THYME

Prologue

Spring, the year 1078

Bertran de Rely slid onto his haunches. "Damnation! Will those interminable squawks never cease?"

"Do as I do, my lord, and pay the birds no heed."

Bertran shook his head at his swordsman. Would that he could disregard the raucous pests as easily as Girout! Even now, completely oblivious to the birds' carping, his vassal thrust between the ruby lips of the strumpet they shared. Alas, keeping his attention on the matter at hand proved impossible for Bertran. Try as he might, his mind strayed from the task before him.

And rutting had become that -- a task, no more meaningful than any other duty he performed.

Such was not always the case. Between sieges of warfare in France, his man-at-arms and he had often gone a-wenching together. Ménage a trois had been enjoyable then.

No more. Not since the Battle of Hastings here in England. Now he avoided coupling altogether.

A fact duly noted by the vassals under Bertan's command. The troop had begun to speculate about their leader's sudden abstinence, none of the tales complimentary.

To put the rumors to rest, Bertran had arranged for a threesome tonight in the military barracks, within earshot of his troops. But he could not grow aroused. Despite everything the whore tried, his cock remained lamentably limp.

"I request your pardon," he apologized to the Saxon female who reclined naked on her back in the middle of the barrack's cot. "The quorks and wing thrashings of the resident ravens disturb my concentration." The birds were harbingers of death, and he'd had a bellyful of that at Hastings.

To muffle the discordant noise, Bertran blocked his ears with his palms. Too late. The trembling had already commenced. Sweat sluiced down his body in clammy streams. Fear knotted his belly and his heart shuddered, a beat missing here and there, as he gasped for air.

Bloody ravens! The birds triggered these mindless episodes of terror.

In an attempt to hide his odd malady from the whore and his swordsman, Bertan jumped from the bed. "Continue without me whilst I persuade the ravens to seek shelter elsewhere."

Fully garbed, his weaponry sheathed but within easy reach at his side, he left for the northeastern turret where the pair of noisy ravens nested.

And there 'twas, the loathsome bird lair, built of sticks and twigs, and lined inside with grass. Within, a clutch of seven eggs waited to hatch.

Not here, by Christ!

Second thoughts besieged him. Rather than fling the brood over the side, which had been his intent, mayhap he could relocate the expectant family outside the Tower’s gates, somewhere beyond his sight and hearing. To a tall oak tree perchance or a mighty timber beam left standing at the old motte and bailey.

As he lifted the nest, a raspy voice croaked, "Dare not harm my pets!"

Before Bertran could pull his blade, a craggy-faced wysard appeared. The Saxon Wise One held his hands skyward. "He who tampers with my ravens pays the ultimate price."

As a Christian, Bertran believed in neither sorcerers nor any other practitioners of magic, but when a lightning bolt lit up the dark sky, he quickly revised his opinion.

He faced the old man down. "You unjustly accuse me. I meant no harm to the birds. I thought only to convince them to leave by moving their nest. Their noisy presence plays havoc with my -- "

"Rutting," the wysard supplied.

"Aye, there is that," Bertran admitted. There was more to it, though. So much more. But a warlord never explains himself to underlings.

The Wise One lowered his arms. "As ignorance motivated your behavior, not malevolence, you will learn of ravens' habits by living as they do. So long as you and my pets remain within the Tower's stone walls, your new Norman England will prosper. If either my ravens or you leave these walls for even a wink, this land and its present and future kings will perish."

"William had naught do with any of this. Be there a transgression committed, I alone should pay the penalty."

"And so you will. But take heart. Your punishment is not without compensation. Whenever you feel the need, you may go a-roaming."

"You speak in contradictions, Wise One. Your curse denies me the ability to travel."

"Each spring, during the raven’s mating season, you may go to whatever time period you will -- so long as you remain within the confines of these tower's walls. But should you not return to this year before summer begins, you must stay put for the following twelvemonth."

"Travel in time but not location? What you describe is…is…the handiwork of the devil. Blasphemy. At the very least, 'tis impossible."

The wysard banged his staff on the stone walkway. "So have I spoken, and so 'twill be."

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