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The Knight's Return

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Chapter Five

After departing Sorcha’s cottage, Hugh waited for the nimble lad to descend her garden enclosure before he accosted him.

As the spy’s face came into view, Hugh discerned the man was older than he’d first presumed. Lean and wiry, the stranger moved like a youth with his easy grace. Yet his face revealed the dark growth of a mature beard and there were faint lines about his eyes.

Concealed behind a hemlock tree close to the garden’s wall, Hugh began his protective assignment from the king with all haste.

Silently, he slipped from his hiding place and stepped behind the unsuspecting young man. With lightning speed, he wrapped an arm about the man’s neck and another his sword arm, preventing the spy from reaching for the short blade at his waist.

Hugh held him immobile for some moments while his quarry attempted to thrash and then finally stilled. Hugh did not, however, release him.

“What business have you here?” He would wait to identify himself in the hope the man recognized him. Someone must know him. But for now, Hugh kept the agile climber turned away from him so the spy could not see his face.

He understood that not knowing what enemy you faced was more unnerving than confronting an obviously powerful foe. At least then, a man could formulate a strategy. He also understood that if he yanked hard to his right with the man’s head clamped in his right arm, his opponent would expire instantly.

The knowledge gave him pause. Had he ever harmed someone thus?

“Eamon ap Dermot,” the stranger uttered through clenched teeth. “Man-at-arms to Tiernan Con Connacht.”

“I serve the king as well,” Hugh warned. “I will put your story to the test.”

He loosened his hold, but not his guard. Eamon freed himself and spun on his heel to face him. However, Hugh could not discern any recognition upon the man’s face.

“As will I,” the dark-haired Irishman threatened. “’Tis my duty to guard the princess, as it has been every day since her banishment.”

Eamon ap Dermot stepped back and rubbed his throat, a gesture no warrior would make since it revealed a weakness.

“You guard her?” Had the crafty old king omitted this detail on purpose when he asked Hugh to protect Sorcha? If so, he must have known he risked the young man-at-arms’s life.

Or was the spy lying?

For a moment, Hugh considered the possibility that Eamon was a consort to Sorcha—a lover taking advantage of a young woman’s isolation. The thought burned through him with sudden fury and he tightened his hands into fists on instinct.

“As well as one man might,” Eamon answered, oblivious to the dangerous direction of Hugh’s thoughts. Ceasing his ministrations to his neck, Eamon straightened to his full height. “I am to act as a lowly groom in order to remain close to her. But my blade is a weapon of the king’s house and I protect the princess with his authority.”

Eamon reached for the blade and proffered it, but by now, Hugh no longer saw him as a threat. There was truth in the boast, and his speech had the ring of a well-remembered charge that had changed Eamon’s life forever. No doubt the king had raised up the youth in station to do his bidding.

And, looking him over more carefully now that he was certain Eamon was not a secret paramour for the princess, Hugh decided the guard was a wise enough choice. Nimble and quick-witted for a common-born laborer, he must have been keeping a watch over the events in the garden this morning.

“If that is true, you will serve me in the future. The princess is now my charge.” He gave Eamon a hard look. “If I were to ask you about the princess’s activities today, what would you tell me of your observations?”

“My lady received a strange knight who cast a bold eye upon her person though he did not treat her with disrespect.” Eamon met his gaze with a narrow look of his own and Hugh saw promise in his intelligent speech and sharp assessment.

“Well enough. You must pretend to be a lowly groom?” Hugh suspected that had been the man’s position before he’d been assigned the new task as well, but he could easily see where Eamon would use his duty to pull himself up in station. “You know the Conqueror himself was descended from a tanner on his mother’s side.”

Another random piece of information he knew not how he possessed, yet if he chased the thought through the channels of his brain, it darted elusively away.

“Some men make their own destinies from naught,” Eamon agreed, sheathing the king’s blade.

Hugh tensed to think of his own situation. His very survival depended upon seeing this through. He couldn’t allow himself to indulge in softer feelings for the fallen princess.

Sorcha had the protection of a caring father. Hugh had naught but his own cunning. He didn’t even know his own name.

“Aye. Some men more than others.”

St. Erasmus was little more than a name to Sorcha, yet the saint who protected sailors received high praise along the Irish coastline where unpredictable winds and waves could whisk a man off to a watery grave with no warning.

It was his feast day the village celebrated, inspired by a devout nobleman whose seafaring son returned safely home one year after a journey to the continent that lasted half the nobleman’s lifetime. He’d thought the son dead all that time, and his joy in his offspring’s return had called the father to sponsor a small chapel on the coast overlooking the sea.

Mostly, Sorcha was grateful to Erasmus for providing the excuse to leave her cottage for the first time since her father learned she was expecting a child. The realization had come late in her confinement thanks to his frequent trips away from the kingdom for warmongering. Still, upon seeing her swollen figure, he’d wasted no time in sending her away despite her protests that she’d been deceived.

The betrayal from a beloved father still hurt, even more so close on the heels of discovering the treachery of her first and only lover.

“What say you, Lady Sorcha?” her companion inquired, gesturing to the group of tents and bonfires, peddlers’ carts and children at play on the fringes of the festivities. “Are you not glad to see your neighbors and friends?”

“I am most pleased to see the meat-pie maker.” She pointed toward a cart at the end of one row where an old man and two of his daughters worked beside a brick fire pit. Her belly growled in anticipation of her favorite treat.

“Then I shall deprive you no more.” He ducked beneath a ribbon strung between the trees for some kind of a game a group of children played and led her toward the cart heaped with food.

The scents of roasted capon and venison mingled with heavy spices as they reached the small table beside a temporary hearth erected for the fair. Hugh purchased a pie for each of them along with a cup of wine, then guided her toward a small hill overlooking the gathering.

Happily, she took a seat on the warm grass and bit into the delicacy while absorbing the sights and sounds of the crowd.

“Better?” he asked, watching her while she ate.

His appearance at her door that morning had taken her aback, his appealing looks a surprising enticement to a woman who wanted nothing more to do with men. At least not until she resolved the rift between her and her father.

But Hugh Fitz Henry was no pox-marked and flap-bellied nobleman who staked his manhood on a birthright he’d done no more to earn than emerge from the womb. Nay. Hugh was a warrior in full measure, a man who clearly lived by the sword, if the breadth of his shoulders and the scars upon his person were any indication. The backs of his hands were laced with healed wounds, while a long gouge marred his throat and disappeared in his tunic. She admired the strength of spirit in a man who fought for his lands, the way her father had fought for his kingdom.

And yet, what did Hugh fight for here? Why did a brave knight linger with an exiled Irish princess? The obvious answer was a political marriage. But he did not pursue her the way any other man ever had. He did not boast about the wealth of his lands and stables to sway her, or worse, assume her father would force her to wed no matter if she cared for the suitor or not.

“Aye.” She reached for the cup of wine he’d settled between them, mindful of his amber eyes upon her and the fluttering sensation they caused deep in her belly. She’d best mind her wits before she repeated all her old mistakes and ended up with another babe causing the next gentle flutter within her. “But I cannot relax and enjoy the day while I ponder your motives.”

She sipped the wine while he finished his meal. The fact that he never needed to rush into speech intrigued her, his manner so at odds with her father’s fiery temper and quick tongue. Too often, she and her father had found themselves in a disagreement because neither of them could leash their responses the way this controlled Norman could. If anything, Hugh seemed to savor the time to think before he answered, as if he rolled his thoughts around his brain the way she rolled the spiced wine about her mouth to dissect the complex flavors.

“I thought we clarified the matter of my interest in you yesterday.” His voice hit a lower note and the deep tone rumbled through her skin to vibrate along her senses like a drum.

Her flesh heated from her breasts to her neck, the flush crawling more slowly up her cheeks.

“I mean—” She cleared her throat, determined to speak her mind without growing distracted. “What motive have you for your presence in Connacht? Why would a Norman knight approach an enemy king when war between our people seems imminent?”

“You are aware of our politics despite your long exile, lady?” He appeared surprised.

And, she hoped, just a bit impressed with her knowledge.

The saints knew her father had never been overly fond of her interest in the running of a kingdom. He called her political interests “wholly unnatural” for a woman. And while she did not regret her choices to learn all she could about the governance of the kingdom, she rather wished her headstrong sister had not followed her direction.

Onora appeared determined to oppose their father’s rules wherever possible, from defying his dictate that she not see Sorcha, to dodging prospective husbands by all possible means.

“I know my father is an unpopular choice for High King. As much as he might want the position, the king of Leinster is already drawing Norman support to be High King instead. Connacht will feel the brunt of Norman blades before the matter is settled.”

“And you think I come to make war on your father?” He took the cup from her hand, his fingers brushing hers in a fleeting caress that should not have been half as pleasing as it was.

“You are a long way from home.”

“I seek only friendly relations with your father, who I might add, was not half so suspicious as you.”

He kept his gaze upon her as he finished the wine.

“As a man, my father can test your words by the sword. As a woman, I must seek more subtle reassurances.”

The sight of his sculpted mouth glistening with the last of the dark red wine had her turning away to find distraction among the fairgoers. She watched two village girls smile and tease a pair of farm boys selling their young goats. She wondered if the maids knew the dangerous game they played.

But then, perhaps they would not push their play to the limit the way Sorcha had once done with the smooth-tongued young stranger who had wooed her in her father’s absence.

She had thought to divert herself with that game again today with Hugh, if only to chide him for his hasty retreat yesterday at her cottage. But Hugh was no Edward du Bois. Hugh had already warned her of her effect upon him. She would not make the same mistakes of her past simply to soothe a wound to her feminine pride.

Besides, exchanging a kiss with Hugh could land her in an unwanted marriage as part of whatever political maneuvering Hugh attempted. She would not be used again.

“Sorcha.” His hand was suddenly upon her elbow, a warm entreaty to face him. “I cannot tell you the full extent of my task here, but I vow I mean you and your family no harm. I will protect you at all costs. I swear it on the strength of my sword arm since you have no reason to trust in my honor.”

Oh. As pledges went, Sorcha found his moving. His words tempted her to believe him as much as his hand upon her arm tempted her in other ways.

“Sorcha!” A feminine squeal a mere stone’s throw away shattered the moment.

Blinking away the last remains of broken intimacy, Sorcha turned to see her sister racing headlong toward her. She stood just in time to catch Onora in her arms as her younger sibling fairly bowled her over.

“You are free!” Onora’s cry of pleasure attracted attention from all around as villagers, her father’s men-at-arms and a few gathering nobles from nearby lands turned to see the source of the noise.

Sorcha could scarcely speak from the tightness of her sister’s hug, but she laughed with pleasure and returned Onora’s enthusiastic greeting as well as she might. What did she care for the curious looks? She had already driven her father to call for her lifelong confinement to the convent. No transgression she made now could possibly make her situation more dire. Although, she supposed, he could yet find fault with Onora.

Before she could suggest they make their reunion more private, however, Hugh wrapped a guiding arm about her shoulders and drew them deeper into the trees at the top of the hill.

Onora did not go quietly.

“You wish to hide us, sir?” She relinquished her tight hold of Sorcha, but did not let go completely.

As Sorcha watched her sibling, noting the new maturity in a face free of all childish softness and the long dark waves that any woman would envy, she could not help but wonder if Hugh would find Onora appealing. The notion made her uneasy. Sorcha told herself that was only because of Onora’s untempered youthful passions and Hugh’s hidden past.

“I wish to keep the daughters of the king safe from harm during a time of growing unrest.” Hugh did not even meet Onora’s gaze as he peered out over the fair-day gathering, hand upon the hilt of his sword while his eyes searched for…what?

“You think we are at risk now more than in previous years?” Sorcha asked, already knowing it must be so. However, if Hugh had any particular reason to think the house of Connacht was in danger, she wished to know of it.

“You are wise to the enemies your father makes with his bid for the High King’s seat.” His sword hand relaxed as he turned back toward them, although Sorcha remained more uneasy than ever.

He’d said he would protect her at any cost and it seemed his actions attested to that. While she appreciated the guardianship, she regretted to think she needed it.

“Do you think Conn is safe?” Her heart ached with a sudden need to be at her son’s side. “The cottage is hardly a fortress—”

“Conn is far safer at home where his presence is unknown by all but those closest to the king.” Hugh’s shoulders relaxed and Sorcha felt some of the tension slide from her own.

“You know of him,” Onora accused, her rosebud mouth full of disdain as she pursed her lips. “Why should we believe your motives when you are a Norman?”

Hugh cast a smile upon Sorcha. “She bears great resemblance to you in all ways.” Bowing, he backed up a step. “Lady Onora, I will leave your sister to address your concerns. If you need me, I will be within shouting distance.”

Striding away to speak to Sorcha’s groom who had appeared on the hillside, Hugh left the sisters alone in the sheltering trees.

Onora wasted no time.

“Sorcha, I tried to see you yesterday to tell you that Da wishes to send you to the convent with all haste. He says he will not wait until the end of summer and that you must leave before Lammas.”

The fear and empathy Sorcha saw in her sister’s eyes sent a tremor of alarm through her.

“So soon?” Her heart sank at the thought of leaving Conn before his second birthday. She had thought to have more time with her son before her father imposed the inevitable censure upon her for having a child without the benefit of a husband he chose.

A husband who married her before a real priest with a hundred witnesses.

Old regrets rose high, threatening to pull her under their heavy weight.

“He claims we are both unsafe now. He is to hasten the search for my husband and he will not afford you as much time with Conn as you wanted before you are to—” Onora’s voice broke “—depart from us forever.”

Tears leaped to her sister’s eyes and Sorcha pulled her close to comfort her. Onora made it sound as though Sorcha would be sent to her death. And, in a way, perhaps she would be. She would very likely never see her family again once she was sold into the nunnery. Onora would wed a man from a far-off kingdom for a political alliance. Their father would be embroiled in wars that might last for the rest of his life. Sorcha’s youthful mistakes would be forgotten once she was locked away behind the high gates of a priory. Her sole comfort was that Conn would be raised by the king.

Her illegitimate son would find acceptance at last.

But the price for clearing his name of her sins would be high indeed.

“I have always known this day awaited me.” Sorcha would not cry in front of a sister already disposed toward giving free rein to her emotions. “In the end, we make no choices without consequences.”

The wisdom had come too late to Sorcha, but it might yet aid Onora. Sorcha watched a group of girls chasing butterflies nearby and felt a pang of yearning for those simpler times when they would have joined the village children in such a game.

“But at least they are your choices.” Onora gazed off into the distance. Nay, she seemed to be staring toward Hugh and the groom. “You did not bend to father’s will to wed some toothless old nobleman who would swive with a sheep in the absence of a woman.”

“Sister!” Sorcha sought for a sense of outrage with which to chide her, but could not hold back a laugh. “I cannot fathom where you have gained such a wicked mind.”

“It is not far from the truth, and well you know it from the men Father offered to you.”

Sorcha recalled two different lords her father had suggested as husbands and shivered anew. She had spent so much time these past moons regretting the life she had to offer Conn that she had almost forgotten what made her rebel so strongly in the first place. Would she have been any better off now if she’d dutifully wed one of those ancient noblemen?

“But I have learned that acceptance is more important than you realize.” She squeezed Onora’s arm to emphasize the point as a nearby children’s game grew rambunctious.

Hot cockles always appealed to the most rowdy children as it involved placing a hood over the eyes of a person in the center while others circled him and randomly hit the blinded person until they were identified by name.

Somehow, this round of hot cockles had spread all the way up the hillside as the blindfolded boy listed about, trying to both duck and guess his tormentors’ names.

Hugh must have noted the players’ advance, for he called out to her from his position farther down the hill. She was about to proclaim her safety when she was struck in the temple and fell heavily to the ground.

.

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