Wind sighed softly across the subdued English countryside. Shadows and trees moved in sync to the nocturnal wanderings of the air and fretful alighting of English night-life. Safe in his home, John Branidris woke with a start in a cold sweat. Images of fire and blood lingered behind his eyes, and screams of pain and fear rent the peace from his mind. He sat up, panting.
He looked over at his wife, still sound asleep, her dark hair splayed across the pillow. He swallowed hard. His gaze naturally wandered to his infant son sleeping soundly in a cradle on the far side of the bed, vaguely surprised he wasn’t crying for attention or food as he usual did at this time of night. He found his mouth was dry. A stiffness polluted the air; something was wrong, but he didn’t know what. He shifted his legs over the side of the bed, but the creak of a floorboard stopped him before his feet hit the floor. He froze and listened. It came again, louder this time, closer. Breathing softly, he reached for his sword which rested against the wall beside the bed.
The door flew open with a bang. In the doorway stood a burly man holding a large long sword, his face obscured in the low light, yet Branidris knew who he was. “Been to see the king’s brother,” the figure growled, “thought he could give your land back, eh? Always were a coward, John, asking other men to fight your battles for you.”
“Hubert, please.” Branidris put his hand up in a conciliatory gesture, reaching with the other for his sword. “Your quarrel is with me, leave my wife and child out of this. We can take this outside and you can do what you like to me.”
Lady Ayleth woke to the sound of their voices. Standing quickly she placed herself in front of the cradle. Her voice shook as she spoke “John, what’s going on? Who is this?”
“Take the baby and go, Ayleth. I’ll be right behind you.” He kept his voice even as he spoke to her.
“No.” She said bravely. “I’ll not leave you.”
“How noble of you, Ayleth.” Hubert sneered. “Such a devoted wife.”
The baby awoke and began to cry. Lady Ayleth shushed it urgently. Keeping his face toward his enemy, Branidris reached behind and took his wife’s hand. Squeezing it gently he said, “Go, my love. I’ll follow, I promise.”
“Enough of this.” Hubert snarled. He swung his sword in a deadly upper arch.
Branidris raised his sword to block, but was milliseconds too late. Ayleth’s scream pierced the air, anguished and terrified. She knelt beside her dead husband. Startled, the baby screamed too. Hubert de Contenin strode out of the house, giving a command to his men to finish off lady Ayleth and “that little screaming terror”.
Two men burst into the room, the first carrying a torch, both carrying huge broadswords. The first man slew lady Ayleth even as she cried over her husband. The second man walked over to the cradle and looked down into it. Inside, the infant cried with a ferocity to shake the house. The first man walked over to him. “What’s the hold up? Just kill the child and come on.”
“Sure,” the second told him, waving him to leave first. “I’ll be right there.”
The man with the torch shrugged. “Hurry up.” He followed Hubert and left the room.
Now alone with the infant, the second man was more hesitant than ever. The baby’s cry softened a little now that the loud noises had stopped. Sighing, he picked the baby up. He had committed many a cold-blooded murder in the middle of the night, but never an infant. He sighed again and shook his head. “Not today, little one, but be quiet. If Hubert finds out about you, there’s nothing I can do to save you.”
The baby must have understood somehow, because he instantly quieted. “There you are, lad… or lass I suppose.” The man carefully hid the small child in his jacket and followed after Hubert de Contenin.
“Did you finish the job?” Hubert asked him.
He nodded, holding his jacket close around himself, supposedly against the chill.
“Light it up, Ulric” Hubert gestured to the other man who held the torch. Ulric held the torch to the edge of the thatch roof and watched the flames grow.
Several moments passed as they watched the house burn, destroying any evidence of their presence. Finally, Hubert clapped Ulric on the shoulder. “Come on, men. Time to disappear.” And the three men set off into the woods.