The Black Crow was eating him alive. It had him in its ever-tightening grip and was consuming him, body and soul.
The Black Crow with its blood-red beak and claws. It would be the death of him.
Sir Richard de Wydville took one last look at the ripped surcoat bearing the hated insignia and tucked it back inside his gambeson. He had carried it with him for a year now, since he had torn it from his unknown assailant before collapsing unconscious from his wounds.
He was filled with an implacable hatred for the man who had killed his bodyguard, slaughtered his children, raped his wife and left him to die a lingering death on a mud-filled forest track.
The Black Crow. Richard was going to kill him – slowly. He was going to do unspeakable things to the Crow before finally allowing him to die. But he hadn’t found him yet and he was running out of time.
The old crone who had kept him alive with her strange potions and incantations had warned him. “You have been granted a year and a day to find the man you seek,” she’d said.
“What happens then?” he’d asked.
The woman had simply thrown her bony hands in the air as if throwing his fate to the four winds.
As a 12th century Christian and a soldier who had fought against the infidels, he outwardly scorned the old woman for her heretical dabbling in potions and spells. But inwardly he had to admit he’d encountered mysterious, inexplicable things in the Levant. Inwardly he feared her and he feared her prophecy.
He shivered and moved closer to one of the fires that had been lit as dawn seeped across the army’s camp. It was September, but Richard still felt an unnatural chill settle on him. He knew he was weakening. By the crone’s reckoning, today was his last.
Not for the first time he wondered if the Black Crow was God’s way of punishing him for his harsh treatment of others. He turned to his young squire, who had approached, proffering his mailshirt. “Do you think I’m a cruel man, Henry?” he asked.
“No master,” the squire replied, but his wary look and the slight tremor in his hands contradicted his words.
It was too late to make amends. Richard feared he was already damned. He took the mailshirt from Henry and inspected it, grunting his approval. Henry had refrained from trying to mend the three or four broken links in the shoulder. The damage had been caused by the crossbow bolt that had left him clinging to life a year ago and he wanted it left unrepaired as a reminder of the pain and loss he had suffered that day.
Henry had once made the mistake of trying to repair the shirt. But only once. Richard’s mailed fist had made sure of that.
Henry hadn’t been the first to suffer from the darker side of his nature. Even his own brothers had been victims of his anger, avarice and greed. When Richard had inherited the estates after their father’s death, all three of his younger siblings had been deprived of a share. They had been cast out and told to make their own way in the world. They had hated him for that, but what could they do?
Even worse, he had intervened in the arrangements for his brother Robert’s marriage to the beautiful heiress Cecily. Once Robert had been dispossessed, a marriage to Cecily was completely inappropriate. So Richard had taken her for himself, although Cecily had happily consented to the more advantageous match. Now, she was being cared for by the nuns at the Mount Grace Priory – physically and mentally destroyed by the Black Crow.
Richard had promised to avenge her and the children and when word had reached him last month that the Black Crow’s banner had been seen amongst the Empress Matilda’s army besieging Winchester, he had joined the mercenary soldiers sent to relieve the city. It seemed he had arrived too late, though.
Even as he stared into the flames of the fire, an unexpected call to arms jolted him from his reverie. Word spread quickly that the Empress Matilda and a small force had slipped through their lines and were making good their escape. Richard joined the pursuit, buoyed by a report that the Black Crow was with them.
They finally caught up with Matilda’s force at Stockbridge ford on the River Test, just as the light was fading. Matilda had escaped but her men were being overwhelmed in the melee. Richard saw the Black Crow’s pennon fall and spurred his horse furiously through the press to reach his stricken adversary. The Black Crow was on his back, helpless and surrounded by a gaggle of ransom-hungry mercenaries. Shouting and raging, Richard dropped from his horse and hauled them aside.
He fell on top of the Crow, dagger in hand. He was going to cut him to shreds. But he wanted to look into the Crow’s eyes while he did it. He dragged off his own helmet and then the Crow’s, staring at the face beneath him.
“Why?” It came out as a hoarse whisper.
“You took everything from me,” spat his brother Robert. “You took everything from all of us. I wanted you to know what it felt like to suffer. Go on kill me – we are both beyond redemption anyway.”
Redemption? Consumed by anger and the desire for revenge, it was not a concept Richard had previously considered. But now he was so close to meeting his God, he needed to know if staying his hand and offering forgiveness could earn him redemption.
Revenge or redemption?
He felt increasingly weak and confused. It was as if a black nothingness was enveloping him. His dagger was at Robert’s throat. It had already broken the skin. All he had to do was press a little harder with the blade…