The Splintered Kingdom Online - James Aitcheson

One

THEY CAME AT first light, when the eastern skies were still grey and before anyone on the manor had risen. Shadows lay across the land: across the hall upon the mound and the fields surrounding it, across the river and the woods and the great dyke beyond that runs from sea to sea. And it was from those shadows that they came upon Earnford, with swords and knives and axes: a band of men perhaps as few as a dozen in number, perhaps as many as thirty. In truth no one knew, for by the time enough of us had woken, armed ourselves and gathered to stand against them, they had already turned and fled, slipping away amidst the trees, taking seven girls and women from the village with them.

It was the third such raid the Welsh had made in the last month, and the first that had met with any success. Always before now a cry had been raised and we had managed to gather in time to ward them off. For despite their barbarous ways, they were a cowardly race, and it was rare that they chose to fight unless they were sure they had weight of numbers behind them. Every night I’d made sure to place a man on watch, except that this time the sentry must have fallen asleep, for there had been no warning until the screams had begun.

Behind them they left three men slain together with their livestock, and a cluster of smoking ruins where houses had once stood. And so as the skies lightened over the manor of Earnford, my new-found home, it was to me, Tancred a Dinant, that the villagers turned. They wanted justice; they wanted vengeance; but most of all they wished to see their womenfolk returned safely to them. As their lord I had a duty to their protection, and so I called my knights to me – my faithful followers, my sworn swords – together with as many men as would join me from the village. We buckled our scabbards and knife-sheaths to our belts, donned helmets and mail and jerkins of leather, and those of us who had horses readied them to ride out. Thus with the first glimmer of sun breaking over the hills to the east, we set off in pursuit of the men who had done this.

But now the shadows were lengthening once more; soon it would be evening and we were no closer to finding them or the women they had taken. We had tracked them across winding valleys, through woods so thick with undergrowth that it was often hard to make out their trail, and we were many miles into their country. I no longer recognised the shape of the hills or the curve of the river, and nor, I was sure, would those men of the village who had come with me, most of whom had probably never ventured this far from home in all their lives.

‘They’re gone,’ muttered Serlo, who was riding beside me. ‘It’ll be dark before long, and we’ll never find them then.’

He was the most steadfast of my household knights, one of the three who lived on my manor: built like a bear, and possessed of stout arms and a fierce temper. He was not quick, either in movement or in wits, but there were few who could match his strength and so he was a good man to have at one’s side in battle.

I shot him a look, aware of the others following close behind: the dozen men and boys who were depending on us, whose wives’ and sisters’ honour, not to mention their lives, would be forfeit if we failed.

‘We’ll find them,’ I replied. ‘We haven’t chased these sons of whores all day just to give up now.’

I tried to sound confident, though I had my doubts. We hadn’t stopped since first we set out, but instead had ridden and marched throughout the day, the hottest so far this summer. Yet still I had no idea how close we were, if at all.

Even this late in the afternoon the sun was still strong, the air sticky, as if there were a storm on its way. My shoulders ached under the weight of my hauberk, which felt as if it were made of lead, not steel. Hardly had we ridden a single mile from the manor this morning before I was beginning to regret wearing it, and I’d been half tempted to turn back, but every hour