Read The Bloody North (The Fallen Crown) Online
Authors: Tony Healey
The Bloody North (The Fallen Crown: Book 1)
Copyright Tony Healey 2014
This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form without the express permission of the author.
Edited by Laurie Laliberte
or Lesley: my reason
The house burned, even in the rain.
Rowan ran hard, feet slipping in the mud, blood thundering in his ears. Moments before
, he'd been back at the village, sinking one more pint with Tarl before he braved the weather and headed home. Sara had a rabbit stew on the make, and dumplings too. Now he raced toward the column of black smoke towering up from behind the trees, dinner the least of his troubles, hand reaching for a weapon that wasn't there. Hadn't been for a long while.
He crashed through the woodland surrounding the farm, heedless of the noise. Rowan's heart jackhammered in his chest as he burst from the treeline to see the house roaring with fire, smoke everywhere, the farm covered with men. He could see they were fighting men, soldiers wearing the cloth of the Royal Regiment.
n counted them. Nine in total, including the big lump perched on a horse, overseeing the others as they stalked about in the rain. He was the only one not decked out in a uniform, the only one wearing armour over regular clothing. A shining metal breastplate, leg guards and gauntlets. The rain dripped from the edges of his wide-brimmed hat. Even from a distance, Rowan could see the man had only one eye. He'd nearly lost an eye himself once, and still bore the long scar down the side of his face to prove it. A lasting memento of his only confrontation with the infamous Butcher of Clement.
on the horse was a mercenary –
Rowan knew the type
– though the man was not anyone Rowan recognized from the past. And none of what he saw gave him any clue why soldiers of the Royal Regiment would be on his land, wreaking havoc.
Rowan looked for the children but saw n
o sign of them. Nor Sara. That was when he heard their screams. Above the percussion of the rain, above the shouts of the soldiers who'd invaded his home and set it to burn.
The terrified voices of his children, crying for help
. He swallowed, wishing he had his sword, wishing he'd not left his family to drink beer with Tarl.
re in there, locked in . . .
He cast about for something –
– to use as a weapon and found a decent-sized branch. He picked up the wet, gnarled wood and hefted it in his hands.
would have to do. Nine men, including the big lump on the horse. Nine. Who knew how long his children had been in the house as it burned around them? How long did they have left before they roasted alive? As he'd done back in the day, he prioritized.
Then find Sara.
Rowan's boots squelched in the mud as he ran from the woods toward the house, the branch at the ready, his eyes fixed on the flames, on the smoke billowing into the
dark, stormy sky. He bore down on the soldier closest to him. The man barely had time to look up before Rowan wrapped the branch around his head with a
. He fell to the side and Rowan didn't stop to see him go over.
mercenary on the horse saw the man fall. He pointed and yelled something that Rowan couldn't hear. Rowan set upon two soldiers who stood together. They turned to face him, drawing their weapons. Before the one on the left had freed his sword from its hilt, Rowan stabbed the end of the branch into the man's mouth. The one on the right tried to grab Rowan, but he shook free, and elbowed the attacker in the face. As he staggered back, stunned, Rowan followed up with a heavy swing of the branch. Up and over, as if splitting firewood with an axe. The soldier crumpled to the ground.
The rain made it hard to see.
Something knocked into Rowan, sent him reeling. He struggled to regain his balance, arms out to keep him steady. Fists railed into his head, his side, his gut. Wherever they could get to. Rowan barely had time to swipe at the hits before they connected. He swung the branch out, felt it thump against someone and shook his head to clear the rain from his eyes. Rowan moved, stumbled closer to the house, the sound of his children's screams in his ears.
Four soldiers encircled him. He ran a hand over his face as he turned, dripping wet, hardly able to see and trying to focus. The moment stretched out for an eternity, waiting for one of them to make a move, to start it back up. All the while, he could hear Rilen and Mae in there, screaming at the tops of their lungs. His pulse thumped in his veins, a steady beat to which everything played out. The ticking of a clock . . . his once idyllic, peaceful life on the farm broken in seconds. Ripped away from him. He looked at the burning house and his rage broke free.
Rowan grabbed the man nearest
him, butted him in the face, grabbed hold of his shirt. He swung the soldier to the left, so the man collided with another next to him.
. A sword slashed down from overhead, the tip of the blade barely missing him as he ducked away from it. The soldier brought his sword back around, swung it at Rowan's midsection. Rowan sprang out of the way, dodging the blade as it threatened to spill his guts. He backed off, the branch held at the ready.
Their screams. Their little voices
diminishing, becoming weaker and weaker . . . and now he could make out words. They whimpered from inside.
"Daddy . . . help . . . help us . . ."
could hear their terror, their desperation, their panic. The soldier came at him again, and Rowan blocked a hit with the length of wood. It spun out of his hand with the next hit. His attacker was merciless, pressing him farther back until he slipped, fell in the wet cold mud. All he could do was wait, with his arm raised over his head, for the sword to split him in two.
But it didn't.
The soldier held him there at sword point as the mercenary drew near on his horse. "Got 'im, Quayle."
"Good." The mercenary
towered over him from way up there. Now Rowan had a decent look at the man. The wide-brimmed hat hid red hair going grey at the temples. His one good eye was pale green and shone from a weather-beaten face, cracked and scored from travel. He had a scar up the side of his nose, the left nostril split. Several more old cuts and scars dotted around his face.
uayle regarded Rowan for a moment as the rain beat down. "This the farmer?"
holding the sword shrugged. "Dunno. Must be."
Quayle glanced about. "Where's the woman
"In the barn," the
soldier answered. He gave a twisted smile as his eyes met Rowan's and held for a sickening moment. "Having a roll in the hay with the lads."
sprang up, teeth bared, took the soldier by surprise, yanked him down on top of him. The man scrambled to get up but Rowan clung on, kicking, punching, whacking at any part of him he could get to. They rolled around in the mud till Rowan wound up on top, his hands closed tight around the man's neck. He squeezed with all he had. The soldier's hands reached up to pull at his face. Rowan bit down on one of his fingers – his teeth ground through the flesh to the bone; the taste of the soldier's salty, hot blood burst into in his mouth. The man would have screamed had Rowan not been choking the life out of him.
A sudden hot, sea
ring pain erupted the full-length of Rowan's back. He fell to the side and looked up, gasping. Quayle had his sword out, fresh blood on the blade washing away with the rain. The mercenary looked down at the soldier, slowly getting to his knees coughing and spluttering, face bright purple. "Get up."
shook a hand at him. "Just a minute . . .
let me breathe!
"Now, you sack of shit
! Get up. We've got work to do."
The soldier got to his feet,
hand at his bruised neck. He turned, planted a kick in Rowan's side, then another. "What about 'im?" he asked Quayle as Rowan tried desperately to draw a breath.
He'd been sliced up the back and no telling just how bad. From the pain in his side he figured on a few broken ribs, too.
"Leave 'im. This one's good as dead anyways. Go tell the others they better quit fuckin' the woman, wipe their dicks and get ready to move."
," the soldier said as he walked away, clutching his throat.
got fire in ya," Quayle said from atop his horse, his face grim. "Put up a good fight, too."
," Rowan spat. His energy had left him. Soaked through, bitterly cold. Everything had turned murky, soft around the edges. His heart slowed its frantic rhythm: his breath came shallow.
Says the man dyin' in the mud," Quayle said. He pulled on the reins and his horse circled as its rider surveyed the scene. He gave Rowan one last icy look, spurred the animal on with a kick, and was gone.
* * *
Rowan coughed on the smoke. Lifted his head to listen but couldn't hear his children's voices. He closed his eyes, shed tears that were indistinguishable from the rain.
. . . no . . .
e forced himself to his feet, swaying left and right. He waved at the thick smoke, the heat of the burning house unbearable, and shoved the front door inward. A wall of flame rushed to meet him. He threw a hand over his eyes, tried to get in, but couldn’t make it past the heat at the threshold.
He sobbed, stumbled back from the furnace he'd once called home, eyes sore, entire body shaking.
"Why?" he asked aloud, looking
up into the dark heavens as if they would offer any guidance. The rain beat against his upturned face. The sound of horse's hooves thundering away made him turn toward the barn.
He staggered to the barn, barely able to walk for the pain shooting up his back with every step. The house collapsed behind him as he limped away.
went around back. The barn stood with both doors wide open. Hens and ducks ran free around him. Pigs. Goats. All milling about in the wet, let loose by the soldiers. He stood between the open doors, panting for breath.
Sara lay on
her front in the straw, a pool of her own dark blood beneath her. Skirt hitched up, her buttocks on show. One arm bent back the wrong way. As he drew nearer he saw she'd had her throat cut.
's knees squelched in the blood-soaked straw as he knelt down and dragged her toward him, pressed her head against his chest. Squeezed her tight as a deep, sorrowful moan rose from his throat.
verything. All of it . . . gone.
He looked up. Water dripped through a hole in the roof
, into a bucket Rowan had put there himself earlier that same day. The sun broke through the rain clouds, and a single thin shaft of light made it through. It fell on Sara's inert form, cradled against him.
A man can run from the past, but he can't ru
n forever. Eventually he tires. That's when it comes rushing up from behind, an old acquaintance you never hoped to meet again. Pain, misery . . . death,
Where did it get me, trying to be a better man? Nowhere. I just had more to lose when the time came.
He held Sara tight
, looked down at her torn clothing, the fresh cuts all over her body. She'd died an unimaginable death. Raped and murdered. Frightened and ultimately, alone.
The sun faded, the shaft of light receded
, and there was only the sound of the dripping roof and the rain outside. He leaned back against a bale, still holding her close, not wanting to let go. The exhaustion, combined with the cut up his back made the darkness come quickly. He closed his eyes, stroking her hair, his body wasted.