Reckless (Age of Conquest #5) - Tamara Leigh


Northern England

Late Winter, 1070

He wearied of leading men and women to victory. Albeit satisfying in the moment, never could such feats outweigh the ache of later leading those victors to injury or death—if not of their persons, then of hope whose each resurrection was more pitiful than the last.

He wearied of anger, its flames scorching his insides and filling his gorge so full it threatened to overflow on innocents among the guilty.

He wearied of life, seeing mostly darkness beyond which he dare not imagine more than a prick of light lest disappointment drop a fierce warrior on his face. A warrior fierce no longer.

Hunched on his mount the same as his men who ought to be with those who remained of their families, warming hands and feet before a fire and filling bellies full, Vitalis raised his chin from his mantle’s fur collar and blew breath to the side so its mist would not obscure his vision.

The densely swirling snow that had made it difficult to see more than fifty feet ahead now reduced to lazily drifting flakes, once again it was possible to watch for the Norman army whose boots and hooves defiled this ancient mountain pass.

Those enemy forces were led by a man Saxons named Le Bâtard, though he was better known as William the Conqueror, William the Great, and King William to those who bowed to him as Vitalis would not, nor what remained of his Rebels of the Pale. Unfortunately, if his followers continued to resist England’s new ruler, the uprising in Cheshire they wished to join could claim their lives as dysentery thus far failed to do.

Shifting his gaze from the distant rise where the Normans would appear hours from now since prudence demanded they wait out the storm, Vitalis considered his men mounted to the right. Half were bent low in their saddles, hoods obscuring faces gone pale beyond the burn of biting cold. The others, including the smithy-turned-warrior whom Vitalis counted more than a friend, kept watch with their leader.

Dysentery, better known as the flux, had struck the latter as well, but their recovery was swifter, as evidenced by greater alertness, quicker reactions, and less weight loss. Though the sickness also weakened Vitalis, it was kindest to him. Or had been.

Belly cramping, he breathed deep, and as he swung his gaze toward the rise, paused on a nearby cave.

Though tempted to shelter his men in it whilst snow choked the air, he had deemed it too dangerous since the army would pass near and might pause there for the night. Many were the God-hewn tunnels stretching from the cave in all directions, including this rocky place where they waited out the storm, but still the rebels could have found themselves cornered there since it would be necessary to leave their horses distant and the flight of ill men would be hindered. Hence, no relief for the Rebels of the Pale until they were leagues distant and well off their enemy’s path.

Vitalis looked to where the army would appear and determined it was time to resume the journey toward Cheshire—hopefully, only in that direction.

His men would not like it, but he must persuade them to disband their remnant as done the majority following the disastrous battle at Stafford. Once they healed, if they remained determined to resist Norman oppression, better they could do so, albeit no longer under Vitalis’s command.

Pain lancing his gut, he turned aside and struggled to contain a groan.


Zedekiah’s fatherly concern nearly made him shake off the hand gripping his arm, but he had no right to shield his pride while the others were denied the same. The sickness, having decided it had been too lenient with him, made this warrior feel almost a boy.

He looked to Zedekiah, and seeing his weakness had come to the others’ notice, said, “Aye, the Norman plague has its heel more firmly on my throat.” Of enemy origin, all agreed since the invaders’ butchery and fires had fouled the water.

Anger suffused Zedekiah’s broad face. “Devil-bent Normans!” he growled. “More greatly I shall savor the defeat of the next I take to ground.”

“Look there!” another rebel said.

The first of the army had appeared on the ridge. As they did so much sooner than expected, they must have continued to advance despite the storm. The enemy being ignorant of these mountains, it was either exceedingly courageous or dangerously foolish.

“Where are the rest?” Zedekiah asked what Vitalis also wondered as seven riders slowly advanced, the hood of the one