Authors: Anna Markland
Ronan dressed hastily, feeling refreshed after bathing. Rhodri had asked him to wait with Conall in the chamber he shared with Rhun and Rhydderch. The twins had softened their attitude towards Conall, especially when the boy proved to be an apt pupil of Rhun’s. He was grateful for the clothes the redheads had given his servant.
Rhodri had also been generous with clothing for Ronan. The roomy shirts fit well, though the sleeves were too short. The doublets and breeches were a mite snug. It was rare to find a man who came close to matching him in height. Appearing before the Earl of Ellesmere in borrowed clothing would not create a good first impression.
How he had taken for granted the fine raiment he had worn as
of Túr MacLachlainn. And what kind of warrior carried no weapon? Still, he should be thankful he was alive and healed thanks to the care lavished on him by these generous Welsh people.
Rhodri strode in, followed by several young boys laden down with shirts, doublets, breeches, boots, and cloaks.
Ronan frowned. “My lord?”
Rhodri chuckled. “I feared your new wardrobe might not arrive from Powwydd in time. Rhonwen has had the tailors and seamstresses working night and day. Don’t stand there gawking, man! Off with your shirt. You too, Conall. Let’s make sure everything fits. My darling Rhonwen even sewed an eye patch to match each doublet!”
Ronan could not express his gratitude as he and Conall stripped off and tried on one finely made piece of clothing after another. Tears welled when he looked at Conall. “Your
would be proud of you, lad. Now you look like a steward’s son.”
Conall sketched a mock bow. “And you, my lord, look more like the
of Túr MacLachlainn than you have for a while.”
Ronan turned to his host. “How can I thank you, Prince Rhodri. I am humbled by your generosity. I have no means to repay you.”
Rhodri waved a dismissive hand. “It’s naught. I wish I could be of more help in your quest to right the wrongs done to you. But at least you will look like the nobleman you are when you meet Ram de Montbryce.”
Ronan felt guiltily relieved that he would now stand proudly beside Rhoni when he met her father.
Rhodri slapped him on the back. “Let’s away to the
. They are waiting to serve the evening meal. You can make a grand entrance in your new finery.”
Rhoni had not brought a great deal of clothing with her, planning originally to be away from home only a short time. She had fussed over what to wear for the evening meal. Rhodri had indicated it would be a more sumptuous occasion since it was to be their farewell banquet. She wanted to honour her host, but did not want to appear richly dressed since Ronan wore borrowed clothing.
His lack of fine clothes did not concern Rhoni, except when she thought of her father’s reaction. Ronan would look like a pauper next to the Earl of Ellesmere and his son.
Lost in her thoughts as she awaited Rhodri’s arrival in the Hall, she fidgeted with the lace cuffs of the gown she had chosen and did not at first notice that a hush had fallen over the assembly. When she looked to the entryway, her mouth fell open.
Ronan’s noble bearing had been obvious from the beginning, even in the ragged clothes in which he had been rescued. Now he strode into the
of Cadair Berwyn every inch the Lord of MacLachlainn Tower.
Her desire for him shook her to the core. Craven cowards had tried to destroy him, this man of steel. She stared at him. He did not smile, but his gaze was for her as he made his way to the dais with Rhodri.
He wants to be sure I approve.
The Prince bowed to her. “My lady Rhoni, you look magnificent.”
She blushed, aware only of how well Ronan’s new doublet fit his broad shoulders. She suspected Rhonwen’s fine hand behind this transformation.
Rhodri took his place and gestured for Ronan to do the same. The lord of MacLachlainn Tower took hold of Rhoni’s hand and brushed a kiss across her knuckles. “Prince Rhodri is right. You are the brightest star in the firmament this evening.”
Rhoni the empty headed ninny would have gushed about his new clothes, but the new Rhoni wanted to appear more mature. She smiled at him. “You look dashing yourself,
He laughed as he sat beside her. Laughed! Her heart leapt into her throat.
He lifted his tankard in salute to Rhodri. “I am indebted to the generous spirit of my Welsh hosts who have provided me and Conall with this fine new raiment.”
Rhoni wanted to throw her arms round Rhodri’s neck in gratitude, but she only nodded in silent thanks.
Rhodri bent close to her ear. “You are welcome.”
As the evening progressed Ronan found he was more at ease than he had been for many sennights. The rich flavour of the roasted venison with its thick gravy reminded him of many of the feasts his family had enjoyed at home, in happier days. The ale flowed freely and soon he was singing along with the Welsh troubadours who entertained them, though he did not understand a word!
Rhodri put a hand on his shoulder. “The lord of MacLachlainn Tower has a fine voice.”
Rhoni grinned her agreement. “He does indeed. I wonder if he would favour us with a song or two from his homeland?”
Ronan loved to sing, had often been called upon to do so in Ireland. A short while ago he would have refused, but that would seem ungrateful. He came to his feet, greeted by encouraging applause and cheers. “Perhaps just one,” he conceded.
He chose the love song. Rhoni would recognize it.
She wiped away a tear as she listened. No matter his determination to give nothing of his heart to a woman, he sang only for her.
His audience sat enthralled by the melodious lilt of his voice, erupting in wild applause and demanding another and another, until he was finally allowed to return to his place.
Rhoni smiled. “You are blushing, my lord.”
Rhodri came to his feet and a hush fell immediately. “I thank you, Lord Ronan, for the gift of your songs. On the morrow you will leave this place for an uncertain future. But, though you look more like a lord now—”
Cheers and echoes of approval rang out.
“—there is yet something you lack.”
Rhodri gestured to a man Ronan recognized as the armourer, who strode forward weighed down by a long object bundled in cloth. He grunted with exertion as he mounted the step to the dais and laid the burden on the trestle. Rhodri left his place to stand in front of the table. He held out his hand to Ronan. “I bid you join me.”
Ronan’s heart was racing. Did the cloth conceal what he suspected it did? Impossible. He came around the table to stand beside his host.
With a flourish, Rhodri removed the covering and with both hands picked up the sword it had protected. He held it out at arm’s length to Ronan. “What is a warrior without a sword?”
Ronan glanced at the armourer standing off to the side, his face glowing with pride in the workmanship. It was merited. The sword Rhodri offered him was finely wrought and long, made for a man of Ronan’s stature. He shook his head. “I do not know what to say, Prince Rhodri. Your gift leaves me speechless.”
“Take it. Master Daffyd made it especially for you.”
Ronan turned to the armourer. “I thank you, Master Daffyd.”
The little man bowed, his round face red.
Ronan accepted the sword and took hold of the hilt. He came down from the dais and hefted the weapon. It was perfectly balanced, made for his hand. He swiped the sword through the air two or three times. “Magnificent,” he declared.
Master Daffyd bustled forward with a leather scabbard. Ronan raised his elbows while the craftsman buckled it around his hips, then he sheathed the weapon with a flourish. Whistles and cheers broke out.
Ronan glanced at Rhoni. What he saw elated and dismayed him. Rhodri’s gift was a double edged sword. It made the path to vengeance smoother, which would separate him from Rhoni, yet he had never basked in such adoration as he saw now on her face.
He swallowed hard and opened his mouth to speak, but Rhodri held up his hand. “Wait! Master Daffyd has made a dagger of the same design, and another for Conall. Now he can return the one he filched.”
Laughter rang out as Conall came forward sheepishly to return the purloined blade and accept the new one.
Ronan accepted his dagger. “Prince Rhodri, I will never forget you and your people. I will dub this sword
in honour of your friendship. I wish I had something to give in return.”
Rhodri accepted the handclasp Ronan offered. “It is enough to know we have helped in some small way to defeat the usurpers who took much from you. We Welsh know a thing or two about injustice.”
Rhodri and his twin sons accompanied Ronan and Rhoni down the mountain. Rhydderch dismounted from his pony several times to lead Fortissima through the many tricky places along the route. Rhoni thought wryly that the Welsh boy showed more esteem for her horse than he did for her, but the way he handled her beloved mare impressed her. It was evident the animal trusted the redhead.
Rhun and Conall seemed to have become friends. The Irish lad carried a bow slung over his shoulder and a quiver at his back. Rhoni assumed these were gifts from Rhun.
There was little chance for conversation along the tortuous path. The going was more difficult descending from this side of Cadair Berwyn than the ascent from Powwydd. Rhodri smiled at Rhoni often, no doubt recalling the last time he had made this journey with her nestled in a sling, held against his broad chest.
Strangely, she knew in her heart she travelled this path before. She had long thought of Rhodri as a kind of godfather, and now she had met him, the bond was stronger still. She loved the wild beauty of Wales. Now when she spoke of the land of her birth, it would be with genuine feeling and not some trite conversation piece.
Her gaze went often to Ronan riding ahead of her. No one would believe this was the same man they had dragged half-dead from a waterlogged coracle mere sennights before. For the journey he had donned a sheepskin jerkin and leather breeches. His new sword on his hip, he rode proudly, his back erect, his strong legs easily controlling his pony.
Her own life had changed dramatically. She had fallen hopelessly in love with an Irishman intent on nothing but revenge, still grieving his dead wife. It did not make any sense, but there it was. He sometimes smiled and even laughed on occasion, but darkness still ruled him. Fate had brought them together and she would bring whatever light she could to his life. If that meant braving her father’s wrath, so be it.
They came at last to
Rhydycroesau. As in every village, Rhodri and his sons were recognized as the patriot warriors they were, and greeted warmly. The villagers looked at Ronan with curiosity. His dark hair and swarthy complexion bespoke the same Celtic blood that ran in their own veins, and he was probably the tallest man they had ever seen.
Rhoni was either ignored by the Welsh, or treated with disdain. They recognized her as a Norman and it filled her with remorse. They had suffered so much at the hands of her people that their hatred was palpable. For the first time in her life she felt shame for the oppression many Normans had wrought on the Welsh, and thanked God her father was not among them.
Rhodri led them through the village to a humpback stone bridge, where he brought the cavalcade to a halt. He pointed to the river that rushed beneath the ancient arch. “Twenty years ago, your mother carried you across that bridge to freedom, my Rhonwen at her side. There was a heavy mist. I lost sight of the three of you. I was desolate because I feared Rhonwen had left me, never to return. The time has flown by like the blink of an eye.”
Rhoni had heard the tale many times from her mother, but being here, seeing the bridge, feeling her father’s anxiety as he waited on the other side to meet his daughter for the first time, her life suddenly made sense. “But you were convinced Rhonwen was your destiny, and you were right.”
Rhodri chuckled. “Yes, but thanks be to God your mother convinced her of that.”
Rhydderch brought up Fortissima. Rhodri dismounted and reached up to help Rhoni off the pony. Once she had her feet on the ground she embraced him. “Thank you, Lord Rhodri. This journey has meant much to me. It has changed my life.”
Rhodri put his hands on her shoulders and looked into her eyes. “You too have a destiny, Rhoni, and unless I am wrong, that destiny is mounted on a pony behind me.”
Rhoni looked beyond Rhodri to where Ronan waited. “But he sees his destiny differently. I have no part in that vision.”
Rhodri clasped her hands in his. “Do not give up hope. I trusted that Rhonwen would be mine, and it came to be. Farewell, Lady Hylda Rhonwen de Montbryce. It has been my privilege to meet you at last. Give my regards to your father.”
He winked and she laughed out loud. “I will be in enough trouble without doing that!”
He gave her a last reassuring hug, then helped her mount Fortissima. “Goodbye, little one.”
Ronan had dismounted and handed the reins of his pony to Rhydderch. He strode over to Rhodri and Rhoni. Conall trailed after him. She had consented to share her horse with Ronan until they reached her bodyguards on the other side of the border. The message sent with a bird from Cadair Berwyn to Ellesmere had asked for a spare horse to be brought. Ronan would not accept a pony from Rhodri, knowing the Welsh needed every animal they had.
Rhoni pressed her lips together, filled with emotion as the two giants clasped arms and embraced. They slapped each other on the back, but did not exchange a single word, both men apparently understanding the other’s feelings.
Her heart stopped when Ronan suddenly vaulted into her saddle, lifting her easily at the same time so she sat on his lap. Flustered, feeling her face redden, she tried not to lean against him, but it was impossible. He took the reins and nudged the horse up and over the bridge to England, Conall on foot behind them. As they reached the other side, they stopped and turned to look back. Rhodri and his retinue had already disappeared.
Rhoni tensed, chewing her lower lip, tears welling in her eyes.
Ronan seemed to sense her sadness. “Lean on me,” he whispered.
She relaxed back against him, reassured by his strength. They rode through a meadow carpeted with bluebells and Rhoni espied her bodyguards waiting for them in a thicket beyond. Suddenly she sat up straight, feeling nervous. “My captain’s name is Gabriel Duquesne. He will be leery of you both, but I will explain.”