fabric and spreading incense through the room. Her almond skin and doe eyes, now hid in sleep, were poor masks for the treachery that lay in her breast. I whispered a short prayer before slipping the dagger into her heart, a hoarse voice whispering “Death to traitors” When my hand withdrew the bloody instrument, her still form rolled over. But her beautiful face, olive skin outlined by smooth black locks of hair, did not return my now whimpering look. Instead a demonic face looked back, features distorted like looking at reflections in shards of glass. A grin spread across her mouth, toothy and wicked, smiling at me in a foretaste of the hell I now knew I was destined for…

I shot straight up out of my bed. The nightmare was all too real, and the dagger had all the feel of reality. I reached across my chest, feeling for the wound, but knew it was not there. It was in someone else. Just a dream. No blood. But everything felt so real. Her hair, the touch of her face, the feeling of cold steel piercing flesh. A memory as tangible as any I’d had, and one I could recall at will. Sad thing that. Why are we cursed with the inability to forget certain things forever, the same way you’d throw away a dirty rag or the morning ablutions?

I rolled over, letting the afternoon sun pour onto my face. The narrow slits in my windows let just enough in to illuminate everything. I warmed up quickly, a testament to the power of our spring sun in Breckshire. The westward facing portal opened onto a courtyard below. I could hear the sounds of drovers, children, dogs, and the usual cacophony of life below. I tried to close my eyes and remember the better parts of my afternoon nap, like the part before a dagger got buried in my chest. The light of the sun’s last rays warmed my cheeks and catch dust motes in the air. I knew my knights would recoil at the thought of an afternoon of woolgathering, but it was hard to even think of stepping away. Then the door shook on its iron hinges, threatening to jump off like a wooden barbarian horde.

“Come in,” I said. I glanced down to check the thin sheet; good, covering everything up. A welcome sight appeared from the doorway.

“Sire, you asked to be woken before supper, and I figured you may want to see the sunset. It’s shaping up to be spectacular. Now up with you lazy man, before I send you to spin wool with one of the crofters’ fat daughters!” Hart said. He nearly took up the entire portal. Dark hair in loose curls hung behind his ears, and the gleam in his eyes suggested that the “Sire” he spoke was perfunctory. He smiled down at my bed, grinning with the satisfaction of interrupting my leisure.

“I did say that, didn’t I? Well, now for it. It was an awful sleep; may as well try to enjoy something yet today. Off with you, ox, before you see all of me.” I shifted in bed to get my point across. My clothes were lying on a chest across the room, a long embarrassing walk away.

“Nothing I haven’t seen before. I still remember the time we found you hog-bound in a soaking tub in Nazareth. Paulson had just brought in those young nuns to show them our collection of prayer books, and—”

“I get it. Out. Now.” I felt the redness spread across my cheeks.

“Yes my lord,” Hart said with a bow, closing the door softly behind him. Through the thick beech wood I’m sure I heard Hart laughing to himself. Stubborn as a mule, and sounding like one too.

A splash of water and some stretching had me up and ready for the afternoon. My cloths felt stiff against sore muscles, the result of a long day in the fields. Maybe a new shirt would be better? Thankfully the pants were in better condition, and the tough leather boots slipped on easily. They felt like long-loved companions. The lord’s quarters in Breckshire were appointed with as much finery as the small kingdom could afford, which wasn’t much. But everything here was sentimental to our family. Two chests held cloths and weapons, handcrafted many years ago for his great-grandfather, the fittings and wood shining from well-loved hands keeping them in good repair over the long years. Two tapestries hung from the outer walls, keeping in heat in the winter and depicting our family’s participation in the conquest of England many decades previously. William of Normandy was a good liege, with Breckshire our reward for service given. And for the past year it was my turn to lead our people in the long struggle to scrap a living from this land.

Such was the life of the lord of Breckshire, Fallondon Breck, son of the late Lord Walter Breck.

A small table and chair, topped with the remnants of candles, papers, and other instruments for the administration of the fief, occupied a space opposite the fur-topped bed. While warm in the winter, such coverings did little in the unexpected spring heat. I much preferred the silken sheets scattered about now. A small memory of a time shortly past, of muslin curtains and incense burning in the dry night air, a prayer call echoing through the evening air. Outremer. The kingdom of Jerusalem. The holy land and crusades. Even the smallest memory of that place filled my senses with vibrant colors, diverse scents, a cacophony of foreign sounds. After a moment’s respite I left and took the stairs to the keep’s roof.

I walked to the highest point, a small watch tower capping the modest stone structure. My gaze lingered on the horizon, capturing the slow shift from bright blue to a deepening purple. The hues, pink and orange, painted a beautiful sight. And in counterpoint, a flash of lightning. A distant storm rolling in behind a perfect evening. Evening night spent up here was a delight, a small gift at the end of long and toilsome days.

“Strange to see such weather converging, isn’t it,” said Hart. I caught a flicker of motion before Hart collapsed into a recline next to me. Sure he meant to startle me, which he did quite effectively, I may have jumped a bit. Even expecting him didn’t help with the anxiety from the nightmare earlier.

“You really did scare me that time. Thanks for making sure I wasn’t sitting on the ledge. Maybe next time you can wear bells and make it more obvious?”

“I know you better than you think m’lord, although you doubt that more and more each year. How are you this night?” Though sitting, Hart bowed with a flourish to leave any court jester jealous. Had he been taking lessons from father’s old juggler?

“Fine enough. And you know you needn’t call me or treat me as ‘lord’ when we’re alone. Goodness, even in front of the village. Everyone knows you are practically my brother.”

His bulk didn’t quite out shadow me, but the difference was noticeable. He also wore simple clothes, and boots that showed many leagues beneath them. Hart pulled two apples from a pouch on his belt and threw me one.

“Thanks for the offer, but I’ll call you lord till the day we’re parted. And you’re welcome for the apple.” Hart gave a small laugh and turned to the south. “Looks like a poor night for being out. Too bad too. Never did like when summer storms came through; always seemed like bad things came in the wake. And these ones are rolling through in spring. Least ways, that’s what a little kid named Hart used to think when he was chasing rabbits through the hills.”

“I seem to remember a little boy who used to pull the braids of young farm girls and run away. But we’ll be happy for rain. Did you see the fields toward Wolford? Dry as parchment. Hardly a spout to be seen in the fields. And the apple trees haven’t even pushed their first leaves. Looks like another bare year, and that after two previous. I worry Hart. It eats at me.” The frustration surely showed on my face. I could feel my hands and chest tense up, the intake of breath quicken. “You’d think we brought back some of the curses we shouted over the Saracens.”

“You hold that line of thought and see if I do more than fling blame back on you for your foul moods. Nothing to be helped here that we can’t help ourselves. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to have the priests pray. Or those Templars.”

I nodded but remained unchanged. It was obvious to me that a curse was within the realm of possibility. Stranger things had happen in Outremer. The band of knights he had led could tell stories to make the strongest blanch. For weeks the thought had stirred in my mind, growing like a weed and taking over rationale belief. We watched as lightning pummeled the ground far off, the thunder rolling close behind. I remembered stories from our teachers of the gods our forefathers prayed to in the north. The tales spoke of a great warrior named Thor, who threw his mighty hammer at enemies. Every stroke smote lightning all around, and his battle cries were heard through the land as thunder. Was this a demonstration of some ancient being, formed at the forging of the world? A heretical thought, but not the worst I’d had.

“It’s been what, barely a year since we returned? And Garret only had a little less than a year running things before that. How many times have these lands survived drought, or plague, or blight, or floods, or whatever else the morning delivers us? These people know hardship better than any pikeman or archer from the crusades. Hell, I’d suffer that the old farm wives have better recipes for turnip stew than any you or I saw.”

Hart’s words brought a slight smile but no change to my heart. After a while I struggled to get up, the light having fallen and twilight quickly overtaking our vision. Needles shot through my legs. The aches returned, my limbs crying out with disgust as I got them into action once again. Hart’s giant form loomed beside me. While substantially larger than me, he was as spry as a willow branch, always quick to rise. Brushing the apple juice from our hands, we turned back towards the trap door.

Hart followed me as we descended the stone steps which ringed the keep’s tower. While nothing like the great palaces and fortresses of London, Breckshire keep was a formidable structure. Our family had maintained this farming community for several generations, and the keep was a testament to our fine stewardship. Each stone had been cut and hauled from the local hills, our quarries emptied to support the town and keep. A wooden palisade was under construction, with two walls completed to protect the town from any attack. I remember running across lush green fields in my youth, vaulting sheep with Hart next to me, the clack of wooden staves echoing through the hills and against the stone walls as two novice knights fought imaginary beasts and villains. Rising three floors, the main hall could shelter most of the surrounding village during the worst weather or attack. The tower rose an additional three floors of height, its crenelated peak visible across most of the plain surrounding us to the hills. The family crest flew from a jack staff; the hound and hind standing in combat with one another.

On the main floor we passed through the great hall, fire crackling in the hearth in the north wall. In the center of the room a spit hung over a smaller pit whose coals were burnt out from afternoon cooking. The smell of the evening meal was in the air, pork if I guessed right, and a pile of bread stood on the center table. Despite the tantalizing smells, I walked past everything in a daze, ignorant of those moving in and around us. The entry way suddenly appeared in front of me.

“Fallon, please, stay. It’s dinner, and you are tired. No man should ride the breadth of our orchards and pass up good cooking. Consider it the reward for a hard day’s work.”

“Later Master Hart. Please tell Lady Brenna to call supper at her liking. I’ll be in the chapel.” I’m sure my sister would be happy to hear that. I passed through the door into the darkness growing around Breckshire.

I knew Hart was tempted to break fast ahead of everyone but the chiding he’d receive wasn’t worth it. I remember the last time my sister, Lady Brenna, caught Hart eating ahead of everyone, a buttered loaf in his hands; the woman’s words were more deadly that any Muslim arrow or lance. Someday she’d have a husband to level them against, but for now she seemed content to make my friends the target of her ire. Best to wait patiently. And think of the much kinder women Hart would likely find later in the commons.

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