THE DEVIL OF NETTLEWOOD

The year 1138. England, during the tumultuous reign of King Stephen.

Lord Spur reined in his galloping steed, raised the oliphant horn to his lips, and blew three short blasts. The thrice trumpeting would advise his hunting party to make haste lest the wild boar they tracked escape further into the reserve, an altogether forbidding place of gnarled oak and thorny briars, a cold and unwelcoming region that by all reckonings resembled its cruel overlord.

Spur smiled tightly. Cruel overlord... that would be him.

When behind his broad back, his populace said the uncivilized territory bore a striking similarity to their callous liege, how he equaled if not surpassed the land's harsh and uncompromising nature, and so on and so forth, Spur could only nod his head in enthusiastic approval. The day he overheard himself referred to as the Devil of Nettlewood -- the calumny committed behind a raised hand, naturally -- he actually applauded the gossip's astuteness.

He was not above such flattery, especially as this particular endearment had rather a nice sting to it. And a good thing he thought so too for the pet name had stuck. Now he fostered the innuendos, the insinuations... the outright lies... that circulated about him. Verily, he courted the falsehoods as he would a strumpet, his aim to pry her thighs apart until the rosebud showed.

He did so delight in rosebuds.

If tales of his kicking sweet puppy dogs and gobbling up cooing newborns and raping pious novices as they prayed in their cloistered nunneries saved his arse and the collective posteriors of the people he served, who was he to disagree? So what if he were not nearly as diabolical as he would have others believe. The truth was, no saint in the making was he, no wayward angel looking to find a way back to heaven, no penitent sinner seeking forgiveness on his knees. Any kneeing to be done in his realm fell to his toadies.

And to women, naturally. He had never been one to look a carnal overture in the mouth and refuse it. Christ's prick, but he did have his manly urges. Dark urges no paramour had ever fully appeased.

Rather than try to change his debauched ways, he wallowed in his excesses. Celebrated his wickedness. Encouraged his people to think the worst of him...

Oh, how he suffered their derision. Maintaining his serfdom's lowly estimation of him was damnably hard work.

Ah, well. Every man had his cross to bear. His was living down to his lowly reputation, one pair of teats at a time.

Hopefully more. He was not opposed to losing himself in a crowd.

Spur resettled himself on the saddle. Let those vassals who owed him their allegiance call him unyielding. Let those subjects he governed name him as inhospitable as the holdings he oversaw. Let those lovers he had once fucked, then scorned, vilify him. So long as, pray God, the tittle-tattle kept enemies away from his fortress gates, he would continue to substantiate the vilest of rumors about himself with suitable misbehavior.

Why would he not?

In the heat of battle, only a witless fool tampered with a winning military strategy.

And this was no ordinary skirmish. Keeping himself and his people alive under the reign of King Stephen amounted to outright war.

Golden sunlight strained through a sieve of heavy green foliage. Beneath a canopy of twisted vines, Spur returned the ivory tusk to his destrier's saddle, swapping his horn for his spear. Narrowing his gaze on the rough terrain, he scanned the area for the wild boar's presence.

No easy feat given the overgrowth of brambles. In this thicket, the bristled beast might attack any moment, felling him sight unseen.

Ha! Spur snickered. As if he would allow such a calamity to befall him. He intended to live well and long, despite the fondest wishes of his people. Silly idiots. Sniveling sheep, the lot of them. Without a son to succeed him, his demise would toll their death knell. But his subjects were too doltish to see it.

Done with waiting for his hunting party to arrive, Spur jumped to the ground, his spear in hand. Up ahead, his alaunt -- the most powerful and muscular of all his hunting dogs -- sniffed the ground.

The hound had picked up the boar's scent. Cornered in a rocky canyon, his quarry would have but one way out.

Through him.

'Twas mating season, when the dominant male of the breed was at its most ferocious, and a boar on the prowl was not to be underestimated. In the pursuit of romance, a love-stricken pig could take down a horse, its rider, and then finish the bloody kill with a dog or two. Naught stood in the way of a rutting animal.

And Spur would know all about that, having as he did a rutting animal for an older brother.

Talon considered himself the finest wencher in the land.

Spur would beg to differ. Though he was a single-minded devotee of bed sport, Talon was no more than mediocre.

The ladies at court disagreed. To a one, they thought the sun rose and set in Talon. Then again, those same ladies would say Talon's cock rose and set in them. They would be mistaken. No female had ever been Talon's favorite.

Spur could only guess his brother's charm accounted for his popularity with females, that and his perfect sense of timing no matter what the occasion. On the furs, for example, Talon would shout his satisfaction in unerring unison with his partner's screech of bliss. Here, in keeping with this same opportunistic habit, his brother had finally arrived. Coming not a trice too soon nor a moment too late, he sidled to a stand beside Spur. Shoulder to shoulder, they eyed their peevish quarry.

"A tremendously ugly creature you have there," Talon said by way of greeting. "At least fifteen stone, with upper tusks as long and hard as our cocks."

Spur sent his brother a fraternal jeer. "Speak for yourself. In comparison to the boar, my length measures more by half again, 'tis not nearly as curved and, when properly motivated, is twice as firm."

Talon scoffed. "Braggart. Prone to gross exaggeration on top of it."

"Which I always am -- with the wenches."

"Whose numbers are legion, you will no doubt boast next," Talon countered. "At least, an amount greater than I might claim."

So Spur would have his brother believe. In truth, the shoe was most likely on the other foot there. Spur had only ever coupled whilst in the company of his brother. One woman... or more... shared between them.

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