I’m skipping a topic and going for ‘giving you a taste of my recent attempts. In writing of course. I want to write something different, as in different from what I’ve been writing. So.. here is my recent attempt at a paranormal historical novel. Personally, I’m not certain I’ve got writing a romance in me anymore, and I know my style has changed over the years but being at some major crossroads that I have no idea which direction to go, here is a first scene of a historical. Give me an opinion. Yes, I’m asking for your feedback, mainly because I haven’t written anything that motivates me to keep going.
I tried to get this to single space but couldn’t.
1169, Carlingford, Ireland
On the Eastern shore
Hooves trembled the earth, their thunder shouting the rider’s urgency. Ciara Maginnis leaned over her horse’s neck, her cloak and hair snapping in the wind. Steam shot from her mount’s nostrils as she rounded a copse of gnarled Blackthorn trees. Snow toppled from drooping branches. Five warriors flanked her as they raced down a rocky incline toward the monastery.
When they met the road, neighboring clansmen were already running to the Christian haven, brandishing javelins and swords. She had to reach the bishop first. She did not stop when the people parted their bands for her and rode harder, faster. ‘Twas her only chance to save one of her people, and the bishop from the angry mob.
A friar in dark robes stood in the middle of the road before the gates. She shouted for him to move, and was nearly upon him before he crossed himself and darted out of the way. Inside the courtyard, she reined back, Triamon’s hooves chiming against broken rock and stone paths. The bishop held a whip aloft over her kinsman. The man, Kevin, was bound to a stone bench, his welted back bared to the frozen world.
“Do not lay another mark on that man,” she shouted.
“Be gone, woman! He must face his punishment.”
“You do not possess the right to punish my people!” She dismounted, striding nearer.
“I have the Pope’s right. This man was blasphemous!”
The bishop drew his arm back to swing and Ciara rushed forward, covering Kevin with her body and taking the lash for him. Gasps of horror pierced the icy air. The silence of shock was broken when in the space of a breath, the Maginnis warriors were on the ground, brandishing swords under the chin of the bishop and forcing him to step back.
Bishop Atheran dropped the whip. “She chose to do that!”
“Do not harm him, Macklin,” she said quietly as she straightened.
“As you wish.” Her man signaled and the men retreated, weapons a’ ready.
Ciara untied Kevin, offering her cloak to him. He refused it and she smiled, tucking it ‘round his throat anyway. “I’ll not have Maura be without her husband if you catch the ague,” she whispered. When Kevin’s eyes widened, his gaze searching about for his wife, she hushed him. “She is safe, my friend.”
Kevin nodded, pain destroying his smile, and he stayed where he was as she faced the bishop, walking until she was nearly nose to nose with the stout man.
“What crime did he commit, Atheran?”
The bishop hesitated. “He made a false altar with nuts and berries and milk,” the bishop said with a glare toward the man. “To a false God.”
“You are certain ‘twas false?”
“’Tis not the way the church praises our Savior.”
“And you are the only authority on how one should worship God? Any God?”
His righteous expression faltered a bit, yet Ciara knew the priest thought little of her authority and anticipated the day when England and the church took her power to rule. “Speak up, priest. What is required? They cannot all attend chapel and wear fine robes.” Above, the sky swirled dark, clouds weighted with snow threatening and Ciara tried to control her temper.
“The Lord does not see clothing and attendance, only the praise of His name and faith.”
“Ahh, so now explain why you be whippin’ a man for praising in his own manner?”
“’Tis the heathen way, to a pagan god. ‘Let there be no false Gods afore me,’ the bible speaks.”
She heard his voice tremble even as he tried to disguise it. That this man would take it upon himself to punish without authority, and for a simple offering so that Kevin and his wife might be blessed with children this spring was unreasonable. But then, the church’s men ran in fear from what they did not understand. Before she could argue further though, a great rumbling made them turn toward the gates. Cheese and crust. Kinsmen rushing to Kevin’s aid filled the bailey yard of the monastery, their shouts and demands sending the gathered priests back toward the church steps like frightened rabbits.
Ciara immediately stepped around her warriors and hurried to the angry crowd. She spread her arms to keep them back. “Nay! Stay yourselves from this.” She sent a pleading look to Macklin and over their concerns, she asked only, “Do you trust me to find a fair solution?”
One man stepped forward, comforting Kevin and glancing at the others before nodding to her. Ciara let out a trapped breath. She did not want to think on what they’d have done had she not arrived aforehand. Harm to the priest would bring the wrath of his faith and quite easily, the king of England down on her people. She had to protect them as well as protect her folk from the iron hand of Christianity. ‘Twas a balance she’d not juggled so delicately in the past.
She faced Atheran again, walking slowly closer as her clansmen maintained a subtle barricade on the crowd. “You declare Kevin’s praise is false because ‘tis not the way you wish it to be done.” She lifted a slim tapered brow. “You be wanting him to attend chapel and give you coin he does not have for your coffers, I’m thinkin’.” She waited for the truth he would never admit.
“There is one God, the lord our Father in heaven,” he declared.
“Are not all Gods the same? Odin, Vishnu, Allah, Jesus? Offering comfort in prayer to those who seek them?”
The bishop huffed. “’Twas to a pagan God!”
“And naught but your Christian God offers hope then?” The prejudice of it pushed against her ways.
“The Vicar of Christ gave his blessing to bring Ireland into Christianity.”
He did not answer her question. Nor could he, Ciara thought, and she’d wager the Norse traders would argue a bit more fiercely than she, and with a sight more bloodshed.
She let out a long sigh. “We have traveled this road afore, priest, and I am not as uneducated as you would believe me.” She flicked her hand to Macklin and the warrior stepped forward, his gaze hard on the bishop. “Macklin is a Christian, amongst many in Dundalk and Carlingford. I do not deny my people their worship, as I have not denied you your church and abbey on our land. Yet whilst you are on Maginnis land, eating Maginnis food, enjoying Maginnis hospitality,” her voice remained even, yet her temper gained speed, “and spreading your gospel to people under my protection, you will refrain from beating them into submitting to your faith!” Ciara’s fury simmered, its over flow festering the dark clouds churning above. “Have I made myself apparent?”
Atheran took a step back, looking scared. “I do as I am ordered by the pope.”
Ciara held little stock in an ecclesiastical monarch who ordered beatings, and she surmised this Christian bishop had taken this upon his own self, with his own interpretation of his duty. Yet power made men behave dangerously and the sanction of the Christian leader turned Diarmait Mac Murchadha’s quest to be High King of Ireland into a crusade. The pope’s blessing absolved the knights of their crimes and left only a fallen people and more persecution. She would not allow that in Carlingford. Ever.
“Is not the way of your God to offer forgiveness?” she asked.
“But one must suffer a mauling,” she gestured to Kevin, “to have it?”
Bishop Atheran stammered. “’Tis penance.”
“And if he were one of your flock, aye, he’d expect it, but Kevin is not.” She stared until the bishop grew uncomfortable, then said gently, “’Twas an Imbolc offering, Atheran, for rebirth after the snow melts, for fertile grounds.” She glanced at Kevin and smiled. “In all places.” She brought her gaze back to the Bishop, resisting a reminder that the celebrations of the wheel of the year existed centuries before his Christianity flourished. ‘Twould only upset the man further and he looked about to bust a blood vessel as it was.
“You do not want a battle, Bishop, and if you persist in hurting my clansmen, then you will pay a price.”
Atheran drew himself up. “You do not dictate to me.”
She stepped closer. “Aye, I do. I am chieftain of this land and you will abide by Brehon law in Ireland until King Rory O’Connor speaks otherwise. Pay Kevin a coin for his injuries. ‘Tis justice for he cannot work with his back in tatters. I shall leave strict orders with my people not to retaliate.”
“I will not pay to a blasphemer.”
Ciara was out of patience and turned away. “Take a sheep, Macklin, ‘tis a far higher price but due him still.”
Macklin chose a snowy lamb tottering in the yard.
“Nay.” The bishop rushed, his garments dragging in the icy mud. “I demand you return that animal at once!”
Ciara rounded on the priest. The cod-pated man did not know when to keep silent. “The law will be obeyed. Do not press my generosity, priest, I have been more than reasonable. For your own safety, leave this be! If the Irish wish to come to you to be bap-bapt–” She looked at Macklin for help.
“Baptized,” he supplied.
She nodded. “Then so be it. I will never challenge this, you have my word. But do the same for those who do not wish to join your flock.” She waited for his response. Clearly, he was struggling for a reasonable thought when he had so few to gather. “Are we in agreement?”
“Aye. For now.”
Her brows drew tight. “Do not muddy the bargain, Atheran. You will not like the consequences.”
His brows shot up and his face reddened. “You threaten me, woman?”
“Aye, and ‘tis my final one,” she warned, then leaned closer, her voice loud enough for only the Bishop to hear. “We can live peaceably if you would cease trying to force faith on a body.”
He grunted, his gaze thin in his buggy face. She noticed that the rest of his flock had not come close since she’d arrived, and wondered how he would defend himself if the folk decided to rise against his harsh ways. Aware if she offered her hand in bargain he would not take it, she stepped back, then strode to her horse, swinging up onto the mount. Macklin had ordered the people to disperse and was urging them home whilst Ciara offered a hand up to Kevin.
“My thanks, Maginnis.” Gingerly he swung up behind her.
“Tell me if the riding hurts, aye?”
“To be away from Atherton? Ride hard, Maginnis. Please.”
“As you command then.” Ciara dug her heels in, riding south. Her warriors rode the gauntlet, encasing her in their protection. Overhead dense, black clouds boiled in swift threat, a partnering wind knifing through the glen, and turning leaves back. Ciara ducked into it, urging the mount faster. They must reach the bailey road afore the tide rushed in and left the castle inaccessible until the rise of the moon.
The clip of hooves and snorting breath carried them to Kevin’s village and his wife. The plump yellow haired girl stood on the road, edged by her family and twisting her smock. When she spotted her husband, a smile broke her worry. Ciara slowed, but Kevin slid off the mount and quickly gathered his wife in his arms. The couple mewled, spreading kisses. It lifted her spirits and her own smile warmed her against the cold. Macklin loosed the lamb and it wobbled into the yard to greet three others. Kevin turned back to speak to her, and she leaned down, yet barely heard his words as a shiver passed over her spine, icing her bones.
Suddenly, she gripped his hand, forcing him to meet her gaze. “Get everyone inside.” His eyes flared. “Salt around your homes and do not come out till the sun shines.”
Kevin nodded, turned to his family, and they obeyed in a nervous scatter. Ciara wheeled her mount around, staring into the forest, yet failed to peel away the layers of twilight. But she could smell it; a wisp of rot on the clean breeze of winter. The wind moved branches, and shadows played with silver slashes of light. Her skin prickled with the dance of gooseflesh, and she tugged her cloak more snuggly as her gaze rose to the layers of mountains looming beyond.
Macklin rode to her side. “What troubles you?” Behind him, two warriors struck flints and torches bloomed with light.
She sensed little now, the air tinged sweet with the flurry of snow, yet the brevity of the sensations were thick with hatred, and ‘twas a moment before she dragged her gaze away. “We need not be long out in this night. Make haste.”
Macklin nodded and in a powerful launch of men and horses, the reunite raced toward the castle. Yet before they reached safety, Ciara glanced back and wondered what phantoms barked at their heels.
A hail of arrows sailed toward his head. Morgan blocked with his shield, shouting orders to his men and using his horse’s rump to knock men down than kill them.
A Welsh horn bellowed on the cold air, the loud pidgorn blast calling retreat.
Good. He would be done with this. His armor smoked with the gore of death as he watched the enemy withdraw up the hillside spare with trees. Morgan signaled, and his foot soldiers armed with long spears assured none turned back into the fight. The clank and clash of weapons gradually ceased, the field growing eerily quiet.
On the rise, their leader appeared astride his mount and wrapped in furs. The Welsh prince rode forward, shouting at his soldiers, blocking assault as one man helped another up the land coated in snow and their kinsman’s blood.
A wooded field of dead men and horses lay between them.
Breathing hard, Morgan urged his mount nearer, then lifted his visor. “Do you yield?” His shout echoed in the glen and was answered with silence.
The last of the Welsh soldiers stumbled past their king, and only then did he thrust his long sword into the ground. He sent Morgan a narrow glare, then turned from the field.
‘Twas done. He would take terms at first light. Surrender belonged to the king.
Morgan deWulf turned his mount into the battlefield. Warm blood steamed from the dead, the vapor curling on the icy frost. Soldiers fell where struck, some atop their foe, a fist still gripping the hilt of a sword. His army did not fare well against the Welsh bowmen and he absently counted the horses and men he’d have to replace, their stench clinging to him like rancid meat as his horse picked its way to the road.
“Seize the weapons, carry the dead,” he ordered unnecessarily. Leaving his men to rot was never his choice. They fought for his banner, the king’s, and deserved a decent burial. He passed Aaron driving an ox cart to begin the gruesome task as he rode back to the encampment. He took his time, emptying his thought to all but a bit of wine and a generous warmth. He swore his arse was frozen to the saddle.
At his solitary approach, foot soldiers and archers cheered, cursing the enemy who was not their foe a fortnight past. Cook fires blazed high, celebrations already beginning whilst the dead lay warm in the field. Pages rushed to lend aid to the wounded, and Morgan caught a glimpse of a young woman sobbing quietly and cradling what remained of her man in her arms. He’d witnessed greater horrors in his lifetime and would so again. The battle never mattered to him, only the outcome.
Yet the tang of victory never tasted this foul.
Outside his pavilion, Morgan reined back, and his mount sidestepped, rearing a bit. He patted the beast, murmuring softly, then dismounted, flinging the reins at a waiting page. Blood from his gauntlet slashed across the lad’s face before he ducked inside. He pulled off his helm, staring at the splatters on the wolfen shaped metal, then looked down at his armor; black as midnight, now dripped with the last moments of another man’s life. He snatched up a scrap of cloth, plunged it into a basin of water, then scrubbed it over his protected chest. Stained water sluiced down the polished steel, rivering onto his boots. Morgan clenched the cloth and swallowed, wishing for something he could not have. Peace. Forgiveness. His skills had grown into a curse of late.
Afore he could think long on the matter, a voice called. “M’lord? I need to speak with you. ‘Tis most urgent.”
Morgan frowned and twisted a look toward the entrance. The address was more formal than Radnor had paid him afore now. “Come, man.”
Radnor ducked his head inside, his expression solemn. “You need to see this. Now.”
Morgan tossed the rag aside and followed Radnor through the camp to the horse pens. His animal had been rightly stripped of barding and saddle. A young page held the reins, the lad’s face buried in the mane. As he neared, the page scrubbed at his cheeks, then straightened to face him–and expose the Welsh arrow protruding from the horse’s chest. The shaft was broken off by bare inches. Morgan stopped short, and as if ‘twas time to show his pain, the stallion howled in agony. Blood foamed from its mouth, lips drawn back.
Without a word, he took the reins, leading the horse past the pens and deeper into the forest. When his page started to follow, he rounded on him, wanting no witnesses, and the boy scampered into the twilight. Yet across the muddy field, Radnor met his gaze, and Morgan felt his friend’s sympathy for what must be done. He continued on, each step a quiet dread in the crush of snow and leaves. In the seclusion of the forest, he faced the steed that had carried him into countless battles and defied its own death to bring him from the field one last time. His throat tightened, burned. He was losing a loyal friend, and that pitiful state smacked of loneliness.
The animal whinnied in pain, begging. Morgan grasped the bridle and twisted, forcing the horse to the frozen land. He would not see this devoted creature fall like a victim. Stabbing his sword into the cold ground, he grasped the hilt, then knelt near its head. Black eyes stared back, trusting. He shook free his metal gauntlet and with his teeth, pulled off the wet padded leather glove to run his bare hand over the animal’s satiny brown coat. He rubbed behind its ears, a gentle stroke in a harsh moment. But for the arrow deep in his lungs, Hercules was unmarred.
“You have kept me alive many times, old friend.” He smoothed the space atween its eyes. “I thank you for your bravery.”
‘Twas a bloody damn shame. A lump he rarely felt widened in the back of his throat, and his fingers flexed on the hilt of his sword. Snow fell softly. Bowing his head, he called himself ridiculously weak to be so aggrieved, then he stood abruptly, gripped his sword in both hands, and in the stillness, plunged it into the stallion’s heart.
He held tight to the hilt for a moment, then carefully slid the sword free, the last respect to his valiant mount. He gave his back to the corpse and returned to the encampment. Soldiers and vassals paused to stare. A knight without his mount was no more than a foot soldier in better garments. Outside his pavilion, he looked at his squire.
Ignoring the despair in the young man’s face, he said, “No one touches the beast.” He took a step away, then looked back. “And for God’s sake, Crispin, keep the cook from him.”
“Aye, my lord,” his squire said. “Would you have me bury it?”
“Nay. I will.” Morgan ducked into his tent, threw aside his gauntlets, then unfolded the buckles and lashes of his armor. The vambraces and shin greaves fell to the ground. He kicked them childishly. His squire would have to work double to return the armor fit for battle, but Morgan was beyond caring. He’d lost twenty men this day. Richard and Alton he’d miss greatly. Their humor made his days bearable.
He dropped into his chair, then grabbed a flagon of wine, splashing some into a dented sliver goblet. He saluted his dead and drank, poured again, and drained the contents without restraint. The heat of the wine chased the chill from his skin as he studied the goblet, the thin metal suddenly bending under his grip. Carefully he set it aside and bowed his head, rubbing his forehead with thumb and forefinger. Damn the king and the Welsh bowmen.
“Morgan,” Radnor called from beyond the tent walls. “We have visitors.”
“Feed them, house them, and if necessary, wash them. I do not wish to be disturbed.” Morgan pleaded for a moment of peace, but knew even that was hopeless this day.
“Sir deWulf? A word, if you please.” A timid voice, male.
Morgan’s head jerked up and he spied the entrance. “Come.”
Radnor entered first, holding the flap for a small man in friar’s garments. Behind him came a woman and Morgan stood, his first glance at her speaking of wealth and tender care. Her garments were rich with furs and trims, her delicate feet fitted in leather and peeking from the hem of her blue woolen cloak. With the hood pulled forward and her head bent, he could see little else. She advanced no further than the entrance, still as porcelain.
“To what do I owe this visit, priest?”
“I’ve brought a vital message.”
Morgan looked past him to the woman and arched a black brow. “Do they all come with a woman attached? How generous.”
The woman made a tight sound. The priest looked appalled and put his arm around her.
Hiding a sly smile, Radnor handed Morgan a leather packet. “This is Father Roteire and his charge.”
Morgan acknowledged with a nod, gesturing to the stool for the lady. Radnor poured wine for the strange couple as Morgan pulled at the ties of the packet, slipping a letter free. It bore a royal seal and at the sight of it, his stomach clenched. “I have not just finished one battle and the king calls upon me to wage another?”
Radnor frowned at the papers, yet the priest said, “Nay, m’lord. Shall I read it for you?”
Morgan leveled the man a harsh glance and the friar quickly back stepped. “Nay.” He eyed him for another moment. “Be calm. Your fears are unfounded.”
“And your warring speaks to the contrary.”
Ahh, there was that piety he despised so well. “Reputations are like infections,” Morgan broke the seal. “They fester with age.” The parchment crackled as he opened it. He read, and a moment later, his gaze narrowed on the woman. “You are Alison?”
“Aye, my lord deWulf.” She kept her focus on the ground.
“Is she a bride for you, m’lord?”
Morgan wanted to beat Radnor for his teasing. “According to this declaration, she is my half sister.”
Radnor’s brows shot up, and he gave the girl a thorough look. “I was not aware you had any family.”
“I do not.” Her shoulders sank miserably. “Look at me, girl.”
Alison lifted her gaze, and Morgan saw the truth in the face of his mother twenty years past. She could not be more than sixteen summers old and her frailty showed when her gaze fell on the breastplate he still wore. Her eyes widened at the blood gone black and sticky, and she looked as if she’d wretch on his boots any moment.
Morgan sighed tiredly. “Leave us.”
She made that tight sound again, a squeak really, popping off the stool and turning to the priest to grab his hand. The older man patted her wrist, and made no move to pry her loose. “My lord, I cannot leave you alone with her.”
“Great God, man, she’s his sister,” Radnor said.
Only Morgan’s gaze shifted to the friar, his voice chilling in the quiet. “You think me to devour her whole, holy man?”
The priest looked between the two, his skin paling. “Of course not, sir knight, but I saw the dead and you–”
“You are dangerously close to insulting the king’s champion,” Radnor cut in with a step closer.
Morgan stayed him with a wave, so accustomed to this response he rarely noticed it anymore. “I swear she will have all her limbs and locks of hair when you return. There are many in yon camp who would find comfort of the clergy this day.” He flicked a hand at his second and Radnor ushered the priest out.
Morgan studied Alison. At the priest’s departure, she had backed herself against a table, unable to find a proper place for her hands to rest. “Sit.”
Like a stone in a pond, she plopped onto a stool.
“If I command you to take a rest, will you do that too?”
“I shall try.”
Her meekness exasperated. “Look at me when you address me.”
She lifted her gaze and pushed back the hood. Aye, his mother’s image, he thought as the coal black hair they shared from Lady Gwen spilled down her shoulder in a fat braid. Alison was a fresh, young version, her skin pale and coupled with her blue eyes, she looked exceptionally virginal and innocent. And every man in his legions will want a piece of her, he thought, realizing the protection he had to offer now and the burden of it. None would dare touch her, but he doubted the girl had seen a man without his tunic, and she would be exposed to a great deal more in his encampment. She’d not last a month traveling amongst men in this weather. When she shivered visibly, he moved to the brazier, adding bits of wood and stirring the fire. Alison put her hands out to warm.
Morgan noticed their softness, unblemished from toil. By the rod, he’d wager she needed help dressing herself. “Are you hungry?”
“Would you accept food from me?”
“I have little choice, brother. I am alone.”
“Apparently–” He flicked at the parchment. “’Tis no longer true.”
Her shoulders drooped. “You do not want me here.”
“Nay, I do not. ‘Tis far too dangerous for you.” Aside the roughness of the camp, he’d many enemies and few friends. She would be an easy weapon to use against him.
Her expression brightened. “Then send me to one of your holdings and I will oversee your household.”
His gaze thinned, and he felt a smirk curl his lips. “You are misinformed, my lady.” He spread his arms wide. “This is my household.”
Alison looked at her brother, then over the pavilion and its contents. This was it? His means were rough and showed wear, wobbly tables deeply scarred and chairs bare of cushions. Her bum was already aching from the wood beneath her. More than one sword was stabbed into the ground like tilting crucifixes and around her lay only weapons and armor, and the trunks to store them. Even his bed was only a few furs carelessly thrown over an oilcloth in the corner of the tent. She looked back at her half brother, remembering the tales she’d heard along the passage here. That he’d fought entire squads alone and preferred decapitation as his method of killing. That he left his dead on the battlefield and only cared where the next fight lay and the price to wage it. The blood on his clothing confirmed the rumors, yet the descriptions of him were not nearly as accurate. Aye, he was as dark as she had expected, but she had never seen a man so huge, yet between Sir Radnor and deWulf, her brother was the victor. Hair the color of a winter night skimmed shoulders that belonged on an ox, and the harsh lines of his face were toasted from the sun, offering nary a shred of softness.
Alison hardly believed they were related, and when she met his gaze, she found him staring. Those chilling gray eyes made her squirm.
“Have you completed your study? Would you care to inspect my teeth?”
He flashed a smile that bore a striking resemblance to a show of fangs and Alison felt the color drain from her face. I have gone to hell, and shall be living with Lucifer. How could her father do this to her? How could he defy the king and leave this man to be her only choice of survival? Yet she knew she’d no alternative. On the long journey here, she’d resigned herself to her future and its bleakness.
“I see you understand the matter,” he finally said.
“I have no holdings, no lands, so what e’re you sought here, this is what you have found.”
“But father—” His expression turned savage, and a quiver of fear skipped over her spine.
“We do not share the same father, maiden. Only a mother and no more.”
“But mother always spoke of you. She said you were my brother.”
“If I were truly Randolf’s first born, would I be a mercenary?”
“I suppose not,” she said glumly. “Who is your father then?”
“’Tis unimportant. The question is what to do with you now.”
Panic swept her. She had not considered he wouldn’t have a solution. “I am to remain with you, brother. I beg you. Do not discard me.”
“You think you can manage a life such as mine?”
“If I must, aye.”
Crossing the pavilion, he grasped her arm and pulled her to the doorway. He threw back the hide flap and said, “Can you bear this?”
Alison’s gaze moved over the people, and she knew there were no luxuries here, only death and war. Whilst men sharpened swords and arrow tips, others carried bloodied bodies from yon field, stacking them like meat for curing. ‘Twas heathen, unchristian, she thought and yet, not a few feet away, a small group of lads sat on a fallen log like magpies, cleaning armor. Wounded men draped the ground, some tending their own injuries, others gaining help from the few women she saw. Then a scream drew her attention. Two men held down another as a barber surgeon hacked at a man’s leg, blood spraying his face before he tossed aside the severed limb. Her stomach revolted, and she rushed back inside, grabbing the goblet and gulping. Mayhaps a life in a convent was not such a horrible choice.
Behind her, Morgan watched her struggle against the bile he knew was rising in her throat. At her age, he’d retched on his boots a dozen times before he grew accustomed to the harshness of his life. He glanced back outside. Nay, death is comfortable to no one. He’d only learned to push it into a spot that no one saw, and he never reviewed. He lowered the flap, sealing it out, then stoked the brazier. He pulled a stool closer to the warmth, telling Alison to sit. She obeyed instantly, and for reasons he could not define, it irritated him.
“Is it always like that?” she asked, a quiet tremor in her voice.
“Aye. And we won this battle.” Though he’d never lost, he’d come close enough to see more of his men die this day.
“Why would the king send me to you then?”
“Henry is not above using people as pawns.” In a game much larger than this, he thought, leery.
“I have done naught to deserve this.”
Morgan scoffed. “You were born a female to Randolf. That is enough.”
He lifted the letter from the table, reading again. Henry had stripped Randolf of his title and lands for his support of the French and the old man languished in the tower with several of his brethren, awaiting execution. Morgan held no sympathy for the man whose name he bore. Randolf deWulf had done naught in this lifetime that deserved it. Lady Gwen had been a childless widow when she’d trysted with Morgan’s father. By royal order, Randolf married her, gave Morgan his name and nary a scrap more than that.
“When did mother die?” he said, his tone empty of the sting asking brought.
Alison swallowed before answering. “Spring. She was in no pain. She fell down the stair case and broke her neck.”
His last childhood memory of his mother surfaced; gripping him tightly before Randolf tore him from her arms and dumped him in the back of cart to be fostered off on a Saxony baron. He was nine, terrified, and when his mother ran to him, swearing she’d bring him back, Randolf beat her before the servants and guards.
“Fell?” He scoffed. “Pushed, more likely.”
“Do not say such things! ‘Twas an accident.”
He glanced her way. “You know naught of the man you call father, child, and till you have experienced the world at his hands, sing his praises to someone who gives a damn if he breathes.”
“Aye my lord.” She immediately looked down at her clenched fists, and Morgan wondered if Randolf was as cruel to his own blood.
Studying the young girl, her fidgeting, he hoped that beneath her strict obedience was the will to survive. She would need it if she were to remain with him. “You have no thoughts of a nunnery?”
Her head snapped up. “Please nay, I want a marriage and family and will not find them there.”
Her fresh tears had no effect on him. “Without a land dowry, ‘tis unlikely.”
“Then provide one and be rid of me.”
He chuckled without pleasure. “Henry sends me a dowerless lady and bids me care for you and find you a husband when he knows well I have naught of my own but coin.”
“Perhaps my lord should continue reading the second letter.”
He lifted a brow, his gray eyes pinning her. “You know its contents?” he said, reaching for the leather packet and indeed, found another piece of sealed parchment.
“Nay, but the king seemed rather pleased with himself when he finished it. His majesty implied that more than just Eleanor would be livid, and that was his only comment.”
Henry and Eleanor of Aquitaine did naught but trade lands and lives like weapons to be wielded over the son who would be king. Henry’s choice of a successor was put to contest as often as the tides. Morgan broke the wax seal, nudging the goblet of wine across the table toward her. “Drink afore you faint at my feet.”
“I shall try not to burden you.”
“’Tis too late for that.” Morgan glanced, watching her drink anyway. He settled comfortably back to read the king’s script.
After a moment, Alison peered, her gaze flicking between the parchment and him. “M’lord?”
“It seems that we are both to be used as pawns.”
Her delicate brows rose. “I cannot fathom you allowing that.”
“You are right. I will not.”
So, what do you think?