Northern England, June 1306
“We’ll have rain by nightfall, I fear,” Lord Henry Libourg, Baron of Arundel, declared solemnly as he slowed his horse’s canter, drawing closer to his wife so as to be heard above the pounding hooves. “ ’Tis bound to make a mud pit in the middle of the bailey, but the newly sowed crops will benef it.”
“Rain? Are you daft, my lord?” Lady Fiona matched her mare’s pace to that of her husband’s war steed, then eyed him with healthy skepticism. “There is nary a cloud in the sky to mar the perfection of sunshine.”
“Rain it will be, my lady,” Henry insisted with authority. “I feel it in my bones.”
He slapped his gloved hand deliberately against his thigh, then grimaced. Fiona turned her face upward toward the bright sunshine, shaking her head. It was moments such as this when the nearly twenty-five-year age difference between her and her spouse became glaringly apparent. Only an old man spoke of his joints aching when rain or snow approached.
The unkind thought had no sooner entered her head when Fiona silenced it. Henry was a good husband—dear to her in many ways. She had been sent to his manor as a young girl of twelve, to serve his wife and learn the duties of a proper lady. When that good woman had died in childbirth five years later, Henry had surprised Fiona by asking her to be his wife and mother to his infant son.
Born to a family of minor nobility that took little stock in the welfare of its female members, Fiona had been relieved when her father agreed to the match. Relieved and grateful, for it allowed her to stay at the first place she had truly considered home.
She knew others could not understand why she would eagerly wed a man of modest means and position so much older than herself, but as the Baroness of Arundel, Fiona had found a purpose that filled her with confidence and self-worth. She had come to accept that her marriage, though affectionate, was not, nor would it ever be, a marriage of passion. Yet Fiona loved Henry truly, in a way that stretched far beyond a sense of duty.
All in all, it was a good life.
Fiona turned her eyes away from the sunlight twinkling through the leaves and gazed out at the trees surrounding them. Summer had finally arrived, but a thick layer of dead brown leaves carpeted much of the forest floor, mingling with the green of the smaller bushes and ferns.
“Oh, look, Henry, ’tis a cluster of blooming feverfew,” Fiona exclaimed. “Please, may we stop so I can gather some? Two of the kitchen lads have broken out in a fierce rash. They are suffering mightily, and treating them with my usual ointments has proven useless. I am certain the addition of feverfew will make all the difference.”
Filled with excitement, Fiona tugged on her reins with a short, sharp motion. Her horse protested, rearing in response.
“Careful now, you don’t want to take a tumble on this hard ground,” Henry admonished. With impressive skill, the baron reached out a strong arm to ensure his wife kept her seat.
Fiona cast him a grateful smile, tightening her thighs around her mount instinctively. She was a competent, though not especially skilled, horsewoman. Fortunately, Henry was near to keep her safe.
Once her horse was calm, the baron peered over at the soft white flowers she pointed toward, his expression perplexed. “Feverfew? Are you certain? They look like ordinary daisies to me.”
Fiona smiled. Henry was a man of solid intelligence as well as experience, but medicinal herbs and flowers were completely foreign to him. “With their yellow centers and white petals, I’ll allow there is a strong resemblance, but you must trust me, sir, when I tell you those are not daisies.”
“I trust you, Fiona. I’m just not certain ’tis wise to delay our return home. We have been gone for most of the afternoon and there are duties that await us both. If I can spare the men, you may return tomorrow to collect your flowers.”
“They are not merely flowers, Henry, they are medicine. And truly, the need is so great that I fear tomorrow might be too long to wait. The sooner I try a new treatment, the sooner the lads will be healed.”
Henry made a soft sound of resignation beneath his breath. “God’s bones, Fiona, I think you are the only woman in all of England who would make such a fuss over kitchen lads.”
Graceful in victory, Fiona smiled sweetly. “You are the one who taught me to care so diligently for our people, good sir. Now come, there looks to be enough to fill my saddle pouch as well as yours.”
The baron slid off his horse, then caught his wife around the waist when she began to dismount from hers. Their eyes met briefly as he set her gently on the ground. Impulsively, Fiona leaned forward and playfully kissed the tip of Henry’s nose.
“Impudent baggage,” Henry bristled in mock annoyance.
A deep chuckle bubbled through Fiona and she laughed merrily. The sound echoed through the forest, startling a flock of blackbirds from the branches of a nearby tree.
“Wait here,” Henry commanded, handing her the leads of both horses.
Fiona nodded in understanding, waiting patiently. Even though they rode on their own land, it was wise to be cautious, especially in these uncertain times.
She watched the baron make slow progress toward the clusters of feverfew, his shrewd gaze darting back and forth. Bored at being stopped on the journey, the horses ambled a few steps and lowered their heads to drink from a large puddle at the edge of the forest. Fiona allowed it, securing their leather leads to a tree trunk. She then turned back to Henry, anxious to begin her harvest.
At last, he gave the signal and she scampered forward, glad she was dressed in her new pair of leather boots. The ground was moist and springy, her feet sinking nearly to the ankles in some spots.
“I don’t suppose I can ask you to hurry,” Henry muttered, as she strode past him to reach the first large bunch.
“I shall try my best,” Fiona replied. “But doing a proper job of harvesting takes time.”
Though his expression was wry, Fiona heard the twinge of pride in her husband’s voice. She had never shied away from hard work and took a marked interest in all who lived at the manor, be they peasant, servant, or knight. And it was no secret she was well loved for her dedication.
Determined not to take a minute longer than necessary, Fiona sank to her knees, surveying the bounty growing before her. Gathering a large handful of blossoms growing at the base of an oak tree, she skillfully twisted her wrist, breaking the stems near the base of the roots. She made certain not to take every flower, ensuring the plants would survive and produce more feverfew in the coming weeks and months.
With such a great number of soldiers, servants, and others depending on her for care, Fiona knew well the importance of keeping the castle stillroom stocked with precious medical supplies, ever at the ready to treat the ills of those who needed help.
Moving forward on her knees, Fiona reached around the trunk to harvest another bunch of the precious flowers. As she broke off the stems, an odd sense that something was amiss surrounded her. It was quiet, almost too quiet. She turned her head to check on Henry, who stood several yards behind her.
His sword was drawn, his stance vigilant, yet relaxed. Telling herself she was being fanciful, Fiona returned her attention to the feverfew. Stretching forward, she tugged on a few remaining flowers, then suddenly, a masculine hand shot out from behind the tree and seized her wrist in a cruel grip.
A scream lodged in Fiona’s throat, her body too stunned to react. The grip tightened and pain radiated through her arm, but fear and shock kept it at bay. Lifting her head, Fiona looked up into the eyes of the fierce warrior who held her captive. A knight, she surmised, from the style of his garments, and one not needing to resort to thievery, judging by the fine quality of cloth he wore.
He was broad of shoulder, with deep-set blue eyes, framed by dark lashes. Though crouched before her, she could see he was tall and well muscled. His hawklike nose was straight and masculine, his mouth sensual. He wore his thick, dark, wavy hair longer than the current fashion, reaching just below his chin. There was a thin scar slashed across his left temple, ending at the corner of his eye. A memento of a long-ago battle, no doubt.
The sharp angle of his square jaw was covered with the dark stubble of several days’ growth of beard, adding to his menacing appearance, which bespoke of power and authority. Strangely, he was a man Fiona realized she would have considered handsome, had the situation not been so terrifying.
Who was he and why was he hiding on their land? Fiona knew this was hardly the time for questions. She needed to escape. Now! Still on her knees, she tried to scramble away, but he was too fast. And much too strong. Pulling her by the wrist, he lifted her to her feet in one smooth motion, hiding her from view behind the large tree trunk.
Tears welled in Fiona’s eyes at being manhandled so roughly, but it was his softly whispered words that drained the blood from her face.
“Be silent, lass, or we’ll gut yer man where he stands.”
Her captor’s steely blue eyes spoke his emotions as clearly as any words. Cold, remote, intense. A jolting fear slithered through Fiona’s slight frame, as she realized he would kill without hesitation.
In the line of trees ahead of her, a branch snapped. Panic coursed through her veins when she spied five more men hidden among the tall oaks. Dear God!
She fought to break free of the man’s grasp, but he anticipated her move, yanking her tightly with a bruising, iron grip. Fiona let out a strangled gasp as her body collided with his solid chest. Swift as lightning, his right arm snaked around her waist, gripping her like a vise, effectively pinning both her arms against her body. The moment she was secured, his other hand clamped tightly over her mouth.
“Fiona?” Henry called. “Where are you?”
She felt the fear rising, her heart thudding within her chest as she heard her husband moving toward them.
God have mercy, he will be killed! I must warn him!
With a renewed burst of energy, Fiona struggled to free herself: kicking, twisting, throwing her head frantically backward, banging it repeatedly against the chest of her captor. It made no difference. As if made of stone, the man never moved, his heavily muscled arms holding her as though she were nothing more than a pesky insect.
Still, Fiona fought to break free, refusing to give up so easily. Working her jaw up and down, she was able to catch the edge of her captor’s hand between her teeth. Heart racing, she summoned all her strength and bit down. Hard. Once, twice, three times.
She tasted the wet, dirty leather of his glove on her tongue, but ignored the discomfort and continued her assault, biting, then tugging, like a hunting hound with a captured rabbit. There was a split second of triumph when she heard a dull grunt from her captor—he had felt it. But despite any pain she caused, any wound she might have inflicted, he did not loosen his grip. If anything, it became tighter.
Helpless, Fiona watched Henry stride directly into the ambush. A muted cry of pain bellowed up from her chest as one of the brigands stepped out from his hiding place, lifted his sword and swung at her husband’s head. Henry reacted quickly, arching his own blade in a wide circle, effectively deflecting the lethal blow. Repositioning himself, Henry stepped to the side to avoid a second thrust before striking back with several short, heavy blows.
Advancing, he managed to drive his opponent against a tree trunk. Praying for a miracle, Fiona’s heart remained frozen as she watched him battle a much younger, larger man.
The flurrying crash of steel on steel intensified, the piercing sound reverberating through the forest. She could see Henry’s muscles flexing as he swung his sword, proof of the many hours he spent with his men on the training field. But Fiona could also see that her husband was tiring, his endurance no match for a man nearly half his age and a full head taller in size.
Yet Henry would not easily succumb. He landed a blow to his opponent’s upper arm, drawing blood. Startled, the brigand stumbled and fell to the ground. Fiona’s moment of joy at her husband’s triumph was short-lived, however, as two other men immediately joined the fray.
Within minutes one of them struck a stinging blow that clearly drove the air from Henry’s lungs. She cried out as Henry fell, barely noticing that her captor had taken his hand from her mouth.
“No, please.” Fiona’s voice was loud and sharp, dripping with emotion. Her heart lurched at the sight of a sword pressed so menacingly against her husband’s throat. Instinctively protective, she tried to move forward, but she was pinned in place with a paralyzing force.
“Wait! ’Tis Arundel. Dinnae harm him!” Her captor’s voice rang out and the other men instantly obeyed, pulling away. They exchanged glances and Fiona watched in astonishment as Henry was helped to his feet by his first opponent, the man he had wounded.
“Release my wife.” Though hoarse, the level of command in Henry’s voice was evident.
Stunned, Fiona felt her captor’s arms slip away. Fighting to control her shaking, she stumbled forward to stand at her husband’s side.
Astonishingly, the brigand who had held her captive bowed gracefully in a gesture of supplication. “I beg yer forgiveness, baron, fer our inhospitable greeting. But I dinnae realize who ye were until my men attacked.”
“Kirkland?” Henry huffed with indignation, his arms moving briskly as he brushed the dirt and leaves off his chest. “God’s bones, I should knock you on your arse for this,” he shouted.
“An understandable though unwise reaction, my friend.” Fiona’s captor took a step forward and his men moved in closer, forming a protective ring behind him.
Light-headed, Fiona struggled to release the breath she was holding. Who was this fierce stranger? Someone Henry knew, yet hardly the friend he claimed. Though their weapons were lowered, there was no doubt this man would fight if challenged. Or insulted?