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Genevieve de Renalt's breath burned in her lungs as she ran. refused to stop. With every step, freedom came a little closer. In the distance she heard hoofbeats approaching. He was coming for her.
I am such a fool, she thought. She needed a horse, supplies, and coins if she had any hope of success. But there had been no time. She had seen the opportunity to flee and seized it. Even if her flight was doomed to failure, she had to try.
This was her only chance to escape her betrothed. The thought of Sir Hugh Marstowe was like a dull knife against an open wound. For she had loved him once. And now she would do anything to escape him.
Hugh kept his horse at an easy trot. He was playing with her, like a falcon circling its prey. He knew he could catch her with no effort at all. Instead, he wanted her to anticipate him. To fear him.
He had controlled her for the past moon, deciding how she should behave as his future wife. She'd felt like a dog, cowering beneath his orders. Nothing she said or did was ever good enough for him. Her nerves tightened at the memory of his fists.
Loathing surged through her. By the saints, even if her strength failed her she had to leave. She stumbled through the would have to stop running. She prayed to God for a miracle, for a way to save herself from this nightmare. If she stayed any longer she feared she would become a shell of a woman, with no courage, no life left in her at all.
A patch of blackberry thorns slashed at her hands, the briars catching her cloak. The afternoon light had begun to fade, the twilight creeping steadily closer. Genevieve fought back tears of exhaustion, pulling at the briars until her hands were bloody.
"Genevieve!" Hugh called out. His voice sent a coil of dread inside her. He had drawn his horse to a stop at the edge of the woods. The sight of him made her stomach clench.
I won't go back. Stubbornly, she pushed her way through the gnarled walnut trees until she reached the clearing. Frost coated the grasses, and she stumbled to her knees while climbing the slippery hillside.
A strange silence permeated the meadow. From her vantage point atop the hill, she caught a glimpse of movement. The dying winter grass revealed the presence of a man.
Nomen, she realised. Irishmen, dressed in colours to blend in with their surroundings. Behind them, at the bottom of the hill, she saw a single rider. The warrior sat astride his horse, his cloak pinned with an iron brooch the size of her palm. He did not reach for the sword at his side, but his stance grew alert. A hood concealed his face, and a quiet confidence radiated from him.
Tall and broad-shouldered, he watched her. She could not tell if he was a nobleman or a soldier, but he carried himself like a king. With a silent gesture to his men, they scattered and disappeared behind another hill.
Her heart pounded, for he could strike her down with his sword. Nonetheless, she squared her shoulders and stared at the man. She walked towards him slowly, even as her brain warned her that warriors such as he did not treat women with mercy.
But he had a horse. A horse she needed if there was any chance of escaping Hugh.
The man's gaze locked with hers. If she screamed, it would alert Hugh to their presence. Precious seconds remained, and soon Hugh would overtake her.
"Please," she implored him. "I need your help." Her ragged voice sounded just above a whisper, and for a moment she wondered if the soldier had heard her. Upon his cloak she noticed a Celtic design. This time she repeated her request in Irish. The man's posture changed, and after a moment that stretched into eternity he turned his horse away. Within seconds he disappeared behind a hill, along with Genevieve's hope.
Bevan MacEgan cursed himself for his weakness. From the moment she spoke he had recognised the woman as a Norman. The familiar hatred had risen within him, only to be startled by the desire to help her.
She had awakened the ghost of a memory. With her face and dark hair, the first vision of her had evoked a nightmare he'd tried to forget for two long years. He closed his eyes, willing himself to block her out.
He'd seen her fleeing, long before he had given the order for his soldiers to hide among the hills. Her attacker did not intend to kill her. Were that the case, he could have done so already. No, the Norman's intent was to capture the woman.
And by turning away he'd let it happen.
He'd been forced to choose between the safety of his men and a woman he didn't know. And, though he knew he'd made the right decision, his sense of honour cringed. He was supposed to protect women, not let them come to harm.
But if he interfered now, his battle plans could go awry. He dared not risk the lives of his men by giving away their position. Their attack depended upon the element of surprise. He needed to watch and wait for the right moment.
He found himself issuing orders. "I want five men to accompany me inside the fortress. Take the others and surround the outer palisade. At sunset, light the fires."
"You're going after her, aren't you?" the captain of his men remarked.
"I am." 'You cannot save them all. She is only a woman." 'do as I command." Tá, it was an unnecessary risk. But in the woman's eyes he had seen pure terrorthe same terror as in his wife's eyes just before the enemy had taken her captive.
And he felt the same helplessness now. Bevan chose the men who would accompany him and led them towards the fortress of Rionall's. It was his land, stolen by the invaders. With the help of his men, he meant to take it back.
Rionall's was not a rath, like the other fortresses, but slightly larger. Within it he'd built an earth and timber castle, similar to the Norman style. He knew every inch of it, and exactly how to penetrate its defences.
At his command, the men moved into position. Bevan waited until they were ready, and pushed away the brambles hiding the entrance to the souterrain. The secret tunnel led beneath the fortress, into the chambers used for storage.
He glanced up at the donjon, silhouetted by a blood-red sunset. Inwardly, he prayed for victory.
The chill of the souterrain passage surrounded him as he entered. He had not been here for the past year and a half, and he noted the emptiness of the storage chambers. They should have been filled with bags of grain and clay-sealed containers of food. His people would suffer this winter unless he did something to help them.
Though he hadn't known about the conquest of his lands until now, he blamed himself. He had allowed his grief to consume him while he hired his sword as a mercenary to other tribes. And last spring the Normans had descended upon Rionall's like locusts, feeding off the labour of his people and desecrating his home. His small army was outnumbered, but he knew the territory well. He would stop at nothing to drive out his enemy.
When he reached the ladder leading into one of the stone beehive-shaped cottages, he paused. He wished he had not seen the Norman woman, her eyes filled with fear as she pleaded for help. It would have been easy to simply hate them all and kill them, spilling their blood for vengeance. But the woman complicated matters.
She was a pretty cailón, with a sweet face and deep blue eyes. An innocent, who deserved his protection. He had been unable to save his wife from her attackers. But he could save this woman.
It should have made him feel better. Instead, it added a further element of risk to an already dangerous attack. And yet his mind grasped the possibilities. She would make a good hostage, providing him with the means to regain the fortress. Afterwards he would grant her the freedom she so desired.
Bevan climbed the ladder, surprising the inhabitants of the cottage. He held a finger to his lips, knowing his people would never betray him. The blacksmith moved towards his hammer, in an unspoken promise to give aid if needed.
At the entrance to the hut, Bevan counted the number of enemy soldiers in the courtyard. He would enter the fortress tonight, he decided. And Rionall's would be his once more.
"Genevieve, I am glad to see you safe.'sir Hugh embraced her while Genevieve fought to breathe. Her strength had given out, and he had caught her at last. She held back tears of frustration, her skin freezing cold.
Dark memories assaulted her. She knew what he would do. way she could bear the pain.
There was no one left to help her. Her father had sent close friends of his, Sir Peter of Harborough and his wife, to act as guardians until his arrival. He might as well not have sent anyone at all. Both were blind to Hugh's deeds. They saw only a strong leader, a man respected by his soldiers.
When she'd complained of Hugh's punishments, Sir Peter had only shrugged. "A man has the right to discipline his wife," he'd said. But she was not Hugh's wife. Not yet. And nothing she said would convince them of any wrongdoing.
Her father's men refused to interfere. The last man who had tried to shield her from a beating had been discovered dead a few days later. The soldiers obeyed Hugh without question, emptiness in their eyes. They were afraid of him, and he knew it.
"I feared for you, out here alone." Hugh pressed a kiss upon her temple. The gesture felt like a brand, burning into her skin. His words mocked her attempt to escape, seemingly gentle. But she recognised the hardened edge to his voice, the promise of punishment.
Possession dominated his blue eyes. She had once thought him handsome with his dark gold hair cut short. But his heart was as cold as the chain-mail covering his strong form.
She steadied herself. "Let me go home to my family, Hugh. I am not the wife you need."
He cupped her chin, his fingers tightening over her flesh. "You will learn to be the wife I need."
"There are other women, wealthier than I." She could not meet his gaze when his hand moved lower, to her waist.
"None of such high rank." His palm spanned her back, his thumb brushing against a bruise that had not healed. "None with land such as Rionall's." His voice grew tinged with ambition. "Here I can become a king. These Irishmen are primitive, with no knowledge of what it means to fight." His mouth curved upward. "And you will reign at my side. The King has commanded it."
She said nothing. Hugh's prowess on the battlefield had earned him King Henry's favour. When he had offered for her, and received the King's blessing, Genevieve had fallen prey to his flattery. Believing his false courtship, she'd begged her reluctant father for a betrothal. Now she wished she had remained silent.
Hugh lifted her upon his horse, mounting behind her. At vulsion. He spurred the horse onward, his harsh embrace imprisoning her. When the fortress came into view, the last vestiges of her courage died.
Denial and panic warred within her. Was there anything else she could do to stop this wedding? More than anything, she needed her father's help. Each day she prayed to see his colours flying, heralding the arrival of his entourage. And still he did not come.
They rode beneath the gate, and she did not miss the pitying looks upon the faces of the Irish. Hugh dismounted and forced her to accompany him. "You must be weary," he said. "I will escort you to your chamber."
Genevieve knew what would happen as soon as they reached the chamber. Closing her eyes, she searched for an excuseany means to delay the inevitable punishment.
"I am hungry," she said. "Might I have something to eat beforehand?"
"I will have food sent above stairs. After we discuss your journey." Hugh gripped Genevieve's arm with a strength that reminded her of the retribution to come. Her eyes filled with unshed tears. She would not grant him the satisfaction of making her weep.
She concentrated on the pain of Hugh squeezing her arm as he directed her up the stairs and towards her chamber. He bolted the door behind them with a heavy wooden bar. Alone, he stood and watched her.
"Why did you run from me?"
She didn't answer. What could she say? 'don't you know I will always come for you? You are mine to protect." He caressed her hair, tangling the strands in his fingers. She stood motionless, trying not to look at him.
"The King has summoned us to Tara," Hugh said, releasing her suddenly. "We will be married there within a few days." Pride swelled within him. "He may grant me more land, as a wedding gift to both of us."
Leaning down, he brushed a kiss upon her closed mouth. "do not look so glum. It will not be long now."
His claim was not at all reassuring. She had been thankful that King Henry had delayed Hugh's earlier requests to come. Political alliances with the Irish kings took precedence. Now her time had run out.
"I will not marry without my father." 'Thomas de Renalt will come." His expression tightened. "He should have arrived by now."
"He was ill,"Genevieve argued. Her father had ordered her to continue on to Rionall's without him. With an escort of soldiers and her guardians, Papa had believed her to be safe. Genevieve had bribed a priest to send missives, pleading with her father to end the betrothal. She had sent the last one only a sennight ago. But Thomas de Renalt had given no reply, and she feared Hugh might have intercepted the messages.
"I will not wait on him any longer." Hugh shook his head. "I know not what the Earl's intentions are, but the betrothal documents are signed. With or without him, I will wed you."
"I will never wed you,'she swore. "I care not what the King says."
His fist struck the back of her head. Pain exploded, ringing in her ears, but Genevieve refused to cry out.
"You have not lost your spirit, have you?" Hugh remarked. She swallowed hard, wishing she had not provoked him. She knew better than to fight him, for his strength was far greater than hers. If she offered her obedience, he was often more lenient in the punishment. She struggled to force back the words of defiance.
Then he smiled, the cruel smile she had grown to despise. "Remove your garments."
Bile rose in her throat at the thought of him holding her down. For the past few weeks he had gloried in humiliating her. If she refused his commands, he beat her until she could no longer stand. Though he had not breached her maidenhead yet, she knew it was but a matter of time. Fear pulsed through her at the thought.
When she did not obey, Hugh struck her stomach, causing her to double over. She clutched her side, unable to stop the moan of agony from her lips. Was this what her life would become? Would she surrender everything to this man, letting him dominate her?
She closed her eyes, afraid it would be so. Though another woman might consider ending her life, Genevieve did not want to risk eternal damnation. She'd not let him take possession of her soul as well.
He unsheathed his dagger, and her heart nearly stopped when she saw the blade. In a swift slice, he cut the laces until her kirtle pooled at her feet. Clad only in her shift, Genevieve tried to cover herself.
"You belong to me, Genevieve." He set the dagger upon a table, moving towards her. Genevieve's glance darted to the weapon. She avoided another blow and let herself fall against the table. The dagger clattered to the floor.
"Please," she whispered. "I am sorry." It was not true, but the apology might slow his fists. Her head ached; blood was trickling down her cheek.
He began to strip his own clothes away, revealing a mus
He closed the distance between them. "It's time you learned how to be an obedient wife."His fingers closed around her nape in a gesture of control. "soon, Genevieve," he promised. He kissed her roughly, bruising her lips until she tasted blood. "You have no idea of the pleasure I can bring you."