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The line of knights parted silently as the boy led his bloodstained horse through their ranks, back toward the camp area where the wounded were being attended. The Battle of the Standard was over and won, but the Sheriff of Lincoln had fallen, and it was his body that was laid across the sweaty back of the huge black warhorse the boy was leading through the humid mist of a hot August day.
Men rushed forward to help as soon as the boy entered the encampment, but his face stopped them in their tracks, and it was he alone who reached up for the body of the larger, heavier man laying prone across the high-pomelled leather saddle.
He lifted the dead weight in his arms and stood there for a moment, holding it as if it were a sleeping child.
The black horse blew loudly, breaking the eerie silence of the surrounding men.
Then, "Is he dead, lad?" a voice asked gently.
"Aye," said the boy. He looked at the man who had spoken. "Take down the flag, Bernard, and spread it on the ground."
The man obeyed, and the boy stooped and gently laid the body of the only father he had ever known upon the red silk of Lincoln's flag.
The only evidence he gave of strain from the heavy weight was the fine mist of sweat that broke out upon his brow and the muscle that flickered along one of his high cheekbones.
The sheriff's men looked grimly down upon the dead face of their leader. His uncovered brown hair was matted with dirt and sweat and blood. The helmet he had worn into battle was gone, nor was he wearing his mail coif. Someone had pushed it off to try to staunch the wound that had killed him.
A fruitless enterprise, obviously, as the man's whole skull was caved in.
"Whathappened, Hugh?" one of the other men asked. He spoke in a lowered voice, as if it might be possible to disturb the sleep of the man who lay on the ground before them. "Did you see it?"
"Aye, I saw it," the boy replied in a careful, steady voice. "Ralf and I were walking back toward the camp together when I stopped to get a drink from a stream. Ralf went on ahead of me, God alone knows why, and the next thing I heard was his shout. I looked up to see four Scots leaping out at him from within a small copse of wood. They had seen that he was alone and unhelmeted, and one of them had a mace." The boy drew a deep breath. "They were after his sword."
"Why did you not come to his aid?" a tall knight demanded angrily. "Surely he deserved that much of you "
Other voices muttered at the speaker to keep quiet, but the boy replied with steely composure, "I was too far away. I ran to help him, of course, but by the time I arrived he had fallen."
Silence fell as all of the men looked at the body laying before them on the blood-red silk of Lincoln's flag.
"And did the four who killed him get away, Hugh?" asked the quiet voice of the man named Bernard.
"No," the boy said simply. "I killed them all."
The boy was twenty years old and this was his first battle, but there wasn't a man there who did not believe him.
"Why in the name of God did he not have his helmet on?" the angry knight cried.
"The noseguard had been bent and it was in the way of his vision," the boy replied.
The men stood under the misty sun, regarding with sorrow the fallen body of the sheriff.
Bernard pulled himself together. "We must get him back to Northallerton," he said. "He deserves a decent burial."
"Nothere," Hugh said quickly. "I will take him home and bury him next to Adela. That is what he would have wanted."
One of the sheriff's men began to say something, but at a look from the boy's startling light gray eyes, he fell silent.
"All right," Bernard said quietly. "We will take him home."
They put the body of Ralf Corbaille on a hurdle and carried him back to the king's base camp at Northallerton. King Stephen had not been present at this first battle of the civil war that was brewing between him and his cousin, the Empress Matilda. This had been a fight between the northern English, reinforced by some southern troops, and the Scots under their king, David, who was uncle to the empress.
"I will need to have a coffin," Hugh said to the oldest and most faithful of his father's knights, Bernard Radvers. They were standing in the hall of Northallerton Castle, where the body of the Sheriff of Lincoln had been laid temporarily to get it out of the warmth of the emerging sunlight. "And I will need a wagon."
"Lad." Bernard looked at the boy he had known since he was eight and had first come to live with Ralf. Hugh was still wearing his mail hauberk, but he had taken off his helmet and mail coif and his thick black hair had fallen forward across his brow, almost to the level line of his brows.
His face was expressionless, as armored as his body. If Bernard did not know better, he would assume that the death of the Sheriff of Lincoln meant nothing to this youngster who was looking at him with such disciplined immobility.
Ignoring all the signs that forbade it, Bernard reached out and touched the boy's bare hand in a gesture of comfort.
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