For Love Of Rory
For Love of Rory Barbara Leigh
To my husband, Richard
They came from the sea. A small band of wild Celts. Rough men, clad in fur and armor, with leggings made of hide and tied with wide thongs of leather. Up the rocky cliffs they climbed, merging with the falling shadows in their relentless advance toward the little village nestled against the English countryside.
They carried iron weapons along with the thick rope slung over their shoulders. And their faces held the determination of desperate men who must succeed in their quest, or face annihilation.
So stealthy was their approach that they went unnoticed until they were ready to fall upon the old men and frightened women who might challenge them. They would strike with the coming of night. Strike and be gone, taking with them the only treasure the village had to offer.
They moved like the shadows of twilight. Creeping along the edge of darkness that covered the land, intent on taking from it the most tender, most valuable crop.
So still were they that even the village dogs did not sense their presence until time had run out and the animals could do nothing but whine and die.
The last songbird joined with the denizens of darkness in a duet of evensong. A mother settled herself beside the hearth and put her child to her breast, vaguely aware that the creatures of the night had suddenly fallen silent in the prelude to darkness.
Her musings were interrupted as the dog bristled. Before the animal could move, the door burst open. One man tore the child from her arms as another covered her mouth to stifle her screams. But the babe raised an angry protest at being separated from his meal.
“Bring the woman,” a voice said. “We need no mewling babe dying from hunger before we reach our destination.” The mother fought to free herself. With one deft movement a man slung her over his shoulder and carried her through the village while the leader and his men surged toward the doors of the keep. The Celts ferreted out the children and herded them, serf and lord alike, into the kitchens where the rest of the household were eating their evening meal.
Bowls of meat and gruel spilled across the rough-hewn boards and clattered onto the floor as adults added their shouts of outrage to those of their young.
The sounds reached into the solar where the Lady Serine worked on her accounts. With her lord husband on crusade there was much for her to do to keep the estate intact for her little son, Hendrick. The work taxed her in both mind and body but she paid her discomfort little heed, for her whole being was centered on the welfare of her child and the security of her husband’s estate.
Thinking the servants had become somewhat bawdy, Serine rose wearily from the table where she worked. Her footsteps picked up speed as she recognized the sounds of true distress in the voices below. Distress, and the deep rumbling of men’s voices. A rumbling that had not been heard at Sheffield since her husband had stripped the estate of men and followed the king to the Holy Land. Had the men returned without warning? Or had her household been overtaken by uninvited guests? One glance at the scene below gave her the answer.
So intent were the invaders that they did not see the young woman slip from the solar and hurry down the worn stairs. She moved like the wind, her whole being focused on the raven-haired man as he snatched up her son. The Celt’s hair had broken loose from its bonds and fell to his shoulders, framing his bearded face. His eyes blazed like coals of hell, so full of fierce determination they could strike terror into the heart of the most courageous beholder.
Swallowing her fear, Serine seized a lance from the rack at the foot of the stairs and moved toward the Celt.
“Rory! ‘Ware!” a deep voice shouted as Serine delivered a blow that glanced off the leader’s broad shoulders. But even the strength of her desperation did not faze the man. With his free hand he grasped her weapon and twisted it from her hands. Their eyes locked and held as challenge met defiance. Serine’s eyes shifted to her child, and the Celt’s resolve hardened as he delivered a swiping blow that sent her pitching backward until she fell, limp, against the stairs.
At the sight of his mother’s apparent demise, the boy redoubled his efforts to escape, fighting with prowess that belied his age and size. The man gave him a little shake.
“She is not dead,” he grunted as the boy’s foot connected with his stomach. “Most like, she hurts less than I. Now stop your caterwauling.”
But Hendrick did not stop, and the chieftain wrapped the lad in his cloak and carried him from the keep, a smile of grim satisfaction on his face.
This boy had spirit. He was a lad of whom a man could be proud. The sort of child they risked all to acquire, and to Rory and his comrades the boy was worth more than gold. He was their only hope of survival. A last chance for immortality.
Serine staggered to her feet, determination mixed with hatred in her dark eyes.
The women took up torches, clubs and knives and followed the Celts. The invaders seemed immune to their blows as they ran from the village with the children tucked beneath their arms like sacks of grain. In the confusion, several women were able to pluck their young from the invaders’ arms.
“To the woods! To the woods!” Serine shouted above the melee. “Take your children to the woods.”
Even the most courageous women could not hide their fear at the thought of entering the woods after nightfall, for the woods were filled with spirits that walked in darkness. They looked to one another for courage as the frightened children dug in their heels, torn between the terror of the unknown dangers of the forest and the men who threatened to steal them away.
In the end, the women made for the woods, but the moment of hesitation had cost them, and even the most fleet of foot were no match for the marauding men.
The women screamed for their children and shouted curses at the men who had taken them. Serine’s voice rang out above the rest. “Steal back your children before it’s too late,” she urged as she rushed through the throng of fierce men and desperate women.
“Find the screaming harpy and silence her,” the raven-haired leader ordered. But even as he spoke, the cooking fire in one of the huts spilled across the rushes, and the embers burst into flames that lit the darkness.
The shadows evaporated, and with them the men, who disappeared into the night. In the silence that ensued, the only sound was the cry of a bird calling mournfully, “Too late...too late...too late....”
* * *
The thatched huts were but wet embers and the Celts were gone with most of the village children as the exhausted villagers congregated outside the keep, where they dropped to the ground like fallen sparrows. Young women sobbed openly while old men wept silent tears. As Lady of Sheffield it was Serine’s duty to see to the health and welfare of her serfs. It was well within her ability to treat their wounds and illnesses, but there was nothing she could do to heal their aching hearts—hearts that could not be eased until that which had been lost was recovered.
“I will not allow those heathen savages to get away with this,” Serine told Dame Margot. “They’ll not steal my son without feeling my wrath.”
Dame Margot, Dowager Lady of Sheffield, and Serine’s stepmother, wrung her hands in despair. “We are but a few weak women. If only the men were here instead of off on Crusade.”
“But the men aren’t here.” Serine’s chin set in determination.
“Then there is nothing we can do. We cannot hope to overcome men who are trained to fight, even if there are no more than a score of them. They overpowered us so easily it looked like child’s play.” Margot shifted nervously. The Lady of Sheffield was far younger than her husband, and quite set in her ways. Dame Margot knew how it felt to be the young bride of an older lord, and indulged Serine in many ways, but she could not stand by and allow the mistress of Sheffield to endanger her life and the lives of her serfs in a hopeless cause. As dowager she must do her best to make Serine see the futility of her proposal.
Sensing that Dame Margot was making ready to try to stop her, Serine went to the top step and stood silhouetted before the door. Her russet hair caught in the wind in wild disarray and her dark eyes flashed as she called out for the attention of her serfs.
“Good people, hear me!”
Weary heads lifted and tears dried as a spark of hope crept through the crowd.
“Our children have been stolen. If we want them back we must go after them.”
Hope was replaced by disbelief. Surely the young mistress had gone daft with grief.
“We cannot fight those pagans, m’lady,” a voice cried out. “They’ll kill us dare we challenge them again.”
“I do not intend to fight,” Serine told them, “but I intend to steal our children back and bring them home.”
“But how can you hope to do that, Lady?” the alewife asked. “We have neither the strength nor the weapons.”
“We do not need strength. We have skill and stealth. And what we have lost is far more precious to us than to them,” Serine returned in a voice that held firm despite the quivering in her stomach. “We will steal back our children one by one if need be.”
“Lady.” Hildegard, the alewife, lumbered to her feet. “We were lucky in this raid. There was no killing or looting. Nor did they rape or pillage. If we follow them and put ourselves in their paths we will suffer all that we have been spared.” She scrubbed a tear from her face and continued, “I want my childer back as much as anyone here, but I know when I am beaten, and I be no match for an army of thieving Celts.”
Serine looked out over the women’s faces. They were resigned, without hope or purpose. Their children had been stolen away while their men were off fighting a holy war. It was up to Serine to make them believe in themselves again. She must find a way to make them willing to go after their children. Their children, and Hendrick, her son.
For without Hendrick all was lost and the sacrifice of her youth to the whims of an old but powerful husband would come to naught. If there was no heir to the estate it would revert to the Crown, and Serine had sworn a blood vow that it should not be so. This was her land. The land for which her ancestors had fought and died. And although, as a woman, Serine could not inherit in her own right, she had given all to secure it for her son.
Drawing her courage about her like a shield of valor, she tried once more to call the villagers to her cause. “‘Twas no army, but a thieving band of Celts,” Serine shouted. “I doubt there were more than twenty men for all their shouting and bluster.”
In truth she thought it to be nearer twice that number, but few of the women were able to count.
“And we have weapons,” Serine assured them. “Nearly every woman here can shoot an arrow or set a trap.”
“Oh, no! My lady,” Hildegard protested, “we know nothing of such things.” It boded no good that their lady suspected they were capable of catching and killing the wildlife that lived in the forest. A serf’s life was forfeit if caught poaching on the master’s land.
Serine put her hands on her hips. Her dark eyes narrowed and she scrutinized each face. She knew the doubt and fear that plagued the minds of her people and realized she must end those fears if her plan was to succeed.
“I have seen you hit your mark with an arrow, or return with game from your traps. I have seen you. Many times. The keep has windows and I am not blind. But my land is rich and fertile. Wildlife abounds, enough for all to share. Now I ask you to bring the skills you have been using to stock your larders and use your knowledge to bring about the return of our children.”
The women stared, openmouthed with surprise. What sort of lady was this who knew they took the master’s meat and did nothing? They looked at one another in astonishment.
“Who is with me?” Serine held out her arms, calling for support. “Who is with me? Or do I go alone?”
No one moved. They stood like statues, hardly daring to breathe. Then there was a shuffling in the crowd.
An old woman emerged, an English longbow over her shoulder, a quiver of arrows on her back and a patch over one eye. “I stand with you, m’lady. I can shoot as well as any man, and will follow wherever you go. As long as you don’t go too fast.”
“But how can you hope to hit your mark?” Serine asked. “You have but one eye.”
“Had two when I was born,” the old woman told her. “But I lost the one to an errant arrow. Decided then and there I would never be satisfied until I learned to conquer the thing that had maimed me. You’ll find me as good a shot as any man. Only one eye is needed to send an arrow to its mark.”
Serine gave a sigh of relief. She saw the old woman’s determination and knew her admission to her prowess with the bow gave Serine the solution she needed.
“Thank you, Old Ethyl.” Serine held out her hand and the one-eyed woman came to stand beside her. “And who else?”
The fact that Old Ethyl openly carried her bow and just as openly declared that she knew how to use it gave courage to the others. Several women stepped forward, including Hildegard, the alewife, who drew a strong leather cord from her pocket.
“I cannot shoot an arrow, and that’s no lie. But I can set a trap big enough to catch a small animal or a man’s foot, and once my quarry is down I’ll sit on him until help arrives.”
Everyone laughed, for the alewife’s girth was legendary.
“Go and get what you need,” Serine ordered. “Bring bread and meat and a plaid to keep you warm. We know not how long we will be gone. Those who cannot keep up will stay behind. Now, be off with you. We must make all haste. We must steal back our children.”
The women nodded and hurried off as Ursa, Hendrick’s nurse, entered the hall.
Serine saw the misery in the woman’s eyes and held out her arms.
Ursa ran to her. Tears streamed down her face. “They took my whole brood,” she said, “and your Hendrick, as well. I could not stop them, but I know where they camp.”
“Then they are still on English soil?” Serine exulted.
“I followed them to the place where the boats wait. Apparently ours is not the only village they raided. It looked as though they were expecting more children to be brought in before they sail.” Ursa held Serine at arm’s length. They had been friends since before Serine had married. To Serine, Ursa dared speak her mind. “You must go to Lord Baneford, your overlord, and ask his help. He is pledged to defend you while your husband is away.”
“There is no time,” Serine said. “The invaders will be gone before help could arrive.”
“But surely the Celts won’t sail off into the night,” Ursa protested, crossing herself against the dangers of darkness.
Old Ethyl shifted the bow on her shoulders and spoke with authority. “Dark or light, they will sail with the first tide after they have achieved their purpose. When they go, your childer will go with them.”
“How do you know this?” Ursa asked. “Even the elders cannot recall a raid other than through the dim memory of childhood.”
“My late husband took me from the Celts and brought me here as his bride,” she said quietly. “I know how they think. They strike and take what they want, then disappear into the mist. They have done it before and will again.”
“Then you must have some idea from whence they came and where they will go,” Dame Margot said hopefully.
“Celts are a marauding breed,” Old Ethyl told them. “They have planted their seed from Cornwall to Scotland and from France to Ireland. Most have seen the advantage of blending into the land in which they chose to live, but some, like those that invaded us today, care little for convention or civilization. Our lady is right. The only hope we have is to follow them and try to ascertain their origins.”
Serine cast a sharp glance at her. Old Ethyl’s association with the Celts would explain many of the woman’s idiosyncrasies, but before Serine could question her they were interrupted by the clanking of weapons, clumsily carried, as the women came again to the hall, dragging their ordnance behind them.
“Take nothing that you cannot lift or use,” Old Ethyl told them. “You must be able to carry your own weapon and move rapidly and silently at the same time.”
The women nodded and placed much of their assorted equipment on the ground as they made ready to leave.
* * *
The women crept through the darkness and came to rest on a rocky cliff. Below them a row of small boats sat waiting at the edge of the sea. Some little distance away the children huddled together, guarded by the fierce men.
“There they are.” Ursa pointed. “Thank the Lord they haven’t yet gone.” She pressed her hands to her heart. “There is my little Dickon.” She turned with a suddenness that made Serine fall back. “What is the plan?”
“The what?” Serine strained her eyes as she searched the pensive little faces for that of her own Hendrick and paid no mind to Ursa’s words. Surely if Dickon was there, Hendrick must be close by.
“The plan! The plan to save the children! You promised we would save the children. You must have a plan.” There was an edge of panic in Ursa’s voice, for the Celts were more numerous than the fingers on both hands and they were but a few desperate women.
Serine swallowed hard. “Of course,” she managed to say. “The plan.” She glanced around and was heartened by Old Ethyl’s steady gaze. “Old Ethyl, will you walk with me? The rest of you stay here.”
“If there is any danger I’ll whistle like a bird,” one of the young women volunteered.
“If there is any danger, I’ll shoot him with my arrow,” Old Ethyl said in a flat tone that defied dispute. “What do you propose?” she asked Serine as soon as they were out of earshot.
“I have no plan,” Serine confessed. “But I knew the women would refuse to come with me if I told them I had no idea what I would do, and I cannot save the children alone.”
“I thought as much,” Ethyl said without reproach. “Perhaps inspiration will come when we get nearer.”
They watched as the guards milled around. The good English ale and the food they had stolen made them negligent as the small boats moved slowly, carrying provisions across the water toward the ship moored farther out.
“They came by water,” Old Ethyl observed. “Worse luck! If they leave our shores we’re like to never see them again.”
Serine clutched the older woman’s wrist.
“If there was a fire on the ship they would rush to put it out and we would be able to steal back our children,” she whispered.
“Alas,” Old Ethyl commiserated, “the ship floats on deep water.” She narrowed her eye, carefully gauging the distance. “Perhaps I could get close enough to send a fire arrow to pierce the side.”
“To hit the ship you would need to stand on the shore. It would mean your life if you were caught,” Serine reminded her. Then, without giving the other woman time to reply, she continued. “Watch how often the little boats run back and forth. If I were to take one of them it is unlikely anyone would notice. I could secure the small boat to the ship and set them both on fire. Once they begin to burn, you and the women can loose your fire arrows, each from a different place so the Celts will think we are many. In the confusion take the children and escape.”
“But how will you get back to shore if you burn your boat?” Old Ethyl’s eyes shone with admiration mingled with concern for the determined young woman she had learned to admire.
“I can swim...some,” Serine told her. “It does not look so far.” She was not a strong swimmer, having done little more than paddle around a lake near her childhood home. “I can think of no other way.”
Old Ethyl hitched up her skirt and shifted the bow on her shoulders. Her eye narrowed as she evaluated the situation. “Have you flint and steel in your bag?” She pointed to the bag Serine carried looped over her shoulder.
“Aye,” Serine assured her. “And rags soaked in fat I thought to use in case we needed to light a fire to warm the children after we stole them back.”
“Good,” Old Ethyl observed. “The other women can launch the arrows. I’ll go with you. I can swim well. Between us the deed shall be done.”
Serine gave Old Ethyl a little hug. Tears filled her eyes as she realized how inadequate their weapons were against the might of the Celts. “Should I not return I charge you and Dame Margot with the care of my son.”
“You have my word,” Old Ethyl promised, knowing that it was possible neither of them would live to see another dawn.
Serine went back and conveyed the plan to the other women. Ursa and several of the youngest, swiftest women took their places behind the rocks above the camp, as Serine and Old Ethyl then made their way to the water’s edge.
* * *
Rory moved among the children, offering dried meat and fire bread as well as drink. “This will soon be over,” he told them in a soothing voice. “You will come to a land that is rich in beauty. You will learn skills denied you here. You will be loved and cherished. You will grow to be free men.”
“You lie, Celt,” a boy’s voice cried out. “We will be your slaves.”
“I do not lie, I assure you,” the man said. He offered the boy a drinking horn filled with water, but the lad batted it away. Rory recognized him as the boy who had fought with such great spirit when taken.
“All Celts are stupid, lying dogs.” The boy spat out the words. “I am already free and you will pay for what you have done.”
“Do not judge us by what you have heard of the past.” The man picked up the drinking horn and motioned to a nearby mercenary. “This one must be taken aboard soon lest he inspires the others to rebellion.” And with that, Rory left the children and joined his brother.
“There were no men in the villages we raided,” Rory observed. “And I have learned from some of the more cooperative children that their fathers have gone on crusade with their king.”
“As we suspected,” Guthrie said. “No Celt would leave his family to fend for itself while he traipsed off after a cause that the gods themselves do not understand. A man belongs with his wife and offspring, not following the banners to a desert land where he is abhorred.”
Rory agreed. “I doubt not that if left to his own devices the boy who spoke out so bravely would grow to be like his sire, leaving his family while he fights for glory, knowing nothing but the rudiments of war.”
“Poor sad, ignorant people,” Guthrie said self-righteously. “It is well that we have decided to take those young ones to a better life.”
“Take special note of the lad who spoke to me.” Rory motioned toward the child. “The boy has courage. I want him. He will be my son.”
Guthrie put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “It shall be as you wish. In all the years since the plague struck down your wife and babe I have hoped you would find someone or something to care for. Perhaps our search for children will prove to be a blessing rather than a curse.”
* * *
Serine crouched behind a thick bush and swore under her breath. It was her son this enemy wanted for his own. It was her husband that he scorned and her home at which he scoffed. How she would love to see him burn right along with his ship. She’d show him whose way of life was inferior.
As the men walked away Old Ethyl joined her. Seeing that Old Ethyl had stripped down to her small clothes, Serine took off her dress and stuffed it beneath the bush.
“Wait!” Old Ethyl whispered as Serine started toward one of the little boats. The older woman darted forward, snatched up a horned helmet that had been left near the water’s edge and jammed it onto Serine’s head before they eased one of the small boats into the lapping water.
The helmet wobbled precariously as Serine huddled into a cloak she found on the bottom of the boat. Bolstered by Old Ethyl’s whispered soliloquy—a mixture of prayer and encouragement—Serine adjusted her borrowed helmet and began rowing.
With undaunted determination she maneuvered the boat to the rear of the ship, careful to keep well away from the path of the dragon that graced the front of the craft. Although she was a Christian, and a devout one, a part of her still feared the dragons of the sea and the men who sent them thundering through the waves. Old Ethyl made no bones about the depth of her superstition, and as the woman’s fears became more obvious Serine gave heartfelt thanks for her support.
Only when the tiny craft huddled beneath the hull of the larger one did Old Ethyl rise from her hiding place. Working together they managed to secure a water-soaked leather thong around the rudder and quickly smeared fat onto the side of the ship.
There was a flash of light in the rocks above the cove, quickly extinguished, but enough to let Serine know the women were ready to launch their fire arrows.
“It is time.” Serine swallowed the words, fear boiling up from the depths of her soul.
Sensing her fear, Old Ethyl grasped Serine’s arm. “I will be beside you,” she said. She felt some of the tension ease in Serine’s muscles. “Just as you will be beside me.” And with that last reminder Old Ethyl let go her hold, but the bond between them had been sealed. Succeed or fail, they would do so together.
Sending up a prayer, Serine struck flint to steel and caught the spark on an oil-soaked wick. When the little flame flared, she put it to the fat and watched it catch and burn.
Silently they slipped into the water and moved as quickly as possible to be well away when the bag, the cloak and the boat burst into flames that licked greedily at the larger vessel.
Serine swam as quickly as she could, but it was not fast enough. Time and again Old Ethyl outpaced her and was forced to return to the younger woman’s side. The flaming boat cast a glow over the water. It would be only a matter of time before she was seen and captured.
“It is your clothing that holds you back,” Ethyl said. “Remove it, or we are lost.”
It was an order, not a request. Seeing the wisdom of Ethyl’s words, Serine held her breath, dived beneath the water and shed the remainder of her clothing. Freed from the binding restriction, she surfaced at Ethyl’s side and they continued toward the shore.
Shouts of anger from the ship told them that their plan had succeeded. The men on the shore jumped into the little boats and sent them catapulting across the water, leaving the children virtually unguarded. Confusion resounded from shore to ship, and Serine managed to lift her head from the water long enough to see an empty space where the children had been held.
As the guards called for help from their comrades the women shot their fire arrows from the cliffs.
A short distance from shore Old Ethyl drew Serine to a halt. “Here I leave you and go to join the others,” she said. Then, unable to hold back her emotion, she continued. “You are a fine, brave woman.”
“As are you,” Serine replied breathlessly as the women went their separate ways.
Serine smiled despite her exhaustion as she pulled herself toward the bush where she had left her gown.
She found her legs unable to hold her weight, and crawled from the water. Her hand groped beneath the bush as she felt blindly for her clothing. It was impossible to see, and she almost cried out when, rather than the rough material of her gown, her hand fell on the sinewy warmth of human flesh.
A hand clutched her arm and drew her from her hiding place. She found herself face-to-face with a man. In the shadowy light she could make out the bearded face and the strong, virile body.
Was he truly a man, or had one of the Celt gods come to earth to mock her success in burning the ship and freeing the children? For truly he looked like a wild heathen god as he glared down at her, vengeance written in each line of his countenance. And her heart beat madly as her cheeks flamed in anger and embarrassment, for the expression in this man-god’s face was clear. And, heaven forgive her, for the briefest moment she wondered what it would be like to be loved by a pagan deity.
In the shadowy light Rory could see the naked body of a woman—slim and sleek, with thrusting breasts, a flat belly and long, shapely legs. Was this the Freya, of whom the wise man Drojan often spoke? A goddess come from the sea to taunt him for his failure to safeguard the children they had taken? Did she come to rebuke him for failing in his pledge that this would be a bloodless raid?
No, this woman was flesh and blood, with defiant eyes and a determined set to her chin. Yet the supple body formed to his so sweetly he could not help but wonder if her lips would do the same.
In truth, there was nothing to lose. His raid had failed and many of the children had escaped. The ship was crippled, and his men would be forced upon the mercy of the sea with only the dubious protection of the little boats.
What matter if he tasted the lips of this water nymph? Who was she to argue if he took the pleasures that her body so graciously offered?
It was possible that she had been a part of the plot that had so successfully sent his comrades into confusion. For that alone she deserved a Celt’s wrath and a Celt’s revenge.
Would those firmly set lips beg for mercy? Or would they part to welcome his kiss? What sort of woman would place her life at risk against not only the Celts but the gods of water and fire? There was but one answer...a woman with the soul of a Celt, and it was such a woman he held in his arms.
He gripped her tightly and pressed her sleek, firm body against his. Perhaps, should she please him, he would take her back with him to warm his bed. And warm it she would. If not with her love, then with her hatred. With such a woman, either emotion would prove entertaining during the long winter nights.
He bent toward her. She did not flinch or beg, and once more he felt grudging admiration. As their lips touched, sparks shot before his eyes and exploded into nothingness. Rory pitched forward, Old Ethyl’s arrow buried deep in his back.
“Serine! Are you hurt?” Margot asked as she rushed to Serine’s side.
“Only frightened,” Serine admitted, struggling to roll the Celt off her body.
Serine scrambled to her feet and looked down at the man. Blood trickled from his mouth and disappeared into his beard.
“My arrow is stuck in his lungs,” Old Ethyl cackled as she hurried over to survey her handiwork. “A death blow, I vow! No need to worry about that one again.”
“The children?” Serine asked, trying to forget the heat that had raced through her body as the man held her in his arms.
“The children are safe,” Margot assured her. “I saw them reach the hills and came back to find you.” She looked at the younger woman’s state of undress and added, “And well I did.”
Old Ethyl regarded Dame Margot with disdain. “We had everything under control,” she said bluntly.
Serine grabbed her woolen dress from beneath the bush and threw it over her body, ignoring the scratch of the coarse material against her skin. The rough woolen garment did nothing to warm her. Her whole being felt as cold as death. As cold as the man lying at the water’s edge.
“Come now, we must go,” Margot urged.
“But what of...him?” Serine motioned toward the inert body.
“Leave him,” Old Ethyl said, pulling her away. “Perhaps the Celts will return for him. I might stay and see if I could skewer a few more.”
“There’s no reason for you to put yourself in more danger,” Serine assured the woman. “‘Tis best we leave.” She willed herself not to look back.
“It was a good job we did of making them think they’d been attacked. Look there!” she cackled as the Celts struggled to set the sails on the little boats. “The whole lot of them on the run. They must make it back to their godforsaken land as best they can in their little skiffs while their ship sinks. And good riddance!” Old Ethyl added as the women made their way through the deserted camp and hurried after the children.
Only when they reached the rocks that would block the sea from view did Serine pause. Cursing herself for her weakness, she allowed herself one last look at the man, lying like a pagan god in the moonlight. It would not have surprised her to see the figure of a Valkyrie come to take him to Valhalla, or heaven, or perhaps hell. It occurred to her that it was the Viking warriors who were said to be taken to Valhalla when they were struck down in battle. God only knew where Celts went after death. Regardless of his beliefs, or lack of them, this man had held no weapon, and Serine could not help but wonder about the fate that awaited a warrior shot in the back while he dallied with a woman.
Not that she cared! Not that she cared in any way! Only, it was too bad the Celt would not receive his just reward.
But then, perhaps he already had.
* * *
Day was breaking when Serine reached the place where the children had been hidden. The sun crested the horizon and the women called out their welcome, hailing Serine and her companions as heroes.
Exhausted from the rigors of their escape and the trauma of abduction, the children slept in the hall of an ancient monastery hidden deep in the forest.
“And there’s no question in my mind,” the alewife boasted, “the men could have done no more, nor done it better.” She beamed at her lady and cast a loving glance at her sleeping son.
Serine studied each little face as she made her way through the area while Old Ethyl accepted the accolades of the village women.
“I vow I’d never seen anything like the way the Celts took to the water when they realized their precious ship was in danger,” one of the women observed. “Forgot all about the childer, they did. It was almost too easy to steal them back, so smug were those Celts. Never thought for a minute that the smoke was anything more than night fog until it was too late.”
“Only one Celt sensed they’d been tricked,” Hildegard chimed in. “And he started rowing toward land as though pursued by demons, but by the time he reached the shore we were well away.” She paused and glanced over her shoulder. “Think you the Celts will follow?”
“The Celts are well gone,” Old Ethyl volunteered with finality. “They’ll not return to our shores after the drubbing we gave them.”
The women laughed and crowed in euphoric relief, rightfully proud of a job well done. After the initial burst of enthusiasm they became silent. Even the women around Margot began whispering.
As well they should, Serine told herself. After all, there was no reason to wake the youngsters, who had already gone through so much. She nodded in satisfaction as she saw two of Ursa’s little girls curled up together. But her eyes were never still as she continued to search for the features of her own Hendrick.
Hendrick, the beloved child of a loveless, politically inspired marriage. Some sixteen years Serine’s senior, her husband, Elreath, had no living children when he was offered Serine, as well as her family estate of Sheffield, as a boon from the king in appreciation for the old knight’s faithful support in the Crusades.
Visualizing himself as the inveterate soldier, Elreath expressed his appreciation to his liege, married Serine and performed his conjugal duty with the same enthusiasm he would have shown if forced to curry his horse. He made no bones about the fact that he was beyond an age where he felt a young wife was anything other than a burden, but he was gratified by her appreciation of the treasures he had brought back with him from the Crusades, and pleased beyond measure when Serine told him she was with child.
Elreath had been on his way to the Holy Land when Hendrick was born, and did not see the child until some three years later when he returned.
The child thrived, but the father had aged and shriveled in the desert sun. For a time there was some question that he would be strong enough to join the next Crusade. There was no question as to whether Hendrick would be the only child conceived of the union, as Elreath felt he must conserve his strength and left Serine alone. At the end of Hendrick’s fifth year Elreath had recovered enough to pledge himself to one last Crusade. In a gracious gesture he stripped his estate of able-bodied men and set out once more to free the Holy Land from the infidel, leaving his estates and his son in the able hands of his wife.
Serine had been well versed in running the estate. With the help of the steward she had managed the lands, the flocks and the crops, but she was not prepared for the Celt invasion, and it angered her that they had been left alone and so ill prepared. It was only luck that she had found a way to recover the children. And perhaps her prayers to the Christian God were more powerful than those of the Celts to the deities they worshiped.
Once Hendrick was again in her arms she would take the time to thank her maker. Hendrick, with his tousled hair and laughing eyes. Hendrick, to whom she had given life, and who now made her life worth living. Hendrick, her son.
Lost in reverie, Serine found herself at the end of the hall and was about to start back through the maze of sleeping children when Dame Margot approached.
“I must speak to you,” Margot said without preamble.
“As soon as I find Hendrick I will be at your disposal,” Serine agreed absently.
Margot took Serine’s arm and guided her through the door into what must have been a small chapel. “Hendrick isn’t with the other children.”
Serine refused to meet Margot’s steady but sympathetic gaze. “Surely they haven’t taken him back to Sheffield already. Regardless of Old Ethyl’s boast, there still may be some danger.” She tried to look back into the hall over Margot’s shoulder. He must be there, somewhere. Any minute he would awaken and come running to her and the night’s work would not have been in vain.
“Serine, come and sit with me.” Margot led her to a wooden bench. “Ursa tells me that some of the children were taken aboard the larger vessel before we were able to steal them back.”
Serine nodded. “Yes, that could be true. I remember how the little boats went back and forth. Some of the children could have been taken.”
But not Hendrick, her heart cried out. Not Hendrick! She knew he had been on the shore shortly before she started rowing for the ship. She had heard his voice. Heard him challenge the Celts like the lordling he was.
She could feel Margot gripping her hands. She did not want to hear the woman’s next words, but they must be heard. Serine took a deep breath. “Go on,” she ordered.
“Hendrick is not here.”
“Perhaps he went back to look for me,” Serine suggested.
Margot shook her head. “The Celts have him.”
It was a statement of fact, and as such, beyond refutation. Serine turned her face toward the crumbling wall to hide the tears that sprang to her eyes.
“From all that the women have been able to glean from the children, Hendrick was taken to the ship shortly before the fire.” Margot continued without releasing her grip on the younger woman’s hands. “You have done a very courageous thing, Serine, and the people of your village will be forever grateful, but Hendrick is gone.”
Serine gave Margot’s fingers a little squeeze and pulled away. “Then I shall go after him,” she said. “How many others are missing?”
“Over a dozen children,” Margot admitted, “along with Gerta and her babe.”
“I will go after all of them,” Serine vowed. “I’ll go after them and bring them back.”
“I understand how desperately you want to find Hendrick and the rest of the children and bring them home, but you don’t know where the Celts have taken them. It could take you months, or even years to find them.” Margot tried desperately to dissuade Serine from undertaking an impossible task. “Old Ethyl believes they came from Ireland, but there are Celts in Brittany, Wales, Scotland and even France. Most have become quite civilized, but these men must be renegades. You could search the rest of your life and never find their village.”
“Perhaps some of the children overheard the Celts say something that would tell us where they came from,” Serine suggested. “You can question them when they awaken. I’ll take Old Ethyl and go back to the area where the Celts landed and see if they left anything that would tell me from whence they came.”
“Serine! You know as well as I that they left nothing behind,” Margot pleaded, knowing in her heart that this brave young woman was headed for heartbreak and disappointment.
“Not so, Dame Margot.” Serine drew herself to her full height, her eyes hard with determination. “There is one thing they left behind that could give us a great deal of information, and that is the wounded Celt.”
“But the man was sore wounded,” Margot gasped. “Like as not he is already dead.”
“If he is still on English soil and there is breath in his body, I will keep him alive until he can tell me where they’ve taken Hendrick,” Serine vowed, and without waiting to hear more of Margot’s objections she hurried off to find Old Ethyl, knowing all too well that the chances of success were slim.
But even a slim chance was better than no chance at all.
* * *
“M’lady! Slow down a bit,” Old Ethyl panted. “I can’t keep up.”
Serine glanced back over her shoulder, gauging the lengthening distance between herself and the other woman. “Don’t fret yourself, Ethyl,” she said. “Just keep me in sight and there’ll be no problem.”
“There be a problem already,” Old Ethyl called after her. “No lady in her right mind would go looking for a needle in the hay. You’ll find yourself sorry, you will. Mark my words, there’s naught but grief left on those shores.”
But Serine did not slow her steps, and the old woman somehow managed to keep but a few paces behind her, for all her grumbling.
The coast looked deserted as Serine viewed it from her vantage point among the rocks on the high cliffs.
“You see?” Old Ethyl came up behind her. “I told you there would be nothing here. The Celts have taken their fallen comrade and gone their way.” She tugged at Serine’s arm, her one eye scanning the coastline cautiously.
Serine caught her breath. “The ship is still here,” she said as she ducked behind the rocks, pulling the old woman with her.
“It will not sail again. The Celts have left it to rot. Now come along. This is not a good place to linger.”
Serine shook her off. “I’m going down there to look around. Perhaps they left something that will tell me the name of the village from which they came.” As Serine spoke she spied a scrap of cloth along the shore. Her heart turned painfully in her chest and pounded against her ribs like a falcon fighting to fly free.
She jerked away from Old Ethyl’s restraining hands and ran down to the beach. Only when she reached flat ground did she slow her steps and approach with some semblance of caution.
The Celt was not where they had left him. She had noted the bush carefully, for it had been her point of refuge the night before, and there was no body lying beside it. If the Celts had not come back and taken him, he might yet be alive and have moved away from the sea. Again her heart lurched at the thought of life pulsing from his body, and she found herself almost as greatly troubled by the thought of the man dying along the water’s edge as she was by the loss of her son.
She bolted through a cluster of rocks and almost stepped on an outthrust arm.
It took all her control to keep from screaming as Old Ethyl slammed into her back.
The older woman peered around her lady, glaring malevolently at the man on the ground. “Guess I didn’t place the arrow as well as I thought,” she remarked as she nocked another shaft.
“No.” Serine pushed the bow aside. “There will be no killing.”
“What do you mean, no killing?” Old Ethyl challenged. “The man is a Celt! He’d just as soon rape and kill you as look at you. You can’t mean to let him live!”
“I mean to make him live,” Serine told her. “To make him live, and make him tell me where his people have taken my son.” A tiny smile touched her lips. “And then I mean to make him take me there to demand the return of Hendrick in exchange for the Celt’s life.”
Old Ethyl shook her head, but she lowered her bow. “I don’t know that Celts work that way,” she said thoughtfully. “But I guess it’s worth the chance. Especially since it seems to be the only chance we’ve got.”
“I only hope he lives long enough to tell me where they’ve taken Hendrick.” Serine dropped at the man’s side, appalled at his color, or lack thereof. “That is, if he’s alive even now.”
“Oh, he’s alive enough, I’ll warrant.” Old Ethyl quickly assessed the situation. “In fact, I’d wager he heard every word you said, didn’t you, laddie?” She nudged his leg with her foot.
“How can you be so certain?” Serine looked up at the old woman and did not see the Celt’s eyelids flicker. “A moment ago we both thought him dead.”
“That was before you knelt down beside him,” Old Ethyl said cryptically. “I don’t think he’s in any condition to harm you, but if you’re determined to save him I better go and get a cart to carry him back to Sheffield.”
“Thank you, Ethyl,” Serine answered, but this time her whole attention was focused on the man beside her. The man who pinioned her with eyes filled with pain. The man whose hair fell in ebony ringlets across his forehead. The man who managed with all that was left of his strength to drag a breath into his punctured lungs and say, “I would have thought I had surely died and been taken to my reward, had it not been for the old hag beside you.”
“Do not fear, Celt,” Serine said as she placed a cool hand on his fevered forehead, “I do not intend to let you go anywhere until you tell me where I can find my son.”
She fought down the jolt she knew when her flesh touched his, and tried to act as though nothing unusual had happened, nothing that could not be explained as concern for his condition, nothing that might indicate that each moment she was near him filled her with emotion she had never before known and never so much as imagined.
His voice was little more than a whisper as he fought down a quickening of his blood that was slightly less than devastating. “No man could desire eternity with you at his side on this earth.” His voice faded, and he stared at her, unblinking.
“Why do you look at me so?” she demanded, unnerved by his scrutiny.
“Because I fear if I close my eyes you will disappear and the one-eyed harpy of my nightmares will return.” His eyes closed against the pain, nonetheless.
“I will not disappear,” Serine assured him. “At least, not until you tell me how I can find my son.” But even as she spoke his head lolled back and she knew he could no longer hear her.
She turned him onto his side to ease the pressure on his wound. What was he trying to do to her? Offering compliments when he was barely conscious. It was almost obscene! A Celt offering flattery with his last breath. How dare he? If only she didn’t need him so desperately. If he wasn’t her only chance to discover the whereabouts of her son. If her heart didn’t beat so erratically when she so much as thought about their unconscionable first meeting. If these things weren’t so, she would leave him here without blinking an eye. But they were true. They were all true, and she couldn’t leave him behind again.
* * *
The man did not regain consciousness as he was moved from the coast to the castle. Serine watched him closely, making certain he continued the shallow breathing that was all his wound allowed.
Secreted in her own chambers, Serine removed the arrow and bathed the wound with bedstraw tea, then applied a poultice of fresh crushed lady’s mantle. But the Celt’s fever did not abate and the women worried over what course to take next.
“Nettle tea would give him some nourishment and purify the blood,” Margot suggested, “but before we dare try to get him to swallow we must bring down the fever.”
Serine watched the man’s life slipping away as the poison of the wound had its way. With him would go her only chance of finding her son. She could not allow him to die.
She knew which herbs to administer to ease the pain of childbirth, to heal a cut or draw the infection from an ulcer, but the man before her was sore wounded and she feared she did not have the knowledge to save him. Yet he must live. She must make him live...for Hendrick...and perhaps for Serine herself. Somehow she must find a way.
“I do not know if I have the skills to save him.” She spoke the words aloud as the man thrashed on the bed.
“Perhaps we should send for a surgeon,” Margot suggested.
“A surgeon would only bleed him. In the end he would die and all our efforts will have been for naught.” Serine never looked away from the man. She was determined that he would live long enough to tell her what she wanted to know if she had to breathe life into his body herself. He must not die, she would not let him die until she learned the fate of her son.
Aware of Serine’s desperation, Margot agreed to stay with the man while Serine went to gather the herbs she hoped would be of the most benefit in lowering the fever and healing the wound.
Dame Margot did not feel comfortable left alone with the Celt, even if he was unconscious. There was something about him so raw and primitive, so completely virile that it intimidated the gentlewoman.
* * *
“Does he still live?” Old Ethyl asked as she met Serine at the postern gate.
“He has a grave fever. I have little hope of keeping him alive. We can only pray that he says something in his delirium that might tell us where they’ve taken the children.” She paused and looked back toward the keep, thinking how dismal it would be without little Hendrick there to give it life and hope for the future. “I must gather herbs to rid the wound of poisons.”
“There was no poison on my arrows,” Old Ethyl declared. “I depend on my skill to kill my enemies.”
Serine sensed the hostility and answered patiently. “The poisons come from the arrow entering the body and breaking the tissues. The man lay in the mud for hours, which was also detrimental. No one said your arrow was poisoned.”
Old Ethyl hung her head. “If I had shot true the man would have been dead.”
Serine touched her arm comfortingly. “If the Celt had died there would be no chance of his telling us where they have taken the children. You said you were from the land of the Celts,” she reminded her. “Can’t you guess where they might be?”
“The Celts are scattered along the sea like stones in the sand.” Old Ethyl narrowed her eye. “And while there’s no doubt in my mind that this one came to us from Ireland, we could search for years without coming upon his village. You speak true, m’lady. We must hurry and get the herbs to heal the man. This is one Celt better left alive.”
And Old Ethyl strode off down the path at a pace Serine was hard-pressed to follow.
“We went back a second time,” the thane told Guthrie. “Just as you said. But your brother, Rory, was nowhere to be found. Perhaps he was taken by the sea.”
“Perhaps he has been captured by those who set fire to our ship,” Guthrie growled.
The man shifted nervously and inched his way toward the door, anxious to be away from his liege, who was fretting over the disappearance of his brother and the loss of a ship.
“Send Drojan to me,” Guthrie ordered, dismissing the man with a wave of his hand. “Perhaps the Runes will tell of my brother’s fate.”
Guthrie paced as he waited for the seer to appear. His anger and frustration had been unabated since he had learned of Rory’s disappearance and the loss of the majority of the children. First the ship had burst into flames, then the children had been stolen from the guards and spirited off and finally Rory had disappeared without a trace. Evil spirits were to blame, of that Guthrie was certain, and Drojan would surely be able to ferret them out and force them to give up the secret of his brother’s whereabouts.
“You sent for me?” The spaeman’s deep voice brought Guthrie from his reverie.
“I have need of your talents,” Guthrie said respectfully.
“You have only to ask,” Drojan assured him. “You know that I am always at your disposal.”
“I need to know the fate of my brother, Rory,” Guthrie told the older man. “He did not return with us from the ill-fated raid on the villages of the English. If he lives I must go after him and bring him back. But if he has died and his body was taken by the spirits, I shall leave the English in peace.”
Drojan nodded and placed his bag on the floor. After drawing a circle, he took his place within and began to lay out the Runes. He cared deeply for both Guthrie and Rory; he had known them since they were children. It saddened him to think that he might never see Rory again. He felt the loss of such a warrior was far greater than the gain of the few scrawny children the Celts had brought back with them.
But he must answer true and read the Runes with honesty and detachment, for they were the word of the gods and he had sworn to give voice to their truth.
He frowned as he put forth the Runes. Then he spoke. “Your brother is with a woman of strength and beauty. Danger and loneliness, for him, are in the past.”
Guthrie wiped his hand across his face. “Then he is with Brunda, his dead wife. It cannot be read any other way, for there is always danger for a Celt on foreign soil.”
Drojan continued to frown. He did not interpret the reading as did Guthrie and was about to tell him so when Guthrie continued his thoughts aloud.
“We will not seek vengeance for Rory’s death. He died in the way of the Celt, and no man can ask more. We will raise the children that we have taken and teach them our way of life. But I must know that his body is given proper burial.”
Drojan was torn between telling Guthrie that he saw no indication of Rory’s death in the Runes, and rejoicing that there would be no more raids on English soil, which would cost lives that could ill afford to be lost. The seer glanced at the Runes once more. If Rory was indeed alive, he would surely find some way to return to his home. To wage war on the English in the hope of finding him was to invite disaster. He decided to keep his counsel as Guthrie wavered between grief and hope before coming to a decision. “I ask that you go in peace to bring back my brother’s remains.”
Drojan bowed his head, silently accepting the assignment, as Guthrie continued. “There was a boy. A male child with dark hair and even features—well fed and bright,” Guthrie mused. “Rory expressed an interest in him. He said he wanted the boy. I will take the child into my house in memory of my brother. I will raise him and to him I will give all I would bestow upon my brother’s son, and until such day as my lady wife, Damask, gives me a child of my own, this boy will be my heir.”
Drojan took a deep breath. “It is good,” he pronounced. “Rory will rejoice when the gods tell him how you have honored his memory.”
Within minutes Guthrie had gone to search for the boy Rory had favored, but Drojan remained within his magic circle and stared at the Runes. What he saw bothered him more than he wished to admit, for the rune that he knew to be his personal symbol stood out predominantly and it was challenged by the symbol of a female crossed by the sign of Woden. Never had he seen such a lay of the Runes and it unnerved him to think that Woden might have decided to disrupt Drojan’s life by sending a woman emissary.
Scooping up the Runes, he returned them to the bag and destroyed the circle. As he left the building his eyes searched the faces of the village women. Which of them might have been chosen by the war god of the North, and how would Drojan recognize her? Sometimes he wished he had not been given the powers that had catapulted him to the most respected and sought-after authority in Corvus Croft. It was a heavy burden to bear knowledge of the future, especially when the future concerned oneself.
* * *
Voices drifted through Rory’s mind. Women’s voices, soft and comforting, and one disturbing in its hint of sensuality. The sensual voice caused him to fight the darkness of unconsciousness and try to open his eyes and return to the world of the living. But the world of the living was a world of heat and pain. It was the pain that convinced him that he was not dead, although the features of the woman that swam before his eyes seemed lovely enough to be those of the Valkyries of which his friend Drojan spoke.
Though he clamped his lips tightly shut, Rory sometimes heard his own voice calling out against the pain and fever. Then blessed moisture touched his lips and warmth seeped down his throat. His mind returned from the passages of the past and he fought to hear and understand the words bandied above his head. English voices, speaking English words. He must hold to his consciousness long enough to discover his whereabouts and, hopefully, the fate that awaited him.
“He has said nothing that would give us the name of his village,” the sensuous voice said. “He calls for a woman named Brunda, but hers is the only name he has uttered.”
“We will stay with him. He may yet give us the information we need,” the other voice responded.
A cool hand touched his brow. “He is burning with fever. If we cannot break it he will die, and we’ll never know from whence he came.”
The hand slipped down beneath his ear. The voice, no longer sensuous, cried out, “His neck is swollen. Here!”
“God save him, the poison has gone into his body. We must soak him in tepid water and bring the fever down as quickly as possible, else he will die.”
Rory wanted to scream as he was dragged from the bed and lowered into a tub of water that seemed more icy than the winter streams. Too weak to fight, he remained still, suffering in silence. To his amazement, in only a matter of minutes the water did not seem so cold and his mind fought to clear itself. It was then he first realized that his life was forfeit should he, in his delirium, call out the name of his village. He must fight to keep from entering delirium again, though the effort drained his body of his last vestige of strength.
If he hoped to survive he could not give these people the information they desired. And survive he would, if only long enough to look upon the woman with the cool hands and the sensuous voice. A woman he linked to the sea nymph he had held in his arms just before he was struck down. As the lovely body floated in the eye of his memory, Rory relaxed.
“We must put compresses on the swelling in his neck,” Old Ethyl said as she soaked a cloth with the liquid before handing it to Serine.
“It will be impossible to tell whether the swelling has gone down with his beard in the way,” Serine fussed. “There is nothing for it but to take care of his facial hair.”
Rory heard the woman’s remark. He was proud of his beard. As with all Celts, his beard was the symbol of his manhood. Thick and rich and luxuriant, he wore it well and washed and combed it often. And although he trimmed it regularly, he had not been without facial hair since puberty. It boded well for him that the woman who had his care appreciated the virility indicated by his beard. He felt gentle hands brush the hair on his cheeks and he drifted into sleep as a feeling of well-being overcame him.
A well-being that Serine did not share, for she knew what she was about to ask Old Ethyl might well bring about the end of their friendship. Steeling herself against the reluctance that slipped insidiously through her body, Serine managed to form her request.
“Ethyl, shortly after you came here as a bride, you mentioned a mixture of herbs you had learned from a woman in the land of your youth. Do you remember?”
Old Ethyl closed her eyes. “Yes, I remember. I remember all too much, and all too well.” She remembered the kindly woman who had spent her life concocting harmless potions that made life happier and easier for those around her, only to come upon a mixture so potent it all but brought the dead back to life, and ultimately brought down the wrath of the other healers, who coveted the recipe.
The woman did not know how to write, and made her brew with a handful of this and a pinch of that. All good herbs from God’s own garden. Gladly she gave the others the names of the herbs she used, but she was unable to give the exact measure and their potions were useless, and more than useless...deadly.
In anger and frustration the unsuccessful healers accused the woman of witchcraft and she was burned in her little hut along with her herbs and her secret.
“If this man came from the land of which you spoke, perhaps that mixture might cure him more quickly than the simple things we have available.”
“It is against the law to make that brew,” Ethyl said without meeting her eyes.
“But you have done so, Ethyl.” Serine turned her steady gaze on the woman. “If you have some of the mixture, I beg you let us use it to make this man well so that he can lead me to Hendrick.”
Ethyl walked over to the window. “I saw the bitter brew made many times. She would take powdered wormwood, and a pinch of myrrh and saffron. To that she would add senna leaves and camphor. Then came such herbs as manna, the roots of rhubarb, zedoary, carline thistle and—” her voice faded to a whisper “—angelica.”
“But there is nothing poisonous or sinister in those ingredients. We use them all the time for one thing or another,” Serine mused aloud. “Was it in the way she prepared them?”
“The herbs are placed in a container half-filled with fruit spirits and set out in the warmth of the sun. You are right. There is nothing sinister or magical about it. As she did with all her herbs, when she worked she recited her ingredients in a singsong voice. Some of the other healers felt they could improve on her concoction and tried adding herbs and berries. The additives did more harm than good and people became ill rather than being cured. A woman died after taking what was said to be the exact duplication of the recipe. They went after the healer who had made the original brew. They accused her of being a witch and burned her. It was believed her recipe was lost with her, and an edict was handed down that no one was to experiment with her concoction on pain of death. That edict has never been lifted.”
“But surely it was only in the land where you lived,” Serine argued, sensing that her only hope of saving the Celt’s life was slipping away.
“The edict was accepted by pagan and Christian alike, and the punishment ultimately the same regardless of the name of the god they worshiped.”
“Ethyl, for the love of that God, please help me to save this man and find my son.” There were tears in Serine’s eyes. “I know how greatly this request must disturb you. Still, I must ask it.”
Ethyl’s hands shook. “You cannot know unless you could have heard the woman’s dying screams. You cannot know the fear I have felt each time I did more than make tea from the herbs I gathered. Yet I know that herbs are capable of doing more good than harm and I could not allow the knowledge she bequeathed to me to be lost in the flames that took her life.”
Serine went to her, placing her hands on Ethyl’s arms. “Do not let the knowledge be lost. Let it be used to save lives, as it was meant to do. I will take full responsibility and swear that I made the potion myself.”
“There is no need for you to do that, although it would be true. For the herbal remedy we make that is bitter to the tongue is the same brew that cost my mother her life.”
Serine gave a little gasp, but before she could express her horror at Ethyl’s revelation, the older woman added, “Use your skill to keep him alive, and I will return with the elixir that will, with God’s help, make him well.” Old Ethyl started toward the door. “I will be back to help you remove him from the water. In the meantime, you can deal with his beard in your own way.”
Old Ethyl glanced at her mistress. There was something about Serine that seemed to indicate curiosity rather than concern. Was the younger woman interested in the man’s appearance? Surely not! This was a Celt. An enemy! One of the men who had stolen Serine’s son. Yet the features above the beard were strong and even. The man might be handsome, for all that he was a Celt.
With hope beating in her heart Serine turned back to the Celt and, to her horror, saw that he was watching her with eyes as black and deep as the depths of hell. She could not help but wonder how much he had understood and how much he would be able to remember when his fever had passed. She listened closely as his jumbled words became discernible.
“The name of the village,” she whispered. “What is the name of your village? Why do you want to steal children? Have you none of your own?”
“Dead!” The Celt choked on the word. “All dead from plague.” His voice broke and his breath came in ragged gasps.
“Tell me the name of your village and I will go there and cure them, just as I will cure you of your fever and heal your wound,” Serine soothed.
“We must save the village,” he panted. “Without children, we will be lost. We must break the curse!”
Serine crossed herself. “Curse?”
“No children born since the plague...women barren. Must take children...” Exhaustion overcame him and he fell silent.
* * *
The sky darkened and the fire crackled against the chill of night. The pungent odor of herbs permeated the room, clearing the air of the scent of sickness, leaving the fresh smell of cleanliness with a hint of marigold ointment as Serine sat back and inspected her work.
She had not expected the Celt’s skin to be so fair beneath his growth of beard. She had not expected his lips to be so full and well formed, hinting of smiling sensuousness even in his pain. She had not expected the structure of his face to be so strong, and the line of his jaw so firm. Nor had she expected the cleft set deep in his chin.
His cheeks and forehead carried a much richer color than did the area that had been concealed by his facial hair. It must have been many months since he had taken the time to shave, she mused as she pressed another herb-soaked cloth against the swelling in his neck and was rewarded by a sigh of comfort.
Twice she had added warm water as she waited for Old Ethyl to appear. And while she was alert for sounds of the woman’s presence, Serine was not anxious for her return. Her tired mind focused on the man before her. What was he like? What position did he hold in his village? Had he a wife and children? If his wife were here would she snatch him from the healing waters and insist that he lie in the bed burning with fever? Or would she approve of Serine’s treatment and help sponge the heated body? Would a wife watch the rivulets of water as they slithered down his shoulders and across his chest? Might she take her finger to trace the watery trail as it wended its way over the muscles of his upper body and disappeared into the pool of bathwater that covered his lower extremities?
Without conscious reflection Serine’s eyes followed the pattern of her thoughts, relishing the taut muscles of his diaphragm and the flat ridges of his belly. How different he was from the jiggling bulk of the man Serine called husband. So different they might be of a different species. She cupped the water in her hand and allowed it to drizzle over his body, imagining the culmination of its journey within the depths of the cask. Imagining how it might trace his manhood, urging it to a glorious awakening. Such an act between husband and wife would, no doubt, in happier times, culminate in an act of love laced with passion as well as abandonment.
How different such a coming together would be compared to her dutiful coupling with her elderly husband. How uniquely different, and how wonderful!
She sighed and squeezed the water from the cloth as Old Ethyl entered the room. The older woman stopped short when she saw the expression on Serine’s face.
“I thought to apologize for being gone longer than planned,” she said. “But from the look on your face perhaps I weren’t gone long enough. We’d best move him back to the bed. With the night coming on he’s apt to catch a chill.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Serine agreed. “I was about to send for someone to help me do just that.” She tried to laugh away the woman’s suspicions, but the color that rushed to her face belied her efforts of denial. It was amazing how much that old woman could see with just one eye.
“I learned why the Celts took our children,” Serine told her. “It seems their women are barren and the village faces extinction.”
“That is good,” Old Ethyl said as she placed a container of rich dark liquid on the table. “The children will be treated kindly until we can bring them back.”
Serine shook her head. “It is bad,” she argued. “They want children to populate their village. They will not easily give them up.”
“Did he say where the village might be?” Old Ethyl asked.
“He said little that made sense.”
Old Ethyl handed Serine a cup of horsetail tea laced with the bitter brew. “Wet his lips with the tea. Some of the liquid will slip down his throat and he will begin to heal, God willing.”
Serine hesitated before administering the brew. She could only pray that Old Ethyl had been able to duplicate the recipe exactly. If the woman had inadvertently deleted one of the ingredients, or been forced to make a substitution, it could cost the man his life and Serine her only hope of finding her son.
Uttering a silent prayer, Serine dipped the cloth into the liquid and touched it to the lips of the unconscious man.
The Celt choked on the liquid and Old Ethyl stayed Serine’s hand. “Gently, gently,” she warned. “Drowning him in herbal juices will not heal him the faster.”
Serine gently squeezed a liquid-soaked cloth, wishing that her hand did not shake so when she was forced to hold him in close proximity, just as she hoped that Old Ethyl did not notice the evidence of her weakness. For Serine found it impossible to control herself where the Celt was concerned.
* * *
Rory’s fever had diminished and he lay beneath the furs in relative comfort as Serine ministered to him.
In all truth, the Celt was probably much more comfortable than Margot and Old Ethyl, who slept on mats at the far end of the chamber.
Serine had tried to talk the women out of guarding their captive so closely, but they would have none of it.
“The man is young and strong,” Margot insisted. “He will let you minister to his needs until his strength returns. Then he will do his best to escape. Of that there is no doubt.”
“He is sore wounded,” Serine argued. “It will be weeks before he is any threat to me. Besides, I would sound the alarm before he could rise from the bed.”
“And what good is the alarm when there be only a few women strong enough to fight him?” Old Ethyl added her thoughts to the dispute. “Dame Margot and I will stay near the door and spell you should you drop from exhaustion. If the man looks to take advantage of our charity, I will see that he thinks better of it.”
There was nothing for it but to let them have their way. Other than bodily evicting the two women, Serine was powerless to rid herself and her prisoner of the jailers. It was odd, but Serine felt no threat from this man. Perhaps it was due to his comatose state, but she could not bring herself to believe that he would deliberately harm her, even though his arms bulged with muscles and his chest was full and deep.
Serine remembered the touch of his body against hers, his hands—strong and firm—holding her, and his lips, those beautiful lips, touching hers. Her heart quickened imperceptibly and she brushed the hair from his forehead.
How unfair it was that Serine had been destined to wed a man so many years her senior. How sad that her girlhood dreams had ended on her wedding day, long before they ever knew the wonder of a lover’s kiss.
And then the water gods had sent her this man who had come to steal her only son. Although he had succeeded in his quest, she found herself unable to hate him as he lay before her, looking for all the world as young and innocent as Hendrick himself.
She smiled, turning her face toward the wall so Margot and Old Ethyl would not notice should they happen to be watching, for it was not only the man’s appearance that held her interest, there was something else about him that sent blood racing through her veins in a most unseemly manner. A virility that could not be denied even in sleep.
What might it have been like to have been given in marriage to a man such as the one resting before her? Would her heart have leapt in her bosom when her father had told her of her betrothal? Would she have waited impatiently for the day when this young, virile man would make her his own, rather than dread the stiff, dry embrace of her elderly husband?
Serine crossed herself quickly, hoping the Lord would not think her ungrateful, for her marriage had given Serine her son. She loved Hendrick above all else. It was just that sometimes, quite unexpectedly, thoughts slipped through her mind and she found herself dreaming of what life might have been had her marriage been somewhat different.
“He’s something to feast the eyes upon, and that’s no lie.” Old Ethyl’s voice crackled through the silence. “You’ve all but stared a hole through him, m’lady. Why don’t you lie down and rest yourself? Or better yet, go get yourself a bit of fresh air. ‘Tis market day, and there be a good crowd gathered. ‘Twould take your mind from your troubles.”
“Hendrick always liked market day,” Serine whispered. “I cannot go. I cannot face it knowing there is no chance that I will see him.”
“It would be reassuring to the villagers if you showed yourself among them. They are all proud of you and you’ve not showed hide nor hair since you brought the Celt to your bower.”
“You know how important it is that we listen for his every word. What if he uttered the name of his village and there was no one about to hear his words?” Serine’s eyes centered on the man. He seemed more alert somehow and she wondered if he could hear what was being said.
“Dame Margot and I will stay with him,” Ethyl assured her. “There’s no need for all of us to miss being out on a beautiful day.”
“You go, Ethyl,” Serine urged. “I would rather stay here.”
“Stay, then, if you must.” Old Ethyl shrugged. “But don’t say you have not been warned if your serfs come to believe you’ve gone daft.”
“You go on and assure them of my well-being.” Serine gently nudged the woman toward the door.
“Aye,” Old Ethyl grumbled, “I’ll convince them you are right and well, but who is going to convince me when I see you sitting there mooning over that Celt like a lovesick hound?”
“I’m not mooning over him.” Serine defended herself. “I’m hoping he will say something that will help me find Hendrick and the rest of the missing children, and at the same time I keep telling him how much Hendrick means to me and how important it is that he be returned to Sheffield. Somehow, I believe that even through the netherlands of unconsciousness he will hear me.”
“As you will, m’lady,” Old Ethyl agreed sourly as she scooted out the door.
It was a sorry day when their lady sat dreaming over a fallen Celt, Old Ethyl thought. But then, all the days had been sorry since the Celts had come to disrupt their lives and take their children. Ethyl, for one, would be glad when the man recovered enough to give his information and be gone. The man had brought nothing but ill luck since he’d stepped foot on English soil. The sooner he recovered enough to leave, the better for all involved. They’d rue the day if word got back to their overlord that they were harboring a Celt in their midst!
The voice was low and soft. It slipped through Rory’s dreams like a song and he awoke to find his fever gone and his mind clear. Though weak, he knew instinctively that he had full control of his limbs, and that his body would obey him, albeit reluctantly. The voice continued as he checked the responses of his muscles, assuring himself that he carried only the nagging pain in his back and side. Satisfied that he was able to move on command, he relaxed, keeping his eyes closed as he turned his attention to the words the woman was saying.
“You see, Hendrick is my only child and heir to this estate. His father is no longer a young man, and it is doubtful if there will be further issue. That is why it’s so important that I bring Hendrick back here. Surely you can understand my situation.”
So, Rory mused behind closed lids, one of the children was the heir to the manor. The only heir. In years past that would be worth a great deal of ransom money to a Celt raider. In this case, however, it meant little or nothing. They had come for children to repopulate their village, not for wealth or jewels, or even women, for that matter. Little good women had done them over the past years. All barren no matter how sexually satisfied the Celts kept them.
“I have saved your life, and do not intend to hold you for ransom. Surely that must be worth something to you,” the voice went on. “All I ask is that you take me back to your village and allow me to plead my case before your overlord, adding your voice to my appeal. That cannot be much to give for your life and freedom.”
Rory suppressed a smile. He could imagine his brother Guthrie’s face if he were to appear with the woman whom, by all indications, had orchestrated the destruction of their plans, and asked for the return of her son. Brother or no, they would both be lucky to escape with their lives.
“Had I left you to die you would have been cast into the bowels of hell,” she continued. “Old Ethyl knows quite a bit about these things and she assures me that a Celt must be struck down with a weapon in his hand, not a woman, in order to reap the rewards of eternal life.”
So this was the water sprite he had discovered at the water’s edge and held so briefly in his arms. He remembered the wet, slick body. The proud, silent face that asked no quarter. The long, dark hair like a sodden veil, and the moonlight catching the droplets of water clinging to lashes that shielded bottomless eyes.
His eyes flickered, and of their own volition lifted to behold the woman who had been at once his defeat and his salvation.
He saw her expression turn from serenity to surprise.
“A stupendous observation,” he said dryly.
“How do you feel?”
“Weak and thirsty. There is a bitter taste in my mouth. What is this place?”
She seemed to be glancing over her shoulder, and Rory tried to see past her into the shadows of the room, to no avail.
“You are in Sheffield Manor. I am the Lady Serine. What is your name?”
The woman acted somewhat flustered, and the voice he had found so sensuous and soothing in the depths of the netherworld now was edged with anxiousness.
“I am called Rory.”
“From whence do you come?”
She asked the question so casually she almost caught him in her trap. He had already opened his mouth to reply when a misty memory told him that he must keep the name of his village a secret if he valued his life.
“I come from across the sea,” he said non-committally.
“Does your home have no name?”
He watched her face brighten with hope, then cloud as he continued. “It is not a large estate, but I am satisfied with my lot.”
“Is that where you have taken my...the children?”
He watched as her eyes shifted away from his steady gaze and knew she was wondering just how much of her little soliloquy he had heard.
“The children were taken to the village, where they will be well kept,” he assured her.
“They were well kept here,” she challenged, “and we want them back.”
“There is little hope of that.”
“We could pay...”
He lifted his hand to silence her. “It is not money we need, but the children themselves. Youth to repopulate our village. Our women are barren.”
“Surely a few years without the birth of a child should not cause brave men to resort to destroying the families of others.”
“It has been more than a few years. It has been almost a decade. The plague struck and took over half the village. Men, women, children, babes in arms. None were spared. Those who recovered rebuilt their lives, took in the orphaned children and remarried, but there was no issue. Within the past months the last surviving children have grown to adulthood. There was nothing left but to steal the children our women cannot bear.”
“You had no right to take my child or the children of my serfs.” Serine met his eyes now and challenged him openly.
“We had no choice.”
“You have taken the heir to Sheffield. When my husband returns from the Crusades he will appeal to the king, and the brave men who have fought to free the Holy Land from the infidel will take up our cause and destroy your village.”
“By the time they could discover where the village is located, your children will be grown men and women, and will fight to defend what they have inherited. Think you the son of a serf would not rather live as a thane’s heir with plot and property to be inherited rather than come back here to serve as a serf?”
Serine had no answer for that. Her breath caught in her throat and she found herself unable to answer. If what this man said was true, the majority of the children would be far better off if they stayed with their captors.
“What you say holds merit, but my son is heir to Sheffield and does not need your charity. He is the son of a landed knight and a lord in his own right. I demand that you return him to me.”
Rory raised his eyebrows. This woman had spirit, but he had expected no less. Any woman with the courage and cleverness to create a diversion that confounded dozens of Celts and sent them packing would have spirit as well as beauty.
“Will you send a message to your overlord to tell him that you live?”
Again her question seemed innocent enough, but Rory sensed the underlying threat. He could not help but admire her clever persistence as she continually rooted for the name of his village.
“When I am strong enough to travel I will give thought to your request. Until that time it behooves you to keep me well or you will never see your son again.” With that he turned his face toward the wall.
The woman was quick and sharp. In his weakened condition it was only a matter of time before he made a slip and told more than was prudent. His mind raced forward to the time he would spend with this woman, who interested him as well as piqued his admiration.
He empathized with her over the loss of her son. He had lost a son to the plague. Perhaps he would add his voice to hers and petition for the boy’s release. One child could not be so important to the survival of the village, and as that one child was the son of a knight, and heir to an estate, it was very possible that the English king would, indeed, come to the aid of his vassal and retaliate against the Celts.
Rory nestled down into the soft furs that encased his body. His thoughts for the woman were as soft and warm as the sense of well-being. The pain had subsided and he could feel strength and energy begin to surge through his body.
He heard a voice murmur and thought to give the Lady Serine reassurance that he would, indeed, be party to her quest. Easing himself onto his back, he opened his eyes to find himself staring into the malevolent glare of a one-eyed crone. Suppressing a gasp, Rory decided the fever must have come on him again, for the nightmares had returned.
Shutting his eyes tightly against the aberration, he determined to sleep until it disappeared.
* * *
It wasn’t until Rory awakened the next morning that he first realized something was amiss. His face felt clean and he could feel the air touching his skin. Still half asleep, he ran his hands over his cheeks. The next moment he emitted a bellow that resounded throughout the building.
“My beard! You’ve stripped me of my beard!” he shouted as Serine ran to his side with Old Ethyl in her wake.
“I did but clean you up a bit,” Serine told him. “Your beard was matted with blood and I could not tell whether or not your neck was still swollen with all that hair in my way. Besides, you look better without it.”
He could not know how much better he looked, Serine thought as she allowed her eyes to feast on him. His hair, clean now, curled in a mass of midnight ringlets about his face, falling to his shoulders like an ebony cloud. Each curl an invitation to run her fingers through it and let the curls trap her hands and hold them against his head while she memorized his face.
Her reverie was broken by his continued harassing over her action.
“Be still,” Old Ethyl said threateningly, “else my lady’s work will have been in vain, for I’ll bloody you again.”
“But she cut away my hair and stripped me of my manhood!” he protested.
Old Ethyl snorted in derision. “How was she to know?” she asked. “Most men don’t wear their manhood on their chin.”
“That’s not what I mean!” he argued. “I have worn my facial hair since the day I reached manhood.”
“Then it’s high time you did without it for a bit,” Old Ethyl assured him. “You have no need of it here. By the time we are rid of you it will have grown back, I’ll vow.” She turned to Serine, ignoring the man’s sputtering. “As soon as our visitor calms down, I will leave you for a while, unless you wish to go in my stead.”
“You go, Ethyl,” Serine said, temporizing. “I will stay with our...guest.”
“As you will,” Old Ethyl agreed. “I prefer good fresh English air to the fumes of an angry man.” Since her lady would not go among the people to learn their mood, it was up to Old Ethyl herself to do so. With a nod of her head, Old Ethyl took her place near the door, determined that she would make certain the man posed no threat to Serine before she left for the village.
Rory paid the old woman little mind. His anger and his attention focused on Serine, who looked at him with an expression of disbelief.
“I cannot see how the loss of your beard and mustache could be of such importance,” she ventured.
“It is a matter of honor,” he blustered. “A man is judged by his facial hair in my country.”
Serine shrugged her shoulders and moved away from his bedside before answering. “I now see the difference between your world and mine, for here a man is judged by his sons.”
The instant the words left her mouth she would have recalled them, but it was too late.
Only the weakness from his wound and the infection that had so recently invaded his body kept Rory from attacking her—his infirmity, and the fact that Old Ethyl had nocked her arrow and stood ready to release it with deadly accuracy should he move toward her lady.
Realizing the depth of her mistake, Serine eased the man back against the pillows. “Please forgive me,” she said. “I spoke out of turn. I did not realize that your facial hair was an indication of your virility. Feel free to grow it back, and I promise I will do nothing to rid you of it whether you are conscious or no.” Her eyes sought out Old Ethyl and she indicated that she felt she had the matter well in hand, and Old Ethyl was free to go.
“It is too late,” Rory lamented. “In my country a man is known for his mustache. It is as recognizable as his nose. It might be years before I could grow another that could match the one you have so blatantly destroyed.”
Serine narrowed her eyes. The man was beside himself. It would almost be humorous had it not been that his anger might stop him from telling her where he had taken her son. She wanted his goodwill and would never have done anything to irritate him. At least, not until he had given her the information she sought.
“At least we have found a common ground,” Serine told him. “You have taken my son and I have taken your beard. Perhaps it is time that we talked of how we can make the recovery of both of our treasures as easy as possible.”
The man sighed deeply and relaxed. He studied her for a long moment. “My hair will grow back, regardless of what you do to prevent it, but there is nothing either of us can do to bring back your son. By now he is far away.”
“If he is well gone there should be no problem with your telling me where your people have taken him,” she challenged.
“And in doing so invoke the distinct possibility of my own death,” he retorted. “Feverish I may be, but my mind has not deserted me. You cannot make me believe that you would keep me alive for one more hour should you learn the location of your son.”
Serine chose not to answer. His words held a good deal of truth, but not all. At first when she had brought him to Sheffield she had cared little as to whether he lived or died, her only thought being to keep him alive until he could be made to tell her of Hendrick’s whereabouts, but somehow she had become accustomed to his presence and looked forward somewhat to the sound of his voice as it became stronger. Even if he told her where to find Hendrick at this very moment, she would be hard put to turn him over to her overlord, let alone give the order that would cost him his life.
Rory took her silence as confirmation of his words and turned his back on the slim woman who carried the strength of Celtic iron in her backbone. She was a hard woman who cared for naught but her son, and he admired her for it in spite of himself.
In truth, he had no one to blame but himself. Had he not paused to dally with the water-slick nymph he had discovered on the water’s edge, he would have been well away. And some of the children would have disappeared without a trace. Now he owed his life to Serine and he knew that when the time came for him to show his appreciation for her ministrations her one demand would be that he take her to her son.
He took a deep breath and flinched against the raw pain that still troubled him. He knew Serine and her witch-woman, Ethyl, had worked long and hard to save his life. Even more than the wound had been the onset of the fever and the poisons that had invaded his body. He doubted that the women of his village had the knowledge to save him had he been able to escape.
He owed Serine his life. It was true. And to pay that debt he would take her with him to Corvus Croft and arrange for her to speak to Guthrie. But beyond that he would promise nothing, and nothing was most likely exactly what she would get for all her trouble. For the goal of the Celts had been to bring children to their village, and thanks to the efforts and cleverness of this woman those children had been few. That her son was one of those who had been successfully taken was unfortunate, because there was little hope that the council would agree to give the boy back to his mother.
“Since you have saved my life, I am willing to consider laying your plight before Guthrie, my overlord.”
“I shall go with you,” she said flatly, “and bring my son back with me.”
“I guarantee nothing,” Rory said. “Only that you will be given a fair hearing.”
“Fair! What do you call fair? You have stolen our children and raided our village and you dare speak of fairness?”
“If you can heal me and return me to my village in peace, you will be heard. My people did not steal your children out of spite or villainy. It was due to desperation, and no one would have been harmed had you not come after them.”
If Serine wanted to be with her son she would have to agree to stay in Ireland.
Rory watched as she moved around the room, and imagined her moving thusly through the streets of his village, through the halls of Guthrie’s fortress and, finally, through the rooms of Rory’s own home. He found the thoughts pleasant. Perhaps he would urge her to stay once she realized it would be impossible to obtain the release of her son.
For all that she had cut away his beard he found himself unable to maintain his initial anger. It seemed almost as though there was an unspoken duel between them, with rules yet unmade, and it challenged him to try to guess what she would do next as she strove to regain possession of her child, unaware that fate, and a woman’s tongue, would take the matter out of their hands.
* * *
“I tell you, our Lady Serine was brave as any man could have been,” Hildegard, the alewife, boasted to the knight and two foot soldiers who had come to partake of her wares. “Stole those children back and hoodwinked the Celts in the process. They never knew what hit them, they didn’t!”
“We heard your lady’s own son was stolen,” one of the men said as he quaffed his ale.
“That’s true,” Hildegard agreed. “So sad for the poor lady after risking her life and saving so many. But there’s rumors from the castle that she captured a Celt and hopes to learn from him where they’ve taken her son.”
The knight wiped his hand across his mouth. “Clever woman,” he remarked. “Old Sheffield was always the lucky one. He should be coming back any time now. I vow he’ll make short work of the Celt. The man will beg to tell Sheffield anything he wants to hear.” A toothy smile split his face. “A man learns many things on crusade. How to torture a man until he begs to talk. How to make love to a woman.” His eyes swept over Hildegard’s generous figure and his hand slipped around her in an intimate embrace.
“You tell me nothing I don’t already know,” she said as she extricated herself. “My man’s been on crusade before, and I find myself more pleased to see him each time he returns. However, should you decide to persist, Sir Knight, I’m sure he would be happy to take time from showing me his newly learned arts of love to showing you his well-earned reputation as a soldier to be reckoned with.” She smiled as she said the words, but the threat was there, loud and clear for all to hear.
They all laughed together, but the spurned knight’s eyes narrowed spitefully as he moved away with his companions. “Country wench,” he sneered. “She’ll wish she’d considered my proposition before I’m finished with her and her brave, Celt-loving lady.”
He motioned to his companions. “Come, lads! We have an appointment to meet with Lord Baneford. Unless I miss my guess, he’ll pay good coin to learn that there is a Celt lurking around his lands.”
The men swung off through the village, almost colliding with the one-eyed crone who stood at the side of the road.
* * *
To heal, one must spend a great deal of time abed, and, although Rory healed far more quickly than he was willing to let on, he whiled away his empty hours by watching Serine as she went about her duties.
It occurred to him that she was not a great beauty, and had no outstanding feature on which to base her attractiveness. Yet there was a graceful loveliness about the woman that would not be denied. The more he watched, the more he wanted. The stronger he became, the more the demands of the flesh tortured him until he reached the place where he actually welcomed the appearance of Old Ethyl.
In truth, Rory had not responded to a woman as he did to Serine since the plague had taken his wife from him, and had not thought to again. Still, the sound of Serine’s husky voice sent currents of pleasure through his body, and the touch of her hand was enough to send him into a fever.
She talked of little other than the return of her son, and he wondered how she would react if she suspected the plan he had devised to take her to his village and hold her there through her love for her child.
Surely once she became accustomed to Corvus Croft she would learn to love it. It was a beautiful place with lush green fields and sparkling blue streams. He doubted not that the children the Celts had spirited away had already fallen in love with their new home. It took very little time to change one’s allegiance, for in all honesty, Rory was more than a little in love with Serine. He watched her closely. Her movements were graceful but positive. There was no room for doubt within her. And he wondered, once again, what she felt when she thought of him.
He knew that there were times her heart quickened when she caught him watching her. He could see the color that tinted her cheeks and the pulse pounding in her throat. How he longed to press his lips to that pulsing point. To feel it pound beneath his lips as he drank in her scent, her warmth, her sweetness.
As if in answer to his silent supplication, she passed his cot, reaching out to touch his forehead in her journey. When she hesitated, as though reluctant to release the gentle contact with his face, Rory reached up and removed her hand. He inhaled the scent of marigolds that was uniquely her own and brushed her hand across his cheek. Without conscious volition, he pressed his lips against her palm and buried his mouth in the softness. Then, with a groan, he swept the salty moistness with his tongue.
His fingers held her wrist and he felt her pulse jump and quicken. She did care! She responded to him just as he did to her.
He felt her other hand move into his hair, and tensed himself should he have misread her and she decided to pull him away. Her hand clenched, then lost itself in his thick locks. He pulled her to him as he gave in to his desires and sought out the pulse beat hammering in her throat. With a deep moan he closed his mouth over it and felt it drum against his tongue. He knew his time was limited. Serine had given in to the madness of the moment and he had taken her completely off guard. It was only a matter of seconds before she would realize what was taking place and put up her defenses. But one moment of heaven was worth a lifetime of darkness.
Without giving propriety another thought, Rory cradled her in his arms and gently, gently covered her lips with his as he drew out her sweetness, inhaling her, tasting her, luxuriating in the touch of her body, warm and soft against his naked chest.
Then Serine’s hands drew him closer, demanding that he give all that his kisses promised. He felt her open to him and was lost in the depths of her mouth. He barely restrained himself from crying out at the overwhelming passion, so long denied, that surged forth and blossomed in all its frightening glory in the arms of this beautiful, determined woman, who could never belong to the likes of a Celt.
The world swam as Rory’s kiss demanded all that Serine could give and promised even more. It mattered not that this man was her avowed enemy. That he had stolen her child and would not tell where he had been taken. All that mattered was the touch of his lips, the caress of his hands and the burning heat of his body against hers. All that mattered was that she had waited for this moment, for this kiss throughout all the watchful days and sleepless nights. Longed for this moment throughout her life without knowing for what she longed. And now that it had come, she had not the strength, nor the will, to push either the man or the moment from her embrace. His kiss was all she had dreamed it would be and though she burned through eternity for this moment of weakness it was beyond her ability to care.
A soft cry escaped her lips as he buried his face in the soft fragrance of her breasts. A surge of desire shot through her body as swift and true as one of Old Ethyl’s arrows, and most likely as deadly. For Serine felt that she could not live without experiencing the wonder of Rory’s love, of his beautiful, masculine body, his sensual lips and his unquenchable passion.
Incapable of denying him or herself the love they so greatly desired, Serine was swept to the boundaries of surrender. Unknowing, uncaring of anything other than the man in whose arms she lay. She seemed to be spiraling upward toward the bright light of fulfillment when Rory withdrew his lips, holding her close for several minutes until their breathing assumed some semblance of normalcy before he let her go.
She moved from the haven of his arms and stood before him, slightly disheveled and very disappointed.
“Forgive me,” he said, unable to keep his eyes from the pleasures he had so briefly known. “I did not mean to force myself on you.”
Serine opened her mouth several times before she found her voice. “Then why did you do so?” And why did you not continue? she wanted to ask.
“I lost my head, and in the heat of the moment forgot that there are two situations that stand sentry between us.”
“Those are?” She knew, but she must hear him say the words. The words that would both damn and free her.
“You have a husband, and I have your son. As long as it remains so, there can be nothing but lust between us. And I want more than a fleeting moment of passion from you, Serine. I want your love, just as, I believe, you want mine. But love should give happiness, and between us we can offer each other naught but pain. For this ill-favored love we have found for each other is indeed a bitter brew.”
She turned away, unable to hold back a trite comment of her own. “Sometimes the more bitter the brew, the greater the benefit.”
The kisses they had shared could not be forgotten. Each time their eyes met they both reacted as though struck a blow. No matter how hard either of them tried, it was impossible to pretend nothing had happened, any more than it was possible to allow another such encounter to happen again.
Serine was a woman wed. She had never so much as thought of betraying her husband’s trust by giving herself to another man. Nor had she ever met a man she would have considered interesting enough to be worth the anguish that would result in such a betrayal. Now her mind slipped a hundred times a day into thoughts of Rory’s strong young arms encircling her body. His lips searching out the sensitive places in her hands and neck. The heat that had filled her whole being when he had buried his face in her breasts. There were ever so many other places of interest throughout her body that had heretofore gone unexplored. He would know where to seek them out. He would find each one and with each discovery she would find deeper pleasure and more euphoric enjoyment.
And, oh, to be allowed to do the same to him. To touch him with her lips and hands as he had touched her. To run her tongue over his hand or taste the quickened pulse in his throat. How wonderful it would be to know that she could make his body respond to her, as she did to him. To give and take in the deepest passion of love until they were both too sated to move.
Tears filled her eyes and she stumbled, sloshing water over the side of the basin she carried. To her surprise, Rory was suddenly beside her, catching her before she could do more damage. He took the basin from her hands and placed it on the table.
“There now, it’s overworked you are,” he told her. “The crone is right. You should go into the village and get some fresh air. You’ve scarce left this room since I came here. It’s myself that is supposed to be the prisoner, not you!” He had fallen into the pattern of speech used in his homeland and laughed at his own words, but his face held true concern.
She was alternately flushed and pale and he had no way of knowing it was her thoughts, not her physical condition, that caused her such distress.
Rory wanted her to leave. He could not bear the close proximity any longer. He needed a respite from her presence. He needed a few minutes’ peace in which to be alone with thoughts that had nothing to do with this woman; with the scent of her, the touch of her hands, the sound of her voice. If she did not leave him to himself for a few hours he would die of desire, of wanting what he dared not take.
For he had already come to the realization that taking Serine once in the heat of passion would never be enough for him. It was not just sex he wanted from this woman. It was her love he hungered for above all else. And though there were moments when he believed to the very depths of his soul that her longings were the same as his, he dared not put them into words. For if she knew the same yearnings as did he, his heart would break to realize it could never come to pass.
There was but one way he could prove his love and give his soul some surcease, and that was by taking Serine to her child.
“In a few weeks I will be well enough to travel,” he said as he walked to the window and looked out over the countryside. “Are you prepared to go with me?”
Serine finished mopping up the last traces of water. “I am,” she told him without hesitation. “I will make the arrangements, and we will leave as soon as you are strong enough.”
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