Three days later, Chris received a message that stoked an old fire in him. Chris strode through the castle, shouting for his men. “Get out here, NOW! Fowler’s bandits are on the move again! They’re headed for Levinshire!” Chris gripped his sword tightly, flexing his hand in anger. The others rushed to the war room. When they arrived, it was to see a pacing Chris, his black rage barely in check. “I’ve sent word for our horses to be made ready. We’re leaving now.”
Buck took a step towards him. “Chris…”
“NOW BUCK!” He stormed out of the room. The six of them followed as Chris hurried ahead of them.
Ezra frowned. “He seems rabidly obsessed with rooting out these bandits, doesn’t he?”
Nathan checked his knives as he put them in place on his back. “They burned out innocent people, killed them like they were nothing. He has a reason to be angry. We all do.”
Buck shook his head. “We all want those sorry butchers to pay for what they’ve done, Nathan. Chris just has more reason than most. This is personal to him. Fowler and his group are the ones that killed his family.”
Ezra’s eyes widened in surprise. “Family?”
He nodded. “His wife, Sarah, and their son, Adam.”
The king was a widower? With another son? His…his brother?
“Chris and his family lived in a little house just outside the village. They didn’t have much, but they were happy. Chris and I went over to Eagleton to the horse fair. Sarah was supposed to be visiting her father with Adam, but she went home early. Fowler and his men went through the area, pillaging and burning. They killed Sarah and Adam and burned their bodies up in that house. Chris wasn’t the same after that. He’s been trying to catch Fowler for years, but the slippery snake always goes back to the Orcades for a few months when he know we’re getting close. That cursed King Lot welcomes him with open arms!”
Ezra looked stunned. Why would King Lot give aid to a bandit?
Buck saw the look on his face. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I know he fostered you and all. I shouldn’t have…”
Nathan stepped up next to him. “Shouldn’t say what? The truth? We all know Lot’s been doing more than turning a blind eye. He’s supplying that murderer!”
Now Ezra was outraged. “King Lot may not be a well-liked man, but I assure you he would never…”
Nathan cut him off. “You must be really naïve if you think he wouldn’t do anything in his power to destroy Camelot and take the throne—and I don’t think you are! He’s made no secret he thinks he should be high king of all England. He already took his neighboring islands and then invaded the mainland. Maybe we should be asking you what his plans are?”
“How dare you? I would never be involved in such repulsive massacres!”
A bit ahead of them, Chris stopped and turned at the raised voices. “We don’t have time for this! Get suited up and let’s go!” The king glared at both of them, but Ezra felt more menace directed at him. The others looked at him questioningly, trying to gauge his reactions. Did they truly believe he was a party to such heinous acts?
The men rode hard for two days to reach the tiny village of Levinshire. When they arrived, Fowler’s men were already there, running through the village with torches. People were screaming. Smoke was everywhere. Without a moment’s hesitation, Chris pulled out his fabled sword, Excalibur, and charged the nearest villain he saw. His men followed suit.
Ezra fought with an anger he didn’t know he possessed. He’d seen the body of a little boy as they entered the village, blood splattered across the poor child’s back. What kind of men… No, monsters! What kind of monsters would slaughter innocent children? He felt no remorse, and maybe a little satisfaction, as his blade went through his enemy’s leather tunic. A frightened cry caught his attention. He glanced around wildly for its source. A woman was running towards the woods with a young child in her arms. A bandit chased her on horseback, trying to run her down. The man was laughing at their terror. Laughing!
Ezra turned his horse away from the main battle and took off with all speed towards the endangered woman. He brought his steed up close beside the other man’s, forcing him to veer off or be driven into a tree. The other man turned in the saddle and hacked at Ezra with his sword. Ezra could tell that he had no formal training in the art of combat, but he was not to be underestimated. The villain was twice Ezra’s size and had muscles hardened from years of swinging a weapon. Ezra was holding his own, however. He’d been trained by the best, after all. His sword was also of a superior quality. A good, solid blow by Ezra might break the other man’s weapon.
Chris dispatched another bandit and then quickly scanned his surroundings to check on his men. They were doing well. It made him proud to fight with such men at his side. But…where was Standish? The knight was nowhere around. Curse the man! He’d run out on them! What that his plan all along? To leave them in the lurch in the middle of battle? Or was he just a coward?
A child’s fearful whimper distracted Ezra for just a second—a foolish error on his part, but it was enough for his opponent to strike a blow that broke his mail and cut into his leather tunic. The impact knocked him from his horse. The other man jumped down from his own mount to finish him off. Ezra looked up just in time to see the sword coming towards him. He thrust up his own blade in defense. The other man’s momentum pushed him right into Ezra’s sword. His blow still landed against Ezra’s already injured side.
The man smiled at first, not knowing he’d been run through. A perplexed look came over his face when he finally noticed the sword stuck through his chest. The bandit suddenly fell to the side writhing in agony. Ezra slowly staggered to his feet and moved over to where the man lay. He wasn’t dead, but he would be in a few moments.
Ezra looked over to where the woman huddled against a tree with her daughter. He slowly made his way over to them. He gave them a slight bow. “Miladies, are you all right? Did that varlet injure you in any way?”
“N…n…no. No, Sir. Just… He just frightened us.” The woman burst into tears. “I thought he was going to kill us!”
“There, there. You are safe now.” He handed her a handkerchief. “Stay here, hidden by the trees. I have to go help the other knights. Someone will come for you soon. Alright?”
“Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir!” She hugged her daughter to her tightly.
Ezra hurried to his horse as fast as he could, his progress slowed by his injury. He mounted his steed and turned back to the village common.
He was greeted by silence. The fighting was over. He slid from his horse and walked over to where the king stood with his knights, surveying the damage.
When Chris saw him, he turned on him with surprising speed. He pinned Ezra to a wall with one arm, holding a sharp knife to Standish’s neck. “Who commands your loyalty, Standish? Or do you even know the meaning of the word?”
“I’m one of your knights, Sire.”
That wasn’t the answer Chris was looking for. For a long tense moment he held Standish’s gaze. Suddenly, he put his knife away. “Don’t ever run out on me again.”
Ezra bowed to the king. His loyalty today had been to the people of Levinshire.
The others gave Ezra looks of either cold disdain or bitter disappointment. What did he care what they thought of him? He didn’t need or want their trust or false camaraderie. They’d been trying to make him complacent and vulnerable. He was one of them, a knight of the Round Table, whether they liked it or not. Destroying them from within didn’t require forming attachments.
Ezra took himself off from the others, deciding to check on the village without their presence. He winced as his movements intensified the pain. Perhaps he should see a healer. There was something else he needed to do first. He had to let the woman know it was safe to bring her child back to the village. But before he could get very far, he was surrounded by a gaggle of curious children. They’d never seen a knight before and wanted to ask him all sorts of questions. He couldn’t refuse such a simple thing—not for these little ones who’d lost so much. They plopped down in the dirt around him as he sat on a bench. The wall behind helped hold up his tired body as he satisfied their curiosity. He even performed a few sleight-of-hand tricks to amuse them. They were an appreciative audience. A chill wracked his body coupled with a tiredness he found hard to resist. One of the older children thought he was just sleepy and made all the other children quietly leave the man there to rest.
Chris was always amazed at Nathan’s abilities. He could take life and give life with equal skill. He watched as the man nearly exhausted himself helping the village healer. He remembered those hands stitching up his own battle wounds in a foreign land, saving his life even though Chris was a noble. Nathan didn’t take to nobles.
Buck stepped up behind him. “No sign of Fowler. Don’t think he was even here. Just sent his men to do all the damage.”
Chris cursed and slammed his hand into the wall.
“We’ll get him, Chris. We’ll get him.”
“Round up the men. We need to get these bodies out of the common. Talk to the people. See if any of them heard his men talking about Fowler’s plans. Interrogate any of the bandits still alive. I want Fowler.”
Several minutes later they were together in the middle of the village. Chris noticed Standish wasn’t with them. Maybe it was just as well. He didn’t know if he could stomach looking at the man right now.
A woman walked up to them, a searching look on her face. She held a little girl in her arms. She set the girl down and bowed to the king. Chris took her hand and pulled her up before she could get down on her knee. “Your Majesty. Thank you! Thank you for coming to help us!”
“You’re my people. That’s my job.”
“Thank you! Thank you so much! I…I was wondering… Where is the knight with the beautiful red cloak? He saved our lives. That man on the horse was going to kill us!”
“What are you talking about?”
“During the fighting… I took my little girl and ran towards the woods. I thought it would be safe there. One of the bandits followed us. He tried to run us down. That brave knight charged up on his horse and saved us.”
Chris’s knights just looked at each other, ashamed. It seems they’d misjudged their colorful comrade.
“Is he alright?”
“Is he alright? The other man struck him pretty hard and he fell from his horse. After he left I saw blood on the ground. Was he badly hurt?”
Chris sighed. “Spread out. Find him.”
Buck took the woman’s hand, patting it gently. “Don’t worry, milady. We’ll take care of him.”
They found him several minutes later, slumped against the wall. It looked like he was only asleep, but upon closer inspection it was obvious he was hurt. He was pale, his pulse weak. There was blood dripping from his side down to the ground. When Nathan pulled his cloak aside, he could see the gaping wound hidden there.