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North of London, 1169
Waking proved difficult when one's eyes were stuck shut.
The dizzy-headed man stretched the muscles in his face from his position on the hard pallet. He willed his lids to open so that he might see the world about him. The scents that assailed him were at once familiar and strange. Sheep dung. Hay. The burnt remains of some poorly cooked meal. Likewise, the sounds did not provide any clues. He heard children shouting and laughing. A woman's voice yelling. Animals braying, naying and snorting.
The effect was unpleasant and not what he was accustomed to. Or was it?
Worry crawled along his forehead as he struggled to envision a normal morning. A normal day? He was not sure of the time let alone the place.
"The border leaves this morn, Meg," a man's deep voice barked nearby. "His illness is a burden on this family that robs our own children of food."
"Have you no Christian charity, husband?" The softly sweet feminine tones sounded almost musical in the cool room.
Was he the topic of discussion? It was no leap to guess his health was poor since he could not open his eyes. His body ached with weakness, his limbs too heavy to lift.
"You are not a lord's wife, Meg. If you want this unconscious lump of humanity to have his fill of food and broth, take him to a family who can afford him. You ken? He leaves today or I bring him to the village square to be with the other half-wits unfit to feed themselves."
Something stung inside him. His pride, he realized. He was not a half-wit. Just a suffering man.
"But John, what if he is someone of consequence? Young Harold says he brought in a horse and he hardly looks like a stable boy " The woman continuedpleading with her husband but their conversation became muted as another voice sounded closer to his ear.
"You must leave if you do not want to become fodder for the village pigs next week," a boy's voiceclose to his bedsidewhispered.
With a last great effort, the man dragged open one eye and then the other.
He was in a small wooden cottage with a dirt floor and one large chamber. Animals walked as freely as the four humans in residence. Well, four discounting him. The man was not sure he felt quite human and the consensus seemed to put him well below both people and animals in importance.
A lad peered up at him in a small wooden cottage, his face covered in dust, his filthy hair matted against his cheeks. The eyes were lit with interest, however. As if pig fodder proved fascinating.
"My brother says that is what they do with half-wits if they provide no service," the boy continued.
The man touched his temple and winced. The hair had been trimmed, his forehead sutured with neat stitches. He knew at once the sewing had been the work of the sweet-voiced woman. No doubt he owed his life to these strangers.
"What is your name?" the boy prodded, poking him in the shoulder.
His eyes fell shut again and he scarcely heard the conversation growing heated across the room. By the rood, he would get up and leave if he could.
"Don't you even know your own name?" The boy sounded exasperated, his speech mirroring his father's in cadence.
"Hugh." The man answered without thought, but that lone name was all he managed. Now that it hung in the air between them, he wished to add something to itto claim his family and legacy with some other title.
Hugh son of someone. Hugh of York. Hugh of the Black Garter. But he could not find any hint of a second name in the chaos of his foggy thoughts. His head felt scrubbed clean of the past, as if it had retained nothing prior to this moment.
Panicking, Hugh slapped the thighs of his hose and waist of his tunic, searching for personal belongings. There was no sword. No eating knife with a family crest that might help identify him. No leather pouch of belongings or some lady's favor.
And why would a man wearing rough woolen hose and a worn cotton tunic be possessed of some lady's token? The idea seemed incongruous and yet
Who in Hades was he?
"I don't mind you eating my gruel, Hugh." The boy sniffed back a wet inhalation and scraped his sleeve across his face for good measure. "But me da says you must go because, even though you came into my master's stables leading a horse, you might not be more than a common thief."
"A horse?" Hugh wondered if he might have belongings stored with the beast's saddle and bags, though he suspected not since the cottage's inhabitants were ready to toss him into the streets. Surely if he had possessions to speak of, his hosts would have taken them in recompense for their trouble.
"How long have I been here? Where did you find me?"
"You came into town on Monday and left your horse in the care of my da's stable. Later that afternoon, we discovered you in a ditch beside the alehouse, your head split wide and bleeding like soup from an overturned pot."
Hugh searched his memory for some recollection of the event. Was he a drunkard then?
"And what day is it now?"
"Can you take me to the mount?"
The lad nodded. Across the cottage, the other family members seemed to have noticed he was awake and speaking. The woman hastened to his bedside while the man hung back.
"I will leave immediately," Hugh called to the crofter, determined to figure out why his head ached like the bloody devil and his brain seemed blank as a newborn babe's.
Both the man's and the woman's raised eyebrows demonstrated mutual surprise.
"You must not go" the woman began.
"You owe my boy for the care of the horse. Perhaps you could trade those shoes," the husband suggested.
Sweet Jesu. Was this what his life had come down to? Selling his shoes to stable his mount?
Hugh had the feeling he had not been raised in this kind of struggling world, though perhaps he just wanted to cling to a pleasing vision on a hellish day. But Christ above. His leather boots were not the frayed scraps of cloth his host wore to protect his feet from random sheep dung lying about the cottage. Perhaps his gut instincts were not pure fancy after all.
"I am beholden to you and your whole family." Hugh attempted an inclination of his head to show respect to these people living with their pigs, and immediately regretted it. "I will give the lad the shoes upon retrieving my mount."
A scant while later, his body aching after following the boy through a narrow street past women doing their washing, Hugh realized suspicious eyes turned toward him from every direction. No doubt the inhabitants of this area had heard of his condition from their neighbor. He would invent a full name for himself to ensure his wits were not in question. He could pretend a sanity he did not feel. But he would not allow himself to be taken for a victim of mania. Or drunkenness, for that matter.
"Here," the lad said finally, pointing the way to a stall hardly worthy to be called a stable.
Yet the mount was a warhorse of great breadth and strength. The saddle that hung from a nearby post bore no unusual markings, and there were no bags or bundles through which to search for clues to his name.
"Thank you," Hugh said carefully, leaning forward to remove his shoes while the boy saddled the horse. Hugh's head pounded with the small effort to unfasten the boots, but he struggled to hide his weakness in front of the villagers' peering eyes. "I am grateful to you, son."
"Thank you," the boy returned, eyes shining with pleasure as he took the offering. "Good luck to you in Connacht, sir."
The farewell made Hugh straighten. The sound of the name rang with the familiarity of an old friend's face.
"That day you dropped off the mount, you said you were riding to Connacht on the morrow, but that was some days ago. Me da says that's a town in Wales, but the blacksmith who lives yonder claims it's a kingdom across the Irish Channel."
Hugh knew with a certainty he could not explain that he had planned to attend to some affairs in the Irish petty kingdom. Though for what purpose, he had no memory. But it was more of a clue than he'd had so far about his purpose. His place in life. He would go to Ireland to retrieve his sanity.
"I make my way to the Ireland. Fare thee well, boy." Hugh stepped lightly to his horse, avoiding the filth in the road before he raised himself up on the mount's back.
He did not know his own name, but he knew with a bone-deep certainty he could make his way to Ireland by his wits if nothing else. A fierceness roared within him.
He would discover his name. His legacy.
But first he needed to discover why the mention of a far-flung Irish kingdom sent the first tremor of recognition through his addled brain. He knew absolutely that some great task awaited him in Connacht. A matter that needed tending to with all haste.
A mission he might already be too late to accomplish.
Connacht, Ireland Two months later
Sorcha ingen Con Connacht felt the presence of a stranger before she heard his footsteps in nearby woods.
Stilling herself, she reached for her dagger with one hand and hugged her young son closer with the other. No one walked the paths near Sorcha's home. All of Connacht knew her shame.
Being banished from her father's small Irish kingdom had put her into exile for over a year now, and the isolation in a remote stretch of forest made her senses keen to the presence of another soul. She could feel a change in the air when anyone nearedeven when a maid from the keep delivered food stores or a villager traded meat for clothing from Sorcha's loom. But when an approaching stranger was male, her senses sharpened all the more acutely.
Sharpened with the undeniably primal instincts of a mother protecting her babe.
Every day she half expected her father's guard to arrive to take her son away and deposit her in a convent. Her father had threatened as much by summer's end. But surely her father's knights would not arrive quietly. They would storm through the forest with a full contingent to seize her.
"Who goes there?" she shouted into the trees in a harsh voice, determined her son would come to no harm even though they were vulnerable herefar removed from her father's lofty keep on the coast. "My sire is lord of these lands and will allow no harm done to his heir."
Her boy, Conn, squealed in response to her raised voice from his seat upon her hip. She hushed him softly while concealing her dagger up her sleeve. Should she run? Or did that invite some thief to give chase?
She cradled Conn tighter, squeezing the weight of his year-old body closer. He squirmed now, his hand gripping a hank of her hair and pulling hard.
"I seek the lord of these lands, lady, and I mean you no harm." A masculine voice preceded the trespasser from the other side of a small clearing at the base of the mountains that protected the headlands of Connacht.
Sorcha roamed the mountainside daily since she'd been confined to an outpost at the edge of her father's lands, the hills and valleys her refuge from the world's disdain.
She'd always felt safe here, even if she was scorned. Now she couldn't help but recall the warnings she'd received from her father's keep that war might come to Connacht at any time. She walked steadily backward as she watched the man emerge from the trees.
And if the resonant thrum of masculine tones had been impressive, his size was twice as daunting.
The stranger was easily the largest man she'd ever seen. Thick-chested and girded by muscles that could only be honed for sword fighting, the traveler had to be a warrior even if he rode no horse and brandished no sword. Squinting through the late-afternoon sunlight, Sorcha struggled for a better look, only to feel faint as his features came into clearer view.
"For the love of Our Blessed Lady." Her grip on her child slipped, the boy's chubby fists shoving her mercilessly in an effort to walk on his own. She had no choice but to put him down if she wanted to maintain her grip on her weapon, so she tucked him behind her skirts.
She straightened, not believing her eyes. Did the dead return to walk among the living? She tucked the knife closer to her body, wishing the point did not scrape open her finger as she held it in place. Still, if the stranger stalked any closer, she would be glad to have the blade within easy reach.
"My lady?" The man paused, as if attempting to prove his claim he meant no harm.
Did he realize how much harm he caused with no more than his starkly featured countenance?
Dark hair streamed down his back, glistening in the sunlight as if he had just rinsed it clean in some fast-running spring brook. His gaze took on a curious gleam, although she could envision those dark, gold-flecked eyes turned to her in anger.
Or in passion
Heaven help her, but did she have to be reminded of her sins at every turn?
"What business do you have with the lord of this place, sir?" Her words were raw in her throat, stripped of any soft courtesy.
A tremble tripped through her skin, followed by a tangle of emotions in her belly that seemed too convoluted to sort through now.
"Your expression makes me wonder if we have met, my lady." The stranger did not incline his head like a courtier. He only continued to stare at her with an attention all the more rapt since she began her careful perusal.
And yet, this was not her former lover. She could see the differences in this man's face now that he'd moved closer and the sunlight no longer played tricks with her vision.
Still the trespasser's resemblance to the father of her son was remarkable. Suspect.
"We are unknown to each other, sir. Pray excuse my surprise at seeing you here when I am accustomed to privacy upon this side of the mountain." Wanting to escape him and flee the quiet glade where no one would hear her if she cried out, Sorcha bent to retrieve the blanket she'd brought along with the basket she'd used to gather flowers. "Conn, we must go, my love."