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The Knight's Return

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Chapter Two

She knew him or she knew of him. Of that much Hugh was certain.

He paced an empty antechamber within the walls of Tir’a Brahui, the coastal keep belonging to Tiernan Con Connacht. Hugh had reached the holding the night before but did not wish to intrude in the dark and appear a threat. He truly had lost his horse and his sword, but not to thieves as he’d told Sorcha. He’d needed to trade them for various supplies on the long journey since he’d had no funds to speak of. Last night, he’d foraged for food, stamping down the desire to build a fire, and spent the night anonymously in the king’s forest, the same way he’d spent so many nights these last two moons on the road.

Now, at midmorn, he paced the sparse room adorned in naught but colorful tapestries that were surely aged and tattered a hundred years ago. The petty kingdom ruled over by Sorcha’s father was subject to a higher king of Connacht, but Hugh’s understanding of the country’s leadership stopped there. He’d been too focused on figuring out who he was and how to survive the long journey to pay attention to politics and the incessant warmongering that seemed to take place among the smaller kingdoms.

Now that he’d come to Ireland, he hoped to see something or someone that would nudge a memory. His impression of Tiernan Con Connacht was not favorable thus far and Hugh rather hoped they were not related. What king allowed his daughter to live unprotected on the fringes of his kingdom? Hugh could not envision the woman and her son surviving for long with Norman invaders at Hugh’s heels.

The idea of harm befalling her did not settle well. In fact, he’d felt pulled to her so strongly he guessed they must have met. And yet she’d denied any knowledge of him. Still, even without a connection between them, he’d been compelled to protect her. The memory of her gripping a knife so fiercely her fingers bled stayed with him long after night had fallen yester eve. The warrior in him recognized her absolute commitment to protecting her son at any cost, and he had no doubt she would have wielded the blade fiercely if Hugh posed a threat.

Had he left behind a woman so devoted to family? Stopping in front of a faded yellow tapestry depicting a man and a woman releasing their falcon, Hugh smoothed his hand over the lady’s face. He’d given little thought to the possibility of being married, but the stirring in his blood at the sight of Sorcha made him consider the likelihood.

Could he have forgotten a wife? A child?

“You may see His Highness now,” a man announced as Hugh spun to see him. A servant was dressed in red and blue, his clothes as vibrant as everyone else’s in this strange land.

“Thank you.” Hugh released a pent-up breath, more than ready to get answers about his identity.

He’d offered up a false name at the gate to Tir’a Brahui, calling himself Hugh Fitz Henry. The surname was common enough, the kind of moniker bastards received all the time when their mothers wished to point fingers at a father. Other times, the name was chosen in homage to a king since there had been a Henry on the English throne for nigh on seventy years.

How sorry was it that Hugh remembered more about the king’s seat than his own place in the world?

“Follow me,” the servant said, disappearing into the corridor lit by a torch despite the daylight hours. The keep allowed in precious little sun, and the interior corridors remained shadowy.

Squinting to adjust to the dimness, Hugh planned his strategy for this meeting. He needed to pinpoint the king immediately—to gauge the lord’s reaction before he could mask his response to Hugh’s presence.

Perhaps the king was a friend. But what if he was somehow behind Hugh’s predicament? The stitches healing in his head told him someone had brutalized him. Was his lack of memory due to the beating? He knew he was no half-wit since his skills with a weapon and his instincts for survival had proven well honed on the journey here.

“This way, sir.” The servant paused beside a door but did not enter it, standing aside to let Hugh pass.

Hugh nodded and surveyed the portal. Light streamed from the chamber. The one wall within his view contained a rack of swords polished and ready for use. Steeling himself for the meeting, Hugh walked through the door.

Any expectations for a crown-wearing lord in a high throne were dashed by the sight of twelve men seated at a table, none higher than the other. He scanned the faces quickly, his eyes starting at one end of the table and working down, only to be struck by the sense that the king was the largest man seated in the center.

That noble wore a jeweled brooch at his collar and the ruby at the center was the kind of stone few lords would possess. In a land where the number of colors a person wore seemed significant, this person’s garb contained the most. Purple and yellow vied with green and blue. Checkers on his tunic were not enough ornamentation. Stripes on his crimson cloak made him a target for the eye. Every other knight at the table wore bright silks and satins.

But for a court that adhered to a hierarchy of dress, giving slaves but one color to wear and the king as many as imaginable, Hugh was surprised the king did not take a seat at a higher table or even at the head.

If Tiernan Con Connacht was a man of traditional custom, Hugh had yet to see a sign of it.

He also had yet to see any hint of recognition in the sovereign’s face. While it was disappointing not to discover an answer to the matter of his identity, it also meant he was able to relax without having to pretend to know someone he did not recollect.

“Your Highness.” Hugh swept a low bow. “Thank you for seeing me.”

Bowing did not feel natural to him. Another hint he spent more time battling enemies than licking royal boot soles.

“If you are here to talk peace between our lands, you are the strangest courtier I’ve ever seen.” The older man spoke between sips of ale, the knights around him going quiet. “Ye look more like a warrior than a peacemaker.”

The knights clustered around the king appeared ready to lunge for their knives at any moment.

“Peace is no business of mine. I come to offer you my sword if you have need of a mercenary.”

He had no sword, of course. He’d bargained with lords and thieves, merchants and even a child who had taken the bribe of a cake in exchange for help unlocking an armory on his way to their seaside kingdom. He’d not stolen any weapon from that armory, but he’d needed a blade to obtain a meal, after which he’d replaced the knife. In that way, his journey had been unbearably slow, but he’d arrived in Connacht at last.

He would talk his way into a place among the king’s court until he had time to know these people. To understand what connection bound him to them.

“I find it hard to believe you would offer that which you do not possess.” The king’s keen eye assessed Hugh’s lowly garments. “I spoke with my man at the gate and was told you carried no weapon save a dagger, and I would be more than surprised if you could inflict much damage on a sword-wielding enemy with such a knife.”

“You might be surprised what cunning will accomplish when it allies with such a knife.”

Someone at the king’s table snorted.

“And think you I will take your word on this skill?” One sandy eyebrow arched and Hugh knew he was a moment away from being dismissed.

His lack of checkered clothes and leather shoes put him at a disadvantage.

“I am content to prove the claim.”

For a moment, no one at the table spoke, and then the king barked with laughter.

“Do you hope to cut down my men from inside my walls, English? Are you my enemies’ latest weapon?”

One of the king’s men stood, his hand still on his sword, although he did not draw it.

“I would lay waste to any enemy first, my liege,” the younger man swore, his cheeks flushed with impassioned feeling.

“No need, Donngal.” The king waved him down, still studying Hugh. By now, Hugh thought he spied a hint of interest or—possibly—respect in the other man’s eyes. “I would ask that Fergus do the honors.”

With a nod to the man seated at his right, Tiernan Con Connacht as good as gave the battle order.

“You must know your gatekeeper relieved me of my knife.” Hugh gauged the other man’s height. His breadth.

“Donngal, give him yours.” The king took another sip of ale and leaned back in his chair at the table. He seemed ready for a show.

Hugh would strive not to disappoint. Being taken in as a mercenary meant earning the right to remain in the court, where there must be a clue to his past. The right to remain in Connacht long enough to discover why Lady Sorcha’s eyes lit up when she first spied him.

The boy who’d risen to threaten Hugh now flushed even deeper to hand over his dagger to an English knight.

“Thank you.” He accepted the blade as Fergus stalked around to Hugh’s side of the table.

Before the knight stepped within sword’s reach of him, Hugh reacted. He arced back the blade and let it fly, seeing the knife launched from his hand before he had time to wonder if he possessed the necessary skill for such a trick. The knife traveled end over end, spinning through the air until it found its mark under Fergus’s arm, pinning the fabric of his tunic and cloak to the wall behind him.

The captive cloth pulled the knight back in midstride. Steel clanked and reverberated as ten men drew their swords in response. Hugh marveled at this newly discovered talent even as he thanked the saints he did not kill the warrior. Every day he learned more of his skills and he had to think he’d once been a powerful knight. A leader of men, perhaps. Or a battle tactician.

“Hold.” The king lifted one arm, a heavy gold nasc thick with engraving about his wrist. “Donngal, free Fergus and sheathe your knife. Men, you may put away your swords around our unarmed friend.”

When Donngal looked as though he would argue, Fergus growled low at him and that was all it took to quiet the younger man.

“Leave us, my friends,” the king continued, motioning to his knights.

Hugh watched as ten men filed out, some glaring at him, others paying him little heed. Only Fergus and the king remained. He sensed that boded well. If Hugh had been destined for death, he suspected the king would have accomplished the deed in front of all his men.

“Well done, sir.” The king’s whole aspect changed as he waved Hugh closer. “I have need of a man with your skills in the matter of my daughter.”

Warning hummed over Hugh’s skin. Did the king despise his exiled offspring so much that he would hire a mercenary to…He could not complete the thought. And he would not hurt a woman no matter what the prize.

“I hoped to fight at your side, Your Highness.” He inclined his head to show respect in an effort to balance his words of disagreement.

“You have already met my daughter.”

His head snapped up.

“She may be in exile, but that does not mean I do not watch over her.”

“It is true we exchanged words,” Hugh acknowledged.

“You could have killed her. Or worse.”

“I would harm no woman.”

“Precisely why you show potential as a protector for her.”

Who entrusted a princess to a foreigner, and a stranger at that? Tiernan would be at war with the Normans before the year was out. The king had no reason to trust Hugh.

“Why not a man of your house?” Why not Fergus?

“She is protected from afar, but not from up close, and she has always been too willful to allow my guards near her, even when she lived within my walls.” He scowled. “She once sneaked from the keep to ride with my men on a campaign against the Norsemen. She journeyed halfway across our lands in the guise of a man’s garb before she revealed herself, informing Fergus she was bored and wished to return home.”

Fergus grunted, shaking his head at the memory.

“Do you know she refused to allow him to escort her and made it a point to escape him at every turn until he had to tie my daughter to him like a captive?”

“A bold and unwise scheme on her part, Your Highness, but now that she is a mother—”

“She came to be a mother through deceiving me shamefully and cavorting with a man I’ve never had the chance to lay eyes on, lest he would be in his grave in many small pieces.” The king shouted for more ale as he clamped a gloved hand to his forehead. “The lass is a danger to herself and possibly a danger to her son, who is innocent of her crimes. I will send her to the convent by summer’s end, but until then, her son is too young to be taken from her. I would reward you generously if you would consider watching over her these next two moons without letting her know you are her protector.”

“And how do you suggest I would succeed where your men have failed?” Hugh was more than ready to take on a task concerning the princess after the leap of recognition in her eyes upon their first meeting.

“Ye boasted enough of your skills with or without a sword. Have you no answer for the chance to serve a wealthy king?” Tiernan Con Connacht held out his flagon as a flame-haired maid approached with a pitcher. “And have you no idea how to win a lady’s favor?”

“I am a knight, not some court poet to sing praises to a lady’s elbow.”

“You will court her.” The king took a long drink. “Offer to escort her about.”

“Surely you cannot propose a union when—”

“Of course not.” The fire in the king’s green eyes suggested he did not wish to imagine any man touching this spoiled daughter of his no matter how much he bemoaned her headstrong ways. “You may leave here a wealthy man come harvesttime when a convent is willing to take her in. As long as she is untouched and you have not revealed your true purpose to her by then, you may have your choice of rewards from the royal treasure stores.”

Guard a willful princess through the summer months until he could discover who he was? He guessed there must be drawbacks to this task that the king could not find a man of his own to manage the chore. But then, Sorcha would recognize all but the newest of her father’s knights.

Regardless, he would walk away from this a richer man, even if he did not regain his memory. He could not afford to say nay.

“What makes you think she will agree to this courtship?” Hugh did not deceive himself that he would hold any great appeal for a woman raised in the lavish setting of Tir’a Brahui. And his pride would not allow him to beg for any woman’s favor.

The king smiled. “I have banished her for over a year, son. The lass has had nowhere to go save a few quiet hills in the forest. She rejected the courtship of other noblemen at first, but I think she might be more amenable now if only the offers for her hand had not ceased long ago.” His eyes brightened. “By now, I suspect she would allow the devil himself to woo her if it meant being allowed to leave her domain.”

Sorcha unfurled the scroll from her father onto a worn table, the first missive he had sent in many moons.

In the early months of her exile she had burned his letters, refusing to hear anything he had to say after he cast her out. He had not listened to the explanation behind her growing belly. Had not cared that she was grievously deceived into thinking she was married after a false priest had said all the proper words to bind her to a man she thought would be her husband for eternity.

But time and motherhood made her less rash. While she would still not allow her father or any of his men near her, she had read his last three missives. They no longer contained recrimination and accusation. He had written her of how his sheep fared. Of negotiations with his allies as he prepared to fend off the oncoming Normans. She missed knowing the workings of the kingdom.

She used to read to her father once his eyesight began to fail and she’d taken pride in the education he’d granted her when most women had no such privilege. Her father had given her much, but had expected unswerving loyalty in return. A loyalty he considered betrayed.

Sweet heaven, she could not live in the past any longer. Staring down at the page, she read:

Daughter,

I have shielded you from suitors while you were in confinement and for many moons afterward, but by your leave, I will forward all future entreaties to you. As you do not wish my counsel, I will not offer it. Hugh Fitz Henry, a mercenary who wandered into our lands recently, will arrive at your cottage this day.

Yours,

The bottom was signed with all her father’s assorted titles in the way he might sign an official document. Lord of this, baron of that, and so on. Sorcha stared at the missive in vague horror. Her father did not bother to soothe her with any niceties.

A stranger wished to court her? A wandering mercenary, no less? Clearly her father did not think she was worthy of a noble union anymore. And didn’t it surprise her how much that could still sting her heart after all this time?

She blinked furiously at the burning in her eyes, determined to live with the choices she’d made. Choices she could not regret when they had given her the precious blessing sleeping two rooms away with his nurse. How quickly a woman’s life and all her illusions could be torn asunder.

She did not know how long she stood in the middle of the cottage’s small hall, numb to the core. Should she send this suitor away the way she had rejected her father’s other overtures? Sorcha had to admit this one did not seem so much like an offering, however. Her father’s note had implied he was giving up on her.

Could this be one of his tricks? Some overgrown nurse in disguise sent to spy on her? Or was he truly giving her one last chance before he made good on his threat to send her to the convent?

The knock at her door reminded her she’d been thinking for too long. What had happened to the days when she had followed her heart and trusted her instincts?

Glancing out a narrow window, she scanned the tree line for signs of her father’s men but found no one save the imposing warrior on the other side of her threshold.

Or, from what she could see, he appeared to be a warrior. The only visual her tiny window allowed was the sight of the man’s bulging bicep fitted with a golden torc.

A soft gasp leaped from her mouth before she caught it with her hand and stepped back from the wall. By the mantle of Our Blessed Lady, she had not even seen the man’s face and already her heart quickened. This Hugh Fitz Henry did not lack for virility. Slipping over to the window once more, she eyed the man’s strong arm again, his bronzed skin setting off the brighter gold of the torc. The ends of the ornament were fashioned into the heads of two bulls, which were surely a fitting device for a man whose arms were easily the size of her thighs.

When he knocked again, Sorcha stuffed her father’s parchment in a leather pouch that hung from her girdle and opened the door.

A towering man awaited her. Easily reaching the top of the door frame, he would have to duck to enter her home. A white linen liente gleamed with bright newness in the spring sun, the short sleeves showing the arm she had already admired.

The warrior was far more sleekly handsome than she recalled after their meet in the glade two days prior.

“It’s you.” She could not contain her surprise.

The warrior bowed, his limbs falling in graceful lines despite the massive bulk of his body. He watched her with eyes that were not deferential in the least.

“Hugh Fitz Henry, at your service.”

Muscle rippled in his back and across his shoulders as he moved, his shirt stretched taut from the bow. As he straightened, she found new muscles to study, her eye lingering on the shadows beneath his light tunic.

Powerful.

The sheer size of him separated him from another knight she’d known. The knight whose face resembled his in some ways. But close up, Sorcha found differences she hadn’t seen that day in the clearing.

Still, those external dissimilarities did not mean they didn’t share the same black heart or the same opinion of women. Why would this man choose her—a fallen woman of the most public sort—to court?

His motives could not be honorable.

“Your service is highly suspect here, warrior. I suggest you find your path back to my father’s keep.” Backing up a step, Sorcha swung the door closed, unwilling to let any scheming mercenary into her home, no matter how appealing his appearance.

.

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