William missed them always, but most especially at night when the ending of a day signified the stillness of his hands. Worse still — the stillness of his mind, leaving his thoughts to settle on the chasm of silence in his private rooms.
It had not always been so silent.
His gaze wandered to the seat across from him by the hearth. It was empty, of course. But seeing the unoccupied chair jabbed at his heart, the same as it always did — a strike that reminded him time and again with each wandering glance: Marta was gone.
It was too easy to see her there still, her lovely black hair unbound, her swollen feet propped on a small stool, hands tenderly cradling her round stomach where their child grew within. She had been healthy. The babe had been healthy. Wee little Sarah with eyes as deep blue as her mother’s. She had lived only three days before her weak piteous wails faded into nothing. Marta had lasted only one day more before the fever took her.
It didn’t make sense. The birth had been quick and without issue and Sarah had emerged into the world with a boisterous cry. He and Marta had spent hours that first night staring at their daughter’s face, marveling at how her rosebud lips suckled against themselves as she slept, how sweetly rounded her tiny nose, how feathery soft the fuzz of black hair on her head. Those few hours had been the happiest of his life and everything following them had been the worst.
Three years later he still curled around those memories, cradling them in his heart. A scream pierced the silence. It was small, distant, but loud enough to be heard. He leapt to his feet and crossed the room in three great strides until he was at the window. He threw open the shutters and choked back a cry of surprise.
Fire blazed like a glowing orange set against the night and the screams he heard blended with those of others. The village was being attacked. Prickles of alarm ran down his spine.
Clanging echoed from the bailey below where Werrick Castle’s guards were locked in combat. The castle was also under attack.
This realization followed a resounding emotion, one encased in selfishness and the shame of cowardice: Fear. Here, in a time where the people of his home were being attacked, it had been his first thought to bar his door and hope the soldiers below could fend off the attacking reivers.
Nothing more would be expected of him, after all. He was the steward, the man who oversaw Werrick Castle’s land and vassals. He’d been trained with a sword as a boy, of course. What grown man hadn’t? But it didn’t mean he could defend the castle.
A woman screamed from somewhere nearby and he remembered the building on the edge of the village filled with children. Some old enough to care for the littler ones, some too young to ever remember the parents who fell prey to the past year’s famine.
“The ch…ch…children,” he said through his gritted teeth. His stammer emerged, as it always did. Most especially in times of great stress.
Marta had never minded it. She’d thought him kind and selfless and wonderful. He would be that man tonight.
And if he did not succeed, he would be together once more with his Marta and their sweet Sarah.
He crossed the room and strapped to his waist the simple sword Lord Werrick insisted William carry in the event of an attack such as this. Quickly, before he could change his mind, before his courage could flounder, he unlocked the door and ran out into the hall. Metal rang against metal and announced that the reivers were already within Werrick Castle.
Even if he had been in his room, he would not have been safe.
He moved through the shadows, straining to listen for the tell-tale signs of footsteps and melee, and avoiding them at all costs. His heart staggered at the number of bodies he passed as he made his way from the castle. If he had known of the fighting sooner, mayhap he could have done something to help.
It was a laughable thought, really. Even still, he tightened his grip on the hilt of his sword. The weight was already causing his forearm to tire and his palm was slick with the sweat of terror. A man rounded the corner, his padded gambeson identifying him as one of the reivers. He cried out and rushed at William.
Without thinking, William pulled up his blade to block the attack. Their weapons clashed with such a jarring force, William thought his arm might be broken. His body fell back on the actions repeated over and over in his boyhood and early adulthood, before he’d fallen into the sedentary life of a steward. Block. Jab. Sweep. Thrust.
The point of his sword sank into the man’s chest with ease. William’s weapon might have been basic, but the blade was impossibly sharp. With the man dispatched, William pulled free his weapon and ran once more. This time, he was not stopped and managed to slip through the castle gates to the village beyond.
Pockets of flames glowed throughout with thatch roofs on fire. The large cottage at the rear of town toward the forest appeared untouched. William skirted the edge of the village in an effort to remain unseen. The structure remained upright with only one reiver standing before it. A torch glowed at his hand.
Without warning, the man lowered his torch and set fire to the corner of the roof’s thatching. William searched about frantically for something to put it out and found a bucket of water several feet away, near the entrance of a home. He snatched it up and threw the contents toward the kindled blaze.
The water arced through the air and hit the flames with a hiss. Before the steam could begin to rise from the doused fire, the reiver lunged to attack. William’s hands were still on the bucket, his sword tucked in its sheath at his side. Having no additional options, William swung the bucket at the man with all his strength. The heaven wooden bottom caught his opponent in the jaw with an impact that sent his helm flying.
The reiver staggered in stunned shock. His eyes rolled heavenward and he slid to the ground. It was then William noticed a heavy beam that had fallen from the building beside it and landed directly in front of the door. It was thick. No doubt heavy. Mayhap impossible to lift.
The area near it was exposed. In order to move the wooden beam, William would be vulnerable to the enemy.
He looked to the sodden, scorched roof. Where one reiver had been stopped, another might succeed. William steeled himself for what he must do.
He hastened to the large beam and pulled. It lifted for an instant, then crashed back down. Inside someone cried out in terror. A passing reiver turned to William at that exact moment and charged.
But William did not flee. He put the broadside of his back to the beam, used all the strength he could muster in his legs and pushed. The wood lifted and tumbled backward, freeing the door.
The reiver grabbed William by the collar and dragged him back from the cottage. “Ye’re no’ escaping me.”
William reached for his sword, but only managed to partially pull it free when his attacker threw a punch into William’s face. Pain exploded at his nose and cheekbone, stunning him.
He gave the sword another weak pull when another strike landed at the top of William’s head, followed by an agonizing kick to the ribs where something within gave a painful crack. If this was how he gave his life to be with Sarah and Marta, so be it. He would see them soon enough and the orphans would have a fighting chance at safety.
Except he did not die. He woke sometime later. Not in the glowing rays of heaven’s eternal embrace, but to a milky dawn hazy with smoke and destruction. The orphanage stood gaping and empty before him, hallowed out by blackened windows where fire had wreaked havoc. William’s heart fell. He had been too late.
Movement in the forest caught his attention. He staggered to his feet despite the blazing protest through his whole body. Several children cautiously exited the brush. Behind them were even more.
Ten in total. The exact number of orphans as before. They had all survived.
Oftentimes in the moments of William’s grief, he had wondered at God’s decision to let him outlive his family. Now, in the face of the lives he had saved, now he understood. For though his entire family had been lost, he had the power to ensure the lives of the villagers remained good.
He would embrace the opportunity to ensure the Earl of Werrick’s lands and people were always well-cared for, above all others in the land. Finally he would bury his grief and live his life in service of others in need.
William is featured in Ella’s Desire.