They were upon her before she could flee.
Rudely snatched up out of the deep sleep of exhaustion, she lay huddled, still and frightened, trying to disappear into the hard, frozen ground. The piles of leaves and pine boughs she had carefully piled on top of herself now seemed totally inadequate to conceal her. The nightmare she’d so desperately tried to escape was finally upon her.
It surrounded her. She could hear it in the form of men shouting, hounds barking, mail clanking, hooves pounding. She could smell it in the form of sour sweat, overheated horses. She could taste it in the form of bitter bile rising in her throat—Sweet Merciful Virgin! >He’s sent an entire army after me! To hunt me down and run me to ground like a helpless animal!
Nearly out of her mind with fear, she curled up into a tight ball, making herself as small as possible. She pressed her face into the frozen dirt, hoping against hope that the brown and tan of her stolen clothing would help make her invisible.
Don’t let them find me. Merciful heaven, don’t let them find me. Please don’t—
She let out a shriek as a growling dog sank his teeth into the rough cloth of her sleeve and yanked viciously, sending leaves and twigs flying. Others, barely kept in check by their handlers, lunged at her, snarling and barking, nipping at her with their slavering jaws. She could feel them buffeting her, felt the heat from their bodies. Sweet, merciful God! She threw her hands up in a desperate attempt to protect her face and neck from the animals’ razor-sharp teeth. There was no escape. If she so much as moved, they’d rip her to shreds.
Rough hands seized her, jerking her up out of her hiding place amidst a flurry of pine branches, dirt, and dried leaves. She tried to scream, but no sound came from her ravaged throat. Blessed Virgin!
“Whewwww! God’s blood, boy, you stink! By my oath, pigs smell better than you!”
General male laughter greeted this comment, sending her into full-fledge panic. Heart pounding in her breast, she pushed against the beefy hands lifting her. Dear God, she had to get away. She just had to! Frantically she started to kick, managing to land a few blows with her wooden clogs.
“Here now, lad, none of that. Oww! Hold still, damn you! God’s teeth, you’re as slippery as an eel!” He tightened his grip, wringing a cry of anguish from her throat at the sharp, stabbing pain that robbed her of her breath, even as she continued to twist and writhe and kick. But her attempts to break free were in vain. Whoever was holding her was much too strong, and much too determined.
“Cease your struggles, damn it!” It was a raspy growl right in her ear. She could feel a coarse beard prickling her neck. But she was too frightened to heed the words. Too terrified to hear the underlying kindness in the gruff voice. She continued to twist and kick helplessly against the imprisoning arms, succeeding only in increasing her excruciating pain and exhausting what little store of strength she had left.
Rock-hard, muscular arms closed around her abdomen, pulling her back against a chest as hard and unyielding as a stone wall. “We’re trying to help you, lad. Cease your struggles!”
She stopped abruptly, gasping desperately for breath, spent and shivering with both fright and cold. Despair settled over her like a shroud, clogging her throat with unshed tears. Any further struggles were pointless, and she knew it.
Tears burned her eyes, sliding silently down her cheeks, leaving tracks in the dust and dirt. Every breath ended in a sob. Her worst fears had come true. The nightmare she had sought to escape was all around her, dragging her back to Hell. Back to him. And this time he would finish what he’d started three nights ago. This time, he would kill her.
She swallowed hard as her shoulders slumped in defeat. She was well and truly caught and her brief, miserable time on this earth was about to end. Her mind ground to a halt as the utter hopelessness of her situation bore in on her. And as hope died, so too did her resistance.
Suddenly the man holding her leaned forward, loosened his arms and set her on her feet. She stumbled forward on the uneven ground, nearly sprawling face first in the dirt and leaves.
“Here, lad, steady now. Don’t fall.” Thick male fingers bit into her upper arms, turning her around to face her captor. She heard a gasp. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” One hand released her and she knew he was crossing himself. “What happened to you? Who beat you like this?” Without taking his eyes off of her, the man shouted out, “Your Grace! Come at once!”
His Grace! She swallowed hard, her body stiffening, bracing itself against the blows she knew were coming. The blows she knew she was powerless to stop. Sweet, merciful God, how much more must I bear? Keeping her head lowered, she grabbed the tattered woolen scarf she’d wound around her neck for warmth and quickly pulled it up over her chin, mouth and nose. Mayhap he won’t recognize me. Mayhap he’ll let me go. She gave her head a slight shake. Mayhap pigs will fly.
Utterly defeated, she stood there, shivering so hard she feared her bones would snap. In her haste to flee three nights ago, she had neglected to steal a cloak. And she’d been paying for that oversight ever since. The rough, homespun tunic and loose trousers she had managed to steal were no match for the bitter cold of this gloomy February day. They swallowed her up, leaving gaping holes for the frigid wind to blow through. She’d tried stuffing them with straw, but they were so large, the straw had long since fallen out, leaving her half-frozen. Her body was shaking so hard she was staggering like a tosspot reeling out of a tavern after a three-day binge.
She was only dimly aware of the commotion going on all around her. Men talked. Hounds barked and lunged excitedly, their chains clanking as their handlers struggled to hold them back. Horses stamped the frozen ground with their heavy hooves, snorting out billowing clouds of frosty breath. In the midst of all this confusion, she heard footsteps striding toward her through the crunching leaves, coming closer until they stopped right in front of her. Keeping her head down, she felt her muscles tightening, her entire body shrinking in on itself, anticipating the first blow.
“Well, Thomas? What the bloody hell is so urgent that you would keep a man from the warmth of his fire and the comfort of his ale?”
Her mind reeled in shock. That’s not his voice! The relief that flooded through her was so dizzying, she nearly fainted from it. Her knees buckled and a large hand suddenly grabbed her upper arm to keep her from sinking to the ground. A strangled sob left her throat.
’Tis not his voice! ’Tis not his voice! Her mind repeated it over and over as she struggled to catch her breath. It wasn’t that oily, reptilian voice she so despised and feared. Instead, it was a deep river of sound, smooth and soothing, flowing over her battered soul and body, easing her terror. It was a sound she latched onto like a drowning sailor latches onto a piece of floating wreckage. ’Tis not him!
“Where are your manners, boy?” the first man roared at her in a voice so filled with authority there was no thought of ignoring it. “A Duke stands before you. Show respect for your betters and remove your hood at once or, by God, I’ll remove it for you!”
She threw up her hand and jerked off the hood. Bits of straw tumbled out of it.
“The cap, too, boy!”
With another jerky movement, she snatched the shapeless woolen cap off her head.
The collective gasp from the entire hunting party made her realize, too late, the enormity of her mistake.
A thick, shining mane of reddish-gold hair tumbled down out of the cap. It spilled in luxurious waves over her shoulders and down her back, nearly to her waist. It fell forward in a curtain of shimmering gold concealing her face from view.
Time ground to a halt. She held her breath, heartbeat pounding in her ears. There was a long pause as the world receded, leaving her stranded in a pocket of silence. Where there were no whispering voices, no baying hounds or stamping horses. Just her and the tall man standing before her, holding her shoulder in one hand, her very life in the other. He brushed his hand past her cheek to lift a fistful of her hair, letting it sift through his gloved fingers like a silken waterfall. “Well, gentlemen, it would seem our Thomas here has discovered some sort of fey creature. A woodland sprite, mayhap, or a nymph? Although, I must confess I was unaware that sprites wore homespun and wooden clogs.”
Laughter greeted this statement, and in spite of herself, fear returned, dark and ugly, twisting through her once again. True, this was not the man who had beaten her three nights ago, but that didn’t mean he was actually going to help her. He was, after all, just another man. He could turn out to be just as brutal, if not worse.
As renewed terror cascaded through her, hot, stinging bile rose up from her stomach, burning the already damaged tissues of her throat. With great effort, she choked it back down, swallowing convulsively. She hunched her shoulders up around her ears, folding in on herself, as if trying to disappear altogether. She tucked her chin tight against her chest, staring fixedly at the ground. Gradually, she began to realize that the man had hunkered down in front of her and was speaking to her, repeating gently, over and over, “Have no fear, ma petite. We will not hurt you.”
Tears dripped from her eyes, making tiny little plopping sounds in the leaves at her feet. She swiped helplessly at them and her cold, runny nose with the dirty sleeve of her homespun tunic.
Removing his right glove, the Duke pushed his warm fingers through the heavy curtain of her hair, only to encounter the concealing folds of her scarf. Pushing the thick woolen material down, he touched her chin. The heat from her skin nearly scorched his hand. “Holy Christ, Thomas, she’s burning up with fever!” Gripping her chin firmly, he lifted her head.
Her hair fell back, revealing the full extent of the damage done to her beaten and battered face.
“God’s Blood!” the Duke thundered, jumping to his feet. “What in the name of bloody hell happened to you, girl?” He stared at her in utter shock, then turned to his master-at-arms. “Thomas, look at her! Who would do such a thing? What know you of this?”
“Naught, Your Grace.” Thomas stared at her, every bit as mystified as the young Duke. And every bit as agitated. “Only what you see before you. The hounds found her hiding in the leaves.”
“She looks familiar to me. Is she from Berwick?”
Thomas just shrugged and shook his head. “I think not, Your Grace. I’ve never seen her before.”
She stood stock-still, her eyes closed, her face hot as the Duke’s gaze raked once more over her bruised and swollen features. A touch, light as a butterfly’s wing, brushed her cheek. She couldn’t stop herself from recoiling.
Bloody fucking hell! “Easy, lass, easy.” The Duke kept his voice low and soothing, talking to her as if she were a wild horse he was trying to gentle. “I will not hurt you, sweetness. Please believe me, no one here will hurt you.” He brushed her cheek again, and this time she didn’t jerk back. She stood still, hands clenched at her sides, tentatively accepting his touch.
Nicholas Herron, the sixth Duke of Berwick, dropped his hand and simply stood there, staring at her, the blood running cold in his veins as he suddenly realized where he’d seen her before. Jesus, Mary and Joseph! She’s the woman who’s been haunting my dreams for the past four years! My phantom lover! Stunned, he studied her more closely. Aye. Beneath the dirt, beneath the swelling and the bruising, it was indeed she, the naked houri with the sun-kissed hair, who had welcomed him nightly into her bed, even as she’d welcomed him into her body, giving him the most exquisite pleasure he’d ever known. Sweet Jesu, she’s an apparition! She’s not real! She cannot possibly be real!
And yet…here she stands. Only instead of a seductive temptress, she looks like the survivor of a pitched battle. Feeling as if he’d been struck in the stomach with a mace, he examined the slight figure of the young woman standing shivering before him. Her face was a livid mass of cuts, scratches, and deep purple bruises. Her blackened eyes were swollen shut. And for the first time he noticed the blood-encrusted wound on the right side of her head, matting her hair stiffly. Dried blood was caked around her ear and dribbled in rivulets down her neck. Her hands were equally cut and bruised and covered with dried blood. The little finger of her left hand was crooked and swollen, most likely broken. She must have fought like a lioness. He could not explain why that thought filled him with such pride.
She stood as still as her shivering body would allow, her right arm bent protectively around her abdomen. Her breathing was labored, but carefully shallow, a sure sign to Nicholas, no stranger to the wounds of combat, that at least one of her ribs was cracked, if not broken.
Rage twisted inside him as he took in her ravaged appearance, a rage deeper than anything he had ever felt in his life. It surged through him in dark, stormy waves, glittering fiercely in his turbulent gray eyes. This girl had been beaten so savagely it was a wonder she had survived. God’s teeth, what in the name of all that is holy is wrong with a world that allows such things to happen?
“Will you tell me your name, ma belle?” he asked, softening his voice even further.
Her lips opened, but the only sound that emerged from her mouth was a harsh croak. Swallowing painfully, she tried again, with the same result. A despairing look crossed her battered face and she began to cry. Deep, guttural, open-mouthed sobs ripped from her throat as she sucked in desperate, heaving gasps of air to fuel them. Hot tears tracked down her dirty cheeks.
Bloody fucking hell. Galvanized into action by the sight of such abject misery, Nicholas bent down and swung her up into his arms. She let out a yelp of pain. “Rolf,” he said, addressing the tall lanky knight hovering at his right elbow. “Make haste to Berwick. Alert Sir Richard.”
Without a word, the knight turned and strode swiftly away through the crisp undergrowth. Vaulting into his saddle, he wheeled his charger and galloped away.
“And Ellen, too,” Nicholas yelled after him. Rolf’s only acknowledgment was a slight wave of his hand before he disappeared over the rise.
The girl’s head dropped onto Nicholas’s shoulder, as if she no longer had the strength to hold it up. Moving with a lithe, catlike grace, the Duke crossed the distance to his own horse in powerful, ground-eating strides, his burly master-at-arms following closely behind him. “God’s blood, Thomas, who on earth would do something like this? She’s little more than a child!”
Thrusting the still-sobbing girl into the older man’s arms, Nicholas mounted his black destrier, Lucifer. Then, leather saddle creaking, he leaned down to take her from his marshal. Resting his forearm on his thigh, he accepted her slight weight, the awkwardness of the movement wrenching another low cry of pain from her lips. Lifting her up, he seated her in front of him, astride the great animal.
His arms came forward on either side of her, holding her upright. Taking the reins from Eric, his squire, he wheeled his mount and urged Lucifer forward with a light touch of his heels, guiding him expertly through the dense undergrowth.
He looked down at the girl in his arms. Even though her head barely came up to his chin, he was suddenly aware that this was no child he was holding, but a young woman. Beneath her pathetic attempt at a disguise, her feminine curves were now patently obvious—the sweet fullness of her ass cheeks riding against his groin, the soft mounds of her generous breasts rising and falling as she struggled to get her sobs under control—Christ Almighty! He felt the cool silk of her glorious hair against his skin as the wind sent the loose strands flying wildly about her head. He bit back a groan. Never, not even in his dreams, had he felt anything so soft and smooth. He wanted to wallow in it, sift the golden strands through his fingers like a miser sifting his gold, and let it cascade over every inch of his skin like a silken waterfall…
Holy Christ. Here he was rhapsodizing about a phantom woman, when the real woman was shivering so hard her teeth were chattering. Hunching his shoulders forward, Nicholas released her just long enough to pull his fur-lined mantle more closely around him so that it partially covered her as well. He tightened his arms over her abdomen, just beneath her breasts, loosening them immediately at her sudden hissing intake of breath. He’d momentarily forgotten the injury to her ribs. Loosening the curve of his arms, he pulled her back against him, trying to transfer some of the heat from his own body into her shivering form. But it was not heat that she needed. Her body was already an inferno, hot enough to melt iron, blazing with the fever that was raging through her.
She was seated partially on the saddle and partly on his lap, her firm, round bottom pressing back against his groin. God’s blood, she feels good! He hadn’t so much as touched a woman in over a year, much less held one in his arms. He’d almost forgotten how good they felt. How soft, and smooth, and curvy. Unable to help himself, he rubbed his cheek against the silk of her hair.
His body suddenly hardened with a need so primitive, so fierce, and so unexpected he was barely able to control his gasp of surprise. He groaned inwardly, aghast at the way his unruly body was reacting to the feel of this soft female riding his thighs. His hardening cock fitted itself neatly between the cheeks of her buttocks, and a wave of shame swept over him.
Sweet Jesu! How could this wounded bit of humanity stir such a carnal reaction in him? He, who had sworn a knight’s oath before God and King to honor and revere women? By the Virgin! What was he thinking? If he didn’t do something to control his reaction to her, someone would have to protect her from him!
Bloody. Fucking. Hell.
Thoroughly disgusted with himself, he looked down at her again. She was still, slumped back against him, limp as a rag. And he realized that she had lost consciousness. His lips thinned, turning his mouth into a grim slash across his face as he spurred his horse to an even faster pace. His erection softened as fury once again tore through him. Woman, child, it matters not. She’s been beaten so savagely, it’s a miracle she’s still alive.
His eyes narrowed. He hoped she stayed alive, at least long enough to tell him who had done this to her. Because he needed to know what kind of bastard would dare to beat a woman so viciously. Because when I do find out who he is, I’m going to kill the son-of-a-bitch! A grim smile lifted one corner of his full, sensuous mouth. His eyes glittered in anticipation as he galloped toward Berwick Castle, his ancestral home.
* * * *
Nicholas Herron stood in his solar, looking down at the motionless figure barely making a mound in the center of his bed. A tiny scrap of broken humanity, she tugged at him, irresistibly calling to something deep in his soul.
Well over six feet tall, he had the broad shoulders and the hard, muscular body of a fighting knight, honed by years of intense training and hard combat. His face was a fascinating study of planes and angles, polished by the firelight into a high bronze relief of a pagan warrior. His hawk-like nose flared arrogantly above full, sensuous lips and a black mustache. His firm, strong chin was clean-shaven, except for a small, neatly trimmed goatee, giving him a slightly diabolical look. He was dressed all in black—black chausses, black tunic, black mantle, and thigh-high black leather boots. Even his hair was black. Thick and shaggy, it fell across his forehead and brushed against his neck. Black eyebrows arched like ravens’ wings above slate-gray eyes. Eyes that were, at that moment, as stormy and turbulent as a gale-tossed sea.
Eyes that watched as Ellen, his old nurse, dabbed a soft wet cloth to the cuts, encrusted with dried blood, all over the girl’s face, neck, scalp, and hands. She dipped the cloth into a pan full of warm water and wrung it out. The water turned red.
“Mary!” Ellen turned to the young chambermaid hovering near the doorway. “Run to the kitchen and tell them we need more hot water. Buckets of it!” The girl ran off as Ellen hollered after her, “And be quick about it!” Even as she spoke, the elderly, heavyset woman snapped her fingers and a groom materialized at her elbow.
Picking up the heavy pan of bloody water, he carried it over to the open window and slopped the contents over the sill to cascade down the castle’s outer wall, falling into a deep river gorge over a hundred feet below.
Ellen shuffled somewhat stiffly over to the enormous fireplace along the back wall of the solar. Bending forward with a grunt, she retrieved a blackened kettle from a tripod, whose iron legs were buried in a pile of hot embers. She poured a stream of clean, hot water into the now-empty pan.
The young groom lifted the heavy pan again and, without spilling a drop, carried it back over and set it down on the bedside table.
Ellen dropped the cloth into the water and wiped her hands on her blood-stained apron. Then she lifted one corner of it to dab at her sweaty face, shining like a moon through the opening in her wimple. Beneath the apron, her plain, gray linen gown was also spotted here and there with blood. “All right now, laddie,” she said, turning to Nicholas and making shooing motions with her hands. “Out ye go. I’ll be taking these filthy clothes off of her and I don’t need ye standing around gawking and getting in me way. Ye can come back when I’m through cleaning up the rest of her and she’s decently covered.”
When Nicholas didn’t move, she sighed impatiently. “Off with ye now, Yer Grace,” she said, a trace of asperity in her tone. “In spite of what she’s wearing, this is a high-born young lady. She’ll not be thanking me for allowing ye to see her in a state of immodesty.” Holding one hand to the girl’s forehead, she clucked her tongue. “Poor little mite. She’s burning up with fever. ’Twill be a miracle, if she survives the night.” Bowing her head, she crossed herself with a plump, beringed hand.
Nicholas stared down at the young woman, still dressed in her filthy, stinky boys’ clothes. Mercifully, she had remained unconscious throughout the long, arduous ride back to Berwick Castle. She hadn’t stirred as he’d carried her into the Keep, through the great hall and into his solar. She hadn’t uttered a sound through Ellen’s gentle ministrations.
A commotion at the door alerted him that Sir Richard Martin, the castle’s barber and surgeon, had entered the room followed by Rolf Torgesson, Nicholas’s best friend and first knight. A man in his midforties, Sir Richard was short, stocky and grim-faced, with a no-nonsense demeanor. He wore a floor-length brown woolen robe trimmed with fur at the hem and at the cuffs of his long, hanging sleeves. A close-fitting brown leather hood, tied beneath his chin, covered his balding head.
Approaching the bed, he leaned over the girl and gently lifted the lid of each swollen eye in turn, moving her head back and forth to inspect her injuries more closely. With gentle fingers, he probed the gash on her scalp that had bled all in her hair, matting it close to her head. His hand slid down her arm and lifted first her right hand, then her left. Frowning at the deep, bloody cuts circling each wrist, he straightened.
“Remove her clothes at once,” he ordered. “Her injuries are most grievous—as if someone used a battering ram on her.”
Ellen moved to the head of the bed. “Out, Yer Grace,” she ordered again, grabbing the loose end of the tattered woolen scarf wrapped around the girl’s neck. “We have no need of yer assistance. Nor yours, Mr. Rolf.” She started to unwind the scarf.
Nicholas clapped Rolf on the shoulder and the two men turned to leave.
“Sweet Mary, Mother of God!”
They’d barely taken two steps before Ellen’s choked cry stopped them dead in their tracks. Nicholas turned around just in time to see the old woman crossing herself again. Her hand, he observed grimly, was shaking. Biting back a curse, he strode back over to the bed and looked down.
God’s blood! They had removed her coarse tunic, baring her torso from the waist up. Her ribs were a livid mass of deep purple bruises. Bite marks on her breasts were red and swollen and hot to the touch, a sure sign of infection. And, judging from the dark bruises ringing her neck, someone had very nearly succeeded in strangling this young woman. The bruises on her neck were so dark, they were nearly black. Individual finger marks stood out in sharp contrast to the pale translucence of the surrounding skin.
“Ved alle guder!” Rolf muttered, touching his fingertips to his forehead before touching them to his lips.
Nicholas’s lips thinned into a hard slash. His eyes were a seething black cauldron of rage. He had been foolish, nay, stupid, to think that her only wounds would be those visible on her face and hands. “Remove the rest of her clothes now,” he ordered in a deadly voice. “I care not how high-born she is. I will see everything that bastard did to her. And when his name is revealed to me, I will end his miserable life! This I swear upon my oath as a knight.”
“Calm yourself, Nick, you’re wearing a trench in the floor.” Never one to move when he could be still, Rolf Torgesson sat slouched in his chair, his long legs stretched out in front of him, crossed at the ankles. Rolf, a twenty-nine-year-old Danish knight-errant, had been Nicholas’s best friend and closest companion for the past five years, having sworn fealty to the young English knight for saving his life from a band of outlaws in Lincoln Forest. He was tall, taller even than Nicholas, and thin, with long, lanky arms and legs. His normally fair skin was deeply tanned, almost nut brown, even beneath his clothing, because he liked to practice his combat maneuvers out in the tiltyard, stripped to the waist even in the coldest weather.
His beautifully shaped head was completely bald, except for the long, thin, drooping mustache beneath his aristocratic nose and the neat, four-inch-long goatee hanging from the point of his chin, both so blond they were nearly white. Piercing blue eyes, the most arresting feature in his long, thin face, peered out from deep caverns created by the prominent bones of his cheeks and brows. A golden hoop earring dangled from the pierced lobe of his left ear. Except for his vest and leggings, which were made from the snow-white fur of an Arctic bear, he was dressed all in brown leather—jerkin, breeches, and a capelet with a hood and a long, hanging liripipe. Behind his back, the pommels of twin swords rose above his shoulders, sheathed in a specially designed baldric.
Ignoring Rolf, Nicholas paced the length of the small antechamber located adjacent to his solar, both hands slicking his shaggy black hair back off his face. A deep scowl marred the perfection of his features.
The chamber was sparsely furnished, just a sturdy wooden table and four wooden chairs. No carpets or tapestries or cushions softened its austere, utilitarian appearance. The only light was provided by the dying fire in the fireplace and some candles in the middle of the table. No matter. He didn’t need light for this.
He had called for a meeting of his most trusted advisors. In addition to Rolf, they included Thomas Parsons, forty-nine years old, his burly master-at-arms, and Sir John Lowden, his bailiff, a dignified man of fifty-seven years. The young Duke, himself only twenty-seven, trusted these three men with his life and considered them friends as well as councilors.
Nicholas had held the title of Duke for only six months—ever since his father’s sudden, unexpected death from a freakish accident. Roger Herron had been thrown from his horse while out hunting with a group of his friends. Apparently suffering no ill effects from the fall, other than the embarrassment and humiliation a renowned horseman would naturally feel in the wake of such an untoward event, he had walked around for the rest of the day talking and laughing. He had partaken of a hearty evening meal, imbibing freely of hippocras, the spiced French wine he loved so much. His only complaint had been a slight headache just before going to bed.
He was found dead the next morning, his pillow covered with the blood that had poured from his ears, mouth, and nose during the night.
Nicholas had been away from home, fighting with King Edward III in Crecy, France. He and his cadre of sixty loyal knights had just finished quartering the battlefield, searching for any survivors. The courier carrying the news of Roger Herron’s death had ridden through a blood-soaked field littered with the corpses of thousands of French knights, infantrymen, and Genoese crossbowmen, straight up the slight rise to the windmill the English king had just successfully defended. After giving the courier a hot meal, a tankard of ale, and a fresh mount, King Edward had immediately sent the battle-weary young Nicholas home to claim his inheritance. At Nick’s insistence, Rolf had remained in France a few more days to help Edward finalize plans for his next campaign, the siege of the French port of Calais. Then he had sailed back to England on the first available ship.
Fortunately, Nicholas had returned home to find Berwick prospering, despite his father’s neglect, thanks to the capable administration of Sir John Lowden, who had served the Herron family for many, many years.
The door opened and the two men he and Rolf had been waiting for walked in. Nicholas raised his hand to stop them from bowing in recognition of his new rank. “Nay, gentlemen, we do not stand on ceremony in this room. We are all equals here.” He still had not become accustomed to everyone bowing to him as they had his father. He looked from one solemn face to the next. “Well?” he demanded, anxiety making his voice a little more forceful than he’d intended. “Have you been able to find out anything about her?”
“Naught,” Thomas Parsons spoke up. He was a giant of a man, dressed in chain mail over a quilted gambeson and covered with a woolen surcote bearing the Herron coat of arms. “No one knows who she is, nor has anyone ever heard of a girl with hair the color of burnished copper—which seems impossible on the face of it. Hair that extraordinary should have ballads written about it.”
“Mayhap you should write one, Thomas,” Nicholas teased, knowing all about Thomas’s secret passion for the chivalric love poems of Christine de Pizan.
Thomas merely scowled at Nicholas, giving a jerk of his bearded chin. “How old would you say she is?”
“Older than I originally thought,” Nicholas replied, nearly blushing at the memory of his body’s reaction to those soft, feminine curves as he’d held her against him. “She’s no child, even though she’s barely bigger than one. She’s a woman grown, possibly seventeen or eighteen.”
“She is tiny,” Thomas agreed, remembering the slight feel of her body as he’d held her in in his arms. “Hell, my fourteen-year-old Alice is bigger than this girl.” He ran his hand over his bushy beard. It was full of tiny braids that had been plaited there by his sweet little nine-year-old Isabel, who had painstakingly woven tiny pink ribbons and bows throughout them. A man less secure in his masculinity might have removed them. Thomas would sooner cut off his right arm than undo one single braid or ribbon. He wore them as if they were badges of honor—a symbol of his bravery in battle.
“Everyone is tiny compared to you, Thomas,” Nicholas pointed out wryly. He closed his gray eyes briefly as his thoughts turned to the injured young woman lying in his solar. Thomas was right, she was tiny. It was a miracle she had survived her ordeal thus far, although the fever raging through her slender body just might claim her still.
He kept his eyes closed, reliving the horror of the moment when the full extent of her injuries had been revealed with the removal of those horrible clothes. “She is gravely wounded,” he said quietly. “She was kicked repeatedly in the belly, back and legs. One of her ribs is cracked. Her breasts bear marks that could only have been made by…a man’s teeth.”
Sir John Lowden drew in a hissing breath, but didn’t interrupt. Nicholas exhaled slowly to steady his own breathing. “Her left little finger is broken. Her wrists were bound—tight. The wounds there are…” He trailed off, unable to finish. He had wanted to weep upon seeing the deep, bloody gashes encircling her wrists. She had strained so hard against her cruel bonds. He shook his head.
“Was she violated?” Thomas asked quietly.
Nicholas’s mouth twisted grimly. “Aye. And sodomized.” Nicholas paused, gathering himself. When he resumed speaking, his voice was shaking. “Her mouth was used so hard her voice may be permanently damaged. At least, that’s what Sir Richard thinks caused the kind of injury he saw there.”
“Merciful Christ!” This from Sir John.
Another pause. Another deep breath. “She was also strangled. Probably to the point of near-death. Many of her wounds have festered. At this moment, she is delirious with fever and Sir Richard believes she will not last the night. And there’s something else.” Nicholas looked from one man to the other until he had their undivided attention. “She’s been scourged. Often, from the looks of it. And over a long period of time. Her back is covered with thin scars from a cat o’ nine tails.”
Suddenly, Rolf jumped up, shoving his chair back so hard it fell over with a clatter that sounded like a thunderclap. He started to pace, his route parallel to Nicholas’s, as if trying to erase the violent images from his mind’s eye. Images of her as she had stood shivering in the forest, the glorious mass of her hair tipped back to reveal the horror that had been inflicted upon her. Images of her on Nick’s bed, naked, her pale skin blue with cold and covered with bloody cuts and bruises. “Why dost thou not call this what it is, Nick? This woman was tortured! Why would anyone want to torture a helpless woman? What sort of fiend—”He broke off with an angry shake of his bald head, realizing that there was no answer to his questions. At least no answer that would satisfy his sense of chivalry and fair play.
Rolf was a knight, a seasoned warrior, inured to the most grievous wounds of combat. But this? This defied all reason and logic. This was not combat, this was depravity. It was barbarity in its cruelest form. This was inhuman.
“Who would do such a thing?” he repeated in a strained whisper. “And to what purpose?”
“Husband, I’ll wager,” said Sir John Lowden, sinking down heavily into one of the chairs. His nearly white hair and his face, lined with deep wrinkles, attested to his many years’ worth of heavy responsibility and devotion to duty. But, it was not responsibility that weighed so heavily upon his shoulders this day, nor duty that turned his face the color of the ashes in the grate. It was anguish over the cruelty inflicted upon the unknown young woman. Sir John had a gentle heart, a rarity in this barbarous age.
“Monster, I’ll wager,” said Thomas Parsons, his braided beard quivering as he bent to pick up the fallen chair, striving to control the sudden urge to commit some sort of mayhem. “Wish we knew who he was. I’d like to give the bastard a dose of his own medicine.” He stroked his beard, clearly agitated.
“The queue forms behind me,” Nicholas said grimly. “And, I vow that by the time you raise your hand to him, he will be long dead by mine.”
“You must know he is even now searching for her.” Sir John pointed out the obvious. “And when he finds her, he will likely finish the job, if for no other reason than to punish her for attempting to flee.”
The four men fell silent as they contemplated this evil possibility. A log shifted in the grate, popping and hissing, sending a shower of fiery sparks out onto the hearth. For a long moment it was the only sound in the room.
It was Nicholas who finally broke the silence. “Well, gentlemen, whoever he may be,” he said in a deadly voice, “we cannot allow him to finish the job.”
“And just how do you propose to stop him?” Sir John asked. He could feel the rage pouring off of his young lord in dark, turbulent waves. It was so palpable it seemed to eddy about the room on invisible currents. “You have no right to interfere in matters between a man and his wife, Your Grace. She is his property. She belongs to him under the laws of both God and man. A husband can do whatever he wants with his wife.”
“He cannot murder her!” Nicholas cried indignantly. “That’s against everybody’s law!”
“Calm thyself, Nick.” Rolf stopped pacing long enough to place his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “None of us will allow that to happen.”
“Leastways, not as long as I draw breath.” Nicholas looked at his three advisors. “When I took my oath as a knight, I vowed to protect the weak and helpless. And if that young woman lying in the next room isn’t weak and helpless, I know not who is.” His voice was cold as frozen steel. “I’ll not be party to rape and murder, gentlemen. For that is exactly what will happen to this woman if we deliver her back into this bastard’s hands.”
Thomas looked at his young master’s dark face. “What do you wish done, Your Grace?”
“Pick a dozen of our best men. Send them out to scout all the towns, inns, taverns and marketplaces within ten leagues of here. Judging by the state of her injuries, she was most likely attacked two or three nights ago. Even if she’s been on the move constantly since then, she’s too badly injured to have traveled much farther than ten leagues.
“Have them dress as farmers and pilgrims. I would not have them drawing attention to themselves. Tell them to keep their ears open for any talk about missing or runaway women, especially women with hair the color of the sunrise.” Nicholas looked at the faces of his trusty councilors. “I would know who’s looking for her so I can make plans for keeping her safe from him.”
“Speak not so hastily, Your Grace, you may yet have to turn her over,” Sir John pointed out grimly. “You may not have a choice.”
“Oh, there’s always a choice,” Nicholas replied with a cold smile. “Some choices just come with a higher purchase price than others.” He looked from Thomas, his stalwart master-at-arms, to Sir John, his trusted steward. “Thank you, gentlemen. Pray she lives long enough to tell us who she is, and who beat her so badly.”
The two men inclined their heads. Turning as one, they left Nicholas staring at Rolf in the gathering gloom of the dying firelight, the two of them communicating on a level that required no words. A level that could only be achieved after years of anticipating each other’s every move, both on the battlefield and off. Only the darkness of Nicholas’s eyes and the working of his jaw muscles revealed the presence of the emotion that was savaging him and the effort it was costing to keep it bound by his will.
Without a word being exchanged, the Duke turned and exited the small chamber, closely followed by Rolf. Together, they slipped quietly into the solar, going immediately over to the bed. Nicholas looked down at the tiny woman lying so still and broken beneath the fur covers. The woman who had been thrust so violently into his care and responsibility. Care and responsibility he neither wanted nor needed, but which he would accept nonetheless. Gently, he lifted her right hand to his lips. “I will never send you back to him,” he whispered fiercely. “I swear it on all that is holy. You can live the rest of your life here at Berwick, safe and protected.”
Despite the fever ravaging her body, she was shivering hard, her muscles tight and rigid, her teeth chattering. Alarmed, Nicholas reached beneath the fur and touched the smooth skin of her belly. “Sweet Jesu! Rolf, her skin is like ice! Make haste and help me warm her before ’tis too late.”
Unhesitatingly, he ripped off his clothes until he was as naked as she was. Lifting the coverlets, he slid into bed beneath them. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, these sheets are freezing! Ellen!” he barked. The battered young woman smelled of herbs and clarified goose fat from the unguents and healing poultices applied to her festering wounds. A strip of linen wound around her head held such a poultice in place against the wound in her scalp. Lying on his side, Nicholas pulled her bruised and battered body back against the strength and solidity of his own, intending to cocoon her in his warmth. But she didn’t need his warmth. Heat was pouring off of her in waves. God’s teeth! “Ellen!”
Teeth chattering, Nicholas watched Rolf as he methodically unbuckled his baldric with its twin swords, carefully placing it on the stand nearest the bed, the pommels within easy reach. Then he stripped off his fur vest and leggings, followed by his leather boots, breeches and jerkin, dropping each item carelessly the floor. Last to come were his linen shirt and braes. Naked, he approached the bed.
Even in the gloomy gray light coming in through the room’s high windows, the Dane’s pagan body markings were evident. The triskelion on his right bicep, a design of three overlapping blades, each scything to a sharp point. The Volknutt, or three interconnected triangles over his heart, to show his willingness to die for Odin, chief of the Norse gods. The wide Celtic interlace band circling his left bicep, with runic lettering proclaiming him to be “Odin’s warrior.” And, although he couldn’t see it at the moment, Nicholas knew that if Rolf turned around, the magnificent Viking ship in full sail, with its dragon figurehead rising up his back from his waist to his shoulder blades would be clearly visible.
As Rolf started up the steps to the bed platform, Nicholas was vigorously rubbing the woman’s arm, her hip, and her thigh, carefully avoiding the bandages wrapped around the worst of her wounds. To warm her, he kept telling himself firmly. But the feel of her smooth, creamy skin beneath his callused fingertips, her soft feminine curves fitting so perfectly against his powerful male body, had his cock so hard it was very nearly painful. God’s blood! How could he be thinking of fucking when this young woman lay at death’s door?
Then he noticed that Rolf, too, was sporting an erection. Not that it mattered. He’d seen his best friend naked many times, usually when they were sharing a willing bedmate. The fact that this woman seemed to be affecting his best friend as well as himself…well, that bore thinking about. Mayhap later, when he had the luxury of turning his mind to tasks other than simply keeping her alive.
Without a word, Rolf climbed onto the bed with the slight figure of the woman between him and Nicholas and slid under the fur covers. Sliding his hips across the silken sheets, he carefully aligned his length along the front of the unconscious woman’s body, scooting himself forward until she was snug against him, her generous breasts cushioned against his broad chest. Putting his arms around her shoulders, he hooked one rough, hairy leg over both of hers.
It was a familiar position for Rolf. He and Nicholas had shared many women in the past and this was the configuration they seemed to fall into naturally after the loving was done and the woman they’d just pleasured had fallen asleep. Except this woman had not been pleasured. This woman had been brutally beaten and was, even now, clinging to life by a thread. And the fact that his cock was so hard it throbbed with every beat of his heart surely consigned him to the hottest fires of Hell. Except he didn’t believe in Hell—neither the Christian version where sinners were tormented by Satan and his imps, nor the Norse version, where the dead were tormented by Hel, the goddess of death.
By Odin and all the gods in Valhalla! Rolf gritted his teeth so hard it was a wonder they didn’t crack and crumble to dust. It took all his effort and concentration to keep his hands from sliding downward and palming the satin globe of her breast—
“Your Grace! Mr. Rolf!” Ellen cried, scandalized, as she shuffled back into the room, followed by her husband, William, Nick’s chamberlain. “What in the name of all that is holy do ye think ye’re doing?” She climbed up to the bed platform and grabbed Rolf’s shoulder. “Get away from that poor child this instant! She’s not one of your strumpets to be pawed over by the two of ye—”
“Enough!” Nicholas roared, and Ellen jerked back, placing her hand over her mouth, eyes wide in shock. “You forget yourself, Ellen. ’Tis not your place to question our actions.”
The old woman crossed herself and took a step back, bowing low. “Aye, Yer Grace, ’Tis right ye are, and ’tis sorry I am.” She shook her head, chins wobbling. “I meant no harm, I swear by the blessed virgin. I thought—”
“We know what you thought, Ellen.” Nicholas’s voice was low, but there was no mistaking the anger in his tone. “You made that perfectly clear. However, ’tis not what you think. This young woman’s skin is ice cold and this is the quickest way to warm her. In future I suggest you hold your tongue before leaping to erroneous conclusions. We are under no obligation to explain ourselves to you. Now, fill up the warming pans, the sheets are freezing.” He sat up, slid to the edge of the bed, and stood, holding the unconscious woman in his arms. “William,” he addressed his chamberlain, “move that chair closer to the fire. As soon as I’m seated, cover us with all the bed furs and tuck them in around us.”
Quickly he moved to the chair, his steps mincing because the stone floor was so damned cold! Bloody hell! He sank down onto the cushions with the unconscious girl sideways in his lap. His cock was a thick ridge between her thigh and his belly. He cradled her against his broad chest, pulling her head to rest beneath his chin. William swaddled them in the soft, warm furs, tucking them so tightly around him he couldn’t move. Rolf, holding a sable coverlet around his waist, went over to stand by the fireplace, his inked markings glowing in the flickering light.
Jamie Fordyce, Nicholas’s young page, scooped glowing coals into two lidded brass pans attached to long wooden poles. Ellen, her entire body stiff with disapproval, and Mary, the young servant girl, slid the flat pans slowly back and forth across the bed’s surface between the top and bottom sheets, letting them linger in each spot a little longer than usual to make sure the bed became extra warm.
Nicholas sat, trying desperately to keep his body under control. He had never been so aroused in his entire life. Sweet Jesu, he wanted her. Wanted this beaten, battered, damaged young woman. He wanted to thread his fingers through her hair, bury his fists in that glorious mane and spread it out across his pillow. He wanted to kiss the cuts and bruises away from those swollen lips, those eyes, those beautiful breasts—hell, he wanted to lick every inch of her tiny, delectable body. He wanted her naked body beneath him, writhing in ecstasy, as he pleasured her with his lips, his tongue, and his cock—
God’s Blood! He had to get himself under control! He was a seasoned warrior, First Knight to King Edward III, mentor to the monarch’s sixteen-year-old son, the Black Prince. He was renowned for his valor, his honor, and his rigid sense of discipline. So where was that much-vaunted discipline now, when he needed it most? One look at this unknown young woman and it had flown out the window. For some reason, she appealed to everything that was masculine in him. She warmed his heart. She tugged at his soul, making him want things he’d never wanted before. Things he knew he had never earned and could never have. His lips thinned. He would do well to remember that.
“The bed is ready, Your Grace.” Ellen stripped the fur covers off of him and the girl. William laid warmed sheets on the floor for Nicholas to walk on.
He carried the still-unconscious girl back over to the bed. Sliding their bodies between the now-toasty sheets, he and Rolf took up their previous positions, sheltering her between them, curving their bodies around her protectively while Ellen and William covered them with the warm furs. They didn’t fall asleep until she finally stopped shivering.