Aside from Heaven
Not One to Choose
It was a weakness Hugh would hold over his head for the rest of their lives. Truth was, Hugh himself vomited less than a minute later. He always said it was due to the sight of his brother losing his stomach, but in truth, it was in horror of the sadistic atrocities he, his brother, and his father committed that evening. Neither of the younger FitzGisbornes would ever admit how much satisfaction they took in torturing a psychotic killer.
After all, they were Gisbornes; the night ran in their blood and the fury of Sir Guy sang in their veins.
Their father looked neither pleased, satisfied, or in any way jubilant. Deep in Hugh's mind, it seemed his sire was simply performing a job.
Soon after his sons returned with William's own war destrier, as well as two other draft horses, all three men stood in front of an already tortured and bound Royce. William stood closest, his sword out, and the tip of his blade placed painfully beneath the prisoner's chin.
“Royce Harridston, you stand accused of heinous crimes against Harridston, Nottingham, and England. How do you plead?”
“Wot?” The man chuckled between foaming lips. His eyes were already black and swelling shut. “Does it matter?”
“Not really.” It was decided that a fate similar to Hugh the Younger was warranted, with the exception of the quartering. Torture, evisceration, the usual stuff. If the FitzGisbornes noticed their prisoner was paling at their chatter and discussion of his painful demise, they said nothing. The large bundle Hugh retrieved from William's wardrobe proved to be a cache of torture devices and a large -
“Father! That oil skin is blood-stained.”
“And large enough to wrap a body!” Hugh looked perturbed, both hands on his hips, perusing the instruments. “Where did you come by a blood-stained oil-cloth?”
Fulks grinned wickedly. “Can I tell him?”
William cast an evil look towards his youngest. “Hugh, this is not the first time I have silenced someone who would bring harm to me or mine”
Hugh was still perusing the instruments and therefore missed the exchange of looks between his sire and his brother. “Father,” he gestured towards the cloth and instruments it contained, “this doesn't look like something someone who dealt with criminals on occasion.”
William picked up a set of pinchers and put the ends in the fire. “As I said, this is not the first time I have silenced someone. Lord Harridston?” William formally addressed Fulks. “Did you ever find the murderer of Ronilda, daughter of Mathew?”
Horror crossed the young man's face. This murder was a year previous, just before he took residence. “Murder? Her body has not been found. It was thought she ran off with a young man from another shire.”
“Look for her body near the old ruins of the old monastery, close to the cemetery in an old tree trunk.”
“S'lud!” It was then Fulks cut out the man's tongue, which all but silenced Royce. He passed out several times, during the interrogation, water thrown on him to bring him to. When he passed out the fourth time, William decided the sun was setting, therefore, they needed to move the man closer to the graveyard near Ripleys.
“We're going to bury him?” Fulks wiped his mouth, grimacing at the smell of his own puke. “Can we not just leave him somewhere?”
“Yes and no.” Pulling the large stained oilskin cloth from the over-sized bag Hugh had brought from William's room, he spread it over the ground. “Help me put this pustule on the skin.” They weren't gentle; both legs and an arm were shattered, so they weren't worried about him attempting to escape. Once on the skin, William stripped the body, loosely tied the skin around him and attached the rope to the stirrup of his horse.
“Father,” Hugh whispered, “the man will leave drag marks.”
“No he won't.” He wiped the instruments down with Royce's bloodied clothes. Once cleaned, he threw the man's clothes into the sack with the rest of the instruments. “And if it does, who cares?” Using a long stick, he poked the embers, making sure the anything left to burn, did, but the elder FitzGisborne made a mental note to return to the site immediately after they finished the atrocity he and his sons began. Noting that the edges of the campfire were out and cold, he scooped the dirt and ashes from around it, tossing the refuse in another sack.
“What are you doing?”
William cinched the sack and tied it to his sword belt. “You'll see.”
They slowly moved through the woods, the sons of Gisborne not seeing several angels keeping pace behind, their tips of their wings dragging in the dirt, swishing back and forth, whipping up a strange wind that covered the footsteps and tell-tale marks of the living. If there were any breathing souls between the now abandoned encampment and their destination, a sick feeling grew in their stomachs and they quickly turned towards home.
Royce came to once, the world around him, spinning and green, only to see a strange winged being, clothed in starlight and eyes that rolled thunderbolts and fire. Luckily for him, he passed out again, not caring he was being dragged to his death. He thought death would be welcome. Little did he know the Being that petrified him was Death.
Just as the sun was lowering behind the trees, they came to a graveyard. Towers rose on the opposite in the trees.
“Father,” Hugh shook his head. “Isn't that-”
“Ripleys.” William finished for him. He turned back, as if to search the trees, but in actuality, looking for Douma. Finding her, he waited for her nod of clearance, making sure they were not seen. “I ask you to say nothing of this place, what you are about to see. If you do not believe you can, leave now.”
“Not about to speak a word.” Hugh was quick to speak. “Fulks?”
The youngest FitzGisborne shook his head. “Not a word.”
William finished dragging Royce to a gravestone practically in the wood line. Scrub grew up around the marker, hiding the crypt cover in the shadows. Once there, he dismounted and untied the warhorse's burden from the stirrup. After that chore was completed, he led the beast to the inside of woods and tied him to a low branch. “Tie your horses here and follow me. Bring your change of clothes.” With that, he removed several iron crowbars from his saddle and returned to the grave. Once his sons were done, he handed each one of the tools. Slowly, they lifted the lid of the low crypt and slid it sideways. When it was open far enough, the boys could see a crudely crafted stairwell that descended into darkness. Holding up the palm of his hand to stay them, William reached into the crypt, removing several torches. Using a flint from his pack on his saddle, he lit them, returning to the fake grave and putting them in torch holders at the bottom of the stairs.
“Help me with this scrap of humanity,” William grabbed the corner of the oilskin and proceeded to drag the man towards the grave. Both boys came to their father's aid, pulling him into the crypt and down the stairs, taking great satisfaction hearing the man's body bounce down the stone. Once there, the three of them retrieved their clean clothing, depositing the sacks at the foot of the stairs and pulled the crypt cover back into place, sealing the four in.
There was a small barrel full of oil, with many torches in it. William handed several for each hand to his sons and nodded for them to follow him.
They were in a tunnel, one that was shored up in stone and again, there were more stairs down. When they reached the bottom, William put his lit torch in another torch bearer and lit another torch from it. The tunnel turned towards Ripley's and they followed it, putting lit torches in casings along the way. The sound of water dripping echoed all around them, and as they moved, they noticed small, vile smelling puddles along the edges of the walk. Eventually, William felt they had gone far enough and with one lit torch left, turned around and returned to where they had left Royce.
“Father,” Hugh whispered. He watch dispassionately as rats ran between his feet. “What is this place?”
“It is a grave.”
“I see that, but-”
“Did you notice the name on the crypt on the surface?” Neither of his sons answered. “Vaisey de Dommages.”
“Vaisey the Damned,” Hugh breathed. The air was moldy and ancient. He would be coughing for days.
“Aye. Vaisey the Damned. Vaisey,” William lifted his torch, “was the Sheriff of Nottingham during the time of Sir Guy of Gisborne. A more depraved, immoral human being you should never meet. I suspect this... thing...” they reached the spot where they left Royce, who was still unconscious, “as well as Hugh the Younger were descended from him.” He kicked the body, listening for a grunt, that he got. “Vaisey died during the siege of Nottingham. He is nothing but dust and best forgotten.” He grabbed a corner of the skin and once again, began to pull and tug the body down the way they had just come from. Quickly Hugh and Fulks joined in the task. “Prince John made a pact with the Sheriff that if he wasn't at the castle on specified days, John would burn all of Nottingham to the ground. People, livestock, fields. All of it. Initially, it was an incentive for the townspeople, as well as Robin Hood and Sir Guy, to not kill the man. However, after the pact and a very close call, Vaisey realized that land without peasants to work it, an empty castle, was useless to the master, so he had an escape route built under the castle. During the siege, while the townfolk were escaping into Sherwood, Vaisey and Guy's sister, Isabella, killed Guy along with Robin of Locksley, Robin Hood, only to die themselves when the castle collapsed.”
“I am not going to ask how you know all of this.” From the humor, William guessed it was Fulks speaking behind him.
“Sir Guy's body was retrieved by Robin's gang of Not So Merry Men and buried in the crypt of Ripley's by the order and grace of the Abbess.” William grinned to himself. “I think she liked pretty men.”
“I'm really not going to ask him how he knows all of this!” Hugh was gasping for air. The dust, the mold and mildew, the fresh blood and sweat....
No one was watching the army of rats following behind.
“Early in my lordship,” William was continuing, his face grinning wickedly in the torchlight, “I had the old tunnel cleared and another one built to run from the forgotten crypts of Ripley's to here for my own private use.” He stopped and grinned at his sons. “I have fortified it, stocked it with necessary items and put it to good use many times and will continue to do so.” In the flickering torchlight, one could see the mildew, growing up the old stone. “Only a few of my favored knights know of it.”
“What of the men who built it?” Hugh didn't think a handful of knights could construct something as complex as this. “Surely, they would talk.”
Royce was a heavy bastard and William tugged anew, nearing his goal. “The workers were hired from Italy. Sadly, their return ship went down in a storm around the Straits.” He shook his head in mock sorrow and clicked his tongue. “Not a one survived. I made sure their widows and families were well taken care of.”
“I'm not going to ask how he managed that, either.”
“This part of the tunnel is older, father.”
William stopped and straightened his back, listening to the vertebrae pop. He was going to hurt tonight. “We are now under Ripley's proper.” He lifted his torch higher. In front of them were rows and rows of shelves, skeletons in rotting habits laid on slabs as far as the light shown.
“Watch your mouth.” William whispered. “They are older than time.”
And would tell you so if you would but listen.
An old memory rolled through William, of these long-dead nuns nattering on amongst themselves as if still alive while he lay in his crypt, praying for peace. It was if they were making up for taking a vow of silence for so long; who had the most difficult novices, worst cooks, the one who had a rousing affair with a local lord and was proud of it! There was the sister who came up pregnant and tried to pass the child off as an immaculate conception. It was on those evenings, he roamed the woods and lands of his home...
Shaking his head as if to rid himself of moldy, lingering thoughts, he thrust the torch to his left. “The sisters above lay their dead down here, however they've not ventured to this corner in over two centuries as it's the oldest part of the crypt and full. They now lay them to rest on the other side of the catacomb.” As he raised his light, thick, heavy cobwebs obscured the path further ahead. It was obvious no one had been this far in centuries. “Which is advantageous for us.” He now addressed the man on the ground. “Isn't it, Royce? No one to come looking for you, no one to come see why you are trying to make so much noise. They'll mistake you for the wind.” William took his torch and burned a portion of the cobweb, before moving on. He stopped about ten meters in, looking at the stone ledges. “Ah.” He pointed at a body that wasn't as old as the women, but still fairly skeletal. There was no clothing and there was enough hair on his skull to see it had been blonde. “Hugh. Fulks. Meet Alric le Pont.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance.” Fulks was looking over his father's shoulder. “Something tells me you did something to anger my father.”
“Oh, much.” William agreed. “He was a messenger for Hugh the Younger. He brought a message, demanding my presence, your presence, and the keys to Harridston brought to him. You can see how well that went over.”
“I knew you sent us to Uncle Gui for safekeeping.” Hugh whispered. “I didn't realize how much danger we were in.”
“Edward had not sanctioned the demand, but in time, he would have. Hugh was testing his limits, testing how much he could get away with before Edward put his foot down. Several messengers, demands he sent. They never returned.” The elder FitzGisborne shrugged. “They are all here, in this corner. There,” he pointed down a dark, cobwebbed corridor, “are skeletons piled again the wall. I suppose they were lowly and didn't warrant a place to lay. Either that or there was a plague and many died at the same time.” There had been a winter illness in Guy's time when he was a child. He had a vague recollection of it, how his mother worked herself, trying to save so many. Sadly, not many survived the winter. “Two of Hugh's messengers are beneath them.” He took a deep breath, welcoming dusty air he knew intimately. “It killed me to send you away. I did not wish to raise you to run from a fight, however, in the end, this was a battle I could not win if I feared for your safety day in and day out.”
“You are not a coward, father.” Hugh patted him on the shoulder. “We understand. I would do the same thing.”
For a moment, the three men looked at the decomposing body. With a quick inhale, William shoved his torch into Fulks' hands. “Hold this. Alric, I believe you've rested long enough.” And with that, he shoved the dead man's body over the edge, to the crevice between the back of the ledge and the wall. The sound of the rattling and breaking bones reverberated through the cavern, causing Hugh and Fulks to jump. William dusted his hands off and turned back to where Royce lay, unmoving and unconscious. “Alric was particularly irritating and obscene. He ended up becoming a great experiment for me. Took him days to die. Hopefully,” and with this, he grabbed Royce by the shoulders, motioning for his sons to take the man's feet. “Royce will meet the same, long, drawn-out, painful fate. Heave to, FitzGisbornes!” And with that, the three men lifted and tossed the naked man upon the burial slab.
As Hugh turned from the altar, he noticed the dozens and dozens of glittering eyes in the dark of the corridor. They scattered across the floor and up into the niches of the wall.“Father?”
“They are awaiting dinner.”
Reaching for his belt, William pulled a water pouch and yanking the cork with his teeth, poured the contents on Royce face. He came to with a sputter and a groan. “Gud's blud, bastid,” he breathed. “Letta man die n'peace.”
“Oh, not hardly,” William retorted jovially. “Fulks. Hugh. I wish for you to see this.” He held his torch over Royce's body, lighting the slab. “Notice the bloodstain.”
“Aye. That's because...” William lifted the torch towards the ceiling above Royce's body. The ceiling of the little alcove was wet, water beading up in places. While they watched, a large drop formed and fell on the face of the naked man beneath it on the stone plate. “I have no idea where the water comes from, but it will annoy our murdering little arsewipe until his death, which if I do this right, won't be until the morning sometime.” He tucked the emptied waterskin into his belt and pulled a wicked, curved Saracen blade from his waist. The blade was old, but well kept and sharp. Deftly, he slipped it between his fingers, the blade now becoming a dinosauric claw. “This has been in the family for a few generations.” He didn't mention that as Roland, he had taken it from Guy's burial vault. At some point, he himself would return it or hide it within his small hall as it was too dissolute and evil a blade for his children. With a speed that shocked his sons, William slit the man from sternum to groin, and then across his lower abdomen. Royce attempted to scream, but William covered his mouth with one hand, while pulling the flaps of his now opened stomach with the other. Deep in the recesses of his mind,the dying man realized this evil visage within the glow of a torch would be the last thing he would see on this mortal realm. Death could not come soon enough for him. “I see your guts, you worm. And soon the rats of the convent will smell them and will feast on you. That is your sentence for the hell you've caused in your lifetime. May you live long.” With that, William slapped the open gut, causing blood to fly and the rats to skitter and squeal anxiously. Turning on his heel, William stormed from the alcove, and back into the tunnel. “Bring the oilskin,” he called to his sons as he walked past. Both were bent over and... “when you've finished spewing.”
Hugh finished sponging down and threw his cloth back in the cold tub. He reached for his clean clothes. “Why not go ahead and kill the man so you won't have to come back?”
Fulks rolled his eyes. “To make him suffer.”
“Ah, yes.” William had an old cloth and was cleaning the Saracen blade, with a bored, dispassionate air. Fulks noticed he used oil, rather than water after the blood was cleaned away, to preserve the blade. “He must suffer. Follow me.” William then picked up the sack of ashes. He carried it down the corridor, ignoring the disgusting feast going on just ahead. Meticulously, he threw the ash and dirt and dust on the floor, backing up as he went, continuing until the sack was emptied. As the last bit left his hands, a breeze picked up, a moaning wind that drowned out that groans of Royce, and scattered the debris over the tracks and drag marks made by the FitzGisbornes.
For a few minutes, it was quiet, while the three cleaned and changed and set the area to rights. Hugh broke the silence as they prepared to leave. “Doesn't this... any of this, bother you?” He recoiled when his father glared at him. For a minute, it looked as if a skull beneath the skin stared back at him.
And then the light flickered and he was simply a man in the glow of a fire. “Bother me? Of course, it bothers me! I threw up my guts over there around the corner!” William slammed the last torch in the bracket in the stairwell. “The day it stops bothering me is the day I hope I die.” He stooped and grabbed an iron bar. “'Tis morbid what I do; what I've done! What we just did. Evil repaying evil. I take no joy in it, in any of it. It disgusts me that I allowed the two of you to take part in it. I will live with that hell for the rest of my life! I wish I hadn't.”
He was jerked from his anger by a gentle touch on his arm. He looked into Hugh's eyes.
Alise. He has Alise's eyes.
“I'm glad you did. Not because I took joy in it. I did not. But because you should not bear this alone.”
“Royce did not deserve to live, father.” Fulks now took up the other iron bar. “It did not rest on you alone to met judgment. It was ours as well.”
And with that, the three listened for the wind outside, the silence, before opening the crypt and letting themselves out.
It was heavily insinuated that tonight was not a night for anyone's marriage bed or amorous pursuits. Not that William needed to be reminded of that. He was a beast, but not a selfish one and he snarled and growled at those who thought he needed to be reminded of that..
When the men quietly invaded Vivienne's bedchamber, the women rose as one. All it took was a nod from the sons for their wives to whisper to Vivienne, touch her, reassure her, before they left, quietly shutting the door behind them.
Leaving William, Vivienne, and Eleanor alone in the room. Vivienne was dressed for bed, in a long sleeved shift that tied daintily around the throat. William walked between her and the fireplace, pressing gently on her shoulder, guiding her back into her chair. He picked up the wine glass, sniffing it and detecting something other than wine. He gestured to Eleanor with the goblet.
“Mulled, my lord. There is a pitcher on the mantle to keep it warm.”
“What is in it?”
“Something to make me sleepy,” Vivienne replied softly. “It is working.”
“Would you like more?” She nodded affirmatively and William accommodated her, refilling the delicate flute before handing it to her. There was a clearing of Eleanor's throat. When William glanced her way, she nodded, obviously wanting to talk to him without Vivienne overhearing.
“My lord,” Eleanor whispered, “I do not think tonight would be a good night to-”
“Consummate anything?” he hissed angrily. “So I've been told by my sons, my housekeeper, the looks in the eyes of my daughter-in-laws and probably my hound, if he was in here!” He took a deep breath, ignoring the terrified shock on the girl's features. “It irks me to no end that my own people and family think I would be so cruel and callous as to bed the woman I love, immediately after she was assaulted. Do you think I have no decency?”
I just slaughtered a man and his stench is still on me -
Vivienne's maid took a step back, hand to her throat. “My lord, I'm sorry... I didn't...”
William's voice softened even further, but the underlying fury was still there. “I know.” He closed his eyes and shuddered. “I know. Go to bed.”
“I will stay with her tonight. She is safe.”
Eleanor nodded once and backed into her room, shutting the door behind her.
William stared at the door for a few moments, his jaw ticking. He forced him self to calm down, released his clenched fists before turning toward Vivienne.
She was watching, with quiet eyes and a solemn visage. She reached out one hand, beckoning him to her. “Let me guess. Everyone thinks you wish to pretend nothing happened this afternoon.”
He ran both hands through his hair, making it stand out at strange angles. In long strides he joined her on the bench, and pulled her to him. “They think I'm a single-minded animal.”
She chuckled at that. Winding her arms around him, she tucked herself into his side. “You don't scare me now. You've never scared me before. If you can be patient for a...” He heard the sob before she did. “I was so scared. So... sc...sc...scared. All those women he killed and I was next. Next. I was afraid you wouldn't make it in.... time...”
And at the moment, William's brave, brave Vivienne, fell to pieces.
William pulled her into his lap, tucking her under his chin and held her for Jesu knew how long. It was ugly sobbing, nothing dainty or contrived about it. He heard Eleanor open her door, before softly shutting it again. He waited until she finished and held her still, even when she was cried out. Truth be, he cried with her, the knowledge of how close he'd come to losing her, how he failed to protect her.
“He's dead?” It was a whisper and he almost missed it.
Not wanting to lie, he gave her the closest thing to the truth he could. “He will no longer walk this earth and breath again.”
“Good!” she spat. “Because if you didn't, I'm going to go kill him!” She exhaled hard. “I know we... we...”
He knew where she was going. Waiting was hard. Losing her would have been harder. “Don't worry about tonight. Let's get through the next few days and we'll plan a new evening for us.”
“I'm so tired.” She curled in tighter. “They put something in my wine.”
He started to mention she had already told him that, as had Eleanor, but decided to stay quiet as it was her nerves working through her. William stood up, Vivienne in his arms and walked towards the bed. The quilts were turned down and he set her gently on the mattress. “Then I suggest you let whatever it is, work its magic.” He helped her turn and pulled the quilts up, tucking her in much like he did when his boys were young. As he stood up, she grabbed his hand.
“Don't leave me.”
He released her grip gently. “I'm not. I'm getting a chair and I'll sit right here-”
“No. No. Don't leave me.”
Again, he tried to explain he wasn't leaving, planned to sit by her bed all night.
She grabbed his hand, his fingers, painfully. “No.”
The bed was almost big enough for two and he sighed in acknowledgment that this would probably be the longest, most difficult night of his life. Toeing his boots off, he then sat down on the edge of the bed and pushed her over to the other side, before laying down on top of the quilts. “I'm right here.” As she turned loose, he cradled the back of his head in his hands. Before he could relax, Vivienne curled next to him, tucking herself into his side. “Thank you, my lord.” She was asleep as the last word slid from her lips.
William waited until her breathing evened out and deepened.
The shadow of an angel faded between the bed and the fire. William narrowed his eyes.
“You're welcome, my lady.”