“You are my husband.”
Raymond’s head snapped up, his face pale. He stood, then sat down again. “Nay…she is but—you cannot be—”
“Why not? ’Tis not the person that is important, but the pact. If I do not please you, that is regrettable, but be assured I find the prospect of wedding you no more appealing.”
“I did not expect you to find me appealing. I will force myself upon no one. Do as you will, go where you like.”
His defensive attitude surprised Ceridwen. Not knowing what to think, Ceridwen forged ahead. “Do I or do I not have your word that I may take up residence as your lady—in name only? You said you would not force—”
“I know what I said.” Raymond rose to his feet. “Once we are wed, I care not what you do. Just keep out of my way…!”
Harlequin Historical #665
Harlequin Historicals is delighted to introduce new author ELAINE KNIGHTON
“Beauchamp Besieged is a triumph of a novel,
filled with the passion and pageantry of a bygone era,
heart-stirring romance and high adventure.”
—USA TODAY bestselling author Susan Wiggs
#663 TEXAS GOLD
#664 OF MEN AND ANGELS
#666 THE BETRAYAL
Beauchamp Besieged Elaine Knighton
Available from Harlequin Historicals and
Beauchamp Besieged #665
I have many people to thank,
but I particularly need to acknowledge:
Linda Abajian, who believed from the beginning.
Shannon Caldwell, whose medieval expertise and
beautiful longbows inspired me.
Liz Engstrom, Wes Hoskins,
Deanna Mather Larson and Doe Tabor,
who taught me all about writing and to never give up.
Teresa Basinski-Eckford, Gwyn Cready, Sue Greenlee,
Sharon Lanergan, Evalyn Lemon, Laurel O’Donnell,
Ann Simas, Outreach International Romance Writers,
Rose City Romance Writers and many other members
of Romance Writers of America who
offered me unfailing advice and support.
My agents, Ron and Mary Lee Laitsch,
and my editors, Tracy Farrell and Jessica Regante,
who gave this story a chance.
And James Pearson, who told me so…
The Marches of England and southern Wales, 1180
“Slow down—I must lead!”
Raymond de Beauchamp ignored his brother Alonso’s snarling command. As of today he was a full ten winters old. As of today he was one year closer to being a man—a true warrior. And even Alonso could not prevent that.
He galloped his stout cob through the forest, heedless of Everard the Fat’s cries of distress at the pace. On a Welsh pony, little Percy bounced along behind, willing to follow anywhere if his three elder brothers let him.
Raymond gloried in the crisp air against his face. Golden leaves swirled and tumbled in the wake of the ponies’ hooves. Ahead was an open hill, with crags of rotten stone that broke apart as they trod upon them. At the top lay the dolmen. A forbidden place, where evil spirits lurked and wicked lads might forever disappear. At least that was what old Nurse Alys said.
The stone slab seemed impossibly large and heavy. Raymond halted and stared, caught up in its mystery, in its implications of age-old, sacred blood.
Alonso strutted its length, a lock of gilded hair falling over his eyes. He challenged the two youngest boys with his gaze. Blue, gleaming, sharp as a blade. “Raymond and Percy! Let us make an offering, like the old ones, upon this stone.”
Raymond stilled. So this was the price for winning the race through the forest. Everard, a chubby version of his older brother, stood next to his pony, twisting the reins around his hands. “Nay, ’twould be blasphemous to do such a thing.”
Alonso narrowed his eyes at Everard. “Did I ask you, knot-head? It will not be if I say it is not. Percy. You will do, for you are the sweetest and the softest. The crones who come here to dance this eve will feast upon you with delight.”
Grinning, he swung the child onto the slab.
The rosebud color drained from Percy’s cheeks. Raymond’s stomach tightened into knots of outrage. Percy was but a wee lad. Why, he still had creases of baby fat where his hands met his wrists. Loathing for Alonso filled Raymond, but he held himself in check, fiddling his sore, loose milk-tooth with his tongue. “Put him down, Alonso. He thinks you mean it.”
Alonso merely bared his teeth and continued preparing to tie Percy up. Raymond clenched his jaw despite the ache. His brother’s familiar, leering grin marred a face so fair that to all who did not know him, Alonso was surely a young man of nobility and honorable intent. But he had the heart of a carrion-eater, Raymond knew full well.
His blood pounded in a red wash of fury. He rammed his elder brother with his shoulder, fists pounding ribs. Alonso, taller, heavier, and more experienced, kneed Raymond in the belly, kicked his head, then dragged him upright by his hair.
“Never interfere with my pleasure, fool.”
Staring into ice-blue eyes, Raymond struggled to draw breath and longed to batter that sneering face. But Percy needed him, he must hold back. The child sat on the stone, his straw-colored hair awry, rubbing his eyes with dimpled hands.
Alonso unsheathed his dagger. “Well then. Someone has got to be it. If not Percy, then who?” He cut a length of rope and started to wind it around Percy’s wrists.
The lad turned a frightened gaze upon Raymond, who found it impossible to wink or smile in reassurance. He cleared his throat. “You desire a sacrifice? Let it be me.”
Alonso smiled. “’Tis always more pleasing to the gods when the victim is willing. Get off of there, Percy.”
The child stayed put, his lower lip trembling. “Nay. I will not let Raymie die for me.”
Alonso simply tossed Percy to the ground. The boy scrambled up and ran weeping to Raymond, who brushed the gravel from his small palms. “Hush! I am not going to die.” Raymond heaved himself onto the stone and hoped he’d spoken the truth.
“On your knees, Brother. We must do this properly.”
Raymond’s insides twisted as the cords bit into his wrists. “My hands are going numb.”
“Get used to it.” Alonso pulled harder.
Raymond began to struggle in earnest as his brother drew the bindings from his ankles around each thigh. Raw panic chewed at the last threads of his confidence, and sweat dampened his brow. “Alonso. I will not be hamfasted.”
“You already are. Everard, help me get this knot right.”
“Perhaps this is excessive.” Everard’s statement was more whine than protest.
Alonso jerked Raymond’s feet and hands together for the final stage of his bondage. “Everard, hamfasting is an art. Do it properly—you are going to be a churchman, are you not? So, you must know how to persuade your flock to confess!”
Everard pushed Raymond’s face against the stone slab. Now his wrists were behind him, lashed to his ankles. His heels were tight against his buttocks, and each ankle was bound to its respective thigh. The worst sort of criminals were hamfasted like this, before they were…Raymond fought down the terror welling within him. He would rather die than let them see it.
“Hurry up and be done, you swine!” He thrust his tongue into the painful socket of his tooth, which refused to let go.
“But, Brother, you are not in the true spirit of things.” Alonso’s eyes glittered in the lowering rays of the sun, and a new thought occurred to Raymond. Demons. It was the only explanation for Alonso’s extraordinary cruelty. Something evil must have slithered out of these woods and possessed him.
The shadows of the forest edge grew and touched the rim of the stone, even as ravens spiraled in to roost among the half-clad tree branches. The western sky glowed pink, but in the east lightning already flickered amidst rumbling, blue-black clouds. Night would bring new horrors to this place.
“Now, for the shedding of blood.” Alonso picked up his dagger and sighted down it, testing the edges with his thumb.
“You’ll be sorry you started this. I will come after you.” Raymond’s words belied the churning in his stomach. The rough stone scraped his cheek as Alonso rolled him onto his back, and his thigh muscles stretched to the point of pain. The skin of his throat was exposed to the cooling air.
Alonso breathed against Raymond’s cheek. “Father has not yet succeeded in drawing a single tear from your eyes, but mark me, it will come to pass. I have sworn to break you.” He straightened and laid his knifepoint at the soft hollow beneath Raymond’s jaw. “For what do we make this sacrifice, Brothers? Success in battle? Infidel’s gold? The power of kings? Or the guaranteed salvation of our souls, so we never have to sit through one of Father Brenner’s stupid catechisms again?”
Raymond’s heart thundered. The dagger-tip trembled against his skin, a deadly point of heat. Alonso hissed, “Perhaps to be rid of a damned sight of trouble in future?”
“Finish it, then,” Raymond growled.
“Nay!” Percy darted up and grabbed Alonso’s elbow.
The older boy jerked free of the little one’s grasp. The blade slipped into Raymond’s throat. Percy screamed.
Raymond swallowed his tooth. He gasped and howled out his rage until he choked, his mouth full of metallic-tasting blood. Seeping warmth coursed around his neck. Alonso’s gaze grew soft and liquid, as though he was charmed by the picture before him.
“We will leave him thus. ’Tis too perfect.”
Raymond burned, a hot, malevolent pool of hatred swirling within him. Percy’s cries grew into thin shrieks—high, piercing animal sounds that would not stop. Alonso wrapped one hand about his neck until the child was silent but for a few gurgling sobs. “Let us away.”
Hooves clattered against the rocky ground, then a shroud of silence settled upon Raymond. At first he could not believe his brothers had truly left him behind. But the twilight crept closer, winding chill, blue-gray fingers about the dolmen.
The darkening sky wheeled overhead, faster and faster, until nothing existed but his unvoiced scream. Soon the wolves would come, and he would die. Alone. An offering, a human sacrifice, meant to stay the heavenly wrath Alonso was surely accumulating.
Then, unbidden, like a gift from some ancient spirit of the dolmen, a cold blade of resolve cut through Raymond’s anguish. A new hardness permeated his heart, as if it were a piece of red-hot iron plunged into water. He welcomed the numbing calm, embraced its deadly resolution.
I will live. And one day, Alonso will not.
1196, sixteen years later, along the Marches
Already the battlefield reeked. Sir Raymond de Beauchamp wheeled his warhorse and arced his sword in a whistling blur of Spanish steel. The blade bit true and deep. He sucked in a great gulp of the stifling air within his helm, and watched the young Welshman topple from his small horse. The lordling died quietly, his blood streaming in bright contrast onto the spring verdure.
A hollow stab of regret pierced Raymond’s soul. The fellow had fought well. But, there was no time to reflect upon the valor of one already dead. Raymond surveyed the chaos around him. His knights galloped in a disordered frenzy over the field, attempting to hack their way through the steadfast Welsh.
Inwardly he groaned. As ever, the horsemen allowed their courage to outstrip their discipline, and for that they could lose the fight. Too many of the rebel Welsh were still in the safety of the forest beyond, firing deadly volleys from their formidable longbows. The dreadful hissing made Raymond’s gut clench even as he tried to calm his nervous horse. Neither his own mail, nor that covering the stallion would even begin to stop the penetration of a shaft loosed from one of those deceptively simple-looking weapons.
Raymond turned his head sharply at a sudden movement along the field’s edge. What he had taken to be a lifeless body jumped up and ran to the warrior he had just sent heavenward. A lad, barely old enough to be a squire, cradled the dead man’s head and wailed his grief. Raymond’s heart twisted in pity, despite his practiced detachment. So much blood, so many tears. The pitched energy he had summoned for the battle dissipated into a numbing weariness that spread through his limbs.
Hoofbeats thundered across the chopped turf of the meadow. It was his lieutenant, Giles. The boy would be cut to pieces and joining his master in a matter of moments. “Hold, Giles!” His friend could not hear him above the cries of fighting men and the keening of the lad. Raymond urged his mount forward and cut in front of Giles’s horse at a run.
The boy stared openmouthed as the galloping chargers bore down upon him. Raymond leaned low and grabbed the scruff of the lad’s tunic, throwing him across his horse’s neck. He swerved to avoid trampling the slain Welshman and nearly collided with Giles’s stallion. Even as Raymond improved his grip on the shrieking boy, a piercing, red-hot pain struck him. His prized destrier emitted a huffing groan and bolted, veering sideways. It took all his strength and skill to control the animal without letting go of the child, especially since he could not move his left leg. Searing torment flourished and spread with every movement. He clenched his jaw and broke into a sweat.
Then he looked down. An arrow had penetrated his thigh, his saddle, and mayhap even his horse. “Jesu—nay…” Raymond’s voice faded as the sharp agony wormed deeper. He fought to hold onto his struggling burden as they cantered toward safety. Giles already pounded away in useless pursuit of the hidden archer, a blood-curdling roar echoing after him.
A fresh assault began, this time to Raymond’s right leg. The boy, hanging upside down over the shoulder of the horse, swung his arm rhythmically with each stride of the animal, stabbing at his rescuer with a small dagger.
Raymond brought his knee up and gave the lad’s head a solid knock. The jabbing ceased. Pulling his horse to a rough halt in the shelter of a hillock, he threw the boy to the ground. The ungrateful whelp landed hard, gasping for breath.
Raymond tried to slow the wild thudding of his heart. He relaxed methodically to combat the pain, and spoke softly to his trembling, sweating mount. It would be an ordeal worthy of an inquisitor to get free of the arrow. All because he had succumbed to pity. Always a mistake.
The boy began to push himself up from the ground.
“Halt.” The curt order froze the lad, and Raymond stared.
Smooth cheeks beneath the mud, blood and tears. Long-lashed green eyes. A trembling body within a suspiciously full upper tunic. Holy Mary, if this was a boy, then he himself was a silkie from the sea. The horse took a deep breath and snorted. Raymond gritted his teeth against the jolt of fire that shot from hip to knee. “Take off that hood, damn you.”
Tangles of wavy black hair spilled down about a charming, oval face. Raymond caught his breath. He was right. A girl, typically Welsh, and heart stopping in her fragile beauty. Except for the loathing that seethed from her eyes. He was used to hate-filled stares from his enemies, but this chit could not be more than fifteen years of age, the same as Meribel, his own beloved lady-wife.
The thought of a young woman on a battlefield fanned his anger as well as his longing to be away from this outlandish place. Welsh women were famous for the atrocious battle-harvests they reaped from fallen enemies. His leg throbbed as his destrier pawed at the soft earth.
“Idiot wench, what were you about? Be glad I do not beat you for my trouble.” He forgot not to move in his saddle, and ground his teeth as the pain surged. A steady patter dripped from the underside of his stirrup.
“Just you try! Lord Talyessin’s archer has pinned you to your horse quite perfectly,” she said, grim triumph in her voice. “As you well deserve. I hope you die. Slowly.”
Pretending to ignore her, he scanned the battlefield. The girl scrambled to her feet, her weapon still in her raised fist. Raymond turned his horse and a nudge of the destrier’s shoulder knocked her flat once again. His mount shivered beneath him, and pain assailed his leg with unrelenting ferocity. Hot fury leaped in his chest at the maid’s audacity. A girl-child gone to war. Hell and damnation.
Perhaps his lord-brother Alonso was right. These people were mad. Bereft of reason. He shook his head at the sight of the girl, sprawled in the grass, one delicate hand clutching her knife as though it were a talisman against him and his kind.
Her eyes filled with tears. “You misbegotten Norman bastard! You’ve killed Owain. Murderer!”
Raymond regarded her in silence. Sympathy crept up on his pain and anger, but he swallowed the will-sapping emotion. He had already suffered a crippling wound on her behalf. “I am a misbegotten English bastard,” he growled. “And I would be your ally if your prince had any sense. Your friend Owain need not have died if you Welsh had the wits to capitulate.” With an effort, Raymond softened his voice. “Let us go home. You to yours, and I to mine. Do you understand, Cymraes?”
The girl stared, apparently startled at his use of her language. Welshwoman. Perhaps he had mispronounced it. The little witch need not glare at him like that. Raymond bit his lip to stifle the moan that threatened as his restless horse shifted. Black spots floated before his eyes.
“I do, Sais,” she said quietly. “And you understand this: I shall come for you one day, when you least expect it.”
Raymond felt the blood rise in his neck and was grateful for the helm that hid his face. Sais. Saxon. Anyone the Welsh considered beneath contempt, they designated as Sais. Coming from a Welsh mouth the word was synonymous with “pagan brute.” She could have offered no worse insult. “So you will come for me. How do you plan to find me? Do you know who I am?”
The girl raised her small chin defiantly. “It makes no difference—you are all the same. Filthy, two-faced marauders who bleed our borders in the name of the English king. I will find you. I will follow the carrion crows to your lord’s keep.”
Raymond’s helm muffled his humorless laugh. It was absurd to argue with this creature while he bled to death. “Bon chance to you then, my lady.” He looked up as Giles crested the hill. The big knight’s horse bounced to a stiff-legged stop before them, and Raymond blinked hard as his own destrier jigged.
“My lord, ’tis over. Talyessin’s men are slinking back to their holes. Come away from this vermin and let me see to your wounds.” Giles glanced briefly at the figure on the ground, then his steel-encased head swiveled back. “Merde, a lass? A bit bold for a camp-follower, methinks!”
“Meet my newest enemy, Giles. Sworn to see my bitter demise. Make certain she returns safely to her people. Oh, and find that pig-sticker she is hiding beneath her tunic. I would do it myself, but I am somewhat indisposed at the moment.” Without a backward glance, Raymond turned his horse and rode away.
1200, four years later, southern Wales
Ceridwen paced before her father. Plain rushes crunched beneath her feet, not fine herbs or lavender. Lord Morgan’s hall at Llyn y Gareg Wen remained free of luxury. Firelight leaped on the stone walls, reflecting the gleam of lances, swords, and longbows, hung ready for retrieval at a moment’s notice.
“Nay, Da, I will not be your bait. God intervened when I was but a lass to spare me marriage to a Beauchamp. Now you wish again to make alliance with those soulless wolves?”
Morgan gently set his goblet on the scarred oak table. That he did not bang it down warned Ceridwen just how angry he was. “Be quiet and sit, child.” He turned his dark, sharp gaze full upon her. “For once you will do as you are told. You have disobeyed me in many things, but this shall not be one of them.” His leather-bottomed chair creaked as he rose and took over the pacing where she left off.
Ceridwen flung herself onto a seat opposite her elder brother, Rhys. Her half-dozen siblings watched with great interest, from nearly every available perch in the hall. Little Dafydd climbed into her lap. She stroked his dark hair and held him close. The wee ones needed her more than ever now that Mam was gone. She gulped back the lump in her throat and tried to concentrate on what her father was saying.
Morgan paused before the hearth and stared into the flames. “Old baron Beauchamp was wise to offer us peace once, through his youngest son, Parsifal. And as you say, Parsifal’s death was the result of intervention, divine or otherwise. But the remaining Beauchamp sons no longer have the counsel of their father. They harry us without mercy, and I cannot keep up this resistance forever.”
Her father silenced her with a severe look. “The next eldest Beauchamp, Raymond, has a few more brains in his head than the others. That aside, he is land-hungry. He had to sell his late wife’s domains to fund the defense of his keep at Rookhaven. He chafes against the yoke his lord brother Alonso has placed round his neck.”
“And you wish me to act as the balm to soothe him?”
“I do!” Morgan’s fierce tone punctured her show of bravery. “Baron Alonso wields a vast fist of power. And Sir Raymond is the well-honed dagger within that fist. Alonso suspects Raymond is near the breaking point. He has promised me, if I do not find a way to thwart Raymond’s revolt, I, and all who are dear to me will suffer for it. And Alonso is a master of understatement.”
Her father smiled in a way that sent chills down Ceridwen’s spine. She hugged Daffyd until he squirmed out of her arms. Morgan’s gaze followed his youngest child’s search for a more comfortable female lap, then he continued. “What Alonso does not know is that I will control his brother by making an alliance with him. Alonso will be held at bay by the threat of both Raymond and the Talyessin, and we will have Raymond under our watchful eye. Your eye.” Morgan took his seat once again.
“What if I cannot bear the sight of this man, nor the uncouth sound of his language, nor his rabid touch? What would you have me do, when Owain’s blood is still unavenged?” Her handsome, fey Owain, both warrior and soothsayer. Ceridwen balled her hands into fists, digging her nails into her palms.
She remembered the day of his death with agonizing clarity. Owain had lain in the meadow as if asleep, but there was so much blood—she could still see the evil gleam from the eyes of the killer, within his shadowed helm. A knight under the Beauchamp banner had called her Cymraes, as though he thought her worthless and crude. And now she was being told to marry one of the monsters! Everyone knew what the English were like. They roasted their enemies over slow fires and ate them alive.
Ceridwen narrowed her eyes and searched her father’s face for a sign he might relent. Finding none, she felt for her ivory flute, stuck through the belt at her waist. She twisted the warm cylinder in her hands and wished her mother were still alive. There were questions she could not ask Da, and even Mam had never fully explained the intimate details of what marriage meant for a woman. Now at nineteen—old enough to have borne several babes—she was mortified to admit her ignorance to anyone else.
Ceridwen caught the look her father exchanged with Rhys, who lounged in a confident sprawl on a bench near the fire. Her brother’s head moved in a small negative shake. They always had secrets, those two. And kept them from her with great success.
Morgan casually unsheathed his dagger and picked up a whet-stone from the table. “You think me heartless, Ceri, but I have not forgotten Owain. I believe Alonso would rather eliminate Raymond altogether than have him as an outright enemy. Once you are at Rookhaven, there will be many opportunities for you to set brother against brother. And if some unfortunate incident should result in Raymond’s death—well, you are but a woman, and cannot be held responsible for your untoward passions.” Spitting upon the stone, Morgan began to grind the knife blade against it in tight circles.
“Oh, Da!” How could he think her capable of cold-blooded murder? But a tiny part of Ceridwen wondered how far she would go to be free of the terrible ache that consumed her whenever she thought of Owain, dead in her arms. But it was no use bemoaning her fate. Whatever her feelings, her duty was clear.
Morgan paused in his sharpening and smiled at his daughter. “An innocent lass, yet woe unto anyone who crosses you. I doubt even the formidable Raymond will give a beauty like Ceridwen much trouble, eh, Rhys?” He looked at his eldest son, who merely raised his brows and shrugged.
Ceridwen shifted uncomfortably on the hard bench and scuffed her bare foot on the rough wooden floor. Da always said she looked like her mother. She had the same shining, raven hair, the same eyes that changed color with her moods. But Ceridwen ignored her father’s compliments. Beauty and innocence were their own kind of trouble. And Da was a shameless flatterer when the need arose.
“Has Sir Raymond agreed to this union?” she demanded.
Her father stroked his sleek, black moustaches. Chuckling, he winked at Rhys. “He will, sweet. He will.”
“You like dogs, do you not, Ceri?” Rhys gifted her with a mischievous smile, showing his even, white teeth. “Sir Raymond loves his wolfhound better than he does any woman. Be kind to the creature, and I’ll wager the master will leave you alone.”
Ceridwen scowled at her brother. “This is more shame than I can bear, to be held in lower esteem than a beast. How will I live with myself?” She covered her face with her hands.
Impatience flickered in her father’s tone. “You will live with him, and stop thinking of yourself, girl. This is important to me, to the prince, and to the Cymraeg. Raymond is not one to take lightly. When he makes a promise—or a threat—he fulfills it. But once you have charmed him, he may learn sympathy for our cause. Perhaps some of his violence can be used to our ends. Or another solution may become necessary.”
Morgan’s voice grew smooth, and Ceridwen recognized the cunning, silky inflection. “I have every confidence in you, Ceridwen. After all, you are of my blood, and I am ever victorious. One way or another.” He grinned, flashing the beguiling smile each of his children had inherited. Then he tested his honed dagger on a piece of leather. The blade slid through the skin in effortless silence.
Ceridwen’s heart wrenched into a familiar knot. You are of my blood. Da had shed a great deal of it, keeping them alive. His own and English, too. She shuddered. The very thought made her feel faint. Peace was the only solution. Vengeance might be sweet, but it had no place in this situation. She paused at the expectant gazes of her young brothers and sisters. In truth she was no substitute for Mam. The best thing she could do for them would be to help keep the Beauchamps at bay, regardless of the personal cost. Ceridwen sat up straight. “Right, Da. If it pleases you and saves even one Welsh life, I will go to him.”
“They have done what?” Raymond leaped to his feet. The bench crashed to the floor behind him, sending an echo through the cold solar. He leaned over the trestle table and grabbed the front of his lieutenant’s linen surcoat with both fists. He’d spent the third day in a row combing the woods for his wolfhound and was in no mood for Giles’s usual sideways approach to bad news.
“My lord, be easy. ’Tis a simple matter to get Hamfast back. All you need do is—”
“A simple matter! These Welshmen hold my dog hostage and you say ’tis simple? What if they don’t feed him properly? What if he bites one of them, and they abuse him for it?”
Raymond took a deep breath to banish the painful image of his huge, noble hound in the hands of fierce Welshmen. He smoothed the creases he’d made in Giles’s attire, then gave his friend’s broad chest a thump to indicate he’d finished mauling him. “Where exactly do they have him?”
“At a deserted tower in Trefynwy.” Giles dropped the joint he’d been gnawing, and it fell into his trencher with a sodden plop. He licked his fingers, one by one. For all his knightly virtues, Giles’s table manners were abominable.
Raymond looked to his empty bed, where Hamfast usually slept. “They seek to draw me in, well beyond the border, and play me some trick. What ransom have they demanded?”
Giles cleared his throat. “Only you, my lord.”
“Do not jest. Tell me truly.”
“But I do. Lord Morgan has a comely daughter, one overripe for marriage. In fact, she was once promised to Parsifal, was she not?” Giles reached for his goblet and took a gulp of wine.
Raymond closed his eyes briefly at the stab of sorrow his long-dead brother’s name still evoked. Percy, a brave knight of tender years and tender heart. Would that he had come home from the crusade and taken this Welsh maiden. Another marriage, be it to Helen of Troy, was a dread prospect for himself. “Nay. I will simply storm their defenses and retrieve Hamfast.” Ever restless, Raymond fumed and paced, his hands clasped behind his back. Still, for the good of his people, he had to at least consider the idea. “What does Morgan expect to gain? How will Rookhaven benefit?”
Giles belched and carefully wiped the corners of his mouth with the pad of his thumb. “We are like lame wolves in a herd of wily sheep. Always hungry and never satisfied, worn out with constant moving from uprising to uprising. So, if there is peace between you, both will benefit. And the dowry she brings contains the crossroads of Llanmadog.”
Raymond paused to consider. He had needed control of that area for years. With it in his possession, his western borders would enjoy security. He could better conserve his strength for the final push against Alonso—if it wasn’t already too late. But there was no room in his life, nor in his heart, for any woman, much less a wife. He glanced at Giles. The handsome knight had tied back his thick, dark hair with a leather thong. He seemed able to accommodate any number of women, and his heart never became entangled with any of them.
Whereas with himself and Meribel…never had a lady been better loved, or caused more grief. Raymond pinched the bridge of his nose. “What does this overripe girl look like?”
“She is beautiful, of course.”
It was as well Giles’s hair was pulled back, for a hint of red crept into the curves of his ears. He was hiding something. Raymond crossed his arms. “Is that so? What good fortune. Tell me the color of her eyes.”
“I did not get that close.” The knight’s cheeks pinked.
“Her hair, then?”
Giles bloomed a vivid, rosy hue and said nothing.
“You missed that, too?” Raymond’s impatience waxed. “Is she short, tall, plump? Let me guess. You rode up to their gates and conducted the entire farce as a shouting match without ever dismounting. You saw no proof that Hamfast still lives!”
“I have it on good authority that the maiden resembles nothing so much as an angel, in both form and disposition,” Giles said indignantly. “She is fond of dogs,” he added, “and would never countenance him coming to harm.”
“Whose authority? A shepherdess on her back with her skirts up to her waist, no doubt.”
Raymond shook his head. “Giles, you will never change. We both know where your brains reside.”
“Aye. How long has it been, Raymond? Is that why your temper is so short?” Giles speared a piece of meat and eyed it as though it were a tantalizing morsel of peacock, instead of tough, cold mutton.
Raymond stared at his friend. From habit his fingers tightened around his dagger hilt. Giles could needle him like no one else. Except perhaps Alonso. “Methinks you know me not at all, sir. Shall I bemoan my sad lack of romantic exploits and accept the offers of your leftovers? Or should we parley with these barbarians and rescue my hound in proper form?”
“I believe the latter would be for the best, my lord,” Giles said with surprising primness. He actually sniffed, giving Raymond some small satisfaction.
“There is one other thing….” Giles began.
“Aye?” Raymond leaned down and set the toppled bench back on its feet with a loud crack.
“Her uncle is Talyessin.” Giles sucked his teeth.
“So? Wales is full of Talyessins.”
Raymond blinked as this information penetrated. He had not been privy to the details of his late brother’s engagement. At the time he had been profoundly absorbed in more important concerns, namely, staying alive on a battlefield in France.
The Talyessin. A mighty Welsh lord, maneuvering himself from the north to rule the whole of Wales. His kinsmen’s expert archers had left Raymond with the near-fatal thigh wound that had cost him a full summer of recovery. The stench of the infection had kept Meribel away from him, had sent her looking for other, prettier amusements. He still favored that leg.
“Does he approve of this match, or is this an independent scheme of Morgan’s?” Raymond knew he could not escape the marriage, if backed to the wall by both of the powerful Welshmen. Not alone, and not with his prized dog in their hands. Men far greater than he, condemned to death, had purchased their very lives with the likes of Hamfast.
“He agrees with Lord Morgan, that they are well served by persuading you to form an alliance.” Giles wiped the grease from his eating dagger with the hem of his surcoat.
“An alliance based upon treachery. It goes against my grain. But, there is the happy thought that my righteous lord brother would find my new domestic arrangements intolerable.” Raymond rubbed the carved stone head of a knight, sitting on the chessboard he’d had built into the table, and sighed. “I will do it. But if this girl causes any trouble, back she goes.”
“Of course.” Giles grinned. “But she’ll be butter in your hands, I have no doubt.”
A soft knock sounded at the door.
“Come!” Raymond frowned. What now?
His cousin-by-marriage, Blanche, peeked into the solar. As ever, her hair was modestly hidden beneath her head cloth. She wore an unadorned kirtle of russet wool, which lent her graceful form more elegance than any amount of finery.
“Forgive me, my lord, I did not know you were occupied.” Blanche curtsied deeply and immediately turned to leave.
“A moment, lady.” She lifted her head and Raymond could see in her silver-grey eyes that she was nervous before him. A penniless widow, Blanche and her daughter had been thrust into his care by her mother-in-law, his aunt Clarisse. A cunning old witch if ever he knew one. He would try to put Blanche at ease.
“Please, be seated.” Raymond indicated his own place by the fire. She hesitated, then warily sat in the heavy oak chair. Giles followed her every move with his smoldering gaze.
“Tell me what brings you here. I am at your service.” Raymond did not attempt a smile, but he did speak softly and avoided towering over her.
“Ah, well, ’tis but a small matter, perhaps best left for another time.” She clutched the arms of the chair, as if readying herself to flee. As Raymond expected, the gallant Giles filled a cup with the unwatered wine he’d been drinking, and offered it to her with a courtly bow. Blanche was forced to let go of the chair in order to accept the wine.
Raymond cleared his throat. “Bree, again? She is the only small matter of concern at this keep.” The child was a fair delight, but a constant vexation to her mother, and an endless worry to him. At times he wondered if Bree was a changeling. For all her guileless expression, the amount of trouble she caused made it more than a casual jest.
As if Blanche read his thoughts, she averted her gaze.
Raymond hastened to reassure her. “Never mind. As you say, let us speak of it later. In truth, I wish to have your opinion on the subject under discussion when you arrived.”
Blanche looked up at him expectantly, her clear eyes reflecting a keen intelligence.
“Sir Giles believes I should marry again.” Raymond watched in alarm as the color drained from her face. Giles jumped to retrieve her goblet as it slipped from her fingers. “I beg your pardon, Madame. I did not mean that you were the intended, er, bride.” Raymond almost said “victim,” but resisted the temptation. Sarcasm would not help.
Blanche’s relief that she was not the focus of his intentions was immediately apparent. She took several more sips of wine and revived quickly.
“Explain, Giles.” Raymond waved vaguely in his friend’s direction and gazed into the brazier fire while Giles spoke. He did not enjoy being an object of terror. At least not to women. But all too often that was the case, and why not? They knew he’d been the death of Meribel. And Blanche knew it, too. But whatever she thought of him, he respected her. Anyone who had survived the intrigues of his family deserved as much.
Blanche listened quietly, occasionally murmuring an affirmation. Giles used the opportunity to full advantage. He sat beside her and took small liberties, touching her hand or leaning a bit too close. The young woman was visibly affected, for she started and blushed at each contact.
“I believe Lady Blanche understands, now,” Raymond interrupted Giles. “What say you, Madame?” He did not desire her opinion so much as he did her participation, so she might begin to feel a part of his household. If Giles would but leave her in peace.
“Though celibacy is best,” she began, throwing an arch look to Giles, “marriage is a necessary and proper state, for ’tis part of the divine plan. Of course in this instance there are many advantages, the safe return of Hamfast not the least of them. But have you considered the bride’s willingness, or lack thereof? Has she freely consented, or is she being forced?” Blanche took a deeper swallow from her goblet.
“What difference does it make?” Raymond rubbed his upper lip with the knuckle of one finger. He did not want to be reminded of the possibility of a reluctant bride. “As you yourself point out, she is among the least of the advantages.”
Fresh color flooded Blanche’s cheeks, not entirely due to the imported Rhenish wine, Raymond decided.
“You will feel the difference, my lord. Every day.” She glanced at Giles. “And mayhap every night,” she added boldly, downing the last of her drink.
“I shall suit myself, whatever her position,” Raymond said.
“My lord,” Giles responded, “if I were you, I would succumb to whatever position she chose.” He gazed in apparent innocence at Lady Blanche, who leaned back and returned his look with glazed eyes. She hiccoughed, blushed, and Giles laughed aloud.
Raymond clamped his jaw and frowned. Leave it to Giles to get a lady drunk at the earliest opportunity. And Blanche should know better. Hamfast’s return is all that matters. And the rest can go to hell.
“Did you hear that?” Rhys put a finger to his lips and halted his horse on the shadowed forest path.
Ceridwen’s senses sharpened in alarm at the question, even as she shook her head “no.” The remote forest through which they passed bore a tense and forbidding air, as though the mountains only waited to rid themselves of unwanted passersby.
Huge groves of beech trees rustled in the breeze, and even here they held a faint tang of the sea. In barren places, rough fingers of black, lichened stone stuck up at odd angles. The Black Mountains were notorious for the bands of outlaws inhabiting their craggy peaks. Such men had no qualms about murdering travelers, whether Welsh or English.
Rhys headed the dozen men escorting her to Sir Raymond’s keep. The Englishman was supposed to have taken her back with him from Trefynwy. But upon retrieving his dog—and the pledge of her land—he had left as abruptly as he had arrived, without even meeting her. Ceridwen had been relieved at the time to be spared Raymond’s attention, in spite of the insult, but now she feared for her company’s safety.
“There it is again,” Rhys murmured.
Heavily armed with both shortbows and swords, the other men of her guard twisted in their saddles to look about, and quickly flanked her. Ceridwen jumped as a flock of small birds burst from the canopy of the thick woods to their left.
A whistling thud sounded. The horse between her and the forest screamed and began to go down, collapsing into her palfrey. Her mount lurched and lost its balance. She kicked her feet free of the stirrups as the animal careened onto its side. In a swirl of skirts she tumbled to the ground. Something hard struck her head and flashes of red and white exploded behind her eyes. Men shouted and horses whinnied.
“They have crossbows, Rhys! My lady!” Sir Dylan reached down for her hand, pulled Ceridwen up behind him and raced away. It was all she could do to hold on to him. Though her head spun and her heart was in her throat, she would gladly fight. The fear of waiting to be slain was worse than dying in action.
“Leave me, Dylan, I would rather help you than hide!”
Dylan galloped his horse a long way before he halted near a tangled growth of brambles, well out of sight from the lane.
“Do not be foolish, my lady. Crawl into that thicket. Do not make a sound. Don’t move a muscle until one of us comes for you. Do you swear?” He swung her down and held onto her hand, looking into her eyes. “Swear on your mother’s grave you will not follow me back.”
Ceridwen hesitated and he crushed her hand in his grip. Wincing, she relented. “I swear, Dylan, but—”
Before she could protest, he was pounding back towards the fray. She cursed him for the stubborn man that he was and felt for her dagger, only to find an empty sheath. With a separate twinge of panic, she checked the slim leather case at her waist. Her stomach was queasy and her head hurt, but she breathed easier when her fingers touched the warm ivory of her flute.
Ceridwen crept into the shelter of the brambles and resigned herself to wait. Her legs cramped, but she could not move without thorns poking her in a variety of tender spots. Waves of dizziness swept her. A spider descended on a thread in front of her nose. As time crawled by with no sign of Dylan’s return, worry gnawed deeper. Enough of obedience. She was a woman, not a mouse. Carefully she disentangled herself from the clinging vines. She abruptly stood upright, stars swirled before her eyes, and she pitched forward.
When Ceridwen woke, her head throbbed with a fierce ache. The day had waned. A fly buzzed around her nose, and she waved at it feebly. She had to find Rhys and the others. See that they were all alive. She wove her way back to the roadway. Dusk lay quiet on the forest, lending the air a smoky blue haze. A heavy stillness had settled, in ominous contrast to the faint clashes and shouts she had heard earlier. She walked along, ready to dart among the trees at the slightest sound of men.
Topping a rise, she looked at the site of the ambush. Nothing. Not a horse, nor a man, nor a piece of weaponry. She scrambled down the gentle slope and came to a skidding stop in the middle of the roadway. Frantically she searched the edges of the wood. Against her better judgment she shouted, calling out the names of the missing men, and even those of the horses.
It was as though they had been swallowed up into the fairy world and made invisible. She returned to examine the path, determined not to panic, not to weep. At first glance in the fading light, its muddy center yielded nothing but an unreadable maze of hoofprints. Kneeling, she touched the cold, wet soil. Her fingers were smeared with mud…and dark, red blood.
Ceridwen swallowed hard as the truth sank in. She had been left behind because Dylan was dead, or so badly injured he could not tell Rhys where he had hidden her. Perhaps they had searched for her and she had not heard them calling her name. In any event it was up to her now. But there was only one honorable way. East, towards the marcher lord’s domains.
Days later, Ceridwen sat by the dusty road, her back to a tree. The blisters on her feet stung, but her mind and the rest of her body were numbed by exhaustion. At least the forest had proved itself a friend. She had found berries and nuts enough to survive. A blessed spring had provided sweet, clear water. A hollow chestnut tree had served as haven. But she had walked and stumbled and ridden in oxcarts until she was too tired to weep, much less marry anyone.
Her state of dishevelment had saved her, she supposed. No one had looked twice at her. She had pushed on, determined to finish what her father had charged her to do. Over and over again, she told herself that Rhys and the others were yet alive.
At the sound of hoofbeats and laughter, Ceridwen got to her feet. Cursing her nearsightedness, she squinted as a glittering cavalcade approached. Horses pranced, jewels gleamed, and a banner proclaimed a white stag, symbol of the house of Beauchamp.
An extraordinarily handsome nobleman sat his horse, a hooded falcon upon one fist. His golden hair, cut blunt and short, contrasted with his dark eyebrows and tawny skin. The winered folds of his mantle glowed with the sheen of velvet, and the ermine lining quivered in the gusting wind. He held the reins of his palfrey with casual elegance, not sparing a glance to anyone afoot. Nay, he could not be her betrothed. Could he?
The small crowd of spectators muttered his name as he passed, and crossed themselves. So, this was Alonso the Fair, whose knights routinely slaughtered her people. Ceridwen’s eyes narrowed farther, and she tried to swallow against her dry throat. Alonso. Her future brother-in-law.
The baron and his retinue rode by, unheeding. If this was one of Alonso’s villages, it could not be all that far to Rookhaven, where Sir Raymond was lord. Carrog Dhu, the Black Dragon, as he was known to the Welsh.
Perhaps he did not even expect her. But her only course lay in going to him and throwing herself at his dubious mercy. She must get word to her father that she lived and find out what happened to Rhys and the others.
Ceridwen’s stomach rumbled and panged, interrupting her thoughts. Running her tongue over her lips, she tasted dust and salt. She watched as the villagers dispersed to warm cottages and hot food. A small boy stared up at her, his blue eyes wide. With a smile Ceridwen knelt to his level.
His mother ran to him and swept the boy into her arms. “Get away from decent folk, wanton. Go on with ye. Go!”
More people stopped to stare and whisper. The ill will they had summoned at the sight of Lord Alonso was now directed at her. A youth reached down and gathered a fistful of stones. To proclaim her worth would be a waste of time. These English needed someone to hurt, someone who could not retaliate.
Ceridwen eased her way through the villagers. She could feel their hostile stares, and sensed their restraint would be short-lived. She lengthened her stride, but something whistled past her ear even as a hard object struck her back. She flung her mantle aside, the better to run, and her pursuers might be satisfied with such a fine garment.
Ceridwen left the jeering villagers behind and tore across a fallow field towards the woods. For now, that was the only place to hide. The trees were old, majestic, their trunks thick and gnarled. As she ran scarlet and yellow leaves blew around her feet. Yew and ash, oak and linden rustled in the freshening breeze, beckoning her to take their shelter. A path disappeared into the dense array of trees.
Winded, she slowed and tried to focus on which way to go. But panic still claimed her. All the fear and pain and uncertainty of the past few days surged anew, bursting into a conflagration of emotions Ceridwen could no longer control.
She grabbed up her skirts and ran on. Brambles slapped at her, scratching her face and tearing at the green wool of her overgown. Her trailing hems, already soiled, grew heavy with mud. She raced against the heartbreak threatening to overwhelm her. Nothing mattered but to outdistance the pain.
Her breath rasped, and blood pounded in her aching temples. She would run until her heart burst and she was free of earthly bounds. Perhaps God would then forgive her for still harboring the wicked, unseemly passion of vengeance for Owain.
Ceridwen careened on, blinded by tears and her own shortsightedness. She collided with a solid object that had not been there a moment before. Thick arms engulfed her in a stink of rancid pork fat, sour ale and unwashed humanity.
“Oy! Hold on, what have we here?” A beefy young man swung her around, casually trapping her against a tree trunk.
Breathless, Ceridwen stared up at his sweaty face, too close to her own. Her heart sank. Wild beasts were one thing. Beastly men were quite another. She fought to free herself.
He grinned, snaggletoothed.
The tree bark dug into her back. “Let me go. I—I bear a message for my lady. You will have cause to regret delaying me.” She regretted her lack of skill at telling falsehoods, not to mention her imperfect command of English.
“Your lady, eh? I doubt that, since there ain’t none in these parts. Where’s the message then? Where have ye hid it on yer fine wee person?” His hand plunged between her breasts.
Ceridwen ducked under his arm, but the man caught a fistful of her loose hair and slammed her back against the tree. She gasped in pain as her already sore head bounced on the wood, and for once regretted not cutting her hair short, as did most of her countrywomen.
“Don’t be runnin’ off now, pretty.” His voice was congenial, his touch vicious. One greasy palm slid from her cheek to squeeze her throat. Deftly he pulled up her skirts with the other, climbing her thigh as she choked in his grip. She had the distinct impression he’d done this before.
“Ready for me now, wench? Hmm?”
Thick fingers kneaded her buttock. Pools of black flowed into her vision, spread, and merged. Ceridwen fought desperately to breathe, to knee him. She twisted her head. His hand slipped from her neck to grab at her breast. He laughed.
“Think yer too good fer me? Well, I’ll make ye rue that pride, girl. I’ll humble ye right proper.”
Ceridwen inhaled deeply through her mouth. She lunged and bit down on his wrist. Tendons rolled beneath her teeth. The young man howled and began to throttle her in earnest. Her feet left the ground as he lifted her by the neck. She tried to kick but her legs would not obey. Ceridwen shut her eyes. She would die…she had to breathe…
“Come away, my lord. We have avoided Alonso thus far and there’s no time for sport.”
“Go on, then,” came the curt reply.
The foreign, male voices barely registered as Ceridwen struggled for her life. A rumble of hoofbeats vibrated through the tree at her back. Faintly, through the roaring in her ears, she heard a hideous growl. Then her assailant grunted, and his hands fell from her body.
A searing pain lanced Ceridwen’s abdomen, right below her ribs. She dropped to the ground like a sack of meal. Gratefully, she sucked in lungfuls of air. Never had the simple act of breathing been so sweet. Gulping air until the pain in her middle forced her to stop, Ceridwen lay in a heap and shivered, her eyes clenched shut, forcing back tears.
A hand slipped beneath her neck and gently raised her head. Ceridwen thrashed against it until another hand pressed hard on her stomach, right where it hurt the most. She moaned and opened her eyes to gaze into those of a stranger.
Flinty, cold, and blue. A wave of relief washed over her. It was not the same man who had attacked her. But…the accent of nobility, the hard expression. An Englishman. And no common one at that. She stiffened in renewed fear, and slowly, his features resolved into clarity.
What a face to belong to an enemy, she thought, in spite of her alarm. His hair was hidden beneath his mail coif, but his eyebrows and lashes were thick and dark. The clean line of his jaw was shadowed with stubble. He was blessed with a straight, unbroken nose and smooth skin. His mouth was wide, with a small bunch of muscle at each corner. It was a mouth made for smiling, but remained set in a grim line.
“Forgive me, ’demoiselle, for I have wounded thee.” His voice was deep, rich—and devoid of warmth.
“What…wound? What do you mean?” Ceridwen looked down at herself in horrified disbelief. A dark stain seeped in an ever-widening circle from beneath the leather-gauntleted fingers upon her abdomen. “Oh! Oh, it hurts.”
The knight took her hand and pushed it against the warm, sticky mess on her overgown as he slid his own away. She felt a hole in the fabric and another in herself. This could not be happening. Ceridwen watched in dread as he knelt beside her and unsheathed his dagger. But she refused to cry out at the wave of terror his act induced.
“Nay, do not do it. Not yet,” she implored him in a hoarse whisper, her fingertips barely touching his knee. “I have not yet confessed.”
“What? Speak French. Or English.” He frowned and brushed her hand away with an impatient flick of his fingers. He untied his belt, placed it to one side, then hitched a length of his surcoat up into his lap.
Ceridwen had not realized she’d slipped into Welsh. She tried again, barely able to form intelligible words. “The coup-de-grace. Am I mortally wounded? Will I die slowly unless y-you finish me off?” Rising panic urged her to run, but her head spun and her muscles felt like jelly, as though she had been fevered for days. Each breath moved her abdomen and caused fresh shards of pain. Perhaps he was right to put her out of her misery.
An odd look of sorrow flitted across the knight’s face. But it vanished almost before she caught it, to be replaced by a stony, unreadable expression. With exaggerated care, he held the dagger up for her to see, the blade balanced between his thumb and forefinger. He then proceeded to slice a large piece of linen from the lining of his surcoat.
“You are not skewered nearly so completely as the knave. I misjudged his girth. From behind I thought him fatter than he was.” He folded the cloth neatly and bound it against her wound with the woven belt.
Relief washed over Ceridwen as she realized the knight had not saved her only to kill her himself. “Mayhap the man was going to stab me anyway,” she said, and flinched as the Englishman gave the binding a final tightening twist. Her glance strayed to the body of her attacker, sprawled on the reddened ground, his mouth gaping. Even as she averted her eyes her stomach lurched.
“He wished to run something into you, that is true.” The Englishman unfastened his mantle and draped the thick gray material about her shoulders.
Ceridwen felt uneasy at these words, but their meaning escaped her reeling mind. She could not seem to stop shaking. Gratitude accompanied warmth as the knight enveloped her in the coarse garment. He scooped her up and, stepping around the dead man’s body, carried her towards his horse. Afraid to look, she hid her face in the hollow of the warrior’s sturdy shoulder.
The mail rings bit into her cheek despite his surcoat, which still smelled like the damp wool of his mantle. She touched her throat as she swallowed. It felt raw inside and tender on the outside. Harness jingled, and she heard the restless stamping of several horses. She peeked out of the corner of one eye.
At least five men waited. They did not appear pleased at the delay. She kept her forehead pressed against the Englishman. He was all that stood between her and the others. She hoped he could control his men. If he had wanted her for himself, she reasoned, he would be pawing her already.
“Let me take the wench for you, my lord,” someone said.
Ceridwen trembled involuntarily.
“Nay.” The knight plucked her arm from his neck and made her stand. “Can you ride pillion and hold onto me from behind?”
Clutching her middle, she looked up at him. At least his un-smiling expression did not belittle her weakness. But those eyes…dark blue, like the sea on a sunny day. Cold and glittering. She shivered. The very timbre of his voice increased the wobble of her knees. She didn’t think she could hold on to anything for much longer.
“Right.” Without waiting for her reply, he deftly unsaddled his horse. She realized he meant her to sit before him, for the war saddle would have left no room. Then, to her acute dismay, he reached down between her ankles. Gathering up the bottom of her skirts, he pulled the back towards the front and on upwards. He thrust the wad of fabric into her hand and boosted her onto the sweaty back of the tall, black destrier.
Astride the horse, Ceridwen wanted to double over in pain, but the snug binding the knight had fashioned for her wound prevented it. Her legs were not covered and she could not help but feel exposed before the foreign warriors. But she was in their lord’s debt.
“I owe you thanks. I owe you my life,” she whispered, and huddled miserably, clutching the horse’s mane with both hands as the animal tossed its head.
“You owe me nothing.” He swung up with ease to sit behind her. “Shift forward a bit. Do not expect me to keep you from falling. I may need both hands free, if we find more trouble.” Thankful for his matter-of-fact tone, Ceridwen obeyed. She stifled a moan as the horse lurched into a canter. The knight slowed the eager animal to a brisk walk.
“Wace.” His words carried despite their low pitch.
A young man’s voice replied, “My lord?”
“Ride ahead. Send someone back for my saddle. And tell Alys to prepare for a belly wound.”
The Englishman’s breath disturbed Ceridwen’s hair and warmed her neck. His resonant voice vibrated from his chest through her back, sending a ripple of sensation up her spine. But even as she felt it, he leaned away and broke the contact.
“Aye, milord.” Wace galloped off, his master’s shield bouncing at his back.
Ceridwen glimpsed the coat of arms. A white stag upon a split field of green, a black dragon coiling below. Her heart faltered and with her sudden intake of breath came a fresh stab of agony in her middle. She bit back a moan. God help her, she was already in the possession of men in the service of Alonso. A black dragon…she must know for certain the identity of the one who held her.
“What do I call you?” Painfully, Ceridwen twisted her head around to look at him. At this range, his features were perfectly clear. Glacial eyes stared straight ahead. His compelling face held no expression. He tipped his head to the side and lifted his chin, avoiding touching her. She saw an old scar in the soft area under his jaw.
Apparently he did not want to answer. Whatever his name, he was just another warring border-lord. But she was fooling herself. Deep inside, she knew exactly who he was.
“Raymond.” He growled the name and still did not meet her gaze as he spoke.
Ceridwen’s heart felt as though it curled into a tight, protective ball, and renewed embarrassment leaped to compete with her fright. She represented her people, and she looked like a ragged mendicant. It was shameful. Beauchamp had picked her up under the most undignified of circumstances. Her good intentions of carrying through with the marriage dwindled in the terrifying face of his physical reality.
She was afraid to tell him who she was. No matter what reassurance her father had given, she had no reason to disbelieve the rumors. And she had heard them aplenty. Bards and wayfarers passing through her father’s lands told tales. Lord Raymond’s reputation was that of a ravening wolf, the worst of the pack headed by his elder brother, Alonso. A cursed, dark knight, folk said.
She stole another glance at his face. Stiff and grim. As though it were set in granite. He had barely glanced at her, and she was grateful for his disinterest. He had wed a lovely maid, so the story went, until one cold night her body was found floating among the reeds in his moat. It was said he caught her with a lover, and in his rage hurled her from the top of the keep. The dead girl had probably been close to her own age. A shudder convulsed Ceridwen and she pressed her arm against the rising clamor of her wound as the horse’s motion rocked her to and fro.
Raymond wrapped his woolen mantle more closely about her body. She shrank from his touch and yet relished the warmth. No doubt he could be charming when he chose to be. Charming but so very wicked. When he gathered up the reins, she saw that the fingers of his gauntlets were soggy and dark. Blood-soaked.
Her blood as well as the villein’s. Her heart protested, but there was no escaping the truth. This man had saved her life, and she was beholden to him. She also belonged to him, even if he did not yet realize it. But for a little time, she could pretend freedom.
For hours they wound through the hilly forest, climbing slowly. She tried to avoid resting against him, but it proved impossible. Her head fell back onto his shoulder when she was too tired to hold it up, and after the first few times he stopped shrugging her off. Her fear gradually eased with the soothing rhythm of the horse’s walk, and her own exhaustion. She drifted in and out of wakefulness, watching the bright sky pale above the silhouettes of swaying treetops.
The daylight waned, and the thick smell of damp leaves gave way to a fresher crispness as they traveled higher. The wind sang through the rowans. If she had not been in such pain, or known who held her, it might have been a pleasant journey.
The harsh caw of rooks and the hollow thud of hooves on a drawbridge startled Ceridwen into alertness. Men shouted greetings. She looked up in time to see a corpse gently swaying. It hung in an iron cage from a gibbet on the outer curtain wall of what must be Sir Raymond’s keep—Rookhaven, and well named. A row of ravens perched on the battlements above the body. Ceridwen covered her mouth and squeezed her eyes shut until they were past the gruesome sight. A prenuptial Welsh patriot, perhaps. A fitting adornment to the castle of a Beauchamp.
They passed beneath the spikes of the portcullis and into the main ward of a dark, crumbling edifice. Not what she expected of such a lord. Anxiety mixed with the dread already churning in the pit of her stomach. Like the tower before her, her promise to marry him loomed as an impossible monstrosity.
Men bearing hissing torches hurried to meet them and held the bridle of his restive animal as Raymond dismounted. He caught Ceridwen and carried her with long, rapid strides across the cobbled courtyard and up the narrow stairs of the keep.
Heavy, ironclad doors opened before them as servants and men-at-arms scurried to seek their master’s will. There were bows and murmured welcomes, all of which he ignored. His attention, it seemed, was now fixed upon her alone.
Sir Raymond’s arms were hard beneath her shoulders and knees, his steps sure and silent. A faint smell of roasted fowl lingered in the air above the reek of the hall, and despite her pain and weariness, Ceridwen’s mouth watered. She looked up past Raymond’s face, avoiding his frowning gaze.
The upper reaches of the large hall disappeared into gloom, and though a fire crackled in the center of the floor, it made little impact on either the cold or the dark. A stout, wrinkle-faced woman hurried over and touched Ceridwen’s cheek with the back of her hand. The crone peered at her in the light of the fat candle she held.
“Welcome to Rookhaven, lass. ’Tis Alys am I, and who’ll see ye to bed.” The woman’s gap-toothed smile vanished as she turned her attention to Raymond. “What have ye done? Her neck’s purple. Her face is all bruised. Hmmph!”
The knight exchanged looks with the old woman. Hers was one of disapproval. His was unreadable, except for the unrelenting tightness around his mouth. He swept past her and took Ceridwen into a small chamber, fragrant with mint. Carefully he laid her on a narrow bed, but her relief was short-lived. Raymond threw down his bloodstained gauntlets and began to unbind her wound.
“You are overly familiar, sir. Take your hands from me,” Ceridwen whispered, too drained to meet his eyes. Under the circumstances, he was not likely to believe her if she claimed to be his betrothed. But it was her duty to tell him the truth, and he had no right to manhandle the daughter of Morgan ap Madog.
Raymond paused at her objection, threw her a quelling look as she opened her mouth to reveal her name, then continued with his task. He gave up on her lacings and simply ripped the fabric, using the hole his sword had made as a starting point.
Ceridwen shrieked and tried to pull away.
“Jesu, woman! You’re worse than any eel.” Mercilessly he held her to the position he desired, using his knee on her thighs and his elbow across her chest. “I would see for myself what damage I have done. I do not trust the reports of others.”
Ceridwen gritted her teeth as his fingers probed her wound.
“I am sorry to hurt you. But have no fear for your modesty. I look upon thee as I would any wounded creature.”
“I am not a creature!” She squirmed and bucked in spite of the pain. “I am—”
“Tsk. My lord Raymond. ’Tis but a young lass here ye have. She’ll not be understanding yer ways,” the crone chided, her chins wagging.
“Nor has she any need to understand. Her only duty to me is to lie still.” He directed his last two words to Ceridwen, writhing beneath his hands.
“She has no duty to ye a-tall!”
“Alys, you try my patience.” His eyes gleamed a warning to the old nurse.
She glared back. “Be that as it may, young master Raymond, ye’re not needed here. In fact, ye’re in the way.”
Ceridwen marvelled at the woman’s familiar treatment of her sinister lord. She thought she heard a low growl sounding from Sir Raymond’s throat, but her own pain distracted her. Abruptly his warm hands left her abdomen, and his knee lifted from her legs. The large bulk of Alys overshadowed her, clucking and muttering as she applied a pungent salve to the wound.
Ceridwen turned her head and fixed her gaze on the retreating back of the dark knight. The play of candlelight glanced off the mail covering his arms. The heavy, deep blue fabric of his surcoat rippled dully. As he reached the door, he pulled his coif from his head. With a small shock she saw that he was fair. Thick, brassy hair, with a tawny brown beneath the light outer layers, like an animal’s pelt, tumbled past his shoulders.
Similar to Alonso, yet wholly different. Haughty, aye. But Ceridwen was surprised to sense no vanity in this Beauchamp. He was neither as tall nor as broad as his elder brother. But he commanded a powerful, forbidding presence that had nothing to do with size. A fair-haired knight. A black horse. Bloody hands. She swallowed as her memory stirred. Long ago Owain had told her a story, of a maiden who met just such a man. At the time, she had thought it a tale of his own imagining. But Owain had known of things to come, and saw things hidden—had it been a warning? Now she could not remember how it ended.
Raymond turned and regarded her over his shoulder. Their eyes met, and for an instant Ceridwen thought she felt compassion sing across the room to her. Then his handsome face shuttered, the light extinguished like a candle snuffed out by a cold wind.
She blinked, and Raymond vanished into the darkness beyond the door. Tomorrow. She would tell him her name tomorrow.
“Damn. Damn. Thrice be damned!” Raymond cursed his way up a dank stairway of his ancient fortress, his wolfhound padding alongside. He had never bothered to improve upon the meager comforts of his keep, and drafts blew freely in the stone halls. Cobwebs were the only hangings to soften the chill.
The wench was trouble. A whole realm of it. A shudder of longing coursed through him at the remembrance of her fine features and delicate bones. Just as Meribel’s had been. Raymond pushed his lady’s visage back and it merged into that of the wounded maiden. She was exquisite, despite the fact she was dirty and bedraggled, her long hair all in rat’s-nests.
It was the kind of hair he loved, soft and fine and black. And those upslanted eyes, deep with unspoken sorrow, shifting from sea-green to emerald. Eyes that sometimes glowed, lit from within by a pure fire, whether born of a fighting spirit or fever, he could not tell. Aye, a comely bundle, much too lovely for comfort. Why had he bothered spitting a perfectly able man to save her skin in the first place?
Perhaps it had been young Wace’s look of anguish at seeing a girl about to be ravished. Perhaps because by saving the virtue of one maid, he could partially make up for the multitude of despoilings his brother perpetrated in the name of his rights as lord. A laughable thought. Who was he, Raymond, to pretend honor after what he had done to his own wife?
Her image leaped to torment him, as ever. Meribel, floating in the noisome moat. Her eyes, once sparkling with both merriment and malice, now dull, open and staring. Heedless of the strands of green water-weed tangling in her long lashes. Beyond caring that her gown drifted up her white thighs, gleaming through the murky water.
Raymond groaned and with an effort that cost him dear, willed her away, his eyes tightly shut. Slowly she faded to a mere shadow on the periphery of his mind. Faint, but never fully banished.
The cur he had dispatched had not deserved such a clean, swift stroke. Raymond hoped he had not also ultimately killed the black-haired maid. He had seen no viscera emerging through her wound, and only good, red blood flowing, nothing green or foul-smelling. Hopeful signs, but it was too soon to tell.
“Wace!” Raymond reached the landing, kicked open the door of his solar, and the squire hurried to his side. “Disarm me and bring some hot water.” He tossed his gauntlets and coif onto the bed, where his huge dog was already circling to settle down for the night. For some reason, the sight did not bring its usual satisfaction.
Silently Wace unstrapped his master’s sword and dagger. He lifted off the flowing surcoat and sighed when he saw the ruined lining. Raymond ignored the small censure and leaned forward as if to touch his toes. The heavy mail hauberk slithered down over his head into Wace’s waiting hands. The boy then untied the mail chausses, and Raymond shook them from his legs.
He should have gone to the armory to remove his harness, to save Wace the work of hauling it down, but it was too late now. Raymond started to unlace his haqueton, then hugged the padded under-jacket to his sides. “I will wait ’til the water arrives.” Their breath plumed in the room and an awkward silence fell. Raymond stepped to the brazier to poke the fire back to life.
“My lord.” Wace fidgeted.
Raymond looked at his squire. The rangy boy was new to his service, and still a bit shy of him. Wace’s former lord had lived as violently as he had died, and the lad bore the scars to prove it. His auburn hair hung thick and straight about his solemn face, and his eyes were serious.
“Speak your mind, lad.” Raymond sat on his bed, leaned back upon his elbows and stretched his wool-clad legs.
“I was wondering…what will you do with the maid?”
Raymond stroked his beloved Hamfast, and the dog raised an eyebrow and licked his hand. No woman could offer such devotion. “Do with her? I shall do nothing with her. Or to her, or for her. Does that answer your question?”
Raymond responded with a mirthless sound, part grunt, part laugh. The boy looked displeased, if he was not mistaken. “I see. Are you concerned with the fulfillment of knightly vows? Do not be. She’ll not starve.” Not with a face like that.
“But is it not true, that once you’ve saved a person’s life—even that of a woman—you’re bound together from that moment forward? You have a responsibility to her now, and she owes a debt to you, does she not?” Wace insisted.
Raymond sat up, rubbing his scarred knuckles. “I hold her to no debt. She is free. The sooner she goes, the better.”
Wace’s brow creased into a frown. “She displeases you.”
“Aye, so she does. I wish never to have sight of her again. She is a distraction, when I am bound to wed another.” Raymond jumped to his feet. “Enough! By Abelard’s ballocks, where is that water?”
The boy stepped back, his eyes wide. Raymond wiped his forehead with his palm and took a deep breath. “Wace, I shout a great deal. Do not take it to heart. Whatever ill-use you have suffered, you, at least, will never feel my hand in anger.”
Wace nodded, and executed a slight bow before leaving the room. Raymond sank down again and put his head in his hands. God help me. Breaking in a new squire was like settling a high-strung colt. So much potential needing care.
He knew firsthand how best to encourage traits of value, and how to quell the rest without ruining a boy’s spirit. It was a lot of work. And he already had a lot of work. To gather a body of trained men, arm them, and go forth to raze Alonso’s keep to the ground. It would be a bitter disappointment to Wace, when he shattered the boy’s idealism on the proper conduct of a knight to his lord. But then, neither I, nor my lord brother are proper knights.
Ceridwen knew she still dreamed, on the brink of awakening. Strong arms held her tenderly, featherlight kisses rained upon her face and neck. It was no one she knew, yet she had known him forever. He was warm, solid, and all hers. She kept her eyes closed, reluctant to break the fragile spell of pleasure.
But fingers of sunlight plucked at her lids, demanding that she wake. Her arms stuck damply to her sides and she was too warm. She slid the scratchy blanket down her torso. Pain stabbed through the drowsiness as her wound pulled, and she gasped. Someone next to her coughed. A deep, male sound.
She opened her eyes, and a small cry of dismay left her lips. From his seat beside the bed, Sir Raymond surveyed her. Ceridwen dragged the blanket back over her breasts and up to her chin. He was distressingly handsome in the morning light.
He had shaved, and wore a simple tunic of undyed linen beneath his sleeveless surcoat. The bland color accentuated his bright hair and healthy skin, though his fathomless eyes were shadowed with fatigue. She could not tell what he thought of her, and tried not to care.
“How do you feel?” The smooth voice was neutral.
“I am well, sir.” She felt herself redden and clutched the blanket tighter. “I need no checking of my bandages, thank you,” Ceridwen added, hoping to forestall any delicate ministrations he might have in mind. She shivered as a chill swept her body.
“Of course not. I have already done that while you slept. Unless you want Alys—” Raymond half stood.
“No thank you, my lord.” He’d attended her while she slept? And what else? Ceridwen stared at him, willing his departure. He resumed his seat. His gaze lingered on her face, then he narrowed his eyes before looking away.
Ceridwen felt a surge of relief to be free of his inspection. But no one had the right to inspire such dread at the mere mention of his name, then be so…quiet. She had expected a bellowing, red-faced, brutish sort, and instead, she found him graceful, wasting none of his movements, with strong hands and a lean, muscular frame. Thus far Sir Raymond had impressed her with his air. Not one of contentment or ease, but of something powerful lying in wait, holding itself in check.
He returned his dark gaze to her. “What is your name?”
“Ceridwen.” She bit her lip, awaiting his outrage at the poor bargain he’d made for the return of his dog.
“That explains it.” His stare grew more intense.
She swallowed. No reaction. It dawned on her that he might not have bothered to learn the given name of his bride-to-be. That was how little he thought of her. Ceridwen’s knuckles whitened on the edge of the blanket. “Explains what?”
“How you are so small and dark, in a land of fair Amazons.”
Ceridwen looked at Raymond in bewilderment. What did her size or coloring have to do with her name…unless he meant she looked as many Welshwomen did? A spark of anger ignited within her breast as his cool eyes appraised her, then dismissed her. She would far rather be small and dark than some lumbering blond troll. Especially if the latter was his preference.
“How came you to be wandering in the wildwood? ’Tis no place for a man on his own, let alone a woman. There are things there, best left undisturbed,” he warned her sternly.
“The wildwood is lovely in its own way, but aye, I wish I had not disturbed that man who tried to throttle me.”
“I, for one, have only found trouble in those woods. That is why I race through them. I might easily have not seen you. Especially with that great lout blocking my view.”
“I am sorry to have inconvenienced you.”
“Think nothing of it. ’Twas my pleasure.” Raymond stifled a yawn, and stretched his arms behind him.
Ceridwen’s eyes widened. His pleasure? To kill a man, justified or not? He spoke of it so casually. Just another bloodletting—good sport. But what else could she expect? His fame had grown from the merciless fury he displayed, never accepting defeat at the hands of his enemies. Her people.
It was said he routinely destroyed farms and hamlets on his raids of acquisition. Rumor even had it that churches had burned by his command, to demoralize rebellious vassals. All to satisfy the greed and blood lust typical of his whole family.
She must not let his present mildness lull her into forgetting who and what he was. Ceridwen eased herself deeper under the covers. She had no defenses against him, in her weakened state. Why did he not go away and leave her alone?
Raymond spoke again, still not looking at her. “Who is your father, or husband? To whom do I return you?”
Ceridwen suppressed the leap of joy his words evoked. She could not go home, and he needed to be jolted out of his rude disregard. She glared at him, with what she hoped was an expression of fierce independence. “I am Ceridwen of Llyn y Gareg Wen. My father is Morgan ap Madog. And you are my husband.”
Raymond’s head snapped up, his face pale. He stood, then sat down again. “Nay…she is but—you cannot be—”
“Why not? ’Tis not the person that is important, but the pact. If I do not please you, that is regrettable, but be assured I find the prospect of wedding you no more appealing.”
“I did not expect you to find me appealing. I will force myself upon no one. Do as you will, go where you like.”
His defensive attitude surprised Ceridwen. She had feared once he realized she was his betrothed he would simply take what was his due. All the more frightening a prospect when she was not certain exactly what constituted…his due.
He continued, “However, Lord Morgan can count upon my good faith. I will marry his daughter, as promised. If in fact you are who you claim to be.”
“My word is as good as yours, sir.”
Raymond studied her, his blue eyes sharp and unforgiving. “You might have told me sooner.”
“I tried. I kept getting interrupted—”
“And you fear me.”
“Nay,” Ceridwen lied, twisting the blanket in her fingers.
A rueful smile curved Raymond’s lips. “If you do not, you would be wise to.” He reached down and stroked the shoulder of a large, hairy dog snoring in the rushes at his feet.
“What is that?” Ceridwen peered in alarm at the great beast, with its tangle of impossibly long legs and rough fur.
The knight narrowed his gaze. “You did not meet, whilst he was your…guest?”
So this was the hostage wolfhound. Her rival. The Lord of Rookhaven’s first love. The thought was so ludicrous Ceridwen had to cough in order to smother a giggle. Both actions hurt dreadfully, and she forced herself to be still. “Nay. I assure you I had nothing to do with that, sir.”
Raymond returned his attention to the dog. “This is Hamfast. My wolfhound. He hunts with me, eats with me, and sleeps with me. He will not harm you.”
His pride in the ungainly creature was evident.
Ceridwen nodded. “My brother, Rhys, cared for him with all due courtesy. But, sir…” She swallowed the sudden lump in her throat. “We had trouble in the beech-wood pass of the mountains, and I was separated from my people.”
He arched one dark eyebrow. “You astound me. ’Tis a long way to come afoot and alone, milady.”
“Mother Mary smiled upon me.”
Raymond eyed her dubiously. “No doubt.”
She fought the stinging behind her eyelids. “I am afraid they are lost. P-perhaps dead.”
His perpetual frown deepened. “I will send a search party.”
“I thank you for that, sir. And please, get word to my father that I yet live.”
At this, a pained look crossed Raymond’s face, and he gave her a curt nod. Not knowing what to think, Ceridwen forged ahead. “Do I or do I not have your word that I may take up residence as your lady—in name only?”
She shivered again, this time at her own audacity. If he did not want her, she’d not be used as a…a convenience. He could keep a—what were they called?—concubine for that. There it was again. She was not quite sure what that meant, or what concubines did. It was an area she must address, and soon. But for now…“Y-you said you would not force—”
“I know what I said.” Raymond placed his palms on his knees and rose to his feet. “Once we are wed I care not what you do. Just keep out of my way. And do not have a mind to changing things. I am happy with my current arrangements.” Hard-eyed again, he turned toward the door.
Ceridwen sniffed. “You do not look happy to me.”
Raymond’s back stiffened, and he reversed his departure. His gaze bored into Ceridwen as if he could see through her and liked not what he saw. “Right you are, milady.”
It was not what she had expected him to say. He snapped his fingers at the hound. Hamfast woke and sat up next to her bed, one huge paw resting on the blankets, his brown eyes sorrowful. Tentatively, Ceridwen held her hand out for him to nose.
Halfway to the door, Raymond turned and spoke a quiet command. The dog’s lips drew back as if in a smile, then he returned to his master’s side. The door flew inward and Alys narrowly missed careening into her lord as she trundled through, her arms full of linens. After a last swift glance at Ceridwen, Raymond guided Alys back out into the hallway.
Ceridwen could hear the low rumble of his voice, but could not make out the words.
After a few moments Alys returned.
“Himself says yer poorly, and to take extra good care ye don’t give up the ghost,” the old nurse said bracingly.
“Did he, now? There’s naught wrong with me. I am only a bit tired.” Ceridwen tried to swallow the tendril of fear creeping higher within her. He must know, merely by looking at her, that the wound had gone bad. She could feel it too, though she did not want to face it. The fever, the chills, her clammy skin.
“Here. These are the finest linens anywhere’s out of Ireland. You’ll be more comfy swaddled with them betwixt ye and this wool. And now for my special hot compress, to draw the churl’s evil humors from ye.”
“What’s that you said?” Ceridwen asked weakly, not sure that she wanted to know. English terms still challenged her.
“Sir Raymond said his sword carried the churl’s evil humors, from his foul gut into yer own sweet body. I’m to draw them out, or he’ll see my hide nailed to the barbican.” Alys chuckled.
Alongside numerous others, no doubt. “Oh. Ahhh!” The steaming bag of herbs settled on Ceridwen’s wound.
“If yer not better by the morrow, Himself’ll send young Wace to find a physick, to bleed out the illness right proper.”
“I will be better. I promise.” No one would bleed her. Himself’s plan must be to frighten her into wellness, to be rid of her faster. Would he be disappointed if she did not recover? That he might be pleased wasn’t out of the question. He would have her lands without the trouble she herself represented. Had he not killed his first wife, once he had spent her wealth?
Ceridwen pushed the dreadful thought to the back of her mind. No Beauchamp would outdo a woman of the Cymraeg. She would leave only when it suited her to do so. After she found the knight in Alonso’s pay who had slain her cousin, and made him dearly regret what he had done.
Perhaps as Raymond’s wife she might achieve that end…if she survived. But right now she could not face the prospect of his hands on her again. His touch made her so very uncomfortable. Hot and cold and tingly. As though there was an emptiness within herself she had never known needed filling.
A cricket chirped from a corner of the candlelit sickroom. Raymond gnawed his thumbnail as he gazed at the sleeping girl. Her limbs twitched with fever. Her skin was translucent, and her body had wasted over the last several days. He had watched many a good man die slowly, and it never got any easier.
The pompous fool of a physician he had summoned from Chepstow had done nothing helpful. Alys’s simples and balms had better effect. Now it was only a matter of time. Ceridwen’s pain would cease, either through death or recovery.
But he could scarcely believe how he seemed to feel—as though he would shatter if he had to witness either her demise or her departure. And if she stayed, he would eventually destroy her. As he had his young wife.
Why was he drawn to this woman? Why had he sat here each night until the wee hours, guarding her sleep like some great oaf of a dog? She was no one to him. Of no concern at all. But if he did not follow through with the marriage the clever lord Morgan would plague him without end. Not to mention the fact he would lose the lands of her dowry.
Raymond winced at the memory of how Ceridwen had taken his clumsy description of her. Small and dark indeed. He had wanted to explain, to tell her the truth—that in his eyes she was perfectly formed, of ebony and cream. Spun of mountain mists and heather, so fragile she might break at his touch.
But he could not allow himself to become fond of her, or her of him. Even were it possible, she would only suffer for it. To love a Beauchamp was to court disaster. And a Beauchamp in love was a creature out of control.
If he had no feeling for her, and vice versa, it would not matter so much if they were wed. He might be a decent, dutiful husband, so long as his heart remained detached. But he was a mangler of love relations. Any small chance of happiness had been ground to dust by the circumstance of his birth into the noble family Beauchamp, where loyalty to one’s lord rose above all other virtues and desires.
Raymond leaned his head on his palm and gazed at Ceridwen. Her lips were full, now pale, but when first he had seen her, the color of sunlit wine. In spite of his determination to remain aloof, he wondered how they would taste. How she would respond if he were to kiss them.
She sighed in her sleep and her dark lashes fluttered. Raymond closed his eyes. His head ached. At least he could do her the honor of carrying on a bedside vigil without lusting after her. He had to leave the chamber, before he did something he would regret.
Rising, Raymond entered the adjoining room where Alys slept. From there he took the stairs of one of the corner turrets above the main living quarters. He climbed them to the top and found the watchroom empty. The trees below cast black shadows over the moonswept land, and the marsh waters glittered as the breeze caressed them, their dark depths reflecting silver. An enchanted night. Like the one that had put an end to his foolish ideas about love and faith.
Inexorably his mind dragged him back towards the place he swore never to return to, and yet despaired of ever finding again. He took a cautious approach to the slippery remembrance of when his heart had loved freely, with no taint of suspicion poisoning each glance and touch.
The memory was hateful to him, because to love meant willingness to embrace pain beyond measure. To trust was to risk the loss of not only the beloved, but his own soul. He had loved his wife. Immoderately. Passionately. Wholeheartedly and without reserve. And his love had been rewarded by betrayal and death. Never again.
Raymond ran down the stairs. He could bear no more waiting. To hell with the land, to hell with Morgan ap Madog. Ceridwen was as good as dead, with or without him as husband. And once he openly defied Alonso, he himself would not be long for this world. He must do what was best for her—and that meant getting her out of Rookhaven.
In the women’s chamber he searched for the nurse among the tangle of serving-girls she allowed in her bed to benefit from her warmth and protection. Nudging her awake, Raymond whispered to her, his voice fierce and desperate even to his own ears. “I must leave now. I will be away a fortnight. When I return, I want Morgan’s daughter gone from here.”
He heard an intake of breath. One of the maids—Shona, no doubt—was awake and listening. He turned his head in her direction and she vanished under the covers with a squeak.
“If—when she dies,” Raymond continued, “take the silver from the small chest in my solar. Pay for her burial in a great church, in a place far from here, and for as many prayers as it will buy. If by some miracle she lives, give the silver into her hands and send her to the convent near Usk, where Morgan can find her. Provide her an escort. Someone from outside the keep, unknown to me. I want it to be as if I had never brought her here. Do you understand?”
“Aye, milord, all too well. Oh, Raymond, what happened to the sweet lad I once knew? You’ll not wipe away the pain of Meribel this way.” Alys’s voice choked with tears. “This lass is the finest thing to come under your roof since—”
“What do you know, old woman? Keep your witchy words of wisdom for those foolish enough to listen. Do as I say or suffer the consequences.”
“You’ll be the one to suffer, Raymond. Mark my words.”
A chill shuddered through him, for she spoke with the certainty of an oracle. “Your words are too late.” Already he had suffered beyond endurance. Leaving Alys he wrenched open the door of the infirmary. He wanted one more look at his never-to-be bride.
She lay as though already dead, waxen and still. Raymond bent over her to reassure himself that her chest still rose and fell. His hand drifted toward her forehead, then withdrew without touching her skin. Why go through such torture, watching her fade? She hated and feared him like the rest, he had seen it in her narrowed eyes. He meant nothing to her but pain.
As Raymond lingered at the door, memorizing Ceridwen’s face, her eyes opened and met his. Her lips curved into a poignant smile that tore at his heart. Without thinking, he retraced his steps to her bed. He knelt beside her, his hands on either side of her face, and his mouth came down upon hers in an aching, sweet caress. He gave her all the tenderness he denied in himself, all the caring parts he no longer acknowledged, distilled and concentrated into one potent kiss.
Ceridwen drifted in and out of her dreamworld. She had seen Owain, standing by the door, love shining from his eyes. He had come to tell her he wanted her to return home to her family—to him. She’d smiled to let him know how grateful she was. How happy she was to have him here.
He came to her, to hold her once again, to give her a kiss of peace and absolution. His face was a blur—she could hardly see it—but she caught a flash of dark blue eyes. How could that be, when Owain’s were brown?
Instead of kissing her forehead, or cheek, or even the tip of her nose as he was wont to do when she was small, she felt his mouth upon hers. Warm and smooth. He smelled like freshly honed steel, and the oil to stop its rusting. Like horses and sheepskin. And something else, underneath it all, a rare, earthy aroma. It was intoxicating. His kiss burned like strong drink, heady and uplifting. She could feel it pouring into her, a humming vibration of weightless, light-filled energy. It was rich and pure and heavenly.
It was not Owain.
The realization hit Ceridwen as he rose to his feet and turned away. Her vision cleared and she saw his bright hair, his dark surcoat as he swept out the door. Raymond. Her enemy. Her betrothed. One of a whole fraternity of murderers and rapists. Her stomach lurched. She rubbed her lips, tried to wipe away the sensation of his kiss with her fingers.
But a part of him had already entered her, was one with her. He sang through her veins. He could not be expunged. And no matter what her head told her of his evil, her heart could only rejoice at how right his touch felt.
“There, there, pet.” Alys appeared and patted Ceridwen’s forehead and wrists with a cold, wet cloth. “Lie still, be easy. Himself’s gone now, don’t worry.”
Ceridwen gazed at the woman’s homely, comforting face. Her own hot tears spilled. They ran into her ears as she lay too weak to wipe them away.
“Now, now. You’ll be well soon, and ye should be thinking on that, not on him, the wicked thing.”
“But I was not—” Ceridwen began feebly.
Alys proceeded to ignore her own advice. “Y’know, he weren’t always this way, so dark and broody. Once he was a good boy, a golden boy. You’d not find a kinder, lovelier lad.”
“What happened?” Ceridwen whispered.
“That’s not fer me to say. He’ll be telling ye himself one day, no doubt. Then maybe he’ll come right again.” Alys stood. “I’ll be sending in a nice brew for ye, and I’m warning the lassie to see that ye drink it all down. So make certain ye do this time, or it’s her ears I’ll be boxing.”
“Aye, Alys.” Ceridwen smiled through her dwindling tears.
The afternoon was frigid and clear. Watery rays of sunlight made their way through the narrow, parchment-covered window. Ceridwen sat wrapped in a blanket, mending the long rent Raymond had made in her overgown.
From the day he had kissed her, her recovery had been rapid. The fever left her weakened, but soon she had begun to eat more than gruel, and could totter about the sickroom. The wound closed cleanly at last, leaving a raw, tender scar the length of her little finger.
Sir Raymond had not visited once. But Ceridwen did sometimes wonder where he was. Wisps of memory, or dreams returned to her, of seeing him sitting by her bed, watching her, his eyes churning with the color of the cold, blue ocean depths. She tried to shake away the confusing feelings even the thought of him stirred in her. She had not yet fulfilled her vow to accommodate this man, and she would be a disgraceful coward to betray her father’s trust. Somehow, she had to make it right.
Alys entered the chamber, holding a leather bag. “His lordship said yer to take this, and Godspeed.” The old woman’s hands shook a little.
“What is it?” The deerskin pouch was soft, and the weighty jingle of its contents answered her even before Alys replied.
“Silver coins, to see ye on yer way.”
“On my way? Why would I want his precious bits? Is Beauchamp going back on his word? Does he think he can bribe me to leave?”
“It’s been a good brace o’ sennights since he left, and I daren’t disobey any longer. If he finds the treasure still in his solar, there’ll be the devil to pay upon his return.” Alys wrung her hands and looked over her shoulder every moment or two.
Ceridwen had never seen the woman in such a state. Panic fluttered in her own stomach. She must stay. If she did not, Beauchamp had no incentive to keep the peace her people so desperately needed. He could claim she had run away from him. For Alys’s sake, she tried to sound indifferent. “Then bury the coins, or give them to the poor. I do not understand what they have to do with me.”
“What it has to do with ye is exactly what ye just said. I’m to bury ye with it, or give it to ye. Either way yer to be gone before his return and I expect him ere another setting of the sun.”
“Why would he want his silver to be buried with me? I am not dead.” Fresh apprehension filled Ceridwen, on top of her humiliation.
“Not with ye—for ye to be buried with. Oh, lass, I haven’t the wherewithal to explain it. Ye must go. I’ve food for ye, and a pony, and Shona’s best cloak. Now, old Nance will see ye safe to the village. He’s deef as a post, but a good sort. From there ye can hire a man to take ye to the cloisters nigh Usk. Then send word to your da.”
Hiding her dismay, Ceridwen reached out to touch Alys’s arm. “I thank you for all you have done. I know ’tis your lord who forces you to this. I will not forget your kindness, but neither shall I take his silver, nor aught else I did not bring with me.”
“Please, lady, leave the treasure if ye must, but take the pony and the rest, to keep ye safe.”
The old nurse’s pleading eyes swayed Ceridwen’s proud heart. “Ah, Alys, I will come back soon and repay you.”
Alys wiped her cheeks and nodded in a resigned fashion before she hurried away. Wearily Ceridwen slipped her overgown back on. She could hardly blame Sir Raymond. What a disappointment as a bride she must be, under the circumstances.
But that was neither here nor there—too many lives were at stake. Willing or no, the arrogant marcher lord would simply have to make good on his promise to the Cymraeg.
And she was the only one who could see that he did.
The fortnight had passed. Ceridwen was gone. Raymond launched the last of the glass goblets he owned towards a certain triangle-shaped stone in the wall of his solar. It struck dead center and burst into a thousand green shards. He had steadily shattered his precious glassware over the past few hours, each display of his deteriorating mood more vehement than the one before.
“Hey, what goes, my friend? Is this how you greet me?” A familiar, imposing figure lounged in the doorway.
“Giles. ’Tis good to see you.” Raymond extended his hand and Giles engulfed him in a hug, slapping his back with hearty thumps before releasing him.
“’Twould appear you have been busy,” Giles observed, dumping his sword, shield, helm and gauntlets onto the tabletop. A carpet of glittering bits lay on the floor and were liberally sprinkled over Hamfast’s sleeping form.
Raymond remained silent.
“Oh, come, tell me what is on your mind. We have no secrets between us. At least none that I am aware of,” Giles said.
Raymond refrained from rolling his eyes at Giles’s deliberate obtuseness. “It would not be much of a secret if you were aware of it, then, would it?” Throwing his leg over the bench, he sat heavily and stared at the cracks in the oak planks of the table.
“Hamfast, what is wrong with your master? His tongue’s sharpened cruelly and he is sulking like a child kept home from the fair.” Giles helped himself to a drink of ale.
Raymond groaned and put his head in his hands.
Giles eyed Raymond thoughtfully. “You need help, my friend. What can I do for you?”
“Put me out of my misery.”
Giles asked knowingly, “Who is she?”
Helpless in his grief, Raymond replied at last. “Ceridwen. My betrothed.”
“Ah. Then what is the problem? Have at her!”
“She has gone.”
“What have you done?” Giles gazed steadily at Raymond.
“When I departed she was dying.” Raymond thought of Ceridwen, ill unto death—and by his hand. Guilt seared his soul anew. “I ordered that she not be here upon my return.”
“Lord, you make things easy for yourself. But why?”
“She reminded me of Meribel. I could not bear it.”
“Then you should have plowed her and have done with it.”
Raymond’s jaw tightened. “You show me less respect than does Alys. Ceridwen is not meant for reckless plowing.”
“Oh, pardon me. I have yet to meet a lass who was not. But what will her father have to say?”
“I know not—nor even for certain whether she yet lives. Alys will not speak to me. But never mind all that for now.” In an attempt to keep despair at bay, Raymond took back the jug briefly from his friend. “How did it go, Giles?”
“Well enough. Robert of Dinsdale will send twelve men, two of whom are knights. Conrad Shortneck has promised twenty in all. Five knights, five horsemen, and ten men-at-arms. Another eight from Cruikshank, and Lucien de Griswold has graciously offered to come himself, along with ten of his best. He hates Alonso almost as much as you do.”
“Fifty-one, plus the twenty of us. We will need more.” Raymond drummed his fingers on the tabletop.
“There are no more who can be trusted,” Giles said.
Hamfast rose and shook himself violently, showering the floor with bits of glass. As the dog lumbered by, Giles reached out to scratch the animal’s craggy head. The parting of black lips and a low growl made the warrior withdraw his hand.
“What is the matter with him?”
“He has been out of sorts lately.” Raymond did not add what he thought—since leaving Ceridwen behind. Just like himself. “If there are no more, then we must hire mercenaries. What of those Teutons out Rotham way?”
Hamfast settled on top of his master’s booted feet.
“That is a risky proposition. And expensive.”
“I have a bit set by. God knows I have not spent a penny on this place since the fortifications.” And Ceridwen’s burial.
“What about arms?” Giles asked. “Do we have the spare lance shafts, axe heads and all?”
“Aye. Bruce and the armorer have seen to it. But for the most part everyone must bring whatever they can.”
Wace knocked, poking his head around the edge of the door. At Raymond’s nod he slipped into the chamber.
Giles raised a hand in salute. “Hey-hey, Wace! Are you ready for some warring and wenching?” Giles was ever jovial when a fight was imminent. The squire flushed and turned uncertain eyes to his master. Raymond merely raised his brows, as if he too wanted to know.
“I am ready for anything, sir.” Wace straightened his shoulders and his expression grew fierce.
Giles laughed aloud and slapped the table with his palm.
Raymond tilted his head, coughed to mask the twitch of his lips, and recovered his stern demeanor. “Wace, take Sir Giles’s gear and clean it. Make sure his mount is properly bedded down, and give the beast a hot bran mash. The icy weather tells on that one’s gut.”
“Aye, milord.” Wace gathered up the gear and departed.
“Ah, would that I had the same careful attention you assure my horse,” Giles sighed.
“What are you whining about?” Fitfully, Raymond ran both hands through his hair.
“You do need more women in this place, Raymond. A wife, to bathe your guests. And all the maids and ladies of quality that come along with a wife, to entertain and serve your friends.”
“Serve, or be serviced, Giles?” Raymond unsheathed his dagger and began to carve the tabletop with a vengeance.
“Why not both?” Giles laced his fingers behind his head.
“Why not indeed? No woman in her right mind would have me apurpose, and ’tis for the best. You know what they say of me.”
“Oh, I do, I do. The fair hero, Lord Raymond, whose valiant feats of yore are sung from north to south. The dark, wicked Lord Raymond, whose evil heart lurks behind his crumbling walls, waiting to devour passing maidens. Take your pick. The trouble is, no one knows ’tis the same Raymond.”
“I hardly know myself.”
“Then find this maiden who has bewitched you. Bring her back and get on with it.”
“I must see to Alonso.” Raymond brushed the wood chips to the floor. He didn’t care to tell Giles of his decision not to subject an innocent girl to a short, unhappy life, tied to him.
“Well and good. But do you think it so very wise? What will you do once you’ve sacked his possessions? Kill him? You will have to, you know.”
“I know. I have his demise planned, to the last drop.” Raymond slammed his dagger’s point deep into the oak, and the hilt quivered upright.
“You will regret it in the end. No good will come of it.” Giles leaned back, ever at ease in his big, muscular body. “There is no guarantee he will not overwhelm you. You do not want to fall into his hands alive, once he knows what you are about.”
“That will not happen. I do what I must, Giles.”
“You drive yourself hard. I would but see you content.”
“Thank you.” Raymond looked into his friend’s concerned eyes. “My happiness is in my own hands. And God’s.”
A rustle and slight clatter came from behind the door.
“Come here.” Giles waved the serving-girl into the room.
Shona, the daughter of a knight who had died in Raymond’s service, had no business doing menial labor. But she insisted upon earning her own keep, no matter what arguments he had presented. Neither gifts nor threats had changed her mind, so Raymond had resigned himself to accept her self-chosen role. She was bright and lovely and of course Giles pursued her constantly.
“My lord, Wace sent me up with these things.” Shona smiled at Raymond and glanced at Giles, as she set the trencher of bread, mutton stew, and cheese on the table.
Giles wasted no time on the food. He took the girl’s hand and pulled her to his side, his arm snug about her hips. “Ah, sweet Shona, when shall we be wed, as I have begged for so long?” He gazed up at her, a grin threatening.
“When thou art true to me, sir, and love none other.” She wound a lock of his sable hair about her fingers. Giles bent his head and rested his cheek in the curve of her trim waist.
Raymond averted his eyes from the sight of such comfortable familiarity. It only served to accentuate the terrible hole he felt growing in his own gangrenous core. Despite his bold statement to Giles, he was beginning to question his motives for waging war on his brother. How much was revenge, and how much simply a desire for annihilation? Was it Alonso he wished to destroy, or himself? Either way, it was a road straight to hell. But then, he was already there, burning.
He could not get the mysterious, black-tressed girl out of his thoughts. Ceridwen. He wanted her. Yearned for her. Dreamed of her midnight hair, trailing through his fingers. Her soft lips straining to meet his. He wanted to get his hands on her supple body, and bring a glow of passion to her white skin.
But even if she lived, she preferred the perils of the great forest to being with him. It was his own damned fault. Raymond retrieved his knife and pushed away from the table. Leaving the food untouched he left the solar, Hamfast bounding after him.
Giles sighed deeply and stood. Shona, with tousled blond hair peeking from beneath her linen head-cloth, came only to his shoulder. She tilted her head back to look at him.
“You are ever too great for me, my lord Giles.” She cast her gaze downward.
“Not so great. And who is to notice, lying down?” He tipped her chin back up with his forefinger.
She batted at him with small, chapped hands.
Giles caught both of Shona’s hands in one of his. Putting his free arm about her waist, he lifted her to eye level. “I am yours. Command me as you will.” He moved his mouth nearer and nearer to hers, closing his eyes halfway.
Shona squirmed in Giles’s grip. “Put me down. Nay, wait.” Her lips met his in a girlish, chaste kiss. “Now put me down.”
“That is a start, anyway.” He set her carefully on her feet. “I must go after Raymond before he does himself hurt.”
Shona paused as she reached to clear away the untasted food. “Help him, Sir Giles. None of us can speak to him. Not the way he needs to be spoken to.”
“I will try, Shona-lass.”
The dew had not yet dried on the grass, and the mossy, intricately carved cairn-cross rose like a tombstone at the side of the road. Ceridwen avoided its chill shadow as she sat astride the drowsy pony Alys had provided. Her escort, arranged by promise of payment from her father, was late.
Old Nance rubbed his bulbous nose and peered down the road. “Here ye’ll be safe ’til Rory comes, lass. ’Tis a holy place.”
Ceridwen frowned. “Aye, but how will I recognize him?”
“No matter, he’ll find ye. There’s no other maid waitin’ here, God love and bless ye.” Old Nance scratched himself in a resigned manner. “I’d best be on me way. The missus’ll have me privates in the cheese press if I’m late to Mass.”
“That’s settled, then. Godspeed and fare ye well, lady.” With a wave Nance set off for home at a remarkable pace for his bowed legs. The old man wanted his warm hearth, no doubt.
Ceridwen hoped the crossroads was indeed a safe place, but the stout dagger at her waist offered reassurance. Rookhaven lay quiet with the master and most of his men at large, but it seemed Raymond’s commands were obeyed whether he was there or not. How she was to return, Ceridwen did not yet know. Meanwhile, she would do her best to sort out a plan.
The pony raised its head, swiveling its shaggy ears forward. Ceridwen tightened her fingers around the knife-hilt as two men crested the hill. Both were stocky, with similar heads of stiff, red hair, and were armed with short swords. Freemen, and brothers as well, she would warrant. But they carried themselves boldly, and their stares made her uneasy.
The taller of the two spoke up as they neared. “Good morrow, lady. Me and Sam here was just telling Old Nance how Rory’s still too drunk to be of any use this day.”
Ceridwen woke her mount with a squeeze of her legs. “Aye?”
The man smiled. “Even sober, Rory couldn’t find his way across the village square to save his own life. We’ll be your guide and guard, and won’t charge much.” He eyed the bag hanging from her saddle. It had bread and cheese in it, but he obviously envisioned something more valuable.
“I will go after Nance and speak to him myself. I have naught with which to pay you until I reach home.” Ceridwen hoped she sounded convincing. The men exchanged glances. The one who had done the talking stood by as Sam took a step closer to the pony. Ceridwen’s heart thudded and her stomach muscles tensed.
The talker smiled again. “Naught? But you’ve just been Beauchamp’s…guest.” He winked at Sam. “When it comes to women, Lord Raymond is generous to a fault. Gives them their due, he does.” Casually, he reached for her pony’s reins.
“Nay!” Ceridwen kicked the sluggish animal forward and whipped her dagger from its sheath. “Back off! I have taken nothing from Sir Raymond. He can keep his filthy blood-money.”
The men hesitated, then shrugged and stepped aside as she brandished her blade. Urging the pony past them, Ceridwen managed to put it into a canter. She pounded down the road. There was but one, and as long as it led away from the ruffians, she was satisfied.
“’Tis a poor bargain you’ve struck, girl! A maid’s innocence is worth a pretty penny to a Beauchamp!”
The guffawing men were soon left behind, and Ceridwen did not look back. It was broad daylight, after all. She would appeal to the parish priest when she found him, to help her find shelter until she knew what to do.
Raymond rode his courser west, cursing the lateness of the day, the glowering clouds over the hills, the stubbornness of Welshwomen, and most of all, his own idiocy. He had thought he could accept not knowing Ceridwen’s fate, but the wondering had been unbearable. Upon his return Alys had given him a look that would have curdled milk, and refused to tell him anything.
But that in itself spoke aloud. Surely if the girl had died, Alys would have shunned him entirely, and made his life a much greater misery than she was doing now. So here he was, searching a dozen sheep tracks and byways, every glen and wayfarer’s resting spot, hope dwindling with every step. Hamfast too scoured the hedgerows, only to follow endless false leads.
Perhaps Ceridwen was lying in a ditch, or wolves had devoured her. Raymond’s fist tightened on his reins. He should have been with her, seen her home himself, or seen her body home, either way. He was a feckless wretch to have abandoned her. It was his duty to see her safe. It did not have to mean he cared.
There was one thing he could still do for her, though. Raymond looked up toward the bruised, purpling clouds, swollen with unspilled rain, and made a promise to God. While I yet live, I will honor Morgan’s request for an alliance. Even without a bride to seal the pact.
The sun had vanished into the gathering storm, and Ceridwen took a path leading into the shelter of the woods. A quiet dell would provide grass for the pony and a haven from the road. In a meadow deep amidst the trees the pony grazed, and Ceridwen leaned against the bole of a hoary oak.
She was tired, and could not afford to give way to fear. The oak sighed in the wind, and her fingers sank into the moss growing thick and cool upon it. Listening to the whisper of the boughs overhead, she watched as red squirrels scampered up the twisted trunk. She felt faint, light-limbed, as though if she released her grip she would float up and away towards the scudding clouds beyond the treetops.
It was as though her will had been drained along with the poison of her illness. Or perhaps her sanity. She was an utterly pride-addled fool to have left Rookhaven. But what choice had Beauchamp given her?
A rattle of chain and the pony’s high-pitched whinny startled Ceridwen into alertness. A huge dog bounded toward her through the grass, a horseman loped after. Her first instinct was to run and hide, but Rhys had warned her not to try to outrun dogs. It was better to curl up in as small a ball as possible. She might have done, had the hound been alone, but even as she realized the beast was Hamfast, so did she recognize Raymond.
There was no mistaking the dark, brooding air that seethed about him, even had his person and horse not been so distinctive.
“What do you want, sir?” Ceridwen swallowed the lump that seemed to grow in her throat as she met Raymond’s chilly gaze.
“Get on that pony. I am taking you home.” His voice had a ragged edge, unusual for him.
He expected her to protest. He wanted her to resist, she could feel it in her bones. Why, she was not so certain. But if it would please him to drag her back to Rookhaven behind his horse, she would not provide such pleasure, when honor required her voluntary return. She stroked Hamfast’s head and replied, “Aye, milord, as you will.”
Ceridwen hid her satisfaction at the look on Beauchamp’s face. A mixture of surprise, and aye, dismay. He had thought to be rid of her, and hoped to blame her for his own failing, no doubt. Without hesitation she caught the stout pony, who reluctantly gave up its munching in order to be led toward the great courser.
Offering no assistance, Raymond leaned on his saddle-bow as Ceridwen climbed onto her mount. “You seem fit enough, lady,” he said, rather carefully, she thought. Her wound still ached, but never would she admit that to him.
“Perfectly, sir. Let us be off.”
“Right.” With a creak of leather Raymond turned his horse and led the way back to the road. But instead of going toward Rookhaven, he continued in the direction she had been headed earlier.
Ceridwen had to make the pony trot to keep up with the black horse’s long strides.
“I thought we were on our way home.”
“You are.” Raymond flashed her a glance, firm in his apparent course towards Llyn y Gareg Wen.
Anger kindled in Ceridwen’s breast and she drew rein.
“I have given you no reason to shame me, to put me aside. I will not be returned like a castoff you have changed your mind about. We have a pact. You must honor it, as will I.”
Raymond halted his horse and addressed the road, his back to Ceridwen. “You know not of what you speak. You know nothing of the peril my proximity holds for you. ’Tis far better that you return to your father’s care.”
“’Tis wrong to deny me the chance to fulfill my duty!”
Ceridwen gasped as Raymond swung his fierce gaze to her. He seemed aboil with rage and anguish and regret.
“Do not speak to me of duty, of right and wrong. I will not dishonor you again by forcing you to go. I thought it would be your preference. Do you refuse to return to your people?”
Her throat ached. Oh, how she wanted to go to them. But silently she commanded herself to reply as she must. “I do.”
Raymond’s low voice and calm manner only served to intensify his words. “So be it. One more mark on my soul’s tally of disaster won’t matter. Perhaps it will to you, but not to me.”
He swung his horse’s head around and Ceridwen urged her pony to fall in step beside him. Gazing upward, she did not believe his statement. The lines of pain on the Englishman’s face bespoke the truth. The “tally” did matter to him. ’Twas not likely that she was the cause of his distress, but something gnawed at that soul he claimed to have, however black it was.
As they neared the lane’s entry to the woods, Ceridwen thought she saw Raymond take pause. His horse tossed its head as if to confirm her suspicion, but Beauchamp shook the reins and reclaimed the animal’s obedience. The knight sniffed the breeze. “Rain will soon fall, we will be caught out. I know a shortcut, but we must take a steep path. Can you manage?”
“Aye,” Ceridwen replied. Come what may, she would stick to her pony like a burr. She followed Raymond’s mount as the black courser bolted through the woods, nimble despite his size. The Englishman rode lightly but the horse seemed out of control. A madness had possessed him as surely as it had his master.
Ceridwen was hard pressed to keep up, but Raymond hurtled on anyway, the faster to get through the forest he hated. Tree trunks sped past in flickering alternations of light and shadow. He let the horse take him, share with him all its wild power.
Leaning over the animal’s neck, Raymond’s hands left the reins, and he rubbed his palms down the pounding, sweat-slickened shoulders of his mount. He did not want to think or to feel. For a little while, he simply wanted to be.
But his momentary peace was shattered as a flash of white burst into the path before them. Grendel whinnied and shied and reared all at once. Raymond kept his seat until his mount headed irrevocably for a low branch. He dove off, landed wrong, and lay still for a moment with his eyes closed.
A jingle of harness and the receding thud of hooves told him of Grendel’s desertion. Hamfast licked his cheek and whined. Moist breath warmed his face as Ceridwen’s pony arrived and nuzzled him. God grant that she was still upon its scruffy back.
“Are you injured, Beauchamp?”
“Nay.” Raymond picked himself up and tried standing. Too quickly, but he managed to avoid her proffered hand. His right knee throbbed. As he tested it, a soft whuffle of sound caught his attention. Raymond stared down the curving path.
Standing there was the stuff of legend. A white stag, living and breathing. Heretofore an insubstantial animal of his imagination, from tales told him by Alys when he was a boy.
Raymond blinked and looked again. It remained, its nostrils flaring gently with each inhalation, deep brown eyes staring at him. A faint blue light seemed to flicker about its antlers and along its back. It snorted and pawed the earth.
He glanced at Ceridwen. She looked unperturbed, as if magical deer were an everyday occurrence. The stag leaped away between the trees. Raymond could not help himself. “Come on!” he shouted. The great dog at his heels, he ran after the beast, drawn like a moth to flame.
A white stag. Emblazoned upon his shield as befit a man of Beauchamp. He could no longer make that claim. He had gone through the motions, followed Alonso’s orders. But his heart was not in it. His ideals of keeping a united front, standing by his brothers no matter what, now seemed as vaporous as the creature he pursued. The stag was a creature purely of myth. It did not exist, except in the minds of superstitious old women. Perhaps all that he had lived for was as much a phantom as the beast. But it looked so real. He had to find out.
Raymond ran on, limping, his breath coming in ragged gasps. He cursed. Men who owned horses had no business on foot. He pursued the stag through the bracken. It led him higher, pausing now and again, mist swirling at its feet, only to dart away as he approached.
As if from far away, Raymond heard Ceridwen calling. But he could not stop to explain and let the stag escape. The air took on an opaque quality, as if a layer of thin cloth had dropped before his eyes. The wind died and the terrain grew steeper.
Raymond’s heart pounded, until it beat in his ears and neck and belly. His knee felt on fire. The old thigh wound, from the Welsh arrow, ached like the bad memory it was. He climbed the last craggy steps over the rotten, crumbling rocks of the tor. Wisps of fog gathered in the open space of the summit, gray fingers reached to meet each other in a silent entwining. Leaning over to catch his breath, he looked about. The stag was nowhere in sight, and Hamfast too had vanished.
“Sir Raymond!” Ceridwen’s clear voice echoed.
“Keep off! ’Tis unsafe.” Infested with demons, it was.
She tied the pony to a shrub and marched toward him. “What in God’s name are you about? Have you gone mad?”
Raymond kept silent, for in that moment he did not know. A long dolmen was before him, a horizontal slab of stone that had no doubt lain there since the beginning of the world. It rested upon two smaller stones, like a tabletop. The dolmen was waist high, but once it had seemed gigantic. Dread knotted in his stomach. He tried to swallow and could not.
Ceridwen stepped closer, brushing past his arm with the lightest of touches. He kept still until she was out of reach.
“What is this place? Has some enchantment taken you, sir?”
He stared into her clear, innocent eyes, then shook his head. She was the only thing capable of enchanting him, and that he would not allow. A pang speared his gut and the unwelcome past burst upon him, vivid and intense. “An evil remembrance.”
Ceridwen nodded sagely. “Bad memories are like infected wounds. They must be allowed to drain.”
Her knowing words surprised him. But never had he told anyone what had happened here. Not even his lord father, who had made an earnest attempt to beat it out of him. To speak of it might give power and substance to Alonso’s act of betrayal. Raymond rested his hands upon the bench of stone, its surface rough and gritty beneath his palms.
He rubbed his scarred wrists, the legacy of scraping his bonds against the stone to free himself that night. He had survived, but poor Parsifal had never been the same, ever at Alonso’s mercy, or lack thereof.
“What happened, then?”
He jumped at Ceridwen’s question. There she sat, still waiting for him to speak. He cleared his throat and looked at the sullen, brooding sky. “I had a—small disagreement with my brothers here, long ago.”
Ceridwen raised an eyebrow. “You do not care for the truth. Its lack will haunt you.”
Raymond scowled at her impertinence and climbed onto the stone. He lay back, touching the rough, lichen-covered dolmen with his fingertips. The events of that night still burned at the bottom of all his hatred for Alonso.
Ceridwen clambered up to sit cross-legged on top of the dolmen. “You had best tell the tale before the storm breaks.”
“I do not want to speak of it.”
“Are you afraid of my judgment?”
Raymond smiled grimly. “God is my judge, not you.”
She studied him, her eyes grave. “We all have fear. Or regret.
If one keeps it always at bay, one never heals.”
“I have healed. Many times. I am covered in scars.”
“That is not the sort of healing I mean.”
Raymond shifted uncomfortably and glanced at the young woman beside him. She was like a stick poking a raw wound. “Here is the truth, then. I spent an uncomfortable night here once as a boy. I woke at dawn, warmed by a great dog. The original Hamfast, as I named him, the great-great-grandsire of all that have since followed.” Never had he been so glad of another creature’s comfort. God only knew where he had come from.
The girl made no comment. The stone bit into his shoulder blades. The sky wheeled overhead, as though the slab he lay upon revolved on its own axis. Here he was, on the brink of war, of fratricide, no better than Alonso. He wanted to cover his face with his hands, but not with Ceridwen looking on. He was glad he had not revealed the sordid tale of his humiliation to her.
His life was a hell of his own making, and no amount of talking could ease the burden. “Where has that damned hound got to?” he snapped. He could face Ceridwen’s probing green eyes no longer. “Hamfast!” His shout rang through the woods.
“You should not curse the one thing you love. And mayhap the one thing that loves you.” Ceridwen rested her chin on her palm.
“Woman, when I want your opinion, I shall ask for it.” Raymond was about to add that she would have a long wait, when Ceridwen’s face turned white. He followed her stark gaze toward the edge of the clearing.
Gradually, out of the mist, the faint figure of a man appeared. Bare legs showed from beneath the ragged edge of a dark-stained tunic. His hair fell past his shoulders in tangled ropes. Bearded and gaunt, he stood in silence.
“A ghost…?” Ceridwen whispered.
Guarding his knee, Raymond eased down from the stone, the hairs on the back of his neck on end, his heart battering his ribs. The wraith seemed familiar. Was it someone he had slain, long ago? “Begone!”
The apparition backed away and vanished into the forest.
His pulses still pounding, but satisfied the thing had departed, Raymond turned to Ceridwen. “’Tis high time we left.”
“What was it?” she insisted, eyes yet wide, walking with him toward the tethered pony.
“I know not. It looked like…” He shook his head. It was impossible to nail down. “Probably some poor wretch so thin we could nearly see through him.”
“Perhaps. But ’tis unusual enough to see a white stag.”
Raymond rubbed his jaw, relieved that he was not alone in having seen the beast. “Never mind. I must find Grendel before he gets lost any farther. He is a great goose of a horse.”
Apparently content with his change of subject, Ceridwen held out the pony’s reins. “You are hurt. Do you want to ride?”
“Nay. I shall lead you.”
Ceridwen snatched the loop of braided leather from Raymond’s hand, flung it over the pony’s neck, and gave the animal a swat. It squealed and trotted off. The girl stood defiant, her face pale but radiant with unbowed spirit. “If you walk, so will I.”
He wanted no kindness from her. “Do as you like.” His beleaguered heart thudding in protest, Raymond turned his back upon Ceridwen and led the way from the dolmen. There was no point in bemoaning his choice in allowing her to return with him. He would keep his distance, as any prudent man would when confronted by something as unpredictable and desirable as this Welshwoman.
Raymond gave silent thanks when, before going a mile, they came upon horse, pony and hound. The equines shivered, head-to-head, contrite, but Hamfast sat guard, princely in his bearing.
Ceridwen trudged to a halt near the animals, and her slight form swayed as she rubbed her arms. Of course she was still weak from her wound, cold and hungry. Stroking Hamfast’s head in greeting, Raymond glanced from Ceridwen to the growing darkness, forming all too quickly between the trees.
“If you ride with me upon Grendel, we will make better time. Or do you need to rest first, a fire to warm you?”
She shook her head, her hair shimmering in black waves. “We had best push on with ghosts about, don’t you think?”
Raymond did not reply. It was difficult to converse with her calmly, to look at her without staring, to pretend he did not want her on her back, then and there. That aside, he did not care to spend the night in the woods.
To make matters worse, big drops of rain began to splash earthward, pocking the dust of the trail and making the fallen leaves bounce beneath their impact. With the opening of the clouds, a shudder seemed to go through the forest.
The back of his neck prickled. Danger. Close by, and more than he could handle alone, Raymond was certain. He caught a shadowy movement between the trees and straightened, hand on sword hilt. “Get behind me, lady. Hamfast, stay with her!”
There, from the deepening twilight of the forest, a group of men emerged. With silent footsteps and menace in their faces, they advanced, bearing lances. Pikes. Swords and axes. Without warning, they charged, yelling like demons.
Raymond’s furious reaction was lightning-fast. Shrinking away, Ceridwen watched in as much astonishment as terror. His sword whistled clear of his scabbard quicker than her eye could follow. He roared and swung it in great arcs, cleaving wood and bone alike. The attackers regrouped and set upon him afresh.
Beauchamp fought as one possessed, spun and ducked and sliced until four of the surviving men brought him down from behind. Hamfast stood between Ceridwen and the fight, quivering with the apparent effort of not joining his master.
Well hidden behind a tree, Ceridwen peeked through her fingers, horrified at the savage blows showered upon the knight, until he no longer moved. She quaked at the sight of so much blood, and was ashamed she could not aid him.
“Hah! Who would’ve thought it’d be so easy? He’s no such a dragon after all.” A big man grinned down at Raymond’s body, now being bound, hand and foot.
“Speak for yourself, you great ox.” Another man cradled his bloodied arm, and looked mournfully at his fallen comrades.
“Where’s the lass, then?”
“Never mind, she’s hared off. The warden’ll get her and the other on the morrow, when it’s light. But this black is a grand horse, indeed! Need we show it to his lordship, do you think?”
Relieved that for the moment they were more interested in Grendel than in herself, Ceridwen waited, biting her lip. The magnificent courser, so easily frightened by apparitions, greeted the attentions of the strangers with even less grace.
He reared, snapping his lead, and struck out at them with his front hooves. Whirling, he plunged into the gloom of the forest, leaving the now captive pony to whinny after him.
Ceridwen watched as the men dumped Raymond facedown over its back. They left, carrying their dead, with Beauchamp in tow. An unexpectedly vast and painful emptiness yawned within her as he was taken away. Englishman or no, it was terrible to see someone she had thought invincible, defeated by lesser men.
She knelt and threw her arms about Hamfast’s neck, hugged him and wept into his rough fur. Was Beauchamp alive? What had the brigands meant, they would get her and “the other” tomorrow? What other? And, “his lordship” could be any of a number of warring barons along the Marches.
Her tired muscles ached and she shivered as the pelting rain began to soak through her clothes. She would have to find her way to Rookhaven and get help, following the path. But Raymond had said this was a shortcut, not the way he had brought her the time before. Nothing looked familiar.
Fighting down her panic, Ceridwen took a deep breath, and decided to follow the outlaws as best she could. As she took her first few steps, a soft trilling met her ears. The notes ran up and down, now sounding the song of a woodthrush, now the chirp of a sparrow. She must be dreaming. Small birds did not sing thus, so late in the day, and certainly not in a cold downpour.
Hamfast barked and a shriek left Ceridwen’s throat as a man seemed to materialize out of the air before her. The fact that he was doing the whistling, not the birds, stopped her flight for an instant. In that time she beheld the rough-bearded face of a young man, browned both by the sun and an abundance of dirt. His blue eyes were placid, his presence benign, and her fear melted away, leaving confused exhaustion in its wake.
To her relief Hamfast merely nosed the man, then sat down, apparently unworried. The fellow stood quietly, his wild tangle of fawn-colored hair replete with leaves and twigs.
Ceridwen caught her breath. This was none other than the ghost himself. No wraith, she was now certain, but a human, filthy, barefoot, and older than she had first thought, for there was white mixed in the dark-blond hair. She found her voice.
“My name is Ceri. W-who are you?”
He shrugged in answer and did not meet her eyes. Clustering the fingertips of one slender hand, he put them to his mouth. The wrist exposed by his motion was circled by scars, like those left by manacles. Perhaps he had escaped some dungeon, but the poor wanderer must be hungry.
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