Authors: Amanda Quick
Dunstan grunted. “Will you give her one or two of yours, then?”
Hugh smiled. “I may allow her to borrow them from time to time.”
He returned to his contemplation of the morning. The air was crisp. The farms and fields of Lingwood Manor lay quiet and still beneath a leaden sky. It was early fall. The harvest was partially complete and much of the land lay stripped and bare, awaiting the fast-approaching chill of
winter. He wanted to get home to Scarcliffe as quickly as possible. There was so much to be done.
Lady Alice was the key. Hugh could feel it in his bones. With her, he could find the damned green stone and unlock his future. He had come too far, waited too long, hungered too deeply, to stop now.
He was thirty years old but on cold mornings such as this one he felt closer to forty. The storms inside him blew fiercely, filling him with a great restlessness, an inchoate need that he did not fully comprehend.
He was always aware of the tempests that shrouded his soul but only in the deepest hours of the night or in the gray mists of dawn could he sometimes actually perceive the dark winds that drove him. He avoided such opportunities when he could. He did not care to peer too deeply into the heart of the storm.
He concentrated now on the task that lay ahead of him. He had land of his own. All he had to do was hold on to it. That was proving difficult.
During the past few weeks Hugh had begun to discover why the lands of Scarcliffe had passed through so many hands in recent years.
It was a fact that in recent memory no man had successfully held Scarcliffe for more than a short span of time before losing it through death or misfortune. Some said Scarcliffe was haunted by ill omens, bad luck, and an old curse.
He who would discover the Stones and hold fast these lands
must guard the green crystal with a warrior’s hands
Hugh did not believe in the power of ancient curses. He trusted in little else other than his own skills as a knight and the determined will that had brought him this far. But he had a healthy respect for the power such foolish nonsense often wielded over the minds of other people.
Regardless of his own opinion of the irritating prophecy, he knew that the disheartened folk of Scarcliffe believed
in the old legend. Their new lord must prove himself by guarding the green crystal.
Since arriving to take possession of the manor less than a month earlier, Hugh had found the inhabitants who now called him lord surprisingly sullen. The good people of Scarcliffe obeyed him out of fear but they saw no hope for the future in him. Their gloominess showed in everything they did, from the lackluster way they milled flour to the halfhearted manner in which they worked the fields.
Hugh was accustomed to command. He had been trained to it. He had been a natural leader of men for most of his adult life. He knew he could coerce a minimal level of cooperation from those he governed but he also knew that was not sufficient. He needed willing loyalty from his people in order to make Scarcliffe thrive for all their sakes.
The real problem was that the inhabitants of the manor did not expect Hugh to last long in his position as lord. None of the other lords had survived more than a year or two.
Within hours of his arrival, Hugh had heard muttered omens of impending disaster. Crops had been trampled by a band of renegade knights. A freakish lightning storm had done considerable damage to the church. A wandering monk who preached doom and destruction had appeared in the vicinity.
To the people of Scarcliffe, the theft of the green crystal from the vault of the local convent had been an event of cataclysmic proportions. It had also been the last straw. Hugh knew that in their eyes it was proof positive that he was not their true lord.
Hugh had realized immediately that the fastest way to gain the trust of his people was to recover the green stone. He intended to do just that.
“Have a care, my lord,” Dunstan advised. “Lady Alice is no anxious maiden to be awed by your reputation. She will no doubt try to bargain as though she were a London shopkeeper.”
“It should prove an interesting experience.”
“Do not forget that last night she appeared more than willing to trade her soul for whatever it is she expects to have from you.”
“Aye.” Hugh almost smiled. “Mayhap her soul is just what I shall require.”
‘Try not to barter away your own in the deal,” Dunstan advised dryly.
“You are assuming that I have one to lose.”
enedict’s twisted leg prevented him from actually storming through the door of Alice’s study chamber. Nevertheless, he managed to convey his anger and outrage with a flushed face and fierce green eyes.
“Alice, this is madness.” He came to a halt in front of her desk and tucked his staff under one arm. “Surely you cannot mean to bargain with Hugh the Relentless.”
“His name is Hugh of Scarcliffe now,” Alice said.
“From what I have heard,
suits him all too well. What do you think you are doing? He is a most dangerous man from all accounts.”
“But an honest one apparently. Tis said that if he strikes a bargain, he will keep it.”
“I vow that any bargain made with Sir Hugh will be on his terms,” Benedict retorted. “Alice, he is said to be very clever and keen on plotting stratagems.”
“So? I am rather clever myself.”
“I know you think that you can manage him as you do our uncle. But men such as Hugh are not easily managed by anyone, especially not by a woman.”
Alice put down her quill pen and contemplated her brother. Benedict was sixteen years old and she had had the sole responsibility for him since their parents had died. She was well aware that she had failed in her duty by him. She intended to do what she could to make up for the fact that she had allowed his inheritance to slip into Ralf’s hands.
Her mother, Helen, had died three years earlier. Her father, Sir Bernard, had been murdered by a street thief outside a London brothel two years past.
Ralf had followed fast on the heels of the news of Bernard’s death. Alice had soon found herself deeply embroiled in a hopeless legal battle to hold on to the small manor that was to have been Benedict’s inheritance. She
had done her best to retain control of the tiny fief, but on that score Ralf, for all his ox-brained wit, had outmaneuvered her.
After nearly two full years of argument and persuasion he had convinced Fulbert of Middleton, Alice’s liege lord as well as Ralf s, that a trained knight ought to control the manor. Ralf had claimed that, as a woman, Alice was incapable of managing the estates properly and that, with his ruined leg, Benedict could not be trained as a knight. Fulbert had concluded, after much prompting by Ralf, that he needed a proper fighting man in charge of the tiny manor that had belonged to Lord Bernard.
To Alice’s rage and disgust, Fulbert had given her father’s manor to Ralf. Ralf had, in turn, given the lands to his eldest son, Lloyd.
Alice and Benedict had been obliged to move to Lingwood shortly thereafter. Once safely in possession of the fief, Lloyd had married the daughter of a neighboring knight. Six months ago they had had a son.
Alice was practical-minded enough to realize that no matter how well she argued her brother’s claims in the courts, she would likely never regain possession of Benedict’s inheritance. The knowledge that she had failed to fulfill her responsibility to Benedict was a source of deep pain for her. She rarely failed at a task, especially not one as important as this had been.
Determined to make up for the disaster in the only way possible, Alice had set out to give Benedict the best possible chance for advancement in the world. She had determined to send him to the great centers of learning in Paris and Bologna, where he would be trained in the law.
Nothing could make up for his lost lands, but Alice intended to do her best. When she was satisfied that Benedict was safely on his way in life, she would fulfill her own dreams. She would enter a convent, one that possessed a fine library. There she would devote herself to the study of natural philosophy.
Only a few days ago both of her objectives had seemed out of reach. But the arrival of Hugh the Relentless had opened a new door. Alice was determined to seize the opportunity.
“Do not alarm yourself, Benedict,” she said briskly. “I have every confidence that Sir Hugh will prove to be a reasonable man.”
“Reasonable?” Benedict waved his free hand wildly. “Alice, he’s a legend. Legends are never reasonable.”
“Come now, you cannot know that. He seemed perfectly amenable to rational discourse last night.”
“Last night he toyed with you. Alice, listen to me, Erasmus of Thornewood is Sir Hugh’s liege lord. Do you know what that means?”
Alice picked up her quill and tapped the tip thoughtfully against her pursed lips. “I have heard of Erasmus. He is reputed to be quite powerful.”
“Aye, and that makes his man, Sir Hugh, powerful, too. You must be careful. Do not think that you can bargain with Sir Hugh as though you were a peddler in the village market. That way lies madness.”
“Nonsense.” Alice smiled reassuringly. “You worry overmuch, Benedict. Tis a fault I have begun to notice in you of late.”
“I worry for good cause.”
“Nay, you do not. Mark my words, Sir Hugh and I shall get on very well together.”
A large figure loomed in the doorway, casting a wide, dark shadow across the carpet. It seemed to Alice that there was a sudden chill in the room. She looked toward the opening. Hugh stood there.
“You echo my own thoughts, Lady Alice,” he said. “I am pleased to see that we are of similar minds on the matter.”
Awareness prickled along the surface of Alice’s skin as his deep, resonant voice filled the study chamber. He spoke very softly yet his words seemed to still even the smallest of competing sounds. The bird on the window ledge fell silent. The echoes of horses’ hooves down in the bailey faded.
Alice felt her insides tighten in anticipation. She could not stop herself from staring at Hugh for a moment. This was the first time she had seen him since last night’s confrontation in the flame-lit hall. She was eager to discover if
his presence had the same odd effect on her this morning that it had had on the first occasion.
Against all reason and the evidence of her own eyes, she found Hugh the Relentless to be the most compelling man she had ever met. He was no more handsome in the morning light than he had been last night yet something about him drew her.
It was almost as if she had developed an extraordinary additional sense, she thought, and that she now employed a level of sensation that went beyond hearing, vision, touch, taste, and smell. All in all, a most intriguing problem
natural philosophy, she decided.
Benedict jerked around to face Hugh. His staff struck Alice’s desk. “My lord.” His jaw tightened. “My sister and I were having a private conversation. We did not see you standing there.”
“I have been told that I am rather difficult to overlook,” Hugh said. “You are Benedict?”
“Aye, my lord.” Benedict straightened his shoulders. “I am Alice’s brother and I do not think that you should meet alone with her. Tis not proper.”
Alice raised her eyes toward the ceiling. “Benedict, please, this is ridiculous. I am no young maid whose reputation must be protected. Sir Hugh and I merely intend to converse on matters of business.”
“‘Tis not right,” Benedict insisted.
Hugh leaned one broad shoulder against the door-jamb and crossed his arms over his chest. “What do you think I am going to do to her?”
“I don’t know,” Benedict muttered. “But I won’t allow it.”
Alice lost her patience. “Benedict, that is enough. Leave us now. Sir Hugh and I must be about our business.”
“I will speak with you later, Benedict.”
Benedict flushed darkly. He glowered at Hugh, who merely shrugged, straightened, and got out of the doorway to make room for him to pass.
“Fear not,” Hugh said to him quietly. “You have my
word that I’ll not ravish your sister during the course of this bargain she wishes to strike.”
Benedict turned an even darker hue of red. With one last, angry glance at Alice, he stalked awkwardly past Hugh and disappeared down the hall.
Hugh waited until he was out of earshot. Then he met Alice’s eyes. “A young man’s pride is a tricky thing. It should be handled with some delicacy.”
“Do not concern yourself with my brother, sir. He is my responsibility.” Alice indicated a wooden stool with a wave of her hand. “Please be seated. We have much to discuss.”
“Aye.” Hugh glanced at the stool but he did not sit down on it. Instead he walked to the brazier and held his hands out to the warmth of the glowing coals. “That we do. What is this bargain you would make with me, lady?”
Alice watched him with an eagerness she could not conceal. He seemed quite amenable, she thought. There was no sign that he meant to be difficult. A sensible, reasonable man, just as she had concluded.
“My lord, I shall be blunt.”
“By all means. I much prefer directness. It saves a great deal of time, does it not?”
“Aye.” Alice clasped her hands together on her desk. “I am prepared to tell you precisely where I believe the thief took my green crystal.”
“It is my crystal, Lady Alice. You seem to have a habit of forgetting that fact.”
“We can argue the fine points of the matter at another time, my lord.”
Hugh looked faintly amused. “There will be no argument.”
“Excellent. I am delighted to see that you are a man of reason, sir.”
“I make every effort.”
Alice smiled approvingly. “Now, then, as I said, I will tell you where I believe the crystal to be at this moment. In addition, I will even agree to accompany you to its present location and point out the thief.”
Hugh considered that. “Very helpful.”
“I am glad you appreciate it, my lord. But there is even more to my part of this bargain.”
“I cannot wait to hear the rest,” Hugh said.