Authors: Amanda Quick
“Hugh the Relentless,” Hugh said in ominous tones, “is a man who knows how to hold on to that which is his. Be assured, lady, that I consider the stone mine.”
“Sir, that crystal is very important to my investigations. I am presently studying various stones and their properties and I find the green crystal most interesting.”
“I believe you described it as ugly.”
“Aye, my lord. But it has been my experience that objects that lack superficial charm and attraction often conceal secrets of great intellectual interest.”
“Does your theory apply to people as well?”
She was confused. “My lord?”
“Few would call me charming or attractive, madam. I merely wondered if you found me interesting.”
“In an intellectual sense, that is.”
Alice touched the tip of her tongue to her lips. “Ah, well, as to that, aye, my lord, one could certainly describe you as interesting. Most assuredly.” Fascinating would be a more accurate description, she thought.
“I’m flattered. You will no doubt be even more
to know that I did not come by my name by accident. I am called Relentless because of my habit of always pursuing a quest until I am successful.”
“I do not doubt that for a moment, sir, but I really cannot allow you to claim my green stone.” Alice smiled brightly. “Mayhap in the future I could loan it to you.”
“Go and fetch the stone,” Hugh said in a terrifyingly calm voice. “Now.”
“My lord, you do not comprehend.”
“Nay, lady, ‘tis you who do not comprehend. I am done with this game you seem to delight in playing. Bring the stone to me now or suffer the consequences.”
“Alice,” Ralf shrieked. “Do something.”
“Aye,” Hugh said. “Do something, Lady Alice. Bring the green crystal to me at once.”
Alice drew herself up and prepared to deliver the bad news. “I fear I cannot do that, my lord.”
“Cannot or will not?” Hugh asked softly.
Alice shrugged. “Cannot. You see, I have recently suffered the same fate as yourself.”
“What in the name of the devil are you talking about now?” Hugh asked.
“The green crystal was stolen from me only a few days ago, my lord.”
“God’s teeth,” Hugh whispered. “If you seek to provoke me to anger with a maze of falsehoods and misleading words, you are close to success, madam. I warn you, however, that you may not care for the result.”
“Nay, my lord,” Alice said hastily. “I speak the plain truth. The stone disappeared from my workroom less than a sennight past.”
Hugh shot a cold, questioning glance at Ralf, who nodded morosely. Hugh switched his disturbing gaze back to Alice, pinning her ruthlessly with it.
“If this is a true fact,” he said icily, “why was I not informed of it at once when I arrived here this evening?”
Alice cleared her throat again. “It was my uncle’s opinion that, as the stone is my property, I should be the one to tell you of its loss.”
“And present your claim to it at the same time?” Hugh’s smile bore a strong resemblance to the edge of a finely crafted sword blade.
There was no point in denying the obvious. “Aye, my lord.”
“I’ll wager that it was your decision to delay informing me of the loss of the stone until after I had dined well,” Hugh murmured.
“Aye, my lord. My mother always claimed men were more reasonable after a good meal. Now, then, I am pleased to be able to tell you that I have a plan to recover the stone.”
Hugh did not appear to have heard her. Instead he seemed lost in some private musings. “I do not believe I
have ever encountered a woman such as yourself, Lady Alice.”
She was momentarily distracted. A glow of unexpected pleasure warmed her insides. “Do you find me interesting, my lord?” She hardly dared add the rest. “In an intellectual sense?”
“Aye, madam. Most interesting.”
Alice blushed. She had never had a man pay her such a compliment. She had never had a man pay her
compliment. It gave her a thrilling feeling of excitement. The fact that Hugh found her as interesting as she found him was almost overwhelming. She forced herself to set the unfamiliar sensation aside and return to practical matters.
“Thank you, my lord,” she said with what she felt was commendable composure under the circumstances. “Now, as I was saying, when I learned that you were to pay us a visit, I conceived a scheme whereby we might recover the crystal together.”
Ralf stared at her. “Alice, what are you talking about?”
“I shall explain everything soon enough, Uncle.” Alice beamed at Hugh. “I’m sure you’ll be interested to hear the details, my lord.”
“A few, very few, men have, at various times in the past, attempted to deceive me,” Hugh said.
Alice frowned. “Deceive you, my lord? No one here attempted to deceive you.”
“Those men are now dead.”
“Sir, I believe we should return to the subject at hand,” Alice said crisply. “Now, as we both have an interest in the green stone, the logical thing to do is to join forces.”
“There have also, I regret to say, been one or two women who played dangerous games with me.” Hugh paused. “But I doubt that you would wish to learn of their fates.”
“My lord, we digress from the topic.”
Hugh stroked the stem of his wine goblet. “But now that I think back on those few females who tried my patience with silly games, I believe I can say with some certainty that they were not at all similar to yourself.”
“Of course not.” Alice began to grow annoyed again. “I am not playing a game with you, sir. Just the opposite. It is to our mutual advantage to combine my wits with your knightly skills so that we may recover the stone together.”
‘That would be difficult to do, Lady Alice, given that I have seen no evidence that you possess any wits,” Hugh turned the goblet between his fingers. “At least none that have not been addled.”
Alice was incensed. “My lord, you insult me most grievously.”
“Alice, you will be the death of us all,” Ralf whispered in despair.
Hugh paid his host no heed. He continued to study Alice. “I do not insult you, lady, I merely point out an indisputable fact. Your wits must have flown if you believe that you can toy with me in this manner. A truly clever woman would have realized long ago that she trod on very thin ice.”
“My lord, I have had enough of this nonsense,” Alice said.
“So have I.”
“Do you wish to be reasonable and listen to my plan or not?”
“Where is the green stone?”
Alice reached the end of her patience. “I told you, it was stolen,” she said very loudly. “I believe I know the identity of the thief and I am willing to help you discover his whereabouts. In return, I wish to strike a bargain with you.”
“A bargain? With me?” Hugh’s eyes held infinite danger. “Surely you jest, lady.”
“Nay, I am quite serious.”
“I do not think you would like the terms of any bargain you might strike with me.”
Alice considered him warily. “Why not? What would your terms involve?”
“Your very soul, most likely,” Hugh said.
ou have the look of an alchemist gazing his crucible, my lord.” Dunstan indulged in his old habit of spitting over the edge of the nearest obstacle. In this instance it was the old wall that surrounded the bailey of Lingwood Manor. “I like it not. In my experience the expression bodes ill for my aging bones.”
“Your bones have survived worse than an unpleasant frown or two.” Hugh rested his forearms on the top of the wall and gazed out over the dawn-lit landscape.
He had risen half an hour ago, prodded from sleep by a familiar restlessness. He knew the mood well. The storms that abided deep within him were stirring. They shifted and swirled in new patterns. It was always like this on those occasions when his life was about to take a new turn.
The first time Hugh had experienced the sensation had been when he was eight years old. That was the day he had been summoned to his grandfather’s deathbed and told that he was to be sent to live in the keep of Erasmus of Thornewood.
“Sir Erasmus is my liege lord.” Thomas’s pale eyes
had burned in his thin, haggard face. “He has agreed to take you into his household. He will see that you are raised and trained as a knight. Do you understand?”
“Aye, Grandfather.” Hugh had stood, subdued and anxious, by the side of the bed. He had stared in silent awe at his grandfather, unable to believe that this frail old man who lay at death’s door was the same fierce, embittered knight who had raised him since the death of his parents.
“Erasmus is young, but strong. A fine, skilled warrior. He went on Crusade two years ago. Now he has returned with much glory and wealth.” Thomas had paused, his words briefly severed by another racking cough. “He will teach you the things you will need to know in order to achieve our vengeance against the house of Rivenhall. Do you comprehend me, boy?”
“Study well. Learn all that you can while you are in Erasmus’s care. When you become a man, you will know what to do and how to do it. Remember everything that I have told you about the past.”
“I will remember, Grandfather.”
“Whatever happens, you must do your duty by your mother’s memory. You are the only one left, boy. The last of your line, even though you were born a bastard.”
“You must not rest until you have found a way to wreak vengeance upon that house from whence sprang the viper who seduced my innocent Margaret.”
To young Hugh, it had not seemed altogether right to seek vengeance on his father’s house, in spite of what he had been taught about the evil nature of the Rivenhall clan. His father, after all, was dead, just as his mother was. Surely justice had been done.
But that justice had not satisfied Hugh’s grandfather. Nothing could satisfy Sir Thomas.
Eight-year-old Hugh had dutifully brushed aside his moment of uncertainty. Honor was at stake and nothing was more important than his honor and that of his grandfather. That much he fully comprehended. He had been steeped in the importance of honor since the moment of
his birth. It was all a bastard had, as Sir Thomas had frequently pointed out.
“I will not rest, Grandfather,” Hugh had promised with the fervent intensity only a boy of eight could muster.
“See that you don’t. Never forget, honor and vengeance are all.”
Hugh had not been surprised when his grandfather had died with no words of love or a farewell blessing for his only grandchild. There had never been much in the way of affection or warmth from Thomas. The brooding anger that had resulted from the untimely seduction, betrayal, and death of his beloved daughter had tainted all of the old man’s emotions.
It was not that Thomas had not cared for his grandson. Hugh had always known that he was vitally important to his grandfather, but only because he was Thomas’s sole means of vengeance.
Thomas had died with his daughter’s name on his parched lips. “Margaret. My beautiful Margaret. Your bastard son will avenge you.”
Fortunately for Margaret’s bastard son, Erasmus of Thornewood had made up for much of what Thomas had been unable to give Hugh. Perceptive, intelligent, and possessed of a gruff kindness, Erasmus had been in his early twenties when Hugh had gone to live with him. Fresh from his triumphs in the Holy Lands, he had played the part of father in Hugh’s life. As a boy, Hugh had given his mentor his respect and youthful admiration.
As a man, Hugh now gave his liege lord absolute and unswerving loyalty. It was a rare and much-prized spice in the world in which Erasmus moved.
Dunstan wrapped the edges of his gray wool cloak more securely around his stocky frame and studied Hugh out of the corner of his eye. Hugh knew what he was thinking. Dunstan did not approve of this business of chasing after the green crystal. He considered it a waste of time.
Hugh had tried to explain that it was not the crystal itself that was valuable, rather what it represented. It was the surest way to secure his grip on Scarcliffe. But Dunstan was impatient with such notions. In his opinion good steel
and a stout band of men-at-arms were the keys to holding Scarcliffe.
He was fifteen years Hugh’s senior, a battle-scarred veteran of the same Crusade that Erasmus had taken. His tough, weathered features reflected the harshness of that time. Unlike Erasmus, Dunstan had returned from the quest with neither glory nor gold to show for his troubles.
Dunstan’s skills as a warrior had been useful to Erasmus but everyone, most especially Erasmus, knew that it was Hugh’s uncanny ability to plot stratagems that had made Erasmus a quietly powerful man. Erasmus had recently rewarded his loyal man with Scarcliffe, a manor that had at one time belonged to Hugh’s mother’s family. Dunstan had chosen to go with Hugh to his new estate.
“No offense, Hugh, but your frowns are not as other men’s scowls.” Dunstan grinned briefly, exposing the gaps between his stained teeth. “They convey a remarkably oppressive air of doom. Even I am struck by it on occasion. Mayhap you have perfected your legend as a dark and dangerous knight a bit too well.”
“You are wrong.” Hugh smiled faintly. “I have obviously not perfected my legend well enough if I am to judge by Lady Alice’s reaction last night.”