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Even in his sleep, the word possessed Gunnar, drew at him. Fire. Heat. He stirred and, still mostly asleep, cracked one eye open just enough to see dim glow of the banked fire. By the gods, he loved the fine, big hearths the English built. His gaze shifted higher to take in the hour candle on the mantle.
Not yet half gone. Good. That meant more time to wallow in Richmond Castle’s warmth. He stretched his feet toward the hearth, drew his cloak more tightly around his shoulders, closed his eyes, and drifted back down toward sleep.
Fire. The door slammed open, the sudden sound jerking Gunnar bolt upright. He was on his feet, knife in hand, before he came fully awake.
“Fire!” cried the watchman. “Fire in the bower! The duke! The women!”
The women. The sour taste of fear flooded Gunnar’s mouth. As the hall erupted in chaos, he shoved his knife back into its sheath and leapt toward the door, plowing aside confused and sleepy men as he went. Outside, the air boiled with smoke and shouting and the screams of horses, and the red flicker of flames rose along the eastern wall of the two-story bower. He ran toward the building, pushing past frightened women who streamed out the door. As he entered, Edward of Norwich, Duke of York, appeared on the landing above wearing nothing but his braies. He started pulling women out through the door behind him, shoving them down the stairs one after another. As they stumbled down, Gunnar grabbed them at the bottom and pushed them toward the outer door. “Run!”
He lost track at a dozen, but still they came, women and girls and young boys, noble and servant alike, all fleeing for their lives. The smoke grew thicker, clotting in Gunnar’s throat, and his eyes streamed with tears.
“Get out of there, man!” came a call from outside.
Gunnar squinted up to where the duke stood with smoke and sparks roiling around him. “Your Grace. Come.”
Coughing, the duke peered back into the chamber. “I am not certain . . .”
Smoke already wisped up from the wooden treads, and Gunnar shook his head. “Now, Your Grace, while you can. There is no more you can do.”
The duke took a final glance into the smoke-filled chamber, hesitated barely an instant, and then pounded down the stairs, swearing as his bare foot landed on an ember. Gunnar caught him as he stumbled, and together they ducked and ran as more embers rained down. They had just reached the door when Gunnar heard a scream behind him. A cold hand gripped his heart. Kolla . . .
He and the duke both turned at once. On the landing, nearly hidden by smoke, two girls wrestled. One was screaming, scrabbling back toward the bedchamber. The other clung to her, dragging her forward. “No. We cannot go back.”
“Lady Eleanor.” The duke started back.
Gunnar shook off the old dread and grabbed him. “Go, Your Grace. I will get them.”
He shoved the duke outside, where a pair of his relieved men pulled him away, then Gunnar turned back. In that brief moment, the stair treads had started to burn in thin flames. There was no way the girls could come down. Ignoring the falling sparks, Gunnar hurried to a spot below the landing and held his arms out. “Jump. I will catch you.”
His voice was enough to quiet the screaming girl, but she took one look down and backed away. “I cannot.”
Coughing, the other girl shoved her toward the edge. “You can. Go on.”
The screamer froze. “I cannot.”
“Move!” Gunnar’s bellowed order shook the air, and both girls yelped as larger embers showered down from the burning roof. When the screamer still didn’t move, the other girl put her shoulder down and shoved. The girl seemed to float for a heartbeat before she tumbled into Gunnar’s arms.
He started to set her down, but newly fallen embers spangled the floor and the girl screamed again as her bare feet hit the ground. She crawled up Gunnar as though he were a tree. With a growl, he dashed toward the door with the screaming wench, heaved her outside like a sack of grain, and turned back. By now, the smoke was so thick that he couldn’t see the landing at all until he stood right below it.
He coughed and gagged, trying to muster a voice. “Jump, girl!”
No answer. A rock formed in the center of his chest. He’d failed her.
No. This wasn’t Kolla. He could save this one. Choking on smoke and memory, he pulled the front of his shirt up over his nose and started forward. But as the flaming stairs towered before him, he hesitated. He’d seen the bodies of men who’d died by fire, fingers and toes and manhood burned away. What if he burned and the curse kept him alive, unmanned and crippled?
What if he failed again and was unmanned anyway, in spirit if not in body? He pounded up the stairs, bellowing in pain as the heat scorched his shins.
The girl lay on the landing, crumpled right where she’d been standing. The foul, heated air strained Gunnar’s lungs, and he knew that if not for the perverse protection of the curse, he would likely fall beside her. As it was, he barely had the breath to bend over her. A tongue of flame flickered on her sleeve where an ember had landed and caught. He smothered the fire with his hand and scooped her up. As more embers showered down, he curled over the girl to protect her and turned to retreat back down the stairs. He’d barely taken a step when there was a loud crack and a section of roof crashed down just in front of him. The landing shook, then teetered wildly as the burning stairs came away from the wall.
Nearly smoke-blind, he peered down, trying to recall how far it was to the floor. Too far and he’d break his legs and they’d both lie there as the building burned around them. The window . . . but a glance over his shoulder showed him a chamber now fully aflame. There was no way past the blazing bedding and roiling vapors.
“Loki, you dog piss of a god, help her if not me.”
He jumped, landing bent-kneed to take some of the force, then twisting to put himself beneath the girl as they fell. Pain sizzled through his back as the coals beneath him seared through his clothes. He forged to his feet with a roar and charged blindly toward the door and out into the blessedly cold night.
Men swarmed around him, yelling as they covered him with damp blankets. Hands dragged him farther from the burning building; more hands reached for the unconscious girl. Gunnar heard her gasp of breath as they pulled her from his arms, and he nearly sobbed with relief. His legs gave way and he collapsed to his knees, dragging at the clean air, then hacking and spitting as his lungs tried to clear themselves of soot.
“You are sore hurt,” said the duke after a moment.
“No. I am fine.” Gunnar blinked and scrubbed at his stinging eyes. “The girl?”
“She may live, thanks to you.” He hauled Gunnar to his feet. “Go. Have your wounds tended.”
“My wounds can wait, Your Grace. You need men on the fire.”
The duke’s jaw worked as he gave Gunnar a nod. “Then take up a bucket.”
His Grace turned back to his duty, shouting instructions to the men to clear the horses from the stables. Gunnar took another moment to catch his breath and clear his sight, then ripped a soaked hide away from a lad too slight to wield it well, sent him to help in the bucket line, and stepped toward the fire.
The bower was lost from the first; they all knew that. The fight was to keep the flames from spreading to the rest of the compound, and in that they succeeded, though just barely. The keep proper and the main hall were in little danger because of distance and their stone walls and lead roofs, but the kitchen and stables were threatened more than once by flying embers, and flames licked parlous close to the armory before the duke’s men beat them back. Fortunately, it was a quick blaze, the bower being well over a hundred years old—Gunnar had visited Richmond the year it was built—and so dry that it burned like a straw man. The building soon collapsed, and once they’d beaten back the cloud of sparks thrown up by that, it was largely a matter of keeping up the stream of buckets until all that was left was a mass of steaming coals.
Gunnar was still flailing at the edges of the fire with his hide when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned to find a grimy-faced man, black as a collier.
“Rest now, monsire. You have done more than enough tonight.” Only the man’s hoarse but recognizable voice told Gunnar it was the duke, now wearing a cote and boots, though they were every bit as black as Gunnar’s own. “My own men can handle the rest of it. Go have those hands tended, lest they fester.”
Gunnar glanced down toward his hands, the backs of which glistened with open burns. And his back stung like the very devil. He fingered a sore spot on his shoulder and found a hole where an ember had burned clear through. He flinched as he touched the open wound below.
“That will pain you tomorrow.” The duke tugged the hide out of Gunnar’s hands and handed it to a passing man, then tipped his head toward the keep. “Go and have it seen to. Go. I command it.”
Gunnar glanced toward the east to judge how long he had until dawn. He was surprised to see it was snowing again; the weather had been the farthest thing from his mind while he’d been fighting the fire. Assured by the blackness that he had enough time, he nodded. “Yes, Your Grace.”
He turned toward the stone keep, quietly cursing the fire. Now he was truly in the duke’s notice. Snow or no, he and Jafri would have to head back out into the wilds and pray the gods would help them find some shelter.
Horses, still frantic with fear, milled around the upper bailey along with pigs and cattle that had been moved from the barn. Gunnar spotted his horses among the others and pointed them out to one of the boys who stood watch. “Catch those two and have someone find the gear I left with the stable master. I want them loaded and ready to leave within the hour.”
The boy’s eyes widened in the flickering torchlight. “In this weather, monsire?”
“Aye.” Gunnar glanced back toward the fallen bower to make sure the freshening breeze wasn’t making things flare up. “A man does what he must. Even in this weather.”
Gunnar watched until the stableboy caught his packhorse and started after the rouncey, then turned and climbed the slight mound toward the tower keep, where the women had set up a station to care for the injured on the first level. As he entered, someone recognized him and spread word of who he was and what he’d done. In moments, his smoky, singed clothes had been stripped away and his hands were soaking in cold buttermilk while a stout old woman sponged yet more soothing buttermilk over his back and several maids stood by fawning. He gave himself over to it, enjoying the fuss. It had been a long while since he’d been hailed as a hero—it had been a long while since he deserved it—and it felt good, even if it meant he was correct about the need to be away.
The old woman had just tied a cooling poultice in place over the burn on his shoulder when a page came up and bowed slightly. “Her Grace would see you upstairs, monsire.”
“You cannot go to her undressed, monsire,” said the old woman as he rose. She held out his shirt, grinning. “Much as she might enjoy it. Aye, you’re a fair sight of a man, even with that back.”
Gunnar grabbed for the shirt and quickly dragged it over his head, suddenly uneasy even though neither the old woman nor the others had given any sign the scars disturbed them. He had never seen his back, but he knew from the comments of various wenches that it was bad. He bore all the scars of a warrior who’d lived far too long, plus the terrible, raking marks of lion and bear and wolf and dog.
Before they had resigned themselves to mostly solitary lives, all of the crew had suffered with attacks from the others as they swung back and forth between beast and man. Gunnar had been hunted as both human and bull in those first terrible years, and in the centuries since, he had more than once defended innocents from Jafri or Steinarr or Brand or one of the others. They were honorable scars, but to people who knew no better, they looked as though he’d been lashed as an outlaw. Or worse, as a slave.
“You will want to clean off some of that soot, too, monsire, if I can say it,” continued the old woman, paying no heed to his discomfort.
More heat rising beneath the grime, Gunnar reached for the damp cloth the woman wrung out for him and quickly scrubbed his face, then pulled on his singed gown, buckled on his belt, and slipped his sword into its scabbard as the boy waited.
“Your name, monsire?”
“Sir Gunnar of Lesbury.” He gave the name of the estate near Alnwick that passed from man to man among the crew, and then followed the lad out and around to the stair that led up the outside of the keep to the main hall. From there, they climbed up the inner stair to the solar, where the duke’s lady sat in her tall-backed chair, surrounded as always by the score or so of young noblewomen who fostered with her. Now, however, she guarded a flock of dirty pigeons, the girls’ linen kirtles gray with smoke and their smudged faces streaked by tears. As the page announced his name, Gunnar glanced around, unsure which one was the screaming Lady Eleanor.
Suddenly he realized the women had all come to their feet. He frowned as the duchess stepped forward and dipped in courtesy.
“Ah, no, Your Grace,” he protested. “I am only a poor knight.”
“You saved us, Sir Gunnar,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “We owe you all honor, as well as eternal gratitude. God must surely have brought you here tonight.” She dropped still lower, then rose and stepped back as the younger women similarly knelt and murmured their thanks.
God had sent him? Perhaps. But surely a different god than the one who had let a fire start at night in a chamber full of sleeping women and children. Gunnar shook his head. “Any of your own men would have done the same. I was simply the first out the door.”
“And the last out of the bower,” said Her Grace. “You are too modest. Our castellan told me what you did for Lady Eleanor when his men bore her in.”
“I could hardly leave her to die. Or the other one either. Her, um, serving woman?”
The duchess shook her head. “More maid-in-waiting than servant. A bastard cousin to Lady Eleanor from her father’s brother, come to serve her during her fostering.”
“A brave creature.”
A furrow creased the duchess’s high brow. “Lucy? Truly? I would not have thought it.” She crossed the room, and a servant hurried to pull aside a tapestry and open the door behind it. “Come. Lady Eleanor wishes to thank you herself.”
He had little interest in the lady’s thanks, but he could hardly tell a duchess no. Mostly, though, he wanted to see how the brave maid fared. He followed the duchess up a curved stairway and down a short hall to a tiny chamber. A bed occupied one entire end of the room, and from behind the draperies issued great, wracking coughs, as though someone had the lung sickness.
As he and the duchess approached the bed, a maid hurried out of the room while another, standing near the headboard, pushed the draperies aside and stepped back. As she murmured her thanks and dipped in courtesy, Gunnar recognized the girl from the hall.
Then he caught sight of the occupant of the bed and stopped dead. Another one? He glanced back and forth, confused. They were so similar, they looked like twins, with their midnight hair, ivory skin, and gray eyes. But the one in bed had her arm propped up on a cushion, a poultice covering a burn just where he’d put out the flames on a sleeve. So . . . the brave one was the noblewoman and the screamer was the bastard cousin. But which one had been pestering him earlier? And why had he not noticed there were two of them?
The lines of pain around Lady Eleanor’s eyes faded as she looked up and saw him. “Here is my rescuer.”
“Lady Eleanor de Neville, I give you Sir Gunnar of Lesbury. Do not linger too long, monsire. She needs to sleep, but would not, until she saw you were well.”
Gunnar bowed to Lady Eleanor, and then to the duchess. “By your command, Your Grace.”
The duchess backed away, and motioned for Screaming Lucy to join her by the door.
“I owe you my life, sir,” said Lady Eleanor. “I am told you charged up the burning stair then leapt with me to safety. And here I worried that you sat too near the fire.”
Aha. It had been her. He thought back to how he’d spoken to her earlier and flushed. “’Twas more of a fall than a leap, my lady.”
“Perhaps that is why I ache so.” Her voice was husky from the smoke but still managed to carry a ring of good humor. “Well, no matter. Leap or tumble, I will take it over burning. I wish to kiss your hand in thanks.”
She held out her hand and looked at him expectantly. It was disconcerting, being under such close examination by eyes both so wise and so very young. Hardly more than a child—and yet her tone and manner were those of one used to having her requests honored by lessers. Aye, he should have heard that earlier, would have heard it, if he had not been so intent on chasing her off. She was noble for certs. And that she was called “Lady” meant she was married. Frowning at the thought of a girl so young being married off already, he glanced toward her hand. But her fingers were bare of rings, and the duchess did seem to be treating her like one of the fosterlings. Unmarried, and yet called “Lady”? And a Neville. How did he know that name?
Puzzling over it, he took too long and made her frown back at him. “Your hand, Sir Gunnar. I cannot reach it.”
He abandoned trying to sort out who she was and offered his hand.
She started to take it, but hesitated at the sight of the blistered skin across his knuckles. She glanced at her arm, and gently turned his hand over to examine the matching burn on his palm. “I thought I remembered . . . No wonder you did not want me to kiss your hand, monsire. You should have spoken.”
“’Tis nothing, my lady.”
“Still, I would not hurt you further for the world. And yet I would kiss you.” She squinted at him in the candlelight. “Your right cheek is unmarked, I think. Let me kiss you there.”
“Your thanks are enough, my lady.”
“You saved my life, Sir Gunnar. I owe you a kiss, at the least.” She pushed herself upright with a slight wince and crooked her finger at him. “Bend close.”
Shifting uncomfortably, he glanced toward the duchess, who nodded and smiled. “Let her kiss you, sir. I know her well. She has it in her mind, and she will not rest until she does, stubborn creature that she is.”
“I suspect you are correct, Your Grace. I saw her amid the flames.” He turned back toward the girl and scolded gently, “Brave to the point of foolishness.”
“Not nearly so brave as you, monsire. You had a choice, where I did not, being already in the fire.” Lady Eleanor’s smile faded away at the thought. “And I am grateful for the choice you made. You might have left me, but you did not, and for that I am ever in your debt. Your cheek, if you please.”
“Of course, my lady.” He started to lean over, but realized he wouldn’t be close enough, so he crawled half onto the bed and bent to her. She reeked of the acrid smoke, but as her lips touched his cheek, soft as a butterfly, he smiled at the sweetness in her kiss. A girl’s kiss. Outside, a single bell tolled mournfully, calling the monks to prepare for Matins. ’Twas time to be gone.
“You are forever my champion,” Lady Eleanor whispered as he straightened, and his chest squeezed a little at the idea of being champion to any maid, even one so very young. “I would have you sit beside me at dinner on the morrow.”
“I would be honored, my lady, but I cannot. I must ride on.”
“In this weather?” asked the duchess from across the room.
“Aye, Your Grace, and soon.”
“But I would give you your proper due.” Lady Eleanor frowned and then brightened as a thought struck her. “I know—the spring tourney at York. You will attend and carry my favor.”
“I . . .” I cannot, he began, but she had that tone again, the one that expected obedience, plus the pain was starting to creep back into her eyes. He wanted her to rest, and so instead of the truth, he offered a lie. “I will try, my lady.”
“You will come,” she said firmly, easing herself back against the pillows. The motion, combined with the effort of speaking, brought on another fit of coughing. The screamer hurried over as her lady hacked, and Gunnar quietly backed away.
The duchess motioned for him to follow her out. As the door closed behind them, she shook her head. “She breathed far too much smoke. I fear it may have damaged her lungs.”
Gunnar glanced back at the door, where the sound of coughing still echoed.
“She seems strong enough,” he said, willing it to be so. She couldn’t die, not after all that.
“She is, usually, but she already suffered a bout of fever this winter. And now this . . .” The duchess stopped midway down the stairs and faced Gunnar. “I would have a stronger promise that you will come to York, monsire. She needs something to cling to for strength. And I do not wish to lie to her.”
Not that she would mind if he lied, her tone said. But there were lies, and there were lies. “I understand, Your Grace. Tell Lady Eleanor . . . tell her that she will see me again after she is well.”
The duchess considered him through narrowed eyes, then a mischievous smile spread across her face. “Well done, monsire. I can use that without compunction.”
She truly was fair when she smiled like that; the duke was a fortunate man. As they reentered the gallery, Gunnar repeated, “I truly must be away now, Your Grace.”
“But I intended you to have new clothes to replace those. Let me call the steward.”
“A kind thought, Your Grace, but I have no time.” He tugged at the singed hem of his sleeve. “These will keep me warm enough. My cloak was not burned.”
“But we . . .” She cast about as though looking for something. In the end, she twisted a large ruby ring off her thumb. “Here. Take this as thanks for your aid.”
She pressed it into hand. “No. I would give you both new clothes and gold a-plenty, but my keys were in the bower and I can unlock neither treasury nor even my personal casket just now. Take the ring, though it be poor reward for one who did so much.”
“I did my duty as a man, Your Grace. That is all.”
“You helped us all, and you saved Lady Eleanor. A ring is little enough. Take it, I say, and sell it to buy yourself warm new clothes before the day is out. You cannot refuse me, not after I accepted that promise.” That smile again.
Gunnar flushed as he slipped the ring on his little finger. “I would not dare refuse a lady so kind, Your Grace. And I am most grateful. By your leave.”
She nodded, and he bowed and backed off a few steps before he turned and trotted down the stairs. Moments later, he’d retrieved his sword and was checking the girth straps on his horses, and by the time the clouds began to pale, he was in the glade where he and Jafri had been trading places each dawn and dusk. A dark, lean form slunk through the snowdrifts not far away, and Gunnar tied the still-nervous horses more tightly than usual, so they couldn’t run from the wolf. He stripped off his clothes, and as he stowed them away for the day, a snowflake hit his cheek, conjuring a memory of Lady Eleanor’s sweet kiss.
In the next instant, a gust of wind scoured it away and set his shoulder and hands afire anew with a blast of stinging ice crystals, and all he could do was stand there naked, freezing, until the pain of transformation overwhelmed the pain of his burns and beat him to the ground.
IMMORTAL CHAMPION (ISBN 978-0425239216)
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