Cédric offered the falcon a strip of rabbit meat. Ignoring the tidbit, she retracted her neck low into her shoulders, plumped her feathers, and fixed him with a baleful glare.
“Still off your feed?” he asked softly. “What ails you, my girl?”
A low growl of thunder startled him. He glanced through the open door to the courtyard, where rain pummeled the cobblestones. The scent of rotting straw hung in the air. If only sunshine would break through the clouds and give the land a chance to dry out.
Then a familiar figure filled the doorway, jolting him out of his thoughts.
“Philippe?” he said in surprise. “You’re early—”
“It’s your father,” his sword master replied, breathing hard. “He’s wounded.”
Cédric dropped the pouch of meat and pushed past Philippe into the courtyard. He broke into a run when he glimpsed a guard and a servant carrying his father through the front doors of the main house.
Inside the great hall, he cleared the broad oak table near the hearth with one sweep of his arm. Pewter and crockery smashed against the tile floor. Quickly, the men settled his father on the table and removed his leather cuirass and chain-mail shirt. A deep wound gaped at his lower abdomen, leaking blood. His moans reverberated to the rafters.
Cédric yanked an embroidered flax runner off a nearby chest. It was one of the few reminders of his mother left in the house since her death on his twelfth name-day, nearly four years ago. With trembling hands, he wrapped it around his father’s waist. The mingled aromas of sweat and blood filled his nostrils.
“It was the écorcheurs,” said the guard, removing his helmet and running a hand through his matted hair. “They surprised us on the road back from the seminary.”
“They took my purse, my boots, my belt,” Papa managed to croak. “The ring off my finger. And ran me through with my own sword.”
“Those devils. I’ll kill them!” The words exploded from Cédric’s lips without warning. Philippe pressed a restraining hand on his shoulder. His heart thrummed crazily against his ribs all the same.
“Where is Yves?” Cédric demanded, tying the ends of the cloth together to bind his father’s wound. The faint outlines of pink silk roses embroidered by his mother vanished under a relentless tide of scarlet blood. His eyes burned with tears at the sight.
“Your brother went to check on the mill this morning,” Philippe said, accepting a cup of wine from a servant. “I’ve sent someone to fetch him. And the priest.”
Cédric propped up his father’s head and held the cup to his lips. He spluttered and coughed, then swallowed a bit of wine. A gust of wind swept through the doorway, the flames in the hearth dancing in response.
“These cursed rains,” Papa muttered. “There will be no harvest this year.”
Cédric stared at the fire, refusing to watch death tighten its grip on his father.
“And all the while, bandits circle like wolves.” Philippe’s voice was steady, but it held a trace of anger.
Papa sucked in a ragged breath. “My boy, look at me.”
Cédric dragged his gaze from the hearth with reluctance.
“Yves will take my place as viscount. Stéphane is safe at seminary; his path to priesthood is secure. And you—a third son, born with the least advantage.” He caught his breath, grimaced. “God forgive me, I’ve not prepared you, Cédric. You care more for falcons than swordplay. You’re not ready to enter service for a seigneur . . .”
Philippe leaned closer, covered Papa’s hand with his own. “I swear to you as a servant of the Knights Hospitaller that your son has the makings of a strong fighter. I’ll be sure his training is complete before he enters any lord’s household, my friend.”
Papa sought Cédric’s eyes again. “You can change your fate, but not if you spend your life bowing to the whims of other men, understand? One day you must make your own fortune.”
The worry and pain in his expression made Cédric’s heart twist.
“Vow it to me, son.”
“I vow it.” Cédric tried to swallow, but his throat felt dry as dust.
Papa’s face relaxed. His breath grew faint, his skin pale.
“You will make your own way in the world,” he whispered. “But first you’ll learn to live by your sword—and stay alive.”