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March 1171 Hartford Keep, northwest coast of England
Like a dying man clings to life, Guy of Hartford had hugged this sight tightly to his heart and mind for as long as he could remember.
After an absence of nearly seven years, he stared across the open expanse of land at Hartford Keep and breathed a sigh of relief.
For over a dozen months, he and his three former dungeon mates had travelled across barren deserts and densely forested mountains to come this far. Even though they'd depended on each other for their very survival, it had not been hard to part company once standing on English soil. They each had their own lives to discover, or rediscover. Hugh of Ryebourne and William of Bronwyn had set off for Queen Eleanor's court to find Hugh's wife. Stefan of Arnyll had gone to seek his fortune and future. While he, the Earl of Hartford, had finally come home.
Many times he'd thought never to see Hartford again. Days he'd feared never again setting foot on this fertile soil. And nights spent in agonised grief, mourning all he'd lost.
His freedom had been stripped away, the companionship of his wife and the warmth of her embrace torn from his reach. The ability to pick and choose his battles, his food, his clothing, or even when he slept, had been taken from his control. He'd nearly lost the will to live.
Enslaved like an animal. Treated as less than a beast of burden. Forced to endure countless months that had turned quickly into years of abuse, hunger and pain. Permitted to live only by spilling the blood of others with his hands and sword.
Guy shuddered at the many horrific sins he'd committed, but allowed the memories to flow through him. Stopping the nightmares come to life, or locking them away inside, would only give them strength.
No more. His future would no longer be controlled by his past. Letting the memories of captivity out into the bright light of day would lessen their hold on him.
He was as certain of that as he was of the welcome awaiting him behind Hartford's thick walls.
Guy had envisioned his homecoming in such detail that he could nearly feel his wife's arms about him. And taste her lips on his. Elizabeth's heart would pound hard against his own as he held her close and lost himself in the lushness of her curves.
Anxious to experience the welcome he'd only dreamed about, and shelter from the cold chilling him near to the bone, he flicked the palfrey's reins, urging the horse to quicken its pace. King Henry had offered him the use of a destrier, but Guy wished not to avail himself of any accoutrements of warnot even a warhorse. The empty scabbard hanging at his side was treasured only because it was a reminder of who he'd been forced to become.
For nigh on eighteen months nowthe time it'd taken him to leave the palace of his captivity, meet with the king, then return homehe'd not taken a life. With God's will he'd never be forced to do so again.
The darkness that had become so much of his soul lifted as he crossed the open field. Each step nearer to Hartford pushed the gloom further and further away, permitting the beginnings of joy to lighten his heart.
When he neared the wall, it was all Guy could do not to shout, 'Elizabeth, I have returned!'
Instead, he halted before the lowered portcullis and stared up in bemusement at the men glowering at him from the twin guard towers. Why was the iron-shod gate closed? He'd seen no evidence of battle along the way, nor on the surrounding demesne lands. Did Hartford no longer welcome visitors within its walls?
'State your business.'
Guy studied the man leaning over the wall. Everard. He'd been nothing more than a lanky lad with the hint of promised manhood the last time Guy had seen him. Maturity had filled out his slight frame, as Guy had guessed would eventually happen. 'You ask the Lord of Hartford his business at his own gate?'
Everard's eyebrows rose in apparent disbelief. He turned away from the wall and shouted, 'Sir, he claims to be Lord Hartford.'The guard then looked back down at Guy and again said, 'State your business.'
Since his man seemed not to recognise him, Guy could only assume that he too had changed in appearance with the years. 'Everard, I wish to see my wife.'
'Your wife?' The man squinted, his confusion evident. 'Sir, there are no women in residence except for the Lady of Hartford.'
Leaning back against his saddle, Guy nodded. 'Aye, Elizabeth.' He pulled his fur-lined mantle more tightly around him as the last remnants of winter wind picked up in protestation of spring's arrival. Still unused to the colder climate, Guy hoped his men did not let him freeze to death before realising he was indeed the Lord of Hartford.
An older man came to the wall. 'I know not what game you play, sir. But if you value your life, you will be gone from here.'
'Warin, I play no game.'This guard had not changed a whit. He was still as surly and overbearing as ever. 'Open this gate. I wish to see my wife.'
'You are not familiar to us.' Everard looked to Warin for confirmation. Receiving a nod, he asked, 'How do you know our names?'
'I am the Lord of Hartford, why would I not know your names?'
Warin snorted in disbelief. 'There is no Lord of Hartford, only the lady. And she is indisposed for the time.'
'Indisposed? Elizabeth is unwell?'
'You will not make use of her given name so freely.' Everard's voice rose.
Guy lifted an eyebrow in surprise. If the young guard had used that tone to another liege lord, he'd have found himself without a postor worse. 'I will make use of my wife's name in any manner I please.'
'Cease!'Warin ordered, before he disappeared from the wall to shout at someone. He then reappeared and boldly suggested, 'It would be best if you saved your lies and left here of your own accord. Otherwise, you will end up rotting in a cell.'
'Lies? Unless something has occurred that I am not aware of, Elizabeth is my wife. And while I have been gone for many years, I am still the Lord of Hartford.'
Warin shook his head. "Tis not possible. Guy of Hartford is long dead.'
Guy had expected some measure of disbelief when he arrived at Hartford. Not for one heartbeat had he thought to be accepted without question. But he hadn't expected to be held up outside the wall while having a shouting match with a guard.
Instead of declaring his identity again, he tried another tactic. 'How fares Bertha? Have the two of you yet filled your household with children?'
It had been an oft-used question. Everyone knew that, if permitted, Warin's wife Bertha would have had a hundred children. However, Warin had wanted to stop at two. Unfortunately, he'd not decided that until they'd had seven boys after the one daughter.
Warin's eyes widened slightly before narrowing to mere slits. 'Your jest is in poor taste.'
The deep, ragged-edged pain in Warin's voice gave Guy pause. Something had obviously happened to either Bertha or the children. What else had changed in his absence? What other possibilities had he not taken into consideration?
He straightened on his saddle. 'I heartily apologise if I have mispoken.'
'I do not welcome your apology. This is your last warningleave here, or suffer the hospitality of a cell.'
This verbal debate hacked away at his patience and he wanted it ended before his last nerve was exposed. 'Where is Sir Hubert? I wish to speak to him, now.'
'Oh, you will most assuredly speak to him. All in due time.'
The gate groaned as it was steadily winched up. But Hubert, the captain of his guard, did not stand on the other side. However, a group of six other men did. All with their weapons drawn.
Guy studied the men. Keeping the exasperation from his voice, he asked, 'What is the meaning of this?'
No sooner had the question left his mouth, two of the men raced forwards and pulled him from his horse. Before Guy could regain his balance, they half-dragged, half-pushed him towards the keep.
Warin led the group, asking over his shoulder, 'Did you not ask to speak with Sir Hubert?'
'Aye, but this is not'
One of the guards he did not recognise buffeted him alongside the head with the back of his mail-covered hand. 'Close your mouth and keep moving.'
Guy shook his head, blinking away the stars threatening to rob him of his vision. He wasn't at all certain what had taken place at Hartford these last years, but from the overly cautious and aggressive demeanour of the guards, he assumed it had not been an easy time.
While King Henry had assured him repeatedly that all was well at Hartford, Guy began to suspect that the king either had lied, or had not paid any attention to this keep and in truth knew not how they'd fared.
Taking the guard's order to shut his mouth under serious advisement, Guy used the time crossing the bailey to inspect his surroundings. The stables were sadly in need of repair. The practise grounds were too smooth to have been used much of late. This time of year the ground would have partially thawed during the day and refrozen at night. The muck churned up at mock battles during day's light would have frozen into a nearly solid angry sea of mud at nightfall.
More odd, no smelting fire burned at the smithy and the ringing sound of metal pounding against metal was noticeably absent. Not a single person gathered around the well house. While cold, the day was crisp and clear, so why did the bailey lack the usual boisterous activity?
The inhabitants of Hartford should be taking advantage of what they'd consider a mild day. Especially after being confined indoors for most of the winter.
At the reminder of the weather, Guy tucked his chin against his chest, burrowing what he could of his face into the warmth of the fur lining. No matter how cold the wind, or wet the drizzling rain, he would not trade this temperate climate for the draining heat of the cloudless desert. He prayed that getting used to this chill did not take overlong.
Once at the top of the motte, they stopped at the double, iron-studded doors leading into the keep. Warin ordered two of the guards to find Sir Hubert, before pushing the doors open.
Guy took one step into Hartford's Great Hall and swallowed hard. Buffeted by relief and gratitude that he'd finally arrived home, his already tested composure threatened to crack and drop him to his knees. A guard behind him shoved him further into the chamber.
The odour of wood smoke, newly laid rushes and dried herbs along with a nearly empty hall welcomed him. This was not what he'd envisioned.
Once again he wondered where the inhabitants were and what had transpired during his absence.
He frowned at Warin in confusion. 'Where is everyone? Why does Hartford appear to be nearly abandoned?'
With barely a glance, Warin ignored him and strode to the side table halfway across the hall. After helping himself to a bit of the food and drink available, the guard swiped his mouth with the back of his hand before finally saying, 'For one so unfamiliar to us, you ask too many questions.'
A woman's cry echoed down the stairs. All of the men flinched. Guy's pulse quickened. He would recognise Elizabeth's cry anywhereno matter how long he'd been gone.
Rescuing his wife from whatever troubled her was his only thought. Guy started towards the stairs and was knocked to the floor before he took his second footstep. The brute atop him easily held him pinned face down in the rushes.
'Let me up.' Guy's order went unheeded.
For the first time in months the urge to rage and fight swirled hot into his veins. The long familiar fog of anger clouded his sight. His muscles tensed. The spit in his mouth dried.
But ever-present guilt combined with the force of his will cleared the fog away. He pushed his impulses back into the recesses of his blackened soul.
No matter what the provocation, he would not fight his own men. They sought only to do their duty by protecting Hartford and its lady from an intruder they did not yet recognise.
Warin nudged Guy's shoulder with the toe of his boot. 'That was unwise of you.'
'It seems to me that a woman requires help. Did you not hear her cry?'
The men all groaned in unison. 'Hear her cry? 'Tis all we have heard since last evening.'