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Wiltshire, England 1326
Moira felt the danger before she heard it. It rumbled from the ground up her legs and through her back while she bent over the hearth setting some
water to heat. She froze as a distant thunder began shaking the cool dawn air entering through her open door. She darted to the threshold as the sound grew stronger. Stepping outside she saw the men approach through the morning haze.
They poured down the hill from the manor house of Darwendon, aiming for the village, four dark shapes flying on fast steeds with short cloaks waving
behind them. They looked like legged falcons soaring through the silver mist.
Rushing over to a pallet in the corner, she crouched and shook the small body lying there. "Brian, up now! Quickly."
Sun-bronzed arms and legs jerked and stretched and she yanked at one wrist while she rose. "Now, at once, child! And silence, like I told you."
Blue eyes blinked alert with alarm and he scurried behind her to a back window. She could hear the riders galloping toward the cottages now. Brian paused on the sill, his blond head out and his rump still in, and twisted with apprehension toward her.
"Where I showed you, and cover yourself well. Do not come out, no matter what you hear," she ordered, giving him a firm push. Even if you hear my screams.
She watched until he disappeared behind the shed in which she stored her baskets, then she closed the shutters and sat on the narrow bed. With quick movements she tied her disheveled hair behind her neck with a rag, smoothed her stained homespun gown, and stretched to move her darning basket near her feet. Lifting a torn veil, she pretended to sew.
She tried to remain calm while the horses clamored toward her with a violent noise. They were not stopping in the village. They were coming here, to this house. The sour bile of fear rose to her mouth and she sucked in her cheeks and forced it down.
Two horses pulled up outside in a melange of hooves and legs and pivoting turns. Two men swung off and strode toward her. They barged in and peered around the darkened chamber.
"Where is the boy?" one of them asked.
"What boy? There is no boy here."
The man strode to the large chest against the wall, opened it, and began rummaging through the garments inside. She did not protest. Brian's things were not in there, or anywhere they would easily find them. She had prepared for this day, although the passing years had led her to believe him safe and forgotten.
The other man grabbed her arm and pulled her up from the bed. "Tell us where he is or it will go badly for you."
"I have no boy. No son. I do not know who you mean."
"Of course you know," a new voice said.
She twisted around to the doorway and the tall, thin man standing there. His long blond hair looked white in the dawn's glow.
Brian's uncle, Raymond Orrick, smiled smoothly and stepped inside, his knight's spurs glinting. He gestured lazily and the gouging grip released her arm. "Forgive them, Moira. It was not my intention to frighten you. We got distracted in the village and they moved on ahead. They thought . . ."
"They thought I was a peasant and undeserving of any courtesy."
He sauntered over to the hearth, glancing around the simple chamber, taking in her two chests and bed and table and stools. His eyes finally came to rest on the pallet. "He is safe?"
She moved up close to him, shooting cautious looks at the two others. Even if they were his liege men he should not speak of this in front of them. "Aye, he is safe."
Raymond smiled in the familiar way he had used too often since her fifteenth year. It was the smile that a magnanimous lord might bestow on a favored servant. But she did not serve him, least of all in the way he would
"You have done well for us, but we have come for him," he said.
"Come for him?"
"It is time."
A sickening strumming began in her chest. She wished suddenly that she had claimed that Brian had perished in this summer's fever. Behind her she felt the presence of a fourth man enter.
"He is safer here," she said.
"It is time," Raymond said more firmly.
"Nay. It is unwise and you know it. Your sister, Claire, asked me to care for her son before she died. You agreed because you knew Brian could be hidden here. If you take him back to your home at Hawkesford now, the men who wish him harm will learn of it and take him from you. You cannot withstand those who invoke the king's name as they commit their crimes."
The latest man to arrive moved. He came around her, taking a place in Raymond's shadow near the hearth. "Where is the boy?" he asked in a commanding voice that expected a response.
She pivoted and peered at him. He stood taller than Raymond, and broader too, and she could make out similar long hair, but dark, not fair. He wore a
peculiar garment on his legs, and no armor or sword. She could not see his face well in the shadow, but he did not appear friendly.
Raymond looked over at the man and seemed to shrink a little, as if in natural deference. That was not like Raymond at all. He counted his own worth very high.
"The boy," the man demanded.
Raymond caught her eye meaningfully. He stepped toward her, whether to signal that he relinquished responsibility for what occurred, or to protect her, she couldn't say. With his movement, the hearth glow suddenly illuminated the stranger.
She gasped. Surely not. It was impossible!
A handsome face composed of sharp planes emerged from the retreating shadows. Deep-set dark eyes met her gaping stare, the low fire highlighting golden sparks that brightened while he considered her. He turned slightly and she gasped again when she saw the pale scar slicing down the left side of his face from forehead to jaw, contrasting starkly with his sun-browned skin.
"You know who I am?"
She knew who he appeared to be, who the scar and eyes and dark hair said he should be. But that was all that reminded her of him. Certainly not the suspicion and danger quavering out of him and giving that face a harsh, vigilant expression. Especially not the crude garments that made him appear like some marauding barbarian. In the hearth light she could see that they were made of buckskin, not woven cloth. The hip-length sleeveless tunic displayed the sinewy strength of his arms. More leather clad his legs to the
ground in two narrow tubes. The tunic was decorated with orange beads that picked up the fire.
From the Paperback edition.