Chapter 90: A Twist of Malice
Percy surveyed the vulgar scene of three nuns wrestling with the crippled Lord Josiah. Their mud-splattered faces and apparel suggested they had taken a tumble or two in the wet soil below. The quartet and ash-covered mare struggled just outside the second granary, which remained undamaged by the fiery debris, though a few sacks of grain and farming tools appeared to have been knocked over in the scuffle. The surrounding area, which had been soaked with water to prevent further loss of grain due to the spread of fire, now carried the acidic smell of burnt wood and damp mud.
“Let go of me!” Josiah shouted as he struggled to maintain a grip on the mare’s reins with his one good hand. “I will not stay here another minute!”
“That is not your horse, Lord Josiah!” shouted the nun with an arm wrapped around the nobleman’s chubby neck and shoulder.
“The Saints—do not—condone theft!” protested another as she strained to unlock his death grip on the reins.
“Easy, easy!” The third nun tried to keep the panicked animal calm as it thrashed about between them. The mare, whose blindfold had been removed, huffed and rolled its eyes frantically, as the awkward group continued their disorderly dance in a trench of mud.
“Are you that desperate to be thrown into prison, Lord Turnbell?” Percy asked as he folded his arms.
Josiah froze, and the nuns quickly wrestled the reins free. “Off of me, you venomous harpies!” he shouted indignantly even as they scattered away.
“My Lord.” One of the nuns quickly led the spooked mare towards Percy.
“Thank you, sisters,” Percy replied as he accepted the reins. “You must all be very tired. My mercenaries should be arriving at any moment, and the capital knights won’t be far behind, so take heart. You are all welcome to dinner and rest at Hawthorne Manor this evening.”
“Bless you, my Lord.” The nuns curtsied and dispersed with brightened expressions though a few muttered curses and sent glares in Josiah’s direction.
“While you’re feeling charitable, Lord Percy,” Josiah muttered darkly. “Would you mind selling me that horse?”
“I wasn’t aware my Lord’s finances extended that far,” Percy replied with a cynical smile. “Or did your new wife come with a dowry?”
Josiah bristled even as he pointed his bandaged hand in Percy’s direction. “I haven’t forgotten what you did to me. Perhaps I should inform the House of Lords about your dirty infatuation with that half-blood witch.”
“Witch?” Percy’s lips twisted into a cynical smile as the smoke shifted directions around them. “You really do test one’s patience, Lord Josiah.”
“Patience? Says the great and powerful Earl who chose to meddle in my family matters. Now that you’ve confirmed my suspicions about your interest in Maura, we can discuss how much the half-blood’s reputation is worth another time. For now, you can begin earning my silence by handing over that horse,” Josiah replied with a sneer.
“You mean to blackmail me after I graciously returned your estate so that you and your family could keep your titles?” Percy’s smile widened before he hid it behind his handkerchief and shrugged. “The horse doesn’t belong to me, so I’m afraid I cannot gift it to you. It was loaned to me by one of my men.”
“Well then, I’ll borrow it from you, and he can come and collect it at Turnbell manor later,” Josiah growled as he stepped forward and grabbed the reins from Percy’s hand.
The Earl offered no resistance. His winter-gray eyes narrowed as he caught a strong whiff of liquor that clung to the nobleman’s breath and garments. Two crows settled on the rafters of the granary and watched with dark beady eyes as Josiah struggled to control the anxious animal.
“Father!” Sophya snapped as she and Asher appeared through the smoke behind them. “Please, stop harassing the Earl.”
Josiah glared from the jittery animal to his daughter and snorted. “Is the bitch finally dead?”
Sophya flinched but nodded slowly. “Yes, Mother—has passed on.” Asher hugged her comfortingly as more tears spilled down her cheek.
Josiah yanked the mare’s head down and clenched his jaw. “Helena got what she deserved. Her and that cursed half-blood—I should have turned them both out years ago.” He spat at the ground and glowered at Sophya, who shivered as she clung to Asher’s arm. “I guess that makes me your sole surviving benefactor now.”
“What?” Sophya blinked in surprise as Josiah lumbered over and grabbed her arm. “What are you doing?”
“I’m taking you back to Turnbell Manor with me,” Josiah snapped as he pulled her away from Asher.
“But—Father?” Sophya stumbled after him. “Why?”
“Your mother’s dead, so I decide your future now,” Josiah replied as he shoved her towards the mare. “Now get on. We’re leaving.”
“But—” Sophya glanced towards the young baron “—Lord Asher.”
“Lord Asher and his mother can return your dowry first thing tomorrow morning,” Josiah said with a chuckle. “You might be engaged, but you’re not married yet.”
“You truly are the lowest form of human filth,” Asher snapped as he lunged towards Josiah and pried Sophya from his grip. “You want to force us to drop the engagement so you can get your hands on her money.”
“As if your reasons for marrying her are any different!”
“I want to marry her because I love her, you fool!” Asher shouted as Sophya quickly ducked behind him.
“You mean your mother loves her grandfather’s title,” Josiah returned with a mocking laugh. “Money or title, it’s the same thing really. The Winslet family might be barons, but everyone knows their family bought that title. Marrying the granddaughter of a well-known viscount, even if her mother was disowned, provides you with more legitimacy to push for your family’s promotion.”
“Even if such a thing were possible, only Sophya’s children would benefit,” Asher retorted. “As her father, shouldn’t you want a better future for Sophya and your grandchildren?”
“Well I’m certain there are better options than you for Sophya to consider,” Josiah muttered as he stepped closer.
“You are a discredit to nobility. Nothing more than a parasite that won’t let go until its dead,” Asher growled as he pushed Josiah back.
“And yet, legally, I am in the right,” Josiah snapped with pointed jabs into Asher’s chest.
“Father, please stop!” Sophya cried as she peered around Asher. “Please, you know I love him. You promised—”
“I am doing what’s best for the family now get over here!” Josiah snapped as he reached towards her.
Sophya shrank away even as Asher stepped forward and forcefully shoved Josiah back another step.
“You’re not going to lay another finger on her ever again,” Asher snarled.
Josiah tipped his head back and laughed. “Looks like you’ll have to be my witness, Earl of Hawthorne. A mere baron thinks he can kidnap my daughter from me.”
“I am already engaged to Asher,” Sophya screamed. “Father, please, I want to marry him.”
“That’s not your choice to make,” Josiah replied bitterly.
“You can’t,” Sophya gasped in disbelief. “Father—do you love me at all?”
Josiah stared at her with blank eyes and exhaled forcefully. “I have loved you more than any of them—but I will not be made into a pauper.”
Percy’s smile twisted with contempt. “A father who would sacrifice his daughter’s happiness for personal gain—that is not love.”
“Well,” Josiah replied with a shrug. “I guess I should be grateful that the law trumps love in matters such as this. Now come here, Sophya, or I’ll have Asher thrown in jail, and both of your reputations will be ruined.”
“Father!” Sophya shook her pale face in numb disbelief as her grip tightened around Asher’s arm. “No.”
Asher’s face flickered with relief and joy even as her father’s expression twisted in anger.
“What?” Josiah snapped.
“I will not go back with you, Father,” Sophya replied firmly. “I would rather die!”
“You ungrateful—” Josiah lurched towards her, and Asher caught him quickly. The two grappled and swung wildly at each other with uncoordinated fists and footwork as they kicked up mud and damp grass.
Sophya stumbled out of harm’s way as Josiah toppled down into the mud. Asher quickly set upon him and Percy’s ears pricked with the satisfying sound of bones crushing into flesh.
“No, stop!” Sophya screamed as Asher’s fists slammed into Josiah’s face again and again without restraint.
Captain Flint and his mercenaries appeared through the smog then moved in quickly to break up the fight. Four restrained Asher and pulled the struggling young lord aside, while the Captain and another two pried Josiah out of the mud and assisted him back to his feet.
“You feral pup. You almost killed me!” Josiah shrieked, then spit out blood and gingerly touched his split brow and misshapen nose.
“Let’s just all calm down now, shall we?” Flint instructed as he moved over beside Percy. “My lord, I almost didn’t find you in all this smoke.”
‘Would that you had stayed lost a little bit longer.’
“Well, now that you have,” Percy replied, “You can begin by escorting the survivors—” He broke off as Josiah rushed towards Asher and punched the young baron’s unguarded face. Asher shook off the mercenaries’ grip and retaliated with a fist of his own. “Captain,” Percy growled as Flint moved to interfere. “Let them fight.”
Flint blinked but nodded as he waved his men back. The mercenaries, nuns, and Sophya retreated as the two nobles set upon each other like frenzied dogs.
Percy smiled beneath his handkerchief as he waited for his moment. The coiled anger in his gut tempered by the many eyes focused on the two buffoons tearing into each other. The signet ring on his finger sparked and flared with malice.
Finally, Asher’s fist connected with Josiah’s jawline, and the belligerent noble reeled sideways and plunged towards the granary wall.
“Fustibus saxisque,” Percy whispered under his breath.
The wind hissed viciously around Josiah’s front leg just as he planted his weight against it. The unseen magic ripped out the drunken man’s knee joint then twisted bone and ligaments as his foot spun 180 degrees behind him. Josiah’s eyes widened beneath the sudden onslaught of pain even as he fell wordlessly upon the pitchfork that glinted harmlessly against the sacks of grain.
Stunned silence fell over the onlookers. Lord Josiah let out a feeble whimper as he pawed weakly against the metal prongs that punctured through his chest. The sacks below darkened as he bled out.
Sophya choked on a strangled scream and collapsed into the arms of the nuns while Asher staggered forward and then fell to his knees.
“Is he dead?” a nun whispered numbly.
“Obviously,” replied Captain Flint with a side glance at the Earl.
Percy walked past Asher and leaned over the skewered noble’s body just as the last rattle of life shuddered through Josiah’s blood-splattered lips. The prongs of the pitchfork had pierced the man’s heart and lungs, but it was the petrified expression drawn upon the dead noble’s face that offered the Earl a long-awaited sense of satisfaction.
Percy made a show of checking for a pulse and then, with a grim expression, turned to the crowd and shook his head. As Asher buried his head in his hands, Percy’s gaze trailed towards Sophya cradled in the sisters’ arms.
‘That leaves just one.’