Authors: Anna Markland
Myfanwy organised the women into groups, admonishing them not to venture into the water, and not to stray from their escorts. Rhodri assigned a contingent of bowmen to each group.
He and Rhun accompanied Rhoni, Carys and Myfanwy. Rhoni felt strangely content, as though she was with family. The brisk wind whipped Myfanwy’s veil around her face, and Rhoni’s wimple was soon lost to the breeze.
The women scoured the beach for pretty shells, poked at strange creatures in tide pools, and sidestepped encroaching waves. Squeals of girlish laughter filled the air.
Rhoni looked out to sea and closed her eyes, raising her face to the sun. She let the warm wind lift her arms and suddenly she was a soaring bird. The breeze tickled her palms.
“The tide is coming in, Myfanwy,” Rhodri warned. “We’ll have to keep an eye on it.”
Rhoni reluctantly opened one eye. Rhodri’s voice had broken the spell. For a brief moment, she had been one with the sea, the sun, and the warm zephyr.
Suddenly, a young nun came scurrying around a rocky outcropping, red faced and breathless. “Mother, Mother, come quickly. Sister Aiweeda has fainted.”
Rhoni came back to reality abruptly. Rhodri and Rhun strode over the rocks. The women hastened after them.
“What happened?” Myfanwy asked breathlessly.
“She was attacked.”
Rhun nocked an arrow to his bow in the blink of an eye.
Aiweeda lay on the sand like one of the jellyfish they had grimaced at earlier, quivering before a barking seal. The wet skin of the first seal Rhoni had ever seen gleamed like polished silver mottled with brown spots. Though it seemed distraught, the comical the way it barked and slid rapidly back and forth on the sand enchanted her.
Rhun took aim.
Rhoni shoved him. “
! Don’t kill her.”
The arrow skimmed harmlessly into the water.
Rhun shoved back. “Stupid Norman,” he yelled.
Rhoni landed on her
in the sand. Rhun reached into his quiver for another arrow, but his father waved him off. “Put it away, Rhun. The seal is not attacking.”
Rhoni struggled to her feet and ran to join the group approaching the seal, frustrated by her shoes bogging down in the sand, impeding her progress.
The animal seemed to sense it had an audience. It lumbered into the water, then out again, in then out, barking furiously. Rhoni had seen their dogs do the same thing when they wanted—
“She wants us to follow her.”
Several faces turned her way, derision writ plain, but only the sneering Rhun voiced the opinion. “And how are we supposed to do that?”
Rhoni frowned, sure in her heart the seal was trying to convey a message. She shaded her eyes with her hand and looked out to sea.
“There!” She pointed, shouting over the roar of the surf. “What’s that?”
Everyone strained to see what she had seen. Out on the water bobbed a strange object, round, adrift.
“Looks like a boat,” Myfanwy observed.
“There’s someone in it,” Rhoni yelled, not understanding how she knew, but certain of it.
Rhun bristled beside her. “It’s too small to be a boat.”
Rhodri suddenly unbuckled his scabbard and tore off his doublet and boots. “Rhun, get more bowmen. Rhoni might be right. It’s a coracle.”
He strode into the water and swam towards the craft. The seal followed him like a sleek shadow. Men came pouring from all directions and several joined Rhodri in the water.
The women huddled together on the sand, watching Rhodri and the others haul the boat to shore. The men dragged the coracle out of the water. Rhoni broke away from the nuns and ran to the swirling foam at the water’s edge, deafened by the thudding of her heart in her ears.
Dripping water, and winded, Rhodri stopped her. “Don’t look, child.”
She grasped the side and pulled against him, compelled to look inside. Curled up in the waterlogged craft were the bodies of a young boy and the biggest, most striking man she had ever seen, a man who had been cruelly tortured. His suffering tore at her heart. She wanted to soothe away the pain of the abominated eye, the burned and bruised leg, the scarred wrists. A sob lodged in her throat. She leaned on Rhodri, trembling from head to toe.
He issued commands, pulling her from the scene. “Get them out of the boat. We’ll see to their burial.”
She wrenched away from him. “
! They can’t be dead. The seal thought they were still alive.”
Rhun seemed ready to utter another scathing remark about her sanity. She put her hands on her hips, braced for an argument.
All heads swivelled to the bodies. The boy had levered himself up on one elbow, eyes wild, lips parched.
Rhodri sprang into action. “Rhun, get water from the cart. Quick.”
Rhodri easily lifted the boy from the coracle, but it took six men to extricate the man and lay him on the sand.
If the boy lived, the man might also have survived. Rhoni dropped to her knees at his side, took his hand and pressed it against her cheek. He was ice cold. She leaned over to listen for breath.
Faint, but there. She turned to look at him and found herself gazing into a dark eye more compelling than the brutally marred flesh that had been his right eye.
,” he rasped.
An overwhelming desire to kiss his wind-ravaged lips swept over her. She wanted to fill his lungs with the breath of life. She squeezed his hand. “He’s alive!” she screamed, laughing through salty tears, rocking back and forth on her knees, speechless with relief.
Rhun came running with water skins and helped the boy drink. Rhodri knelt at Rhoni’s side and spread his doublet over the man’s chest. He held a skin to his parched lips and poured a little water into his mouth. The man spluttered, coughed and choked, but then grabbed the water skin and drank greedily.
“Easy now,” Rhodri advised, helping him sit up. “Not too fast.”
The wretch did not seem to comprehend. He frowned, looking over to the boy. “Conall?”
The lad was on his hands and knees, taking in gulps of air. “Aye—”
The man put a trembling finger to his swollen lips. “Praise be to God we’re alive, son.”
The boy coughed and frowned. “Aye,
Myfanwy had studied languages. “They are speaking Irish,” she said. “They are father and son.”
Rhun spat. “Irish barbarians.”
It was urgent they get back to the priory as quickly as possible. Rhodri and his men had no dry clothing. Conall and his father were in dire need of Rhonwen’s expert care. Carys was her mother’s apprentice, but there was little to accomplish at the beach.
Nevertheless, Rhodri deemed it wise to put Carys in the same cart as the one-eyed man. Like her mother, Carys possessed a mystical ability to heal that had nothing to do with potions and salves. Rhoni insisted on being allowed to ride with them. Myfanwy completed the group. The boy was deemed fit enough to ride behind Rhydderch.
The Welshmen who strained to lift the man into the cart laid him on his back, but he gritted his teeth, struggling to turn on his side. The back of his tunic was bloodied.
“He’s been flogged,” Myfanwy whispered.
Bile rose in Rhoni’s throat. She grasped his hand. She was aware torture existed, indeed was used by her father’s men when necessary, but what had this wretch done to deserve such extreme punishment?
Carys and Myfanwy relied on soothing words and gentle touches to ease the man’s pain. Rhoni held his blistered hand, elated to feel warmth return. It was the first time she had touched a man’s hand so intimately. It dwarfed hers and did strange things to her insides. She wanted to press it to her cheek again, but by the look of his clothing, this man was a peasant, far beneath her rank.
Myfanwy wiped his forehead with the hem of her white robe. “What is your name?”
He licked his lips. “Ronan. Ronan MacLachlainn.”
Rhoni mouthed his name.
Myfanwy’s eyes widened. She turned to Rhoni. “Son of a seal. His name means
son of a seal
.” She signed a crucifix across her body.
A shiver of eerie certainty stole into Rhoni’s heart. Her gaze remained fixed on Ronan’s ravaged face. Only his name had escaped his cracked and swollen lips, but the musical lilt of his husky voice sent small winged creatures fluttering in her belly.
Suddenly he smiled weakly at her and she felt the light press of his thumb against her palm. Wet warmth flooded between her legs. The earth had moved. Shame warred with desire. Had the other women noticed? She opened her mouth to speak, but no sound emerged. He would not understand her language anyway.
“Do you know where you are?” Myfanwy asked.
Ronan hesitated, his one eye still fixed eerily on Rhoni. “
Myfanwy shook her head. “No, this is not Holy Island. You came ashore at Prestetone.”
Ronan frowned. “Drifted.”
“Where are you from?”
,” he rasped.
“He is from St. Columba’s Well,” Myfanwy explained to the others. “It’s a place of pilgrimage in Ireland for many who believe its waters cure ailments of the eyes.”
Rhoni wanted to scream. Tears streamed down her face. She choked on the bitter irony.
When Ronan first saw a golden haired
kneeling over him on the beach, he thanked God for his deliverance to heaven. But then awareness of intense pain returned, along with sounds of male voices shouting commands in a foreign tongue, women whimpering. Hell then?
Once it penetrated his wits that he and Conall had both survived, he had to make sure their identity remained hidden. He did not know where he was, nor who had rescued them. The quick witted Conall had caught on, despite his exhaustion.
They had landed in the midst of a bevy of nuns. Saints be praised! The lilting words of the nun and the girl who might be her sister soothed him, though he did not understand the language they spoke.
But the woman with the blonde hair whom he had first believed was an angel—he was compelled to stare at her. Her fair face was a reassurance he still lived. She had not spoken, only held his hand, but even in his wretched state his shaft had turned to granite. Thank the Lord for the baggy
. It was an arousal the like of which he had never experienced with Mary. It shamed him, but at least that part of his body was still working. He might yet live!
What a sight he must be, yet the woman did not seem repulsed. He was grateful for the warmth of her hand. He tried to smile and managed to press his thumb into her palm. He felt the ripple of desire that her eyes betrayed. The scent of female arousal assailed his throbbing nose.
This was dangerous. She was obviously a noblewoman, and he wanted them to believe him a peasant.
Her eyes filled with tears when the nun explained where he had come from. He had an urge to brush them away, but a peasant would never be so bold.
The nun wiped his forehead again. “I am Sister Myfanwy, Prioress of a nearby convent. We will take you there. This is my sister, Carys. Our mother is at the convent. She is a renowned healer. She will mend your body.”
But what of my soul?
He still did not know the name of the blonde woman. He stared at her full lips. They could bring relief to the ache in his loins. Shame flooded him again. What had happened to his loyalty to Mary? Mary had never put her mouth on him, never tasted him.
The woman leaned over, her lips close to his face, her warm breath tickling his ear. She smelled of the sea, and something else, something he could not name. Her unbound hair fell about his face. She tucked it back behind her ear. Her breasts strained at the fabric of her gown. More blood rushed to his loins. It was the best he had felt for many a day, a good ache.
He barely heard her strained whisper. “I am Rhoni de Montbryce.”
Críost! A bluidy Norman