Home > Fate's Ransom (The First Argentines #4)

Fate's Ransom (The First Argentines #4)
Author: Jeff Wheeler

 

 

PROLOGUE

The Wizr Board

The stench of smoke choked the air, and the hiss of crossbow bolts came like the drone of angry bees. Ransom Barton gazed at the walls of Josselin castle—his castle—and felt anger burn inside him. The Occitanians’ garrison was formidable, and each attack that day had been repulsed. It was a strategic castle, along the western border shared by Ceredigion, Occitania, and Brythonica. Seeing a banner with the Fleur-de-Lis hanging from the castle made him want to rip it down and burn it.

He stood solemnly, sweating beneath his armor on the hot summer day, watching as his men continued to lash together another siege ladder in preparation for the next assault. Crossbowmen lined the walls, taking aim and loosing arrows down on Ransom’s soldiers, who had built pickets to protect themselves. Occasionally a shaft made it through and injured one of the men.

A rider came into the camp carrying a shield with the emblem of Prince Jon-Landon: three lions atop each other, the tallest on the top of the shield and the smallest on the bottom. It was a variation of King Benedict’s standard of a single lion. Ransom had heard it said, in jest, that Jon-Landon had chosen three lions to represent himself and his two elder brothers. Privately, he suspected Jon-Landon had chosen three because Benedict had only chosen one.

“Where is Lord Ransom?” asked the newcomer with the shield.

“Over there,” answered one of Ransom’s men, pointing. “And get off your charger before you get shot at, you fool!”

Even as the words were spoken, a bolt whooshed past them and struck a nearby tree with a resounding thud. The knight dismounted without any haste, seemingly unaware or unaffected by the danger, and then walked over to where Ransom stood observing the castle from within the shelter of the trees.

“My lord duke,” said the knight. “My name is Captain Faulkes.”

Ransom had heard of the man. He was Jon-Landon’s battle captain, the knight Benedict had assigned to keep Jon-Landon from getting himself killed in battle. A royal bodyguard. He looked too young for the job, for he was surely younger than Ransom, but then, age was not always a quantifier of ability.

“Why aren’t you at the siege of Averanche?” Ransom asked the knight.

“It’s all smoke and fire. They’re keeping us within the walls. I’d rather be here where the real fighting is,” said Faulkes, putting his gauntleted hands on his hips. “The prince asks you to send a hundred men to join him in retaking the castle.”

“I don’t have a hundred men to spare,” Ransom said with a snort. “Did he ask the king for more men?”

“He did not,” Faulkes said with a tired look. “For he knew the answer would be no. The king needs all he has to retake Tatton Grange.”

“Just as I need all I have,” Ransom said. “We don’t have the funds Estian does. We can’t hire mercenaries to join our ranks.”

“Pity the ransom we paid was so high,” Faulkes said, giving Ransom an accusatory look.

Ransom had negotiated the release of the king from his imprisonment in the Wartburg in Brugia. The amount was higher than any ransom that had previously been paid by any king. A hundred and fifty thousand livres. Some of the money had come to them as a windfall, but the rest had come directly from their coffers and put them sorely in debt.

“I don’t have a hundred men to spare,” Ransom said, ignoring the jab. “If the king bid me, I would find a way to do it, but I have a hard enough task as it is. We’re about to make another run at the castle.”

“Can I help?” Faulkes asked, gazing at the castle. “I’m in no hurry to go back. Especially knowing the answer will displease the prince.”

Dawson, part of Ransom’s mesnie, came up to him. “The ladders are all ready, my lord.”

“Looks like I came at the right time,” Faulkes said. “I’ll tie up my horse and join the fight.”

“As you will,” Ransom said, although the man’s attitude didn’t impress him. If Ransom had been serving Jon-Landon, he would have returned with the news as soon as possible.

Ransom gave the order to prepare for the assault. Knights with broad shields prepared to lead the way, followed by those bearing long ladders with smaller shields perched atop. They’d be under a torrent of crossbow fire as they arranged them at the base of the wall.

On the cusp of the attack, Ransom found himself thinking of his wife, Claire, and his family in Legault. He felt a throb of longing to be with them instead of fighting the king’s wars, but it was Benedict who’d allowed him to marry Claire, and he owed him everything, including his rank as Duke of Glosstyr. Loyalty bound him to do his king’s bidding.

When the men were ready, Ransom gave the order to attack, and the three crews hastened out of the cover of the woods. The soldiers guarding the pickets had been alerted and quickly removed sections of the fencing so the crews could charge past them and throw the ladders up in three different places. Cries of alarm rose from the castle walls, and the defenders began to rally. Ransom watched in consternation as black shafts began to rain down on his men, clattering against shields and armor. But some found weak spots, the vulnerable gaps in the armor.

Ransom observed fitfully as his men charged toward the wall, the advance led by Dawson and others he trusted. He had deliberately resisted using trebuchets, both because he didn’t want to reduce his own castle to rubble and because the king needed them at Averanche and Tatton Grange. Cries of pain and shouted curses came from Ransom’s men as they jogged ahead under the onslaught.

He saw the first ladder clack against the wall as the knights began to position it. Once it was set, some began to scrabble up the length to reach the defenders atop the wall. He knew Dawson would be in the forefront, even though it was the most dangerous part of the charge. The young man was occasionally too brash for his own good, but Ransom admired his pluck and courage.

The second ladder went up and then the third. As Ransom watched, clenching his fist and tapping it against the tree trunk, he saw several Occitanians appear with long spears and hooks. One of them managed to snag the edge of a ladder and then shoved it backward, the weight it supported dragging it down. Ransom’s mind went black with rage as he heard the groans from the impact. The soldiers at the pickets rose to get a better look, the anguish they felt obvious at any distance.

Ransom backed away from the tree and then whistled to get Captain Baldwin’s attention.

“That was unlucky,” Baldwin said, his head protected by a chain hood. “I’m going to send in another score of men to get that ladder back up.”

“I’m going to lead the charge. Tell them to follow me.”

“That’s too risky,” Baldwin said. “The king would—”

“I’m going!” Ransom barked. He lowered his visor and started to jog toward the wall. He heard Baldwin cry out for men to follow him, and a quick backward glance revealed there were more than a score coming up behind him. Ransom felt a crossbow bolt deflect off his armored arm, but it didn’t even slow his pace. More shafts rained down on him, but he was too angry to care about the danger. When he reached the fallen ladder, he saw the knights pinned beneath it, twisting and groaning to free themselves from the weight. Ransom signaled to his men to grab it and help the wounded retreat.

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