Authors: Miriam Minger
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Medieval, #General, #Historical Fiction, #Romance, #Historical Romance
Damn Adele to hell's fire! Did she think Ireland had
been fashioned purely for her amusement? Follow Gerard to West Meath to make a
worse mess of things? That blasted woman and her retainers had already brought
enough trouble upon his house, and they would cause no more!
Duncan kicked in the door, but he stopped short as a
shocked gasp filled the outer room, Flanna springing up from the bench where
she must have been waiting for him. Her gaze flew from his face to the woman he
carried and back again. Duncan swore to himself as his Irish mistress burst
into noisy tears and stamped her foot.
"Lying witch, the devil take her! She told me you
hadn't touched her but . . . but now you hold her in your arms like a lover!
You've found another for your bed, haven't you? You're going to send me
Flanna's petulant wail grating upon him as never
before, Duncan decided in that moment as he strode past her that yes, he was
going to send her away—God's teeth, that very day! First Faustis with his news
and now his mistress lying in wait for him to screech and clamor. Must a man
endure a trial by fire to accomplish a simple task?
Relieved to see that Flanna hadn't followed him crying
into the main chamber, her exaggerated sobs in fact receding, as she must have
run down the stairs, Duncan laid his unconscious burden upon the bed and tucked
her beneath the covers. She didn't stir an eyelash as he took care to brush
tangled midnight hair from her face, her fine-boned features as innocently
peaceful in sleep as a child's.
His turbulent thoughts amazingly ebbing just in looking
at her, Duncan allowed his gaze to drift to her lips, so red, so gently curved.
Had she ever been kissed? Something told him she had not, her every anxious
response to his nearness as much a sign she was unused to men as Normans. But she
wasn't anxious now . . .
Duncan barely realized he had leaned over her before he
felt the silken softness of her mouth against his own, her breath no more than
a gentle stirring that strangely moved him. He did not recall so sweet a
sensation since Gisele . . .
His gut knotting painfully, Duncan straightened.
Dammit, this woman was not Gisele! He left the bed
without a backward glance, so overwhelmed by bleak memories that he didn't see
the flutter of fingers or hear a tiny sigh, no more than a whisper, as he
stormed from the room.
Maire knew she was going to be sick the moment she
opened her eyes. The sunlit room appearing to float and shimmer around her, she
dug her fingers into the mattress, hoping desperately that the nauseating
sensation would subside. She even closed her eyes, praying, but that only made
her feel worse. She threw aside the covers, and, her hand pressed to her mouth,
she rose shakily from the bed and looked for a chamber pot but spied none. Then
she remembered as if from a fog that the serving girl had said a latrine . . .
"Jesu, help me." Her gait twice as ungainly,
Maire somehow half stumbled on legs she scarcely felt to the door across the
room and pushed it open, panic filling her when she saw only a short dark
passageway. But a faint bit of light to the left caught her eye and she rushed
forward, nearly falling, and threw herself against another door, barely making
it inside the narrow latrine fitted with a tiny, slitted window before she
began to retch violently.
She had never felt so ill. Nor could she say how much
time had passed when she finally staggered back into the passageway, the
darkness a momentary balm to her stinging eyes. She cried out at the brightness
which greeted her when she reentered the bedchamber, so blinded for an instant
that she didn't see she wasn't alone until Clement came up beside her, the
somber-faced friar taking her arm at once to support her.
"Let me help you, child. I was hoping to be here
when you awoke—I knew it would be soon. The opiate has made you ill, but the
feeling will pass soon, I vow it."
Maire could only nod as he assisted her to the bed, her
mouth dry as wool, her legs even more uncertain than before. With a moan of
relief she sank onto the mattress and she was immediately tucked back under the
covers, Clement shaking his tonsured head with concern.
"Forgive me, Rose, forgive me. Clearly I made the
potion too strong. Yet your head feels better, does it not?"
Maire gave a weak laugh at the friar's words. Aye,
strange as it seemed, she felt no pain as she lifted trembling fingers to the
bump on her head; in fact, the swelling had receded. And her thoughts seemed so
much clearer of a sudden, making her realize that if she truly had no
remembrance of past events, drinking Clement's potent brew might indeed, have
Maire froze, recalling like a jolt what Duncan had said
to the friar about returning to the place where her clansmen had been
slaughtered just before she'd been given the potion. Her gaze jumped to
Clement's. "How . . . how long have I slept?"
"A full day, child, and a good while longer. The
sun sinks already—it will be dusk soon. You stirred an hour past, which made me
guess then that it wouldn't be long 'til you awoke. You spoke too, so I
"I spoke?" Stricken at the thought of what
she might have revealed, Maire felt a now familiar growing sense of panic
though she forced herself to remain calm as Clement nodded.
"Names, mostly. Caitlin, Niall . .
and I believe, Fiach. Your family?"
Maire didn't readily answer, never having lied to a
cleric, in truth, never lying at all before she'd come to Longford Castle. Yet
she made herself, knowing she didn't dare trust the man no matter how kind.
"I don't know . . . everything is still so confused. Did I say more that
might help me to remember?"
"Only Lord FitzWilliam's name. I fear the rest was
too low to understand—ah, child, don't trouble
It will come back to you, in time. Now you must rest while I fetch some broth
from the kitchen."
She must have paled at the mention of food because
Clement patted her hand, his light brown eyes full of understanding.
"I know, to eat after what you've just suffered.
But you must take nourishment, even if it's only a little. And the cooks have
already prepared a savory beef broth especially for you. Lord FitzWilliam will
not be pleased if you've wasted to nothing while he's been away."
"You expect his return soon, then?" Maire
asked, as Clement turned his girth from the bed, her heart beginning to race as
she thought again of what Duncan might have found at the meadow. The friar gave
a somber shrug.
"Who can say? If he had to chase those rebels as
the other day, it might be longer. He stopped here late last night to leave
behind Lady Adele's men and say only that your clansmen were gone from the
place where—" Clement fell abruptly silent as Maire felt the blood
draining from her face, the friar studying her with fresh concern. "Ah,
child, I've no wish to distress you. There's time enough to talk further. Rest now.
Be at peace."
Be at peace? Maire thought incredulously, as Clement
left the room. At least now she knew there had been no battle, but had Duncan
guessed that the Wicklow Mountains . . . ?
Maire made herself lie still in the bed for an
interminable moment, just in case Clement might unexpectedly return, but
finally she was convinced he had gone to the kitchen. Only one urgent thought
dominated her mind as she threw aside the covers and rose, grateful that her
legs no longer felt so unsteady.
She had to find Flanna. Surely Duncan's mistress had
come for her last night only to find her sleeping as if dead . . .
A faint memory suddenly stirred Maire as she moved
through the outer chamber to the door, left ajar by Clement, and her gaze flew
to the bench where she'd last seen Duncan's mail shirt.
A memory of a woman shouting and crying, yet try as she
may, Maire could not place the voice or discern if she might have instead
dreamed the strange clamor . . . aye, surely she had dreamed it. Just as she
was certain she had dreamed that Duncan had kissed her—
Her face grown hot as flame, Maire could not believe as
she peeked out the door how fast her heart had begun to beat. Jesu, Mary, and
Joseph, nor could she believe that she would conjure such an impossible vision
in an opiate-induced dream or waking!
Yet Clement had claimed she said Duncan's name while
she slept, another strange thing she had no desire to contemplate further.
Telling herself that she would have mentioned him only because the Norman was
so perplexing, Maire began to move cautiously down the stone steps, one hand
braced on the wall while she lifted her silk gown clear of her feet with the
In truth the descent was taxing. Duncan's words from
yesterday, when he had carried her to see
came back to her. It was taking so long that Maire wished for the thousandth
time she could walk as effortlessly as other women, and she began to fear that
the friar would return before she reached the bottom.
She had to find Flanna! She had to be gone from
Longford Castle before Duncan arrived home with potential knowledge that might
see her next bound in chains and dragged to a dungeon while plans were made to
use her to capture her brother.
She had heard of such terrifying places from Ronan, and
of how he and her O'Byrne clansmen had once come upon a ruined and
near-deserted castle laid waste during the campaign two years past by the
Norman King John against his traitorous vassals. The few knights left to guard
the place had been subdued, she believed one or two even cut down when they had
foolishly tried to resist, but there had been little left of worth for Ronan
and his men to take.
And he had left soon after, sickened and made enraged
by the stinking corpses found rotting in the dungeon, hapless Irish tenants he
had judged who had failed to make their rent to their ruthless Norman
overlords. Saints help her, did Duncan have prisoners shackled to walls
somewhere deep in the bowels of Longford Castle? It seemed an incongruous
thought with what she had seen thus far of the man, yet what did she truly know
of him? Mayhap even now he was stretching the necks of rebels as fiercely
determined to harry the Normans from Irish soil as her brother, the legendary
Black O'Byrne . . .
Shuddering, Maire forced such grisly thoughts from her
mind as she reached the bottom of the stairs, yet her sickened feeling lingered
and gave her impetus to make haste. But which way? The castle was alive with
commotion, servants rushing here and there and so focused upon their tasks that
paid her any heed as she tried to stay
in the shadows.
It appeared a meal was being served, platters heaped
with steaming food being carried through a great arched entrance into a room
that Maire at once judged to be huge from the way laughter seemed to echo and
resonate as if from soaring rafters. A feasting-hall? It must be, from the
raucous sound of merriment, which made her all the more wary.
Hadn't Clement said that Duncan had returned last night
with some of Adele's men? Surely his half sister's entourage must be among
those carousing in the hall, and that made Maire choose at once the opposite
direction and move as swiftly as she could manage, her gaze focused upon the
downward steps, which she guessed from the servants bearing more food and brimming
pitchers led from the kitchen.
She didn't want to run into Clement. Past the steps was
another arched entrance opening into what manner of rooms, she didn't know,
Longford Castle was so vast. Like nothing she had ever seen before. Yet the
farther she was from the feasting-hall, the better—
"Miss, are you lost?"
Maire spun around, the freckled serving girl who had
waited upon her yesterday looking at her with wide round eyes. "No, no, I
was looking for Flanna, is all—oh!"
She nearly toppled at the stunted arms suddenly
gripping her like a vise around the knees while the serving girl only gasped,
her eyes growing wider.
"I've got her, my
she'll not escape from Rufus the Fool! Oh, no, I've got her good!"
Maire looked down in astonished horror at the red-garbed
dwarf who held her so tightly, the little man burying his nose against her legs
and chortling with glee.
"Ah, and she smells so sweet! Since Lord
FitzWilliam doesn't want her, can she come and play with me? A dwarf and a
cripple, what a perfect match we would be!"
As chilled by Rufus's coarse singsong rhyme as the
feminine laughter that sounded behind her, Maire didn't have to turn around to
recognize Lady Adele. The nightmare mounting as the dwarf began to thrust his hips
against her calves, Maire flinched at the sharp sound of a slap.
"Enough, you randy fellow! If you want to rut, go
find a goat to please you."
Rufus only laughed merrily, as if Adele's admonishment
had amused him, and Maire wondered in shock if the dwarf might be half-mad. But
when Adele laughed too, a swarthy, curly-haired knight standing
the beautiful blonde joining in their mirth as well,
Maire began to fear that she might be that evening's amusement and wished
desperately that she had never left Duncan's rooms.
"Please, ask him to release me," she said
over her shoulder, her voice so low and stricken that Adele snapped at her.
"If you're going to address me, chit, then say it
well enough so I can hear you!"
Swallowing hard, Maire found herself praying again for
some of the boldness Triona possessed, repeating more audibly, "Please ask
your man . . . Rufus, to release me. He's hurting me, my legs—"
"Really? Like you hurt me the other night,
scratching me like a spitting cat?" scoffed Adele, her blue eyes
glittering coldly as she came around in an angry flash of amber silk to face
Maire. "Yet my dear brother seemed more concerned for your welfare than
mine—how utterly usual for him. Duncan's never cared for his family, you know,
at least not the better half that's Norman. Despises us, is more the truth of
it—ah, but what is that to you?"