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By Deborah Hale
Harlequin EnterprisesCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHave a care, now! a small voice whispered in Conwy ap Ifan's thoughts as he picked his way through the quiet, greening countryside of the ever-shifting border between England and Wales. Watch your back. Stay on guard.
He was a carefree, impulsive fellow by nature. It had taken him many years of mercenary service in the Holy Land and elsewhere to cultivate a sense of caution.
Con had the scars to prove it. Perhaps he ought to heed that vigilant little voice, now. These borderlands, which Norman folk called The Welsh Marches, were far less serene than they might appear to the casual traveller on a fine spring day.
"Tush!" Con muttered to himself as he scrambled from stone to stone, fording a swift-flowing stream. Between planting and shearing, even Welshmen were too busy to make war at this time of year. And who'd take notice of a lone wanderer on foot, anyhow? Especially one with a bard's harp slung over his shoulder?
Once again Con congratulated himself on adopting such a clever disguise for this mission to his native land. In Wales, a bard could roam the country at will, with the door of every maenol open to him - always assured a seat of honor by the hearth, a good belly-filling meal, and a warm woolen brychan to roll himself in at bedtime.
When abard plucked his harp and sang the heroic ballads that were his country's lifeblood, folk dropped their guard to listen. After the last notes died away, oft as not they'd tip another cup of ale or hard cider and grow talkative. Then Conwy ap Ifan, envoy and spy for Empress Maud, Lady of the English, would listen and weave another thread into his tapestry of intelligence about the Marches.
Not a spy! Con's sense of honor bridled. At least not in the usual sense of that word. He meant no harm to his countrymen, and never would he put the interests of a Norman monarch above those of a Welsh prince. However, if the ambitions of the border chiefs should harmonize with those of the Empress, it would make sweet music for all.
Sweetest for Con himself. As he ambled along a well-trodden forest path, inhaling the rich, pungent scent of new life, Con recalled his Christmas audience with the Empress, and her special commission for him.
"My Lord DeCourtenay says you gave a good account of yourself when his forces recaptured Brantham Keep from Fulke DeBoissard. Thanks to the arrow you put through his elbow, that's one traitor who will never again hoist his sword against me. It takes a cool head and a true aim to turn your bow on a man who holds a knife to the throat of your dearest friend."
For all her imperial bearing, the lady had returned Con's admiring smile. Perhaps she'd been flattered that her arresting beauty still had the power to stir an attractive man some years her junior. Con had never been one to hide his appreciation of a pretty woman.
"Such a decisive fellow could be a great asset to me on the Marches just now, sir. Particularly if he has an agreeable humor and a persuasive Welsh tongue in his head."
Con had acknowledged the compliment and expressed his interest in hearing more.
The Empress chose her words with care. "During these past years, while my cousin and I have contended for the throne, many Welsh border lords have seized the chance to take back lands conquered during the time of my sire and grandsire. It would be only fitting if my loyal southern Marches remained free of strife, while those manors which hold for Stephen of Blois suffered for their treachery."
"Fitting indeed, your Grace," Con agreed. As a Welshman, he had no sworn fealty to either the Empress or King Stephen, but his natural sympathy lay with Maud. For as long as he could recall, Con had always sided with the underdog in any fight.
The Empress swept a lingering look from the toes of Con's soft leather boots to the tangle of dark curls atop his head. She appeared to approve what she saw. "A man who could tame some border lords on my behalf while inflaming others would be well rewarded for his labors."
With a raised brow and a curious half smile, Con inquired what form that reward might take.
"I would be prepared to honor such an enterprising fellow with a knighthood." Maud's shrewd dark gaze probed his. "Then I would equip him with suitable men and arms to return to the Holy Land. It would buy me favor with His Holiness the Pope as well as my husband's kinsman, the Prince of Edessa."
Con had struggled to keep his face impassive, even while his heels yearned to break into a jig. By heaven, this woman could calculate a man's price to the groat. In a stroke she'd offered him the two greatest boons he had ever desired from life - advancement and adventure.
On this bright, green April day fairly bursting with promise, Con journeyed north, basking in the satisfaction of having fulfilled half his royal commission already. The more difficult half, to be sure, since it was a far easier task rousing Welshmen to war than persuading them to keep the peace.
During the long, dark months of winter, Con had made his way from cantrev to cantrev in the guise of a wandering bard. At each maenol he'd engaged in secret talks with the local border chief, counselling peace and consolidation of territory. Hinting at Angevine favor when Maud or her son, Henry, finally wrested the English throne from her cousin Stephen.
To a man, the chiefs of Deheubarth had heeded him. Now with Empress Maud's promised reward beckoning, Con had come to Powys on the latter half of his errand, to stir up trouble for the Marcher lords of Salop. He judged himself at least another full day's journey away from Hen Coed, the stronghold of powerful border chieftain Macsen ap Gryffith.
When Con emerged from the eaves of the forest, he spied a thin plume of smoke rising from beyond the crest of the next hill. It must come from a dwelling of some kind. A dwelling where he could expect to receive warm hospitality on a cool spring night, along with the latest news from the surrounding country. All for the price of a song and a tale.
And if his usual luck held, he might find a comely lass among the household on whom he could exercise his ivory smile and extravagant flattery. Somehow, that prospect did not hold its usual appeal for Con.
Since coming to Wales, he'd found his appetite for feminine company unaccountably dulled. Could it be his age?
Though often mistaken for a good bit younger, he was a trifle past thirty.
Or was his fleeting interest in the women he met always tempered by bittersweet memories of one woman? Longslumbering recollections roused since Con's boon companion, Rowan DeCourtenay, had found the one lady for whom he'd been destined.
Heading toward the smoke, Con shook his head and chuckled to himself. Queer that he should still burn for the one lass of whom he'd never made a conquest, when others he'd bedded had long since faded from his memory.
Excerpted from Border Bride by Deborah Hale Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.