Authors: Traci E. Hall
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Western
She glared at him, her light eyes flashing as she shouted, “Why did you do such a thing? And to your own man?”
Nicholas started to tell her the truth, that she was the cause of the fight, but halted his tongue. Celestia had turned her back on him anyway, and he watched with fascination as she ripped a swatch of cloth from her hem and bathed as much blood as she could from Petyr’s face.
Then she stripped her hands of her gloves and tossed them aside, rubbing her palms together, as if creating a spark to tinder. She was humming something beneath her breath, and he swore he could feel a lick of heat from where she knelt in the dirt. When she put her hands on each side of Petyr’s nose, the knight groaned, but not like it hurt—more as if the pain had eased.
Uneasy, Nicholas heard the snap as she set the bone. The bleeding stopped, as did her chant.
Petyr, his blue eyes wide with fear, scooted backward so fast that Celestia was knocked to her rear. Nicholas knew that the knightly thing to do would be to jump down from his horse’s back and hold out his hand to help her up from the ground. Yet he was frozen.
“Are ye really a witch?” Petyr asked, his voice squeaking like a lad’s.
“Nay!” Celestia reached toward him, but Petyr crawled backward on his elbows. “I am a healer.”
Nicholas could see the hurt Petyr’s question caused in the rejected slump of Celestia’s shoulders. Still, he could not move to soothe her when he had more questions of his own. The hot desire between them, was it magic—not real? Had she attempted to bind him to her through lust? Nicholas straightened, his belly sick.
“Sir Petyr, please, do not be afraid. I am no witch that casts spells or lures demons to do my bidding.” She got to her feet and brushed her reddened palms against her legs.
“She was born with the gift, blessed by God, you stupid oaf.”
Petyr glanced at Nicholas, then to Evianne, then back to Celestia.
“One woman in each generation is blessed; however, Celestia is the most gifted, to my knowledge.” Evianne sent Petyr a sassy wink, and Nicholas was amazed at the old dame’s audacity. Her quick defense of Celestia broke the line of accusation he’d been following. Stunned, Nicholas realized that he may have witnessed his first miracle.
Or, Nicholas snorted, his wife was in league with the devil. They’d be the perfect match if such were the case—although if she ever thought to rule him with sexual power, there would be hell to pay.
Celestia was saying, “I have some water; we have but to wash your face, and you are good as new.”
Then she turned her gaze to him, and Nicholas shuttered his thoughts so that she could not see into his head.
“So long as someone keeps their hands to themselves, you should stay that way,” she challenged.
He dipped his head to her. Witch? Angel? It didn’t matter. He looked down at Petyr and said gruffly, “Hurry, man, you lay about like you’ve never been tapped on the nose before. We must make haste if we are to reach Middon before dark.”
Celestia was grateful when Nicholas broke eye contact. She’d been powerless to pull away from his dark, judgmental gaze. It was this very thing she’d thought to avoid last night when he’d asked about her vision. His jaw looked to be carved from hard marble; his posture was just as cold. Had she frightened him, as she had Petyr, with her gift? Her heart beat painfully against her chest, but she wouldn’t show him that she was affected. She could be just as outwardly cold as he.
He hid his pain well, but she could detect it. And thanks to Gram’s revelation, she searched for vulnerable fear, which she couldn’t find in the set of his brow.
Could she live with her husband’s hate? She lifted her chin defiantly. She was a healer, by all that was holy, and she would continue to use her gifts until they disappeared under Nicholas’s disdain.
She made a running jump onto her horse, grabbing the saddle horn and pulling herself up. Not being tall, she’d had to develop upper arm strength that held her in good stead while she practiced with her bow and arrow.
She was both a woman and a renowned healer, descended of a Warrior Queen. If she couldn’t cure her husband, then who could?
Petyr rose and mounted his horse, glaring at any who dared to stare. “My apologies, Lord Nicholas,” he growled. “But liege or no, if ye think to tap me again without a fight, ye’ll be sorry.”
Nicholas said nothing.
Celestia refused to cower as Petyr turned his ire to her. “You may be a healer, or you may be a witch,” he raised his hand to stop anyone from coming forward to defend her name, “but if I need healing again, I will thank you to let me suffer instead.”
Lady Evianne snorted. “Fool. Let him know the meaning of pain, then. Are ye all right, ‘Tia?”
The burn of rejection stung, and knowing that Nicholas witnessed it made the sting twice as painful. “I am.”
“Liar,” her grandmother teased.
Sir Geoffrey, Bess, and Viola all sent her an encouraging smile as the wagon lumbered forward. These were the people who understood her.
Maybe she was making a mistake, venturing so far from home. What skills did she have in running a manor? She did not make new friends easily. She should turn around now and—her family was relying on her to save her brothers. Catching sight of Nicholas as he checked the line, Celestia wondered if he realized they both were equally trapped by family and honor.
They rode in silence for a while, and Celestia’s anger stewed. He could not possibly believe that she was a witch! Finally she could take no more, and she cantered forward. “Nicholas, wait, I would have a word with you.”
“Not now,” he said, turning his back on her.
“How dare you dismiss me?” she blurted in disbelief, her bare hands tightening around the leather strips in anger. “Do you think to treat me poorly, without giving me a chance to explain?”
His gray eyes were akin to chips of ice as he looked at her. “What makes you think that I would believe what you say?”
Ceffyl pulled short as Celestia yanked up. “You don’t know what you are talking about.”
“I will tell you what I know.” He leaned forward so that his words were for her alone. “This caravan needs to find shelter before nightfall. The roads are not friendly after dark, and I would hate to put everyone at risk. I believe we are being followed, and until I know whether it is by friend or foe, we ride on a little faster. This is precisely why I didn’t want any wagons.”
Celestia fought the urge to turn around and look behind them. “That is your strategy? To ride a little faster?” Ceffyl, picking up Celestia’s panic, sidestepped on the road.
He clenched his jaw and she saw him count to ten before he explained, “Stephan has circled ‘round the back with Forrester to protect us from the rear. It could be nothing.”
Or it could be the danger she’d envisioned.
“Get near the wagon,” he instructed.
“Nay, I will be with you.” She stared to reach for the pack slung over her horse’s rear, but Nicholas took her hand and squeezed tight.
“Must you argue, now? I need to concentrate, and you are distracting me. Stay calm and do not alarm the others. We have but an hour’s ride until we reach Middon.” He gave her hand another warning squeeze before releasing it.
Chastised but not beaten, Celestia allowed Nicholas to ride ahead of her. He could think he was in charge all he wanted, but she wasn’t going to let him out of sword’s reach.
Nicholas could feel Celestia’s eyes boring into his back like sharpened stakes. After his time in captivity, he no longer feared the unknown. It was the human element that had his healthy respect. Never once had he seen a spiritual entity, and heaven knew he had prayed for intervention with all of his might. The men who had held him imprisoned had done more harm than any ghost or demon could have, and when the men were finished, Leah was there with a different kind of torture.
He was none too proud to admit there had been times when he would have gladly traded his soul to the devil in exchange for death. In the end, he’d lost his soul anyway.
He glanced down at his wrists. The tight manacles hadn’t been the worst that had been done to him, although the scars served as a reminder to be on his guard. Against everyone, man or woman. Nobody could be trusted.
Nicholas had been allowing Celestia, with her fey beauty and her brave spirit, to affect him. It had been a blessing that she’d revealed her uncanny nature before it was too late and he found himself caring for her despite his vows.
Refusing to look behind him, even though his wife’s anger was a tangible thing, he let his gaze drift over the green of the trees. There had been a time when he had not been vigilant enough, and Lord knew, he was still paying the price for his folly.
He did not believe in witchery, despite what he had just witnessed with his own two eyes. There were people trained in herbal medicine who could perform near miracles. One of the Saracen priests in Tripoli had been so talented that he’d kept Nicholas alive long after he’d been beaten in both body and spirit. Watching Celestia heal Petyr had thrown him back in time.
As if the thought conjured him from thin air, Petyr was suddenly visible in the distance. He’d gone ahead to find possible shelter. What was Nicholas going to do about his head knight? Sighing, he continued to peruse the area. He was going to put Celestia in Petyr’s care, and go on with his plans for vengeance. That was all.
Nicholas lifted a hand as Petyr trotted toward him, already talking. “There’s a smaller village, halfway to Middon. We can stop there, if need be. Set the tents in the fields.”
Nicholas returned Petyr’s curt message with a nod. He probably shouldn’t have punched him in the nose, but the man would have to stop badgering. The pressure of being in charge rode heavily on Nicholas’s shoulders.
He turned Brenin and rode to the back of the caravan, taking the glares from Celestia’s servants as his due. They could be angry; they just couldn’t
He heard the sound of pounding hooves and tensed his hand over the hilt of his sword. Relieved, he saw it was Forrester and Stephan racing around a curve in the road, with a boy thrown facedown over the rear of Stephan’s horse. Nicholas stayed near the wagon and waited until the riders got closer. The boy was scruffy but dressed in the Montehue green.
Celestia, who had stayed right on his heels, kicked her mount and rode by him.
The boy looked up, a grin splitting his dirty face. “Lady Celestia!”
Again, Nicholas was speechless as Celestia fearlessly halted Ceffyl near Forrester’s large warhorse. Had she no idea how dangerous that was? “What is wrong? Release him at once, he’s our stable boy.”
Abner had already dropped to the ground, as agile as a monkey, Nicholas noticed with a pang. The boy glanced around, excitement in his voice. “Lord Nicholas, Lord Nicholas!”
“What have you?” Nicholas said, a reluctant smile tugging at his mouth even though he worried over the news. The lad could not contain his joy at being a messenger, yet he doubted Abner had run all day just to return a forgotten brooch or a glove.
Sprinting across the road, Abner said, “The Lord Robert, he sent me with a message—the baron’s men, they came right after you left this morn! Hundreds of them, well, not so many as that, but there were a lot—”
“You’ve been following us all day?” Celestia led Ceffyl away from the large stallions before dismounting, and Nicholas was able to breathe a little easier, seeing her out of harm’s way. “Here, drink,” she said, handing over her leather waterskin without thought to her rank, or the boy’s.
Abner stared up, hesitant to take it.
Nicholas was about to intervene, when Celestia clucked her tongue and put the skin in Abner’s hand. “Drink, all of it, or you will be sick. Was I to save you over the winter only to have you ill now? I think not,” she tapped her foot expectantly and Abner drained the last of the water before handing the skin back.
“Excellent. What news have you, now?”
Calmer, Abner took a deep breath and recited from memory, “I’m to tell Lord Nicholas that Crispin Monastery has been burned to ashes.”
“What? The abbot?” Nicholas curved his hand to a fist.