The Scottish laird rested a moment on his sword, letting his gaze range the length of the defile where his men were now searching the bodies of the slain. Though the ambush had been successful the exhilaration of the fight was underlain by frustration as he realised the one he sought was not there. Surveying the scene now, his dark gaze hardened. Before he left he would find out what he wanted to know. Not all the men lying here were dead.
As the laird’s shadow fell across him, the wounded Norman mercenary glanced up quickly, taking in the naked sword and the uncompromising expression of the man who held it. Then he spat. The Scot’s gaze never wavered.
The Norman returned him a cold stare but made no reply. A moment later the point of a blade was pressed against his throat.
‘I’ll ask you just once more,’ said the quiet voice. ‘Where is he?’
‘We’re dead men anyway. Why should I tell you?’
‘Tell me and you can take your chance with the kites and the ravens. Refuse and I’ll cut your throat and ask someone else.’
The man swallowed. ‘Fitzurse rides north with the rest of his force.’
‘You’re certain of this?’
‘We’re in his pay.’
‘Paid to destroy everything for miles around?’
‘Aye, for sixty miles around. On King William’s orders.’
Recalling the devastation he had seen on the journey north, the laird felt his gorge rise. Once upon a time, in a past life, French society had been dear to his heart. At fourteen the world had been new and green, a place full of exciting possibilities of which France had been one. At the time it had seemed like a dream come true, a welcome chance to escape the cheerless confines of Dark Mount and his father’s enmity. Back then the castle at Vaucourt had been the warm centre of his universe; the military training it afforded the highest peak of achievement. At Vaucourt he had grown to manhood. At Vaucourt he had first met Eloise…
That recollection inspired others less welcome. All the dead faces he had seen in the past days blurred and merged until he saw just one, the one that had been all to him. Time dulled the pain of loss but it did nothing to extinguish anger—or hatred. Both burned brighter for being cold.
‘Why are you so anxious to find Fitzurse anyway?’
The prisoner’s voice drew the laird back to the present. ‘That’s my business,’ he replied.
‘Suit yourself. It’s nothing to me.’ The other paused. ‘I doubt if Fitzurse will care either.’
‘Oh, he’ll care all right when I catch up to him.’
‘And who are you exactly?’
‘My name is Iain McAlpin.’
The Norman’s eyes widened slightly in recognition and with it the first flicker of fear.
‘I have heard of you, my lord.’
‘You’re like to hear more, assuming I let you live of course.’
The other licked dry lips. ‘I’ve told you what you wanted to know.’
‘You can have your life, you Norman scum. I’ll not soil my sword with you.’ With that the laird sheathed the blade and walked away.
He headed back to the edge of the path where his men were waiting with the loot taken from the Normans.
‘Well?’ he asked.
His lieutenant shook his head. ‘Not a lot, my lord. We found only copper coin and a little silver. Hardly worth their effort to get it.’
‘Loot is only their secondary aim, Dougal. The first is revenge for the death of an earl.’
‘De Comyn was a fool.’
‘True, but he was also William’s chosen man and Northumbria will pay the blood price.’
He had found out early in life about the abuses of power, first at his father’s hands and later from other men. They were lessons well learned. Only when you were strong and feared could you protect yourself and others. His reputation might have come too late to help Eloise, but it now served well to protect all those for whom he was responsible.
Dougal eyed him quizzically.
‘What now, my lord?’
‘Tell the men to mount up. We ride for Durham.’
The other lowered his voice. ‘Is that wise?’
‘Wise? Aye, if I am to find Fitzurse.’
‘Have a care, my lord. The man has the king’s favour.’
‘That will not save him,’ replied the laird. ‘I have waited eight years for the chance to get him within my sword’s length.’
‘Aye, and you have just cause to seek him out. I know that if any man does.’
‘And your point is?’
Undaunted by that hawk-like stare his companion met and held it. ‘I’m only asking if Durham is the right place to meet him. The area is like to be swarming with William’s men. Fitzurse will be well protected.’