The hawk was back.
Finnula saw it the instant she pulled open the wooden shutters of her bedroom window and peered outside to see whether the sheriff and his men had yet ridden off. The evil-eyed, hulking brown bird was perched on top of the thatched roof of the henhouse, as cool as you please. It had killed two of Mellana’s favorite hens the week before, and now was eyeing a third, the one Mel called Greta, as the speckled chicken scratched the muddy henhouse yard for leftover bits of feed. Though the hawk never stirred, even as the cold spring rain drizzled steadily down its back, Finnula knew it was poised to strike.
Quick as one of the earl’s prize does, Finnula seized her bow and quiver from where they hung on the bedpost and centered the bird of prey in her sights, though her balance was a little off because the beams in the ceiling by the dormer window were so low. Drawing back the well-worn string of her bow, Finnula’s entire mind was focused on the target below her, the ruffled breast of the hen-murdering hawk. She didn’t hear her sister climbing the stairs to the room they had once shared, nor feel the scrape of the bedroom door being flung open.
Christina’s horrified voice so startled Finnula that she let go of the drawstring too soon. With a musical twang, the arrow sailed through the open window, arcing through the rain and planting itself harmlessly in the thatch at the hawk’s feet, startling the indignantly squawking bird into flight.
"God’s teeth, Christina!" Finnula cursed, jumping up from her archer’s crouch and pointing an accusing finger in the direction of the shaft’s flight path. "That was a perfectly good arrow, and now look at it! How am I going to get that one back? It’s stuck in the henhouse roof!"
Christina was leaning back against the door jamb, her plump face red-cheeked from the exertion of climbing the narrow staircase, one hand on her broad chest as she attempted to catch her breath.
"Fie on you, Finnula," she panted, when she was finally able to find her voice. "What were you thinkin’? The sheriff left not five minutes ago, and here you are, shootin’ at poor innocent birds again!"
"Innocent!" Finnula slipped the battered leather strap to her quiver over one slim shoulder. "That was the hawk that’s been killing Mellana’s chickens, I’ll have you know."
"Have you lost the brains the good Lord gave you, Finn? If the sheriff should have looked back and seen that arrow flyin’ out of your bedroom window, he’d’ve turned round and arrested you on the spot."
Finnula snorted derisively. "La! He’d never. Imagine, arresting a sweet maid like myself. He’d fast become the most hated man in Shropshire."
"Not with the earl’s cousin, he wouldn’t." In her eighth month of pregnancy, Christina wasn’t able to climb the stairs to her old bedroom with her usual alacrity, and now she sank down onto the bed her youngest sisters shared and sighed, the auburn curls that had slipped from her linen wimple swaying. "Can’t you see reason, Finn? His lordship knows it’s you that’s been poaching his woods—"
Again, Finnula snorted. "Hugo Fitzstephen doesn’t know any such thing. How could he? He’s been in the Holy Land these past ten years. No one’s even heard from him since Michaelmas, when that filthy bailiff of his got word he’d been captured by Saracens."
"Really, Finn, you oughtn’t to refer to your betters so coarsely. Reginald Laroche is Lord Hugo’s cousin, and acting bailiff of the Fitzstephen estates in his lordship’s absence. How can you call him filthy? You know we are to accord him the same respect we would if he were our true lord. How can you—”
“Respect?” Finnula looked as if she might spit. “When he starts acting respectable, I’ll respect him. In the meantime, do not ask me to call him my lord.
For no lord worthy of the name would treat his vassals with such—”
Christina sighed again, this time in exasperation, and interrupted her outspoken sibling. “Very well, Finnula. I know there is no point in arguing with you over this issue. But think on this: Reginald Laroche told the sheriff he’s got good reason to believe that it’s you that’s been picking off all of Lord Hugo’s best game. All he needs is some little proof, and it’s to the stockade you’ll go."
Finnula kicked irritably at the wooden trunk that sat at the foot of the bed. Inside it were the kirtles and bliauts she eschewed for the more sensible garb she currently wore, tanned leather chausses and a well-worn woolen tunic.
"It isn’t as if," she grumbled, "I was doing it for sport. If Hugo Fitzstephen were about, and he saw how poorly his serfs were being treated by that devil Laroche, he’d not begrudge the meat I provide them."
"That’s neither here nor there, Finn." Christina spoke tiredly. It was an old argument. Essentially, it dated back to the day that the girls’ oldest sibling and only brother, Robert, picked up a short bow and, mostly in jest, instructed then four-year old Finnula in the art of targetry. Her first shot had been dead center in the rear end of her beloved wet-nurse Aggie, and ever since, no one had been able to pry a bow from the fair huntress’ hands.
"Besides," Finnula went on, as if she hadn’t heard her sister’s interruption. "The sheriff’s not going to find any proof. I never miss, so it isn’t as if he’ll ever get hold of one of my arrows and trace the markings on the feathers back to me. The only reason he even bothered calling today is that he’s in love with Mellana."
"Finn, that simply isn’t true. Monsieur Laroche told Sheriff de Brissac that another one of the Earl’s stags has gone missing."
"It hasn’t gone missing at all," Finnula said, the corners of her sensually shaped mouth suddenly slanting upwards in a smile. "That stag is right where it always was, on the properties of Stephensgate Manor. It just so happens that now it’s resting in the bellies of some Lord Hugo’s serfs."
Christina blinked at her incorrigible sister. It occurred to her, not for the first time, that if Finnula would abandon her eccentric mode of dress and put on one of the silken gowns that had been purchased for her at the time of her ill-fated wedding, and brushed out her lovely auburn hair instead of keeping it tied away in that single braid, she’d be quite a beautiful woman. The girl probably wasn’t even aware of it, and would most likely deny it if anyone broached the subject, but in Christina’s opinion, it wasn’t Mellana that was forever drawing the sheriff to the mill house, but Finnula herself, and not just because of her poaching habit.
Christina sighed for a third and final time and, using the bed post to swing herself awkwardly to her feet, she said, "Well, I’ve done what I could. Robert can’t accuse me of not trying."
Finnula smiled again, and patted her sister fondly on her plump shoulder.
"Poor Christina," she said, sweetly. "I’m so sorry to cause trouble for you and your dear Bruce. I can’t promise I’ll stop, but I do promise you I’ll never get caught, nor do anything to embarrass you in front of your new in-laws."
Christina, forgetting her place as a married woman—and an important woman at that, being the wife of the village butcher—let out a snort not unlike one of Finnula’s.
"That will be the day," she laughed, shaking her pretty head. "Well, I suppose you’d better get below stairs and make that same pledge in front of Robert."
"Robert?" Finnula pushed some loose tendrils of flame-red hair from her smooth white forehead. "What’s Robert doing home at this time of day? Shouldn’t he be at the mill?"
"Would have been, if it weren’t for that visit from your greatest admirer, shire reeve John de Brissac." Christina’s soft grey eyes took on a distinct sparkle. "But that hasn’t been his only distraction today. Rosamund is here, and I believe she and Robert have something to tell you—"
Finnula gasped. Unlike her sisters, things like weddings and gowns had never held much appeal for her, but because she worshiped her brother, she was glad for him. "You don’t mean…Rosamund’s father agreed to it at last?"
Christina nodded, the mirth that she’d been trying to disguise as she chastised her little sister finally bubbling over. "Yes! Go now, go downstairs and welcome her to the family.
She was quite confused by the presence of armed men in her future home. I had to assure her ‘tis not a regular thing—"
Finnula, however, was no longer listening. Fairly flying down the steep stairs to the ground floor, where a tight knot of people were gathered at the fireside, she cried, "God’s teeth, Robbie! Why didn’t you tell me?"
The small crowd parted, and Robert, all six feet and then some of him, hurtled towards his much smaller, but quite a bit louder, youngest sister. Catching her up in arms rock-hewn from years of working his lordship’s mill, Robert swung Finnula high towards the rafters before setting her back on her feet and giving her pert backside a wallop that caused tears to sting her eyes.
"Damn you, Robert!" Finnula backed away from him, her hands slipping behind her to massage her throbbing skin. He’d hit her hard enough to wear a hole in her leather chausses. "What was that for?" she demanded, hotly.
"For the stag," Robert replied, with a gravity that was quite at odds with his usual good humor. "If I have to lie for you one more time, Finn, you won’t be able to sit for a week, mark my words."
This was hardly the sort of familial celebration Finnula had been hoping for. Blinking back tears that were more from anger than from pain, Finnula glared her brother, trying to ignore the small, perplexed face of his bride-to-be, hovering near his elbow.
"Fie on you, Robert," Finnula snapped, furiously. "You can’t prove it was me that shot that stag, anymore than Sheriff de Brissac or that loathsome Reginald Laroche can prove it. I was going to wish you and Rosamund joy and felicitation, but now I think I’ll just go after the sheriff and tell him to go right ahead and hang me, since it’s clear I’m not wanted in my own home—"
And she turned towards the front door, knowing full well that Robert, though he’d tried to discipline her over the years since their parents’ death, couldn’t stand to see her wroth. He was the only brother of six sisters, and each of them, in her own way, was capable of manipulating him. But the youngest one of all, Finnula, had it down to a science. Her older sisters watched with barely suppressed smiles as their brother’s anger visibly melted beneath Finnula’s fiery gaze. "We oughtn’t," Robert ventured slowly, "to let anger mar this special day—"
"Nay," Rosamund chimed in, still looking a bit shocked at her betrothed’s display of manly temper. "We oughtn’t."
At the door, Finnula smiled to herself, but carefully schooled her features into an expression of contrition before turning around.
"You mean," she murmured, "that you’ll forgive me?"
"Aye," Robert nodded gravely, as if granting a reprieve to a convicted prisoner. "Just this once."
With a shout, Finnula threw herself once more into his arms. There she was joined by Rosamund, the angelic-looking daughter of the mayor of Stephensgate, the first girl Robert had ever wooed unsuccessfully, and therefore the love of his life. Perhaps understandably, Rosamund had been reluctant to attach herself to a family as odd as the miller’s—Robert had six sisters, after all, six, something that would be considered a curse in many families, but that his parents, before their deaths, had rejoiced over. But worst of all, there was the youngest sister, who gadded about in boyish garb and prided herself on the fact that she was the finest shot in Shropshire, despite the fact that at seventeen, she was far too old for such pursuits. And then of course there was the matter of Finnula’s debacle of a marriage….
But the other five sisters all had repPatriciations beyond reproach. There was the eldest, Brynn, at five and twenty a year younger than Robert, and happily wed to the village blacksmith.
She had four boys already, each with his father’s stocky build and mother’s flame-red hair. Then came Camilla, wife to the local innkeeper and mother of three, and Patricia, who’d fought and wept and generally made herself unpleasant to live with until Robert had agreed to let her marry a winemaker two times her age. Then there was the newly wed Christina, who loved her butcher husband Bruce dearly, and the fifth daughter, Mellana, considered by many to be the family beauty, but, though approaching her twentieth birthday, had yet to find a husband.
In all, the miller’s family was not one against which Rosamund’s father could have had many strong objections. Indeed, the mayor would have had no objections whatsoever, for a more promising young man than Robert Crais could scarce be found in Stephensgate. But there was the small matter of his youngest sister’s oddly independent ways, her flagrant defiance of poaching laws, as well as that unfortunate incident between her and the late Earl. How to overlook the fact that Finnula Crais, however wrongly, had been accused of murdering Lord Geoffrey Fitzstephen, the current Earl of Stephensgate’s father?
But Rosamund’s affection for Robert was quite genuine, and, an only child, she eventually brought her doting father round to her way of thinking. If Finnula was his only objection, well, there was nothing to be done about Finnula. The girl was young, and it could be hoped that one day she’d grow out of her love for sport—and the leather chausses she insisted upon wearing. At least she had the sense to stay off the main thoroughfares while wearing them. And in the meantime, perhaps Rosamund’s gentle influence could help her to see the error of her ways.
What with all of the Crais and their prospective spouses and progeny at the mill house noisily celebrating Robert and Rosamund’s impending marriage, it was perhaps understandable that no one missed one of the sisters…at least, not right away. It was Finnula who eventually lowered her cup of ale and wondered aloud what had happened to Mellana.
No one, however, paid Finnula any mind, which wasn’t unusual, since ‘Finn’ was not only the family embarrassment but also the family storyteller, whose wild exaggerations were now believed only by her youngest nieces and nephews. Putting aside her cup, she went in search of her favorite sister, and found her by the kitchen fire, weeping into her apron.
"Mellana!" Finnula cried, genuinely shocked. "What ails you? Is it your stomach again? Do you want me to fetch you a tonic?"
From the looks of her pink and swollen eyes, Mellana had been crying for some time. Considered by many to be the loveliest of the miller’s daughters, Mellana had had more admirers than anyone could count, but never an actual offer of marriage. Finnula had never been able to decipher why this was so, as she herself had been the recipient of one proposal, albeit ill-fated, and she in no way considered herself the beauty that Mellana obviously was.
Fair of face and trim of figure, Mellana was the only sister who had escaped the Crais family curse of bright red hair. Instead, she had lovely strawberry blonde curls that framed her heart-shaped face like a veil of reddish gold. Her eyes weren’t the mist-gray of her sisters and brother, either, but a deep, sapphire blue, that looked almost black in certain lights. And somehow Mellana hadn’t inherited the outspokenness of her sisters, being instead the mildest of creatures, an excellent cook and housekeeper who seemed to feel better suited to the company of the hens she loved than to actual human beings. At one time, there’d been some talk in the village of the next-to-youngest Crais girl being simple in the head. Robert and Finnula had soon put a stop to it, one with his fists and the other her bow, and now it was no longer mentioned by anyone—within hearing of the eldest and youngest Crais, that is.
"Mellana, sweetest, what is it?" Finnula bent over her most beloved sibling, trying to sweep some of the lovely girl’s hair from her face, where strands of the blonde curls stuck to her damp cheeks. "Why aren’t you celebrating with the rest of us?"
Mellana hiccupped, barely able to speak through her sobs. "Oh, Finn, if only I could tell you!”
"What do you mean, if only you could tell me? Mel, you can tell me anything, you know that."
"Not this." Mellana shook her head with such force that her red-gold hair whipped her cheeks. "Oh, Finnula. I’m so ashamed!"
"You?" Finnula stroked her sister’s shoulder through the soft material of her green bliaut. "And what have you, the gentlest creature in the world, to be ashamed of? Nothing to wear to the wedding? Is that it, eh, silly?"
Mellana tried to mop up her tears with the sleeve of her cream-colored kirtle. "I only wish it were that, Finn," she choked. "Oh, Finn, if only it were that! I’m afraid you’ll despise me when I tell you—"
"I, despise you, Mel?" Finnula was genuinely shocked. "Never! Oh, Mellana, you know I never—"
"I’m late," Mellana gasped, and burst into a fresh shower of tears.
"You’re late?" Finnula echoed, her slender eyebrows knit with confusion. "Why, you aren’t late at all. The betrothal celebration has only just begun—"
Seeing Mellana’s quick head shake, Finnula’s voice trailed off. Late? She stared at the fractious girl, and understanding, when it dawned, was coupled with disbelief, disbelief that she couldn’t keep from creeping into her husky voice.
"Late, Mel?" she asked, giving her older sister a shake. "You mean you’re—late?"
Mellana nodded miserably. Still, Finnula needed clarification. She simply could not believe what she was hearing from her beautiful, sweet-tempered sister.
"Mellana, are you saying that you’re…with child?"
"Y-yes," Mellana sobbed.
Finnula stared down at the bent, golden head, and tried very hard to stifle a desire to shake Mellana silly. She loved her sister, and would thrash anyone outside the family who dared make light of her, but in truth, Mellana could be the most shallow of creatures, and Finnula was only too willing to believe that some rogue had taken advantage of that vapidity.
"What’s his name?" Finnula demanded, her hand falling unconsciously upon the hilt of the six-inch blade at her hip.
Mellana only sobbed harder.
"His name, Mel," Finnula repeated, her voice hard. "The blackguard dies by nightfall."
Finnula released the dagger hilt. "You love him? Truly, Mel?" When the older girl nodded tearfully, Finnula frowned. "Well, that changes things, I suppose. I can’t kill him if you love him. But why all the tears then? If you love him, marry him."
"You don’t understand," Mellana wept. "Oh, Finn, I can’t marry him!"
Back went the fingers to the dagger hilt. "Already married, is he? Right, then. Robert and I’ll have him strung up before you can say Nottingham Town. Buck up, Mel. It’ll be a lovely hanging."
"He’s not married," Mellana sniffled.
Finnula sank down onto the hearth, exhaling heavily enough to blow a few stray tendrils of red hair from her forehead. Truly, she hadn’t the patience today to deal with her scatter-brained sibling. Tracking a wild boar was ten times easier than trying to make sense of Mellana.
"Well, then what is the problem, Mel? If he’s not married and you love him, why can’t the two of you be wed?"
"It’s—it’s my dowry, Finn."
"Your dowry?" Finnula plopped both elbows down on her knees, and smacked her forehead into her palms. "Oh, Mel. Tell me you didn’t."
"I had to, Finn! Five weddings, in as many years. And I hadn’t a thing to wear. I wore the blue samite to Brynn’s, the lavender silk to Camilla’s, the burgundy velvet that I ordered from London to Patricia’s, the rose-colored linen to Christina’s and the gold samite to yours—" Mellana looked up apologetically, remembering, even while consumed by her own grief, how intensely Finnula disliked mention of her own wedding. "I—I’m sorry, Finn. I’m certain it must seem petty to you. After all, you care only for bows and arrows, not ribbons and gewgaws. But I would have been the laughingstock of the village if I’d appeared at my sisters’ weddings in gowns worn previously—"
Finnula thought it entirely unlikely that anyone in Stephensgate would remember what Mellana had worn to any of her sister’s weddings, Stephensgate hardly being the fashion capital of the world. She refrained from saying so out loud, however.
"Are you telling me," Finnula said instead, her head still in her hands, "that you spent your entire dowry on bliauts, Mellana?"
"Not just bliauts," Mellana assured her. "Kirtles, too."
Had Mellana been speaking to any one of her other sisters, she might have received a remonstration for behaving in such a selfish and stupid manner. And though Finnula did indeed think that Mellana had behaved stupidly—no better, for instance, than her silly friend, Isabella Laroche, that ridiculous creature whose father was so poorly managing Lord Hugo’s manor house in his absence—she could not help but feel sorry for her. After all, it was rather a terrible thing to be pregnant and unwed.
When Finnula finally looked up, her face was expressionless. "Do you have any idea," she asked, "what Robert will do when he discovers what you’ve done?"
"I know, Finn! I know! Why do you think I’m crying? And Jack hasn’t a gold piece of his own—"
"Jack Mallory." Mellana blushed, lowering her eyes. "He’s a troubadour. You remember, he played the lute so divinely at Christina’s wedding—"
"God’s teeth," Finnula murmured, closing her eyes in horror. "A troubadour? You’ve got yourself pregnant by a troubadour?"
"Yes, and you see, that’s why we can’t be married, not without my dowry, because all Jack owns is his rebec and some juggling balls. Oh, and his donkey, Kate. You know Robert will never allow me to marry a man who doesn’t even own a change of clothing, let alone a home for us to live in—"
Finnula sighed, wishing heartily it had been one of her other sisters who’d found Mellana weeping by the hearth. Brynn would have sympathized, Camilla scolded, Patricia laughed and Christina gasped, but any one of them would have been better able to handle the situation than Finnula. Finnula, never having experienced the emotion herself, hadn’t the vaguest notion what it meant to love a man to distraction, the way Mellana apparently loved Jack Mallory. On the whole, Finnula felt she had the advantage. Being in love looked rather painful, from what she’d observed.
She said, "Well, instead of crying about something’s that over and done with, why don’t you scrape together what you’ve earned brewing ale—" She paused, noting that Mellana was energetically shaking her head. "What’s the matter?"
Mellana’s long eyelashes fluttered damply. "D-Don’t you see? I spent it."
"You spent it all?" Finnula’s voice cracked. "But there were over fifty—"
"I needed new combs," Mellana whispered tearfully. "And ribbons for my hair. And that tinker came by the other day, and he was selling the loveliest girdles, of real gold they were—"
Finnula could hardly keep from cursing, and so she did so, roundly, despite the reproachful look it earned her from her sister. "You spent all of the money you earned brewing this winter on trinkets? Oh, Mellana, how could you? That money was to buy malt and hops for the summer’s batch!"
"I know," Mellana sniffled. "I know! But a maid cannot always be thinking of beer."
Finnula’s jaw dropped. Her sister was dim-witted, it was true, but surely this was the stupidest thing any woman in the history of Shropshire had ever done. For a while, the girl had had a very enterprising little business going out of her kitchen cellar. Mellana’s ale was widely respected as the best in Shropshire. Innkeepers from neighboring villages thought it worth the trip to Stephensgate to purchase a barrel or two from the lovely brewmistress. But without any capital left to buy ingredients, Mellana’s beer brewing days were numbered.
"A maid," Finnula echoed, bitterly. "A maid! But you aren’t a maid any longer, are you, Mellana? You’re going to have a child. How do you intend to support it? You cannot expect to live always here at the mill house with Robert. He’ll be married himself soon, and while Rosamund’s the sweetest of girls, she won’t long tolerate a clinging sister-in-law who hasn’t the sense God gave a chicken, let alone her fatherless child—"
Finnula instantly regretted her harsh words when Mellana burst into a fresh set of tears. Through her sobs, the girl gulped, "Oh! And you are one to talk, Finnula Crais! You, who were wed exactly a single night before returning to the mill—"
"A widow," Finnula pointed out, refusing to be manipulated by her sister’s tears. "Remember, Mellana? I returned a widow. My husband died on my wedding night."
"Oh," choked Mellana. "Wasn’t that convenient, considering how much you hated him?"
Finnula felt herself turning red with rage, but before she could march off in a huff, as she intended, Mellana grabbed hold of her wrist and beseeched her, her face earnest with contrition, "Oh, Finn, forgive me! I oughtn’t to have said that. I regret it most sincerely. I know it wasn’t your fault. Of course it wasn’t. Please, please don’t go. I need your help so much. You’re so clever, and I’m so very stupid. Won’t you please stay a moment and listen to me? Isabella told me of a way I might make some of my coin back, in a manner that I’m quite certain would work…only…only I’m much too timid to try it."
Finnula was only half listening to her sister. In the other room, Patricia’s husband must have taken out his lute, for suddenly the strains of a merry tune reached the kitchen. Above the music, Finnula could plainly hear their brother calling their names. Curse it! He’d be in the kitchen in a moment, and Mellana was the worst liar in the world. The truth would be out, and there’d be no more celebrating. There would, like as not, be a murder. Finnula hoped Jack Mallory and his bloody donkey were nowhere near Stephensgate.
Mellana straightened suddenly, her blue eyes wide. "But you could do it, Finn! You aren’t timid. You aren’t afraid of anything. And it wouldn’t be any different from trapping foxes or deer. I’m certain it wouldn’t!"
"What wouldn’t?" Finnula, sitting on the hearth with her elbows on her knees, looked up at her sister’s suddenly transformed face. Gone were the tear tracks and puffy eyelids. Now Mellana’s deep blue eyes were sparkling, and her red lips were parted in excitement.
"Oh, say you’ll help me, Finn!" Mellana grasped one of her sister’s hands, the one with the fingertips heavily callused from pulling back the drawstring of her bow. "Say you’ll help!"
Finnula, quite distracted by her fear of her brother’s wrath, said impatiently, "Of course I’ll help you, if I can, Mellana. But I don’t see how you’re going to get out of this one, I really don’t."
"Trust me. Promise?"
"I promise. Now let’s join the others, Mel. They’re calling for us. We don’t want them to suspect anything—"
"Oh, thank you, Finn!"
Suddenly joyous, Mellana pulled her younger sister into an exuberant hug. "I knew you’d help me if I asked. You have always been good to me. I don’t care what people say about you, I don’t think you’re a bit odd. And with your skills as a huntress, I’m sure you’ll capture the richest man in Shropshire!"
Finnula looked up at her sister curiously. "Whatever are you talking about, Mel?"
Surprised that Finnula didn’t understand, Mellana told her. And it took considerably more tears on Mellana’s part before Finnula would even consider honoring the promise she’d made in a moment of distraction.
Hugo Fitzstephen may have spent the past decade in the Holy Land fighting for possession of Jerusalem, but that didn’t mean that he himself was holy. Far from it. As ought to have been amply illustrated by the fact that he had bedded that innkeeper’s wife, then refused to pay her husband recompense, as custom dictated, when the man “happened” to walk in upon the two of them.
Hugo had fled to the Crusades as the only recourse for the second son of an earl, other than a monastery, which he steadfastly refused to enter, though it was his mother’s fondest wish that he should seek oneness with the Lord. Hugo preferred seeking oneness with women, however, and he’d found plenty of them in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The women of Acre, across the Jordan from Damascus, where Hugo had spent most of the decade he’d been away from England, had a curious habit of shaving their most private areas, and that alone had been incentive enough for Hugo to stay on.
Of course, being captured in Acre by the Muslim army hadn’t been part of the plan, and by the time his ransom had been paid by the Crown, Hugo was particularly disgusted with the so-called
Holy Land, and with crusading in general. By then, he’d learned of the death of his elder brother, followed by the extremely strange death of their father, making Hugo the seventh Earl of Stephensgate. He decided that he might as well go home to enjoy his new title.
But so far, he hadn’t had much of a chance. He’d not yet so much as glimpsed the green pastures of Shropshire, and already he was in trouble again. This time it wasn’t Saracens that were pursuing him, but the husband of that particularly well-endowed blonde with whom he’d dallied in London. “Dallied” wasn’t the husband’s word for it, however, and he was demanding a small fortune for his “humiliation.” Hugo suspected this husband and wife worked as a team, she luring in wealthy knights, then her husband “discovering” them together and demanding recompense for his injured feelings. Well, Hugo was damned if he’d give the man the satisfaction.
Now he and his squire were being forced to take back roads and sheep trails to Stephensgate, avoiding the main roads for fear of being set upon by the innkeeper and his cronies. It wasn’t that Hugo was afraid to fight; it was just that he’d had enough fighting in the past ten years to last him a lifetime, and wanted only to retire to his manor house and enjoy what he considered, in his twenty-fifth year, to be his old age.
Shunning inns and villages where the indignant husband might happen upon them, Hugo and his squire slept out in the open air. Fortunately, except for the occasional thunder storm, it was a mild spring, and sleeping outdoors was preferable to Hugo than what most country hostelries had to offer, anyway. The cramped, dark quarters that one shared with one’s mount, the stale brown bread and dank ale served for breakfast, the lice-infested bedding—No, give him a bale of sweet-smelling hay and his cloak, and he was most comfortable.
Of course, Peter, his squire, used to the comforts of London, where Hugo had acquired him upon learning of the demise of the comrade-at-arms who’d sired him, complained bitterly about this ill-treatment, feeling that each night spent beneath the open sky was a personal affront. Used to the crowded and foggy streets of London, the boy was frightened of the dark English countryside, terrified that they might be set upon by wolves—or, worse, highwaymen—at any given moment. Recognizing his complaints for what they were, fear somewhat inadequately masked with insolence, Hugo put up with them, but felt the moment was soon coming when he’d give the boy the cuffing he so desperately needed.
They were, by his estimates, two days from Stephensgate when he felt they might risk stopping in the small village of Leesbury for supplies. He was not concerned for himself so much as for his mount, Mensour, a well-trained destrier who had been with him through thick and thin, and deserved better than grass day in and day out. Still, Hugo had to admit to a certain longing for good English bread and cheese, all washed down by that glorious beverage of which he’d had so little in Jerusalem, beer. And there was no other way to acquire oats and beer than to venture into a town.
Peter was beside himself with glee at the prospect of returning to ‘civilization’, as he called it, though when he actually caught a glimpse of Leesbury, Hugo sincerely doubted he’d be impressed. After instructing his squire firmly that he was not to refer to Hugo as my lord in public, Hugo guided his exceptionally small entourage through the village gates and to the first establishment he saw that looked somewhat respectable.
Instructing the stableboy that his mounts were to get the finest oats available, and slipping a gold coin into the lad’s hand to insure it, Hugo nodded to Peter and the two of them entered the Fox and Hare. At six and half feet tall, Hugo was an abnormally large man, and he not only had to duck his head upon passing the threshold, but turn his broad shoulders to one side in order to squeeze his bulk through the narrow doorway. His presence, however formidable, caused barely a stir with the besotted clientele inside, many of whom looked as if they, too, had spent a few nights out of doors.
With the owner of the establishment, however, it was quite a different story. Hugo’s darkly tanned skin and heavily bearded face gave away the fact that he’d been in the Holy Land, and as the proprietor of the Fox and Hare knew well, no man returned from the Holy Land with empty pockets. Not relics of saints, or supposed shards of the Cross….no, religious icons held no interest for any sensible man whatsoever. It was the diamonds, the rubies, emeralds, sapphires, pearls, the gold and silver, the lapis and turquoise, the booty from Byzantine that one could almost smell on a man freshly returned from the Crusades that drew the owner of the establishment to Hugo’s side immediately.
"Good afternoon, sirrah," the portly innkeeper cried. "Won’t you sit yourself down at this table here and refresh yourself with a pot of me sister-in-law’s best ale?"
"Gladly," Hugo replied, and indicated that Peter should sit at the table opposite him.
Peter sank gratefully into the wooden chair, feeling that finally, he was being treated as the squire of a rich and powerful earl ought to be treated. The proprietor’s fawning attention seemed to him only fitting, and he heartily dug into the fare that was placed before him, the thick loaf of freshly baked bread, the deliciously creamy, slightly biting, cheeses, the crisp fruits, the steaming pots of stew. As he ate, he glanced around the crowded eatery, as his master had done when they first entered, but saw naught to cause undue alarm. In all, the clientele seemed rough, though not unmanageable. Sucking the foamy head from a tankard of ale placed before him, Peter leaned back in his chair and prepared to be pampered.
Hugo, however, did not relax. Well-used to battle, he knew that one trick of the enemy was to lull one’s foes into a false sense of security, then attack. Sipping the brew the innkeeper had pressed upon him, he grudgingly admitted to himself that it was, truly, the best ale he’d had in ages, but his eyes never left the faces of the people seated around him, nor did they stray far from the door.
That was how he happened to see the creature who appeared on the threshold just moments after their arrival. At first he took the small figure for that of a young boy’s. Surely no woman would be immodest enough to don a pair of form-fitting, leather chausses. But that’s precisely, he soon realized, what it was. A woman, and a young one at that, with a face like an angel and a mop of red hair that had been tied back in a messy braid that swung past an amazingly narrow waist, down to an equally amazing heart-shaped backside, readily visible thanks to the slim-fitting chausses. No wimple for this lass, nor bliaut, neither. She wore a white lawn shirt that was hardly opaque, and slung across her back was, of all things, a short bow and battered quiver.
If anyone else was surprised at this apparition, they gave no sign. In fact, the innkeeper greeted her as easily as one might a sister, casually offering her a stool and handing her a tankard of ale. And indeed, the sight of this comely—one could easily say beautiful—woman in boyish garb caused no more comment than a few laconic How-d’ye-dos. Glancing at Peter, Hugo realized that his squire, at least, was appropriately appreciative of this auburn-tressed vision.
"Slay me," the boy breathed, gazing over the rim of his tankard. "But that’s a maiden."
"And an uncommon fair one, at that." Hugo shook his head, relieved that Peter was as shocked as he was. Ten years ago, when he’d left England, young women did not traipse about the countryside in men’s clothing, and certainly did not frequent hostelries unaccompanied. It was good to note by Peter’s reaction that things hadn’t changed as drastically as Hugo had at first thought.
The girl, then, must be a local eccentric, her odd ways accepted because they were familiar. Perhaps she was, in some way, related to the innkeeper. The two were engaged in easy conversation that seemed to be centered around the good fortune of someone named Robert. After a moment or two, the proprietor pointed to Hugo and said something in a hushed voce that caused the girl to turn her head in Hugo’s direction.
He suddenly found himself raked by a gaze so piercing that, incredibly, he felt his cheeks warming. Women in Acre, though they might have shaved their privates, were too modest to look a strange man in the eye, and he was unused to such direct scrutiny. Lucky for him his thick blonde beard hid his blushing cheeks.
As quickly as he was pointed out he was dismissed, the girl’s restless gaze moving away from him and towards Peter, who choked on his mouthful of beer when he noticed the direction of the girl’s look. Then the damned innkeeper was approaching, wanting to know if there was anything else he could get them.
"Nothing too good for our men fighting the good fight," was how he put it, making it perfectly clear that he knew Hugo was back from the Holy War. "If there’s anything I can get you, anything at all, you just call out."
Catching the man’s arm before he could move away, Hugo pulled him down so that the innkeeper’s ear was level with his lips. "Who," he demanded, in his deepest voice, the one that brooked no disobeyance, "is the maid in the lad’s attire?"
The innkeeper looked surprised. "Finn?" He glanced over at the girl, who fortunately was looking the other way. "You mean Finnula? My brother, what owns an inn in Stephensgate down the road, is married to her sister. Everyone knows the Fair Finn."
As if to prove his point, an old crone that had been huddled by the hearth, in spite of the fine weather out of doors, got up and pulled on the sleeve of the girl’s white lawn shirt. With practiced grace, the maid called Finnula flipped the crone a mark, and the hag cackled happily as she caught it, and went back to the fire.
"See that?" the innkeeper said, happily. "Like I said, everyone knows Finnula Crais, the miller’s daughter. Finest shot in Shropshire."
This was hardly a satisfactory answer, but Hugo handed the man a coin for it, just the same. Stumbling away, massaging his arm where Hugo had gripped it in his massive, iron-like fist, the innkeeper glanced down at the weight of the coin in his hand, and hesitated. It was a solid gold piece, the kind he hadn’t seen in…well, ever. Like a man in a daze, he passed a couple of laggards at a nearby table, nearly tripping over their out-stretched legs as he went by. When one of roughly-garbed yeoman laughed a rebuke, the innkeeper righted himself and apologized, showing them the coin. The two drunkards whistled appreciatively, but it was the girl, noticing the exchange, who swung her intensely direct gaze upon Hugo once more.
Beneath the table, Peter kicked him.
"Look at that," the squire hissed. "That’s twice she’s looked this way. I think she likes me!"
"Get up," Hugo said, woodenly. "We’re leaving."
"What? But we only just got here!"
"We’re leaving," Hugo said, again. "We’ve attracted enough attention to ourselves."
Grumbling, Peter shoved bits of bread and cheese into his pockets, then tossed back the remainder of his ale. Hugo flung a few coins on the table, not even bothering to look at the denomination, then picked up his cloak and began to stride from the room, willing himself not to glance in the girl’s direction again.
But he got no further than the threshold before a raspy voice called out, "Oh, sirrah? I’m believin’ ye’ve forgotten somethin’."
Hugo didn’t have to turn around. He’d heard the brief scuffle, and, assuming it was only the innkeeper diving for the coins he’d tossed upon the table, had ignored it. Clearly, however, it hadn’t been the Fox and Hare’s proprietor who’d been responsible for all that scuffling.
Straightening, his eyes narrowing dangerously, Hugo laid a hand upon his sword hilt and said, still not turning around, "Let the lad go."
Behind him, the two drunken cut-throats chuckled. "Let’im go, sirrah? Aye, we’ll let’im go. Fer a price."
Sighing, Hugo turned. He was so tired of violence, so very sick of death. He didn’t want to kill the two village louts who had hold of his squire. Time past, he’d have slit their throats and laughed about it later. Not now. He had seen so much needless death during the crusades that he could no longer kill so much as a moth without regret.
But that was not to say he wouldn’t slit a throat if forced to.
The two men who’d been lounging at the table nearest Hugo’s were on their feet, albeit unsteadily, and the biggest one had a heavy arm drape about young Peter’s neck. Peter, for his part, was struggling against the vise-like grip, his boyish face had turned a rather unnatural shade of crimson. He had been caught completely unawares, and for that, would suffer both at the hands of these louts, and later, his master’s.
"Don’t mind me, sir," Peter choked, his thin hands wrapped around the burly arm that strangled him. "Go on, save yourself. I’m not worth it—"
"Bloody hell," muttered Hugo, rolling his eyes.
"Dick," cried the innkeeper, leaving his taps and glowering furiously. "Let the man alone. I won’t have fightin’ in me place—"
"If the bloke tosses us ‘is purse," sneered the smaller man, who appeared to be known as Dick, "there won’t be any fightin’, Simon. We’ll call it an even trade, won’t we, Timmy?"
The giant grunted, giving Peter a shake. "Aye."
Three things occurred simultaneously just then. The first was that Peter, suddenly discovering that he had a backbone, or, at least, teeth, sunk them into Timmy’s arm. Timmy bellowed and released the boy, just as Dick, trying to illustrate to Hugo the seriousness of his intent, lunged at the squire with the business end of a very sharp stiletto. Hugo, witnessing the gleam of the knife-point, unsheathed his sword and flung himself at the evil-minded Dick, only to find himself tripping over Simon, the innkeeper, who had decided to dive for the gold Hugo’d left on his table, in an effort to keep it from being lost in the fray.
The innkeeper ought to have stayed put. Hugo, in a desperate attempt not to kill some innocent soul with his blade, smashed a heavy shoulder into the table, shattering it and sending the coins flying across the room. Sprawled on his back upon the floor, Hugo found himself blinking at the cross-beams, the breath knocked out of him. The next thing he knew, the ferret-faced Dick had pounced, both of his scabby knees pressing down upon Hugo’s sword arm before he could raise the weapon. Dick’s small, rodent-like eyes sparkled with greed as his stiletto pressed against Hugo’s throat, recognizing the bigger man’s unexpected disadvantage.
"Nice somersault, that," Dick complimented him with a smile that revealed a mouthful of rotting teeth. "Now cough up them coins—"
Out of the corner of his eye, Hugo saw that Timmy had caught Peter again, and was pulling out tufts of the lad’s hair as recompense for biting him. Peter caterwauled while the rest of the inn’s clientele scattered in four directions, with the exception of the innkeeper, who was still scrambling about the floor, looking for his money.
Hugo sighed. He still had his dagger in his left boot, tucked there for occasions exactly like this one. He’d draw the blade across Dick’s throat before the foot-pad could whistle Fare Thee Well, though Hugo didn’t much like the idea of getting his cloak bloodied. Lord, he was sick of death.
"Very well," Hugo sighed again, feigning surrender. "Take it."
But the moment Dick’s hand went for the purse at Hugo’s belt, something whizzed past the cut-throat’s cheek and buried itself through the thick sleeve of Dick’s jerkin, pinning his arm to the floor just between Hugo’s legs. Hugo had jerked his own hand back just in time to keep it from being impaled.
Staring down his long torso in disbelief, Hugo saw that a violet-tipped arrow had embedded itself deeply into the floorboards, missing not only his hand but his most prized treasure of all by a mere two inches. Dick’s arm was trapped against Hugo’s legs, and the shock of how close the projectile had come to splitting his hand in half caused the cut-throat to whimper.
Hugo looked up just in time to see the girl the innkeeper had called Finn turning to level an arrow at Timmy’s broad back. This time, she calmly warned her intended victim.
"Let the boy go or I’ll sever your spine."
The giant froze. Then, rotating slowly, Peter writhing in his arms, Timmy looked from Finn to his partner, trapped against Hugo and the floor.
"Gor," the simple man gulped. "Don’t shoot, lass. Dick and I didn’t mean nofink—"
He released Peter, who staggered away, clutching his head and moaning, Hugo thought, a bit louder than necessary.
The auburn-haired girl lowered her bow and approached Hugo, her lovely face as unconcerned as if she’d just brought in the washing. She studiously ignored Dick, despite his whimpered moans, and did not so much as glance at Hugo as she bent, wrapped slender fingers round the arrow’s shaft, and gently worked the missile out of the wood in which it had been embedded.
While she was so close, Hugo could not help but stare, and he did so unabashedly, taking in the smooth white skin, tinged pink at lip and cheek, the long, oddly dark eyelashes, the flowery fragrance of her. He was not generally dumb-struck in the presence of women—far from it, actually—but for the life of him, he could think of nothing to say to this maid, not even when her hand was but an inch from his—
"Ah," the girl said, finally drawing forth her arrow, in tact, from the floor. She examined the tip critically, thumbing the point to check its sharpness. She was apparently pleased with the result, since her pretty face broke into a smile that revealed a set of even white teeth. "Well, look at that," she said, to herself. "Thought for certain this one was lost for good."
The minute he was free, the hapless Dick scrambled to his feet, cursing fluently and flapping the arm that had been pinned to the floor.
"Damned bloody bitch," he howled. "What’d ye do that for? We was only havin’ a bit o’ fun. Weren’t we, Timmy? Jus’ a bit o’ fun with the knight—"
Finnula Crais wasn’t listening, however. She slid the undamaged arrow back into her quiver and calmly, with a last, appraising glance at Hugo, slipped out the door.
Hugo was on his feet in a split second, dodging the innkeeper, who was still on his hands and knees searching for coin, and the hopping-mad Dick, as well as the wreckage of the table he’d smashed. But though he reached the door perhaps a second or two after the girl, she had disappeared, as suddenly as she’d appeared in the first place. He looked up and down the cobble-stoned street for some sign of the lass, but saw no trace of her.
He was swearing to himself when Peter approached, panting for breath.
"Did you see that, my lord?" the boy asked excitedly. "I never saw anyone in my life handle a bow like that. She lifted that thing like it was a part of her arm. Did you see it?"
Hugo, still scanning the crowded street for the girl, growled menacingly in response. The boy either did not hear him, or unwisely chose to pursue the topic in spite of his master’s warning.
"Saved our lives, I think she did, my lord. Why do you think she bothered? Wee lass like that, you’d think it would be us that would be doing the rescuing, eh, my lord? But she fair took that Dick’s hand off—" Then, in a different tone: "My lord, why do you look like that? Is aught the matter?"
Hugo shook himself. Was aught the matter? Who was this Finnula Crais, that she threw him into such a panic of emotion with a single look? Hundreds of women had looked at him in his lifetime, and he’d never reacted like this before. Nay, he’d quite coldly and methodically lured them into his bed, and a pleasant time was had by all. What was it about that ridiculously dressed, cunning little redhead that had sent him chasing her, like a tom after a she-cat in heat?
"Come, my lord," Peter cried, excitedly. "She can’t have got far. Let me run after her—"
Hugo caught the boy by the arm, nearly yanking him off his feet. "You’ll do nothing of the kind. Go and fetch the horses. We’re leaving this place posthaste."
Peter stamped his booted foot. He had gotten over the scare the giant had given him, and had looked forward to an exchange of pleasantries with the pert little maid in the leather chausses, the like of which even he, used to every type of woman London could afford, from belly dancers to princesses of the blood, had never before encountered. But the girl had run away and his master, in a fit of churlish pique, would not allow him to search for her.
"She wouldn’t be hard to find," Peter grumbled. "A redheaded lass in braies is sure to be noticed wherever she goes. I wager we could find her in less than an hour. And we owe her our lives, my lord. Or at least a purse—"
Hugo’s only response was to growl again.
"What ails you, my lord?" Peter demanded, unwisely. He could not, for the life of him, fathom why his lordship wouldn’t want to look for their rescuer. "Think you the maid a sorceress, that you run so feverishly from her?"
Hugo glowered down at the impertinent lad, his own gaze every bit as piercing as the maid’s, though Hugo’s eyes were a changeable hazel that even now glinted gold with anger.
"Nay," he snapped, taking long strides towards the public stables. "But she showed over-much interest in us, a wandering knight, returning from the Crusades, and his raw squire."
"Aye," Peter readily agreed. "And I was enjoying her interest mightily."
"I could see that." Hugo’s tone was sardonic, although the humor in his voice was not reflected on his stern features. "But of what interest could either of us be to so comely a maid, who is surely spoken for by some village smithy or local knight?"
Peter would have liked to reply that he himself would quite obviously be of romantic interest to any maid, however comely, but he didn’t like to pass himself off as a braggart. He was quite certain that it was himself, and not his master, that interested the auburn-tressed maid. Why would any girl be interested in a thickly-bearded fellow more than likely twice her age, and dressed quite scruffily in spite of his fortune and title? Whereas Peter himself wore the shiniest chain mail upon his shoulders, and an expensive velvet tunic that, though not exactly suited to sleeping outdoors, clearly indicated his elevated rank of royal squire. What did it matter that both items had been purchased for him by his new lord? The girl didn’t have to know that.
But now his master was speaking again, in that deep, rumbling voice that Peter alternately envied and feared.
"I do not wish us to attract undue attention," Hugo explained, in a tone he hoped did not sound condescending. Curse and rot his vassal for falling to that scimitar, and leaving him saddled with this pup! "Though any hope of that has been dashed by those men back there. Still, we’d best leave the girl be, since there is no attention worse than that of the father or brother of a virgin maid—"
"Ah," Peter said, slyly. "Like that dancing girl what you had in London last fortnight, milord? The one who called her procurer when you—"
Hugo glared down at the boy, his eyes tawny with impatience. "Nay, not like her, lad," he growled, but would not elaborate. Instead, he again bade Peter fetch the horses.
Standing on the cobblestones, his hazel eyes alert for a glimpse of auburn, all of Hugo’s thoughts centered on the rounded derriere of the fetching Finnula. How had the girl learned to use a bow like that? And why had she taken it upon herself to save him? Women had certainly changed since Hugo had last been in England. Now they not only gadded about by themselves in boy’s clothing, but slung quivers over their backs and arbitrarily shot at foot-pads. Although, Hugo thought, Lord knew that any woman who was going to dress like that needed to defend herself…most particularly from men like Hugo.
Trying hard to turn his mind to a higher plane, Hugo forced himself to think not of Finnula Crais’ backside, but of Stephensgate Manor, and all the work that would be required of him to put right what his father had no doubt torn hopelessly asunder, as was his foolish wont. Still, those mist-grey eyes plagued him, even after he’d mounted his steed and urged the stallion forward.
Had he looked back once more he’d have seen those very eyes boring a veritable hole into his back, as Finnula made some swift mental calculations of her own.