The river pawed at him, its great, greedy fists pummelling, pulling him away from the shore. When he finished sawing at the straps with his dagger both armour and blade were swept away into the churning water. It felt as though he was being spat upwards as his frantic clawing was finally repaid. He hauled himself onto the bank and lay there, suddenly shivering and shaking, aware just how cold he actually was as the brisk wind buffeted his quivering body.
"Charles?" The voice exploded trees filled with birds in his head.
"Steady, sirrah!" Charles said, spitting the last of the water from his mouth in the process. "My men are close behind me and, on my word, will treat harshly with you."
"Hah!" the voice replied. "I have a veteran company ready to fall upon you at my single word."
Charles recognised the voice now. "What single word? Charlatan? Liar? Thief?"
There was a sigh. "So it is you, Charles. Do come a little closer. I can barely see you from here."
"What sort of fool do you take me for, Henry?" Charles asked. "Do you really-"
"It's is drier here, and sheltered, somewhat, from the wind," Henry said. "Don't be a ninny."
Charles, aided in no small part by his bull-headed nature, stood and after teetering on his feet a while, took step after shaky step towards the voice. He moved, slowly and deliberately, from the riverbank to a small copse of trees not far from the water. The owner of the voice lay here with his back against the trunk of a tree and his hand pressed to his side, ineffectually staying the flow of blood that soaked his shirt.
Charles slumped to the ground, opposite. "Is it bad?" he asked.
Henry raised his hand to show the bloody palm, but winced and quickly pressed it back again. "Bad enough."
Charles snorted. "But for your trickery, I might have laid a heavier blow myself and decided the matter for sure."
"But for your stupidity," Henry replied, "you might not have charged your cavalry across a bog."
"It was green grass, as far as anyone could tell," Charles said.
"Aye, and a bog it became, after the previous week's rain and your horses churning it to mud at a gallop."
Charles snorted again. Then, after a while, he asked. "So... you won the day then?"
Henry raised his bloody palm anew and laughed. "Hard to say. The day is not yet done, but I may be."
"Pah, it'll take more than that paltry nick to finish you, Henry."
"While I value your opinion, I... well, anyway... there was another matter."
"Speak your mind," Charles said. "I welcome the distraction after this debacle."
"Quite," Henry replied. "I just wondered whether I should have sent young Catherine some token last week."
"It was her birthday." Charles shrugged. "Despite our disagreement, she is still your niece. Oh, she is with child."
"That young dolt finally figured out what he was doing then?" They both laughed.
"You're quite the favourite uncle, you know," Charles said. "She became ever so cross when I told her I intended to have your head."
"Sweet child," Henry said. "And such a doting daughter for thinking you capable of achieving the deed."
"I could yet..." Charles slapped at his empty scabbard. "If I only..."
"Why not come over here and finish me off with your bare hands?" Henry asked. "As father would have."
Charles barked a laugh. "With his bare hands? Why the merest glance would have shrivelled you to ash, the way he told it. Anyway, it would be undignified. Suppose we were to be found out, rolling around here, attempting to slap and pinch the life from each other? It wouldn't do."
Henry nodded his agreement. "You know, of course, who will benefit most from this? Your man, Le Croix. I expect he is already back at your castle, digging your grave."
"As if Penningham will let this opportunity go to waste," Charles said. "You may hope to leak away completely from that pinprick, for you can be sure he will squeeze some advantage from whatever else is left."
"He is an ambitious man," Henry agreed.
"As is Le Croix," Charles acknowledged.
The wind howled over the river. The sounds of battle were distant now, and growing quieter as the sky darkened.
"I shall be going now," Charles said. He stood and stretched, shook the blood back into his limbs and turned away.
He had walked just a few yards when he heard: "Stop, Charles. Lend your brother some assistance."
Charles sighed. He retraced his steps, then went over to his brother and helped him to his feet, choosing not to comment on the pained grunts he heard as he hauled the other upright.
"You know, brother," Henry said, "much of the trouble between us would be settled if you were to wrest Penningham's estates away."
"I expect so," Charles said. "And I fancy you might help me with that, in exchange for some land on my western borders."
"I expect so," Henry echoed.
With their arms about each other they made slow progress away from the river.
"Doesn't Le Croix have his lands on your western border?" Henry asked.
"Do shut up, brother."