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The Maid's War(9)

By:Jeff Wheeler



Alensson killed four of the archers, before another archer shot him at close range. This time the bolt did not simply spin him around—it actually penetrated his armor at his shoulder. The pain was white-hot and searing, and he flopped onto his back once more, groaning in agony. The crushed grass was hardly a cushion. His temples throbbed and his stomach threatened to turn loose his midday food. Cries of the dead and dying sounded all around him, but the world was spinning so fast he could not make sense of it.

“Alen!” Boquette shouted, suddenly standing over him. He knelt, his face turning white at the sight of the arrowhead embedded in his shoulder.

“Help me up!” Alensson grunted in pain.

“Lie still. You’re wounded. Over here! Get a horse over here. It’s the duke! Yes, he’s alive!”

An arrow caught Boquette in the back and he stiffened, his sweaty face a rictus of agony, before slumping on top of Alensson’s body, the older man’s weight grinding him down.

The young duke tried to pry the body off himself, but his injured shoulder resisted any attempt to move. A boot kicked Alensson’s head, stunning him, and then he realized the body was being lifted away.

“It’s him! It’s La Marche!”

The voices were thick with foreign accents and Alensson realized with dread that he was surrounded by his enemies.

“Is it fatal?” one of the archers asked.

“No, I shot him in the shoulder on purpose,” said a gap-toothed man. “Why waste a ransom by killing him?”

Alensson wanted to scream at them. He tried to sit up and use his sword, but he suddenly realized he was no longer holding it.

“Down you go!” one of the archer’s sneered, kicking him back down again. “There’s Sir Carter. Oy! Sir Carter! Look who we captured!”

The knight who tromped up to Alensson wore battered and dented armor, but he looked hale and cheerful. “Who’s this?”

“The Duke of La Marche!” one of the archers said proudly.

“Deford will love that,” said the knight. “He’s chasing down the rest of the army. We’ve got the Atabyrions boxed in. It’ll be a slaughter. Get to the front.”

“What about the ransom!”

“We caught him!”

The knight gave them an angry look. “You’ll get your pay, lads. Come see me to claim it after the battle is done. The nobles belong to Deford.” He looked down at Alensson grimly. “He’ll want this one to himself.”

The archers gave the knight black looks and then abandoned their prize. The knight knelt down by Alensson. “It’s a bloody battle, my lord,” he said, giving him a hard look. “You made us earn this one. Lots of dead to bury. But Deford won. Clear as day.” He crinkled his brow. “Are those tears? The arrow must hurt like hornets. Here—have some wine to dull the pain.”

But no amount of wine would ever be enough.





CHAPTER FOUR

A Duke's Ransom





A fragile silence shrouded the room, and Ankarette hardly breathed for fear she would disturb Alensson’s story. These were the memories of a young man, hardly more than a boy, but they had left their mark on the old man standing before her.

The duke’s craggy brows lowered and he turned back to face the poisoner, sitting on the small couch near the window, hands folded in her lap.

“And so I became a prisoner for the first time. By our enemies,” he said, but it was obvious the old wound still festered.

“How long before you were ransomed?” Ankarette asked softly, coaxingly. The night was still impenetrable outside, the buildings and manors lost in shadows.

The duke’s lips twitched. “Five years.” Ankarette’s eyes widened and the duke smiled at her show of emotion. “Remember, Ankarette, that I was newly married. I did not see my wife for the first five years of our marriage.” He clenched his jaw and turned back to the window.

“Why so long?” Ankarette asked in astonishment. “Most ransoms only take months to negotiate.”

“That is true,” he answered softly. “But you see, Deford was determined to break me. He was occupying my duchy. He had claimed my title. He knew that my prospects were based on his downfall, so he was determined to squeeze until I broke. He demanded two hundred thousand crowns. A king’s ransom. Not a duke’s.” He glowered at the window panes, the pain inside him throbbing visibly. “It took five years for my people to collect such a sum. Five years and all my bride’s pleading with her father, who was a still a prisoner himself after falling at Azinkeep, and anyone else who would lend a single farthing. All of my lands, all of my manors, all of my curtains, all of my spoons. Every . . . single . . . thing.” He chuckled softly. “And still it was not enough.”

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