Authors: Anna Markland
He closed his eye, groaned and withdrew his hand.
For a sennight, Rhonwen and Carys laboured day and night to heal Ronan. The convent’s Infirmirian conceded supervision of her domain to Rhonwen, recognising her as the superior healer, not to mention the wife of the Prince of Powwydd and mother of the Prioress.
The salt crust was washed from his body and hair. The fractured bone in his leg was set and rendered immobile with a hardened casing made from ground sea shells, egg whites, flour and rendered fat. The deep welts on his back, the many burns, and the scars at his wrists were cleansed and salved, his nose reset, and his blinded eye packed with padding and bandaged.
Conall did not budge from Ronan’s side.
The nuns offered up perpetual prayers on billowing clouds of incense for the two survivors.
Rhoni stayed away from the Infirmary, tortured by the memory of Ronan’s rejection. What did it matter that a peasant who was possibly an escaped criminal had scorned her? Her preoccupation was ludicrous, yet she spent hours on her knees with the nuns in the chapel, praying for him.
As the day of departure approached, she plucked up courage to ask her mother if she might stay at Llansanfraid, strangely numbed by the prospect of being far away from Ronan.
Mabelle de Montbryce looked at her curiously. “It’s out of the question, Hylda Rhonwen. It’s safer if we travel together.”
Myfanwy gathered everyone in the Refectory to discuss Ronan and Conall.
Rhodri had visited them several times, trying to coax information. “Ronan claims to be a farmer from an estate in Ireland that was attacked by brigands. His Master was killed and he and Conall managed to escape, but not before they had tortured him.”
Mabelle drummed her fingers on the table. “Why would they torture a farmer? Conall was not tortured.”
Rhodri folded his arms. “I don’t believe Ronan’s wounds were inflicted to extract information. He was tortured for the amusement of it.”
Rhonwen’s nod confirmed his suspicions.
Rhoni wanted to be sick.
Her mother eyed her curiously. “Why do you want to stay, Rhoni? You can’t bear to listen to what happened to the wretch.”
Rhoni studied her hands, tightly clasped in her lap. How to explain the deep seated need to be close to Ronan that she could not understand? Her mother thought her an empty-headed ninny. This would confirm it. Perhaps Ronan
the son of a seal, sent to bewitch her. Myfanwy had explained the legend of the
to everyone. It had added to the mystery of Ronan’s identity.
Rhodri came to his feet and paced slowly. “Despite his injuries, he does not have the body of a farmer. He is well-muscled, much like a knight who has spent many hours in training yards.”
Rhoni felt her face flush. She pressed her thighs together to assuage the warm ache.
“Are you ill, Rhoni?” her mother enquired.
Rhoni could only shake her head.
Rhodri went on. “He does not have the hands of a farmer and often reaches without thinking to grasp the hilt of a sword at his hip.”
Myfanwy interjected. “He hasn’t the brogue of a peasant. I believe he is an educated man.”
Rhodri braced his legs. “I have decided we will invite them both back to Powwydd. I cannot remain here much longer, we are too close to the border. Rhonwen and Carys will take care of them at our
. Are they fit enough to travel on horseback, Rhonwen?”
Rhun came to his feet. “Father, it isn’t a good idea to bring two Irish brigands to Powwydd.”
Rhydderch grunted his agreement.
Rhonwen glared at her twin sons. “You must learn to have more compassion. Ronan will manage a horse if the going is slow, and if he knows how to ride. Many farmers do not own a horse.”
The redheads scowled.
Rhoni crossed her fingers and sat on her hands, rocking back and forth. “
, may I accompany them to Powwydd? I have never been there. Perhaps I can learn some healing skills from Rhonwen, and Carys. After all, our healer is getting old. You remember Caryl Penarth, Rhonwen?”
She took a breath, her eyes darting from one face to another. “Mayhap Rhodri will take me to visit Cadair Berwyn, where I was born. I have longed to see it for myself. Rhodri’s men will provide me safe escort when the time comes for me to return to Ellesmere, as they do when Rhonwen visits. Papa won’t mind as long as he knows I am safe.”
Rhun rolled his eyes and elbowed his brother.
Mabelle stared at her, open mouthed. Rhoni took another deep breath, painfully aware she had babbled on as usual.
It was Rhodri’s eldest son, Rhys who quietly broke the silence. “What’s the harm?”
Rhodri rubbed his chin and looked at Mabelle. “Perhaps it is Rhoni’s destiny—to go to Cadair Berwyn, I mean.”
Rhoni was sure he winked at her mother, whose face bore a puzzled expression.
“Very well,” the Countess of Ellesmere conceded.
A wave of relief swept over Rhoni. She dug her nails into the flesh of her palms and fought to steady her breathing and control the urge to laugh out loud.
Ronan fingered the bandage covering his blighted eye, then lightly touched his nose. The pain had lessened, thanks to the tireless efforts of Rhonwen and her daughter. It was indeed a miracle they had drifted to that particular beach.
He had been allowed to get off his pallet for brief periods and hobble around with the aid of crutches. It was good to be up and about again, though the scars on his back hurt like the devil when he walked. He had made it to the bench in the priory garden where he paused to regain his strength, enjoying the breeze on his face.
Conall had remained at his side at first, but Rhonwen had admonished him to go for long walks and fill his lungs with fresh air. He hoped the boy would not let their true identities slip in some way. Conall did not have a dishonest bone in his body and it was contrary to his nature to lie. It was fortunate he did not speak Welsh.
Ronan was relieved the Norman woman had not come to the Infirmary. He had learned from Conall she was the daughter of an Anglo-Norman earl. The MacFintains were known to have Norman confederates in England who supplied them with mercenaries. Ronan must not get entangled with her. He had a dead wife and child to avenge, his lands to regain. Yet his gaze wandered often to the doorway, willing her to appear.
She came to him in his otherwise tortured dreams, her full breasts, warm touch and beautiful face the only happy vision that got him through the nights.
They were foolish dreams. A woman such as Rhoni de Montbryce would not want a scarred and disfigured man, even if it were possible to woo her. She was a young Norman noblewoman from a wealthy family who could have her pick of knights. An Irish exile bent on revenge would have no chance.
He chafed at his preoccupation with her. Was it because hers was the first face he had seen in his delirium? He had spent a mere hour in her presence. She had only whispered her name, yet the memory of her sultry voice, golden hair, and beautiful breasts, all remained firmly fixed in his mind.
Her absence from the Infirmary no doubt signified her lack of interest in him.
It had been decided he and Conall would go to Powwydd, to the castle of the man he now knew was a Welsh rebel chieftain. At least that would put him out of reach of Rhoni de Montbryce and give him a chance to regain his health. Winning back his lands and wreaking vengeance on the MacFintains would take strength and allies.
Feeling light-headed as the evening chill settled on the garden, he leaned heavily on one crutch and hauled himself to his feet from the bench. Once upright, he tucked a crutch under each armpit and started off towards the cloister. Intent on keeping his good eye on the ground before him, he bumped into a woman. Startled, he gripped the crutches, struggling not to fall. He looked up sharply and at first thought it was Rhoni, but then realized the woman with her hand on his elbow was older. This must be the Countess of Ellesmere, Rhoni’s mother. “A thousand pardons, my lady,” he stammered in English.
Her eyes widened. “You speak English!”
He cursed his carelessness. An uneducated Irish farmer would speak only the
. Ronan’s father had insisted he be educated by monks. His tonsured teachers were delighted to discover he had an ear for languages. As a boy he had resented the hours spent in the schoolroom. Now his ability to speak other languages might prove useful.
He and the Countess faced each other in silence for long minutes. He got the feeling she was taking his measure, assessing him, trying to come to some determination.
“A few words,” he lied.
Again she stared at him, turning her head this way and that. “I am wondering what my husband will think of you,” she said.
She turned abruptly and left him standing perplexed. What did she mean
think of you
? He had no intention of ever meeting the Earl of Ellesmere.
Sweat trickled down Ronan’s spine despite the chill in the air. Getting on to the mountain pony, even with Conall’s help, had been a trial. He was as weak as a baby.
Prince Rhodri’s family had mounted, ready for departure. Conall rode behind Rhydderch. Ronan had wanted to share his horse with the lad, but his back was not sufficiently healed. Normally an expert rider, he would have enough trouble controlling the animal without a pillion rider.
Myfanwy had bid her family a tearful farewell. They waited now for Rhodri. But two saddled horses stood ready, one of Rhodri’s bowmen holding the reins. The stallion was Rhodri’s. Ronan knew horseflesh and wondered who rode the magnificent mare. He had understood the Normans had left with their escort the previous day.
Who had Rhodri gone to fetch from within the convent?
Ronan curled his fingers into his pony’s mane when Rhoni de Montbryce strode out on Rhodri’s arm, dressed in a tunic and
tucked into leather riding boots. The outrageous masculine costume only emphasized her feminine beauty.
She ignored Ronan.
Rhodri stooped to clasp his hands under her booted foot. She reached for the pommel as he lifted her, and straddled the mare. Her long legs pressed against the animal’s sides as she accepted the reins from the bowman, leaning to whisper in the horse’s ear.
A feverish shiver tore through Ronan’s body, heating his blood from the top of his head to the tip of his toes, settling in his loins. His throat went dry. He had dreamed of her legs wrapped around his waist as he thrust into her wet heat. Now a different vision played behind his eyes. He lay beneath her as she rode him, his fingers kneading her magnificent thighs as she whispered passionate endearments in his ear.
Rhun, Rhydderch and Conall stared.
It was evident Rhoni was a capable horsewoman as she turned her mare to face them. “What are you gaping at? I’ve ridden astride since I was a child. My parents have encouraged it. Do you expect me to straddle a horse in a gown?”
She rode off, following the lead of a chuckling Rhodri. Ronan set his mount in motion, his attention fixed on Rhoni’s bouncing
. He groaned inwardly, shifting his weight to ease the insistent ache at his groin. This would be a long ride.
It had taken every bit of determination Rhoni possessed to avert her eyes from Ronan when Rhodri escorted her from the convent. She had worn the unorthodox outfit for several years when travelling distances on horseback, but it had suddenly felt too provocative. It was true her father was not totally in favour of it, but she sensed there was something in her parents’ past that precluded his objecting.
She had considered a side saddle, but rejected it. Why endure hours of painful discomfort? And if boys who had not yet reached manhood wanted to gape, well, what did they know about women?
Despite her determination not to look at Ronan, she had caught a glimpse of his reaction. His eye had narrowed. The frown on his reddened brow suggested censure.
What did she care if an Irish peasant thought her outfit brazen?
He looked good on a horse, even on a sturdy Welsh mountain pony—as though born to it. How could that be?
She felt his gaze on her back as she rode with Rhonwen and Carys. She reined Fortissima and dropped back to ride at his side.
“My lady,” he acknowledged, adjusting his bandage. He did not turn to look at her.
She glanced at him sharply. “You speak English?”
He shrugged. “I assumed your mother told you I did.”
She glared at him. “My mother? What do you know of my mother?”
Ronan opened his mouth, as if to impart some great insight, but then seemed to think better of it.
“Well?” she insisted, feeling like an indignant child.
“You ride well, my lady,” he retorted.
She bit her lower lip. “And you ride. I understood Irish peasants cannot ride.”
He put one hand on the pommel. The knuckles of the hand that held the reins whitened. His rigid posture oozed arrogance. “You should not believe everything you hear about Irishmen, my lady.”
She should have been affronted, but was instead enthralled. His voice had deepened, now that he was not dying of thirst. Its rich tones catapulted desire into her belly, and below. He was toying with her, no doubt assuming she was an empty headed, spoiled noblewoman.
She fluttered her eyelashes. “I am glad you appear recovered from your ordeal, Ronan. Torture cannot have been a pleasant experience.”
The moment the thoughtless, petulant words were out of her mouth she regretted them. She wanted to reach out and cradle his scowling face in her hands. “I’m sorry, my lord. I did not mean—”
He reined his horse, his lips a grim line. “Pray do not address me thus. I am not your lord.”
He urged his pony forward to ride behind Rhodri.
Rhoni’s emotions were in knots. She had no idea how to say what was in her heart to this beleaguered man who now rode ahead of her. She was never at a loss for some flippant remark or clever repartee, but was suddenly speechless.
She studied his back, aware of what lay beneath the tunic. Carys had told her of the horrendous scars. The nuns had done their best to clean his clothing, but the tunic still bore faint traces of his blood. But why had he been whipped? Who was he? She did not believe he was a farmer. Surely a humble peasant would not have aroused such intense feelings? It had seemed natural to address him as a nobleman.
Rhodri had given him no weapon. Did the Welshman not trust him?
Driven by a need she did not understand, aware he would likely reject her again, she rode up alongside him, determined to behave like a mature woman.
Ronan chewed his lower lip. It seemed Rhoni would not leave him be. He did not turn to look at her as she came abreast of him. He felt at a disadvantage having her on his blind side.
Her perfume intrigued him. He recalled that he had first noticed it at the time of their rescue. What was it? It reminded him of home.
They exchanged no conversation for many miles, the silence broken only by the slide of leather on leather, the clopping of hooves and occasional voices.
Her silent presence at his side drove him mad. He had run through a thousand possibilities for the perfume that still eluded him. The increasingly insistent ache at his groin made riding uncomfortable. What in the name of God was it about this woman?
“You are not a farmer.”
Unable to see her, he had not been prepared for the warm touch of her hand on his. He withdrew quickly, reaching for the hilt of a sword before he remembered he did not have one. The fine hairs on his nape stood to attention. She had spoken in a low voice, as if sharing an intimacy. He felt like a naughty child caught red-handed.
He turned fully in the saddle in order to look at her. Pain gnawed at his bound leg. Her reddened face and downcast eyes gave away nothing except her hurt feelings at his abrupt withdrawal. He regretted it. Rhoni was no coy maiden trying to entrap him—he had experienced the attentions of many such women before his marriage—but he had to discourage her. For some reason she seemed as drawn to him as he was to her.
“Why do you believe I am not a farmer?”
She did not look up. “Farmers do not carry swords, nor are they educated, nor do they—”
He held up a hand and turned away. “You have made your point
de Montbryce. I am a poor mummer. I am not a farmer.”
“And Conall is not your son.”
How unconvincing had been his charade. If Rhoni had guessed, surely the astute Prince of Powwydd had seen through his guise. He would have to warn Conall they had been found out. “No, Conall saved my life. He is the son of my Steward.”
She was on his blind side, but he felt her body tense beside him as a gasp escaped her lips.
There was no choice but to tell her. “I am Ronan,
of Túr MacLachlainn. At least I was Lord of MacLachlainn Tower, until recently.”
Even he heard the sarcastic humour in his words. It brought a lump to his throat. If he looked at her he might break down and weep like a child. He gritted his teeth. His resolve to keep hold of his emotions flew away like chaff on the wind when he felt the warmth of her hand on his again.
“That is why you were tortured,” Rhoni murmured. “Someone stole your home, your lands. If Ellesmere were taken from us, I could not bear it.”
Ronan’s head was pounding, his good eye blurring. Why had he allowed the conversation to follow this path? He did not want to confide in this young woman, at least ten years his junior. His future held no place for a woman.
He took a deep breath. “
! You have the right of it. The bluidy MacFintains and their Norman allies stole my lands, violated and murdered my wife and unborn child, killed my Steward, and would likely have killed me were it not for Conall.”
Rhoni withdrew her hand. His bolt had hit home. “Norman allies? What do you mean?”
“’Tis well known the MacFintains have achieved their bloody march through many Irish estates with the aid of Anglo-Norman comrades with whom they have a trading alliance. Normans known to be of the nobility.”
Rhoni halted her mount. He should keep going. Leave her to stew in what he had told her. He slowed his horse.
, what had happened to his resolve?
With no command coming from its rider, his horse stopped. He turned in the saddle. Rhoni sat, shoulders hunched, head bowed, gripping the pommel. She looked lost. He regretted having hurt her.
Rhodri had noticed they had halted and was coming towards them. She looked up, her eyes desolate. “I give you my word, Ronan,
of MacLachlainn Tower, no one from my family is involved in such an enterprise. My father is an honourable and fair man.”
Ronan spat, then wheeled his horse, saluting to Rhodri as he rode past him. He muttered under his breath. “I don’t know why, but I believe you,
When had he come to think of her as his
? He had called Mary his
, but never his
. The loss of his eye seemed to have robbed him of his good sense.