For My Lady's Honor
For My Lady's Honor
she said, her whispered demand intense with the maelstrom of feeling whirling through her.
His lips quirked into a teasing smile. “Show you what, milady?” His gaze beckoned her, enticed her to lean closer to him.
Did she have the courage to continue what she’d started? A simple glance at Padrig’s face was all the answer she needed.
“Show me how to kiss, if you please,” she said, in the haughtiest tone she could contrive—though she mitigated that offense with a smile.
“There are many kinds of kisses.” He nuzzled her cheek, then touched his lips to her ear. “You’ve only to tell me what you want, milady,” he whispered. “I am yours to command.”
Unfamiliar desires engulfed her; her body demanded something, but she’d little notion precisely what it was she wanted. What she needed.
All at once the answer came to her. She wanted more...!
Praise for Sharon Schulze’s novels
Lady of the Keep
“A warmhearted tale where love mends old wounds and broken dreams.”
—Romantic Times BOOKclub
The Hidden Heart
“…a medieval romance bound to break your heart, then mend it good as new.”
—Affaire de Coeur
The Shielded Heart
“A fine addition to the author’s L’Eau Clair Chronicles, and one that will make readers look forward to more!”
—Romantic Times BOOKclub
For My Lady’s Honor Sharon Schulze
To my son Patrick and his wonderful wife:
May your life together always be full of love and laughter.
And in loving memory of my grandmother,
Clara Willey—for card games, Sunday dinners (and wrestling!) and making each of us feel like the most special person in the world.
The Welsh Marches, 1222
Lady Alys Delamare slid her head out of the blanket and greeted the brightening sky with relief. After a nigh sleepless night—during which she’d scarce dared move upon her pallet lest her maddeningly observant escort notice her restlessness—she couldn’t wait to be quit of her bed and on the road once more.
Another day of their journey meant another day in the company of the ever-irksome Sir Padrig ap Huw.
Yet it also brought her another day closer to bidding him farewell.
’Twas a shame the nagging voice inside her head—speaking for the part of her that took a reluctant pleasure in Padrig’s teasing ways—had taken on a sad tone at the thought of their inevitable parting.
She’d plans for her life, plans that didn’t include an attractive young knight…no matter how appealing she found him.
She peeked over at Padrig’s bedroll. ’Twas empty.
By the Virgin, she’d swear she’d heard him every time he’d so much as shifted on the ground in the night! How had he managed to rise without her noticing?
He’s a skilled warrior! Who knows what the man is capable of?
Alys squirmed free of her bedding and stood, tugging at her twisted undertunic and giving a shimmy to settle the garment. Ignoring the stout boots and bliaut on the ground beside her, she edged around Marie, her maid, who continued to snore unabated.
Mayhap Marie had drowned out the sound of Padrig’s leaving. She bit back a laugh. ’Twas possible, for the young woman could nigh wake the deaf at times, she made such a racket.
Once away from Marie, Alys focused instead on the beauty of the morning. Thick grass covered the clearing, soft and cool beneath her bare feet. The sensation sent a shiver of pleasure through her; she could scarce remember the last time she’d had the chance to savor the feel of the earth against her skin.
A smile on her lips, she crept from the clearing and, following a faint path through the trees, entered the forest.
Her unbound hair, mussed from sleep, caught in a low branch. She paused to free herself, the fresh scent of pine adding to her awareness of the world around her—and of herself. She felt vividly alive, conscious of her body in a strange new way.
Her senses alert, Alys heard water splashing. Following the sound, she hurried along the path until she reached a small pool surrounded by trees and rocks.
A pool occupied by a muscular, naked man.
He faced away from her, the water barely hiding his buttocks. Moisture shimmered on his tanned skin, accentuating his strong arms and back. He swept his hands through his wet hair, smoothing it back to lie, dark and wavy, to his shoulders.
She couldn’t mistake that hair. ’Twas Padrig.
Blessed Mary save her! She’d always thought him handsome, but she’d never imagined he looked like this.
Her mouth dry and her gaze intent upon Padrig, Alys stole closer to the edge of the pool. She’d no intention of bringing this mesmerizing scene to an end any time soon by catching his attention.
He stretched his arms over his head. The muscles in his back and shoulders flexed, drawing her attention to several dark, intricate designs on the smooth flesh of his shoulders and upper arms.
They appeared to be drawn upon his skin. She’d never seen such a thing—what could they be?
Padrig began to slowly walk away from her, toward the other side of the narrow pool. Startled from her fascination, Alys knew she should do something to make him aware of her presence, but instead she lingered at the edge of the forest, motionless and silent, to savor this unexpected pleasure for as long as possible.
Padrig’s lips curled in a smile as Alys continued to lurk near the water on the other side of the pond. Her startled gasp when she’d seen him would have given her away even if he hadn’t already heard her moving through the trees lining the path. He should have spoken, or shifted deeper into the water once he’d known she was there, but he couldn’t resist the provocation to tease her.
How far could he go, he wondered, before she’d do something to let him know she was there?
He stretched his arms skyward and took another step away from Alys and closer to the far edge of the pool. He had to fight the temptation to turn around, to see the expression on her face as she watched him. He could feel her eyes upon him, the intensity of her gaze nigh a physical caress over his flesh.
A caress that was causing an all-too-real reaction, he noted wryly. Mayhap he’d better move into deeper water after all; he didn’t need to have her run screaming back toward their campsite, sending her maid into a tizzy and his men scrambling to protect her.
But what if she didn’t react that way? For all he knew, she might even now be removing her own clothing to join him in the water….
Closing his eyes for a moment against the yearning that image brought to mind, he reluctantly shifted his thoughts instead to Lord Rannulf’s reaction should Padrig take such base advantage of a young lady in his care.
Jesu, had lust unbalanced his mind? Lady Alys was a noblewoman—a virgin, he had no doubt.
If Lord Rannulf didn’t have his head for such insolence—or some other part of him a bit lower, he thought with a chuckle—the lady’s father would certainly take exception should Padrig attempt to steal her innocence.
Pah, as if Lady Alys would want the likes of him anyway!
Though her continued silence did make him wonder what she was about.
Unable to resist one last taunt, Padrig took a step back, until the water covered him to just above his hips, and turned.
“Can I help you with something, milady?” he asked evenly. ’Twas difficult to maintain a neutral air once he saw Alys, however. The mere sight of her sleep-tousled hair, combined with the way the soft fabric of her gown clung to her lissome form, sent his body into instant rebellion against his strength of will. The expression on her face—soft, curious, her gaze intense as it grazed over him—was impossible to ignore. Despite his attempt at restraint, he could not suppress an equally heated response.
He moved deeper into the water at once, lest he flaunt his reaction to her; he’d no wish to embarrass her or himself.
She wet her lips with her tongue and raised her hand to smooth down her dark chestnut hair, a tide of color tinting her cheeks. “Nay, sir,” she replied, her gaze meeting his with a hint of challenge. “I was simply curious. I wished to explore a bit before we resume our journey.”
“And was your curiosity satisfied, milady?” he asked.
Her lips curved into a faint smile. “Not yet, Sir Padrig.” She moved closer to the water’s edge. “Though I believe if I’m patient enough it will be.”
Padrig drew in a deep breath and reminded himself she was an innocent maiden who didn’t realize how her actions and words might be interpreted. Though he willed himself to cool down, his body would not obey. ’Twas a miracle the water around him hadn’t begun to boil from the heat pouring through him!
How could he make her leave?
“’Tis said that patience is a virtue, milady. I’ve no doubt you’re a virtuous lass—”
“’Tis also said that virtue is its own reward,” she pointed out. She stepped onto the rock-strewn rim of the pool, her bare feet shifting on the slippery stones. “I’m not certain I believe ’tis true, though. Have you ever noticed that the most virtuous people you meet seem the least happy?”
Aye, he could not disagree with that. He closed his eyes for a moment as memories swept through him. His own mother, Lord rest her, had been an intensely virtuous woman—yet to her, life had been a constant misery of disappointment and sorrow. No one and nothing could ever meet her standards; he’d stopped trying when he’d scarce the years or wisdom to understand the impossibility of it. Only by the grace of God—and his cousin Lady Catrin—had he escaped that torment.
He’d often wondered, in the years since his mother’s death, if she’d simply died of frustration that the world fell short of her measure.
While he’d been momentarily lost in the shadows of the past, Lady Alys had made her way around the pond. Her gown hiked up to her knees, she waded through the shallows, her face alight and her lips curled into a winsome smile that set his heartbeat racing.
“What are you doing?” he demanded. By the rood, but he wished he were dressed! He felt at a distinct disadvantage, trapped here in the water while Lady Alys, all unknowing, tempted him nigh beyond endurance. The gauzy fabric of her gown—naught more than her undertunic, he’d vow—clung to her where she’d got it wet, the thin material outlining her curves and heating his blood further.
His mouth dry, his mind numb, Padrig sought in vain for the words to deliver himself from this situation. In her innocent dishabille Lady Alys was seduction personified; now that he’d seen her thus, he doubted he’d ever again be able to treat her with the deference a lady of her station deserved.
“The water is so soothing,” she said, ignoring his question.
Soothing? Was she mad?
He drew in a deep breath. There was nothing soothing about the look in her eyes—no, nor little of the innocent, either, he noted.
His pulse thrummed harder. Damn the woman! She knew precisely the effect she was causing, he’d warrant.
Damn him, for finding that truth so exciting. He took a step back, in the futile hope of hiding his rampaging body.
“Lady Alys—” His voice sounded strange even to his own ears.
“Aye, Sir Padrig?” she asked, her tone light with merriment as she followed him. “Was there something you wanted of me?”
He bit back a groan. “Go back to the camp,” he said flatly.
The glow of mirth brightening her eyes faded, replaced by embarrassment. A bright tide of pink swept up her face and she looked away from him.
“Milady—” He’d not meant to upset her, only to bring a halt to her teasing before it went too far.
Her shoulders set in a rigid line, Lady Alys spun on her heel, lost her footing, and, letting out a shriek, came tumbling into Padrig’s arms.
Padrig caught her as she fell backwards. She barely even touched the water—a testament to his knightly prowess, no doubt. Whatever the reason, Alys was glad of it, for in spite of her taunting prowl through the pool, she’d no desire to immerse herself completely.
He gathered her close and hiked her up into his arms. She gasped at the touch of his wet flesh, for despite the icy water and the slight breeze wafting gently over them, Padrig’s fiery skin smoldered through the linen of her gown as though the fabric didn’t exist. Hot, firm muscles lightly dusted with dark hair and the sensation of Padrig’s chest and stomach against her was nigh branded upon her body for all time.
“I ought to drop you right here,” he muttered. He raised her slightly away from him, still holding her easily within his grasp. “’Twould be no more than you deserve.”
“Don’t you dare!” Alys shifted in his hold and wrapped her arms tight about his neck lest he try to make good upon the threat, although a swift glance at his face confirmed her suspicion that he’d not actually do so.
The movement brought her face close to his. Her mouth tingled with the need to touch his, to test the contrast between the dark whiskers on his jaw and the surprising softness of his lips. Mouth dry, she swallowed and dragged her gaze down before she gave in to temptation.
She should have glanced away instead, however, for everything within her view tempted her.
And she could not look away.
She had to dig her fingers into his shoulders to keep from stroking the smooth, tanned flesh within her reach. ’Twas a feast for her senses; she felt nigh drunk on the feel of him, the fresh scent of his wet body, the warmth radiating out from him to envelop her like a cloak. ’Twas as though they were linked together by invisible bonds. She glanced up and met his eyes—a mistake, for they smoldered with a heat fit to match that of his skin. She dared not hold his gaze, for fear she’d lose her will completely if she did.
Closing her eyes, she shook her head to clear her muzzy thoughts, the movement tugging sharply at her hair where it was caught between their bodies. When she drew away from him to free herself, a feeling of loss rushed over her. The sensation, though painful, brought her to her senses; she wriggled loose and dropped into the water with a splash.
’Twas so cold! The water closed over her head for but a moment before Padrig hauled her up and out of it, but ’twas enough to clear her wits. A tide of heat rose to her face as her actions replayed themselves in her mind.
What had she been about, to tease and taunt him as she had?
Alys found her footing, rose and swiped her wet hair out of her eyes. Backing toward shore, she risked a glance at Padrig, then whirled away from him in shock.
He’d come after her, leaving the protective cover of the water. He stood before her in all his naked glory—and by the Virgin, he was a glorious sight. Fully aroused, his wet body gleamed in the early morning light.
Somehow she forced her reluctant feet into motion, away from him, toward the camp.
Unlike her journey to the pool, this time she noted nothing of her surroundings. Instead all she could see in her mind’s eye was Padrig, her only thought a question pulsing repeatedly through her brain.
How in God’s name could she become a nun now?
Padrig watched Alys stumble away from him and along the path with mixed feelings. ’Twas for the best that she’d left, no doubt—but by the rood, how he wished she’d stayed!
He grinned. The Lady Alys he’d observed at l’Eau Clair—though he’d not seen her much, ’twas true—had led him to believe her to be vague, distracted, scarcely aware of her surroundings. She’d surprised him this morn, her actions and her words both, for she’d been quick-witted, clever and enticing.
He had noticed her very soon after his return to l’Eau Clair several weeks ago. She was a comely lass, petite but curvaceous, her dark chestnut hair and light amber eyes a striking contrast to her alabaster skin. Something made her stand out among the young ladies in Lady Gillian’s household, though he could not say what made that so, for more than a few of them were beautiful.
Still, when he’d tried to speak with her on several occasions, she’d scurried away with scarce a word to him—she’d barely even looked his way.
When he’d asked about Lady Alys, he’d been told by Hugh, one of the other knights in Lord Rannulf’s train, that she was nigh a lack-wit, scatterbrained to the point where Lady Gillian despaired of teaching her much of anything. She appeared cautious of men, so that none had managed to lure her into the slightest indiscretion—though not for want of trying, Hugh had added with a wry laugh. It had soon become apparent, though, that Lady Alys seemed lost in a world of her own, unaware of most everything and everyone around her.
Not worth the bother.
A day ago, he might have agreed—reluctantly, ’twas true, for he’d continued to be drawn to her.
Yet now… Now he could only wonder which woman was the real Lady Alys.
He bit back a laugh. He had no doubt which he’d rather she be!
Though in truth, it should matter naught to him whether she were a woman, a horse, a missive to be conveyed. So far as he was concerned, delivering her safely to her father’s care should be a responsibility he must fulfill.
Yet he’d never before felt anything stronger than a sense of duty toward anyone he’d been obligated to escort, to protect.
Nor should he now, he reminded himself sternly, no matter how sweet, how enticing the provocation.
Padrig waded to the side of the pool where he’d left his clothes and sword, relishing the sensation of the breeze on his damp skin. His body had finally begun to cool, now that Lady Alys was no longer there to tempt him, though the desire she’d stirred still simmered low in his belly and thrummed through his blood like the hot, dark embers buried deep within the heart of a banked fire.
He’d do well to ignore that craving until it disappeared, rather than let his continued exposure to the lady rouse it to fever pitch again. A man in his position couldn’t afford to give in to his passions whenever he encountered a pretty maid.
He’d never had trouble keeping himself in check before, a fortunate thing, as all too often the women who caught his attention were as far beyond his reach as the moon.
The same could be said for Lady Alys. She was far enough above his station that any attention from him could be considered bold arrogance on his part, at the very least.
And if his suspicion about the reason her father wanted her back was true, he’d be an idiot, indeed, to allow himself the slightest interest.
He wasn’t about to become a fool now. He tucked his shirt loosely into his braes, picked up his sword and dagger and headed for the path Lady Alys had taken through the trees. He’d yet to meet a woman who was worth more than a moment’s thought anyway.
Why, then, had he already spent so much time thinking about her?
The camp was astir by the time he returned, some of his men busy loading and saddling the tethered horses, others gathered near the ashes of the previous night’s fire to break their fast.
Of Lady Alys he saw no sign, though her maid lingered by a thicket on the far side of the clearing, her expression troubled, her hands waving about in agitation as she spoke to someone within the bushes.
Her mistress, no doubt.
He wondered what reason Alys had given for her state of soggy dishevelment. He glanced at his men. Had anyone realized that he and Lady Alys had been away from the camp at the same time, and that though they’d returned separately, they were both wet?
His own damp state was less apparent than hers had been, but it scarce took much imagination to consider…
His face grew hot, as it had not since his youth. Thankfully no one could guess what they’d been doing, nor would they realize his lapse in judgment as he’d taunted Lady Alys with his words….
With his nakedness.
Jesu, but he must have been mad, to have treated a noble lady thus!
Nor would anyone ever imagine—for he could scarce believe it himself—that Lady Alys had also done her innocent best to tease him.
He shook his head and forced away the nagging sense of guilt that plagued him. They’d done nothing amiss. ’Twas the knowledge he’d behaved badly plaguing him, nothing more.
Nay, no one would expect such behavior of Lady Alys—and he’d shown naught but the slightest, most general interest in her. They were more apt to believe she’d fallen into the pond on her own—for ’twas precisely what they’d expect of her, after all—and that he’d had to rescue her.
Padrig crossed to his baggage and drew out a dry shirt, turning away from the men nearby as his face grew hotter still, in anger this time. What must it be like, to have everyone assume the worst of you? To be treated as though you were nigh brainless?
His stomach knotted—not from hunger, but because he recalled all too clearly what it was like to be the focus of attention, to be watched, weighed and found wanting.
To be the cause of jeering and mockery.
For the most part it had been silent attention in his case, but he’d been aware of it all the same. His fear mounting as he waited for his body to betray him, to fold in upon himself for lack of breath, his strength flown with his last lungful of air.
How could he fight in battle, be a warrior, when he didn’t know when next he’d be stricken?
He’d won his spurs despite the hurdles the ailment placed in his path, working hard to become physically powerful, to hone his skills till he could hold his own against all opponents. Through strength of body and of will, he had proven the naysayers wrong.
And been fortunate enough to outgrow the weakness—so he hoped. It had been several years since he’d last been set upon by the malady.
Pray God it never returned again.
Enough! Such thoughts belonged in the past, buried deep, nigh forgotten, where they couldn’t slink forth to weaken him.
He’d dressed and armed himself while he’d been lost in thought. A glance up at the brightening sky told him ’twas past time they were on their way. He looked around the campsite, noting that his men had finished their preparations and appeared ready to leave.
Where was Lady Alys?
He crossed to where he’d last seen the maidservant. There wasn’t so much as a path through the trees here, though the underbrush was bent where the women had trod upon it.
He’d no intention of going into the forest after them, however. He’d rather not even imagine Lady Alys’s state of dress—or undress. He felt unsettled enough already from the morning’s earlier events; no sense making matters worse.
A low murmur of voices sent a wave of relief through him, swiftly followed by impatience. He moved aside several leafy branches and moved into the trees—but not too far. “Milady!” he called. “’Tis past time we were on our way. Come along now—I doubt you want me to come in after you.” He grimaced as soon as the words left his mouth, for the image that rose to his mind set his pulse pounding as wildly as it had during their encounter by the pool.
Jesu, but he was a fool!
Branches rustled, the sound moving closer, though he still couldn’t see the women. “We’ll be but a moment more,” Lady Alys called. “Sir Padrig?”
She’d thought ’twas he. Taking a deep breath, Alys tucked the quill, tiny ink bottle and small piece of parchment she’d been clutching into the leather pouch she used to carry them and tied it to her belt at her hip. Giving the small bag a pat, she squared her shoulders and crept along the near-imperceptible path until she could just see Padrig’s dark blue surcoat through the thick boughs. She could not continue to hide within the forest’s comforting embrace any longer, she thought, wishing herself nigh anywhere else but here.
Nor hide within the confines of her mind’s eye, either, she added silently as she settled the pouch more comfortably on her belt.
She peered through the bushes at Padrig, her coif askew, the neck of her gown still unlaced and her cheeks hot. Sweet Mary save her, had she truly seen this man naked? Been held within his strong arms, her flesh pressed against that muscular body?
Though she took several deep, calming breaths, her heart raced faster—with embarrassment or excitement, she could not tell. Whichever it was, she could not meet his gaze. “You need not wait for us here,” she told him, forcing herself to step away from the thickest bushes and infusing her voice with a confidence she did not feel. “We’re nearly ready.”
“Are you?” He reached out with both hands and took hold of the loose laces dangling down the front of her gown. “I see your maid forgot these.” Fixing her with a steady look, he gave a slight tug.
She glanced up, unwittingly captivated by the mischief glinting in his blue eyes, dragged in a shaky breath and took a step closer.
Had she gone mad? What was she doing? His presence alone drew her to him—her will to resist gone, her wits askew, her strength of mind faded away to a near-silent voice of protest sounding somewhere deep within her addled brain.
She stood motionless before him, scarce able to breathe as he slowly tightened the strings, his knuckles lightly skimming her ribs, then working their way up to delicately stroke the sensitive skin of her throat.
He knotted the laces of her bodice, his hands lingering a moment once he was through.
Were his hands shaking, or was it her own body trembling?
Step back, Alys, step back now.
Move away from him before you do something even more stupid.
Her legs refused to obey her mind’s summons to move, but her hands…her hands rose despite her will, settling atop Padrig’s.
His were strong, warm, hard—so intriguingly different from her own. Tightening her fingers, she drew in a deep breath, filling her lungs with the scent of him, and gave herself over to madness.
He leaned closer, his warmth surrounding her. His gaze moving over her face felt like a caress; watching him—the flush riding high along his cheekbones, the contrast between his bewhiskered face and the softness of his lips—heated her blood and made her heart pound so hard ’twas a wonder he could not hear it.
She raised one hand and set her fingertips questing, brushing over his mouth before settling along his jaw. If she edged a bit closer…
“Milady, where—” Marie burst from the trees behind her and banged into her, knocking her into Padrig; the armload of clothes the maid had been carrying flew everywhere.
He caught Alys before she could fall and reached out to steady Marie on her feet.
They stood there staring at each other for but a moment before the maid took hold of Alys’s arm and nigh wrenched her free of Padrig’s hold. “Release my mistress at once, you churl!” Marie snarled.
Alys jerked her arm free of her maid’s grasp and, grabbing the woman by the hand, dragged her back toward the bushes. “Marie! What are you about, to speak so to a knight?”
She turned her back to Padrig and tried to focus her attention on the maid instead. Her heart pounded and her body shook, a combination of Padrig’s recent nearness and being startled nigh out of her skin by Marie. ’Twas all she could manage to keep her voice from quavering.
The maid’s face went pale for a moment, then, glancing past Alys to Padrig, her expression firmed into a mask of determination. “A knight he may be, milady, but it gives him no right to be touching you.” She shook her head and glanced from Padrig to her mistress. “Nor to be looking at you the way he does, either.”
Whatever did Marie mean? How he looked at her…? Curiosity outweighing unease, Alys shifted so she could see Padrig, as well.
He met her gaze, his blue eyes steady, his expression impassive, but she could hardly fail to notice the faint tide of pink tingeing his neck and face. “I beg your pardon if I have offended you in any way, Lady Alys,” he said, his tone formal. He bowed and stepped back, gesturing toward the clearing and his waiting men. “If you are ready now, we must be on our way.”
Thankful he didn’t seem to expect a response to his apology—she scarce knew what she would have replied—she smoothed her skirts and nodded. “Of course. We’ll be but a moment more.” She bent to pick up her belongings, scattered on the ground around them, motioning him away when he would have helped.
Her thoughts were jumbled enough as it was; she didn’t need to add the image of Padrig handling her damp shift to the brew.
He hesitated but a moment before he nodded and strode off.
Despite her best intentions to ignore him, Alys clutched the clammy linen in her hands and watched him until he joined the others.
Padrig glanced up at the clouds thickening overhead, scudding fast across the darkening afternoon sky. He’d hoped to keep going until near nightfall, by which time they should have reached one of the villages along the way, but it appeared they’d need to find shelter sooner than that.
They’d been fortunate the past two days, for the sky had remained clear and the roads dry. Though they’d resumed their journey this morn far later than he’d planned—and the blame for that lay as much with him as with anyone—they’d made excellent time.
Lady Alys and her maid had kept up with his men, an unexpected surprise, but one he was grateful for. Perhaps she was simply eager to reach her home—or to be rid of him, he thought wryly. Whatever the reason, he was pleased with their progress. The journey to return Lady Alys to her parents should take four more days, if they could continue on as they had thus far.
Not quite a punishing pace, but close, he thought guiltily. The faster he delivered Lady Alys to her father, the sooner he’d be away from the unexpected, intense distraction she presented.
Yet his frustration with himself—with his weakness—was no reason to drive the others into the ground. He’d need to keep a close watch to be certain he wasn’t pushing too hard.
He’d dealt with distractions before, he reminded himself, and managed to do what he had to do.
Though he’d never before met a distraction quite like Lady Alys Delamare.
A powerful gust of wind buffeted him, pressing his clothes tight against his body and whipping his hair about his head. Muttering a curse, he shoved the unruly locks from his face and scanned the forest.
He could see no place to stop and take refuge from the weather here. The trees loomed close on both sides of the narrow road, the growth so thick it hemmed in the path with a nigh-impenetrable barrier. They had little choice but to stay on the road until it led them to a village, a clearing—any place where they could hole up until the storm passed.
Given the way the trees had begun to sway, he’d no desire to remain where they were. Once the downpour began in earnest, the wind and rain could very well uproot trees or send branches flying.
The air was heavy and damp, awash with a tension he could feel skittering over his skin. Even the horses seemed aware of it. His own destrier, bred for battle and chaos, took exception to a puny flock of birds bursting out of the bushes and nigh unseated him before he got the jumpy beast under control.
He peered back over his shoulder at the others. Moving apace, they were clustered together right behind him, their mounts appearing as unsettled as his own. “Come on—hurry,” he shouted as he nudged his horse to a faster speed.
The sound of Padrig’s voice startled Alys from an intensely pleasant daydream, one of many that had kept her mind’s eye focused firmly inward as she’d ridden along in Padrig’s wake.
Mostly focused inward, she admitted to herself. She could scarce blame herself for taking notice of Padrig on occasion, since he rode just in front of her.
Of course, she’d paid no attention at all to the rest of their party. Despite their proximity, they simply did not intrude upon her awareness.
Fortunately her patient mare, Arian, was used to bearing a distracted rider upon her back. ’Twas ever thus for Alys when she rode—her head would settle firmly into some tale or another, and she’d lose sight of all but the glorious world she carried hidden away within her imagination.
Her fingers itched to at least make note of the bits and pieces, the details swirling through her brain, to record them before they faded from her mind, but she was aware enough to realize now was neither the time nor place to do so.
She bit back a growl of frustration; it might be days before she’d the privacy and the opportunity to write down all that she had spinning about in her mind.
How could she sort through the tumult of thoughts, the sheer chaos setting her mind akilter, otherwise? To be so close to attaining her heart’s desire, and to find herself so easily tempted from her long-held dreams… She needed to concentrate, to refocus her attention where it needed to be.
Patience, she reminded herself. She ought to have developed a bottomless fount of that virtue by now, for she almost never had the chance to write when she wanted to…nay, when she must.
To use her tales to settle her mind.
’Twas a compulsion as strong as the need for food or sleep at times, a siren’s call she could not ignore.
In the peace of the cloister she’d be free to—
The wind whipped round her, startling her from her musings, tearing loose her veil and sending her unbound hair whirling about. She caught the gauzy fabric before it flew away and slipped it off, finally clear-headed enough to pay heed to her surroundings.
Cool air nipped at her skin, a shocking change from the earlier warm damp.
When had it become so dark? Surely ’twas not nightfall already?
They were trotting along at a rapid pace, the gait jarring, too swift for the narrow, rutted track. She hadn’t understood what Padrig had shouted earlier, but he must have been urging them on. Despite her distraction—or perhaps because of it—Arian had gone faster to keep pace with the others.
The wind gusted hard now, tearing loose leaves and small branches that battered at them, making it difficult to sit upright in the saddle. The sky grew ever darker, filled with a strange dusky half-light that sent an icy chill of foreboding down Alys’s spine and dragged her firmly into the present.
The road widened. Padrig shouted again, his words muffled, barely audible in the howling storm. However, his intent was clear when he spurred his mount to even greater speed.
Everyone did the same, until they were all thundering along the track. Alys tightened her legs and hung on, wrapping one hand in her mare’s mane and clinging to the reins with the other.
The rain began then, a cascading deluge that made it nigh impossible to see or hear. Water pooled on the hard-packed road in a matter of moments, concealing the uneven surface and forcing them to slow their headlong pace. ’Twas as though the clouds had opened wide overhead, a frigid, pounding torrent that drenched them to the skin at once.
They slowed, then halted; the horses, tense and uneasy, sidled about. Alys could hear the others, but though she knew they were close by, she could scarcely make out where they were in the murky gloom.
Arian twitched and sidestepped, demanding all her attention. The leather saddle was slick, and Alys’s clothing a sodden, heavy weight to drag her out of it. She tightened her grip on the reins and murmured soothing nonsense to the poor mare, who shifted, soaking wet and quivering, beneath her. It did no good, however, for surrounded as they were by the squalling storm, ’twas doubtful the animal could hear her—or would have cared if she could.
Lightning blazed overhead, a volley of thunder rolling over them almost at once. Alys’s mount squealed and reared up. Hooves sliding in the mud, the frightened beast flailed sideways. Alys caught a brief glimpse of Marie’s pale, terrified face beside her as their two mounts crashed into each other.
Arian, panicked beyond any hope of restraint, began a maddened dance, bucking and slipping on the muddy track. Praying aloud, Alys fought for control, but ’twas all she could do to remain in the saddle.
Lightning split the sky again, so close the flash was blinding. The thunder was a force itself, a pummeling wave that shook the ground, and sent Alys lurching sideways to cling, shaking wildly, to the slick leather seat.
Her heart pounding hard in her chest, she tried to right herself. Muttering a curse, she dragged herself upright just as, with an ear-splitting crack, a massive tree fell toward her.
“Go!” Alys shouted to Arian, slapping the reins against the mare’s neck and digging in her heels. Hooves scrambling for purchase, Arian gave a valiant leap forward, only to come crashing to the ground beneath the tree’s weighty branches.
Bright pain shot through Alys’s head, and she knew no more.
Her limbs leaden, her vision a blur, Alys came to her senses, sprawled flat on her back beneath a veritable thicket of fallen trees and the icy lash of rain. She opened her mouth to call out, but gasped and choked as a torrent of water poured over her, carrying with it bits of bark and leaves that clung to her face and filled her mouth. Coughing, she tried to rise, but her strength was no match for the mass of branches and debris pinning her down.
Last she remembered she’d been in the saddle, riding hard as the storm raged around them…urging on Arian to avoid a falling tree….
She blinked her eyes to clear her vision, yet still she could see naught but a deep, shadowed darkness all around her.
Where was Arian?
And the others? They’d been riding close together, racing to outrun the storm’s fury. How many trees had come down? It felt as though she were buried beneath a veritable forest!
By the sainted Virgin, what had happened?
Marie had been nearby, her own mount frightened, out of control. There might have been still others as close to them—she hadn’t been able to see much of anything through the rain-filled gloom.
Pain washed over her, emanating from her back and shoulder and radiating outward, pulling her firmly into the present with a vengeance. It hurt to so much as breathe. She could tell she’d any number of scrapes from head to toe, for each one stung like fire beneath the force of the pelting rain. A dull throb from her ankle told her she’d at least one other injury.
Taking shallow breaths, she sought for calm and focused her senses. She tried to free her right arm; she could not make it move, though the attempt sent a surge of stomach-roiling pain washing over her. Swallowing back a gasp, she wriggled her other arm from beneath the branches and shifted it enough to push aside her sopping hair and wipe her eyes.
The deep, harsh rumble of thunder mixed with the sound of horses squealing in terror and voices sharp with alarm surrounded her. She could see little through the rain-filled darkness until a flash of lightning split the sky, giving her a moment’s glimpse of chaos.
It seemed as if she was buried amidst a thicket of fir branches, the scent of pitch and needles sharp and nauseating. Had the entire forest come down around them, to create this dense jumble? She caught flashes of movement along the edge of the pile—men and horses both, it appeared—so clearly not everyone was ensnared within the tangled mass.
She heard whimpering and moans close by, and held her breath for a moment to listen. The whimpering ceased at once—had she been crying and hadn’t known it?—but the moans continued, coming from somewhere near her, off to her right.
She wasn’t the only one injured…or trapped, as well?
The realization brought her no comfort; instead it sent a wave of dread coursing through her, fear that Marie might be injured, that others might be hurt. Her heart beat faster, lending her the strength to try again to move—using her left arm this time, since her right would not obey her. Teeth gritted against the pain wrapping her from head to toe, Alys shifted, barely turned to her side within her prickly cocoon.
“Marie!” she called, her voice little more than a faint, uneven squeak. “Where are you?”
She drew in a deep breath, ignoring the pain as she sought to control the way her entire body shook, and reached out, trying to shove her arm through the tangle overhead. “Marie! Sir Padrig—” A flood of debris and water filled her mouth again. Sputtering, she turned her head and spat, then tried again. “Padrig…anyone…I’m here.”
His sense of dread growing by the moment, Padrig concentrated on digging carefully through the huge tangle of trees that spilled across the road and into the forest. What he really wanted was to tear at the mound with his bare hands, to rip it all away until he found everyone and knew they were safe.
Lady Alys was missing, as were her maid and three of his men. They had to be trapped somewhere within this morass, though he hadn’t any notion precisely where to start looking.
The situation appeared grim. The horses of those missing were gone as well, save for Lady Alys’s mount. Her mare had evidently bolted free; unfortunately in the confusion no one had noticed where she’d been before the trees collapsed. She now stood, shivering and lame, away from the mess with the rest of their horses and the pack animals.
No help there.
Though twelve of them had set out from l’Eau Clair, their company was badly depleted. Besides those unaccounted for, only four of their remaining number had escaped serious harm, including himself. One of his men was dead, man and mount both crushed beneath the trunk of a massive tree. Two others were badly hurt, though it was difficult in these circumstances to determine just how severe their injuries were.
It had taken but a few moments after the falling trees had settled before those of his men who could move had regrouped in the road ahead of the collapse. They’d escaped misfortune only because they’d been at the front of the column and had already passed over that stretch of road.
When they’d made their way around the tangle blocking the road, they’d found the injured men and the pack animals on the other side. After hastily treating their hurts and settling them as best they could out of the rain and away from danger, they went to look for the others.
It was nigh impossible to see much of anything in the fitful light and pouring rain. He’d called out for the missing at once; they all had as they’d frantically begun to search, till he realized they’d never hear a response over their own shouts and he’d called for silence. But only the unremitting rumble and crack of thunder, accompanied by the sporadic, ear-splitting sounds of more trees crashing down close by, disturbed the relative silence.
Lightning continued to flash—over them, around them, everywhere, it seemed—the erratic light a fitting accompaniment to the hellish chaos surrounding them. Though daunting, nonetheless it was their sole source of illumination. A mixed blessing, for as long as the storm continued, they—and those yet to be found—were also at greater risk of further injury.
Between the accident, the constant barrage of thunder and lightning and the driving rain, the horses were cold, soaked, their nerves on edge.
He and his men were in little better state.
“Sir Padrig—over here,” Rafe, his second in command, shouted from the opposite side of the jumbled trees. “Hurry!”
Padrig dragged aside the cumbersome branch he’d disentangled from the pile and hastened to his side. Rafe lay draped over a massive tree trunk, his body half-buried within its thick boughs.
“Have you found them?” Padrig asked as he reached him. “Who? How many?”
“Quick, sir—grab my feet,” Rafe gasped. Padrig caught hold of him just as he began to slip away and, bracing himself, held the other man steady. “I’ve got a cloak in hand,” he added. “I think I’ve found one of the women—’tis too fine a cloth to be one o’ ours.”
Jock and Peter, the other two men, had arrived hard on Padrig’s heels; they immediately set to work shifting away the maze of branches surrounding the tree Rafe lay draped over while Padrig kept hold of him. Once the worst of the debris was cleared away, Padrig maintained his grip on Rafe even as he climbed up onto the fallen tree, as well.
“Lady Alys?” he called, leaning over to peer down into the stygian darkness. He shifted to pin Rafe’s feet in place with his body and one arm. Reaching down into the gap in front of Rafe, he skimmed his free hand through the space and came up empty. “Damnation!” Abandoning that fruitless act, he moved back a bit and caught Rafe by the ankles again. “Marie?”
The only sound coming out of the opening was Rafe’s raspy breathing. Coughing, Rafe squirmed lower on the tree, cursing as his boots slipped from his feet and he slithered downward.
Cursing as well, Padrig flung the empty boots aside and grabbed the back of Rafe’s tunic with both hands. Bracing his legs against the rough trunk, he gave a mighty heave and hauled Rafe upright, barely keeping them both from falling headfirst into the void.
“I can’t believe I lost her!” Rafe flopped onto his back and lay gasping in the downpour. Spitting out a mouthful of water and bark, he sat up. “By Christ’s toe-nails, everything’s so slippery you’d think ’twas ice fallin’, not rain.” He picked up one of his boots, shook it out and rammed it onto his foot, jerking the lacings taut before knotting them. “I held on tight as I could manage,” he said, disgust tingeing his voice, “but I could scarce get a hold o’ her to begin with.” He tugged on his other boot and tied it. “Let me have a moment to catch my breath, Sir Padrig, and I’ll give it another try.”
“At least you found her,” Padrig reassured him. “’Tis a start.”
He sprawled next to Rafe, mind awhirl. While he was heartened by Rafe’s determination, he couldn’t help but wonder what they’d discover once they rescued the woman who lay buried here. The fact that she’d made no sound at all when Rafe attempted to lift her out was not a good sign.
Should he assume she was dead, and go back to looking for the others?
He straightened, horrified. There was a thought to make his heart stop, whichever woman was the victim.
Jesu, if it were Alys…
Gone in an instant, her lovely smile and unexpected wit snuffed out—
He refused to consider such a notion, lest the hideous thought become reality.
He’d not abandon her—nay, anyone—to such a fate.
Despite his efforts to calm himself, his hand trembled a bit when he raised it and swiped it over his face. What if someone else came to further harm while they struggled to search here?
He could set Peter and Jock to work elsewhere while he and Rafe looked in a different place.
Yet what if the woman trapped beneath them was not dead, but instead was unconscious, or injured too badly to speak?
They could not ignore her; rather they must get her out as soon as possible and treat her injuries.
He shook his head and focused his racing thoughts. Jesu, mayhap they should wait till morning to search further, when presumably the storm would have passed, the sky would brighten and they could see what in God’s name they were doing!
He dismissed the notion as soon as it formed. They could not wait so long. Glancing up at the storm-filled sky, he judged it was barely dusk now. Though it felt as if it had been an eternity, and it was nigh impossible to gauge from their surroundings, in truth he doubted much time had passed since the storm’s wrath split their world asunder. In any case, ’twas too cold and wet to leave anyone exposed to the weather for a moment longer than necessary.
They needed to get the injured men they’d left huddled beside the trail to shelter, as well.
He shifted and peered down into the gaping opening. At least they knew there was someone here, though they could not see who it was. ’Twould be best to deal with what they knew, before venturing off into the darkness again.
He bit back his frustration and breathed deep as though he were readying himself for battle. The urge to jump up and escape into the night was nigh overwhelming. ’Twas as likely he’d find answers there, lost among the destruction, as he would by muddling along here.
He scarce gave the traitorous thought life before he forced it from his mind. ’Twas only that it had been so long since he’d felt so helpless, adrift in a sea of uncertainty—and the weight of command sat heavy upon him, foreign, unfamiliar.
Thank the Lord, the cold and wet hadn’t affected his breathing. Given their ill luck to this point, he’d expect no less. However, he couldn’t help adding a prayer of gratitude for that favor to the heartfelt pleas for God’s mercy that he’d already sent heavenward.
He’d rather have an enemy to fight, by God, someone he could face over a shield, battle with a sword, a demon he could slay and be done with it.
Biting back a mocking laugh, he shoved his dripping hair back from his face and sighed.
He ought to know by now that nothing was ever that simple.
Calmer now, he considered how best to conquer this obstacle. Rafe had caught hold of her, but it seemed he was too small to keep a grip on her. Padrig swung around on the tree and began to tug at his sopping boots, working them off and tossing them aside before unbuckling his belt and knotting the leather tight about his waist.
“What’re you doing?” Rafe asked.
“I’m taller than you are,” Padrig told him. “If you or Jock grab my belt and hang on to me, mayhap I can get a good grip on her and haul her up. I doubt I can pull her straight up through the debris without her getting entangled worse, so whichever of you isn’t holding on to me had better crawl up here and do what he can to help ease her out.” He hefted himself back up onto the tree. “Meanwhile, Peter, you go and see if you can find any sign of the others.”
“Aye, milord,” Peter said before disappearing into the gloom.
Rafe and Jock had no sooner situated themselves behind Padrig and begun to ease him down into the gap when shouting cut through the rumble of thunder.
Padrig barely caught himself from tumbling into the morass when Jock and Rafe loosened their hold on him and turned to answer Peter’s frantic cries.
Padrig hauled himself up and sprawled over the rough bark as Peter came into view.
“Milord, come quick!” Peter stumbled to a stop before them. “’Tis Lady Alys, milord—I’ve found her, and she’s alive!”
A man shouting close by startled Alys, setting her heart thundering faster in her chest and making her limbs tremble even harder than they had already—despite all her efforts to bring such cowardly behavior to an end.
She knew ’twas not cold alone that made her shake so badly. Fear was as much her enemy as the cold, should she give in to it.
“I’m here,” she cried, her voice sounding faint even to her own ears. Disgusted by her weakness, she gathered herself to try once more. “Hello, I’m here! Please don’t leave!”
Thunder boomed again, rendering the reply indistinct, but the muffled thud of running feet and the muted sound of additional voices soon after the din faded away gave her hope that rescue was at hand.
As she’d lain there, numb with both pain and cold, her right arm useless, it had taken nigh all her resolve to stay alert and keep calling for help…to force her body, protesting all the while, to shift as much as she could within the tightly interlaced shroud of branches enveloping her on the faint chance she might wriggle her way closer to freedom.
’Twas only by reminding herself of the valiant people whose tales she’d worked so hard to chronicle during her years at l’Eau Clair that she found the fortitude to continue fighting against the sapping lethargy that threatened to overwhelm her. Whether brought on by the icy rain, her injuries, or a combination of both, she didn’t know, for her knowledge of healing ways was sparse. But whatever the cause, she did know ’twas dangerous in these conditions to fall asleep.
Better to allow her anger free rein, to let it work to help her. How it galled her to lie here nigh helpless, waiting to be saved!
The voices grew louder, though she could scarce make out what they said. “—be back in a trice,” she heard, followed by what sounded to her straining ears like retreating footsteps.
“Nay, don’t leave!” she cried. “Please—please, come back.”
No answer met her plea; she could hear naught but the storm.
She must be patient, she reminded herself, disgusted by the feelings of panic she could not completely suppress. For all she knew, many others could be trapped as well, in circumstances far more dreadful than her own. There were people out there searching; they’d not leave her here any longer than they must.
She could endure this! Think of Lady Catrin, she told herself, wounded by bandits, with none but Lord Nicholas to help her. Remember Lady Gillian, abducted by an evil kinsman and spirited away from Lord Rannulf, from her home and all she held dear…. Did these intrepid women give up? Nay—they remained strong, did whatever necessary to help themselves.
At the least, she could wait patiently for however long she must.
And in the meantime, she’d try again to work her way out. She’d one useful arm, hadn’t she? What more could she need than that?
Despite her resolve, however, tears streamed down her face, startling her with their warmth. ’Twas such a contrast to the utter cold suffusing her from head to toe that it made her shudder more violently. Sweet Mary, how the slightest movement hurt…but she refused to give in to the pain. She’d withstood it till now, she could not let it overwhelm her.
Seeking distraction, she concentrated instead on her surroundings as she carefully worked her arm about in the narrow space enclosing her. ’Twas impossible to move anything much out of the way, but by dint of gritting her teeth against the pain and pressing her arm against the dense jumble of branches, she was able to increase the space around her.
’Twas still not much room, barely enough to shift so that her head rested higher than her feet and she could almost pull herself into a half-sitting position. Nonetheless, the simple fact that she’d made this much progress inspired her to keep at it in spite of the pain.
Alys had no idea how much time had passed, but it appeared the storm had finally begun to fade, the rumbles of thunder more distant and farther apart, the rain lessened from a pounding torrent to a soft, pattering shower.
Other sounds rose to replace the storm’s fury. Boughs creaked and snapped as they were moved about, debris crunched beneath booted feet. Voices wove through the sounds; though she could not clearly understand the words, the mere sound of them—the sense of resolve they conveyed—lent her strength, gave her faith that this ordeal would soon be over.
Lightning flashed yet again, however, followed almost at once by the deep boom of thunder and a series of sharp cracks as wood splintered. She stopped moving and held her breath for a moment to listen as the sounds faded away, lips moving rapidly in a near-silent prayer. Thankfully she heard no panicked cries of pain, nor the crash of more trees coming down close by.
The rumbling had barely ended, however, before she realized the lightning had filled her timbered prison with a brief, eerie glow so bright she was able to briefly distinguish individual branches piled overhead.
Anticipation flared higher—there had to be less debris piled atop her than before, if she could see so well!
Who would she find there, she wondered, once the rubble had been cleared away and she’d been pulled from the pile? Were there others trapped as well, or injured?
Was Marie all right? Though she could not distinguish individual voices, what she could hear sounded nothing like a woman’s higher tone.
Which could mean nothing more than that the men had already settled the maid someplace safe.
And what of Padrig? He’d been riding at the head of the column…had he been the first to fall?
Abruptly on the verge of panic, Alys caught her breath, disgusted by her weakness. What was wrong with her? By the Virgin, had she grown maudlin from lying here so long?
No more! Calling herself a fool, she closed her eyes for a moment and prayed that all their party had escaped the storm’s wrath unharmed…that she’d find within herself the will to do whatever she must.
Calmer now, her strength of will restored, she opened her eyes, clenched her teeth against the renewed pain and resumed her task. Though she tugged and pulled with all her might, one-handed, in so little space, she could make little additional headway into the thickly packed tangle of limbs along her side. Nigh growling with frustration, she shifted to lie flat on her back and thrust her left hand up into the thick mass overhead.
All of a sudden the entire mound above her shifted and disappeared, sending a torrent of cold water and debris spilling over her. Temporarily blinded, she gasped and coughed as she sought to catch her breath and clear her vision.
When a warm hand captured her own, she couldn’t help but shriek.
“Alys? Milady, is it you?” Padrig asked, his tone urgent as he shifted aside more branches with his free hand. He kept hold of her, the feel of his fingers clasped tight around hers as comforting as an embrace. “Jesu, are you all right?”
She’d inhaled so much water—especially when she’d screeched—’twas a wonder she hadn’t drowned, but it mattered not a whit. “I am now,” she said, still gasping a bit, her voice little more than a croak.
Grinning like a fool, realizing she’d no doubt sounded like one for shrieking when he’d touched her hand, Alys tilted her face into the clear cascade of rain and let it wash away the bark and needles clinging to her skin. She turned her hand within Padrig’s until they touched palm to palm, their fingers intertwined. “Thank you for finding me,” she murmured, tightening her grasp.
He shifted to sit on the edge of the mound and leaned closer, his face scarcely visible in the faint light. What she saw there, however, pushed aside her joy at being found, replacing it with the fear that had haunted her captivity.
“What of the others, Sir Padrig?” she asked. “Where is Marie?”
In her urgency she tried to sit up, the movement wresting a cry of pain from her before she could suppress it. “Have a care, milady,” he cautioned. He wrapped his arm about her; with his assistance, she pulled herself up so they were face to face.
Sir Padrig somehow maintained his hold on her as he eased himself over a sturdy tree trunk and down into the hole with her. Tears of joy pooled in her eyes; she blinked hard till they were gone, for she did not wish to appear weak before him.
She’d far rather keep such vulnerability locked away, lest he think her naught but a pathetic fool.
“Don’t worry about the others, milady,” he said, his manner calm and reassuring, his face kind.
Yet there was a fleeting look in his eyes…
This close, even in such poor light, she could tell there was something he sought to hide—but ’twas there, then gone, in an instant.
“You’ll see the others soon enough once we get you out of here,” he told her. “Meanwhile, let me see how you’ve fared in this disaster.” His gaze had shifted away from hers as soon as he began to speak.
Increasing her misgivings. Something was obviously amiss.
Since he hadn’t given her a direct response, he’d simply have to hear her question once more—and yet again, if necessary, until he answered her.
Her stomach in a knot, she tightened her grip on his hand until he looked at her. Once she was certain she had his attention, she asked, “What of Marie?” She infused her voice with Lady Gillian’s quiet tone of command and hoped ’twould be effective. “Have you found her? Is she alive?”
“What of Marie?” she’d asked again.
Lord save him from a tenacious woman! By Christ’s bones, why must she ask such questions now, when ’twas her safety paramount in his mind?
“She is alive,” he told her, his tone abrupt.
“God be praised,” she murmured. “Thank you, Sir Padrig.”
Guilt weighed upon him at her words, at the relief so evident in her expression, but he brushed the useless emotion aside. “Now, milady, will you please let me take care of you?”
There was scant room for him in the niche Lady Alys had created around her, evidently by her actions as she’d attempted to dig her way out. That she’d done so much under such horrendous conditions was impressive; that she’d not been able to do more—given that she appeared to him to be extremely determined, made him worry about the extent of her injuries.
He supported her weight with one arm as he wriggled into the narrow space alongside her. “Rafe,” he called over his shoulder, “Lady Alys’s cloak is sopping. See if you can find a blanket or something to wrap her in. If there’s anything that’s not dripping wet, it would be an improvement. And bring some wine or ale, if there’s any to be had.”
She rested her head on his arm and sighed. “’Twould be such a pleasure to be warm again.”
The way she felt next to him made Padrig’s heart trip and his chest tighten, the sensation completely different from the way he felt when his breathing bothered him. She leaned against him so easily, as if it were the natural thing to do—as if she trusted him to make all right.
By the rood, there was a formidable—nay, a truly alarming—notion!
Taking a deep, calming breath, he shoved that idea far back into the recesses of his brain where he’d not be aware of it. Instead Padrig forced himself to focus upon their surroundings.
The pit Alys lay in was deep; the top would likely reach to mid-chest were he to stand up. She must have been terrified, held captive within its dark, wet confines for so long.
Any guilt he felt over the extension of that time because of the decisions he’d made, he must wait until later to indulge.
If she’d been frightened, or still was, she scarce showed it now. Her voice, while weak and scratchy—no doubt from calling for help—otherwise seemed steady and sure. Her expression, what little he could see of it in the meager light, held joy at being found.
Joy mixed with what was obviously pain, he noted with a swift glance at her strained appearance once he’d settled down into the confined space alongside her. Careful not to jostle her, he slipped his arm from behind her, watching her closely. Her entire body tensed and she began to list away from him before he caught her and gathered her close again.
Sucking in a sharp breath, she buried her face against his shoulder. She held on to his hand all the while, her grip fierce, as if she drew something—strength, or comfort, perhaps?—from the contact.
His touch as gentle as he could make it, he slipped his hand free and held her upright within the cradle of his arms, shifting them both into a more stable position. With a bit of maneuvering he sat and stretched his legs out before him, leaning back against the same tree he’d slipped over to join her, and drew her down to rest against his chest. “Where are you hurt, milady?”
She pressed her cheek so hard into his linen surcoat, ’twas likely she’d carry the impression of not only the coarse fabric, but also of the mail hauberk beneath it, crushed into her flesh. Stirring slightly, she mumbled something unintelligible into his neck, her breath cold against his own none-too-warm skin.
He drew together the sodden strands of hair plastered to her face and swept them aside, resisting—barely—the urge to bury his fingers within the lavender-scented mass. Instead he cupped his palm about her cheek and tilted her head slightly, so he could see her when she spoke. His gazed fixed upon her, he bent close and asked again, “Lady, where are you hurt?”
Even in the dim light, he could see how she gathered herself, composing her features into a semblance of calm, swallowing and clearing her throat before she replied. “I’m not certain—though I hurt everywhere, or so it seems,” she murmured, her mouth curving into a faint smile, her voice stronger than it had been when he first found her.
“I’m not surprised,” he told her. “You were buried beneath enough wood to build a fortress. Did you hit your head? Are your limbs sound? What of—”
She placed her fingers over his mouth to silence him. “I believe I’ll have to get out of here and try to stand up before I can give you a full accounting of all my aches and injuries.”
“We’ll get you out soon,” he assured her.
“Why don’t we try now?” she asked. “With your help, I’m sure I could climb out.”
“You couldn’t even sit up straight but a few moments ago—what makes you believe you can stand?” he demanded, shaking his head at her foolhardiness. “Besides, I’ve got no place to put you once you’re out—not yet, at any rate. We’ll see what Rafe has to report before we do anything more.”
“Do you think I can get any wetter? More rain is hardly like to harm me at this point, Sir Padrig,” she told him, her voice tart. “I’m no delicate flower to be battered by wind and rain—”
Footsteps crunched nearby, interrupting her tirade—for which Padrig was grateful. Where was the quiet young woman he’d been told had scarce two thoughts to rub together?
Not that he’d actually believed she was like that, but still—
“Here you are, sir.” Rafe leaned over the edge of the hole and handed Padrig a bundle of cloth wrapped in oilskin. “I couldn’t find any wine or ale, milady, but this here will warm ye straight to your toes,” he assured Alys as he held out a wooden flask.
Moving carefully, she took it, gifting Rafe with a slight smile and a nod. “Thank you, Rafe,” she murmured. “Whatever it is, it will be most welcome. Though I’m wetter than a fish, I’m very thirsty.” Despite her brave front, Padrig noticed her arm shook as she lowered the flask to her lap.
“There’s plenty there, milady—the flask is full—so have as much of it as you like. And don’t let Sir Padrig take it all, either,” Rafe warned, chuckling. “He’s been known to be a trifle stingy when it comes to the sharing o’ drink.”
“Indeed.” Alys’s body quaked with laughter and she craned her head around, her eyes questioning.
“I’ll try to restrain myself for your sake, milady,” Padrig assured her with mock seriousness. “Never let it be said I did not treat a lady with every consideration—the best tidbits at table, the most comfortable seat, first chance at a goblet of wine or mead—”
“Ah, but who gets the last sip?” Rafe asked, eyebrows arching to emphasize his point.
“The lady, of course,” Padrig said, laughing. “’Tis one of our knightly responsibilities. ‘A noble lady shall have the best of everything, first to last,’” he quoted in a portentous voice, his gaze on Lady Alys to judge her reaction to their banter. Amusement brightened her expression, faded the shadows in her eyes. “Is that not the way of it?” he asked Rafe.
“Aye, Sir Padrig, it is. He has manners better than many a fine lordship—some o’ us call him ‘milord,’ milady, right to his face. He doesn’t seem to mind it. So you needn’t worry too much about this rogue’s ways, milady—at least for the nonce.” Rafe grinned, his teeth showing bright amidst his dark whiskers in a sudden flash of lightning. Once the thunder faded he told her, “You’ll not have to put up with him for much longer. We’re readying a place for you to rest out o’ the weather. We’ll be finished with it in a trice. In the meantime, you’ve naught to do but settle yourself here and trust Sir Padrig to make you more comfortable.” Nodding, he clambered out of the hole and disappeared into the shadows once again.
Chuckling, Padrig called out his thanks, then turned his full attention to Lady Alys once more. After peeling off her sodden cloak and tossing it out of the way, he spread the blanket over her, then covered as much of the blanket as he could with the oilskin. Tucking it all around her, he gathered her close against him.
Though he might be near as wet as she, at least his body still threw off some heat. Hers, on the other hand, radiated an icy cold everywhere they touched.
He uncorked the flask and sniffed the fumes rising from it before sampling the powerful liquor. ’Twas strong enough to peel the hide from an ox! With any luck ’twould do her some good, however, for it had most definitely sent a wave of fire flowing in its wake.
As long as she didn’t choke on it.
Raising her head a bit, he held the drink to her lips. “Careful now,” he cautioned. “I’m not precisely certain what this is, but I assure you it’s far more potent than any wine.”
She took a small sip, gasping and coughing for a moment. “Aye, ’tis not wine,” she told him once she’d caught her breath again. “I’ve had such drink before. ’Tis a favorite of my father’s. The Scots make it.” She closed her left hand over his, brought the bottle to her mouth and drank again, then, surprising him, swallowed still more. She took a deep breath and let it out on a hiccup and a sigh. “Sweet Mary save me, but in truth ’tis the devil’s own brew!”
“Then I pray ’twill lend you some of its fire to warm you, milady.”
Letting her hand drop into her lap, Lady Alys closed her eyes and slumped into Padrig as her tension eased. He took one last sip of the liquor and corked the flask, balancing it by his side should Lady Alys have further need of it.
She lay curled against him as though she would crawl inside his very being to seek his warmth. “I told you before that I don’t know the extent of my hurts.” Her voice slurred a bit, as if she hovered on the cusp of sleep. “I do know, though, there’s something wrong with my right arm.” She raised her head slightly from his shoulder and met his gaze, her eyes huge in her pale face. “It will not work at all—and it hurt terribly when I did try to move it.”
“Indeed.” Mind awhirl, Padrig did his best to maintain an impassive mien and to keep his body from revealing his dismay.
Damnation! He had a very good idea what the trouble with Alys’s arm might be. If he was correct, ’twas something he could make right, but the process would likely be very painful for both of them.
For her especially, for he knew from personal experience the gut-wrenching agony caused by settling a dislocated shoulder back into its proper position.
The thought of causing Alys such pain, of using his strength against her, of manhandling her delicate body, made his stomach twist.
“We’ll look at your arm, and your other hurts as well, once we get you out of here. Rafe will be back soon,” he assured her. “We’ll move you to shelter, get you dry and warm.” He nestled her more firmly under his chin and pressed his face into her hair, the scent of her filling his senses once again. “Do you feel any warmer yet?”
“Aye,” she told him, though she sounded as though she held her teeth clenched tight together as she spoke, making him doubt she told the truth.
Still, what more could he do but hold her, try to protect her, keep her safe until his men had made some sort of shelter?
Aye, Padrig, a mocking voice within him chided, ’tis a terrible burden, is it not, to hold such a lissome creature so snug within your embrace?
To his surprise, ’twas tenderness he felt flowing through him, not lust. To hold a woman so close with no other intent than to provide comfort and care was to him a foreign emotion, no question of that.
Yet there was a rightness to the feel of Lady Alys in his arms…a sensation as right and true as the feel of his sword held firm in his hand.
By the saints, the day’s misfortunes had turned him into a maudlin fool! In truth, he felt no more than any decent man might—his knightly duty to care for those weaker than himself.
’Twas naught more than that.
He closed his eyes for a moment before forcing himself to ease his grip on Lady Alys.
Absolutely nothing more.
His thoughts now firmly under control, Padrig gathered Lady Alys a little nearer, brushing his palm over her forehead, then cupping her cheek. Her skin still felt cold, although she’d a tinge of pink riding high on her cheekbones. Mayhap the color was a result of the liquor she’d drunk, rather than any returning warmth—though the faint brush of her breath against his fingers seemed less chill than before.
Still, ’twas such a slight improvement. Further concern edged its way into his already uneasy thoughts. Despite his efforts to warm her, Lady Alys continued to shudder and shake within his hold.
Jesu, she must be frozen to the very marrow of her bones!
He needed to get her out of this pit now, but he dared not move her alone. Any movement that jolted Lady Alys’s arm or shoulder would be excruciating.
But he dared not keep her here any longer, either. In addition to her injuries directly attributable to the storm’s fury, she could have developed an inflammation of the lungs, or some sort of fever.
By the rood, for all he knew Lady Alys might have injured her head as well; she had not asked about her maid since they’d first uncovered her. Though he might not know her well, he knew well enough she’d never have forgotten about Marie.
He glanced down at her face. She appeared to be asleep, her features slack from exhaustion…and mayhap a bit from the strong drink, too. Whatever the reason, he’d not find a better time to get her out of this hole. “Alys,” he murmured, brushing his fingers over her cheek. “Milady?”
She nestled deeper into his embrace, the innocent movement filling his unruly body with an unexpectedly intense heat. Aye, ’twas time—past time—to get them both out of this morass.
He loosened his hold on Lady Alys and repositioned her to sit upright across his lap, her weight slumped against his arm instead of draped over his body. Shifting, he pulled himself up with his free hand so he could peer out over the rim of the hole.
The rain had slackened noticeably in the brief time since he’d climbed in here with her. Unfortunately, the sky had not cleared much. Scattered moonlight broke through the scudding clouds, the fitful light providing scant illumination—and now the storm had died down—there had been very little lightning in the area to lend its questionable assistance, either.
A dubious blessing; they need not worry so much about being struck down by a bolt from above any longer…yet the price of such security was to be struck nigh blind instead.
’Twas ever his share of fortune, he thought with a wry chuckle—to be blessed on the one hand, and cursed on the other.
But mayhap their luck was about to improve. They ought to be able to kindle torches now. Lord knew they could use them! He couldn’t see much as he gazed out over the expanse of destruction, only vague, shadowy movements shifting about off in the distance.
He’d absolutely no notion who or what he saw—there was as much chance ’twas their horses he was watching as it was his men.
He took a deep breath and tamped down his frustration; this night seemed endless, maddening, a test of his leadership he feared he’d fail.
He’d not let things come to such a pass, he vowed silently.
The sun had to rise sometime soon—but he’d not wait for it. ’Twas time—past time—to get things moving.
To get Lady Alys out of here, to make certain she and the other injured were out of the storm and tended to.
“Rafe,” Padrig muttered, grown impatient with waiting. “Damnation, where are you?”
“Right here, sir,” came the reply from just the other side of the pit.
Clutching Alys to his chest with one arm, his free hand grasped firm about his knife hilt, Padrig leapt into a half-crouch.
“Christ on the cross, man, but you gave me a start,” he said. Exhaling sharply, he let his dagger drop to his feet and lowered himself to sit again. His heart still thumping hard, he eased Lady Alys’s limp form down to rest against his chest and drew the blanket higher about her throat. She settled into his lap as if she’d done so many times before. Softening his voice, he added, “I didn’t even hear you draw near.”
“I tried to stay quiet, sir, so as not to disturb the lady if she’d settled into sleep.” Rafe climbed up onto the mound, perched on the edge and gazed down at her.
“I don’t know that much of anything will disturb her at the moment.” Padrig shifted her body a bit, so she rested in a more comfortable position. “She didn’t so much as twitch when I jumped up.”
“Poor wee lamb,” Rafe said quietly, shaking his head. “Just look at her, all bruised and battered—and no doubt hurt in other ways as well, like the others.” He reached into the leather bag hanging from his belt and drew forth a small cloth-wrapped bundle. Unfolding the material, he revealed a candle stub, tinder, flint and steel, the lot of which he held carefully cupped within his hands. “’Tis a miracle she was able to stay awake and call for help, without a doubt.”
“’Twill be a miracle, indeed, if you can manage to start a flame under these conditions.” Padrig watched as Rafe leaned forward from the waist, using his upper body to shield the tinder from the drizzle. “But a welcome one, nonetheless. Here, let me help.” He wiped his hands on the blanket edge and picked up the oilskin, raising it to form a makeshift canopy over Rafe’s hands.
Rafe struck the flint and steel a number of times before he ignited the tinder, then the candle wick.
“Well done,” Padrig murmured as the wick burned with a steady light. “Could it be that our fortunes are finally about to improve?”
“We can but hope, milord,” Rafe replied.
The faint flame glowed bright as the sun after so long in the dark. The light was a blessing, for the longer Lady Alys remained asleep, the more concerned Padrig grew about her condition. At least now he could get a better look at her.
She had remained limp in his hold when he’d jumped up, sat back down—even now she hadn’t so much as stirred or in any way seemed to take notice of either their conversation or the candlelight.
“Let’s hope she’s hardier than she appears.” Padrig smoothed his hand over her disheveled hair and let it rest for a moment on her cheek. Was her skin warmer, or did hope alone make it seem so? “I assume you’ve a place ready for her?”
“That we have, milord.” Rafe pointed to the east, where the devastation had been the worst. “Just along the edge o’ the new clearing. Figured since all the trees’ve already come down, it should be as safe a spot as we’re like to find.”
Padrig nodded his approval. “Good work! See if you can find a safe place for the candle and lend me a hand raising her out of here, would you? We might as well get her to the shelter while she’s sleeping so soundly. We’ll not get a better chance.”
Rafe stashed the candle beneath an arching branch and climbed down to help Padrig.
Careful to jar her as little as possible, Padrig slid out from beneath her. “I pray she stays asleep. If we’re lucky, she won’t even notice we’re moving her. I don’t believe there’s any way to get her up over the edge without hurting her.” He settled her right arm gently across her stomach. “From what she told me, I’m afraid her shoulder is out of the socket.”
Rafe winced, and looked unconvinced. “I don’t know about that, milord. She’d have to be more than asleep to bear the pain—she’d have to be flat out insensible!”
“You’ll need to be very careful then,” Lady Alys warned them, startling them both when she slowly eased out of Rafe’s hold and sat back against the side of the pit. “For I’m wide awake now and in full command of my senses, more’s the pity. And thanks to your lovely candle, Rafe, I’ll see whatever you do.”
“I take it you couldn’t get her to drink all o’ the whiskey?” Rafe muttered to Padrig. “She must have a head hard as an ox! By my reckoning there ought to have been more than enough liquor in that flask for such a dainty lass to drink herself into a stupor,” he said, his amazed expression so comical, Alys couldn’t help but chuckle. “Aye, one so deep ’twould last for days!”
Even the minor act of laughing sent spiky shards of pain lancing through her. Slightly breathless, she told them, “This ‘dainty lass’ knows better than to take more than a few swallows of that devil’s brew. Even if I could buy myself a brief period of oblivion from the pain I feel now, it still wouldn’t be worth the agony I’d go through later.”
“Milady, I doubt there’s any way we’re going to get you out of here without hurting you,” Rafe warned. He picked up the flask, opened it and held it out to her. “Please—have some more. As much as you like! You might as well go ahead and—”
Ignoring the flask—no easy feat when the smell wafted all around them—Alys cut him off with a shake of her head. “Nay,” she said firmly, the mere idea of swilling that much liquor making her stomach clench. “I said I’ll not have any more, and I meant it.”
“But milady—just this once—” Rafe met her gaze and evidently saw she would not back down. Sighing, he lowered the flask. “’Twould truly be for the best if you’d go ahead and drink.” Meeting her scowl with one of his own, he held the whiskey out to her once again.
“Enough, Rafe.” To Alys’s surprise, Sir Padrig reached out and took the whiskey and cork from Rafe, stoppered the flask and set it down out of the other man’s reach—but within hers. “If she says she’d rather not, we cannot force her.” He met her gaze, his own steady, reassuring. “She’s no child, to be cajoled into going against her own wishes.”
“I got quite thoroughly drunk on my father’s whiskey just once,” she said, hoping if she explained, Rafe would accept that she’d valid reasoning behind her decision. “I was such an idiot once I drank it, and the aftereffects were so bad, I vowed then never to subject myself to such an embarrassing experience again. As a general rule, ’tis easy enough to avoid it.”
Rafe’s single-minded determination that she avail herself of the whiskey to dull her pain, however, did make her wonder. Precisely why did he think she’d need it? She hurt now, ’twas true, but ’twas not so bad as to be unbearable.
Did they think something was so wrong with her that she couldn’t bear to deal with it? By sweet Mary’s grace, what were they trying to protect her from?
Mayhap, she pondered with a frown, they thought her a weak, cowardly woman, unable to bear the slightest pain or misfortune.
She bit back a wry laugh at the idea. Men! If they’d ever any idea how strong women really were, they’d no doubt be terrified.
She should simply ask them what they were so concerned about….
Or was she better off not knowing?
Whatever they had in mind, she had heard them say they were moving her out of this pit. At the moment, getting out of this vile place was all she cared about…and was as far into the future as she would allow herself to think.
She didn’t know how much longer she could continue to sit here and hold herself together. It took all her energy to simply carry on a conversation and try not to shake as if she were about to fall apart.
“If you’ll help me, milord,” she began, holding out her left hand to Sir Padrig. “I’d like—”
All of a sudden she could feel her chest tightening, her breath coming in short, hard gasps, her heart thundering until she thought ’twould burst. She tried to bring her right hand up to her throat to ease the tightening noose of muscles choking off her air, instead setting off a wave of agony as her arm remained limp at her side.
“Alys!” His voice sharp, his touch firm, reassuring, Padrig caught hold of her by the waist and hauled her up from where she had slumped against the wall of the pit.
She heard Padrig telling Rafe, “You needn’t have tried so hard to get her to drink more whiskey. All you needed to do was talk her into insensibility!”
Then sight and sound faded away.
“Jesu, what a stubborn wench,” Rafe muttered. “Not a bad thing, I suppose—”
“Unless you’re trying to work around her stubbornness,” Padrig pointed out. “Then no, ’tis not good.” He tugged at the blanket and wrapped it around Alys, careful not to jostle her. “And given that we don’t know how long our good fortune will last this time, we shouldn’t waste another moment.” He hoisted her up in his arms and got to his feet. “Let’s go.”
“You don’t think she’ll awaken again anytime soon, do you?” Rafe asked.
Padrig settled Alys more comfortably in his grasp. “Who knows? I wouldn’t count on her remaining quiet for long, though.” He gazed unseeing out of the pit for a moment, then shook his head. “‘A quiet wench, though ’tis doubtful she’s any sense at all rattling around her pretty head,’” he muttered to himself, transferring Alys up into Rafe’s arms. “Not bloody likely.”
Padrig made a sound of disgust and bent to retrieve his dagger, slipping it into its sheath and adjusting the strap tied about his thigh. “You’d think I’d know better by now than to believe a word that pompous twit Hugh de Tremont says.”
“What are you talking about?” Rafe asked. Picking up the flask, he uncorked it and took a long swallow, then held it out to Padrig.
When Padrig shook his head, Rafe slid home the stopper and climbed out of the pit.
Padrig scrambled up to join him. “I was repeating one of the lies Hugh told me about Lady Alys,” he said, not bothering to hide his disgust. “He did his best to make her sound nigh brainless whenever he spoke of her.”
Rafe snorted. “Hugh is an ass.” He gazed down at Alys’s face for a moment, as though weighing whether or not he should speak, then glanced at Padrig and shrugged. “I’m not surprised,” he added. “The lecherous sot has been trying—without any success whatsoever that I could see—to get under her skirts. Hasn’t quit since he came to l’Eau Clair last year. So far as I know, she’s scarce seemed aware of him at all.” He grinned. “’Tis clear to me that Lady Alys is a most discerning woman.”
His heart suddenly lighter than it had been all night, Padrig laughed and reached out to take Alys back into his arms. “So it would appear, if she’s kept him at bay all this time.” Careful of his footing, he began to make his way over the pile of debris. “Now that you mention it, I had noticed he deems himself quite the gallant. How could I have forgotten? From what I’ve heard, there’s hardly a woman in the entire demesne he’s not tried to bed—except for Lady Gillian, of course.”
“Do you think he’s got that much sense?” Rafe asked with barely suppressed amusement. He tucked the flask into his tunic, picked up the candle and caught up with Padrig, grabbing Alys’s sodden cloak as he passed by the spot where Padrig had tossed it earlier and flinging it over his shoulder.
“Sense—nay?” Padrig sidestepped down the side of the mound and waited for Rafe. “Self-preservation? Perhaps. ’Twould be more than his life is worth to anger Lord Rannulf.”
“Or Lady Gillian, given her ability with a blade,” Rafe added reverently. “She could defend herself right well, I’d wager.”
“Indeed,” Padrig agreed.
Though he doubted Rafe had any notion just how skilled with weapons the women of that family were.
Lord knew, he would never forget the sight of his cousin, Lady Catrin—who was Lady Gillian’s cousin, as well—wielding his sword, standing alone against several outlaws after she’d tricked him into leaving for help…
So that he could live to fight another day, she’d told him later.
Padrig shook off the memories and cradled Alys a little closer in his arms. She remained motionless and silent, but from the sound of her breathing, she’d settled into sleep, not a swoon, thankfully.
They picked their way toward the shelter, even the meager light from Rafe’s candle a help as they wended through the mess of toppled trees and uprooted brush littering their path.
“Lady Alys spurned Hugh’s advances, then?” Padrig asked, finding himself surprisingly eager to turn the conversation back to the woman in his arms.
“Aye—several times in public, so rumor has it. Truth to tell, I doubt anyone would expect any different.” Rafe frowned. “She’s always seemed a shy little lass. Talks more with the older men, ones who’ve been around since before Lady Gillian and Lord Rannulf wed. Strange, that. Could be she likes ’em well-seasoned—”
Suddenly he stopped and grinned. “Did you show any interest in Lady Alys?”
Padrig paused, as well. “I asked Hugh about her, nothing more than that,” he replied, trying to think back to the discussion. Had he asked about any other women? He couldn’t recall.
Rafe clapped him on the shoulder. “With Hugh, it wouldn’t take more than that. In his eyes, he’s God’s own gift to womanhood—and every other man is his competition. Aye, you got him worried, and he tried to distract you from paying her any notice.”
“Worried? About what?” Padrig asked, completely baffled.
“That you’d ruin his chances, of course. A strong, handsome fellow such as yourself, newly returned from foreign climes, rumored to be a bruising fighter—”
Padrig snorted and started moving again, but Rafe kept on talking even as he kept up.
“—I can see why he’d be concerned. He’s not really as successful with women as he likes to claim.”
“There’s a surprise,” Padrig muttered under his breath, eliciting a nod from Rafe.
“So how can he compete with you, a mysterious warrior the ladies are waiting to discover?”
“Mayhap it isn’t only Hugh who is a fool,” Padrig scoffed. “By Christ, how did you come up with such nonsense?”
Rafe laughed. “’Tis none of my making! I heard some o’ Lady Gillian’s young ladies talking about you. Including Lady Alys,” he said, his grin widening. “Could be that Hugh heard them, as well—they were making no effort to be quiet.”
By the saints! Padrig felt a flush of embarrassment heat his face. Given the speed with which gossip usually spread throughout l’Eau Clair, ’twas nigh a miracle that he’d heard naught of this before now.
Yet he couldn’t help but be amazed by the thought that a group of women—noble ladies, no less—had found him worthy of discussion.
And what should that matter to him? Despite the fact that he had several noble relatives, he himself sat far lower in rank. He was a landless knight, nothing more. Clearly some misunderstanding had occurred, for in the ordinary way of things, he’d hardly have a slew of ladies in pursuit of him.
No matter how “mysterious” they found him to be, he thought with a rueful smile.
Still, he couldn’t help but wonder what Alys—Lady Alys, he reminded himself lest he get too full of himself—what had she thought? What, if anything, had she added to the discussion?
Rafe stopped; Padrig did as well, noting that while they’d been involved in their most peculiar discussion, they’d made it to the shelter. Rafe had paused just outside the makeshift hut.
In the eerie glow of the candle, Rafe’s knowing expression shone all too clear. He moved closer. “Wouldn’t you like to know what Lady Alys—”
“Nay,” Padrig cut him off, ignoring the intense desire to hear what Rafe was obviously eager to share.
“Sir Padrig—” he goaded, “—I did hear her, you know.”
“No,” Padrig said flatly.
Rafe turned away from the shelter and faced Padrig, his manner more serious. “I’ve seen how you look at her, milord… Jesu, if you could only see how you look at her now.”
When had Rafe turned into the devil, to taunt and test a man nigh beyond endurance?
He’d not give in, no matter how strong the temptation.
“Enough,” he growled. Turning from the other man, he tucked Alys more firmly against his chest and ducked to enter the hut.
Sheer anger—at himself, at their situation, at God Himself—lent Padrig energy enough to carry him through the remaining hours of the seemingly endless night. Shortly after he and Rafe had brought Lady Alys to the hut, Jock and Peter carried in the last two of the missing men—both badly injured by the storm, and chilled to the bone by the weather besides.
Their party now numbered eleven: four unharmed; four badly hurt, including Marie; and three, including Lady Alys, whose injuries fell somewhere in between.
Once they’d gathered everyone together in the shelter, Padrig, Rafe, Jock and Peter did what they could for their battered comrades. With Padrig tending to the women—an awkward experience he’d rather not repeat any time soon—they got everyone out of their sodden clothing and bundled them up in whatever dry cloth they could find in the baggage.
Fortunately the packs were wrapped in heavy hides, and had escaped the worst of a soaking. Every piece of clothing, bedrolls, spare saddle blankets—even the rags for cleaning armor were put to some use.
Padrig had stripped off his surcoat and mail hauberk. ’Twas a relief to be rid, even for a brief time, of the cold, wet garments. Clad in a shirt and tunic over his still-damp braes and boots, he felt considerably warmer than he had in his armor.
They needed a fire. However, though they might have trees in abundance, wood dry enough to burn was in very short supply. Amazingly they found a small cache of it buried beneath a pile of brush, along with the last man they rescued—who was not too seriously injured.
Somehow Rafe scraped together enough wood to build a fire. Protected within a circle of stones in the back corner of the shelter, scarcely big enough to heat a pot of water, nonetheless its flames threw off a welcome glow of light and a small pool of heat. They’d not get very warm or dry from it, but it provided them with hot drinks to help warm up the injured.
The mere sight of it helped to brighten a truly dismal night.
Considering the paltry light of their few candles, the crude conditions and their meager store of supplies, they treated the injured as well as they could, but Padrig feared they’d not done enough.
Everyone was so cold and wet! In addition, the injured men, Lady Alys and her maid all needed more care than they had resources to provide. ’Twas too long a journey to go back to l’Eau Clair; they needed to find someplace nearby to seek shelter and aid.
Right now he couldn’t say for certain where they’d ended up. Under the current conditions it was nigh impossible to take note of any sort of landmark—they might be in an area he’d have easily recognized before, and he’d not know it now.
Once the sun rose and he’d had a chance to scout the area, mayhap he’d have a better idea of their location, and thus what options they had.
In the meantime, he could do naught else but take care of his charges and pray.
Until he’d fulfilled his duty, relaxing his guard in any way was not a luxury he could allow himself.
Not that he’d have been able to rest anyway.
But once they’d set up their patients on their makeshift beds, Padrig sent Rafe, Jock and Peter to get what sleep they could while he kept watch. Everyone else seemed to have drifted into some sort of rest; ’twas fairly quiet now that the storm had moved on, with only the occasional distant rumble of thunder accompanying the soft patter of rain on the branch-covered roof. Every so often someone would groan or snore, but other than himself, it appeared everyone had settled deep into slumber.
Perhaps he could use the time to collect his thoughts and work out some sort of plan for the morrow. Now that he’d the opportunity, however, his mind—full to overflowing with worries and possibilities—would not cease its headlong whirl.
Sighing, he sprawled on the ground beside Lady Alys’s pallet so that he faced her, stretched out his legs, and reached over to smooth his hand along the length of her hair where it lay spread atop the covers. He gently worked his fingers through the tangles, savoring the softness against his skin. It calmed him to touch her. He found it soothing, reassuring in some strange way.
He didn’t understand it, and he knew ’twas wrong of him to make free with her person—especially without her knowledge or permission—but he could not resist the impulse to do so. Perhaps all he felt was the comfort of human touch. If so, mayhap his touch brought comfort to her, as well.
He hoped so.
He choked back a bitter laugh. It suited him to believe so, more like.
Still—for the moment, where was the harm in it?
He stroked the back of his hand over her forehead before cupping his palm about her cheek. Thankfully her skin had finally warmed, her breathing had become slow and even. Whatever her other hurts, she’d at least escaped becoming sick from lying out in the cold and damp for so long.
Lady Alys stirred beneath his touch, shifting awkwardly within the bedding before opening her eyes. She glanced around the shadowy structure before her attention came to rest on his face. “Padrig,” she murmured. “Where are we?”
Her voice, husky with sleep, skittered along his spine like a caress, making his body—nay, his entire being—take notice of her in a manner that was completely inappropriate.
Yet wholly tempting.
Especially when combined with the dark, smoky look in her amber eyes as her gaze met his.
Lord save him! Padrig snatched his hand back from Alys’s cheek as though she had suddenly burst into flame. Moving slowly, he sat back on his heels, his hands resting on his knees. “’Tis the—” He sounded like a croaking frog; he cleared his throat and tried again. “’Tis the shelter my men built.”
She nodded and tried to pull herself up to sit against the crude wall, but stopped in mid-movement, grimacing. Her breathing uneven, she motioned to her right arm, which remained resting across her torso. “Could you help me up?” she asked.
“Of course.” Feeling like a fool for not realizing what she’d been trying to do, he dropped to his knees beside her, reached out and eased her arm to her side.
She cradled it against her body, supporting it with her left hand.
Though ’twas clear that moving hurt her, she let him clasp her about the waist and shift her.
By the rood, why hadn’t he thought to bind her arm so its weight would not pull at the joint? If he’d done it when she’d been sleeping so deeply, he might have spared her this pain.
’Twas too late to worry about that; instead, he’d do what he could to fix the situation. Still holding her, he looked around for a length of cloth, a shirt—anything he could use to fashion a sling.
A strip of linen left over from binding wounds caught his attention, tossed aside on the floor. Snatching it up, he knotted it into a rough sling and carefully positioned her arm within its folds.
Though her body tensed and her breathing roughened for a moment, amazingly she hadn’t cried out. He’d seen hardened warriors nigh in a swoon to have their arm moved at all under such conditions.
Lady Alys continued to surprise him—not necessarily a good thing, since the more he learned about her, the more he wanted to know.
A man like him didn’t need to know anything more about a young noblewoman save that she was above his touch, in every way that mattered.
He’d do well to remind himself of that fact every chance he got.
“Thank you.” Alys closed her eyes for a moment as if to compose herself, then opened them, met his gaze and sighed. “’Tis strange, is it not, to thank someone for doing something you know will be awful? Still, this does make things a bit more comfortable.”
“If I’d done it earlier, you might have slept more soundly.” Still supporting her, Padrig rearranged her blankets, concentrating on smoothing them out and making certain her feet were well covered rather than on watching her face. “You might still be asleep.”
“I must have rested long enough, for I feel wide awake now.” She laid her left hand atop his, bringing his restless fidgeting to an end. “I’m glad to be upright, Sir Padrig, and to be free after lying pinned for so long in that mountain of trees.”
He allowed his gaze to rise, to alight on her lovely face, and felt any intelligent words—words he could say without sounding an idiot—fly straight out of his head. “I’m glad we found you,” he finally managed.
Of course you’re glad, you stupid fool, he berated himself. What else would you have done—left her there?
If he weren’t careful, he’d soon be sounding as pathetic as Hugh.
Wasn’t that a disquieting notion!
Evidently she saw nothing wrong with his response, however, for she relaxed against him. “’Tis warmer and drier here—and the view is certainly better, as well,” she added, her lips curving into an almost imperceptible smile, her gaze settling on his face with an intensity it took all his attention to ignore.
That look, combined with the way it felt to hold her, set thoughts he’d no business thinking rushing to his brain—as well as to other, more unruly parts farther south.
By the saints, she should know better than to look at him that way!
“Is that so?” he replied, even as he regretfully mustered his common sense and withdrew his support, easing her out of his grasp. Straightening his legs, he settled himself beside her pallet, once again facing her. “I believe I can put your arm aright once there’s light so I can see what I’m doing,” he told her.
“I know.” She met his questioning look, her expression solemn. “I drifted in and out of sleep while you were carrying me—I heard bits and pieces of your talk with Rafe.”
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